Adrienne Rich & The National Book Award

January 8, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard; the original source for this letter and other letters (as well as poems by Adrienne Rich and essays about her) can be seen here.

Yesterday I got into a conversation with Nick about the publishing business; we were talking about how the big corporate bookstores and mega publishers were having a particularly hard time at the moment. We speculated that their troubles might actually give more room for the little guys. Anyway, I started looking around and found this letter by contemporary poet Adrienne Rich (1929- ), and thought it revealed another aspect of the publishing market, that is how the National Book Awards play a part in the contemporary market structure…..


Letter from Adrienne Rich to Neil Baldwin,  Executive Director of the National Book Foundation

August 22, 2000

Neil Baldwin, Executive Director
The National Book Foundation
260 Fifth Avenue, Room 904
New York, NY 10001

Dear Neil Baldwin,

I have been out of town and could only now reply to your letter. I appreciate the care with which you and Meg Kearney responded to mine. Yet it seems to me that you and your colleagues are missing a point, or a principle here: this principle being the way in which corporate entities give with the left hand and take with the right from the public welfare, and how we are to respond and deal with that.

We all know that industries which pursue exploitative labor practices, which damage the environment, which create serious public health risks or are otherwise undermining of public well-being in the name of corporate profit, also endeavor to rescue their image (and gain positive advertising) through philanthropy of various kind: Exxon, Nike and Philip Morris are merely three examples. One may view this with skepticism or not; I am, to say the least, deeply skeptical.

In the case of Borders and the National Book Foundation, I see a particularly intricate and disingenuous connection between Borders’ harassment of the independent bookselling community (self-styled “competition”) and its self-promotion via the Foundation. To put it bluntly, the National Book Foundation is presently providing credibility and respectability to a corporate enemy of independent bookselling. I should not need to detail to you, of all people, the vital importance of both independent presses and independent bookstores to any genuine freedom of diversity of expression, in a country where media are being swallowed by media, and fewer and fewer ideas are made available by the resulting conglomerates.

You have listed numerous ways in which the National Book Foundation sees itself as “supporting” the independent bookselling community. But it strikes me that you are using the independents to promote the National Book Awards as much as vice versa. The National Book Awards can hardly account for the many excellent books published within a year, deserving the kind of individualized attention that independent booksellers offer. There is nothing supremely special about National Book Awards. Many are of course excellent; others may be simply books which have been called to an attention they may or may not merit. Offering NBA “stickers” to independent bookstores hardly addresses the issue of the independents’ struggle to survive–not just as businesses but as locations of independent thinking and a wide variety of books. Finally: how do you support independents by promoting corporate efforts to destroy them? Here, I think, neutrality is not an option.

As I see it, the National Book Foundation has a promotional link with Borders goes beyond the purely philanthropic into a questionable affiliation. Borders has a practice of using such affiliations to gain credibility and access to communities which are debating the invasion of box stores and chains. When pressed they–like other chains–argue the merits of a competitive market. But with Borders’ already existing economic leverage or huge proportions relative to independent stores, there is no competition here. (Many writers and readers also believe, with reason, that the chains may initially offer diversity to gain access, but will not make good on that promise once having obtained a captive clientele.)

It’s one thing to accept money as a philanthropic foundation. One might wish to scrutinize the sources. But it’s another thing to sell validation in return, validation which participates in injuring a leading, indispensable component of our intellectual environment: the independent bookstore. I truly hope you will consider this.

As it is, I don’t want to link myself with Borders; hence I must again regretfully decline your invitation to participate in THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE. I hope however that this conversation can stay open.

Adrienne Rich


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