I couldn't really care less who is nominated for or who wins a National Book Award. However, Laura Miller's whining complaint about this year's nominees--the judges didn't nominate any of the books I overpraised!--is pretty hard to pass over in silence.
Apparently the nominees for fiction, all at first glance quite tame, conventional examples of "literary fiction" as defined by middlebrow standards, is too "obscure" for Miller's comfort. In other words, they either didn't get a lot of attention in the mainstream press (Tea Obrecht’s The Tiger’s Wife is the lone press favorite) or they didn't appeal to a wide audience of readers. Presumably speaking on behalf of those spurned reviewers and those "recalcitrant" readers who want their tastes reinforced, Miller proclaims that
If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like, you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with. This is especially common when the nominated books exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.
Miller doesn't establish that the nominated books suffer from these vices; she doesn't seem to know much about them at all, but simply takes their lack of name recognition to mean they must be too arty for normal readers. One suspects, however, that the greatest affront these books represent is not to readers or potential readers--who might find the books perfectly accessible should they give them a try--but to reviewers like Laura Miller, whose focus on "name" writers and whose judgment about their achievements are implicitly being brought into question.
According to Miller, "the public mostly wants the major awards to help them sort out the most important books of the year, not to point them toward overlooked gems with a specialized appeal." But since, as Miller quite rightly points out herself, to the narcotized American "public" all fiction has a "specialized appeal," why would the NBA list prove any more or less useful than one dominated by Jeffrey Eugenides, Amy Waldman, Chad Harbach or Ann Patchett? Unless Miller is prepared to show that the work produced by these writers is demonstrably superior to those on the list, readers unfamiliar with all of them are as likely to find the nominated titles worth their time as those more "popular" with the reviewers the list has seemingly repudiated.
The National Book Award has made itself irrelevant because it devotes itself to finding five worthy books to highlight rather than catering to "people who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that)" and who "want to make sure that they’re reading something significant." Miller doesn't specify what would make nominated books appropriately "significant," but again one has to conclude that a "significant" book is one that a credentialed literary journalist such as Laura Miller has identified as such. The NBA is becoming irrelevant because unaccountably it isn't paying much attention to her.
The notion that a significant literary award should be deferring to those who read "only two or three new novels per year" is, of course, absurd. If it was possible to believe that Miller actually cared much about attracting new readers to serious fiction, it might be further possible to have a debate about whether these low-ambition readers should be targeted by book awards, whether it is even possible to "educate" their reading tastes, or whether such readers should be the audience for book reviewers reviewing "literary" fiction. But by now it's clear that Laura Miller has staked her claim to critical influence on a defense of "ordinary" readers against fancy writers who write too much and that she'll stick to that story, however misguided, lest her standing as a critic to be heeded is threatened.