Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: The Ottawa Citizen, Arts E2, October 13, 2000
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Sontag, Oates among finalists for U.S. National Book Award

Hillel Italie

NEW YORK -- A year after highlighting lesser-known writers, the prestigious U.S. National Book Awards has gone back to the big names. Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates and 92-year-old Jacques Barzun were among the nominees announced yesterday.

In a choice likely to be controversial, Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado received a nomination. Tierney's book alleges that U.S. scientists may have started a deadly measles epidemic among South America's Yanomami in 1968.

Some anthropologists have disputed his findings, excerpted in the Oct. 9 issue of The New Yorker. And the selection committee, chaired by biographer Patricia O'Toole, read a galley that will differ from the final version. The book was originally scheduled for release Oct. 1, but publisher W.W. Norton delayed it until November so the author could add material.

O'Toole declined to comment.

Five authors were chosen in each of four categories. While only two of last year's finalists had even been nominated for an award, this year's list includes nine past nominees and two former winners, Oates and Galway Kinnell.

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury, never nominated in a competitive category, will receive a lifetime achievement medal. Winners will be announced at a ceremony Nov. 15.

In a year that featured acclaimed novels from Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike, the nominations for Sontag and Oates were surprising. Sontag's In America and Oates' Blonde received mixed reviews. Sontag was also criticized for the uncredited borrowing of passages from other sources.

''I don't think judges pay much attention to reviews,'' said Oates, a six-time nominee and winner in 1970 for the novel Them.

The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani panned Blonde, a long psychological novel about Marilyn Monroe, calling it ''the book equivalent of a tacky television mini-series.'' She also thought poorly of In America, based on the 19th-century stage performer Helena Modjeska, calling the book ''a banal, flat-footed narrative.''

Other fiction nominees include Francine Prose, for her campus satire Blue Angel; Charles Baxter, for The Feast of Love, an updating of A Midsummer Night's Dream; and Alan Lightman, for his novel about obsession, The Diagnosis.

Barzun, who spent more than half a century at Columbia University, is the oldest nominee in the award's 51-year history and one of the past year's great publishing stories.

His From Dawn to Decadence, a finalist in the nonfiction category, is an 800-page survey of western civilization that spent months on best-seller lists.