The inside scoop on the book world -- Joyce Carol Oates's ''Blonde'' and Charles Baxter's ''Feast of Love'' took home National Book Awards, while the first authorized biography of Muhammad Ali is in the works

By Matthew Flamm
Updated October 27, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The finalists for this year’s National Book Awards range from award veteran Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde) to the lesser-known Charles Baxter (Feast of Love) in the fiction category, and from nonagenarian Jacques Barzun (From Dawn to Decadence) to relative newcomer Nathaniel Philbrick (In the Heart of the Sea) in nonfiction. But other writers were conspicuous in their absence. Insiders particularly noted the omission of two novels: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. ”People are always shocked that there’s a book off the list,” responds fiction-panel chair Ron Hansen, who declined to open ”that can of worms” by discussing the panel’s picks. In any case, some publishers are expecting a windfall from the nominations. ”We’re printing 20,000 more copies of Feast of Love and another 12,500 of The Diagnosis [a novel by Alan Lightman],” says Suzanne Williams, a spokesperson for Pantheon, which scored a best-seller with last year’s fiction winner, Waiting. HarperCollins’ Robert Jones, who edited Francine Prose’s nominated novel, Blue Angel, is also hopeful: ”The only awards that sell books are the NBA and the Pulitzer.” Other nominees include Susan Sontag in fiction (In America), and Alice Kaplan (The Collaborator), David Levering Lewis (W.E.B. Du Bois), and Patrick Tierney (Darkness in El Dorado) in nonfiction.

At last, the Greatest will have his story told: Pocket Books has agreed to pay $500,000 for what agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh is billing as the ”first-ever comprehensive, fully authorized biography of Muhammad Ali.” It’s being written by Stephen Rivele, who got onto the project — tentatively titled Ali: The Journey of a Champion — while writing the script for Michael Mann’s planned Ali biopic with Will Smith. ”He’ll be conducting interviews with Ali’s closest friends and associates, and he’s gotten access to top secret FBI documents that have never been released before,” says Emily Bestler, Pocket executive editorial director, who plans to publish in 2002.

Among the big books headed to the Frankfurt Book Fair is Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, which William Morrow recently acquired for $650,000. The book, by the biographer of Al Capone and Irving Berlin, will draw on a never-before-seen diary by one of Magellan’s aides. ”There are at least two drawings-and-quarterings, three mutinies, and wild sex with native women,” says Morrow exec editor Trish Lande Grader.