If you haven’t already, wander over to the LBC blog to check out our newest “Read This” selection. Personally, it’s my favorite out of all the books I’ve read for the Litblog Co-op. The book is called Television and it was written by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Jordan Stump.
In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UKHere in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.Some other favorite awards: The Lettre Ulysses, the IMPAC, the MacArthur Genius grants
The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing…But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge. “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?”
I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)?
Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.
I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good – far better than many.
But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?”
By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress. But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.)
As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with.
So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.”
Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr
It’s as though the New York Times was using this blog to decide what to write articles about: check out this review of Joseph Roth’s newly released collection of essays, Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939.
Following up on our recent post about the new Woody Allen books now in stores, The Independent has an excerpt from Mere Anarchy, Allen’s collection of new work. It begins:”What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” And with that came a fiendish cackle projecting shivers up my spine every Sunday when as a mesmerised youth I sat curled around our Stromberg Carlsen in the crepuscular winter light of my progenitors’ gloomy digs. The truth is, I never had the slightest idea what dark mischief gadded about even in my own pair of ventricles, until weeks back when I received a phone call from the better half at my office at Burke and Hare on Wall Street. The woman’s usual steady timbre jiggled like quantum particles, and I could tell she had gone back on smokes.
In Russian, the term ostranyeniye means “the act of making strange.” In the early twentieth century, the idea was coined and used by Russian Formalists, authors and artists, who sought to make the familiar seem foreign — to make those who consumed their art question everyday words and forms.
Still Here, the third novel by Moscow-born Lara Vapnyar, bears very little resemblance to any of the experimental works by those Russian Formalists. But though her book may have more in common with the works of Jane Austen or Claire Messud, her satire is its own form of ostraneniye, as it successfully points out that the essential strangeness of what are now some of the most common elements of American life.
Still Here is the story of four Russian immigrants in New York City. There’s Vadik, certain only of what he doesn’t want; Regina, a formerly famous translator who has married a wealthy American man; Vica, stuck in Staten Island with her son and husband but certain she’s “pure Manhattan”; and Sergey, Vica’s husband, a former prodigy who dreams of developing an app — “Virtual Grave” — that allows people to communicate with the dead by preserving and recycling what they said online in life. Virtual Grave is Sergey’s final chance to prove himself the brilliant man he was always expected to become. Given his difficulty holding down a job, it’s a last shot at providing for his family — and so a point of tension in his already troubled marriage with Vica. The characters’ respective stories unfold and intersect as they, as a group, try to come to terms with death in a way that enriches life.
Vapnyar is not the first to use something like Virtual Grave in art. A short story in Adam Johnson’s excellent collection Fortune Smiles centered around a very similar concept, as did an episode of the hit television show Black Mirror. What makes Vapnyar’s book unique is neither the idea of the app nor the use of four friends trying to make it in New York City (Vica is obviously the Carrie Bradshaw of the bunch), but rather how these elements — a slightly forward-looking app and the perspective of four very different immigrants — are used together to “make strange” the modern world. There’s always someone having more fun on Facebook; always a better match out there on Tinder or OkCupid (in the book, the app is “Hello, Love!”); always someone wittier on Twitter. Except that, of course, there isn’t.
The book, like each of Vapnyar’s key players, is not without its faults. It’s a fresh take on an old theme, but it is nevertheless an old theme, and one that uses some old tropes—about New York City, about immigrants, about social media, etc. And there are points at which it feels more beach-read than smart satire. Of Regina, Vapnyar writes, “Being an introvert, she had trouble making friends.” It is the sort of sentence at which she herself might smirk elsewhere in the book.
Such shortcomings aside, Vapnyar ultimately offers a literary representation of the way we live now. She shows us America, the beautiful and absurd, managing to satirize it without ever losing sympathy for the people living in it, and certainly not for her four main characters. At one point, Regina, sure that today is the day she’ll start reading and writing again, puts off work to watch television; with the help of an app called “Eat’N’Watch,” which recommends the right food-show binge combination, she wastes hours and winds up disgusted with herself. In another moment, Vadik recalls the one-night-stand he had in New York City, who he left the next morning and who, he later realizes, he may have loved. The morning after, Vadik remembers that he had left his copy Hell Is Other People at the diner where he met the woman: “He had no idea where that diner was. He would never be able to find it again. He would never be able to go back there. Vadik felt a surge of panic and regret, so bad that it made his heart ache.”
The book gives us plenty on which to reflect. Would we want an app like Virtual Grave? What would it mean to control our own online presence after we’re dead? If we aren’t exactly living in the book’s universe of constant app updates and addiction, how far removed are we? It makes strange the world we think we know. But even within that — in the bounds and bonds of satire and reflection and ostraneniye — it manages to remind us of the humanity that existed before there was an app for that. One that will remain, we can hope, once we’ve moved on.
Somehow I waited two months to take a look at the “best of 2003” column from my favorite book critic Jonathan Yardley. For him 17 rather interesting books make the cut, and his two picks for best of the year are The Known World by Edward P. Jones and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale. Both of these are on the reading queue, and I’m very much looking forward to reading them. Here is Yardley’s column.