Edward P. Jones continues to receive accolades for his National Book Critics Circle Award. This AP article gives some more insight on Jones and his book, The Known World. Could a Pulitzer be around the corner? In the San Francisco Chronicle, a considerable profile of T. C. Boyle. It looks like Boyle’s next book will be called The Inner Circle. This one will be about Dr. Alfred Kinsey, a real life sex researcher from the 1940s and 50s. And the New York Times Book Review finally finished reading William Vollmann’s massive treatise on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, (weighing in at 3,299 pages) and makes the review its cover story. They appreciate the expanse of the work, but not so much the content.
Earlier in the week, the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize was announced, and the Anglophone news media dutifully sat up straight and took notice. In September the shortlist will be announced, and the news media will sit up even straighter and take even more notice and, for a month or so, fiction — six works of fiction published in the last year, to be exact — will be a more prevalent topic of discussion in the press and online. Already, the customary kvetching about unjustly overlooked books is well underway. In Ireland, where I’m from, the number of our long- and shortlisted compatriots is usually seen as a reliable indicator of the award’s continued relevance. If William Trevor or Anne Enright or Colm Tóibín makes the grade, there is hope yet for the Booker; if not, it is doomed to subside more or less irrevocably into irrelevance. As I write this, The Irish Times already seems to be cracking its knuckles and asking its readership to hold its jacket as it prepares to duke it out over the coming outrage of the shortlist. A report on the longlist points out that Sebastian Barry is “the lone Irishman alongside eight British subjects and three Canadians” (note the subtly politicizing insistence on stressing the British authors’ relationship to their head of state). The article then moves on to discuss the matter of neglected books, drawing the battle lines in historically explicit (and absurd) terms, informing us that “surprise omissions this year amount to a literary Somme.”
You’ll find similar stuff in most of the major newspapers, at least in Britain and Ireland, where the Booker has the highest level of what I think is referred to, by people who use words like “traction,” as “traction.” This is all pretty harmless stuff, of course — most of us would like the writers we think important to be recognized — and it gets people talking about books, buying them, and maybe even reading them, all of which are good things. But every time there is an announcement about a major literary award, there is always this low tumult of grumbling about all the great writers the judges have “snubbed” (this is usually the verb of choice when it comes to describing the failures of those charged with awarding prizes to books). And I have to admit to being as guilty of this as the next guy, and probably more so. When Tom McCarthy’s C was shortlisted for the Booker last year, I fooled myself into thinking that a) it had a chance of winning the thing and that b) if it did win, it would, more importantly, mark the beginning of a trend toward greater mainstream interest in novels of a non-middlebrow persuasion. When Howard Jacobson’s almost aggressively unremarkable The Finkler Question eventually won, I briefly allowed myself to get irritated about it, as though it were some kind of personal affront that Sir Andrew Motion and his panel of judges had chosen to give a prestigious award to a writer I didn’t much care for over one I did.
But here’s the question: why do we even care about this stuff? So Tom McCarthy — or whoever it was you might have wanted to win — didn’t get a prize. Does it really matter? By and large, awards like the Booker are intended to promote solid, well-written, more or less middlebrow fiction — the kind of books that broadsheet newspapers tend to give coverage to. And that’s surely a good thing for the publishing industry, for the literary editors of papers that still have books pages, for the small number of writers who get the nod, for booksellers and (I would guess) for the manufacturers of those stickers that get slapped with startling speed onto the dust jackets of shortlisted titles. But does it really matter at any other level — at the level, for instance, of literary culture as opposed to the publishing industry? I’m not convinced it does.
I recently taught a night course focusing on novels which have won the Booker over the course of its short history. It was a hugely fun class to teach. The students were predominantly in their fifties, sixties, and seventies — retirees, middle-aged professionals and empty-nesters, mainly, who wanted to be better informed on contemporary fiction. The individual novels mostly went over well (albeit with a couple of pretty grim exceptions), but two questions kept coming up again and again in the classes: 1) why are literary awards important? and 2) why do we give so much attention to the Booker Prize specifically? Given that I was teaching the class, it wasn’t unreasonable of them to expect me to be able to answer these questions, but I could never manage anything less lame than “well, literary awards highlight exceptional books — or they’re supposed to, at least — and the Booker Prize is often very controversial, so it gets people talking about fiction, which is positive…” I don’t think the students were especially convinced. I know I wasn’t.
Reading and discussing certain novels, there was an unavoidable sense of arbitrariness, a sense that these books probably would not be much read had they not won the Booker, and that that might not necessarily have been an unsustainable loss to the literary world. By what reasonable criterion (I found myself obliged to address) could Ian McEwan’s harmlessly diverting Amsterdam, for instance, be considered the best work of fiction published in Britain, Ireland, and the countries of the Commonwealth in 1998? Why had Kingsley Amis won the prize for a pretty dull book called The Old Devils, while his son Martin had never got a look-in for those brilliant ones he wrote in the eighties and early nineties? Could I please explain why anyone could consider Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (a novel I happen to like quite a lot) even worth talking about? And, most pressingly of all, what the hell was so great about Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children that they had to give it not just the Booker itself in 1981, but also something called The Booker of Bookers in 1993, and then something else called The Best of the Booker in 2008? (I was, and still am, at a complete loss to answer this last question, apart from hazarding that they were perhaps so insecure about their initial choice that they felt a powerful need to overcompensate by reinforcing it in more and more ostentatious ways).
A lot of great novelists have won the thing for really excellent novels — Ishiguro, Atwood, Banville, Coetzee (twice) — but spending months reading through so many of the winning books in order to set the reading for the course really impressed upon me how unreliable an indicator of literary importance or comparative quality the prize is per se. And the same is true, to some degree, of all book awards. So why do so many of us get so bent out of shape when they fail to represent what we think of as the best of contemporary fiction? Was it really an outrage that Howard Jacobson had been awarded the Booker over Tom McCarthy, as I fleetingly managed to convince myself last year? No, it wasn’t: it was an anomaly that a wildcard like C had even been shortlisted in the first place. Getting worked up about the fact that really interesting, innovative fiction so often gets ignored by awards judges is, when you think about it, a little bit absurd. I don’t think it’s an injustice that, say, The Minutemen never won a Grammy — it would be frankly odd of me to even bring that up. Why would they have? The idea that that might even matter is somehow quietly insane — they weren’t the kind of band the Grammys were set up to be awarded to, and who cares about the Grammys anyway? And I think a more tempered version of the same stance should probably be taken toward literary awards. They’re great for the publishing industry, they’re great for the handful of writers who win them, and they’re great for the readers who would not otherwise have discovered those writers. But I don’t think anyone in their right mind should be looking for them to accurately reflect what’s really happening — what is truly vital and new and exciting — in contemporary fiction.
The whole idea of awards is not really compatible with serious consideration of literature in the first place. When you read stuff in the press about there being “a strong field” this year, about certain writers not having “made the cut,” and about bookmakers offering punters (i.e., readers) odds on novels, you kind of have to recognize how essentially daft the whole thing is. Writers are not jockeys, books are not horses, and readers are not punters.
That being said, if you’re looking to make a quick buck you could do a lot worse than putting a little something on Alan Hollinghurst to take the Booker this year. I for one think he’s showing some serious form.
Image credit: ThisisHoop/Flickr
Why at the beginning of things is there always light? Dorrigo Evans’ earliest memories were of sun flooding a church hall in which he sat with his mother and grandmother. A wooden church hall. Blinding light and him toddling back and forth, in and out of its transcendent welcome, into the arms of women. Women who loved him. Like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and over.
The book is the story of an Australian prisoner of war, among more than 9,000 who were forced to build a railway through Burma and Thailand. Michael Gorra for the New York Times Book Review drew comparisons to Conrad and Zola and called it formally demanding but also “carefully and beautifully constructed.”
Revisit this year’s Booker Shortlist.
This year the National Book Award finalists were released in a series of four longlists consisting of ten books apiece. Five finalists in each category will be selected by October 16, and winners will be announced in New York City on November 20.
Last year, the fiction finalists included far more male authors than female, however the count is even in 2013. Millions readers will be delighted to find George Saunders’s latest story collection on the fiction list. The former Top Ten member was reviewed on our site last May. Saunders is joined by Rachel Kushner, whose second novel “operates outside — above? — many of the current arguments about the novel,” according to our own Bill Morris. Likewise, Millions readers should be familiar with George Packer’s “awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul” on the nonfiction list.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
Pacific by Tom Drury (excerpt)
The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (excerpt)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Millions review, Millions interview)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (excerpt)
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (excerpt)
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (excerpt)
Someone by Alice McDermott (excerpt)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (first page, excerpt)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Millions review)
Fools by Joan Silber (Millions interview)
Finding Florida: The True Story of the Sunshine State by T.D. Allman (excerpt, audiobook excerpt)
Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami by Gretel Ehrlich (excerpt)
The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, a Son, and the CIA by Scott C. Johnson (excerpt)
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (review)
Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower
Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865 by James Oakes (review)
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (Millions review)
The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor (review)
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout (review)
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (review, excerpt)
Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart (review)
Bury My Clothes by Roger Bonair-Agard (excerpt)
Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido (review)
So Recently Rent a World, New and Selected Poems: 1968–2012 by Andrei Codrescu (interview)
Seasonal Works With Letters on Fire by Brenda Hillman (author reading)
The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka (excerpt)
American Amnesiac by Diane Raptosh (excerpt)
Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen
Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk
Incarnadine by Mary Szybist (review)
Young People’s Literature:
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt (review)
Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by K.G. Campbell (review)
A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff (excerpt)
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson (review, excerpt, audiobook excerpt)
The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata (review)
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff
The Real Boy by Anne Ursu, illustrated by Erin McGuire
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (review)
Now that Hollywood’s “award season” is over, the book world’s is getting started, and, in what may be a preview of the Pulitzer, Edward P. Jones’ much lauded novel, The Known World, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. It took him so long to write this book that he was too embarrassed to call his agent when he finally finished it. Lucky for him, it seems to have worked out quite well. The winners in the other categories are: Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy by Paul Hendrickson in the general non-fiction category; Khrushchev: The Man and His Era by William Taubman in the biography category; River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit for criticism; and Columbarium by Susan Stewart for poetry. As I may have mentioned before, the NBCC Award is great because it is not limited to American books — it includes all books written in English — and because, unlike the Pulitzer, it doesn’t skew towards rewarding books that are focused on American themes, thus allowing a book like Khrushchev to be praised.A New Wave of Graphic NovelsScott McCloud writes on his blog that the runaway experimentalism in comics in recent years has given way to a return to storytelling. The shining stars of this new trend are Blankets by Craig Thompson and an upcoming anthology called Flight.
As expected, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road took home the top prize in TMN’s Tournament of Books. Oprah stole some of the award’s thunder with her surprise announcement, but the excellent finale, with commentary from 17 judges, is a great read. In fact, I had a great time following the Tournament this year (for me it rivaled the NCAA’s in terms of holding my interest). It was a treat to read reactions to books like The Road and One Good Turn day after day from a big group of people. I’m already looking forward to next year.And incidentally, after reading all these reactions to The Road in the Tournament, along with all the Oprah-fueled media coverage, it’s starting to sound like The Road is one of those important books that comes along from time to time. One that has real staying power.