Joseph Epstein (Fabulous Small Jews, Snobbery) takes a look at the glut of awards, literary and otherwise in a Wall Street Journal piece: “All this prize-giving has made the field of culture rather like one of those progressive preschools where, on graduation day, even the most hopeless child is given a prize for not actually maiming his classmates.”
My moment in the Tournament of Books spotlight has come and gone, but I’ve enjoyed following the series throughout. It’s been particularly interesting, from the perspective of a “judge,” to see how the other judges have responded to the books I read.The Lazarus Project got surprisingly little ink during its run. I suspect that the book was something of a trendy pick for those following the Tournament. Aleksandar Hemon has a compelling back story and not long ago joined the elite ranks of young, literary superstardom like Jonathan Lethem, Edward P. Jones, George Saunders, and David Foster Wallace in winning a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. I had actually read The Lazarus Project last summer (and was all set to write a review then – I’m glad I held off), and I felt lukewarm about it at the time. In her first round judgment, Monica Ali noted “the narratives simultaneously unfolding and folding up on themselves,” and that was what stood out to me much more in my second reading of the book. In rereading it, I caught more threads to the story, and the ending, even though I knew it was coming, hit me harder.But I still wasn’t entirely won over. In his commentary on the first round match, John Warner pretty much hits the nail on the head, “I got the sense in reading that Hemon was also fascinated by the Averbuch story, but at some point became more interested in his own fascination than in Averbuch himself.”For my match, meanwhile, Lazarus didn’t merit much attention from the commentators. Instead the focus was on Shadow Country (which, like that other Frankenstein of the Tourney 2666) gave pause because of its heft and peculiar path to publication. As I was reading the book I was a bit thrown by that as well – Shadow Country is really three books, all previously published, cobbled back together and revamped by Peter Matthiessen. At times, it really did feel like three books smashed into one package, particularly, as I noted in my ToB piece, when I began the book’s third part and, poised to read another retelling of Edgar Watson’s life, I felt the whole thing growing a bit tiresome. Luckily, the third part of the book is stunning, and it ultimately won me over. In the end, I felt that the book stood well as a repackaged whole in that it heightened its obsessiveness and highlighted the complexity of Matthiessen’s Watson. In the long book, the reader is given the opportunity to peel back layer after layer of Watson, until finally only Watson’s own voice is left. This was where the book derived its power.Interestingly, though, it was the repackaging that was the main focus of the Shadow Country discussion during the ToB, and it was ultimately the cause for its departure. The two commentators were quite ambivalent about it. In his commentary on my judgment, John Warner posited a question: “I ask, rhetorically, if any of the sections of Shadow Country were in the tournament individually, would they have even sniffed the semis?” In the commentary on Junot Díaz’s judgment, Warner writes “I don’t think we’ll be seeing any passionate blog postings or comments protesting the bouncing of Shadow Country from the tournament.” Meanwhile Díaz bounced the book for the quite credible reason, in my opinion, that he had previously read the three original parts of Shadow Country. I know that for me, having already experienced the three parts of as discrete stories would have robbed Shadow Country of its weightiness and obsessive power. This seemed to be what happened for Díaz.It’s rare that I get a chance to read along side other readers like this, and its hard to think when I might ever have the opportunity to write in this way alongside others about the same books, but it definitely added to my reading experience.
The winners of the National Book Critics Circle Award have been announced in New York City. The award is voted on by critics and considers all books in English (including in translation), no matter the country of origin. The winners in the various categories and some supplementary links:
Criticism: Franco Moretti, Distant Reading
Poetry: Frank Bidart, Metaphysical Dog (The Poet and the Movie Star: An Evening with Frank Bidart and James Franco)
Previously: The finalists
The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one’s yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year’s National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to “compete” with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here’s the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones – C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen – C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio – C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst – B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan – B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham – C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift – B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace – B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson – N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard – I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey – B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin – N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee – B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace – C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott – I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth – C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser – N, P5, 1995, The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie – B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker – B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford – C, P5, 1995, Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth – N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali – B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor – B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut – B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins – N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor – B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry – B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead – N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller – B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins – B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro – B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates – N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan – B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn – B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin – B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid – C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty – B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick – I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright – B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of “big name” literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I’d love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)
Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. This year’s fiction list includes something of an invasion from overseas, with Peter Carey, surely the first Booker shortlister to also be a National Book Award finalist (but eligible for both because the Australian-born author is now a U.S. citizen), and Lionel Shriver, who, though a U.S. citizen is often more commonly associated with London, where she makes her home.
The nomination for Shriver validates a provactively titled piece that ran in these pages this year, Lionel Shriver: America’s Best Writer?, which suggested that she deserves far more critical attention. Rounding out the fiction list are Nicole Krauss, recently lauded as a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer, and a pair of relative unknowns Jaimy Gordon and Karen Tei Yamashita, each writing for small indie presses, McPherson and Coffee House, respectively. Also notable, the fiction finalist number four women versus one male author, and Jonathan Franzen and his blockbuster literary novel Freedom are nowhere to be found.
The other big name to note is rocker Patti Smith, who earned a nod for her memoir.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt)
Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
Great House by Nicole Krauss (excerpt)
So Much for That by Lionel Shriver (excerpt)
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (excerpt)
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (excerpt)
Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq by John W. Dower (excerpt)
Just Kids by Patti Smith (excerpt)
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward by Justin Spring (excerpt)
Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War by Megan K. Stack (excerpt)
Young People’s Literature:
There are tons of literary awards out there, but last year I discovered one that caught my interest because of its international and journalistic focus. The Lettre Ulysses Award celebrates book-length reporting, and does not limit its scope to any single language or geographic area. The result is that a richly varied list of books is considered. Last year’s award went to Alexandra Fuller for her account of her travels with a white, African mercenary, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier. This year’s longlist is out and once again it’s very eclectic:Die Hundeesser von Svinia (The Dog Eaters of Svinia) by Karl-Markus Gauss (Austria)The People on the Street by Linda Grant (Great Britain)Der Smaragdkonig. Victor Carranza und das grune Gold der Anden (The Emerald Czar: Victor Carranza and the Green Gold of the Andes) by Jeanette Erazo HeufelderThe Deurbanization of Lvov & A Week in Kishinev, part of a series of texts on the decline of post-Soviet cities by Igor Klekh (Russia)Pais de plomo. Cronicas de guerra (Country of Bullets. War Diaries) by Juanita Leon (Colombia)The Story of “Freezing Point” by Li Datong (China)Operacao Araguaia: os arquivos secretos da Guerrilha (Operation Araguaia: The Secret Archives of a Guerrilla War) by Tais Morais & Eumano Silva (Brazil)Voyage aux pays du coton. Petit precis de mondialisation (Journey to the Lands of Cotton: A Brief Manual of Globalisation) by Erik Orsenna (France)The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer (USA)Beirut shi mahal: an Egyptian in Lebanon by Youssef Rakha (Egypt)Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang by Mishi Saran (India)An Iraqi in Paris by Samuel Shimon (Iraq)Biz Burada Devrim Yapiyoruz Sinyorita (We are Making a Revolution Here, Signorita) by Ece Temelkuran (Turkey)Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy by Manjushree Thapa (Nepal)Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu by Yaroslav Trofimov (Ukraine)The Long MarchGenius loci by Peter Vail (Russia)Cosecha de mujeres: Safari en el desierto mexicano (Harvest of Woman. Safari in the Mexican Desert) by Diana Washington Valdez (Mexico/USA)’What Kind of God’: A Survey of the Current Safety of China’s Food by Zhou Qing (China)
Well-known established writers like Peter Carey and Andrea Levy and up and coming author Tom McCarthy made the 2010 Booker shortlist, while David Mitchell, probably the best-known name on the longlist, failed to make the cut. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we’ll offer the same with the shortlist below.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt)
Room by Emma Donoghue (excerpt)
In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (excerpt)
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (excerpt)
C by Tom McCarthy
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.
The International DUBLIN Literary Award (formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) is the world’s most valuable annual literary award for a single work of fiction published in English, clocking in at €100,000. Now in its 22nd year, the award is sponsored by the Dublin City Council and managed by the city’s libraries. This year’s titles were nominated by public libraries in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Sweden and the USA, according to the award’s website.
The shortlisted titles are:
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara