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.”
The Booker frenzy is reaching a fevered pitch. I've scoured the web for the words of the shortlisted authors. Place your bets accordingly.The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall -- excerptLine of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst -- profileCloud Atlas by David Mitchell -- excerptThe Master by Colm Toibin -- excerptI'll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward -- excerptBitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor -- interview
From across the bookstore, it flashes at me like the plumage of a wild bird seeking a mate: one of those small gold circles indicative of acclaim. And, frankly, I'm a little turned on. I already know I like shiny gold things; could this be a PEN finalist? A Pulitzer Prize winner? Up close, it turns out to be The Omnivore's Dilemma - one of The New York Times' "Best Books of the Year." To this honor, the inside flap appends the following: Gold Medal in Nonfiction for the California Book Award Winner of the 2007 Bay Area Book Award for Nonfiction Winner of the 2007 James Beard Book Award/Writing on Food Category Finalist for the 2007 Orion Book Award Finalist for the 2007 NBCC Award What does this list tell me? It depends, perhaps, on the speed at which I'm reading. At a quick glance, each accolade works like a word-of-mouth recommendation; together, they suggest that this book is worth my time. Closer inspection also helps refine my generic expectations: clearly, The Omnivore's Dilemma is a work of nonfiction about food, written by a Northern Californian whom book critics like (and possibly containing an element of science fiction? I suppose I could look up the "Orion Book Award," but I prefer to imagine that it portends space aliens or time travel.) However, were I to take the list in the spirit in which the publisher has proffered it - to embrace the assumption that these awards have some settled empirical meaning - The Omnivore's Dilemma might, paradoxically, start to look second-rate. Sure, it was the best book in California, in 2007 (a weak vintage for Californian nonfiction, if memory serves), but there are 49 other states, and at the national level, it was merely a "finalist." What I want to know is, Who won the NBCC that year? Maybe I should go read that book instead. Of course no one is this literal-minded, and thank goodness for that - The Omnivore's Dilemma turns out to be one of the best books I've read in months. But what its flap copy tells me about prizes is mainly that there are an awful lot of them. The NBCC. The NBA. The Newberry. The Nobel. The proliferating PENs: /Faulkner, /Hemingway, /Nabokov... The Governor General's and The Giller. Commonwealth and Orange and Costa (née Whitbread, not to be confused with Whiting). The Pushcart, The O. Henry, The Paris Review/Aga Khan, The Story Prize. There are so many prizes, in fact, that we at The Millions started a series to keep track of them. (Our "Prizewinners: International Edition" suggests that the mania for awards is not confined to Anglo-American letters; Spaniards, for example, have a whole host of regional honors). It may be worth bearing in mind, though, that many of these seemingly venerable prizes are no older than the mobile phone. Thirty-five years ago, fewer than half of the above awards existed. It's also interesting that hand-wringing about the health of book culture was at that time less pronounced. While correlation is not evidence of causation, it would appear that the spread of those little gold circles - which project, in the wilds of the bookstore, an aura of critical consensus - is in reality a response to a crisis of authority. These days, everyone's got an opinion. Should everyone, then, get an award? Or, to put it bluntly: are there too many prizes? The answer to this question depends on how we perceive the function, or functions, of literary prizes. I would argue that they do several valuable things. First, in an era when column-inches for book coverage are disappearing from our major newspapers, they offer publishers free promotion for books that deserve it. (Or nearly free; I'm sure they pay a couple cents per gross to the little gold sticker factory.) And we Americans respond to prizes. In the best cases, as when the Nobel alerts us to a Herta Müeller or an Imre Kertész, a worthy author immediately finds a broader audience. In other cases - the Pulitzer, most years - an author of whom people were already aware gets a dispensation to stop worrying about whether her next book will sell. It will. Literary prizes may also offer writers in whose lives rejection, penury, and doubt are the rule (which is to say, almost all writers) a financial and psychological vote of confidence. Conferred on an author who has yet to find a sustaining audience, a prize purse may act as a kind of fellowship, subsidizing another three or six months of work - $10,000 here to Ron Currie, Jr.; $10,000 there to Jessie Ball. Even the ubiquitous Pushcart Prize nomination - though there must be a thousand of them every year - lets the writer know that someone out there is paying attention. (In this light, Alice Munro's decision to recuse herself from the Giller competition last summer looks honorable. She's already won it twice. Give that money and recognition to someone who can use it.) Also: Prizes are fun. The most interesting of them seem to make a virtue of subjectivity, or to dismiss, by transparency of design, any pretenses to Olympian objectivity. I've always been partial to the International IMPAC Dublin's huge and heterodox longlist of librarian-nominated titles from around the world. And on the Internet, conferring an honor is a matter of keystrokes. Among the most enjoyable of the recent spate of prizes is The Morning News' Tournament of Books. With its parodic structure, its color commentary, and its Zombie Round, the TOB simultaneously serves the functions mentioned above and punctures the premises of, say, the Pulitzer. Laying bare its mechanisms, it is the most postmodern of prizes. In my view, however, all this award-granting gets silly whenever prize-granting bodies short-circuit the practical virtues of prizes - promotion, encouragement, and pleasure. They do this in two opposed but mutually reinforcing ways: first, by contriving prizes so commonplace or parochial as to carry hardly any cultural weight. Second, by attaching to a single prize more significance than any award should rightly carry... by eliding the plurality of critical judgments in favor of some settled, authoritative Best. This sounds like a fuzzy distinction, even to me, but a couple of recently minted prizes may help to clarify what I mean. The first is the St. Francis College Literary Prize for a fourth book of fiction. "What's the best fourth book of fiction?" would have been a great parlor game or blog debate. But with no sign of the college trustees' tongues being in their cheeks, the design of this prize was so narrow - its proxy for "midcareer" so arbitrary - that it seemed to me to verge on parody. In theory, the prize was to offer "significant...support" to a writer at a crucial juncture. In practice, it was an occasion to give $50,000 to Aleksandar Hemon (who had just won half a million from the MacArthur Foundation)... and to get him to come lecture at St. Francis College. Then again, Hemon is a terrific writer, and we can take these things with a grain of salt, can't we? A more egregious offender, in my view, is the Man Booker International Prize, new as of 2005. With its widely publicized betting odds, the Booker once seemed to acknowledge that literary prizes are as much sporting event as science. Over time, however, the prize grew popular enough to attract the sponsorship of The Man Group plc, and with it a ceaseless pursuit of the best of the best. There's the longlist; the shortlist; the Booker where all the Bookers of the given time period are Bookered against each other (The Best of the Booker, The Booker of Bookers)... and now: The International Booker: The Man Booker International Prize is significantly different from the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction in that it highlights one writer's overall contribution to fiction on the world stage. In seeking out literary excellence the judges consider a writer's body of work rather than a single novel.... The Man Booker International Prize is unique in the world of literature in that it can be won by an author of any nationality, providing that his or her work is available in the English language. Well, yes, because the Nobel can be won by an author of any nationality, period. But more broadly: whom does this prize serve? What would it mean for Jane Smiley et al to have declared E.L. Doctorow superior to V.S. Naipaul in 2009, or vice versa? Do these writers need the 60,000 pounds? Notoriety? The good opinion of Jane Smiley? Was this award even fun to talk about? I may be missing something - feel free to correct me in the comments - but does anyone even remember who won? Together, The St. Francis College Prize and The International Booker delimit the double-action that characterizes literary culture in the digital age. On the one hand, pronouncements proliferate democratically, even as their prestige diminishes; on the other hand, institutions that have amassed authority under the old dispensation scramble to capitalize on what remains of it. We may look forward, on the one hand, to the Nobel of Nobels, and on the other, to the Award for Best Third Collection of Short Short Fiction by a Southpaw. Lucky for readers, though, I have a modest proposal, a compromise that might save us from all that. I believe it fulfills the core functions of literary prizes and encourages cooperation among competing prize-mongers, while nakedly retaining the flavor of arbitrary silliness. With apologies to The Morning News, ladies and gentlemen, I give you... the Prize Championship Series. Now all I need is for the heads of the various prize-granting bodies to agree to participate, or perhaps for President Obama to weigh in. That shouldn't be hard. In the meantime, I can offer only a stopgap solution to the problem of prizes: Perhaps we should decide how seriously to take any one of them based on whether it seeks to start a conversation or to end one.
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Max's recent post cataloging 13 years of Anglo-American "Prizewinners" got me wondering... what were the most decorated books in foreign-language fiction during the same period? And how many of them are currently available in English? I assumed that, in an Internet age, this information would be easy to come by in consolidated form; as it turned out, I was wrong. And so, by way of a remedy, I embarked on a tortuous research process.The first step was to figure out what prizes I should be looking at. I tried to identify awards that recognized a single work of fiction annually, or biennially; that focused on a specific linguistic tradition; and that would give a book traction in a market sizable enough to facilitate comparison. That is, I was looking for analogues for the National Book Award or the Booker. The list of prizes I ended up with covers a slightly expanded version of the U.N. Security Council - France and its former colonies, the Spanish-speaking world, Germany and Austria, Italy, Russia, and Japan - which may, in itself, tell us something about the nature of literary laurels.Next, to allow for the time required to translate a book, I narrowed my window to the years 1995-2005, assuming that more recent books may still be in the process of translation. Using Wikipedia, World Literature Today the Library of Congress Catalog, Amazon.com, Babelfish, and other resources, I was able to track down English-language versions of prize-winning titles from those years (though not to rule out the existence of translations the LoC and Amazon might have missed).With its many arbitrary elements, its patent Eurocentrism, and its shaky grasp of some of the languages and cultures involved (readers are encouraged to enlighten me via the comments button), my ad hoc methodology makes the one publisher John O'Brien critiques in the current issue of CONTEXT look positively rigorous. Nonetheless, in light of O'Brien's argument that "translations have suddenly moved from their marginalized place in the American marketplace," the resulting list turns out to be pretty interesting. And, no matter how one interprets the data, this "International Edition" of our Prizewinners feature should offer readers who share my passion for contemporary world literature a place to start.(N.B.: Jealous of Max's arithmetic prowess, I've injected some pseudoscience into this post by calculating the Translation Quotient (TQ): percentage of winners of each award that have been translated into English. The prizes are listed in descending order of TQ.)1. French-Language LiteratureIn the Prix Goncourt, France has one of the world's most venerable and distinguished literary awards. Every December since 1903, it has been given to "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year." My favorites among the honorees include Marcel Proust's Within a Budding Grove and Patrick Chaimoiseau's Texaco. Perhaps because of the prize's august history, and perhaps because of the intensity with which the French promote their literary culture, the Goncourt has the best Translation Quotient of any of the prizes I looked at. Of the 11 winning books from 1995 to 2005, eight have been translated into English. The 2006 winner, Les Bienveillantes, was written in French by an American, and was one of my Most Anticipated Books of 2008.Goncourt winners in translation 1995-2005 (TQ: 73%)1995 - Andrëi Makine, Dreams of My Russian Summers (Arcade)1997 - Patrick Rambaud, The Battle (Grove)1998 - Paule Constant, Trading Secrets (University of Nebraska Press)1999 - Jean Echenoz, I'm Gone (New Press)2000 - Jean-Jacques Schuhl, Ingrid Caven (City Lights)2001 - Jean-Christophe Rufin, Brazil Red (Norton)2003 - Jacques-Pierre Amette, Brecht's Mistress (New Press)2004 - Laurent Gaudé, The House of Scorta (MacAdam/Cage)2. Spanish-Language LiteratureNovelists working in Spanish have a number of interesting prizes at their disposal, including the Cervantes Prize, given for lifetime achievement. The premier prize for a single novel is pretty widely recognized to be the semiannual Premio Internacional de Novela Rómulo Gallegos. Three out of the six winners from 1995 - 2005 have been translated into English; some authors, like Enrique Vila-Matas, have had works other than their Gallegos-winners translated.RRómulo Gallegos winners in translation 1995-2005 (TQ: 50%)1995 - Javier Marías (Spain), Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (New Directions)1997 - Ángeles Mastretta (Mexico), Lovesick (Riverhead)1999 - Roberto Bolaño (Chile), The Savage Detectives (FSG)3. Italian LiteratureThe preeminent Italian prize is the Premio Strega; the Italians seem to do a pretty good job getting books chosen for the Strega translated into English. Of the 11 winners between 1995 and 2005, three have been translated into English, and several authors have had other titles appear in the U.S.Strega winners in translation 1995 - 2005 (TQ: 27%)1999 - Dacia Maraini, Darkness (Steerforth)2002 - Margaret Mazzantini, Don't Move (Anchor)2003 - Melania G. Mazzucco Vita (FSG)4. Russian LiteratureThis one was a disappointment. Russian is one of the great literary languages, and has its own Booker-Open Russia Literary Prize. Monumental winners like Georgy Vladimov's The General and His Army (1995) would seem to be right up my alley - but haven't been translated into English. Vasily Aksyonov, a Millions favorite and winner of the Russian Booker in 2004, has had a number of books appear in the U.S. But apparently, only one book that took home the prize between 1995 and 2005 has itself been translated.Russian Booker winners in translation 1995 - 2005 (TQ: 9%)2003 - Ruben Gallego White On Black (Harcourt)5. German-Language LiteratureI have to admit, this surprised me. I would have expected German speakers, with their robust literary heritage, to coronate a single book each year to present to the world. Then again, given the history of the last 150 years, the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, and so on, I suppose it's not surprising that there is some fragmentation when it comes to awards. Perhaps as a remedy, the German Publishers & Booksellers Association in 2005 created the German Book Prize. But according to my (admittedly cursory) research, the preeminent prizes for a single work of German-language fiction during the 1995 - 2005 period would have been Austria's Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Alfred Döblin Prize (endowed by Günter Grass). Surprisingly, out of the 17 combined winners of these two prizes from 1995 - 2005, only one was translated into English. (The percentage goes up slightly, to two out of 20, if we throw in the great Ingo Schulze's, 33 Moments of Happiness, which won the Döblin "Förderpreis," [meaning, first novel prize?] in 1995).Döblin and Bachmann winners in translation, 1995 - 2005 (TQ: 6%)1995 - Norbert Gstrein, English Years (Minerva [U.K.])Japanese LiteratureA mixed bag here. The Tanizaki Prize would seem to confer just the kind of distinction a publisher would want - it's so selective that some years, they don't even give it out - and yet none of the 12 winners from 1995 to 2005 have been translated into English. (There were two winners in 1997, 2000, and 2005). Then again, Yuko Tsushima, who won in 1998 and Yoko Tawada, who won in 2003, have had other works translated into English, and Ryu Murakami has been translated quite often.Tanizaki Winners in translation, 1995 - 2005 (TQ: 0%)
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The Booker was awarded Monday, the Nobel Prize will be awarded tomorrow, and today this year's National Book Award finalists were announced (by John Grisham, no less). Last year the National Book Foundation was vehemently criticized by some and defended by others for nominating five relatively unknown women from New York in the fiction category, but there will likely be less controversy this year as big name (and past winner for World's Fair in 1986) E.L. Doctorow leads the list. As the Amazon rankings at the time of the announcement indicate, the Mary Gaitskill doesn't exactly qualify as obscure either. Though not a commercial superstar, another notable nominee is William T. Vollmann. The complete list of nominees in all categories follows:FictionE.L. Doctorow, The March (Random House) (rank: 17)Mary Gaitskill, Veronica (Pantheon) (rank: 786)Christopher Sorrentino, Trance (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) (rank: 45,062)Rene Steinke, Holy Skirts (William Morrow) (rank: 423,858)William T. Vollmann, Europe Central (Viking) (rank: 51,709)NonfictionAlan Burdick, Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)Leo Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (Houghton Mifflin)Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (Alfred A. Knopf)Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers (Times Books)Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (Houghton Mifflin)PoetryJohn Ashbery, Where Shall I Wander (Ecco)Frank Bidart, Star Dust: Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)Brendan Galvin, Habitat: New and Selected Poems, 1965-2005 (Louisiana State University Press)W.S. Merwin, Migration: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press)Vern Rutsala, The Moment's Equation (Ashland Poetry Press)Young People's LiteratureJeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks (Alfred A. Knopf)Adele Griffin, Where I Want to Be (Putnam)Chris Lynch, Inexcusable (Atheneum)Walter Dean Myers, Autobiography of My Dead Brother (HarperTempest)Deborah Wiles, Each Little Bird That Sings (Harcourt)
Last year, as I wrapped up writing my biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a writer who battled gender discrimination in her own day and has been unjustly forgotten in ours, I grew increasingly aware of how women continue to be sidelined in the literary world, thanks to the work of VIDA. Then the National Book Award’s nonfiction longlist came out, and I was astonished to see that only one book, out of 10, was by a female author. Reading the Mayborn study, which revealed that only 20 percent of prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years have gone to female authors convinced me that the NBA’s gender imbalance was not an anomaly. I wondered in a piece here at The Millions whether fewer women wrote nonfiction, which some have called a guy’s club. However, I came to the conclusion that there were plenty of important nonfiction books being written by women that deserved to be considered for the prize. In fact, some of the books I highlighted did go on to win other prestigious prizes: Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age won the PEN Henry David Thoreau Award for Nature Writing, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, and Diane Allen won the Francis Parkman Prize for Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. This year’s judges of the National Book Award seem to agree that women’s nonfiction writing is abundant and prize-worthy. The 2015 nonfiction longlist includes seven female-authored books, out of 10, the largest percentage of female nominees in the prize’s history. The longlist also contains two books by people of color, compared to last year’s one. What is even more interesting than the numbers, however, is the types of books on the list. This year’s longlist could not be more different than last year’s in ways that go beyond gender and race but also suggest why this year’s list of authors is more diverse. Last year’s list, as well as those of the past few years, were heavy in genres and topics typically dominated by (white) men: national and military history; biographies of men, especially presidents; and economic or war reportage. This year there are no biographies at all on the list, and only two histories, although both take unconventional approaches to their subjects: Martha Hodes’s Mourning Lincoln explores the private responses to Lincoln’s death, rather than its public meaning. Susanna Moore’s Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawai’i focuses on the indigenous politics and culture of Hawaii. Last year, only one memoir, a genre in which women writers have been rather prolific, made the longlist (and of the past 50 nonfiction books nominated, only 4 had been memoirs). This year, fully half of the nominated books can be loosely classified as memoirs, according to The New Yorker, three of them by women. (All are described below.) A related genre, the essay, is represented by one book on this year’s list: Michael Paterniti’s Love and Other Ways of Dying. Last year I particularly noted the disappointing lack of books that blurred genres or categories. I speculated that women may be more likely to write about history, science, or culture from a more personal perspective, injecting memoir into the usual nonfiction fare. This year’s list contains three such works, two by women, one by a man of color, and all of which suggest the power of writing about larger issues through a personal lens: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a letter to his son, and ostensibly America, attempting to explain America’s perilous neuroses about race through memoir, reportage, and history. Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness is unconventional science reportage that recounts the author’s friendship with an octopus and documents the emotional lives of the species as well. Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran combines memoir and conversations that take the reader into the history and theology of the Quran. Two other works on the list that defy easy categorization and offer innovative approaches to the genre are: Cynthia Barnett’s book Rain is classified by its publisher as a science book but is subtitled A Natural and Cultural History, suggesting the ways it also crosses genre boundaries. Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs could be described as a kind of collage of text, photographs, letters, diaries, and reproductions of saved items, such as the notes she wrote on a negative’s envelope. Another indication that this year’s nominees are untraditional is that four of the authors are better known for their work in other genres or art forms: Sally Mann is a photographer; Susanna Moore is a novelist; and two are poets: Tracy K. Smith, author of Ordinary Light: A Memoir Michael White, author of Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir Overall, it’s fair to say that this year’s list more accurately reflects the diversity of nonfiction as a genre and points toward innovations that promise to invigorate it. It is tempting to believe that the National Book Awards took the many criticisms of last year’s list into account. One sign of their effort to do things differently this year may be the fact that three of the five judges are women (last year there were two), one of whom is African-American (the same as last year). Even more telling, however, is the fact that the chair of this year’s panel is one of the authors conspicuously absent from last year’s list: Diane Ackerman. I concluded my essay last year with the hope that “the subtle biases that govern our understanding of literary value” will seem to us one day a quaint reminder of an earlier era. I had no idea my hope would be so quickly realized, at least for this one award for this one year. Such biases are still the norm, however. A recent study of the major fiction awards over the past 15 years determined that novels by and about men dominated, while those focusing on a female protagonist won zero Pulitzer Prizes, only two Man Booker Prizes, two National Book Awards, and one NBCC Award. There is still much to be done to ensure that awards in all genres are not gender biased and that judges can recognize merit outside the usual boundaries of the white male perspective. My hats off to the judges of this year’s NBA nonfiction award for accomplishing that goal.