Sometimes it seems like all there is to write about is book awards. The National Book Awards are handed out, but wait, here are the Whitbread finalists. The Whitbread, Britain’s second most prestigious prize after the Booker, is, it seems to me, at a disadvantage. Since the Whitbread comes out only a couple of months after the Booker, the selections are compared in the press. If the Whitbread too closely mirrors the Booker, it loses some of its punch, but if the judges pick a shortlist with no overlap with the Booker, the Whitbread is criticized for being too obscure. This year, the only overlap with the Booker is that they have both shortlisted Ali Smith’s The Accidental. As was much remarked when the Booker list was announced, many well-known authors have books out this year: Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Julian Barnes, among others. None of those made the Whitbread list, a fact that seems likely to have prompted head judge Philippa Gregory’s defensive sounding remark in the Guardian: “Our shortlist may confuse the book trade. We are not saying these are the only good books. They are books which happened to resonate powerfully with the judges of the moment.” The list does include two notable names: Salman Rushdie for Shalimar the Clown and Nick Hornby for A Long Way Down. Rounding out the fiction list is Cotton by Christopher Wilson (which, since it is going by a different title in England, has been much misrepresented in the press, as the Literary Saloon points out.) For the finalists in all the categories, visit the Whitbread site.
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:
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.
Long considered likely to win the prize one day, Hilary Mantel has finally taken home the Booker for Wolf Hall. The book will hit shelves in the States next week but has already been warmly received overseas. To win, Mantel edged out other big names like J.M. Coetzee and A.S. Byatt.
[Mantel’s] work is full of devils, literal devils, and when they are not present their place is filled by regular, shocking evil. Graves are robbed; a baby is drowned; a woman kills her mother. At the same time, the books are extremely funny. This doesn’t cancel out the horror. What we are left with is a picture of people—not necessarily good people—muddlingly trying to explain to themselves the pain and unknowability of their lives. Is there a God? What’s going to happen to us when we die? Eschatology crossed with comedy: this is Mantel’s literary property.
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2010 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 156 novels on the list, nominated by 163 libraries in 43 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2008 (including translations).
Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.
Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least six libraries.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (9 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, and the United States)
A Mercy by Toni Morrison (8 libraries representing Barbados, Lebanon, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United States)
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (8 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, and Finland)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (8 libraries representing Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, and the United States)
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (8 libraries representing the Czech Republic, England, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States)
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (7 libraries representing Austria, Ireland, South Africa, and the United States)
Breath by Tim Winton (6 libraries representing Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and the United States)
Indignation by Philip Roth (6 libraries representing Belgium, Germany, Spain, and the United States)
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon (6 libraries representing Croatia, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and the United States)
The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher (6 libraries representing Australia, England, Greece, New Zealand, and the United States)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (6 libraries representing the United States)
You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:
In New Zealand, Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins
There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:
From Jamaica, The Same Earth by Kei Miller
From Romania, The Outcast by Sadie Jones
From Columbia, The Armies by Evelio Rosero
From Denmark, Machine by Peter Adolphsen
From Iceland, Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason
The action at TMN’s Tournament of books continues. Judge Marcus Sakey shocked the world by selecting The Emperor’s Children over The Echo Maker, which was, to my mind, the presumptive favorite having taken down the National Book Award and all manner of praise from critics spanning the globe. But this, folks, is why we play the games. The Echo Maker going down early hurts our chances to win this thing as we had it going all the way (my pdf bracket). Luckily, a number of other folks had the book going far as well, so the damage is somewhat limited. In other news, the little rat that could, Firmin, made it through round one, selected by judge Sarah Hepola over Brookland, which she found to be “so boring.”And today we have The Road coming out ahead of The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo as judged by Maria Schneider. The result: Condalmo and I remain deadlocked at the top.
Kiran Desai has won the Booker for her novel The Inheritance of Loss. The Guardian’s coverage has lots of interesting details. At 37 (or perhaps 35, according to the Booker site), Desai is the youngest woman to win the prize. Her mother, Anita Desai, a novelist to whom Kiran’s book was dedicated, has been shortlisted for the Booker three times. With all the new talent in this year’s shortlist the Guardian also wonders “The question left by the contest is whether new talent is in danger of being overmarketed and overexposed too soon.”An excerpt from the book’s opening is available for the curious. It begins: All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.Related: The shortlist and excerpts and the longlist.