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.
The South African J. M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today. This prize seems to be given alternately to the obscure or the internationally known. Coetzee most assuredly falls in the latter category, and his receiving this award comes as no surprise. He has won the Booker Prize twice, an unprecedented feat, as well as countless other major and minor awards, and long ago passed from the realm of “author” into the realm of “master.” The Nobel Prize seems to surpass all other prizes in inducing people to read, and rightly so. It is as close as the literary world comes to “officially” admitting a writer into the canon of world literature from which he or she can never be removed or forgotten. So, if you are among the many who decide to read or reread Coetzee in the coming days or weeks, allow me to suggest two books, first his breakthrough novel and arguably his best, Waiting for the Barbarians, and then the second of his two Booker Prize winning efforts, Disgrace. If you want to learn more about Coetzee check out the “bio-bibliography” provided on the Nobel Site.Beyond FreaksDiane Arbus has long been considered among the greatest photographers of all time. Her work is a staple of art museum collections throughout the world. Arbus (who committed suicide in 1971) was best known for her unnerving photographs of circus freaks, street performers, and other “outsiders” dwelling on society’s margins. Though she focused on the margins, she also illuminated just how blurry these margins can be. Sometimes we can feel like outsiders in our own homes or in our own families. The two new Arbus books that have come out recently help to illuminate this aspect of her work. Neither book focuses on her circus and sideshow work, yet each book retains the visceral power that her “freak” photography is known for. The first is a collection of previously unpublished photographs called Diane Arbus: Family Albums, which is devoted to family portraits she took over the years. Some were commissioned and others were not, but they all retain that powerful quality of dread that her photographs seem to take on. The other book is an impressively thorough volume put out by Random House that amounts to a biography as well as a retrospective of her work. It is one of the most extensive collections of her photography ever put into book form.Shout OutsGarth, a friend and trusted fellow reader, has weighed in on The Fortress of Solitude. After finishing the book, I eagerly waited for Garth to read it so that I could hear his opinion. It was worth the wait. I also want to give a shout out to Jeff Mallett creator of Frazz who I am told is a fan of the site. This also gives me the opportunity to tell all of you that I always have been and always will be a newspaper funnies junkie.
Alice Munro does not have an MFA degree. She comes from a time when few Americans, and even fewer Canadians, found it necessary or expedient to pursue graduate study in creative writing. Though Munro was not produced by the MFA culture, she has been embraced by it to an extent unparalleled by any other living writer. When I visited the MFA program where I eventually enrolled, I was only a minute or two into a conversation with a second-year student when he asked, “Do you love Alice Munro?” Before I could answer, he added, “Because everybody here really loves Alice Munro.” It was true. One professor diagrammed the craft of Munro’s stories on a wipe board, using a complex notation of cylinders and arrows I struggled to understand. In another workshop, each student was required to choose a story from Munro’s Selected Stories and introduce it to the class. (I picked “The Turkey Season” and was impressed by the easy, unforced rhythms of the dialogue, though I don’t remember noticing much else.) Last Thursday, when the Nobel Prize was announced, the euphoria among my writer friends and acquaintances was palpable. There seemed to be a common feeling that Munro was ours, a writer’s writer uniquely beloved by the workshop.
When I began teaching, I couldn’t miss the fact that excerpts from Munro’s stories were used to illustrate almost every principle of craft. In the textbook most commonly assigned in introductory fiction classes, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, she is cited in the sections on effective use of subtext in dialogue, on how to move over long spaces of time in summary, and on revision. No other writer — with the possible exception of Chekhov, to whom she is often compared — seems to have this universal applicability. It would be possible, one imagines, to read a Munro collection as certain people read the Bible, opening the book at random and sticking a pin down on the page. Surely you couldn’t fail to come up with a passage that would illuminate your own understanding of technique, and do it in a style that seemed both accessible and effortless. In those early years, I dutifully taught and studied Munro’s stories, but when I wanted to reread a story for the sheer pleasure of it, I went not to The Beggar Maid but to Junot Diaz’s Drown, or to Selected Stories of Andre Dubus. I appreciated Munro, I respected her, but — as we’ve all surely learned by our mid-twenties — that’s not the same as being in love.
We live in an era when North American readers are increasingly well-versed in the language of the writer’s craft. Book reviews in the New York Times and other major venues routinely focus in on questions of delineation of character and the construction of sentences. Tens of thousands of undergraduate students enroll in creative writing classes every semester, and the database maintained by Poets & Writers currently lists two hundred and three graduate programs offering the MFA degree. Studies of the institutionalization of creative writing by scholars like D.G. Myers and Mark McGurl claim that the examination of technique is a secondary function of a writing program whose real purpose is to coach students through the labor of self-expression, but the widespread fascination with the minutiae of Munro’s craft would seem to indicate otherwise. The joyful reaction to the news of Munro’s Nobel among American writers and readers of literary fiction has to have something to do with the fact that we understand, or think we understand, how she does what she does. One doesn’t have to look far for an analogy: I like listening to Gil Shaham play the violin, but I’d probably like it even better if I knew a fingerboard from a pegbox. Reading Munro, noticing an abrupt but somehow perfect ending to a scene, an Austenian moment of indirect discourse, we must be getting smarter even as we enjoy ourselves.
As a teacher, I went back again and again to her stories, gaining through rereading an appreciation of the subtler aspects of her craft. Joan Silber, author of As Long As It Takes: The Art of Time in Fiction, praises Munro for her use of what she calls “Switchback Time,” “a zigzag movement back and forth among time frames…us[ing] the shifts in an order that doesn’t give dominance to a particular time.” Often we move back and forth between the end and beginning of an affair, a marriage, a life, until the two narratives come to possess equal weight and interest. Here Munro transgresses what I teach to my classes as a rule — that the present time of a story must be more interesting and carry more weight than the flashbacks — but does it in a way that can be explained and discussed, perhaps even imitated by anyone who has the courage to try it. I kept on studying her stories, and trying to share their unique brilliance with my students, even after I came to suspect that the author herself might not entirely approve of my efforts to interpret and explain her methods. The story “Differently” opens with a scene of an unsuccessful lesson on the craft of fiction:
Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think.
Eventually she wrote a story that was about her grandfather killing chickens, and the instructor seemed to be pleased with it. Georgia herself thought it was a fake. She made a long list of all the things that had been left out and handed it in as an appendix to the story. The instructor said that she expected too much, of herself and of the process, and that she was wearing him out.
Perhaps it is simplistic or wrong-headed of me to read this passage as Munro’s comment on the university study of creative writing. She would know better than anyone that a story must be a complete thing in itself, that one requiring an appendix has bigger problems than a lack of authenticity. And yet it is worth noting that she is not — like other writers beloved by the workshop; like Tim O’Brien, for instance, or Richard Ford — a staple of university reading series. She has never, as far as I have ever heard, taught in an MFA program as a visiting writer, or even flown in for a few days of readings and craft talks. Her use of what Silber calls Switchback Time could be seen as an infinitely more sophisticated version of Georgia’s appendix, an effort to put more into a short story than the form is supposed to be able to support. I suspect — though I may well be projecting — that Munro would find in the university-trained fiction writer’s obsession with craft in general and with her work in particular a kind of well-meaning naïveté, a dotty insistence on missing the point.
As I left my twenties and entered my second decade as a teacher of creative writing, I found that I could now answer my MFA classmate’s question in perfect sincerity: I loved Alice Munro. I loved her not because of Switchback Time or her ear-perfect dialogue, but because her stories had become part of my inner landscape. Like my favorite scenes in Austen and George Eliot, Cheever and Flannery O’Connor, these stories hold in retrospect the intensity of my own memories. If writing a poem is like living twice, reading Munro is like living over and over again, lifetime upon lifetime in the space of a single story. My deepened appreciation for her work may also have something to do with what I’ve experienced in what I think of in my non-literary life — marriage, motherhood, the loss of family and friends. I have an idea that she may be, like George Eliot, a writer better understood on the far side of thirty.
In the days since the announcement of her Nobel, as I walk around replaying scenes from Munro’s stories in my head, I’ve found that the passages that come back to me are not the teachable moments I’d point to in a class discussion, but snippets whose power and brilliance seems to elude my efforts at explication. The scene in “Save the Reaper” when a woman named Eve foolishly leads her young grandchildren into a nightmarishly strange house in an Ontario cornfield; or the climactic moment in “The Beggar Maid,” when Rose sees her ex-husband Patrick at an airport many years after their divorce and he greets her by making an ugly, hateful face. I could and did recite the final lines of that scene — Oh, Patrick could. Patrick could — but I couldn’t explain to anyone, least of all myself, why they lingered with me so powerfully. Those passages aren’t how I teach writing, but they’re why I wanted to be a writer, and a teacher, in the first place.
Years ago a friend of mine cautioned me to not to teach my classes like the Chris Farley Show, referencing the nineties-era SNL skit where Farley ineptly interviews artists that clearly impress him too much. Instead of asking Paul McCartney or Martin Scorcese questions about their careers, Farley summarizes important moments in their work and then tells them they were “pretty awesome.” Implicit in my friend’s advice was the idea that it was insufficient to simply praise a piece of writing for being unbelievably good. It wasn’t critical. It didn’t actually teach anybody anything. I believe he was right, for the most part, but when I think about the happiness that I and so many of my writer friends seemed to feel at the news of the Nobel, I wonder if what I need in my life is a little less craft and a little more Chris Farley. Instead of talking about how Munro does what she does, wouldn’t it feel good to just let the stories happen? Remember that one part in “The Albanian Virgin,” and “Runaway,” and “Friend of My Youth”? That was really great. That was pretty awesome.
The winners of the 2006 National Book Awards have been announced. A year after William T. Vollmann won the fiction award it has gone to Richard Powers for The Echo Maker (excerpt), marking a shift in focus (though perhaps not yet a “trend”) toward honoring some of the names on the leading edge of American fiction. The New York Times, in its writeup, mentions that “as in recent years, the fiction category raised eyebrows in the publishing industry for its lack of commercially known nominees in a year of big-name authors,” but I don’t recall hearing much rumbling about the nominees. If anything, as I wrote when the nominees were announced, this year’s nominees “satisfyingly occupy the sweet spot between obscurity and being, well, too obvious.” And if one looks at the bodies of work of the five nominees, as well as their literary reputations, Powers was certainly deserving of this plaudit. Judging on his book alone, from what I’ve heard, he is a worthy winner, as well.In nonfiction, the award went to Timothy Egan for The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (excerpt) taking on a very important topic in American history that hasn’t gotten much attention from the writers of popular history. The Young People’s Literature award was given to M.T. Anderson for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (excerpt), sparing us the possibility of an angry backlash against those darn graphic novels. And for Poetry, the award was given to Nathaniel Mackey for Splay Anthem (poem).