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.
This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
Maggie Nelson is known best for her non-fiction. Often described as some combination of “lyrical” and “philosophical,” Nelson’s five book-length works of nonfiction have won her a steadfast following. She might be described as a “writer’s writer.” The evidence is in how often her books are named by other writers in our annual Year in Reading series. Bluets, a meditation on the color blue, won praise from David Shields (“utterly brilliant”), Stephen Elliott (“excellent”), Haley Mlotek (“I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride.”), Leslie Jamison, Jaquira Díaz, and Margaret Eby. Meaghan O’Connell wrote of Nelson, “She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair.” Many of the above writers also praised Nelson’s more recent The Argonauts, “a genre-bending memoir,” as did Bijan Stephen, Olivia Laing (“It thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace”), Karolina Waclawiak (“I found myself underlining on nearly every page”), and Parul Sehgal. Nelson herself appeared in our Year in Reading last year, shining light on books by Eileen Myles and Ellen Miller, among others.
Claudia Rankine, poet, has received especially wide acclaim for her “provocative meditation on race” Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that (perhaps along with Between the World and Me by last year’s “Genius” Ta-Nehisi Coates) that can be pointed to as a literary catalyst. Many may have first become aware of Rankine earlier this year, when her book — wielded as an object of protest — was caught by cameras behind a ranting Donald Trump at one of his rallies. MacArthur rightly describes Rankine as “a critical voice in current conversations about racial violence.” Ed Simon named Citizen this moment’s best candidate in his search for America’s great epic poem.
In its announcement, MacArthur says artist and writer Lauren Redniss “is an artist and writer seamlessly integrating artwork, written text, and design elements in works of visual nonfiction. Redniss undertakes archival research, interviews and reportage, and field expeditions to inform every aspect of a book’s creation, from its text, to its format and page layout, to the design of the typeface, to the printing and drawing techniques used for the artwork.” Redniss is probably best-known for 2011 National Book Award finalist Radioactive, a vibrantly illustrated biography of pioneering scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. Our own Hannah Gersen described it as “elaborately beautiful.”
Gene Luen Yang has smashed stereotypes with his vibrant graphic novels, American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile (with Derek Kirk Kim), and Boxers & Saints. Our 2010 interview with Yang explored his influences and his work.
The lone playwright to be named a “genius” this year is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. “Many of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays use a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings.”
Sarah Stillman has become a byline to look for in The New Yorker, carrying out journalistic investigations that have raised public outrage and spurred recalcitrant politicians into action. “Taken” is perhaps her best-known article. It investigates how local police forces have used the principal of “civil asset forfeiture” to plunder citizens and enrich themselves.
China has its first literary Nobel Laureate as the prize has gone to 57-year-old novelist Mo Yan. Yan is said to make use of magical realism and satire in addressing China’s recent history. His books have been frequently banned in China and “Mo Yan” is a pen name meaning “don’t speak.” Yan’s given name is Guan Moye.
Yan’s style here is maximalistic, headlong, sloppy to be sure, but bursting with life; or rather, lives — human and otherwise. A Chinese landowner is executed at the dawn of the Cultural Revolution, and the story follows him literally to hell and back, again and again as he’s reborn in a progression of animal incarnations. Each time, he winds up near his former family and participates in its dramas, goes on animal adventures, and witnesses the hardships, cruelties, and absurdities of life in China over the last half-century. Mo Yan himself shows up as a character from time to time.
Yan’s other books available in English include:
Red Sorghum (which was made into a feature film)
The Garlic Ballads
Big Breasts & Wide Hips
The Republic of Wine
Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh
Explosions and Other Stories
Forthcoming in January: Pow!
He also has a story in the collection of Chinese short fiction Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused
The 2012 finalists for the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Book Awards have been anounced. In the “Novel” category, they are Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May, The Heart Broke In by James Meek, and Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart. The Costa site has lists of the nominees in all categories.