I was ruminating a bit about the Pulitzer Prize this week and wondering why it isn’t a bigger deal. The bookstore I worked at in Los Angeles may not be indicative of national trends, but while I was there, the Booker Prize and the National Book Award moved more books than the Pulitzer. (The Nobel Prize had a bigger impact on sales than all the other awards combined, believe it or not.) I think part of the reason that the Pulitzer fails to capture the interest of readers is that it’s much less controversial than other awards. Pulitzer winners are almost always safe picks. But part of it, I think, is that the award has no build up. The judges do not announce the nominees (aka the shortlist) in advance, instead the finalists are revealed at the same time as the winner. It’s pretty obvious that having a shortlist would build interest – some might say artificially – by placing the prize in the public eye for longer. But I’d argue that the Pulitzer is worthy of this treatment. Though the picks are often safe, taken together, the Pulitzer winners are an incomplete, but still compelling bunch of books. The Pulitzers are primarily a journalism award, and that, I think, matters too, in that it allows us to equate the novel with journalism, which, at its best, is meant to be a noble and unfrivolous pursuit. (And this isn’t just the J-school grad in me talking.) Finally, giving the Pulitzer a shortlist would just be more fun and it would give us book bloggers more to natter on about.
It’s becoming a tradition of sorts, the Nobel jury gives the Prize to an author virtually unknown in the United States, and newspaper columnists grumble while small and university presses bask in a moment of publishing glory.
Nobody outside a few square miles in New York cares that this year’s Pulitzer or Booker winner was put out by Random House or HarperCollins, but even to the casual observer of the literary scene, there’s something refreshing (and, for some, aggravating) about seeing yet another Nobel winner with only the faintest, most haphazard publishing footprint. The Nobel Prize, probably half the time, shines a huge spotlight some pretty obscure books.
For small and university presses, the Prize is a rare moment of popular notice. Daniel E. Pritchard who works for David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston wrote as much a year ago reacting to J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Nobel win, “Nobel Prizes are usually the playground for big boys. They were noticeably absent from this one, leaving all the fame and street-cred for small independents.” Godine published Le Clézio’s The Prospector.
The University of Nebraska Press also published Le Clézio, with two books in print when the Nobel was announced last year: The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts and Onitsha. According to the press’ publicity manager Cara Pesek, Nebraska sold just “a handful” of copies of both titles in 2007, but “since the prize was announced last year, those two titles have accounted for more than $100,000 in incremental sales.”
The director of University of Nebraska Press, Donna Shear, tempered the excitement somewhat, saying that the Nobel turns a book into “a steady backlist seller” as it finds its way onto University reading lists. But she added that a side-effect of the Nobel jury’s idiosyncrasies is that the Prize becomes “a validation of the efforts of University presses.”
The Euro-centric Nobel also injects some commercial viability into the typically limited world of literature in translation. After winning the Nobel in 2002, Hungarian writer Imre Kertész went from university presses to Knopf and Vintage. Meanwhile, plans are already underway to bring Müller to a wider audience. Shear said Nebraska put in a bid for Müller’s latest, Atemschaukel, recently shortlisted for the German Book Prize, but it’s expected that the book will land with one of the big publishing houses.
We expect our book prizes to confirm that a book or author’s commercial success and positive reviews are well-deserved. Sometimes the Nobel plays this role – a validator of critical opinion – but, for the American audience, it often does something different. And this is where the grumbling comes in. We don’t like to be told that an author we’ve never heard of is one of the greatest ever. But in cases like Müller and Kertész and Le Clézio, the Nobel serves as a reminder that in certain corners of the publishing industry, there are presses shepherding the work of these writers into print and keeping it available until such time as the rest of us are able to take notice.
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced, offering up the customary shortlists of great fiction and nonfiction. In addition, the John Leonard Prize for best debut novel was awarded to Yaa Gyasi for Homegoing; the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing went to Michelle Dean (check out her 2016 Year in Reading); and Margaret Atwood took home the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.
The NBCC Award will be presented March 17 in a public ceremony.
Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Lisa Lucas and Imbolo Mbue on the book)
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive Idea of Racist History of Racist Ideas in America
Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right
Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (edited by our own Zoë Ruiz!)
John Edgar Wideman, Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is unique in that the longlist (or pool of nominees) is not created from submissions by publishers. Instead libraries throughout the world nominate books, resulting in a very long longlist that spans many countries. Eventually, the list is whittled way down to a shortlist by a panel of judges who then goes on to name a winner. Another result of the nominating process is that, by the time the award is handed out on June 14th, 2006, the winning book could be as much as two years old. Despite all this, a look at the past winners reveals an engaging and diverse batch of books. Still, perhaps this award could be better than it is. The Literary Saloon identifies some possible improvements, including a way to cut out the nationalism that pervades the longlist.
The Pulitzer jury named Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this year’s winner in the fiction category.
Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:
Winner: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Nguyen’s Year in Reading 2015)
Get in Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link (Memory is a Mysterious Machine: The Millions Interviews Kelly Link)
Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble
Winner: Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power
Winner: Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles
Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War by Brian Matthew Jordan
Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor by James M. Scott
Biography or Autobiography:
Winner: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles
The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander
Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
There’s a chance, albeit a small one, that I might be serving up catnip to identity thieves with the statement I’m about to make, but here goes: I used the title of an Alice Munro story as a password for many years. To be fair, I replaced a few letters with numbers and toyed around with the punctuation, but no matter the spelling, my password flashed my affinity with the nuance and subtlety of a storm warning. Were there to come a point when I needed to share my password, I wanted my imaginary confidante to gather its import in a second. Its namesake was so good it placed its author in a private Valhalla.
I bring this up in the wake of this year’s Nobel announcement partly to give context to my feelings about Munro’s victory. That day, like much of the lit world, I felt less joyful or giddy than satisfied with the meting out of justice. “Frigging finally,” I said out loud when I heard, drawing quizzical looks and bemused expressions from European colleagues in my office. Before the announcement, I’d placed Alice Munro’s hypothetical prize alongside those held by Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Mark Twain. As long as Alice Munro had yet to win the Nobel, a sane reader had no choice but to question the validity of the prize.
In part because of these doubts, abetted by Ladbrokes and other clairvoyants, I bet on Haruki Murakami right up until the announcement. I didn’t do this because I thought his work spoke better to the committee, nor did I believe he clearly deserved to win out. I made a wrongheaded bet due to longstanding, deeply-held cynicism about the good faith of the Swedish Academy. Put bluntly, I didn’t think they’d look beyond western Europe, and if they did, I figured they’d choose from a handful of well-trod countries (of which Japan is one). Instead they chose a writer from Canada, and because of that I’m hoping that 2013 marks a kind of threshold: the year in which the Nobel became a global prize.
Allegations of narrowness have dogged the committee since the prize’s early years. When Tolstoy and Chekhov were alive, many critics blamed historic Swedish antipathy towards Russia for the icing out of top candidates from one of the world’s largest countries. In 1997, when the prize went to Dario Fo, the committee explicitly did not pick Salman Rushdie because the choice would have been, quote, “too predictable, too popular.” More recently, in 2008, a committee member named Horace Engdahl sparked an international firestorm when he said that American writers were too insular to win the prize. On cue, Americans took the bait, as if out to prove a recent Ian Crouch quip that the fastest way to piss off an educated American is to claim that their nationality dooms them to being a rustic. With righteousness aplenty, many commentators echoed a point made by David Remnick: “None of [our great writers], old or young, seem ravaged by the horrors of Coca-Cola.”
I saw the fracas a bit differently than the writers I read. I’ve spent a good portion of my life in western Europe, and Engdahl’s comment struck me as no more than a tired rehashing of common European stereotypes. Unfortunately, the response by American writers did in fact affirm our insularity, as we made the cardinal mistake of assuming his statement was about us. To me, his real offense lay not in his comments about America (which were, for the most part, boilerplate) but in the statement that qualified his rant.
“There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world,” he said.
You can’t really understand his viewpoint without taking this into consideration. Engdahl isn’t making a judgment about the state of American literature. He isn’t reading Philip Roth and deciding there isn’t much there. He’s averring that European literature is superior, ipso facto, and that this superiority is unquestioned. His choice of adverb in saying that Europe is “still” the center of the literary world makes clear that he thinks European hegemony was never seriously challenged. I suspect a few billion South and East Asians might take issue with this, but Engdahl acted as though their objections hadn’t occurred to him. If anything, he came off as surprised by the backlash, as though in the circles he inhabits, non-European inferiority is so obvious that intellectuals like him can dismiss the rest of the world and get a chorus of agreement in response. Next to guys like Engdahl, as far as I can see, our writers are about as unworldly as the cast of Captain Planet.
So what? I hear you asking. What does any of this this have to do with Alice Munro? Simple: the abject condescension that oozes out of Engdahl’s response affects not just America but the whole world outside Western Europe. Engdahl’s view — that European literature is manifestly superior to non-European culture and always has been — rests on a number of assumptions familiar to American expats. Chief among them is an unstated conviction that great art requires a “culture” which, not coincidentally, must always be at least as old as those of Western Europe. (Unless their political regime is unacceptable, of course — witness the fact that China went without a prize for a century.) I’m reminded of an English friend who made a list of countries to visit, not a single one of which started out as a European colony. Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada — none of them struck her as interesting. But Japan? “The history!”
The record of the Nobel committee amplifies my friend’s disinterest. We’re living in 2013, and the fourth- and fifth-largest countries in the world, Indonesia and Brazil, have yet to win any prizes. Our fellow nations in North and South America have won a grand total of six prizes. Africa has four, two of which went to white writers of European descent. Asia has five. Both Asia and Africa have fewer total awards than Scandinavia. And let’s not forget the hilarious prize of 1912, when the Swedish Academy helpfully commemorated its own greatness by giving the career-making prize to one of its own members. Taken together, these facts reveal a manifest failure on the part of the committee members to give a fair shake to writers outside their own cultural context.
There is, however, one grand exception to this rule, one which shouldn’t be obscured by the aftertaste of Engdahl’s remarks. The United States has won eight more awards than any other country outside of Western Europe. Sinclair Lewis, the first American winner and a guy who slammed the U.S. in his acceptance speech, was also the second author outside of Western Europe to take home the prize in its first thirty years of existence. To look at a map of Nobel winners is to see that the committee splits the world into three factions: Western Europe, the United States and a nebulous Everybody Else.
American writers missed this in the hubbub of 2008. Our writers have won more than half as many Nobels as the entire rest of the world save Western Europe, and because of that it appears that Engdahl wasn’t so much putting America at a disadvantage as he was relieving us of a long-held privileged position. Our writers may kick and scream at the slight to their intelligence, but the truth is that for a very long time now, the Academy’s dismissal of much of the world has helped the American literary scene far more than it has hurt it. What it’s also done, sadly, is turn a prize that was meant to be global into a million-dollar transatlantic pissing match.
That’s why I hope a win for Canada augurs a long-term sea change. The Great White North’s long Nobel Prize drought put the lie to a popular theory that the Swedish Academy likes to punish America for its pop culture and military shenanigans. The home country of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and countless other great writers has a fraction of the moral and political messiness of the States, yet Engdahl and his committee never saw fit to recognize its writers until now. In Europe, it’s common to hear people refer to Canada as the new model North American country, a statement which (in the wake of the shutdown) has more than a few supporters in the States. If the model North American country had yet to win a prize, it stood to reason that something more than simple distaste for America undergirded Engdahl’s comment. Expats of all stripes hear versions of it constantly: the world outside Western Europe is culturally impoverished in comparison.
Engdahl is gone now. His successor was careful to walk back the clear-cut loathing of his predecessor. This year, the announcement spurred hopes of a more open mindset, not least in the prize motivations given by the Academy in its press release. Witness the difference between their motivations for giving the prize to Patrick White and giving it to Alice Munro. In 1973, they awarded White Australia’s first prize for a sublimely condescending reason, congratulating the Cambridge grad for his noblesse oblige in having “introduced a new continent into literature.” Aboriginal Australian culture has existed for millennia, and Europeans have lived there since at least the late 18th century, but it took the Nobel Prize, you see, for Australian writing to materialize. In contrast, the committee’s statement that Alice Munro is a “master of the contemporary short story” was simple, straightforward, and perfect. Unlike Patrick White, she didn’t get treated as an emissary from a cultural backwater. Instead the Academy treated her with the grace and dignity she deserves.
If this year’s prize is a sign, as I hope it is, that the Nobel committee is dispensing with its ugliest prejudice, American writers need to recognize Munro’s win for what it really is. It’s a win not just for a writer who eminently deserves it — it’s a win for writers the world over who’ve long had to deal with more substantial dismissals than we have. The Academy may finally be getting over its bone-deep Eurocentric prejudice, and if it is — and if American writers want to prove that we are not as insular as they say — we need to respond to its evolution with honest appreciation and gratitude.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2010 literary Prize season is officially underway. As is typically the case, the list offers a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and beloved standbys. The instant favorites to win for most readers will be David Mitchell, Peter Carey, and, though he is something of a newly minted literary superstar, Tom McCarthy. Several of the books named appeared on our “most anticipated” lists for the first and second halves of 2010.
All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (excerpt)
Room by Emma Donoghue (excerpt)
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore (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
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (excerpt)
February by Lisa Moore (excerpt)
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (excerpt)
Trespass by Rose Tremain (excerpt [scroll down])
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (excerpt)
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner