A couple of months ago I posted about the longlist for the Lettre Ulysses Award, a prize that is given to the best book-length reporting. They have since announced the winner and runners-up, and this year the award went to The People on the Street: A Writer’s View of Israel by Linda Grant. Her book is a ground level view of life in Israel, placing it in counterpoint to the scads of books that look at the region from 35,000 feet. In an excerpt, we read about the reaction on the street in Tel Aviv when people found out that Saddam had been captured.
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.
You may have heard. In a surprise upset, the Booker Prize was awarded to Alan Hollinghurst for Line of Beauty. Oddsmakers, literary professionals, and speculating bloggers all considered David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas to be a lock, but the Booker, as is so often the case, proved too wily to predict. The award will lead to many newspaper write-ups (NYT reg req'd), and a big boost in sales, although, from the looks of things, I would expect relatively modest Vernon God Little numbers rather than blockbuster best seller list Life of Pi numbers. With the Booker overwith, all eyes turn towards the National Book Awards, which will be announced on November 17th. A look at the non-fiction finalists.Bookspotting on the ElI meant to link to this post from Conversational Reading a while ago as it really captures the particular afflictions of many book lovers. His first question caught my eye: "Do you surreptitiously observe what people are reading on public transit?" Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I have the odd habit of posting about the books I spot people reading during the course of my day. (Bookspotting I call it.) Some might find this odd, but I think it's fascinating, and better than any newspaper article or bestseller list at seeing what books people are interested in. Sure you lots of people reading the bestsellers, but you also see a delightfully random sampling of the books that our fellow citizens bury their noses in each day. Some my find this to be an odd hobby, but I it manages to affirm my faith in civilization. Here are the three books that I noticed from my seat on the Red Line today: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Morrison is an essential of American lit), The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (I'd wager that this book has been a huge seller here in Chicago), and Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare (I love seeing people casually reading Shakespeare on their way to work).
The finalists for the annual NBCC award are now out. The fiction list pairs a couple of less buzzed about books with three that have already received either award love or copious amounts of ink in the book pages and on blogs. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is the only major award that pits American books against British ones.FictionVikram Chandra, Sacred Games (excerpt, Garth's review)Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao (excerpt, Edan's review)Hisham Matar, In The Country of Men (excerpt, Booker shortlisted)Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravediggers Daughter (excerpt)Marianne Wiggins, The Shadow Catcher (excerpt, a Millions most anticipated book)NonfictionPhilip Gura, American Transcendentalism (excerpt)Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848 (New Yorker review)Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (excerpt)Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA (excerpt, NBA Winner)Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (excerpt) For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, check out the NBCC's blog.
● ● ●
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.
● ● ●
The Booker longlist was announced yesterday. Going over the list, I noted that it didn't seem very multi-cultural. One of the interesting things about the Booker is that any author from the Commonwealth of Nations or from Ireland is eligible. This means that any of 54 countries might send a writer to Booker glory. This year, however, the judging committee is keeping things geographically constrained, with only three countries represented among the 13 finalists:England, 9 (Byatt, Foulds, Harvey, Lever, Mantel, Hall, Mawer, Scudamore, Waters)Ireland, 3 (O'Loughlin, Toibin, Trevor)South Africa, 1 (Coetzee)Moving on to less serious matters, the Booker betting odds are now out (and subject to change as punters put their money on the line). The bookmakers like Toibin and Waters to win, but James Lever is putting in an impressive showing with his mock memoir of a chimp.4/1 Colm Toibin - Brooklyn4/1 Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger5/1 Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall6/1 J.M. Coetzee - Summertime8/1 James Lever - Me Cheeta10/1 A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book12/1 William Trevor - Love and Summer14/1 Ed O'Loughlin - Not Untrue and Not Unkind14/1 Simon Mawer - The Glass Room16/1 James Scudamore - Heliopolis16/1 Adam Foulds - The Quickening Maze16/1 Sarah Hall - How to Paint a Dead Man16/1 Samantha Harvey - The Wilderness