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.”
The IMPAC Award shortlist was announced last night. The IMPAC sets itself apart with its unique approach. Its massive longlist is compiled by libraries all over the world before being whittled down by judges. This makes for a more egalitarian selection. It’s also got a long lead time. Books up for the current prize (to be named June 11th) were all published in 2007, putting the IMPAC more than a year behind other big literary awards. There’s a distinct upside in this. By now, all the shortlisted books are available in paperback. We’ve also always found the IMPAC interesting for the breadth of books it considers.This year’s shortlist includes a couple well-known names and has a decidedly more American bent than is typical, with four out of the eight shortlisted writers hailing from the States.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (Díaz in our Year in Reading)Ravel by Jean Echenoz (at The Complete Review)The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (excerpt, at The Complete Review)The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland (excerpt)The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen (in the TLS)The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt (Leavitt in our Year in Reading)Animal’s People by Indra Sinha (excerpt)Man Gone Down by Micheal Thomas (excerpt)
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.
This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $500,000, “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:
If you weren’t already aware that The Wire was a special TV show, then perhaps its creator David Simon receiving a genius grant will persuade you. The show and its creator have already been written up and effusively praised by cultural arbiters like the New Yorker, the series has been analyzed in academic journals, and the travails of McNulty, Bunk, Omar and the rest are now the subject of numerous college courses, so the conferring of geniusness on this particular corner of the small screen should really come as no surprise, a final confirmation of The Wire’s unique contribution to the medium and to the culture at large. We include Simon in the “literary” camp of the latest crop of geniuses because he and his show have been of enduring interest to the literary set (for example). Simon’s credits also include Homicide: Life on the Streets and his new series Treme.
Yiyun Li has been having a good year. First she was named to the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list, and now she has joined some very esteemed company (Deborah Eisenberg, Aleksandar Hemon, Edward P. Jones, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Powers, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, etc.) among the few dozen literary writers who have been honored by the MacArthur Foundation over the years. Li’s stories are typically set in her native China and she wields a darkness and weightiness of tone that she has used to carve out a place for herself among the broader community of first generation immigrant writers. Her debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers came out in 2005, followed by a novel, The Vagrants, and then another collection of stories this fall, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Li participated in our “Best of the Millennium” series last year, and wrote up Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses for us.
Historian Annette Gordon-Reed deserves much of the credit for our reconsideration of Thomas Jefferson over the last two decades, particularly his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and the overall implications of slave ownership among the country’s founding fathers. The Harvard law professor’s books on the topic include Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The latter book won Gordon-Reed the National Book Award in 2008.
Although an expanded total of seven books made the shortlist for this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, the biggest news was probably one that didn’t: Haruki Marukami’s super-hyped but critically divisive 1Q84. Instead, Japan is represented on the shortlist by the much slimmer form of Banana Yoshimoto’s twelfth novel, The Lake.
The Wandering Falcon, written by octogenarian Jamil Ahmad, is the first Pakistani novel to be nominated, while other shortlisted subjects include a vivid history of Guyanese coolies, inter-generational conflict in South Korea, a seafaring epic in nineteenth century Canton, a Chinese blood-selling scandal, and arranged marriage in modern India. It’s a broad, engaging list, and probably all the better for not being dominated by such a powerful figure as Marukami. Here are the contenders that are still left standing:
The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad: Ahmad, now almost eighty, spent much of his life working for the Pakistani Civil Service in its remote border regions: no-go zones that flash up on Western news reports as Taliban hidey-holes or the destination de rigeur of unmanned drones. The Wandering Falcon focuses on the tribes of those areas, casting overdue light on their deeply religious and honor-bound societies. Ahmad’s era may be pre-Taliban – he wrote the book thirty years ago, before being persuaded to seek publication by his wife – but his fractured tales, loosely based around the wanderings of Tor Baz, the eponymous Black Falcon, indicate a resistance to outside interference which would escalate in decades ahead. A masterpiece of focus and brevity, and brilliant in its evocation of an unforgiving landscape, Ahmad’s book is also now – for a book that came out thirty years late – remarkably timely.
The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya: Bhattacharya won high praise for his book on Pakistani cricket, Pundits From Pakistan, which was published in 2005. Sly Company is a partly autobiographical picaresque of one young man’s journeys in Guyana, a nation with which the author fell in love during a previous cricket tour. Bhattcharya’s central character is retracing the steps of the boatloads who set sail from Calcutta and Madras in the mid-nineteenth century, lured by tales of a land of gold. The descendants of those so-called coolies as well as the emancipated slaves from Africa have created a unique, tempestuous nation which Bhattacharya succintly captures with his convincing – but at times almost impenetrable – mix of Rasta patois and Hindi movie references. Aiming only for a kind of inner fulfilment, his character hunts diamonds in the country’s thick, dark interior, then falls in love and heads for Venezuela. His adventures are underpinned by constant reminders of Guyana’s colonial past, and the heavy price it still pays for it.
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh: River Of Smoke is the second novel in Ghosh’s planned trilogy, the first of which, Sea Of Poppies, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008. It’s an epic by any standards: 517 paperback pages, describing the early skirmishes which would ultimately lead to the 1840 Opium Wars, the Treaty of Nanking, and the secession of Hong Kong to British rule. Bahram, a Parsi trader from Bombay, seeks to land the enormous haul which will finally buy him the respect of his rich wife’s family back home. But the Chinese are determined to make trading in opium illegal, and as their crackdown becomes more unforgiving, so Bahram and the brigade of British merchants in whose company he has become inveigled must consider increasingly drastic options. It’s all a bit bogged down by an unnecessary sub-plot that is likely left over from his previous book. That said, Ghosh has written a story of such a grand scale that it deserves its opportunity to stand alone.
Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua: Rebirth is the only book on the shortlist for which overseas rights are yet to be granted. For that reason, if you manage to track down this book outside India, you’re a better literary detective than I. All of which is a shame, because reviews on the sub-continent suggest it is a delicate, deeply affecting novel deserving of wider readership. Set in modern-day Bangalore, Kaberi is pregnant with a longed-for child nobody else knows about: neither her estranged, unfaithful husband, nor her parents or friends. Rebirth takes the form of a monologue from mother to baby in which she expresses her doubts about her marriage and her life, and ultimately seeks, and finds, some form of redemption. In time, it’s likely its shortlisting will open it up to a bigger readership; for the time being, the next best thing is probably this comprehensive review via The Hindu Literary Review.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-Sook Shin is something of a literary phenomenon in South Korea. Please Look After Mom (Mother outside the US) is her seventh novel, and it has sold in excess of one million copies in her homeland. Maybe the most remarkable thing about her latest offering is how she manages to fashion something so unique and soul-searching out so ordinary a conceit. So-nyo, an ailing wife and mother, disappears on the Seoul subway on a trip from the country to visit her eldest son. Her siblings and their father join together in a futile quest to find her. In the course of their search – split between the points of view of son, daughter, father and finally, So-nyo herself – they agonise over how they took her for granted, and in doing so raise the kinds of questions that can apply to us all. Most of all, it offers rare glimpses of life in rural South Korea, and asks whether the nation’s insatiable push for progress has come at a price.
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto: She’s big in Japan, inspiring a cult following and selling upwards of six million novels, but Banana Yoshimoto will always polarise opinion. Critics may be tempted to call her Murakami-lite, given her fondness for the same kind of broad subjects as her heavyweight compatriot – ultra-modern and slightly otherworldy paeans to urban restlessness. But that comparison probably doesn’t do Yoshimoto too much justice. Certainly, Murakami could learn from her brevity. The Lake revolves around the relationship between two fragile students, Chihiro and Nakajima. Nakajima bears the scars of a terrible past, and the plot – such as it is – concerns Chihiro’s attempts to figure him out (complete with a visit to a couple of Nakajima’s mysterious old friends who live in a run-down shack by the side of a conveniently misty lake). It has its moments, and her champions – of whom there are many – will doubtless shout her claims from the rooftops. But if this was the best book to come out of Asia this year then I’m – well – a Banana.
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke: Set in modern, rural China, Dream Of Ding Village addresses a topic of unimaginable grimmness: the story of the Chinese blood-selling scandal which swept an HIV epidemic through countless small communities, while the authorities, in thrall to the relatively new concept of controlled capitalism, looked away. The most extraordinary thing about Lianke’s tale – narrated by the murdered son of the man most culpable for this local tragedy – is his rich use of satire, creating an astonishing allegory of the whole bust-up Chinese communist machine and its clumsy lurch into the free market. With the villagers dying in scores, the rabidly profiteering blood-sellers must seek out ever more inventive ways to maintain their cash flow. Blackmail and corruption are rife: this is a society rendered hopelessly naïve by long years of bludgeoning single-party rule. Lianke is merciless in heaping the misery upon his subjects, and just as cutting in his implied criticism of his country. This is, no doubt, a terribly bleak book. In Lianke’s expert hands, however, it is also a very readable and eminently worthy one.
The International DUBLIN Literary Award (formerly known as the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award) is the world’s most valuable annual literary award for a single work of fiction published in English, clocking in at €100,000. Now in its 22nd year, the award is sponsored by the Dublin City Council and managed by the city’s libraries. This year’s titles were nominated by public libraries in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Sweden and the USA, according to the award’s website.
The shortlisted titles are:
A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Prophets of Eternal Fjord by Kim Leine, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
For those who missed it, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder faced Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in the final. The winner was crowned here. If you’ve got a little time to spare, I encourage you to read all of the judge’s decisions and the accompanying “booth” commentaries from Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, as I found them to be quite entertaining. Incidentally, I would have liked to have seen Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, and/or Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, if only to read more people’s thoughts on them, but it’s hard to complain about such a fun enterprise.Bonus Links:Andrew’s review of Remainder.Junot Diaz participates in our Year in Reading.Joshua Ferris participates in our Year in Reading.Garth’s review of Tree of SmokeGarth on Bolano