Ah, well. De gustibus non est disputandum.
Some of you may recall that the 2004 National Book Award caused quite a stir in newspaper book pages as well as on lit blogs last fall. The judges were decried by some for picking five finalists whose similarities – that all five of them were women hailing from NYC – were hard to ignore, and whose lack of name recognition left many perplexed. Others applauded the judges for making a statement, whether they meant to or not, that a lot of good, award-worthy fiction is not getting the recognition it deserves.With the announcement of the Pulitzer winner on Monday, the four major American fiction prizes (the other two are the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the PEN/Faulkner) have been awarded for 2004 and it’s possible to put the controversial NBA picks in perspective. For starters, I think it’s quite interesting that not a single NBA finalist was recognized by any of the other prizes. It’s possible that there was a backlash against the NBA finalists, but it’s more likely that this year the NBA judges simply took a different course than the rest of the literary establishment.I was especially surprised to discover that Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer and NBCC Awards and finalist for the PEN/Faulkner was in fact eligible for the NBA this year, yet was not deemed worthy of even a finalist spot for that award. Now that all the votes have been tallied, it’s clear that the National Book Award judges tried to go in a different direction this year, and no one else followed.
Two of the four Americans on the Booker Longlist made it through to the Shortlist, Joshua Ferris and Karen Joy Fowler. They are joined by past winner Howard Jacobson, Australian Richard Flanagan, Indian Neel Mukherjee, and Ali Smith, who has landed on her third shortlist, a fact that may make her the favorite at this point. Big names like David Mitchell and Richard Powers failed to make the cut.
All the Booker Prize shortlisters are below (with bonus links where available):
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (excerpt, Ferris’s Year in Reading 2009)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Khaled Hosseini on Karen Joy Fowler)
J by Howard Jacobson
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith)
The nominees for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner fiction award have been announced. The books in the running are Millions Hall of Famer A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Egan profiled at The Millions); The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (Eisenberg profiled at The Millions); National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon; Model Home by Eric Puchner (one of our “20 More Under 40“); and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson (Brad Watson’s Year in Reading 2009).
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.
Tomas Transtromer, the 80-year-old poet, became the first Swedish laureate since 1974. The Nobel committee gave Transtromer the award “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” He is the first poet to take the $1.5 million prize since Polish poet Wisława Szymborska in 1996. The Associated Press called Transtromer a “perennial favorite,” and indeed he has ranked high in the betting odds in each of the last several years. The AP also noted that Transtromer suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him half-paralyzed but that he has continued to write. A number of collections of his poetry have been published in translation. Here are a few:
Bonus Link: Solitude (I) by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Robertson