By now you’ve read the result, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy edged out Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge to win The Tournament of Books. Now, if I were a betting man, and it were possible to bet on the Pulitzer winner, I’d bet on A Mercy. Why? The Tournament of Books has called the Pulitzer winner the last two years running. In 2008, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took home the Pulitzer on the heels of the Rooster. And in 2007, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road saw its Pulitzer win presaged by not just a Rooster, but also its unlikely companion, an Oprah’s book club pick. On April 20th, we’ll see if the Rooster still has the jump on America’s oldest literary prize.
Perhaps the world’s most jawed about literary prize has released its 2007 longlist. It features one legitimate heavyweight (who is currently the favorite in the betting parlors) and a few other familiar names. All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):Darkmans by Nicola BarkerSelf Help by Edward Docx (excerpt)The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng (excerpt)The Gathering by Anne EnrightThe Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (excerpt)The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (excerpt)Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones (excerpt)Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (excerpt)On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (excerpt)What Was Lost by Catherine O’FlynnConsolation by Michael Redhill (excerpt)Animal’s People by Indra SinhaWinnie & Wolf by A.N.Wilson
I’m back from Vegas just in time for the announcement of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize. Here are the winners and finalists in all of the book categories:NOVELThe Known World by Edward P. Jones Winner!American Woman by Susan ChoiEvidence of Things Unseen by Marianne WigginsDRAMA: I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright Winner!Man from Nebraska by Tracy LettsOmnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-VassilarosHISTORY: A Nation under Our Feet : Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn Winner!They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace Vietnam and America October 1967 by David MaranissGreat Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel OkrentBIOGRAPHY OR AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Khrushchev: The Man and his Era by William Taubman Winner!Isaac Newton by James GleickArshile Gorky: His Life and Work by Hayden HerreraPOETRY: Walking to Martha’s Vineyard by Franz Wright Winner!Middle Earth by Henri ColeEyeshot by Heather McHughGENERAL NON-FICTION: Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum Winner!Rembrandt’s Jews by Steven NadlerThe Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military by Dana PriestI have to commend the Pulitzer committee; they really got it right this time. I actually started reading The Known World today because it’s the selection for my book club. I’ll be able to add my two cents at the end of the week, but based on the lavish praise this book received from critics and readers, there’s no doubt it was deserving. Also, the more I hear about Jones, the more I like him. Check out this excerpt from an AP story announcing his victory:The Pulitzer was a shot of energy on an otherwise down day for Jones, author of a previous book, the acclaimed story collection “Lost in the City.” He was feeling so ill Monday he didn’t bother at first to answer his phone. He also was in the middle of moving from his longtime home in Arlington, Va., because of noisy upstairs neighbors.”This (award) should give me strength to finish up tomorrow,” said Jones, who next week expects to move into Washington, D.CI think it’s a particularly writerly trait to be distracted from the demands of the outside world by your inner concerns. As for the other winners, I was thrilled to see Anne Applebaum lauded for her truly astonishing book, Gulag. I’m glad that the Pulitzer did not stick to its bias of rewarding books with American themes in selecting a book that is of universal importance and that greatly expands our knowledge and understanding of what was until now a hidden part of 20th century history. For similar reasons, I was also happy to see Taubman’s biography of Khrushchev get the prize. Daniel Okrent, another favorite author of mine, was named a finalist, as well. All in all, I have no complaints.
Well-known, established writer (and now four-time shortlister) Julian Barnes is likely the early favorite on the 2011 Booker shortlist, while Stephen Kelman and A.D. Miller make the list with their first novels. Alan Hollinghurst is probably the biggest surprise not to make it through to the next round. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we’ll offer the same with the shortlist below.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (excerpt)
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (excerpt)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (excerpt)
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (excerpt)
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Staff Pick)
Let us know if you’ve read any of these – and if you think any deserve to win.
For my money, Domingo Martinez was the coolest person in the house. And that’s saying something because the house — a cavernous marble ballroom on Wall Street, site of Wednesday evening’s National Book Awards ceremony — was full of very cool people, including Elmore Leonard, Martin Amis, Terry Gross, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, and Dave Eggers.
But they’re household names to book lovers. They were supposed to be in the house. Domingo Martinez was not. This year, in an effort to blunt criticism that the awards were being watered down by a tendency to honor obscure authors of obscure books, the National Book Foundation told judges not to be shy about nominating popular books by well-known authors. The judges complied magnificently. The fiction finalists were four big names — Eggers, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, and Ben Fountain — plus first-time novelist Kevin Powers.
Same for the non-fiction category. Four of the finalists — Robert Caro, Katherine Boo, Anthony Shadid, and Anne Applebaum — had won at least one Pulitzer Prize apiece, and each had worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post, or Newsday. The fifth finalist was unknown Domingo Martinez, a first-time author who wrote a blistering memoir about growing up in Brownsville, Tex., called The Boy Kings of Texas.
As the cocktail hour wound down on Wednesday evening and guests began taking their seats for the $1,000-a-plate dinner, I spotted a rotund, merry-looking guy in a corner of the ballroom, regaling a small crowd with a story. It was Domingo Martinez. His agent, Alice Martell, was standing nearby, and she told me that the manuscript to Boy Kings had come to her unsolicited and, against some seriously long odds, it jumped out of the slush pile and grabbed her by the throat and wouldn’t let her go. “This almost never happens,” said Martell, who represented Carlos Eire, whose memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2003. “I only work with authors I like,” Martell said, “and Domingo’s a doll.”Non-fiction finalist Domingo Martinez, fueled by ginger ale, telling a story.
He finished telling his story, one hand chopping the air for emphasis, the other wrapped around a wine glass full of…
“What are you drinking?” I asked.
“Ginger ale,” Martinez replied.
“But there’s an open bar!”
“I know, but I don’t like to drink alcohol before I read.” He made a squinting face. “You know, it can make the words run together.”
This was astonishing, and beautiful. Martinez was not one of those dewy-eyed longshots you always see on the Oscars show, those first-time nominees who gush about what an honor it was just to get nominated and get a chance to wear an ugly dress and share Meryl Streep’s oxygen, blahblahblah. Screw that. Despite the long odds against him — a rough childhood in a border town, a manuscript that got plucked from the slush pile, some ridiculously stiff competition for a major literary award — Martinez had prepared an acceptance speech. And he wanted to be silver-tongued and alert when it came time to deliver it during the awards ceremony after dinner.
Domingo Martinez didn’t come to New York just wanting and hoping to win a National Book Award. He had come here prepared to win. Like I said, the coolest guy in the house.
It didn’t happen, of course. The non-fiction prize went to Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, currently a staff writer at The New Yorker, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” grant. Not what you would call a dark horse.
The next day Martinez, the longest of the night’s longshots, wasn’t answering his telephone. Was he disappointed?
“Anybody would be disappointed,” Martell said. “Win or lose, in the aftermath of these things there’s a certain exhaustion. You suddenly hit a wall. Domingo hit a wall.”
It’s a safe bet that the people who run the National Book Foundation were not disappointed by Boo’s victory, or by the renowned Louise Erdrich’s in the fiction category. Overall, it was a good night for boldface names. Venerable, indefatigable Elmore Leonard was handed a medal by Brooklyn’s highest profile new resident, Martin Amis. Though teen-actress-turned-author Molly Ringwald failed to show, many other literary stars came out. The known trumped the unknown, which may be just what the doctor ordered for a foundation worried about becoming irrelevant in an industry that’s facing terrifying challenges.Stephen King talks to a fan, the German filmmaker Marianne Schaefer.
I’ve never been a big fan of prizes for artistic achievement, but seeing the Domingo Martinez story unfold this year gave me a new appreciation for the argument that anything that sells books in these dire times is a good thing. Martinez’s career got a to-die-for jump start. What’s wrong with that?
“Books, obviously, are not the same as other commodities,” Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, acknowledged in a telephone interview before the awards ceremony. “Competition between artworks is not accepted universally, and you can’t judge artworks the same way you judge consumer goods. But the National Book Award gives people the opportunity to disagree. It opens the conversation, which is a good thing. Literature should be discussed. In talking about books, we come to understand them better.”
Fine. But please, in your effort to become more mainstream, don’t get rid of all the longshots. They’re the real stars of any awards ceremony.
Also, check out The Millions’s recap and related coverage of this year’s National Book Award winners.
After a decidedly quiet run up to this year’s National Book Awards, the winners have been announced. William T. Vollmann, known, it seems, more for his graphomania than any of his books in particular, has won for his novel, Europe Central. Back in April, when the book came out, Tom LeClair in the New York Times called Europe Central Vollmann’s “most welcoming work, possibly his best book.” In the next sentence, LeClair calls Vollmann “an off-putting writer, sometimes intentionally so,” and perhaps the judges figured now, when Vollmann has written a more accessible (or shorter, though only for Vollmann could 832 pages be considered short) book, is the time to give him the plaudits he deserves.The non-fiction award went, unsurprisingly, to Joan Didion for her heart-wrenching and much praised memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, The Year of Magical Thinking. In the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley called it “a lacerating yet peculiarly stirring book.”The other winners are: for poetry, Migration by W.S. Merwin and for young people’s literature, The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. You can see all the Finalists listed here.
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 2014 National Book Award winners were announced tonight in New York City. The big prize for Fiction went to Redeployment by Phil Klay, whose stories of Iraq and Afghanistan have help lead a wave of fiction reckoning with a over a decade of war in the Middle East and America’s involvement in it.
The Nonfiction award went to Evan Osnos for his exploration of today’s China, Age of Ambition. We took a look at the nonfiction longlist last month and wondered why nonfiction – the sort that seems to win prizes – tends to be so male dominated.
The Poetry award was won by Louise Glück for Faithful and Virtuous Night. In 2013, we wrote about Glück’s “words and wisdom.” The winner in the Young People’s Literature category was Jacqueline Woodson for Brown Girl Dreaming.