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.
Don’t miss out on the start of the 2009 Tournament of Books, perhaps the highlight of the competitive reading circuit. As might be expected, 2666 easily vanquishes its underdog opponent, Steer Toward Rock, though the color commentary suggests perhaps that not everyone will be so enamored with Bolaño’s masterpiece. (And indeed, I suggest that anyone reading the ToB this year be sure to read Kevin Guilfoile’s and John Warner’s commentary as well. It is equal parts amusing and insightful.)Stay tuned for my own ToB judging appearance once the Tournament hits the second round.
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.
Some of the biggest names in literature got the nod from the Booker judges for this year’s shortlist including J.M. Coetzee, A.S. Byatt, and Hilary Mantel. Co-favorite of the oddsmakers, Sarah Waters, made the cut, while the other favorite, Colm Toibin did not. The longlist was offered here with some excerpts less than a month ago, but since you might not have gotten around to them then, we’ll offer the same with the shortlist below.
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
Summertime by J.M Coetzee (excerpt)
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (excerpt)
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (excerpt pdf)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (excerpt pdf)
There are tons of literary awards out there, but last year I discovered one that caught my interest because of its international and journalistic focus. The Lettre Ulysses Award celebrates book-length reporting, and does not limit its scope to any single language or geographic area. The result is that a richly varied list of books is considered. Last year’s award went to Alexandra Fuller for her account of her travels with a white, African mercenary, Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier. This year’s longlist is out and once again it’s very eclectic:Die Hundeesser von Svinia (The Dog Eaters of Svinia) by Karl-Markus Gauss (Austria)The People on the Street by Linda Grant (Great Britain)Der Smaragdkonig. Victor Carranza und das grune Gold der Anden (The Emerald Czar: Victor Carranza and the Green Gold of the Andes) by Jeanette Erazo HeufelderThe Deurbanization of Lvov & A Week in Kishinev, part of a series of texts on the decline of post-Soviet cities by Igor Klekh (Russia)Pais de plomo. Cronicas de guerra (Country of Bullets. War Diaries) by Juanita Leon (Colombia)The Story of “Freezing Point” by Li Datong (China)Operacao Araguaia: os arquivos secretos da Guerrilha (Operation Araguaia: The Secret Archives of a Guerrilla War) by Tais Morais & Eumano Silva (Brazil)Voyage aux pays du coton. Petit precis de mondialisation (Journey to the Lands of Cotton: A Brief Manual of Globalisation) by Erik Orsenna (France)The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer (USA)Beirut shi mahal: an Egyptian in Lebanon by Youssef Rakha (Egypt)Chasing the Monk’s Shadow: A Journey in the Footsteps of Xuanzang by Mishi Saran (India)An Iraqi in Paris by Samuel Shimon (Iraq)Biz Burada Devrim Yapiyoruz Sinyorita (We are Making a Revolution Here, Signorita) by Ece Temelkuran (Turkey)Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy by Manjushree Thapa (Nepal)Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu by Yaroslav Trofimov (Ukraine)The Long MarchGenius loci by Peter Vail (Russia)Cosecha de mujeres: Safari en el desierto mexicano (Harvest of Woman. Safari in the Mexican Desert) by Diana Washington Valdez (Mexico/USA)’What Kind of God’: A Survey of the Current Safety of China’s Food by Zhou Qing (China)