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Historical Fiction and the New Literary Taboo

There’s a moment in Shawna Yang Ryan’s soaring new novel, Green Island, where the narrator is about to break away from the life she’s always known; she will shortly be leaving Taiwan behind -- emigrating across the Pacific Ocean to California. Her father comes into her bedroom as she’s packing. He has a gift, of sorts, for her. He’s brought a jar of soil from the family garden. “I want you to remember.” He set the jar atop my heaped clothing. “Don’t forget.” Don’t forget. His words were both an order and a plea. It is February 1972. Richard Nixon is on his trip to China. Visiting Hangzhou, he’s completing the diplomatic mission that will open formal relations with the PRC. Taiwan, of course, watches with concern; China is a hostile power; with the recognition of the People’s Republic by the United States, Taiwan’s sovereignty might soon be at risk. These, then, are the twin concerns of Green Island: the political and the personal. Indeed, just a few pages earlier, Nixon’s visit has been relayed by the novel’s narrative voice: Nixon stands against a metal rail and tosses food into the water with concentration and joy. He drops into a grinning reverie as if he has forgotten the entire world is watching. “Dr. Kissinger,” the translator says, “you can have a package if you want to feed the fish.” “Denmark, Denmark,” says the Secret Service. “President feeding fish.” They stand here at this moment, three of them the most important people to the fate of Taiwan -- Richard Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger -- on an overcast day in Hangchow, feeding fish. Walter Benjamin wrote that it is, “more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.” And there are a number of novels, right now, that are balancing these antipodes -- that take significant, well-known historical moments, and show them through the lens of nearly powerless, "nameless" protagonists. Through individuals buffeted by the afflictions of their age. Of course, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See -- with over two million copies sold, in hardback -- is an example of this. Doerr’s novel follows two deeply-menaced protagonists -- Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig -- as they move within the world of German-occupied France. Though Werner has enlisted in the Nazi army, he has done it from necessity, and his efforts to retain his decency in the face of war, in a way, end up causing his death. Marie-Laure is blind; the conflict threatens her in a bodily way; she feels wholly apart from the big geopolitical forces that are -- with generalized malice -- trying to kill her. She is a suffering witness to history. Many of the successful literary novels of the past 30 years have negotiated a similar territory, pairing small characters and big circumstances. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Griet, the fictional household servant, and Johannes Vermeer), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (fictional Saleem Sinai, balanced against the political and social figures of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (W.P. Inman, the wounded Confederate deserter, and the army he’s just left), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (the fictional doctor Simon Jordan, and the 19th-century murderer Grace Marks) even Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Sethe and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), have all paired erstwhile anonymous, imaginary characters with unquestionably "real" circumstances. These books do not ignore history; they don’t neglect the geopolitical events that shape the societies in which their characters have "lived." Rather they thread their characters through these times, using the novel as an opportunity to show the impact of world-historical events on individual lives. In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke says that, “the pictures drawn in our mind are laid in fading colors.” The project of the historical novel, then, is fashioned as an assault on this very fade. We, as human beings, struggle to remember, to retain a sense of the past. It has -- surprise! surprise! -- passed. But by inserting ordinary people into its great events, novelists can once again vivify and free the emotions of departed times. In a way, this is a gesture of resurrection. The text as Lazarus, stumbling -- bandaged by covers -- out of its dark cave. If the struggle of man against power is, indeed, the struggle of memory against forgetting, then the historical novel is -- imaginatively, at least -- a part of that struggle. As for the marketplace -- its appetite for this type of book is not surprising. Since the early 1990s, when publishers started calling it “upmarket historical fiction,” many successful literary novels have been set in a time -- or place -- other than our contemporary world. But the willingness of literary tastemakers to accept a work of historical fiction as "important" does feel like something new. Whether it’s Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings -- or two of the most anticipated novels of 2016: Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest and Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story -- it feels like there is a vast new space opening up in the fiction world, one that has the potential for both critical acclaim and strong sales. Writing last month in The New Republic, the novelist Alexander Chee touched on some of these issues. Chee, of course, has just published the historical novel, The Queen of the Night -- a book that has, as its central axis, a fictional 19th-century coloratura soprano, Lillet Berne. The book has been well-received, with positive reviews in nearly every major periodical, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Weekend Edition, Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle. It also went through multiple printings before its publication. Still, Chee was worried about the reaction his fellow writers had whenever he told them he was working on a novel set in the past. Writing last month in The New Republic, Chee said that it was, “as if I’d announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo.” Yet both Alexander Chee and Shawna Yang Ryan took nearly 15 years to complete their novels. Labor on this scale is almost unthinkable. It is perhaps the exact antithesis of the genre model of fiction writing -- with the rapacious, regular demands of the marketplace. The bruising deadlines, the concept-driven, pre-packaged product. Clearly, these two historical novels -- with their robust intellectual projects, their deeply imagined settings -- are of a different order. The hours-per-page, per-sentence, per-word -- for both The Queen of the Night and Green Island -- would discourage any beginning novelist. In an interview with Slate, Chee said, “The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project.” Ryan’s experience was similar. “It kind of took over my life for the last decade and a half,” she said. Building her book’s foundation was an arduous process. In a conversation with The New York Times, she described the work of structuring the novel. Her dedication to craft -- and her ceaseless evaluation and reevaluation of the project’s success -- was built on a twinning of imagination and historical exploration. “I often thought of my research as similar to unraveling a sweater,” she said. “I’d tug at one thread, and a whole sleeve would come undone.”

A Year in Reading: Kate Harding

Nothing triggers my raging Impostor Syndrome quite like being asked to account for my year in reading by a fancy literary website. What did I read this year that was good -- both in the sense that I liked it, and the sense that I wouldn't be embarrassed to admit I liked it? Did I read anything good this year? Did I read anything at all? What is a book? I have receipts that prove I bought a lot of books this year, at least, so let's start with a sampling of 2015 purchases, separated according to my two main reasons for reading at the moment. 1. Because I'm Writing a Work of "Historiographic Metafiction" about 19th-Century Feminists, Plus a Critical Companion Piece, and if I Don't Screw It up, I'll Get a Ph.D. at the End of It A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction by Linda Hutcheon Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner Trial and Triumph by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Vol. II: Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866-1873 edited by Ann D. Gordon The Humbugs of the World by P.T. Barnum Twelve Causes of Dishonesty by Henry Ward Beecher Traps for the Young by Anthony Comstock The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson Alias GraceThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood Beloved by Toni Morrison Possession by A.S. Byatt Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter The Passion by Jeanette Winterson Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru 2. Because, Occasionally, I Stop Working on My Dissertation/Checking Twitter Long Enough to Read for Pleasure Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll The Round House by Louise Erdrich We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard Beck Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg The Sellout by Paul Beatty Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise Loving Day by Mat Johnson Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng The Grownup by Gillian Flynn Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton If I had actually read all those books, I would feel I'd made a respectable enough showing, but the ratio of books I buy to books I read all the way through has always been about 10 to one. I've dipped into most of them, and I can't imagine eventually finishing any of these books and being mortified that I once mentioned it near my own name in a post at a fancy literary website. But if I'm going to speak honestly about my year in reading -- beyond just submitting "the entire fucking internet, front to back, endlessly" -- then I should probably focus on books that I a) finished and b) remember well. Right? So I started thinking back month by month. In January, I spent my 40th birthday reading an ARC of Saint Mazie on the beach in Miami, falling in love with Jami Attenberg's brave, witty, sexy, generous, heartbreaking heroine. In February, I reread Possession for the first time since college in the '90s, marveling again at Byatt's erudition, ambition, and perfectly calibrated storytelling. In March, I read Petite Mort, shortly after meeting Bea Hitchman and hearing her read from this twisty, brainy thriller that made me care about early cinematic techniques nearly as much as the central characters. In May, my preorder of Loving Day arrived, and in June, so did Music for Wartime; Mat Johnson and Rebecca Makkai have become drop-everything authors for me in the last few years, the kind who irresistibly combine intellectual seriousness with a total lack of self-seriousness. In July, on a rocky Canadian beach, I read Luckiest Girl Alive, which I honestly don't remember much of now, but I remember enjoying it and thinking that, unlike Girl on the Train, it was not too unreasonably compared to Gone Girl. (Oh, right, I guess I also read Girl on the Train this year.) In August, my first solo book came out, and I started a tour that severely cut into my time for reading anything else, but I read a lot of fragments for school and blew through Step Aside, Pops in one highly satisfying hour. There were other books I finished in 2015 -- more keep coming back to me -- but those are the ones that came immediately to mind, a fact that now gives me pause (and should have much earlier). A large portion of my novel deals with the way white men in power play men of color and white women off against each other, encouraging us to fight each other for scraps, while even those are kept out of reach of women of color. It happened during the fight over the 15th Amendment, during the Civil Rights Movement, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, and it's been happening in the academy and the literary world ever since it occurred to folks in charge, about 15 minutes ago, that reading lists composed entirely of white men are perhaps too narrow in scope. As a 21st-century ranty feminist, I like to think I'm above all that, and yet there's my actual reading list from the past year: A bunch of white women, and one mixed-race man. As I write this, people who care about writing, literary gossip, and the publishing industry are all abuzz over Claire Vaye Watkins's essay "On Pandering," which has become a sort of Rorschach blot for everyone's writerly grievances. Me, I was so enraged by Stephen Elliott's behavior toward Watkins (and lack of shame in writing about it publicly), I blocked out nearly everything else she wrote. But other writers I admire, from The Toast's Nicole Chung to Booker winner Marlon James, swiftly noted that in addition to the white-guy pandering Watkins describes, there's a whole lot of pandering to white ladies going on in the book world. Do those of us sharing the post so widely and enthusiastically even realize that? Um. As I said to Nicole on Twitter, I came out of my M.F.A. program 10 years ago well over being impressed by the Serious White Men Everyone Loves -- I believe my exact words were "Fuck Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy" -- but all I did was sub in writers who look more like me. When I write a new syllabus, I told her, I always think of 40 white women I love right away, then have to cut most of them to add writers of color -- maybe even, when it's a slow misandry day, a couple of men. I do make a point of diversifying every syllabus beyond a token author or two, but why is that always Step Two? Because, although I buy work by writers of color, it seems I'm still far more likely to read and retain work by white women -- especially ones I know in real life. I knew I leaned that way, but I wouldn't have guessed the imbalance was so extreme before I sat down and took stock. (And that's without even counting my failed attempt to read Elena Ferrante because fancy literary people are so bonkers for her.) I can understand why it happens: books written by people similar to me absorb my attention most easily, and are thus the ones I resist countless distractions to finish. But a zillion years of white men feeling that way about books written by and for white men is, of course, how so many of us ended up feeling like they were the only audience worth writing for. It was bullshit when they did it, and it's bullshit I need to consciously interrupt in my 2016 reading. My account of next year's reading may not be any fancier than this, but it will probably be a lot more interesting. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? 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The Prizewinners 2008/2009

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P 4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N 4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon - C, N 4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - B, I 4, 2007, Animal's People by Indra Sinha - B, I 4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N 4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I 4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I 4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C 4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W 4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C 4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C 4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I 4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I 4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P 4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W 4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N 4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P 4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W 4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I 4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W 4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P 4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I 4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W 4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I 4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I 4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W 4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W 4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N 4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I 4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W

The Prizewinners Revisited

A while back, I put together a post called "The Prizewinners," which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the "best" books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original "Prizewinners" post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W

The Prizewinners

The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one's yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year's National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of "big name" literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I'd love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)
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