John Henry Days

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Against Readability

In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.

I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)

“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.

It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.

It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.

What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.

Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

2016 National Book Award Winners Announced

The 2016 National Book Award winners were announced tonight in New York City. The big prize for Fiction went to Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how “Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display” throughout:

After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.

The Nonfiction award went to Ibram X. Kendi for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. The Poetry award was won by Daniel Borzutzky for The Performance of Becoming Human. The winners in the Young People’s Literature category were John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell for March: Book Three. See our review of Book One in the series.

 

Bonus Links: Earlier in the year we dove into both the Shortlist and the Longlist to share excerpts and reviews where available.

Scars That Never Fade: On Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’

1.
Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days opens with differing versions of the same story, told by witnesses and observers, all recounting John Henry’s famous battle with the steam-powered hammer. No story is the same. For men wagering on whether John Henry would defeat the machine, Whitehead writes, “[e]ach wager was a glimpse into the man who made it;” just the same, each story — the details remembered or who won the contest, for example — is a glimpse into the storyteller. The power of the folk hero, it becomes quickly evident, lies not in what actually happened; John Henry Days is not after the real story, but what it means that America keeps telling the story of the black steel-driving man.

With his new novel, Whitehead has picked another well-known story often retold: the secret transportation network of slaves before the Civil War. Frederick Douglass (who famously escaped via a literal railroad) and Harriet Jacobs both wrote popular accounts of their slavery. Slave escapes play a large part in the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, about the same time The Underground Railroad is set. Numerous accounts of slaves and escapes were later collected and preserved by the Works Progress Administration.

Whitehead has said that he relied upon many of these narratives, particularly the Works Progress Administration accounts, in writing The Underground Railroad, and many actual advertisements for catching runaway slaves preface the book’s chapters. But for this story — probably Whitehead’s finest — history is a stepping-stone.

2.
The Underground Railroad’s prologue summarizes the life of Ajarry. Kidnapped from her home, she is transported across the Atlantic. Standing naked on a platform, her breasts are pinched by an agent, who acquires her for $226.00. She’s eventually sold and re-sold, from southern plantation to plantation, bondage to bondage, price rising with each transaction, “appraised and re-appraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale.” She births five children, one of whom, Mabel, survives into adulthood, and has a child of her own, Cora. Ajarry dies in bondage, “[a]s if it could have been anywhere else.”

The bulk of the novel then follows Cora, Ajarry’s granddaughter, a slave by birth on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, owned by the (respectively) cruel and distracted Randall Brothers. Mabel escaped the plantation when Cora was 10 or 11, only leaving her daughter a three-yard plot of okra and yams. As a result, Cora grows up bitter at having been left behind. But she also emerges as clever and conscientious, someone who “cursed herself for her smallmindedness.”

From her early days she suffers greatly, including as a victim of gang rape by her fellow slaves. When she is approached by Caesar, another slave on the plantation, to escape, she is at first reluctant (channeling her grandmother), eventually willing (channeling her mother). During their escape, they spar with and kill a white boy who tries to return them to the plantation, and are relentlessly tracked by Ridgeway, a slavecatcher who had never been able to successfully apprehend Mabel. They flee through South Carolina and beyond. Either outcome seems possible: that Cora will die a slave in the “ruthless mechanism of the world,” like Ajarry, or experience the “eddy of liberation,” like her mother.

3.
By now, if you have read anything about this novel — perhaps that it was on President Obama’s Summer Reading List, or that it has been blessed by Oprah Winfrey, or that it has become a #1 New York Times Bestseller — you know its central conceit. For Cora’s escape, the Underground Railroad is an actual underground network of trains, schedules, handcars with pumps, and tunnels that gradually lead north. Some of the stations are elaborate constructions, with comfortable waiting areas and refreshments, and some are rundown holes with boxcars. The tunnels and conductors are under a repeat threat of discovery. For something fantastic (imagine the engineering feat), not a bit of it is lacking in verisimilitude; it possesses its own history and myth, spliced with just the right amount of mystery.

Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display here. After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.

The Underground Railroad is a more frank confrontation, albeit with a dose of magical realism. As he did in John Henry Days, Whitehead has taken something emblematic of a period in American history and pulled a nifty trick: he has made it simultaneously real and ahistorical. In The Intuitionist, Whitehead freely played with elevators, which obtained the weight of metaphor but not the heft of a symbol. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad. As Kathryn Schultz recently wrote, the story of the Underground Railroad that Americans know was “not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.” It assuages the national guilt; it reminds us of the noble struggle for freedom, and not the astounding moral failing that kept such an institution legal for more than a century. (In Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, slavery is often simply, and appropriately, talked of as “the law.”)

When, here, Whitehead revisits the greatest crime in American history, he thus also revisits its greatest attempt at commutation, the “mythologized” Underground Railroad, and all the compromises that made it necessary. As one character says, slavery produced “scars [that] will never fade.” America “[i]s a delusion, too, the grandest one of all,” built on “murder, theft and cruelty” — best personified by a slave boy on the Randall Plantation, who has been taught to memorize the Declaration of Independence but has no grasp of its meaning.

Toward the end of The Underground Railroad, Cora receives some advice. As she rides the railroad, she is instructed thusly: “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, there is nothing to see from an underground track — only the dim of the subterranean world. Whitehead’s book asks: How can a country ever put such a period behind it? Putting the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill won’t change the fact that American money was used to purchase people. “This isn’t Mississippi in the fifties, J.,” one character in John Henry Days tells the protagonist. “It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” J. answers.

4.
Besides the underground locomotives, Whitehead has sprinkled other touches of magical realism, or anachronisms, throughout this book, including ghosts, a skyscraper in 1850s South Carolina, and the Museum of Natural Wonders, which, among its exhibits, re-creates anodyne living dioramas of the human trafficking trade. For a time, Cora, believing she has found her freedom in South Carolina, works in the museum, participating in the slave ship display. She quickly finds out that, even in her freedom, “[t]ruth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” These purposefully absurd sections are perhaps the closest thing to Whitehead’s older work, and his jocular tone; the rest of The Underground Railroad, rather, is sober and measured. “[I]t is a serious subject that didn’t seem to warrant my usual satire and joking,” Whitehead told Vulture.

The ironies are cruel ones, taken from life: the doctors who sterilize black people in South Carolina, where Cora first emerges after her travel on the railroad, and justify the procedure to black women as “a chance for you to take control over your own destiny.” In a one-off chapter, a grave robber reflects on stealing black bodies for the medical schools, observing, based on the obviously identical anatomy between whites and blacks: “In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”

The plotting is deft and sure-handed. But the story slows for poignant moments, like Cora’s frisson when she finally puts on a soft cotton dress in South Carolina. There, she guiltily enjoys one of the keys product that drove the entire system of bondage.

The inventiveness that characterizes elements of his plot extends to his voice in this novel. In interviews he has said it emerged complete from just writing the first section on Ajarry, and the resulting omniscient narrator’s words prove lapidary, perhaps including some of the best writing Whitehead has done. The prose, in short, is spectacular. Few books have demanded so much tabbing, so many bookmarks, and so many marginal notes — so often do crystalline turns of phrase and aphorisms materialize. Take this: “Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Or this: “In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American.”

5.
The Underground Railroad is ultimately a story about a motherless girl searching for some kind of protection and love, but often finding only exploitation. It is ruthless in its depiction of the antebellum world, but threads of hope also emerge from the bravery of many characters, and from the feat of the railroad itself: “The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath,” the book goes.

As for Cora, as for America, the scars of slavery won’t fade:
Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible…[S]he realized she banished her mother not from sadness, but rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.
Even if she finds her way out of hell, it’s clear that freedom doesn’t mean heaven. “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” one character tells Cora. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”

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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