Stoner by John Williams is not about a dude who smokes blunts all day. It’s about a man named William Stoner, and the book tells his life story in a mere 278 pages. The prose is unadorned and crisp, and it captures the true essence of its protagonist, a man who grew up on a farm, and then studied, and went onto teach, English literature at the University of Missouri. In other words, a person who isn’t particularly noteworthy in the broader scheme of things. This is a heartbreaking and beautiful novel, one of the best I have ever read, or will have the privilege to read, in my life.
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon deserves all the praise it’s getting–and then some. It masterfully interweaves three storylines (all of them compelling), and its characters, lost and alienated from the world and themselves, are rendered with insight and compassion. I won’t soon forget the image of the severed hand in the cooler, or the eerie lighthouse motel, or the magic supply shop on some forgotten Cleveland street. This novel made me want to use exclamation points, and watch scary movies, and read Shirley Jackson, and throw my computer out the window with a paranoid shriek. Such a fun read.
Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson: What a wit Antonya Nelson wields, and what sharp observations! I absolutely adored this collection of stories about fucked-up people and their bad choices, their sad aftermaths. I loved how she compressed time, and how, with a single phrase, I understood a moment for all of its awkwardness, anxiety, hope, and honesty. I want Ms. Nelson to come over my house, share a vat of pasta, and tell me some more stories.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: These two books, however different, will forever be paired in my mind. I read them fairly close together, and in both, the prose stunned me. I read significant portions of each out loud, lying across my couch, or sitting up in bed, or pacing from room to room. I did this mostly because I was trying to understand Woolf and Morrison’s books better, but also because their prose is so beautiful and intricate, that it deserves to be recited as poetry. I feel grateful to have been let inside of their worlds—that syntax, those sounds. They made my year all the richer.
I originally thought I wouldn’t write about the Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009, a list that quickly became infamous not for who’s on it, but who isn’t. Namely: women. I noticed the absence immediately, but I was more puzzled than troubled. Come on, PW, have you not read Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson? This year, readers and critics have gone gaga for lady authors, from Hillary Mantel to Jayne Anne Phillips, and so it was strange that none would be included on the list. It didn’t seem like these editors would have to consciously choose a woman–it would just happen, like breathing. Perhaps I’m naive, or I just like lady authors too much.
I was happy to see Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and Big Machine by Victor LaValle included, two novels I liked a lot and have championed here on The Millions. But, I also felt sad for these two wonderful writers: would they want to be associated with this list? Chaon and LaValle certainly deserve our attention, but the kind of attention they got from PW, I fear, is a reminder that they use the men’s room. See, that’s what’s happened: the maleness of the list is all people can talk about. A cynical part of me wonders if Publishers Weekly went with these picks precisely because of the outrage they were sure would follow. Nothing increases visibility–and web traffic–like outrage.
Lizzie Skurnick’s take on the list is compelling and worth a read; she writes about the topic with both perspicacity and good humor, and she (rightfully, I think) suggests that the term “ambitious”– as it’s defined by critics and prize judges–is questionable, partially because it is gendered. Like Skurnick, I also don’t find the list of notable books by women on the Women in Literature and Literary Arts (WILLA) website all that helpful, either. The wiki nature of the list means that the only requirement to get on this list is that you don’t use the men’s room. You see, women write good books, and they also write very bad ones. One’s gender, like one’s ethnicity, isn’t a sign of your literary merit or lack thereof. And anyway, ladies don’t really need this list. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves. After all, women read more than men, and women writers sell more books than male writers. And we do win prizes. Don’t forget that this year’s Nobel prize winner for literature was female, and that Elizabeth Strout won the Pultizer. In 2004, all of the National Book Award nominees for fiction were female. I remember my annoyance at how much gender was discussed that year. “What about the books themselves?” I kept crying. But, look at me now, lamenting that only sausages got invited to the Top 10 Publishers Weekly party.
My double standard, I suppose, comes from the fact that there’s a long and undeniable history of women not getting critical recognition for their writing. I read nearly equal numbers of male and female writers (I keep a record. Seriously.) but I’ve met numerous male readers (many of them booksellers), who rarely, if ever, read books by women. This argument also extends to work by writers of color. Books by white men are considered universal, while books by women, or people of color, aren’t. A male author wins a prize because he deserves it. A Latina woman wins a literary prize because, well… there was pressure… it was time. That’s a dangerous and unfair line of reasoning, for it undercuts the talent and accomplishment of these writers.
Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer for The Known World, not because he’s a black dude, but because he wrote an exceptional, brilliant novel. Yes, by giving Jones the prize, the Pulitzer committee championed and validated a narrative about African-Americans, by an African-American, and that is significant. But the writer’s race was not the reason he won the prize.
Which brings me to why I’m writing about this when I figured I wouldn’t. Last week, the National Book Award winners were announced, and all of them were white men. You might expect me to be upset by this, but I wasn’t. A few people I follow on Twitter were, however, and on her blog, author Tayari Jones wrote a genuine and heartfelt reaction to the awards (she attended the ceremony): “I will admit that I don’t know what to make of it. I know how it felt to be a woman writer of color that evening. I had a number of weirdly marginalizing personal encounters that evening. I arrived in high spirits and left feeling a bit deflated.” This reaction makes a lot of sense to me, and I respect it. But it also must be acknowledged that the judging process was fair–or as fair as can be (Jones does acknowledge this in her post).
The judges for each genre–fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature–don’t talk to one another. That is, if the fiction judges choose a white male writer to win, they don’t know that the nonfiction judges have as well. Furthermore, the list of nominated books was varied and interesting, and the judges were diverse. (Quite frankly, I’d read anything deemed the best by fiction committee Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Charles Johnson, Lydia Millet and Alan Cheuse.) So I’m all right with the results this year, as discomfiting as they might have been, coming on the heels of that terrible PW list. (And, perhaps it’s worth reiterating: do we even need the prizes? Do we need to “put a ring on it” so to speak?)
I’m most weary of lamenting this year’s National Book Award winners because it sets up an expectation for next year’s winners to be chosen on the basis of something other than literary merit. And if a woman and/or person of color wins the award, the last thing I want to hear is, “Oh, the judges felt pressure,” or, “It was time…” That kind of discourse is insidious.
In a dream world, the winners and best-of lists would always be diverse and surprising, and equality would just happen because people read widely, without any ingrained, problematic notions of what’s universal or ambitious or important. Now, the question is: how can we make that a reality?
On Wednesday, the Aloud Series at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles hosted writers Antonya Nelson and Marisa Silver in conversation with Bernadette Murphy. The topic was “The Domestic Drama: Novel Form or Formula?” and, after short readings by Nelson and Silver, the conversation began. Why are we, as American writers, so preoccupied with familial dysfunction?Antonya Nelson called our fascination with stories about family a quintessentially American preoccupation. Family, she said, “is where a lot of our personal battles are lodged,” but that those battles, no matter how small and personal, are also political. Marisa Silver agreed. Silver also argued that stories about family provide a “dramatic rubric”; that is, narratives of family are imbued with desire, conflict, and even, say, an enemy. Later on in the talk, Bernadette Murphy mentioned a lecture at Antioch University given by Dorothy Allison, where Allison argued that all good literature has home at its center. Nelson agreed, saying that family is our most powerful institution, and that the home is the most powerful setting for it. She discussed her most recent novel, Living to Tell, in which her main character, after paying his dues to society (in prison), must return to his family to pay an entirely different penance – and perhaps a more meaningful one. (This discussion of home reminded me of Alice Munro, who has described her short fiction – and I’m paraphrasing my former teacher and friend Dan Chaon – as a house with many rooms one can wander in and out of, and not in any particular order. I’ve always loved that.)Although the conversation was enjoyable, the three writers also bandied about the usual platitudes about how reading allows us to see the world better, that it expands our capacity for empathy, and helps us to understand our own lives. I agree, but we’ve heard such slogans before. Instead, since all three guests were women, I hoped they might discuss the role of the female writer in depicting the home and family. Not that male writers haven’t taken up these topics – they certainly have – but, I wondered, are our perspectives on “the domestic” gendered ones? I’m reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote from A Room of One’s Own, wherein she says, “…the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally, this is so.” (Really, Virginia, naturally?) Traditionally, women writers have gone indoors, so to speak, to tell their stories, and to explore what matters to them. What about now? How are women writers redefining (or maintaining) notions of family, home, motherhood, and so on? (I know, I know: I should have raised my hand during the q&a.)Other highlights of the night included Silver’s discussion of the mythologies our families create for us, those roles we are given to play and/or reject. I also liked her description of writing as a “limbo between waking and dreaming.” Antonya Nelson’s reading impressed me deeply; I love her work. She read from the first pages of “Nothing Right,” the title story in her new collection. Check out this passage:He was her second son, and he’d never been the one she understood best. Recently, she’d found herself disgusted by him: She didn’t want to share a bathroom or kitchen, bar soap or utensils with her own boy. His brother, who’d passed through adolescence sobbing instead of shouting, had not prepared her for Leo. The pure ugliness of a more traditonal male’s tranformation to manhood – the inflamed skin and foul odor, the black scowl, the malice in every move – might eventually convince a parent to dispair, to say to that child, “You are dead to me.” Because it would be easier–more decorous, acceptable – to mourn the loss than to keep waging a hopeless battle.Nelson also told an amazing story about a baby-thieving nurse, and described her impulse to write as the desire to “investigate a situation,” and to get at “what the police blotter can only allude to.” She said, near the end of the talk, that, for her, writing is “a way of getting to the bottom of mystery.”The discussion meandered naturally, from references to Marilynne Robinson to Peter Taylor to the world famous Octomom. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a Wednesday evening…