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 National Book Critics Circle announced the nominees for its annual best of the year awards over the weekend. Ed has stepped up to call the fiction selections in particular “safer than a dinner for four at the Olive Garden.” The relative safety of the books aside, my understanding was that this award was meant to be given to the books that the nation’s critics believe are of the highest quality, regardless of how well known or how obscure they are.While it might have been more interesting to for us to discuss five relatively unknown and incredibly challenging novels, I think that such a slate would have been intellectually dishonest when the critics are charged with picking the books they think are the best. Let us not forget 2004, when the five National Book Award nominees in fiction were basically unknowns across the board. The people behind the Award that year were roundly derided for their selections and those nominees were anything but safe. In that case, and in looking at this year’s NBCC nominees, I would suggest that we debate the books’ quality rather than whether they are too “predictable,” which strikes me as an even more slippery qualifier.For more on how the NBCC makes its picks, check out TEV’s interview with NBCC president John Freeman. Here are this year’s nominees in fiction and nonfiction along with excerpts where available (nominees in other categories can be found at the NBCC site):Fiction:Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (excerpt, an Emerging Writers best of the year)The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (excerpt)What is the What by Dave Eggers (excerpt, Garth’s review)The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford (excerpt, Noah’s review)The Road by Cormac McCarthyNonfiction:The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn (One of Cockburn’s Iraq diaries in the LRB)The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe V. Wade by Anne Fessler (NYT review)The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Patrick’s review)Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama (excerpt)The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan (excerpt)
My good friend Edan got married this year (to Millions contributor Patrick no less), got published in the LA Times West Magazine, and taught her own fiction workshop. She’s also one of the gang I worked with at Book Soup in Los Angeles, where she regularly wowed customers with her literary knowledge. In spite of being enviably well-read, Edan has once again gone the cookbook route for our year end series, as is her wont:Since ALL of my favorite books of 2006 – The Echo Maker by Richard Powers; Everything that Rises by Lawrence Weschler; and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan – have already been sufficiently lauded by other Millions contributors, I figured I’d instead sing the praises of one cookbook:Brunch: 100 Recipes from Five Points Restaurant by Marc Meyer and Peter Meehan I purchased this fabulous book for my husband, who seems to have conquered the kitchen on Sunday mornings because I can’t, just can’t, rise before ten. It’s easy to get into a scrambled eggs-and-potatoes breakfast rut, but this book, with recipes for Bourbon Vanilla French Toast, Ricotta Fritters, Asparagus and Artichoke Baked Eggs and Applesauce Muffins (among 96 others), ensures amazing spreads each time. The book has lovely, drool-inducing photographs for motivation, and chef Marc Meyers (5 Points, I’ve learned, is a well-known NYC restaurant), urges us to make more bacon “than you think you want (or than you think you should eat).” Bless this man.Thanks Edan!
It was a slow year for me as a reader. I’m not sure if it’s because I moved cross-country again, or because I was getting married, or because there were so many pictures of celebrities exposing themselves on the Internet, but I just didn’t get around to reading very many books. I had trouble starting new books, quit several books midstream, which is something I rarely do, and felt bored by the majority of what I read.That isn’t to say that there weren’t a few standouts in the field. Robert Baer’s terrific CIA memoir See No Evil, the first book I read this year, was excellent, in spite of having several key passages blacked out by CIA censors. My main man Somerset Maugham came through again with The Moon and Six Pence, his examination of the choices and sacrifices a man must make to become an artist. And Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, was good enough to make me wonder why I hadn’t read it back when I was living in Iowa City (Also, the edition I bought, which is the only one I’ve seen, fits in my pocket, literally. Isn’t that great? Shouldn’t more books fit in our pockets?).The best book I read in 2006 was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan examines three different modes of food production and distribution. His critique of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on corn (which he points out is present in nearly everything in the supermarket, including beef, gossip magazines, even the walls of the market itself), is damning if not all that original (many of the points are made in Fast Food Nation), but the rest of the book, which examines organic farming, self-sustaining grass farming, and modern hunter-gathers, is truly eye-opening. He takes Whole Foods to task for their somewhat misleading labeling, spends a week working on a grass farm in Virginia, and cooks a meal entirely from foods that he hunted, gathered, and grew himself. What’s great about Pollan’s writing is his ability to take pages of statistics and endless lists of ingredients and turn them into something that is not only fun to read, but fun to discuss. I can’t remember reading a book that gave me more cocktail party ammunition that the The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While this review on Slate points out some of the flaws in Pollan’s approach, I still highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in what they eat, and how they’ve come to eat it.Some non-book related best and worsts of the year:Best Movie: Brick (IMDb) It actually came out in 2005, but in 2005 I lived in Iowa, and movies don’t get to Iowa very quickly, so I didn’t see it until 2006. It won’t win any awards, which is surely a mark of its greatness.Worst Movie: Rumor Has It (IMDb) edging out Loverboy (IMDb). Both of these movies left me wondering not only how they got made, but how I was duped into seeing them.Worst Trends: Baseball general managers giving ludicrous contracts to borderline ballplayers. Juan Pierre? Gary Matthews Jr.? I’d be worth more money to a baseball team than either of these two out machines.