CRIMES AGAINST THE READER
ON JUDGING THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
For good or ill, I have judged a lot of awards. As I’ve already remarked in these pages, I judged the National Endowment for the Arts fellowships during the week of September 11, 2001. We judged the award in a hotel in DC with the television on in the background, smoke rising from the WTC and the Pentagon, etc. Ironically, though we worked under adverse conditions, and though some of us had loved ones in New York City, the award somehow became memorable for the fact that Jonathan Franzen received a grant.
I helped create and administer the Young Lions Fiction Award at the New York Public Library. I oversaw the preliminary reading committee for five years. Once a judge refused to make a decision because all our finalists were men, though the reading committee was overwhelmingly composed of women (75 percent), all of whom refused to alter the testosterone-rich short list on the basis of inclusion.
I judged an award that was funded by the wealthy heir of a media fortune and administered by a reputable arts organization. The wealthy heir made clear that an award would go to a young writer of his acquaintance. I was told by my chair to make sure this would happen. Boy, did I regret that one.
I have judged a novella contest for a quarterly. I’ve judged humor writing by undergraduates, I’ve judged an award for elementary schoolkids, I’ve judged a spoken-word slam for high-school-age poets, I have served on the admissions committee for one of the nation’s great artists’ colonies on and off for years. On many of these committees people said horrible things to their colleagues, made caustic remarks that took months or even years to heal over, and decisions were occasionally made that were precipitous, almost casual, with the result being that sometimes the people who won awards or the residencies were not the best, but nor were they the worst. In fact, as others have observed, it’s not unusual for awards to cluster around the compromise candidates, so that clear favorites can sometimes wait for years for deserved renown.
Given these experiences, I might have known better when I got the call from the National Book Foundation, which administers America’s best-known literary prize (though some people prefer the decidedly more populist Pulitzer Prize), the National Book Award. When the National Book Foundation called, I was on 11th Street. That’s how excited I was by the idea of judging, excited enough to have pinpointed my location in my memory. I didn’t even bother to ask who the other judges were going to be. I asked only about the number of books likely to be nominated, and the dread number was confirmed: three hundred, give or take.
Let me confess here that I, too, have often judged the National Book Awards results harshly. I remember collaring Lois Rosenthal, the editor of Story, in 1987 when she was serving on the fiction committee. I remember giving her a lot of hell about the possibility that she might choose Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities as one of the five nominees, since I found Wolfe’s book self-satisfied and shallow, notwithstanding its popularity. I think that was the nominee I gave her hell about, at any rate. But I’m not sure. Apparently, my dislike for Wolfe’s book is less important than the fact that, in recollection, I gave Lois Rosenthal an earful. Turns out it wasn’t short listed, and didn’t win. (Larry Heinemann was the winner, for Paco’s Story.) So I, too, in years past, have second-guessed, have tried to find the secret affiliations that bind the judges to the nominees, and have found comfort in the fact that I was being excluded, by reason of conspiracy.
Given my sense of the NBA as being only half successful in awarding writers I admire, I think it’s fair to ask why I agreed to perform this particular task at all. Why embroil myself in the vicissitudes of judging, the frustrating impediments (personal, political, aesthetic), the unforeseeable and often unsatisfying results? Three hundred books is an impossible amount of books to read in six months, as anyone will tell you. I worked in publishing when I was in my twenties, so I am able to read very quickly, but still. I don’t actually like to read quickly. I like to linger.
I certainly wasn’t doing it for the money. The honorarium is a pittance. And I wasn’t doing it because I had the time. No one has the time who is not bedridden. I didn’t do it because it would help my work. I was trying to finish a novel while judging the National Book Award, and this proved a pretty difficult balancing act. Did I do it for the prestige? The power? I think it’s an important question to ask of myself now.
Still, despite the fact that I’ve served on many awards committees—which might well be viewed as loci of power in a mostly powerless industry—I feel as though I’m a person who loathes and recoils from power. Power corrupts, generally speaking, and I saw my share of this when working in publishing. I saw people who allowed the thrill of decision making, of acquiring and publishing certain kinds of books, to get in the way of art and literature, the very things that propelled them into the publishing business in the first place. Intoxication with power is dangerous and soul-slaughtering. So I don’t think I agreed to serve because I wanted to have the power of deciding the National Book Award (which, after all, I wasn’t going to do—I was just chairing a committee with four other writers, all of whom would share equally in the decision making).
The only honest answer to the question is that I imagine I have good taste. I have since learned that there are many people out there—the cranky book columnists at major newspapers and the publishers who provided quotations for their various articles—who disagree with this assessment. But when I say I think I have good taste, I don’t mean that I have a pedant’s unrelenting preoccupation with the obscure and the difficult, nor that I favor using my “power” to impose obscure and difficult books on the unwilling. Actually, I suppose by having good taste I imagine I can direct people toward genuinely good and enjoyable books, books they might both love and remember. Books that are better than run-of-the-mill. Books that mean something, books that will last.
Of course, Aristotelian ideas of the good collide with adages about taste in general. On the one hand, most readers operate as though there were a generally agreed upon, incontrovertible idea of literary merit. Readers of serious fiction act this way every day. We decide that Don DeLillo is certainly a better writer than Jacqueline Susann. We decide that though Jackie Collins may be amusing she cannot, in fact, write a palatable English-language sentence (“He should have listened to his mother and never married her in the first place, but who listens to mothers when your cock is on fire”). We know that Collins does not rewrite enough, and that even if she did it probably would not help. Whereas DeLillo’s published work is an irresistible resource for both perfect craft and sheer talent and imagination. His sentences sing and remain in the memory.
And yet as readers we also subscribe to a much more subjective, if not diametrically opposed, argument about merit, as described, for example, in the old French adage chacun son goût. No accounting for taste. It’s okay for Leonard Woolf to say, in print, that Herman Melville writes the most “execrable English.” These unfortunate things happen. It’s okay for James Wood to say that DeLillo’s characters don’t speak like real people. In this approach to merit, we are free to disagree, and this disagreement does not portend the destruction of hierarchies, nor does it portend the death of literature or the publishing industry.
The enlightened viewer of the NBA debacle this year would find him- or herself midway between these two positions. He or she would see that all awards are political, that all juries are made up of people, with individual tastes and ideas about literature and the world, and that, right from the outset, there is no way in which to resolve the chasm between the Aristotelian approach to literary merit and the French position. The enlightened critic of the award will imagine not that the committee is bent on instruction or finger-wagging, but that it did its best with an impossible task, and that it proceeded with the one certain criterion it had at its disposal: love.
Yes, the most thrilling and exciting moment for this judge, in the midst of the drudgery of three hundred books—most of which, let’s face it, are atrocious and ought not to have been nominated—is the moment in which he is on page 23 of some unknown quantity and suddenly finds himself saying, “Holy shit! This is a great book!” This is a profound moment, and my heart leaps up when it happens to me. A few years ago, I was given The Rings of Saturn by the late W. G. Sebald, a book about which I knew nothing at the time. I had the sort of reaction I’m describing. “Holy shit! A masterpiece!” The same happened to me when I first read Break It Down by Lydia Davis. Or Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard.
Given that this sublime motive—love—is available to us, why would the National Book Award committee avail itself of anything less?
Though I’m contractually bound to maintain silence on how we made our National Book Award selections (beyond remarking that the workload was deliberately apportioned in such a way as to make every committee member equal to every other in terms of promoting works that were his or her favorites), and though I’m likewise enjoined to silence as to the merits or lack thereof of some of the books that people think ought to have been on the list, there is one subject on which I am free to trample: the press reaction that followed the announcement of the finalists we chose.
For some reason, the New York Times felt it necessary to write about the National Book Awards this year on at least four separate occasions. Despite the fact that there was a very important presidential election upcoming at the time of our announcement, despite the fact, e.g., that 377 tons of explosives had recently been revealed to have vanished from an arms dump in Iraq after the beginning of the American occupation there, a fact that ought to have filled the columns of the Times every single day in the last two weeks before the voting, the paper seemed particularly obsessed with the National Book Awards. And I’m speaking here only of the articles entirely devoted to the subject, not pieces that mentioned it in passing (of which there were several).
In the first of these articles, publishing beat reporter Edward Wyatt opined as follows: “But the list of finalists is often greeted by a collective ‘Who?,’ as the judges often seem to many to go out of their way to avoid books that have garnered critical acclaim and popular attention.” Since the last ten years of NBA winners have included any number of well-known fiction writers of the first rank—Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag, Charles Frazier, Alice McDermott, Ha Jin, Philip Roth, Andrea Barrett, and William Gaddis—it’s hard to know where Wyatt gets his information. Well, actually, I do know one source for his hypothesis, a New York Times article by Alan Riding (from October 6), about the Nobel Prize for literature:
The annual Nobel Prize in Literature, which is to be awarded in Stockholm on Thursday, assures the happy laureate a gilded place in posterity. Or does it?
The Swedish Academy is so eccentric in its choice that the astonished winner often enjoys fifteen minutes of fame and is quietly forgotten. No less bizarrely, the academy has overlooked some pillars of modern literature, like Proust and Joyce. Then there are those well-known writers who year after year are considered to be contenders only to be disappointed.
How the eighteen-member academy reaches its decision is something of a mystery. Some members are known to favor worthy but little-known authors, like Gao Xingjian of China in 2000 and Imre Kertesz of Hungary in 2002. In other cases, political favoritism has been suspected: Dario Fo of Italy in 1997, José Saramago of Portugal in 1998 and Günter Grass of Germany in 1999 all have leftist views.
In each of these articles, we find the same cynical distrust of less well-known writers, and of the committees who actually read and evaluate the work in question. Saramago and Grass are somehow unworthy? Notwithstanding such classics as Blindness and The Tin Drum? And while one certainly does feel acutely the strangeness of having avoided giving Proust or Joyce the Nobel, it’s fair to say that neither did the Times always shower Joyce with accolades during his lifetime. (From their first article on Ulysses, dated 2/23/1921: “That most people would find the story incomprehensible and therefore dull is, perhaps, its complete vindication from the charge of immorality.” And on the same subject, from the following year, 5/28/1922: “The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it—even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it—save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.”) The subtext in Riding’s article about the Nobel is the subtext in the Wyatt article about the NBA. Can’t we please get some awards for books that are popular? In fact, Wyatt makes the point explicitly: “Only one of the fiction finalists has sold more than 2,000 copies of her book, according to BookScan, the unit of Nielsen Entertainment that tracks book sales.”
An even more inexplicable requirement for nominees is attributed to John Leonard, later in the same piece: “The authors who are often ignored are ‘the people who have already paid their dues.’” I have no particular idea what constitutes paying dues, but according to Leonard the overlooked Philip Roth (who has already won the award twice) and the overlooked Cynthia Ozick are each examples of this august fraternity. (Ozick, while more famous than any of the five finalists, has been known to sell just as poorly, at least according to the New York Times, October 1, 1997, “Much Hand Wringing, With Gloves Off, At a Publishing Debate.”) By Leonard’s measure, the 2004 National Book Award finalists (Lily Tuck, Joan Silber, Christine Schutt, Kate Walbert, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum) are not considered to have paid these inexplicable dues, notwithstanding the fact that four out of five have published as many works as William Gaddis and Harold Brodkey published during their respective lifetimes.
In discussing the nomination of the 9/11 Commission Report to the nonfiction list of National Book Award finalists, Wyatt refers to that particular work as “eminently readable,” as if this quality alone were a mark of highest esteem. Literature, it seems, should always be “eminently readable.” And of course once the Times establishes an aesthetic position, it rarely deviates from it, as though to vary would signal weakness or lack of resolve. And so Wyatt goes on a few days later, in the Week in Review section, to enlarge on his poorly reasoned notions of merit in fiction writing:
Perhaps the 150 or so people who have bought Christine Schutt’s first novel, Florida, will agree that it may be the year’s best book. But last week, much of the literary world was left perplexed when the fiction judges of the National Book Award named it one of five finalists for the annual prize.
The anemic sales of Florida, published by TriQuarterly Books and the Northwestern University Press, is not anomalous; three other finalists for the award, which recognizes the best work of fiction by an American writer, have sold between 700 and 900 copies apiece, according to Nielsen BookScan. Only Kate Walbert’s Our Kind: A Novel in Stories (Scribner), has sold as many as 2,500.
The surpassing problem here is that the numbers are incorrect. The Times published a correction to this effect two weeks later: “Correction: October 31, 2004, Sunday—An article on Oct. 17 about the dissatisfaction of several publishers with the selection of five little-known authors as finalists in the fiction category of the National Book Award referred incorrectly to the extent of their book sales. It is not known exactly how many books were sold.” Wyatt happened to make another mistake in the same article, misspelling the surname of Larry Kirshbaum, chairman of Time Warner Book Group and a booster of the National Book Foundation, who himself provided the following memorable tidbit on the whole flap: “[Publishers who financially support the award] are completely closing ourselves off from the culture at large, we are supporting our own demise.” This misspelling of Kirshbaum’s name is important later, and thus I make note of it.
Wyatt’s further scoop is as follows: “None of this year’s judges—Rick Moody, Linda Hogan, Randall Kenan, Stewart O’Nan and Susan Straight—has had a book on the New York Times best-seller list, and only two—Mr. Kenan and Ms. Straight—have been finalists for the award.” In fact, every one of the writers on my committee has been on some bestseller list. Randall Kenan has been a bestseller in Australia. Linda Hogan has been a bestseller in Japan. I’ve been on a number of them myself (not that I spend time dwelling upon such statistics), including the bestseller list of the Times’s sister publication the Boston Globe. Moreover, we have a pretty good track record as “notable books” on the annual Times list of same. Four out of the five of us have had “notable” books, and two of us have had three “notable” books. We have managed nine “notable” titles among committee members. And yet the implication here is that only an appearance on the Times bestseller list constitutes the kind of arrival that merits a position as a judge for the National Book Award. That a committee which boasts two former National Book Award nominees is in some way inadequate to understand the importance of the award is also rather surprising.
I will concede one important paragraph in Wyatt’s second piece, however:
[The] mainstream, too, has changed. Americans have more, and more various, ways to entertain themselves every year. In response, the National Book Foundation last year gave its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters to the immensely popular Stephen King. This year, Judy Blume, the children’s book writer, will receive the medal.
When a publishing executive approached me at the National Book Award gala to advance the notion that publishers needed “more input” in the NBA decision making, my feeling was, just as Wyatt implies, that the publishers already control the lifetime achievement award. They have already proven that the less ambitious “culture at large” must have its day. Make no mistake, if an award that used to be reserved for the likes of Arthur Miller is now given to Judy Blume and the “immensely popular” Stephen King, it should be obvious that literary merit is no longer the preeminent factor in this award’s determination. And so why do the publishers need now to control the entire award process? To have “more input” in the fiction award selection committee would be to foreordain the outcome. Like in the old days when the Hollywood studio heads got together over drinks to decide the Oscars. Censorship, pure and simple, by means of plutocracy.
The third piece in the Times was by Caryn James, and it appeared on November 11. James, it must be said, at least tried to read the five nominees, which neither Edward Wyatt nor any of the persons quoted in the first two pieces had bothered to do. This does not prevent her from making wild, unsubstantiated conjectures. For example, James implies that the committee purposefully picked a slate of women (“all women, all living in New York City, all little-known names”). However, on the day that we settled on the 2004 short list there were fifteen books still in play, any number of which were by men, and so it never entered our minds to plan to have all women, just as I didn’t plan to have all men on the list when, in 2003, I was chairing the reading committee for the Young Lions Fiction Award. Rather, the gender of the writers (in each case) was a by-product of meritocratic standards. We picked the work we liked, and in this case it happened to be written by women.
Did we regret this fact? It occurred to us that this slate might be controversial, but we did not regret it. Of the annual winners of the National Book Award for hardcover fiction (they gave awards in paper in the early eighties) since 1950, forty-seven have been men, fourteen have been women. The results are even more lopsided if you throw in the other categories in hardcover—of the 259 winners, 200 were men, 59 were women. Between 1984 and 1991, no woman won the National Book Award in any category. Between 1950 and 1963, only three women were chosen as winners. Should we feel guilty that this abject sexism looks remediated, even if inadvertently, in our result? No, we should not. In fact, we might even feel proud.
And, of course, we never checked where the nominees lived. There was no light-up map featuring the geographic distribution of all involved. We didn’t know, for example, that Lily Tuck was born in France and that English was her third language.
James’s next faulty suggestion is that the “woozy” prose of the nominees is owing to the fact that I personally write “woozily poetic” prose myself. (“Yet all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers’ program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.” And: “This year’s list serves readers who like only a certain style—the style, say, of Rick Moody, the novelist and short-story writer who is chairman of the five-person fiction panel and who has been known to write some woozily poetic prose of his own.”) Since I have already made clear that the slate of nominees was produced by the committee as a whole, not by any one member, I’ll concentrate here on the implication of a “writers’ program language.” Elsewhere, Caryn James is pejorative about the perceived “short-story aesthetic” of these books, and these two perceptions are obviously related, each implying the idea that a particular “aesthetic” is itself somehow anathema to textual pleasure. The argument recalls the “eminently readable” criterion favored by Edward Wyatt in his piece quoted above.
According to James, therefore, it would be supposed that I’m a writer of “writers’ program language,” or that I am chiefly a writer of short stories, or that I controlled the results. But none of these things is accurate, since (a) I was mainly disregarded during my M.F.A. years (at Columbia) for failing to write stories in the prevailing Raymond Carver/Richard Ford mode that was favored by my contemporaries. My teacher during my first semester told me I would “never be a writer,” and during my third semester an important literary critic took a hand count during one workshop to see how many people found my story “boring.” There’s really no point in elaborating on this theme, but if mine is a “writers’ workshop” aesthetic, then it is the aesthetic of writing workshop misfits and outcasts.
Furthermore, (b) though I have written some short stories, they amount to two out of my seven book-length publications, and, in any event, my stories are not usually the sort you find in the leading periodicals. And, (c) the fact is that in my view, all five of the nominees are novels. That is, even the “collections” on the list, Walbert’s Our Kind and Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, have novelistic concerns about them, in that they are depictions of communities and explorations of ideas with much repetition of characters and locations and themes. The idea that brevity is somehow suspect—that brevity is somehow inimical to “readability”—is part of what James is driving at. She has an idea about fiction, and that is that it must be in the shape of a traditional novel, a novel that must be big. Additionally, the prose must be direct, must not be “woozy,” or “resembling an alcoholic hallucination or euphoria or something experienced in one.” Brief and euphoric, apparently, would be too close to that most loathsome of forms, poetry (cf., Laura Miller, below).
Caryn James goes on to insist on the merits of a number of books that we found unworthy of the award, until she finishes with such a relentless bit of politicking on the part of a certain nominee that it cannot fail to cause one to take notice:
But let’s keep dictatorships in novels, not on judges’ panels. By trying to strong-arm readers’ taste, the judges are guaranteeing that their prize remains marginal. A National Book Award doesn’t vault a writer into the upper reaches of American literature, as the Pulitzer Prize often does, and narrow-minded nominations like these help explain why. Philip Roth shouldn’t automatically be nominated just for being Philip Roth, but he shouldn’t be punished for it either.
The use of “dictatorship” here is freighted, since Roth’s novel The Plot Against America features an oppressive American dictatorship. Very clever. But it’s the last sentence that I find most objectionable. Naturally, it didn’t enter into our discussions to include or exclude Roth on the basis of who he is. While it is true that Roth has already won the National Book Award twice, once when he was quite young (and had not yet “paid his dues”), and once just a few years ago, Roth was considered this year entirely on the basis of his novel’s merit versus other books that the committee favored. If, inductively, you were to conclude that the committee did not believe Philip Roth’s book deserved the award, we wouldn’t talk you out of your conclusion. There’s nothing else to say about this particular book. To imply that our motive was otherwise, as James does, without recourse to the committee’s notes or recollections and despite our demurrals, indicates more about the person doing the interpreting than about what she interprets.
The fourth article in the Times was by Laura Miller. Though I know her personally and like her quite a bit, I have almost always found her opinions on books parochial and blandly provocative. This piece was no exception. Miller thoroughly rehearses the arguments already adduced by Edward Wyatt, about sales figures, not neglecting to quote anew Larry Kirschbaum (sic), in the process making mistakes that had already been corrected officially by the paper, viz., the sales figures and the spelling of Kirshbaum’s surname.
Since Miller’s piece is substantively identical to others published in the paper, it’s fair to say that by the time of its publication the court of public opinion had already settled the question of the significance of the fiction nominees: “The [NBA] list tends to get received not as a recommendation but as a rebuke: these are the great books you should have been reading and the press should have been covering when you were wasting time and column inches on safe big-name talents and inferior crowd-pleasers, you vulgarians.”
Remarks like this, at best, play into the hands of the vertically integrated multinational entertainment providers. Miller can’t think outside of the box, and the box in question is the literary equivalent of one of those unrecycled fast-food jobs in which you get your hamburger and thirty-six grams of fat. Here’s another representative line: “The concentration poetry demands usually makes it tiresome at extended length.” Yeah? Like in Homer? Like in Virgil? Like in Dante? Like in Milton? Like in Hart Crane? Like in T. S. Eliot? Like in Wallace Stevens? Like in Derek Walcott? Clearly, the same must be true of prose in her view. Is The Waves tiresome? Is Gravity’s Rainbow tiresome? Is The Sound and the Fury tiresome? (Remember, the author of The Sound and the Fury never sold more than 5,000 copies of anything until he won the Nobel.) Is Ulysses tiresome? Well, a lot of people think it is tiresome. But that still didn’t stop the Times from saying that Joyce deserved the Nobel, and the fact that he never did rendered the prize suspect. Moreover, does the fact that some people find Joyce difficult necessarily imply that literature must yield to their uninformed viewpoint? Is it the job of literature, like the ballerinas in the famous story of Vonnegut, “Harrison Bergeron,” to wear leg irons, so that it won’t humble those with less lofty talents?
Again: “Most of us, if forced to choose, will pick a strong story over perfect writing. ‘All I want is a good story!’ goes the plaintive cry book reviewers hear over and over again from regular people.” I don’t know who Miller is talking to, but it sure isn’t the “regular” readers I know. Though if all literature amounts to is a Hollywood movie that you can consume in places where there are no television monitors, it won’t last long after the prices come down on those portable DVD players. Literature is constructed of language for a reason, because language is a thing of beauty and what sounds good to the ear pleases on the page. If the material of literature, the words, are simply meant to be “degree zero,” as Roland Barthes put it, utterly transparent, then why bother with writing at all?
Miller concludes this way: “The judges, however, see it as an honor given to a writer by other writers, and apply very writerly, if not downright esoteric, criteria in making their decision. Readers, as a rule, care more about what an author writes; other writers are often more impressed with how. Beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states abound in these five books, but those woebegone souls in search of a good story will have to keep looking, elsewhere.” (Well, I happen to think the nominees have great stories too, from the civil war in Paraguay, as rendered in Tuck, to the story of an Italian lyric poet, in Joan Silber. From the girl who dreams the entire life of her village, in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, to the history of the women in a Connecticut suburb, in Kate Walbert, not neglecting to mention the wild dysfunctional family tale that is Christine Schutt’s novel.)
“Woebegone,” in Miller’s finale, is meant to be charming and self-effacing. But what if, in a rare moment, Miller has actually diagnosed the truth, namely, that readers are starved for more, but do not know what it is they want, or how to talk about it? What if the system of publishing and providing for American readers, in which we find only narrative delivery systems for romance, murders, police investigations, Civil War re-enactments, and preparations for the End Days, is actually committing an atrocity on American readers by treating them as though they really were incapable of wanting to know more?
From the journalistic accounts above, we can discern the following:
- 1) Books that sell more copies are better than books that sell fewer.
1.1) Commercial fiction is better than literary fiction.
- 2) Books that are easy to understand are better than books that are hard to understand.
2.1) Books that are difficult are simply being perverse.
- 3) Long books are serious, short books are not.
3.1) Long books that are easy to understand or have a lot of “story” are better than long, difficult books.
- 4) Fiction is better than poetry.
4.1) Nothing is worse than a long, complicated, hard-to-understand book of poetry.
- 5) American literary awards must reflect all of the above.
Why the popularity of this pernicious line of reasoning? As I have said elsewhere, since the moment when Times editor Bill Keller’s public perceptions about book culture were first published in an online article (“The Plot Thickens at the New York Times Book Review,” by “Book Babes” Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel), there have been abundant and well-founded concerns about the fate of American literature among people who care about it. “‘Of course, some fiction needs to be [reviewed in the Times Book Review],’ Keller says. ‘We’ll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me.’ He gets no argument from [Times culture editor Steven] Erlanger. ‘To be honest, there’s so much s——. Most of the things we praise aren’t very good.’” Etc. This kind of anti-intellectual spleen, and likewise the newfound interest at the Times in conservative agitprop and commercial fiction (“as long as they’re done in a ‘witty’ way appropriate to the Times sophisticated reader”), have to do, I suspect, with the rapid decline in the stock price of the New York Times Company. The search for the elusive “younger readers” is so desperate that the paper will try anything. Underestimating the smarts of readers is an effective way to start.
Books are different from periodicals. They stick around. They are content to appear retiring or even recondite in the short run, the better to last. Similarly, if the results of book awards, in the short run, seem mystifying, that’s okay. Time is on our side.
This is not to say that the institution of literary awards is free from serious problems. For those who are foolhardy enough to consider the task of judging to be philanthropic, generous, or somehow enriching, there can be some reward to the process, despite the occasional puncture wound, but it isn’t a science, nor should it be. Awards are political. They amount to individuals judging the work of other individuals, and the notion that such a process can somehow be made pure is naïve. Every award is a reflection of friction, group dynamics, etc. Every award is administered by an organization, and that organization has funding issues, has corporate involvement at some level. Every award exists within a community of writers, so that the awards process, inevitably, is mitigated by the feelings of this community about itself. The community has its ups and downs, has its problems, its crises, especially at the philosophical level. Does what we do have real value? Does it have the same impact it once had? The results of awards should always be considered through the prism of these mitigating facts.
That said: I don’t regret what we did at all. I’d do it again in the same way in a second.
- For the record, let me point out that I did not read Franzen’s manuscript, nor was I on the portion of the committee that determined his fate. And, since the NEA manuscripts had no bylines, I wouldn’t have known it was his in any event. ↩
- And interested parties are directed to William Gass’s excellent essay on the subject, “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize.” ↩
- Despite the censure implicit in his remarks, it happens that Kirshbaum publishes my work (as I am published by Little, Brown, a division of Time-Warner). I also have published in the New York Times on two or three occasions. ↩
- And it looks like they’re going to get their wish, too, according to Wyatt on 1/27/2005, in an article called, dubiously, “Publishing Sees Pizazz Potential in New Awards”: “A new philanthropy called the Quills Literacy Foundation announced yesterday the formation of the Quill Awards, a slate of 19 annual book awards, most of which will be voted on by the general public.” ↩
- I have neglected to include here reference to Wyatt’s third piece, the fifth written in the paper about the award, published after the prize was given to Lily Tuck’s novel The News From Paraguay. It’s just as slipshod as the earlier pieces. He misquotes my speech, which he could easily have checked (even the New York Observer managed to do as much), so that I appear to laud Tuck’s “astonishing quality,” an incredibly awkward phrase I hope never to fall prey to during my professional lifetime. He also mocks Tuck for never having visited Paraguay while writing her novel. I bet, however, that the Times did not complain that Alice Sebold never visited Heaven in pursuit of The Lovely Bones. ↩