- Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of MADELEINE IS SLEEPING (Harcourt);
- Lily Tuck, author of THE NEWS FROM PARAGUAY (Harper);
- Kate Walbert, author of OUR KIND: A NOVEL IN STORIES (Scribner);
- Christine Schutt, author of FLORIDA (TriQuarterly/Northwestern U. P.);
- Joan Silber, author of IDEAS OF HEAVEN: A Ring of Stories (Norton)
You'd think these five writers hadn't only bribed the NBA judges, but also fixed the election of an idiot President and (here in New York, at least) nightly engaged in some sort of ritual voodoo wamma-jamma that resulted in several unprecedented tight-game meltdowns of the formerly-immortal Mariano Rivera. If I was the NBA, I'd put these women into Witness Protection until the night of the Awards banquet.
But it's not the understandably disappointed George Steinbrenner who's railing against the Felonious Five--it's the supposed avatars of middle-to-high-brow culture, led by the New York Times, but with emissaries from many other camps as well. So what, exactly, is the charge? Edward Wyatt fired first, taking issue not with the books themselves but with the fact that the their sales figures were miniscule. Subsequently, fellow Times culture writers Laura Miller and Caryn James have joined the lynch mob, leading a crowd of protesters armed with signs that read P. Roth Wuz Robbed! and Hell No, We Want JCO!
This year's National Book Award nominees have been charged with the worst crime imaginable: anonymity.
Please! In a publishing environment that too often replicates the George W. Bush social contract, allocating a greater and greater portion of its resources to a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, does EVERYTHING have to be about the obvious choices getting their inevitable due? With all due respect to Roth, Boyle, Banks, Oates, Updike and any number of other "established" writers who might belong on this list, have we totally lost sight of the thrill of discovery? In this era, when marketing literary fiction & trying to build a readership for relative unknowns is harder, perhaps, than it's ever been [and let's not forget that the engines of our industry will cease to function if we don't provide them with the fuel they need by "growing" new writers], is this--five unknown writers being nominated for
THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
(! ! !)
--is this not something akin to winning the lottery?! Where are the interviews celebrating the editors who believed in these books from the get-go, who saw potential where others saw none? Why, instead of CELEBRATING these authors, are we essentially trying to humiliate them?
I think there are two reasons. The first is simple sour grapes. I know whereof I speak: as a participant in this game myself--shepherd of more than a few books that, in my humble opinion, were cruelly overlooked in this and previous award nomination processes--I know all too well the feeling of disappointment/resentment that comes with being left off the list. It's a little easier to stomach when it's one of the Inevitable Big Fish (Atwood, Walker, DeLillo, Ford)--you figure, Yeah, well, of course. But to be passed over for relative small-fry? Sets the blood to boiling... [Reminds me of Michael Naumann's famous boycott of the NBA a few years ago when Thomas Pynchon's MASON & DIXON wasn't nominated. Naumann's response was invigorating--controversial, personal, rooted in passion, an uncharacteristically honest and public expression of the sort one rarely sees. I'd wager it also generated additional sales for his star author, which was surely at least part of the point.]
The other, more troubling possibility for our taking Mss. Tuck, Walbert, Schutt, Silber and Bynum to task is that these choices reflect so poorly on us. Much of the writing about these books has focussed on their same-ness, their narrow, intimate focus, the extent to which the "compressed observations" risk "veer[ing] into precious writers' program language," too "poetic for its own good." Presumably the link between this charge (preciousness, style for style's sake) and the other (lousy sales) is this: these books don't speak to the consumer. Their primary purpose isn't to entertain. They're too pointedly--what? highbrow? Why, suddenly, are we so defensive, such enemies of literary-ness?
Remember back in the day, when Oprah was still picking books by living writers? Back before Jonathan Franzen so thoughtlessly killed the goose that laid the Golden Egg by giving her pseudo-literary sensibility a more accurate name? How ironic: Oprah was middlebrow, yet we had no problem reaping the benefits of her tremendous largesse, even if we privately looked down our nose at many of her selections.
But imagine for a moment how we'd feel if any one of these five books (but only one, please!) had been chosen by Oprah? One of these publishers would be dancing in the streets; and the rest of us (once we'd swallowed our sour grapes) would find solace in the fact that Oprah had, in a relative sense, "gone literary." Thereby allowing ourselves to look a little more bravely into eyes of the P&L gatekeepers as we try to make yet another case for the fool's errand that is publishing literary fiction.
Well, Oprah, she gone--she's in her classics' mode now, which means (Garcia-Marquez excepted, just barely) you gotta be dead to hit paydirt. What we're left with instead are opportunities like these, meager though they may seem: nominations for major prizes that have the potential to bring unknown writers a larger readership, and to get those BookScan numbers up to more respectable levels. These five writers and their books should be applauded and promoted with equal vigor. Yet it seems (to me, at least) that they've been castigated as much as they've been celebrated.
Whatever sin/agenda some may feel these nominations represent, a far greater offense will be committed if, whether by accident or as an act of recompense, the National Book Critics' Circle designate a work like Tom Wolfe's gassy, completely irrelevant new novel as one of the best books of the year. Now that would be a travesty.
P.S. Sidenote to writers, editors and anyone else who gives lip-service to the importance of literary fiction: you have an obligation to go out and BUY at least one of these books. Those with expense accounts should buy the whole lot.
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
- ► 2005 (75)
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