Friday, November 12, 2004

Tom Wolfe Wuz Robbed! or, The "Irrelevance Factor" Explored

Is there no-one in the world of arts & letters (not sure who qualifies? Well, let's start with those of us who earn a living wage in the realm of books, magazines and newspapers) who is ashamed of the way we have greeted and mistreated this year's nominees for the National Book Award?

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.

--MMP

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.


46 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nonsense - we in the business, just like general readers, have no obligation to buy any particular book, regardless of its obscurity or award nominations. Readers are CUSTOMERS, remember? No one can tell an author to stop writing, but we do ourselves a grave disservice - as business people as well as supporters of the arts - anytime we try to bully someone into buying a particular work of art for whatever reason.

Anonymous said...

MMP- I haven't read the five books, (I've tried to read three - but I'm just too needy of strong plot) but there are several people I know who are suggesting that the brouh ha ha is well deserved becuase the books are not that extraordinary as far as lit fict goes. Their complaints are not about the obsurity or the lack of commercial appeal, rather totally about the quality of the books themselves.


But have you read them? I'm sure you must have from your post but you don't say and I'm curious what you think about them.

Third Kermit said...

The attacks have largely been petty and, as they have largely been aimed at the authors, mis-directed as well as confused. The real ire here is for the judges.

I think there are reasonable people unhappy with the NBA nods, not because they believe the 5 books are bad, or even too much the same, but because, taken together, they represent too hermetic a view for the judges of an award like the NBA to take.

Notice, how no one, even apparently the authors, seem to care too much who wins. There's no horse race here. A horserace is what the most "successful" awards are (read, The Booker).

If some of these books had been nominated alongside more "noteworthy" titles and then one of the infamous five triumphed all the same that would make a statement that might resonate with readers enough to make the reputation of the lucky author.

Kate Walbert beats Philip Roth/Cynthia Ozick resonates more than

Kate Walbert beats Joan Silber & co.

Why? Because while we do not expect judges to absolutely identify with our handicapping of the books this year, but for there to at least be some common ground.

The sky can be different shades of blue but not pink to me and green to them.

If there is shared perception of the books then readers will say, "Oh. Philip Roth lost to Kate Walbert. That's impressive. Better read it."

Is this fair? Probably not.

But it makes more sense than suggesting Roth wasn't in the running because (right or wrong, haven't gotten to the book yet and have no opinion) everyone seems to think that he was.

If you don't acknowledge the other side, then your point, if you have one, has no weight.

Nominate Philip Roth and then let something else win, as the judges handle both phases (nomination and win) and that makes the point you were trying to make.

Nominate 5 unknowns and you're just waving a flag, no engagement, no repudiation, a firestorm where everyone looks foolish and no one reads anything.

(My local, rather famous, very literary bookstore has the same copies of the 4 books, minus the Schutt, they had before the announcement, I'll fix that after the 15th when I get paid)

Some sort of shared reality is necessary for discourse to occur.

The judges have seemingly let these authors fend for themselves. Which is wholly unfair. The judges must answer for making a statement as they have (as everyone seems to be taking it as a statement). Whereas now it seems that they have simply tossed a bomb into the room and stepped back to admire their handiwork.

Can anyone reasonably say that this list could have been reproduced under any other circumstances? Would the authors themselves have produced it?

Judges are to some extent themselves, but also an extension (an engaged partner) with the community that they oversee.

I'm overselling this.

Blame the judges. This should be their inquisition, if it is to be anyone's.

And when I have had the time to read the 5, the Roth, the Ozick, the Updike, the Boyle, etc. etc. perhaps I'll repudiate all of that I have just written.

But I doubt this, doubt it very much.

Anonymous said...

Well, where awards are concerned, it used to be that people would give books by unknowns (or lesser-selling knowns) a shake. Take Philip Roth. He won the NBA back in 1960 for his first book, "Goodbye Columbus" - a novella-and-story collection, not even a novel. And of the 20-odd nominees that year, his book was certainly not one of the five top sellers, or, perhaps, even one of the five most widely-reviewed.
Go to the NBAs for 1961. AJ Liebling, in N'Orleans to research his book on Earl Long, picks up a just-publised novel by a local guy - Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer." The book had received some good reviews here and there, but it was far from any bestseller list. The editor who'd acquired it, Stanley Kauffmann, had left Knopf before it was published (or thereabouts), and no one at Knopf gave a damn about the book - their tip for the NBA was William Maxwell's "The Chateau" (not to say that that isn't a fine novel). So Liebling read "Moviegoer," loved it, told his wife Jean Stafford (an NBA judge that year, as it happened) about it - and "Moviegoer" ended up winning the NBA (over "Franny and Zooey," no less). It was then that people paid attention to the book, and it was then that it sold.
Of course, the following year, JF Powers' "Morte D'Urban" beat "Pale Fire" for the NBA - but then again Powers is a hell of an underrated writer, even though Pale Fire is the more important book. But let's not fool ourselves. There are more than a few in publishing who would prefer to see NBAs in which not only the Powerses, but even the Nabokovs, are set aside in favor of (substitute your favorite top-selling schlockmeister or -mistress here).

Third Kermit said...

I'll take the remarkable Morte D'Urban over the excellent Pale Fire any day of the week.

Alfred Knopf hated The Moviegoer and was irritated when it became a marquee title for him. All (I believe) Percy's later novels were published by FSG. Knopf really only tolerated the presence of the book on his list because Walker's cousin William Alexander Percy had done such good things for the publisher with his memoir Lanterns on the Levee.

All of that said, Philip Roth's book winning that year made him Philip Roth. Nominating Philip Roth and then seeing him get beaten by an unknown would be an absolutely desirable occurence. Thereby another Philip Roth may be minted.

Kate Walbert beating Joan Silber does not accomplish this.

This is the mistake the judges have made.

By making the statement with the nominees rather than the winners, the judges have made the process seem rigged. As if it were impossible for a known or "successful" book/author to be nominated this year.

That's what cheapens the award. Not a lack of excellence from the nominees but the perception that their excellence was considered equally with the impact that their presence on a short-list would have.

Of course, the easy suspicion (and the one I've heard going around) is that this is a typical Rick Moody moment. The most obtrusive means to an end possible, the end won't be achieved, and the virtuous Moody can claim to have fought the good fight while the 5 authors are little more than the fodder for the statement that was made. I can hear the tone in his open letter now, righteousness itself. Re-read his Nicholson Baker defense in the last Believer and one can practically write it in his manner.

I have no idea whether this is the case- indeed it seems likely that this is too neat a narrative. But what is frustrating is how easily such a narrative could have been rendered ridiculous and the knee-jerk articles we are getting deluged with protesting the nominations could have been de-fanged. Two nominations or even just one to a usual suspect with a novel worthy of a slot and all the ire and angst goes away. New names are minted in the context of greatness.

We all live happily ever after.

Would that have been so hard?

Marjorie said...

Re: your "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."

I am one of the fish in the sea that you are all angling for - an educated, literate, avid reader who can afford to buy as many books as I want. By my reckoning, I read about two books a month. (It used to be more, but children have an odd way of needing a lot of attention.)

My financial adviser informs me that I must die when I am 87 because I will run out of money at that point. So, assuming she is right, at two books a month I will read only 520 books more in my lifetime. Do I want to waste one of those precious allotments on an award-winning book that I find neither enjoyable nor enlightening? I do not.

Screw the awards and their fallible human judges. I start with reviews and word-of-mouth. Then I go to the book jacket and read a page or two at the bookstore or on Amazon. Then I buy it and give it 50 pages. If I'm not laughing, crying, or learning something by page 50, out it goes, guilt-free. Life is too short to read a book that doesn't give me something in return for my time, energy, and money.

I have read and enjoyed many books that fall under the lit fic umbrella, including The Human Stain, The Corrections, and Middlesex. I've also read and loved a few in the trash category, whose authors I will spare the indignity of identifying. Call me crass, unthinking, or middlebrow - I call myself a reader.

- Marjorie
www.mombrain.com

Anonymous said...

Over at Beatrice.com, I'm doing what I can to celebrate these five authors through interviews, and I wish I had gotten hold of some of the judges. And I think you're on to something with the idea that people resent this list because they either feel (a) slapped in the face or (b) afraid they've missed out. As I've mentioned on my site, Knopf's decision to drop Christine Schutt was the same dollar-based move that made Villard drop Matthew Sharpe, and look at them now...both exiled to the small presses, only to find massive public recognition. Did Knopf submit anything nearly as good as these five books for consideration? Perhaps. Then again, I hear that they "forgot" to submit at least one novel that absolutely is as brilliant as the final nominees and plays out in a readily identifiable narrative to boot, which ought to have made it the perfect candidate by the standard bearers at the Times...

Ron Hogan/Beatrice.com

Mad Max Perkins said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mad Max Perkins said...

GOLD STAR POSTS!

I want to thank everybody who posted comments in this string--Marjorie from mombrain.com, Third Kermit (whoever you are) and the several Anons... Note also the new link to BEATRICE.COM, which contains wonderful interviews with the NBA finalists. (No, not the Pistons and the Lakers...)

I'm new to blogging, and so haven't previously experienced the rich mixture of delight and gratitude that comes from an especially robust "conversation" such as the one witnessed here. I'm honored by these posts--sounds lame, I know, but I mean it. Someone asked (elsewhere on this blog) if/why I still liked being an editor. One of the answers to that question--that because I'm employed, in part, to peek inside the heads and hearts of writers (an intelligent lot, by and large), I never stop learning new stuff--applies equally well, I see now, to what's potentially so energizing about the blogging universe too.

So...umm...thanks.
--MaxP.S. Regarding how many of these books I've read myself, the answer is: None. I justify this by referencing Laura Miller's NYTBR essay on the subject, where she noted how, apparently, one needn't read all five to pontificate on them. I thus inferred (expert reader that I am) that my contribution to this dialog would be perhaps most useful if it was completely untainted by facts or emotional attachments of any kind.

Anonymous said...

Max:

I appreciate your candid note that you haven't read any of these books. I'm wondering if you followed your own suggestion at the end of the post, and can tell us how many of these books you bought on your expense account?

I'm also wondering, of the editors and others you know within the publishing "who give lip-service to the importance of literary fiction," what percentage/number (if any) do you think went to a store and actually bought any of those nominees--versus calling someone up to have a free copy sent over?

Mad Max Perkins said...

I've bought four of the five.

As to others in publishing, I can't say. I don't have any sense of the extent to which the publishing community (industry folk, as opposed to the writing community) is reading this. If you're out there, let us know (anonymously) whether you've bought any of these books--or indeed, whether, as a rule, you buy books that sound interesting, or if you call over for a free copy.

Mad Max Perkins said...

I've bought four of the five.

As to others in publishing, I can't say. I don't have any sense of the extent to which the publishing community (industry folk, as opposed to the writing community) is reading this. If you're out there, let us know (anonymously) whether you've bought any of these books--or indeed, whether, as a rule, you buy books that sound interesting, or if you call over for a free copy.

Anonymous said...

Clearly the National Book Award is using this ploy to attract attention for the Book Award Awards (the BAAs). It had to come up with something novel in a year when Bulgarians got into the act, not to mention the impetus the Renaudot's reaching beyond the grave lent to awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to a Thomas Bernhard character. But the NBA thought no one would see through their parody of the Mann Booker strategy.

Anonymous said...

Ron said: "As I've mentioned on my site, Knopf's decision to drop Christine Schutt was the same dollar-based move that made Villard drop Matthew Sharpe, and look at them now...both exiled to the small presses, only to find massive public recognition."

Um, I kinda doubt this is true. Booksellers tell me (and the Amazon # confirms) that Christine Schutt's book is hardly flying off the shelves, even with the nomination and all the brouhaha. Could it be that readers just don't care what Rick Moody and co. consider good? Could it be that they can judge for themselves? Shocking notion, that.

The problem with this backlash against the backlash is that everyone is assuming that the only choices were big names like Roth or these five books. Alas, there are hundreds and hundreds of relatively unknown literary writers who had books out this year. Margot Livesey's Banish Verona would have been an excellent choice. Or Dan Chaon's You Remind Me of Me. Or Paul Jaskunas's Hidden. These novels and many others I've read recently have great stories and great writing. Why does everyone keep assuming we have to choose?

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他的公司「保羅芮情色孟集團」旗下發行部落格多種情色雜誌,包成人網站括「Razzle」、「男性世界」以及「Ma部落格yfair」。


芮孟成人電影本名傑福瑞a片.安東尼.奎恩,父親為搬成人光碟運承包商。成人影片芮孟十五成人網站歲離開學av女優校,矢言要在表成人演事業留名,起先表演讀成人影片心術,後來成為巡迴av歌舞雜耍表sex演的製a片作人。


許多評論家認為,他把情色表演帶進主流社會a片,一九五九年主持破天荒的脫衣舞表演情色電影,後來更AV片靠著在蘇avdvd活區與倫部落格敦西區開發房成人電影地產賺得色情a片大筆財富。

色情
有人形容芮孟av是英a片下載國的海夫色情納,地位等同美國的「花花公子」創辦人海夫納。

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Happy New Year 2009! said...

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vivigirl said...

夏天又到了.為了穿美美的衣服我花了好多時間減肥
,過幾天好朋友要結婚了, 還特地找了便宜又漂亮的服飾批發網站,

還有熱門的飾品批發網站,發現裡面飾品種類超多,有流行韓國飾品白鋼飾品耳環

還提供了飾品批發資訊、大小量飾品批發創業皮箱網路格子店鋪,連飾品工廠都是有提供哦!真是細心的廠商!!

最近剛好想賣衣服也有服飾批發可以參考真棒,

打理好參加婚禮的裝扮後禮品當然也不能少,

逛逛禮品贈品網站,還發現了廣告杯廣告衣服,還可以印刷耶!很不錯的打廣告方式哦,

不景氣~自己用個網站賣賣東西增加額外的收入好像也不錯,情趣用品網路上賣這個不知好嗎?

查查看有哪些網頁設計公司還有網路空間國外虛擬主機

還需要個網路行銷公司幫我打打廣告,

現在的網路行銷還有開辦網路賺錢特訓班耶,

哇~這個快遞公司服務範圍好廣哦,有空運海運國際物流採購,那寄送東西一家就搞定了!

最近好懶得自己整理家務找家清潔公司來幫忙整理好了,

前兩天朋友跟我訴苦她老公外遇,要我幫她找徵信社,不知道有沒有人有認識的!

tank said...

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Anonymous said...

小吃餐車加盟連鎖「一條龍的創業模式」複製成功開店經驗
更新日期:2009/08/25 17:19

(中央社訊息服務20090825 16:19:17)大環境不景氣,工作難找,有不少人就想乾脆自己創業當老闆。為強化國內創業能量,五路財神開店總部於8月20日-9月20日舉辦「2009夢幻小餐車創業成果展」歡迎蒞臨參觀。針對國內一窩蜂創業加盟潮,餐車達人陳滌五總監提醒創業者,加盟不失為一條創業捷徑,但若選擇加盟,品牌知名度、產品獨特性及是否擁有差異化優勢就顯得格外重要。
近年來以成本低的小吃餐車最受創業者青睞。沒經驗的失業族 大部份都選擇餐車擺攤,最多人都想在創業市場闖出一片天。在台中成立的五路財神開店總部,小吃餐車用品牌方式來營運,總經理陳滌五用自己的經驗來現身說法。以國人創業首選的小吃餐車來說,如何在同質性高的市場中殺出重圍?雖然是路邊攤小餐車,營運上的重要撇步是關鍵;在企業經營戰略中,唯有領先核心競爭,保持差異化優勢才是生存之道。
陳總分享成功關鍵,「五路財神餐車與其他路邊攤最大的差異化,在於餐車外觀亮眼與眾不同的加分效果,及秉持結合好的小吃產品用品牌方式來經營的理念」。總部成立初期因觀察到傳統路邊攤想要爭得一席之地,大多考量商品創新的迷思,卻忽略創業者經營能否持久性的問題。所以五路財神餐車將傳統小吃商品,用創新工法為策略,顛覆傳統路邊攤的概念,長期下來在台灣建立起最多元品牌的餐車王國。
很多創業者最憂心沒經驗,業界首創從餐車打造、生財器具、原物料配方、技術教學、促銷廣告、開幕指導,「一條龍的創業輔導」模式,使得五路財神餐車品牌特色更為彰顯。陳總說,不景氣下小吃餐車經營是加倍艱辛,建議創業者不但要瞭解小吃經營的核心價值,凸顯產品獨特性及差異化之外還要定期和你商圈的客人互動,「好餐車、好商品、好客人」,三個好,如此才有可能成為「不敗的小吃攤」。
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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"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."