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


(! ! !)

--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.


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.

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).

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

Anonymous said...

Over at, 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/

Libertarian Girl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Libertarian Girl said...


I want to thank everybody who posted comments in this string--Marjorie from, 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.

--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...


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?

Libertarian Girl 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.

Libertarian Girl 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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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."