Literary Prizes: Theirs, Ours, and Everybody Else’s

The twitterverse is all atweet with reactions to the announcement of the National Book Award 2011 Short List, and once again it’s the fiction list that is causing the stir. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht aside, where are all the books that publishers, marketing people, critics, and the rest of the lit world expected to be on the list? Has the NBA finally and irrevocably become irrelevant, as Laura Miller suggests in Salon? Even the normally judicious Ron Charles, whose literary tastes I share to the extent that it’s very possible we were separated at birth, is betraying some low-level concern. Where are all the books I loved reading this year, he tweeted.

And the situation doesn’t seem to be much better on the other side of the Atlantic, though while the complaint about the NBA judges seems to be that they are too elitist and obscure, the Brits have the opposite problem.  A group of English literati have created a new and simply titled “Literature Prize”  (a name just begging for a sponsor; maybe the Murdoch Literature Prize? Oh, wait, no.  The Branson?  The Tesco?) Seems it didn’t sit too well with them that one of the Man Booker judges cited “readability” as a criterion in the committee’s decisions this year and, so, they’re giving up on the Booker entirely. The Guardian reports that the new prize has the support of a group of distinguished writers, including Booker laureates John Banville and Pat Barker, Costa Prize winner Mark Haddon, and Jackie Kay and David Mitchell. In the announcement, the organizers take a pointed swipe at the Man Booker, saying, “We believe that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to celebrate the very best novels published in our time.” Clearly, they feel the Booker has sunk too low, though one assumes the writers involved thought it was run well enough when they received the prize. The Guardian notes that the widespread upset when Allan Hollinghurst’s new book didn’t make the short list was also a possible factor in the decision to create the new prize. With that, I sympathize. I loved Line of Beauty, am eager to get my hands on The Stranger’s Child, and find his work in general smart and moving and—dare I say it?—immensely readable.

Finally, though, the question on both sides of the Atlantic doesn’t seem to be whether books should be “readable”—I’m guessing everyone thinks that’s a pretty good idea–but rather, whether a prize becomes irrelevant when it fails to recognize the books that the literary establishment—including publishers, critics, marketing people, and blogging tastemakers—have deemed best.

When favored books don’t make the lists, the judges are accused of being too esoteric or too populist (choose one) or too sexist or not sexist enough (Too many women this year!) or too counter-culture (Too many independent presses!) or just obstinate and out of touch with the reading public.

But it’s not really the reading public that’s the issue, is it?  I know it mustn’t be, because up to the time I took this job nearly six years ago, I was simply (only?) a member of the reading public. Like most readers in the country, I had no interest at all in who published the books I was reading, never even thought to learn how to properly pronounce Knopf, had no idea who Jonathan Galassi or Sony Mehta (I would have guessed conductor) were, and had never even seen a copy of Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly.

Despite my woeful ignorance of all things literary (except books, of course—those I bought and read at a ridiculous clip), I loved the Booker and the National Book Award and a few other prizes because, along with the New York Times Book Review and a handful of magazines, I looked to them to lead me to good books.  I trusted them.  And when the books short-listed for the NBA weren’t the books I already knew about from ecstatic reviews in the Times or the The New Yorker, I remember being especially happy.  But was I remembering this correctly? Could it really have been the case?  To test it, I called an old college friend who is now a librarian in North Carolina.  Have you seen the National Book Award fiction short list, I asked.  Of course she had. What do you think? I asked. Oh, excellent, she said, I’ve only read one of the books.  She plans to order all of them, as most of the librarians in the country no doubt will. Are these books, as Laura Miller writes, “overlooked gems with a specialized appeal?”  Maybe, but maybe that’s OK or beyond OK, good or great even. (Though having read most of the short-listed books I can’t for the life of me figure out what Miller means by “specialized appeal.”)

Perhaps what bothers me most in the current debate, aside from general confusion about what the reading public needs or wants, is the idea that judges aren’t doing their jobs properly.  For the past thirty years, I’ve been a part of countless selection committee meetings including those that have selected the U.S. artists for the Venice Biennale and other major shows, ones that have given early career support to choreographers and composers, ones that have rewarded innovative theater companies, and ones that have selected artists for residencies around the world. I’ve also moderated our own First Novel Prize judges’ meetings. I serve as a judge for the annual Willie Morris Prize and I’m a nominator for a couple other awards. I know, and let me underscore that, I absolutely know, that the vast majority of judges I’ve encountered in all these processes take their jobs very seriously and proceed with honesty and rigor.  They routinely recuse themselves when there is even the hint of a conflict of interest, and they work very hard to judge each work on its own merits without prejudice. I’ve seen the few who don’t get booed and hissed into submission time and time again.  Do tastes differ? Sure.  Do arguments occur?  Of course. Is it sometimes impossible to recognize all the good work?  Yes, sometimes a short list would have to be far longer to recognize all the excellent books in a given year. But I’ve never seen a book ignored because it had already won a prize or had great reviews (The Tiger’s Wife is on the NBA Short List, in case you hadn’t noticed) and I’ve never seen a book rewarded for being obscure. (“Let’s pick this, nobody will understand it and they’ll think we’re so much smarter than everyone if we choose it.”)  This sort of stuff really doesn’t happen. Books simply speak to different people differently.  My son devours every word David Foster Wallace wrote.  I don’t. I’m crazy for Dana Spiotta novels. Not everyone is. (What is wrong with you people?) Not every debut novel I loved even made our own Flaherty-Dunnan Short List this year, though I loved every novel that did.

I’m sorry Allen Hollinghurst didn’t make the Man Booker Short List.  I would have loved to see Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and Donald Ray Pollock’s Devil All the Time on the NBA Fiction Short List.  Please read them, they’re really fine books, extraordinary books.  But so are all the books that did make it.  Read them, too.  If you’re only reading one or two books a year, it’s probably going to be the  Steve Jobs bio and whatever the latest incarnation of The Help is, and none of these lists matters much to you. But if you read more than that, the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize short lists—and our own Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize Short List—are terrific places to start.

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