13 October 2011

Silly (Awards) Season

I'm a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards this year, so perhaps I'm more sensitive than normal to pundits carping about award results, but something about awards brings out people's desire to complain, and they don't usually come out looking very good by doing so.

The ones people always complain about get complaints again this year -- the Nobel and the National Book Awards. The two articles I've seen linked to most frequently are Tim Parks on the Nobel and Laura Miller on the National Book Awards.

The Parks piece isn't terrible, but I'd agree with M.A. Orthofer at The Literary Saloon that it's "somewhat careless". (Parks has written a bit more thoughtfully about the Nobel in his essay "The Nobel Individual".) I certainly agree that the Nobel is inevitably in a tough position because it's supposed to be so international and definitive, and people give it almost mystical reverence, but its track record really isn't that bad. Sure, I wish they'd give it to Chinua Achebe already, and then Ngugi wa Thiong'o (so I could say I once interviewed a Nobel winner), and not be so generally Eurocentric, but it's an award based in Europe, so, you know, whatever. And I've got no problem with it being anti-American. Michael Bourne can whine all he wants about Philip Roth not getting it, and maybe Roth will get it one of these days, but I hope not. When Bourne writes, "If Philip Roth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, no one does," he just flaunts his ignorance of world literature. There are plenty of other writers out there who would benefit from it more and who are equally interesting and even influential artists.

Tomas Transtörmer, this year's winner, is a safe and relatively obvious choice. Some people have complained that he's an "obscure poet", but anybody who refers to him as such doesn't know what they're talking about. He's been translated into somewhere around 50 languages, has multiple translators in English, has books in print in the U.S. For a poet, that's rockstar status. Just because you haven't heard of somebody doesn't mean they're obscure.

Laura Miller's slam of the NBA is some of the worst writing I've ever seen from her. People have a habit of complaining about the obscurity of NBA finalists, and it always makes them sound stupid. Laura Miller accuses the NBA judges in the fiction category of deliberately seeking out books that are no fun to read and are published by small presses. She accuses them of seeking out books that deserve more attention and ignoring books that are popular. "If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like," she says, "you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with."

That's not really an argument, though. It's more like a non sequitur. At the very least, it's irrelevant.

The judges for the fiction award this year are Deirdre McNamer (Panel Chair), Jerome Charyn, John Crowley, Victor LaValle, Yiyun Li. That's an interesting panel. My interest in a book would rise if I knew those folks had thought the book was worthwhile and even impressive.


Laura Miller, though, thinks they seem like out-of-touch snobs who want to boost the sales of books that aren't entertaining. The NBA for fiction, she says,
more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public. The former believes that everyone reads as much as they do and that they still have the authority to shape readers’ tastes, while the latter increasingly suspects that it’s being served the literary equivalent of spinach. 
In Laura Miller's mind, "the reading public" (whatever that is) is a bunch of unadventurous louts, and the "literary community" is a bunch of resentful old cultural guardians. Or something. Nobody who writes about books, nobody who sits on an awards jury, and certainly nobody who teaches literature in any school in America is likely to believe that a.) people read much, or b.) "the literary community" has much power to shape people's tastes. It's an old, outdated, disingenuous argument built from an army of straw men.

The simple fact is, if Laura Miller hasn't read all of the NBA nominees for fiction, she's opinionating without evidence. She complains that "widely praised" novels by Jeffrey Eugenides and Chad Harbach aren't finalists. So what?

The NBA jurors read lots of books and found some they thought were really interesting. It's no crime that they found these books to be more interesting than books that have gotten more attention.

I have not read much fiction this year, and have not read any of the nominees, so I can't say whether I think they're spinach or not.* I have no need to parade my ignorance as indignation.

I can say this, though -- I've discovered some wonderful books I wouldn't have otherwise known about thanks to the NBA jurors in past years. I've discovered some writers I very much appreciate thanks to the Nobel, too. It's what I like about juried awards -- a group of people sits down and reads through more books than I would ever have the opportunity to in my everyday life, and they offer their view of the best of what is in that bunch. I don't see anything particularly nefarious in that. Elitist, yes, by definition -- the jurors are an elite in that they have read more of this stuff than almost anyone who is not a juror. That seems to me to be a virtue of a juried award.

So thank you, National Book Award judges. Thank you for reading as much as you do, and thank you for sifting through so many books to offer us your opinion that these five are really special. Thank you for not trying to compete with Oprah, thank you for not coddling us, thank you for not just going with easy choices. Unlike the Laura Millers of the world, I want awards to broaden my knowledge, not humor my ignorance.


*I like raw spinach and hate cooked spinach, so for me it would really be a question of how the spinach is prepared and presented. 

1 comment:

  1. The annual Anglo-American handwringing about the Nobel Prize is incredibly annoying, because it is so predictable. Whatever American critic decides to complain that Philip Roth didn't win yet again inevitably writes that he or she has never heard of the winner, therefore the winner must be unworthy. Did it ever occur to them that maybe, just maybe they are not as educated about world literature as they would like to be. There have been Nobel winners I have never heard of either, but I usually attribute that to my own ignorance.

    I also don't get why Elfriede Jelinek is always singled out as an unworthy winner. I am German and Jelinek is a very well-known writer in the German speaking world. She wasn't considered a Nobel contender when she won, but hardly anybody except for a few extremely conservative Austrians disagreed with the award. If anything, I found Hertha Müller's win in 2009 a lot more surprising than Jelinek's, because Müller was considered a fairly obscure writer even in Germany.

    And while Jelinek's work is certainly difficult and uncomfortable at times, it is far from unreadable as Tim Parks claimed. I found the rape scene J.M. Coetze's Disgrace a lot more unpalatable than the sex scenes in any Jelinek work I've seen/read. Personally, I suspect Jelinek is disliked in the Anglo-American world, because she's little known there, not a victim of oppression like e.g. Hertha Müller, because she is an outspoken leftwinger, politically incorrect (her latest work contains some darkly funny but very politically incorrect lines about Natascha Kampusch, the girl in the cellar), because she writes about sex and because her work is very much focused on Austrian issues.

    As for Philip Roth, he will never win, at least not as long as American critics keep whinging that Roth was robbed. If I were a member of the Swedish academy, I wouldn't give the prize to Roth either under these circumstances. Never mind that there are better writers in the US let alone the world than Philip Roth.

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