Saturday, June 11, 2005

The 2004 National Book Award Hissy Fit

My book group has decided to read the winner and some of the finalists of last year's National Book Award stink. For those of you who missed the controversy, it goes something like this:

The winner was Lily Tuck for her historical novel The News From Paraguay. The other finalists were Sarah Shun-lien Bynum for her first novel Madeleine Is Sleeping; Christine Schutt for Florida; Joan Silber for Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories; and Kate Walbert for Our Kind: A Novel in Stories.

Do you notice anything unusual about the 5 authors listed above? Ah yes, they are all women and none is well-known.

This fact caused many in the publishing/reviewing/critical world to have a big old hissy fit, especially since a number of well-known white men were not in the running (the name that I heard mentioned most often was Philip Roth whose book The Plot Against America came out last year to good reviews. Personally, I think he's a good writer, but I haven't been able to finish even one of his books. Not my type.)

Granted, I'm a big fan of women writers and a sucker for lyrical prose, so I'm inclined to like the list based on the descriptions of the books. But it was the reactions and things said by major reviewers/publishers/critics that got the feminist in me supremely pissed off and made me want to defend the winner and finalists to the death (despite the fact that I haven't read them yet.) Read the following comments and see what your reaction is:

1). After the finalists were announced, novelist Tom McGuane (whose prose is often described as "muscular" and who hadn't read any of the novels) was quoted in The New Yorker as saying the award was "apparently tanking."

2) In the NYTimes Book Review, Laura Miller wrote that none of the finalists "could be reasonably expected to please more than a small audience." She implied that their low sales was an indication of low quality (when we all know that marketing is a big part of any book's sales). She also suggested the panelists had deliberately thumbed their noses at the "literary establishment" by selecting previously unnoticed books.

3) NYTimes book critic Caryn James said: "It defies logic to think that five such similar books just happen to be the best of the year."

4) Former co-chairman of the National Book Foundation, Herman Gollob, said he had didn't know any of the fiction finalists and wasn't asked to read them. "It's supposed to be an achievement award for the best that's been done, not a feel good award for aspiring writers."

5) The chairman of the fiction panel, Rick Moody, was accused of selecting the 5 authors as revenge for a lousy review of his own work in 2002. Here's what the Christian Science Monitor published:
In 2002, literary pugilist Dale Peck began his most infamous review by claiming, "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation." The book world gasped and snickered in faux alarm, aroused by the eruption of controversy in the dusty arena of critical debate. But now, as chairman of this year's fiction committee for the National Book Award, Mr. Moody has taken his revenge.

I don't know about you, but reading that kind of crap makes me want to come to the defense of these authors. Not surprisingly, a number of the nominated authors commented on the controversy: Lily Tuck said that the NBA is supposed "to recognize good writing." She added: "The idea that the quality of a book should be judged by sales figures is ridiculous." And here is Christine Schutt in an interview in the NYTimes Magazine with Deborah Solomon:

What is it like to be attacked by your fellow novelists for having written a novel that reportedly sold only 100 copies? Thomas McGuane said publicly that the National Book Awards underwent a ''meltdown'' by selecting finalists as obscure as you.

It surprises me very much. It surprises me that Tom McGuane could damn my book without having read it. And by the way, ''Florida'' has actually sold at least 1,099 copies.

The critic John Leonard suggested that a prize winner should be someone who has put in time and paid his dues.

I am 56. I have taught literature at a girls' school in Manhattan, Nightingale-Bamford, for more than 20 years. My first collection of short stories was titled ''Nightwork'' because I wrote it at night while I was divorced and raising two sons. How else can I pay my dues?

All the finalists in fiction this year are women. Do you think this has anything to do with the response you're getting?

Would they be doing this if we were five unknown men?

What do you think the award should stand for besides, obviously, literary excellence?

I do think you should honor some work that is trying to be a clean, hard object.

That could describe a washing machine.

True, it could. But what I mean is that a piece of writing should be hard and clean in the sense that there is nothing extraneous about it, no feathery adjectives.

I think that what strikes me the most is that concept of "paying one's dues." Why should suffering be a requirement for recognition? And what kind of suffering counts? Does not having given up everything in order to be a writer disqualify someone? This question seems particularly pertinent to me now after reading Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries. She was the mother of 5 children and didn't give up her family, move to a garret and starve. She said of her writing that it was her "knitting" when she was raising her kids. Does that mean that she isn't worthy of recognition because her beautiful prose wasn't excruciating to the author in its creation? (Of course, the Pulitzer Committee answered that in 1995 by giving her the prize for fiction.)

Time to take a deep breath since I am working myself into an equivalent hissy fit.

I noticed that all the 2004 NBA finalists are now out in paperback, so next month my book group will read The News From Paraguay and in August Madeleine Is Sleeping. And then I'll be able to write an informed rant about the controversy.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I do hope your book group also reads Joan Silber's collection. I was so delighted to hear that her book was a finalist this year. Joan taught a few times at Warren Wilson while I was there. Her classes were always smart, and while she was never my adviser I always heard good things from the students who worked with her. I've only read one story in this collection (which, your book club should note, features a fabulous meal that the main character makes to impress his loved one), but based on how good it was I've been eager to read the whole thing. Would your book club entertain a guest visitor for one meeting? :)

I look forward to hearing of the other books; my reaction to this whole "controversy" was very similar to yours.

Kate said...

I think after the bookgroup has read the first two selections the group will decide whether to read the rest of them. I'm definitely planning to read all the finalists though (I think they all sound terrific)and I think the Joan Silber book is being held for me at the library right now! It was the one of the five that appealed the most to me by its description. Just gotta find the time to get there and pick it up. So if my book group doesn't decide to read it, want to make the fabulous meal you mentioned and talk about the book sometime? Maybe Ami would want to join us in the endeavor since she is another Warren Wilson grad.

Anonymous said...

That's a great motivation to finally read the book and enjoy a superb meal! Although the meal I mentioned involved some dishes that I've certainly never attempted before -- sorrel soup and oysters are two that I recall. Maybe there are other culinary passages to mine elsewhere.

Kate said...

I've always wanted to make sorrel soup. I think the easiest way to obtain sorrel would be to grow it (I remember my British Aunt pulling over to the side of the road to harvest some she spied growing in a hedgerow when I visted her in Hampshire once...) so I'll do a little search for seeds. I think I have enough room in my garden for some. If the oysters are raw, unfortunately I can't eat them. I love the taste, mind you, but developed a sensitivity to them. Every time I eat raw oysters now about 2 hours later I throw up. Since oysters usually are a part of a damn good meal, often with damn good wine, I won't eat them raw anymore out of respect for the other food. I can eat them cooked, as in Barbequed Oysters or Oysters Rockafeller. Don't know why I don't have the reaction then, but it seems to be the case.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Good books, good food, good company: I'd be delighted to come any time.

Julie said...

I think what strikes me the most is the "no feathery adjectives." !!!!

Thank you for posting this, Kate. I hadn't heard about this controversy before. Argh!

Anonymous said...

Somehow I missed reading about this controversy, so thanks for the recap (and the links to all the books). I put Silber's collection on hold immediately (I wrote a paper about Gaspara Stampa, one of her narrators!). And I second Julie's comment about "no feathery adjectives". Obviously I'm inclined to agree with Schutt, especially with regard to her (and your) comments about paying dues, but what's wrong with the occasional feathery adjective? Isn't "feathery" itself the perfect adjective in this case?