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The Worst National Book Award List since the Last National Book Award List

The nominees for the National Book Award in fiction were announced earlier today, and they are truly a bad lot:

• Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her
• Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King
• Louise Erdrich, The Round House
• Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
• Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds

The list reads more like the Acknowledgments at the back of a novel, where creative writers nod and smile at other creative writers, than like a selection of the best American fiction published this year. Only Díaz’s collection of stories belongs on it. This Is How You Lose Her should win easily. I reviewed Erdrich’s The Round House in the October issue of COMMENTARY. (Verdict: Don’t bother.) It may come as a surprise, when you study the roll of past winners, to discover that Erdrich has never won the National Book Award. Little else could explain her nomination for the Award this time around.

Dave Eggers is how a middlebrow novelist reads when he has soaked in the groundwater of “literary fiction” for long years. But the worst part of the list — the revealing part of the list — is the two Iraq war novels that were nominated. Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is an entertaining and funny satire. Jacob Silverman, writing at Slate, called it a “near-masterpiece.” Which it is, I guess, if you like derivative fiction: Yossarian Comes Home from Iraq, it might have been called, or Catch-22: All Disdain Revised and Updated.

Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, though, could be nominated only by those who had lost all contact with (and any interest in) the reality of war. This is how the Iraq war sounds from within the closed doors of a writing seminar:

I moved to the edge of the bridge and began firing at anything moving. I saw one man fall in a heap near the bank of the river among the bulrushes and green fields on its edges. In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in Nineveh: the Tigris or the Chesapeake, the James or the Shatt al Arab farther to the south, all belonged to someone else, and perhaps had never really been my own. I was an intruder, at best a visitor, and would be even in my home, in my misremembered history, until the glow of phosphorescence in the Chesapeake I had longed to swim inside again someday became a taunt against my insignificance, a cruel trick of light that had always made me think of stars. No more. I gave up longing, because I was sure that anything seen at such a scale would reveal the universe as cast aside and drowned, and if I ever floated there again, out where the level of the water reached my neck, and my feet lost contact with its muddy bottom, I might realize that to understand the world, one’s place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning.

What is the purpose of such a passage? Beyond testifying to the aesthetic delicacy of the narrator, I mean. Why would anyone besides his mother want to keep reading? There is nothing at all to be learned from the passage — neither facts about combat nor philosophical wisdom of any kind — nor is there any story, any narrative drive forward. This is what becomes of war fiction when American writers are divorced from their own literary tradition, to say nothing of their own experience.

Fountain’s novel and Powers’s are invaluable in showing that American fiction has yet to forge a distinctive idiom for the wars of the 21st century. That this failure should be rewarded with National Book Award nominations, however, is embarrassing. No critic who is not a stranger to American war fiction could have felt any impulse to honor them. But the four judges of the Award are creative writers — not a critic among them — and asking them to judge fiction by the criteria of readers instead of writers is like asking cupcake bakers to judge the heartiest foods. By the criteria of creative writing, Fountain’s novel and Power’s indeed capture our time in luminous prose by two writers who are destined to become the voice of their generation. Or something.

By the criteria of readers, though, the novels are dreadful. So are two of the three remaining nominees. Not that amazing fiction was not published this year. Christopher R. Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder is the year’s best novel. Pauls Toutonghi’s Evel Knievel Days is far more fun to read — far more of a reader’s novel, with far more to say — than any of the four novels put up for the Award. Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You is a return to the kind of fiction that used to be (in Wayne Booth’s words) preoccupied with human content. To say nothing of Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe’s investigative romp through Miami, a novel that readers who still like to read a novel (instead of imagining themselves writing one) will take to bed — and go to bed early. Add Díaz to the list and you have five works of fiction any one of which might deserve a National Book Award.



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