Commentary Magazine


Topic: Literary prizes

Maybe the Pulitzers Ran Out of Writers

In the aftermath of the Pulitzer Prize board’s inability to give out a fiction award yesterday, the three jurors who selected the three finalists have got mad, and the critics have been speculating like mad. My own theory is that the Pulitzers ran out of writers.

Literary prizes have little to do with literary merit (and the little gets less every year). They are just another medium of book advertising. The best evidence is how few books win more than one of the big three awards — Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle — in any one year. The last novel to be honored with both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award was E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News nearly two decades ago in 1994. Only six works of fiction have been dual winners:

1955    William Faulkner, A Fable
1966    Katherine Anne Porter, Collected Stories
1967    Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich
1983    Alice Walker, The Color Purple
1994    E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

It is less unusual for the National Book Critics Circle Award to go to a book that wins another prize the same year. Nine times since the award was established in 1976 it has gone to a book that also won another laurel:

1979    John Cheever, Stories (also won Pulitzer)
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich (also won National Book Award and Pulitzer)
1991    John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (also won Pulitzer)
1992    Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (also won Pulitzer)
1993    Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (also won National Book Award)
2004    Edward P. Jones, The Known World (also won Pulitzer)
2005    Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (also won Pulitzer)
2008    Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (also won Pulitzer)
2011     Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (also won Pulitzer)

If anyone were to draw up a list of the 14 most striking and distinctive and influential American books of the past six decades, however, very few of the titles on these two lists would be on it. The lack of multiple awards is significant, but even more telling is how badly the multiple awards correlate with lasting reputations.

The dirty little secret of literary prizes is that they must not be given out more than once to the same writer. Saul Bellow won the National Book Award three times (1954, 1965, 1971); William Faulkner, twice (1951, 1955); William Gaddis, twice (1976, 1994); Bernard Malamud, twice (1959, 1967); Wright Morris, twice (1957, 1981); Philip Roth, twice (1960, 1995); and John Updike, twice (1964, 1982). But no American writer who has begun his or her career since 1976 — no one belonging to the “boomer” generation or after — has won more than once.

The Pulitzer Prize appears to have an unwritten policy forbidding repeat winners. The last writer to win the more than once was John Updike, who took home the Prize for Rabbit Is Rich in 1982 and then again for Rabbit at Rest nine years later. Here is a complete and unabridged list of the American fiction writers who have won the Pulitzer more than once: William Faulkner, Booth Tarkington, John Updike.

The rationale for the Pulitzer’s unwritten prohibition against repeat winners becomes clear when you examine the cover of Steven Millhauser’s new volume of stories, We Others:

Given Millhauser’s genius for short fiction, We Others should have been a serious contender for the Prize. (It was Janice Harayda’s choice for the Pulitzer That Wasn’t.) But the reason it wasn’t considered is obvious. Millhauser captured top honors in 1997 for Martin Dressler, making it possible for Knopf to fill a box on his grid-like cover with “winner of the Pulitzer Prize” — an honor that goes on the same level as the title. Winning a second Prize adds nothing to what Knopf can do to sell Millhauser’s books. The Pulitzer is an advertising sticker to slap on a writer’s dust jacket. And one sticker is all it takes.

If writers can only win the Pulitzer once, though, and if few books commandeer more than one trophy per year, the store of American fiction writers is going to be exhausted sooner rather than later. More than anything else, that may explain why no Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded this year.

In the aftermath of the Pulitzer Prize board’s inability to give out a fiction award yesterday, the three jurors who selected the three finalists have got mad, and the critics have been speculating like mad. My own theory is that the Pulitzers ran out of writers.

Literary prizes have little to do with literary merit (and the little gets less every year). They are just another medium of book advertising. The best evidence is how few books win more than one of the big three awards — Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle — in any one year. The last novel to be honored with both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award was E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News nearly two decades ago in 1994. Only six works of fiction have been dual winners:

1955    William Faulkner, A Fable
1966    Katherine Anne Porter, Collected Stories
1967    Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich
1983    Alice Walker, The Color Purple
1994    E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

It is less unusual for the National Book Critics Circle Award to go to a book that wins another prize the same year. Nine times since the award was established in 1976 it has gone to a book that also won another laurel:

1979    John Cheever, Stories (also won Pulitzer)
1982    John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich (also won National Book Award and Pulitzer)
1991    John Updike, Rabbit at Rest (also won Pulitzer)
1992    Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres (also won Pulitzer)
1993    Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (also won National Book Award)
2004    Edward P. Jones, The Known World (also won Pulitzer)
2005    Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (also won Pulitzer)
2008    Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (also won Pulitzer)
2011     Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (also won Pulitzer)

If anyone were to draw up a list of the 14 most striking and distinctive and influential American books of the past six decades, however, very few of the titles on these two lists would be on it. The lack of multiple awards is significant, but even more telling is how badly the multiple awards correlate with lasting reputations.

The dirty little secret of literary prizes is that they must not be given out more than once to the same writer. Saul Bellow won the National Book Award three times (1954, 1965, 1971); William Faulkner, twice (1951, 1955); William Gaddis, twice (1976, 1994); Bernard Malamud, twice (1959, 1967); Wright Morris, twice (1957, 1981); Philip Roth, twice (1960, 1995); and John Updike, twice (1964, 1982). But no American writer who has begun his or her career since 1976 — no one belonging to the “boomer” generation or after — has won more than once.

The Pulitzer Prize appears to have an unwritten policy forbidding repeat winners. The last writer to win the more than once was John Updike, who took home the Prize for Rabbit Is Rich in 1982 and then again for Rabbit at Rest nine years later. Here is a complete and unabridged list of the American fiction writers who have won the Pulitzer more than once: William Faulkner, Booth Tarkington, John Updike.

The rationale for the Pulitzer’s unwritten prohibition against repeat winners becomes clear when you examine the cover of Steven Millhauser’s new volume of stories, We Others:

Given Millhauser’s genius for short fiction, We Others should have been a serious contender for the Prize. (It was Janice Harayda’s choice for the Pulitzer That Wasn’t.) But the reason it wasn’t considered is obvious. Millhauser captured top honors in 1997 for Martin Dressler, making it possible for Knopf to fill a box on his grid-like cover with “winner of the Pulitzer Prize” — an honor that goes on the same level as the title. Winning a second Prize adds nothing to what Knopf can do to sell Millhauser’s books. The Pulitzer is an advertising sticker to slap on a writer’s dust jacket. And one sticker is all it takes.

If writers can only win the Pulitzer once, though, and if few books commandeer more than one trophy per year, the store of American fiction writers is going to be exhausted sooner rather than later. More than anything else, that may explain why no Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded this year.

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Celebrating Edith Pearlman

The National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction was awarded last night to Edith Pearlman. The victory of this avowedly Jewish writer is significant in many respects, but we take special pride in noting that one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY.

For more about Pearlman’s work, please read D.G. Myers’ appreciation of her on our Literary Commentary blog, and as a special treat, her story “Settlers,” which appeared first in the January 1986 issue of COMMENTARY.

The National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction was awarded last night to Edith Pearlman. The victory of this avowedly Jewish writer is significant in many respects, but we take special pride in noting that one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY.

For more about Pearlman’s work, please read D.G. Myers’ appreciation of her on our Literary Commentary blog, and as a special treat, her story “Settlers,” which appeared first in the January 1986 issue of COMMENTARY.

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Edith Pearlman’s Pins and Buckles and Clips

Edith Pearlman won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction last night for Binocular Vision, her satisfyingly fat collection of 34 stories. Although she would not have been my first choice if I had served on the prize jury — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is among the five or six best American novels of the past 25 years — Pearlman richly deserves the recognition that she has been denied for so long.

That she was overlooked for the National Book Award last November (in favor a sleepy-headed novel in middle-school prose) was one of the more embarrassing moments for the American critical establishment in recent memory. But such is the state of literary politics today: something like Uncritical Race Theory is the guilty conscience of a good many literary critics.

Not that Edith Pearlman is a writer without identity. She is a Jewish writer. In fact, one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY. In celebration of Pearlman’s award, we are making “Settlers” available for free to her readers and ours. “I didn’t know you were interested in Judaism,” Peter Loy’s daughter says to him. “I’m not interested in Judaism,” Peter replies. “Only in Jews. They’re so complicated. . . .”

He could have been speaking for Pearlman. Now 75, she has been been exploring her interest in complicated Jews (and human beings with other kinds of complicated identity) for three-and-a-half decades. She doesn’t poke fun at the Orthodox or the Holocaust or rabbis or large Jewish families or “settlers” in the disputed territories (the settlers in her COMMENTARY story live in Boston). So her stories are not published by a large New York house, and she doesn’t get the press of a Nathan Englander or a Shalom Auslander.

Pearlman tends to write about middle-aged and middle-class Jews who (in a phrase from her story “Day of Awe”) are “giving their final years to just causes.” Her characters, in short, are familiar secularized liberal Jews, but she writes about them without either mockery or triumphant crowing about their virtuous politics. For her people, as she writes in another story, “Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug.”

Pearlman is fascinated by their shaky new commitments and loyalties. They bring little to their human connections beyond the strength of their heart and their willingness to adjust. Or, as she describes one woman’s approach to marriage, in a sentence that is typical of her wry and quiet prose: “She herself had brought to the union a passion for teaching, and also a cigar box of pins and buckles and clips.” The practical and the passionate sit side-by-side in Edith Pearlman’s fiction, and sometimes they are enough, as she lovingly shows, to hold people’s lives together.

Edith Pearlman won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in fiction last night for Binocular Vision, her satisfyingly fat collection of 34 stories. Although she would not have been my first choice if I had served on the prize jury — Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is among the five or six best American novels of the past 25 years — Pearlman richly deserves the recognition that she has been denied for so long.

That she was overlooked for the National Book Award last November (in favor a sleepy-headed novel in middle-school prose) was one of the more embarrassing moments for the American critical establishment in recent memory. But such is the state of literary politics today: something like Uncritical Race Theory is the guilty conscience of a good many literary critics.

Not that Edith Pearlman is a writer without identity. She is a Jewish writer. In fact, one of her first published stories appeared in COMMENTARY. In celebration of Pearlman’s award, we are making “Settlers” available for free to her readers and ours. “I didn’t know you were interested in Judaism,” Peter Loy’s daughter says to him. “I’m not interested in Judaism,” Peter replies. “Only in Jews. They’re so complicated. . . .”

He could have been speaking for Pearlman. Now 75, she has been been exploring her interest in complicated Jews (and human beings with other kinds of complicated identity) for three-and-a-half decades. She doesn’t poke fun at the Orthodox or the Holocaust or rabbis or large Jewish families or “settlers” in the disputed territories (the settlers in her COMMENTARY story live in Boston). So her stories are not published by a large New York house, and she doesn’t get the press of a Nathan Englander or a Shalom Auslander.

Pearlman tends to write about middle-aged and middle-class Jews who (in a phrase from her story “Day of Awe”) are “giving their final years to just causes.” Her characters, in short, are familiar secularized liberal Jews, but she writes about them without either mockery or triumphant crowing about their virtuous politics. For her people, as she writes in another story, “Assimilation had become as passé as the jitterbug.”

Pearlman is fascinated by their shaky new commitments and loyalties. They bring little to their human connections beyond the strength of their heart and their willingness to adjust. Or, as she describes one woman’s approach to marriage, in a sentence that is typical of her wry and quiet prose: “She herself had brought to the union a passion for teaching, and also a cigar box of pins and buckles and clips.” The practical and the passionate sit side-by-side in Edith Pearlman’s fiction, and sometimes they are enough, as she lovingly shows, to hold people’s lives together.

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Literary History at the National Book Awards

Last night’s National Book Awards ceremony in New York was a long exercise in self-congratulation. Stephen Greenblatt, a pioneer of the New Historicist school of literary scholarship, won the nonfiction award for The Swerve, a far-fetched popularizing account of how one Roman poet turned all of Europe away from medieval religiosity toward modern secularism. The award was notable, because Greenblatt was the only “white male” (as his type is now called) to win last night. (Greenblatt was allowed on the stage because his criticism, grounded in Marxist presumptions about literature and ideology, is vaguely radical.)

The remaining awards were handed out according to the terms of multiculturalism. Thanhha Lai won in the young adult category for Inside Out & Back Again, an autobiographical novel in verse about a young woman (not unlike Lai herself) whose family flees Vietnam upon the fall of Saigon and resettles in Alabama.

But the awards in fiction and poetry caused the celebration. Let’s turn to Ron Charles, fiction critic for the Washington Post, for the story:

https://twitter.com/#!/RonCharles/status/137009536543358976

Nikky Finney, a 54-year-old poet who is praised for her “engagement with political activism,” won the poetry award. (Examples of her poetry can be found here and here.) In her acceptance speech, Finney explained that every poem she writes is “haunted” by the knowledge that “black people . . . were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate.”

The fiction award went to Jesmyn Ward for Salvage the Bones, the story of a poor family’s last few days before Hurricane Katrina strikes the Mississippi coast. The narrator is a 15-year-old girl, although she sounds like a student in Nikky Finney’s poetry workshop:

When mama first explained to me what a hurricane was, I thought that all the animals ran away, that they fled the storms before they came, that they put their noses to the wind days before and knew. That maybe they stuck their tongues out, pink and warm, to taste, to make sure. That the deer looked at their companions and leapt. That the foxes chattered to themselves, rolled their shoulders, and started off. And maybe the bigger animals do. But now I think that other animals, like the squirrels and the rabbits, don’t do that at all. Maybe the small don’t run. Maybe the small pause on their branches, the pine-lined earth, nose up, catch that coming storm air that would smell like salt to them, like salt and clean burning fire, and they prepare like us.

And that’s only the first half of the paragraph. The narrator goes on “imagining” (if that’s the right word) how animals prepare for a hurricane. Salvage the Bones is thin on felt life, but thick with verbal substitutes for it.

Being nominated for the National Book Award, Ward said, caught her off guard. “It took a while to convince me that this was really happening,” she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “My first book [Where the Line Bleeds] had flown under the radar. And, of course, I’m from the South, I’m black and I’m a woman — and all those things push me into a niche that is outside the realm of experience for a lot of literary people.”

The exact opposite is true, of course. Black women are smack in America’s literary mainstream. Despite Ron Charles’s oily toadyish compliments to the “spectacularly powerful African American women” who won awards last night, their victories were the furthest thing from “historic.” By now the honoring of black women writers is an established convention of literary culture in America.

Alice Walker “walked off” with the National Book Award for The Color Purple in 1983 — almost three decades ago. When Toni Morrison’s Beloved was passed over for the same award five years later, 48 “black critics and black writers” — that’s how they described themselves — wrote to the New York Times Book Review, protesting “the oversight and harmful whimsy” by which any white male could possibly be preferred to Morrison. “The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied,” they declared. Not quite ten weeks later the “legitimate need” was redressed, and Beloved was given the Pulitzer Prize. And in 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. “She is the first black woman to receive the prize,” the Times helpfully noted in its front-page story.

Literary awards to black women writers are not historic. For nearly three decades, critical attention and honors have been demanded for some writers (and granted) on the basis of their race and sex. The day is long past when the identification of American writers by race and sex became a mental habit, a social custom; it is now a deep structural element in the grammar of literary criticism. Indeed, the self-congratulation implicit in the trumpeting of the “historic” achievements of black women writers is, by now, thirty years on, a stock reaction like tears when lovers are reunited or laughter when yet another stand-up comic says the word f–k.

Last night’s National Book Awards ceremony in New York was a long exercise in self-congratulation. Stephen Greenblatt, a pioneer of the New Historicist school of literary scholarship, won the nonfiction award for The Swerve, a far-fetched popularizing account of how one Roman poet turned all of Europe away from medieval religiosity toward modern secularism. The award was notable, because Greenblatt was the only “white male” (as his type is now called) to win last night. (Greenblatt was allowed on the stage because his criticism, grounded in Marxist presumptions about literature and ideology, is vaguely radical.)

The remaining awards were handed out according to the terms of multiculturalism. Thanhha Lai won in the young adult category for Inside Out & Back Again, an autobiographical novel in verse about a young woman (not unlike Lai herself) whose family flees Vietnam upon the fall of Saigon and resettles in Alabama.

But the awards in fiction and poetry caused the celebration. Let’s turn to Ron Charles, fiction critic for the Washington Post, for the story:

https://twitter.com/#!/RonCharles/status/137009536543358976

Nikky Finney, a 54-year-old poet who is praised for her “engagement with political activism,” won the poetry award. (Examples of her poetry can be found here and here.) In her acceptance speech, Finney explained that every poem she writes is “haunted” by the knowledge that “black people . . . were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate.”

The fiction award went to Jesmyn Ward for Salvage the Bones, the story of a poor family’s last few days before Hurricane Katrina strikes the Mississippi coast. The narrator is a 15-year-old girl, although she sounds like a student in Nikky Finney’s poetry workshop:

When mama first explained to me what a hurricane was, I thought that all the animals ran away, that they fled the storms before they came, that they put their noses to the wind days before and knew. That maybe they stuck their tongues out, pink and warm, to taste, to make sure. That the deer looked at their companions and leapt. That the foxes chattered to themselves, rolled their shoulders, and started off. And maybe the bigger animals do. But now I think that other animals, like the squirrels and the rabbits, don’t do that at all. Maybe the small don’t run. Maybe the small pause on their branches, the pine-lined earth, nose up, catch that coming storm air that would smell like salt to them, like salt and clean burning fire, and they prepare like us.

And that’s only the first half of the paragraph. The narrator goes on “imagining” (if that’s the right word) how animals prepare for a hurricane. Salvage the Bones is thin on felt life, but thick with verbal substitutes for it.

Being nominated for the National Book Award, Ward said, caught her off guard. “It took a while to convince me that this was really happening,” she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “My first book [Where the Line Bleeds] had flown under the radar. And, of course, I’m from the South, I’m black and I’m a woman — and all those things push me into a niche that is outside the realm of experience for a lot of literary people.”

The exact opposite is true, of course. Black women are smack in America’s literary mainstream. Despite Ron Charles’s oily toadyish compliments to the “spectacularly powerful African American women” who won awards last night, their victories were the furthest thing from “historic.” By now the honoring of black women writers is an established convention of literary culture in America.

Alice Walker “walked off” with the National Book Award for The Color Purple in 1983 — almost three decades ago. When Toni Morrison’s Beloved was passed over for the same award five years later, 48 “black critics and black writers” — that’s how they described themselves — wrote to the New York Times Book Review, protesting “the oversight and harmful whimsy” by which any white male could possibly be preferred to Morrison. “The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied,” they declared. Not quite ten weeks later the “legitimate need” was redressed, and Beloved was given the Pulitzer Prize. And in 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. “She is the first black woman to receive the prize,” the Times helpfully noted in its front-page story.

Literary awards to black women writers are not historic. For nearly three decades, critical attention and honors have been demanded for some writers (and granted) on the basis of their race and sex. The day is long past when the identification of American writers by race and sex became a mental habit, a social custom; it is now a deep structural element in the grammar of literary criticism. Indeed, the self-congratulation implicit in the trumpeting of the “historic” achievements of black women writers is, by now, thirty years on, a stock reaction like tears when lovers are reunited or laughter when yet another stand-up comic says the word f–k.

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National Book Award Predictions

The National Book Awards will be announced at a benefit dinner this evening in New York. None of the year’s best novels — Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, Lee Martin’s Break the Skin, Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl, Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot — was nominated. All literary prizes are advertisements to sell more books, but in recent years the National Book Award has abandoned all pretense of recognizing literary merit. Like a socially despised group that proudly adopts a popular slur, the National Book Awards seem to be in a rush to acknowledge that “literary fiction” is no longer mainstream fiction but just exactly what the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany has always called it — mundane fiction.

The agenda behind this year’s class of nominees is so blatant that predicting the eventual winner is not much of a challenge. “[W]hat better use is there for a literary prize than to draw attention to fine work that might otherwise be missed?” Michael Dirda asked in reviewing Andrew Krivak’s Sojourn. Krivak was the only male nominated for the Award. He won’t win.

Building upon its new policy of “drawing attention” where attention might otherwise not be drawn, the National Book Awards nominated two titles from small presses (Krivak’s novel and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision), two debut novels (Krivak’s and Téa Obreht’s Tiger’s Wife), and two “minority” writers (African American Jesmyn Ward and Asian American Julie Otsuka).

With its quotas filled, the prize jury chaired by the novelist Deirdre McNamer will probably settle upon Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a collection of 34 stories by a 75-year-old writer who has been working faithfully for four decades, publishing in venues ranging from Seventeen and Redbook to the little magazines (and including one story in COMMENTARY), without drawing much attention to herself at all. The new policy of the National Book Award was crafted for a writer just like Edith Pearlman. Her book, a volume of “new and selected stories,” represents a life’s work. And it has the added bonus of being published by a very small press “pledged to seek out emerging and historically underrepresented voices.” Besides, Binocular Vision actually deserves the Award. At least it is the best book of the bunch.

The National Book Awards will be announced at a benefit dinner this evening in New York. None of the year’s best novels — Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, Lee Martin’s Break the Skin, Roland Merullo’s Talk-Funny Girl, Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Marriage Plot — was nominated. All literary prizes are advertisements to sell more books, but in recent years the National Book Award has abandoned all pretense of recognizing literary merit. Like a socially despised group that proudly adopts a popular slur, the National Book Awards seem to be in a rush to acknowledge that “literary fiction” is no longer mainstream fiction but just exactly what the science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany has always called it — mundane fiction.

The agenda behind this year’s class of nominees is so blatant that predicting the eventual winner is not much of a challenge. “[W]hat better use is there for a literary prize than to draw attention to fine work that might otherwise be missed?” Michael Dirda asked in reviewing Andrew Krivak’s Sojourn. Krivak was the only male nominated for the Award. He won’t win.

Building upon its new policy of “drawing attention” where attention might otherwise not be drawn, the National Book Awards nominated two titles from small presses (Krivak’s novel and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision), two debut novels (Krivak’s and Téa Obreht’s Tiger’s Wife), and two “minority” writers (African American Jesmyn Ward and Asian American Julie Otsuka).

With its quotas filled, the prize jury chaired by the novelist Deirdre McNamer will probably settle upon Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, a collection of 34 stories by a 75-year-old writer who has been working faithfully for four decades, publishing in venues ranging from Seventeen and Redbook to the little magazines (and including one story in COMMENTARY), without drawing much attention to herself at all. The new policy of the National Book Award was crafted for a writer just like Edith Pearlman. Her book, a volume of “new and selected stories,” represents a life’s work. And it has the added bonus of being published by a very small press “pledged to seek out emerging and historically underrepresented voices.” Besides, Binocular Vision actually deserves the Award. At least it is the best book of the bunch.

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Swedish Poet Wins Swedish Literary Prize

That should be the headline. Tomas Tranströmer, an 80-year-old “surrealist” or “mystical” poet from Stockholm, became the fourth Swedish writer to be recognized by the Swedish Academy with the Nobel Prize in literature. He was the first Swede to be honored since the novelists Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, two writers on every reader’s shelves, shared the prize in 1974. (The German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs, who split the 1966 prize with Israeli novelist Sh. Y. Agnon, was living in Sweden at the time.)

More Swedish writers have now taken home the award than Italian (three), Spanish (three), Polish (two), Greek (two), Australian (one), or Indian (none), Canadian (none), or Dutch writers (none). Who knew that Sweden was a world power in literature? Tranströmer became the first poet in a decade and a half to win the Nobel Prize.

The poets say that he is something of a transnational figure. In a review of Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems published in the Guardian early this summer, Paul Batchelor calls him a “non-English-language poet who has been fully accepted into British and US poetry in his own lifetime.” In an essay on him at the Academy of American Poets’ website, Tom Sleigh says the reception of Tranströmer’s poetry in this country “is now part of American literary history.” Both of them mention that Tranströmer is associated with Robert Bly’s “Deep Image” movement. (For those of you keeping score at home, Bly’s “deep image” is not exactly the same as Jerome Rothenberg or Clayton Eshleman’s “deep image,” but is no less fuzzy in conceptual content.)

Bly explains helpfully that the “deep image” is a “geographical location in the psyche,” but the critic Kevin Bushnell seems to be on firmer ground in saying that it is “the first attempt in American poetry to incorporate fully the theories of Freud, Jung and other depth psychologists into the poet’s expression.” Tranströmer, a trained and practicing psychologist, would be attracted to such a conception for obvious reasons.

Tranströmer’s poems are serene and unfazed, even when describing the “terror” of an automobile accident as in “Alone” (translation by Robin Fulton):

I

One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars—
their lights—closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew—there was space in them—
they grew as big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked—a sharp clang—it
flew away in the darkness.

Then—stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.

II

I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible—to live
in a swarm of eyes—
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
—Without a programme.

Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.

Many.

One.

“Antitheses such as isolation and society are brought together, generating a powerful field of force,” Batchelor says in his Guardian review, commenting on this poem. “The poem offers no explanation for its abrupt change of scene, and we soon learn that a Tranströmer poem can change with the speed of a dream.”

What else do we learn? Batchelor does not say, and I have no idea. Perhaps, as he implies, the learning is contained wholly within the poem, like a bird in a cage. Even when Tranströmer addresses an outside world, he is not likely to refer to it with any distinguishing exactness. Here is a poem called “November in the Former DDR,” although we never learn why the location is specified (translation, again, by Fulton):

The almighty cyclop’s-eye clouded over
and the grass shook itself in the coal dust.

Beaten black and blue by the night’s dreams
we board the train
that stops at every station
and lays eggs.

Almost silent.
The clang of the church bells’ buckets
fetching water.
And someone’s inexorable cough
scolding everything and everyone.

A stone idol moves its lips:
it’s the city.
Ruled by iron-hard misunderstandings
among kiosk attendants butchers
metal-workers naval officers
iron-hard misunderstandings, academics!

How sore my eyes are!
They’ve been reading by the faint glimmer of the glow-worm lamps.

November offers caramels of granite.
Unpredictable!
Like world history
laughing at the wrong place.

But we hear the clang
of the church bells’ buckets fetching water
every Wednesday
—is it Wednesday?—
so much for our Sundays!

Iron-hard misunderstandings, poets! How far we have drifted from a time when poetry was an art of reflection, measuring thought in exact units. Tranströmer’s award may explain why no poet has won the Nobel Prize in 15 years, and why the Swedish Academy, in an age in which poets no longer perform any public function, was at a loss when it came time to pick the greatest poet now writing, and settled for one of its own.

That should be the headline. Tomas Tranströmer, an 80-year-old “surrealist” or “mystical” poet from Stockholm, became the fourth Swedish writer to be recognized by the Swedish Academy with the Nobel Prize in literature. He was the first Swede to be honored since the novelists Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, two writers on every reader’s shelves, shared the prize in 1974. (The German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs, who split the 1966 prize with Israeli novelist Sh. Y. Agnon, was living in Sweden at the time.)

More Swedish writers have now taken home the award than Italian (three), Spanish (three), Polish (two), Greek (two), Australian (one), or Indian (none), Canadian (none), or Dutch writers (none). Who knew that Sweden was a world power in literature? Tranströmer became the first poet in a decade and a half to win the Nobel Prize.

The poets say that he is something of a transnational figure. In a review of Tranströmer’s New Collected Poems published in the Guardian early this summer, Paul Batchelor calls him a “non-English-language poet who has been fully accepted into British and US poetry in his own lifetime.” In an essay on him at the Academy of American Poets’ website, Tom Sleigh says the reception of Tranströmer’s poetry in this country “is now part of American literary history.” Both of them mention that Tranströmer is associated with Robert Bly’s “Deep Image” movement. (For those of you keeping score at home, Bly’s “deep image” is not exactly the same as Jerome Rothenberg or Clayton Eshleman’s “deep image,” but is no less fuzzy in conceptual content.)

Bly explains helpfully that the “deep image” is a “geographical location in the psyche,” but the critic Kevin Bushnell seems to be on firmer ground in saying that it is “the first attempt in American poetry to incorporate fully the theories of Freud, Jung and other depth psychologists into the poet’s expression.” Tranströmer, a trained and practicing psychologist, would be attracted to such a conception for obvious reasons.

Tranströmer’s poems are serene and unfazed, even when describing the “terror” of an automobile accident as in “Alone” (translation by Robin Fulton):

I

One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars—
their lights—closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew—there was space in them—
they grew as big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.
Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked—a sharp clang—it
flew away in the darkness.

Then—stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.

II

I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible—to live
in a swarm of eyes—
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
—Without a programme.

Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.

Many.

One.

“Antitheses such as isolation and society are brought together, generating a powerful field of force,” Batchelor says in his Guardian review, commenting on this poem. “The poem offers no explanation for its abrupt change of scene, and we soon learn that a Tranströmer poem can change with the speed of a dream.”

What else do we learn? Batchelor does not say, and I have no idea. Perhaps, as he implies, the learning is contained wholly within the poem, like a bird in a cage. Even when Tranströmer addresses an outside world, he is not likely to refer to it with any distinguishing exactness. Here is a poem called “November in the Former DDR,” although we never learn why the location is specified (translation, again, by Fulton):

The almighty cyclop’s-eye clouded over
and the grass shook itself in the coal dust.

Beaten black and blue by the night’s dreams
we board the train
that stops at every station
and lays eggs.

Almost silent.
The clang of the church bells’ buckets
fetching water.
And someone’s inexorable cough
scolding everything and everyone.

A stone idol moves its lips:
it’s the city.
Ruled by iron-hard misunderstandings
among kiosk attendants butchers
metal-workers naval officers
iron-hard misunderstandings, academics!

How sore my eyes are!
They’ve been reading by the faint glimmer of the glow-worm lamps.

November offers caramels of granite.
Unpredictable!
Like world history
laughing at the wrong place.

But we hear the clang
of the church bells’ buckets fetching water
every Wednesday
—is it Wednesday?—
so much for our Sundays!

Iron-hard misunderstandings, poets! How far we have drifted from a time when poetry was an art of reflection, measuring thought in exact units. Tranströmer’s award may explain why no poet has won the Nobel Prize in 15 years, and why the Swedish Academy, in an age in which poets no longer perform any public function, was at a loss when it came time to pick the greatest poet now writing, and settled for one of its own.

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Qasim Surges in Nobel Betting

Although some readers still cannot bring themselves to believe that I am serious in predicting that the Palestinian “resistance poet” Samih al-Qasim will win the 2011 Nobel Prize in literature, the betting public is listening.

Qasim is now getting odds of 50-to-one at the British-based gambling site taking bets on the Prize. He has pulled even with Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Umberto Eco, and William Trevor (the only one of the four deserving of the Prize), but Qasim still badly trails the favorites — Syrian poet Adonis, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, and the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. (Murakami has an advantage the other two frontrunners lack: he too is conveniently anti-Zionist.)

Last year, when I predicted that he would take home the Prize, the Argentine poet Juan Gelman came out of nowhere to get 15-to-one odds. (Mario Vargas Llosa, another South American writer, won instead.) Now is the moment to put money on Qasim. This is the year for an Arabic poet. Adonis is the greater writer, and he spoke out in condemnation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime three months ago. Even so, Adonis believes deeply that poetry must be separated from politics. Moreover, he left his native Syria for the more cosmopolitan Beirut in 1961, and when Lebanon was consumed by the madness of Middle Eastern politics, he relocated again — this time to Paris, where he now lives as an expatriate.

Qasim, by contrast, is a poet engagé:

No monument raised, no memorial, and no rose.
Not one line of verse to ease the slain
Not one curtain, not one blood-stained
Shred of our blameless brothers clothes.
Not one stone to engrave their names.
Not one thing. Only the shame.

Their ghosts are gyring even now, their groaning shades
Digging through Kafr Qasim’s wreckage for graves.

This poem refers to a shameful massacre in 1956, in which a detachment of the Israeli Border Police gunned down 48 Arabs, including women and children, for violating curfew. Although you would never know it from Qasim’s poem, the massacre sickened and outraged all quarters of Israeli society. The soldiers involved in the shooting were sentenced to prison terms between seven and 17 years. In delivering its verdict, the court rejected the defense argument that the soldiers were merely following orders. The orders, the court found, were manifestly illegal:

Illegality that pierces the eye and revolts the heart, if the eye is not blind and the heart is not impenetrable or corrupt — this is the measure of manifest illegality needed to override the solider’s duty to obey and to impose on him criminal liability for his actions.

That Israel imprisons the murderers of Palestinians, while the “blameless brothers” celebrated by Qasim prefer to name squares and streets after the Palestinian murderers of Israelis, must be too complicated to work into eight lines of Arabic verse. The Nobel Prize committee is unlikely to notice the omission, however — or to object, even if they notice.

Update: In the Weekly Standard’s blog, Lee Smith observes that “Adonis’s support for the Syrian uprising, as well as the Arab Spring in general, is qualified.” Qasim’s support for the Palestinian “resistance,” by contrast, is unqualified and unchecked.

Although some readers still cannot bring themselves to believe that I am serious in predicting that the Palestinian “resistance poet” Samih al-Qasim will win the 2011 Nobel Prize in literature, the betting public is listening.

Qasim is now getting odds of 50-to-one at the British-based gambling site taking bets on the Prize. He has pulled even with Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Umberto Eco, and William Trevor (the only one of the four deserving of the Prize), but Qasim still badly trails the favorites — Syrian poet Adonis, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, and the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. (Murakami has an advantage the other two frontrunners lack: he too is conveniently anti-Zionist.)

Last year, when I predicted that he would take home the Prize, the Argentine poet Juan Gelman came out of nowhere to get 15-to-one odds. (Mario Vargas Llosa, another South American writer, won instead.) Now is the moment to put money on Qasim. This is the year for an Arabic poet. Adonis is the greater writer, and he spoke out in condemnation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime three months ago. Even so, Adonis believes deeply that poetry must be separated from politics. Moreover, he left his native Syria for the more cosmopolitan Beirut in 1961, and when Lebanon was consumed by the madness of Middle Eastern politics, he relocated again — this time to Paris, where he now lives as an expatriate.

Qasim, by contrast, is a poet engagé:

No monument raised, no memorial, and no rose.
Not one line of verse to ease the slain
Not one curtain, not one blood-stained
Shred of our blameless brothers clothes.
Not one stone to engrave their names.
Not one thing. Only the shame.

Their ghosts are gyring even now, their groaning shades
Digging through Kafr Qasim’s wreckage for graves.

This poem refers to a shameful massacre in 1956, in which a detachment of the Israeli Border Police gunned down 48 Arabs, including women and children, for violating curfew. Although you would never know it from Qasim’s poem, the massacre sickened and outraged all quarters of Israeli society. The soldiers involved in the shooting were sentenced to prison terms between seven and 17 years. In delivering its verdict, the court rejected the defense argument that the soldiers were merely following orders. The orders, the court found, were manifestly illegal:

Illegality that pierces the eye and revolts the heart, if the eye is not blind and the heart is not impenetrable or corrupt — this is the measure of manifest illegality needed to override the solider’s duty to obey and to impose on him criminal liability for his actions.

That Israel imprisons the murderers of Palestinians, while the “blameless brothers” celebrated by Qasim prefer to name squares and streets after the Palestinian murderers of Israelis, must be too complicated to work into eight lines of Arabic verse. The Nobel Prize committee is unlikely to notice the omission, however — or to object, even if they notice.

Update: In the Weekly Standard’s blog, Lee Smith observes that “Adonis’s support for the Syrian uprising, as well as the Arab Spring in general, is qualified.” Qasim’s support for the Palestinian “resistance,” by contrast, is unqualified and unchecked.

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And the 2011 Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Is. . . .

Two years ago, in “How to Pick a Nobel Winner,” I suggested that the literature prize is “apparently awarded by much the same method that the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Commission is determined — on a rotating basis, as long as Israel and (increasingly) the United States are excluded.” The last American to be selected was Toni Morrison, 18 years ago. An Israeli has been honored only once, when Sh. Y. Agnon shared the 1966 prize with the German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs.

The numbers are very much to the point, since the Nobel committee prefers not to allow too much time to elapse between awards to the same country, the same linguistic sphere. And in recent years, even the gender imbalance has begun to be corrected. Since 1991, women have won six of the 20 prizes. Still, while women have never captured the prize in back-to-back years, men often have; and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a contributor to COMMENTARY, won last year. He was the first man of the right to take home the award since V. S. Naipaul was recognized in 2001. Two prizes in a decade — the literary right is doing only slightly worse than women.

The obvious omission from the winners’ list in recent years has been poets. Since the inception of the literature prize in 1944, poets have been selected for 18 out of 69 prizes, more than a quarter of them or an average of one poet every three-and-two-thirds years. Yet no poet has won the Nobel Prize in literature since 1995 and 1996 when Wislawa Szymborska of Poland and Seamus Heaney of Ireland were “decorated” in consecutive years.

And finally there is language to consider. English-language writers have been named to 18 prizes; Spanish writers to 9; French, 8; German, 6. The other European languages — Russian, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Yiddish — have shared 19 prizes among them. Writers in non-European languages have only won the prize five times.

As of this morning, the betting odds favor the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, who writes under the pen name Adonis, at four to one. And for once the oddsmakers seem to be on target. Only one Arabic-language writer has ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature — the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 — and Adonis is the best-known Arabic poet. If this is the Palestinians’ year at the UN, though, it may also be the Palestinians’ turn for the Nobel. Remember where you first heard the name of Samih al-Qasim (pictured at right), an Israeli Druze who celebrates the Nakba in Arabic verse. His PEN biography is here. A PBS interview with him is here. And here is a characteristic poem, entitled “End of Discussion with a Jailer”:

From the window of my small cell
I can see trees smiling at me,
Roofs filled with my people,
Windows weeping and praying for me.
From the window of my small cell
I can see your large cell.

One guess who is being addressed here. Awarding the prize to Samih al-Qasim would be a masterstroke: the Nobel Committee could recognize Israel and shame it at the same time. Qasim is not as well-known as Adonis, he is not even on the betting boards that Adonis currently tops, but he is more political — he is a voice of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli “occupation” — and the Nobel Prize dearly loves writers from the left.

Two years ago, in “How to Pick a Nobel Winner,” I suggested that the literature prize is “apparently awarded by much the same method that the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Commission is determined — on a rotating basis, as long as Israel and (increasingly) the United States are excluded.” The last American to be selected was Toni Morrison, 18 years ago. An Israeli has been honored only once, when Sh. Y. Agnon shared the 1966 prize with the German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs.

The numbers are very much to the point, since the Nobel committee prefers not to allow too much time to elapse between awards to the same country, the same linguistic sphere. And in recent years, even the gender imbalance has begun to be corrected. Since 1991, women have won six of the 20 prizes. Still, while women have never captured the prize in back-to-back years, men often have; and the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a contributor to COMMENTARY, won last year. He was the first man of the right to take home the award since V. S. Naipaul was recognized in 2001. Two prizes in a decade — the literary right is doing only slightly worse than women.

The obvious omission from the winners’ list in recent years has been poets. Since the inception of the literature prize in 1944, poets have been selected for 18 out of 69 prizes, more than a quarter of them or an average of one poet every three-and-two-thirds years. Yet no poet has won the Nobel Prize in literature since 1995 and 1996 when Wislawa Szymborska of Poland and Seamus Heaney of Ireland were “decorated” in consecutive years.

And finally there is language to consider. English-language writers have been named to 18 prizes; Spanish writers to 9; French, 8; German, 6. The other European languages — Russian, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Yiddish — have shared 19 prizes among them. Writers in non-European languages have only won the prize five times.

As of this morning, the betting odds favor the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, who writes under the pen name Adonis, at four to one. And for once the oddsmakers seem to be on target. Only one Arabic-language writer has ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature — the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 — and Adonis is the best-known Arabic poet. If this is the Palestinians’ year at the UN, though, it may also be the Palestinians’ turn for the Nobel. Remember where you first heard the name of Samih al-Qasim (pictured at right), an Israeli Druze who celebrates the Nakba in Arabic verse. His PEN biography is here. A PBS interview with him is here. And here is a characteristic poem, entitled “End of Discussion with a Jailer”:

From the window of my small cell
I can see trees smiling at me,
Roofs filled with my people,
Windows weeping and praying for me.
From the window of my small cell
I can see your large cell.

One guess who is being addressed here. Awarding the prize to Samih al-Qasim would be a masterstroke: the Nobel Committee could recognize Israel and shame it at the same time. Qasim is not as well-known as Adonis, he is not even on the betting boards that Adonis currently tops, but he is more political — he is a voice of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli “occupation” — and the Nobel Prize dearly loves writers from the left.

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National Book Award’s First Cut

The semifinalists for the National Book Awards — 20 of them in four different categories — will be divulged with much fanfare in a PBS radio program next month. Perhaps the most prestigious American literary prize, the NBA is handed out for the best book published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year; or at least the “best” as judged by a panel of five designated literary experts. Only publishers are allowed to nominate books for consideration, and self-published books are locked out — a feature of the prize that emphasizes its true function. Namely: to provide advertising for publishers. Like the NCAA, the National Book Award is something of a cartel that protects its own.

Last year 302 books were formally submitted for the fiction prize. The surprise winner was the horse-racing novel Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — a “bona fide bolt from the blue,” according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times. Published by the “independent literary and arts” house McPherson & Co., the prize was viewed in some precincts as a gesture of support to small publishers. Gordon edged out Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel — an undistinguished bunch.

So what fiction is most likely to make the first cut? I don’t know that I can come up with 20, but here are at least 10 that I would nominate if I could (in alphabetical order):

• Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville (Little, Brown). For a long time now I have been complaining about the absence of place in American fiction (see here and here). Beard’s winsome novel of two girlfriends growing up together in a small Ohio town shows what has been missing and why it adds such a rich dimension to good fiction.

• Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel about a graduate student whose adoration for the traditional English novel — the novel with a marriage plot — collides with her academic allegiance to poststructuralist theory, and her own pre-conjugal adventures. Sounds terrible, I know, but everything that Eugenides touches turns to gold.

• William Giraldi, Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton). A revival of the facetious mode of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi’s first novel tells the uproarious story of a New England nebbish trying to win back his Southern belle’s love.

• Ron Hansen, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner). A reconstruction of the famous “dumb-bell murder” case of 1929 told with a fine eye for historical detail and a light, almost undetectable moral touch. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Ha Jin, Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon). A brave and bracing novel about the heroic American missionaries — the epiphet is Jin’s — who helped save 200,000 civilians from the Rape of Nanjing.

• William Kennedy, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking). As a reporter, Kennedy covered the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement. In the latest installment of his “Albany cycle,” he strings them together in a high-spirited yarn. His novels don’t always cohere, but few writers can compete with Kennedy for sentence-to-sentence enjoyment.

• Lee Martin, Break the Skin (Crown).

• Roland Merullo, The Talk-Funny Girl (Crown). The honest and plainly told story of a girl who “was not treated well” by frightening antisocial parents, and how she redeemed something beautiful from the evil. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner).

• Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster). A family saga that spans thirty years in the lives of four small-town Iowa children and their parents. The novel does not set out to document social changes or memorialize a social class, but rather to suggest that some people still think in terms of what has to be done, even in an age of technological convenience and easy divorce. A work of unusual optimism.

I am already on record as saying that Stone Arabia is the best novel of the year so far (although Merullo’s nearly flawless Talk-Funny Girl is breathing down Spiotta’s neck), and Jeffrey Eugenides is the best American writer born since 1960, but my prediction is that none of these 10 novels will win the National Book Award. It will go to a book few people have heard of and fewer have read.

The semifinalists for the National Book Awards — 20 of them in four different categories — will be divulged with much fanfare in a PBS radio program next month. Perhaps the most prestigious American literary prize, the NBA is handed out for the best book published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year; or at least the “best” as judged by a panel of five designated literary experts. Only publishers are allowed to nominate books for consideration, and self-published books are locked out — a feature of the prize that emphasizes its true function. Namely: to provide advertising for publishers. Like the NCAA, the National Book Award is something of a cartel that protects its own.

Last year 302 books were formally submitted for the fiction prize. The surprise winner was the horse-racing novel Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon — a “bona fide bolt from the blue,” according to Janet Maslin of the New York Times. Published by the “independent literary and arts” house McPherson & Co., the prize was viewed in some precincts as a gesture of support to small publishers. Gordon edged out Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel — an undistinguished bunch.

So what fiction is most likely to make the first cut? I don’t know that I can come up with 20, but here are at least 10 that I would nominate if I could (in alphabetical order):

• Jo Ann Beard, In Zanesville (Little, Brown). For a long time now I have been complaining about the absence of place in American fiction (see here and here). Beard’s winsome novel of two girlfriends growing up together in a small Ohio town shows what has been missing and why it adds such a rich dimension to good fiction.

• Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A novel about a graduate student whose adoration for the traditional English novel — the novel with a marriage plot — collides with her academic allegiance to poststructuralist theory, and her own pre-conjugal adventures. Sounds terrible, I know, but everything that Eugenides touches turns to gold.

• William Giraldi, Busy Monsters (W. W. Norton). A revival of the facetious mode of the early Evelyn Waugh, Giraldi’s first novel tells the uproarious story of a New England nebbish trying to win back his Southern belle’s love.

• Ron Hansen, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion (Scribner). A reconstruction of the famous “dumb-bell murder” case of 1929 told with a fine eye for historical detail and a light, almost undetectable moral touch. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Ha Jin, Nanjing Requiem (Pantheon). A brave and bracing novel about the heroic American missionaries — the epiphet is Jin’s — who helped save 200,000 civilians from the Rape of Nanjing.

• William Kennedy, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes (Viking). As a reporter, Kennedy covered the Cuban revolution and the civil rights movement. In the latest installment of his “Albany cycle,” he strings them together in a high-spirited yarn. His novels don’t always cohere, but few writers can compete with Kennedy for sentence-to-sentence enjoyment.

• Lee Martin, Break the Skin (Crown).

• Roland Merullo, The Talk-Funny Girl (Crown). The honest and plainly told story of a girl who “was not treated well” by frightening antisocial parents, and how she redeemed something beautiful from the evil. (Review coming up in the October COMMENTARY.)

• Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner).

• Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home (Simon & Schuster). A family saga that spans thirty years in the lives of four small-town Iowa children and their parents. The novel does not set out to document social changes or memorialize a social class, but rather to suggest that some people still think in terms of what has to be done, even in an age of technological convenience and easy divorce. A work of unusual optimism.

I am already on record as saying that Stone Arabia is the best novel of the year so far (although Merullo’s nearly flawless Talk-Funny Girl is breathing down Spiotta’s neck), and Jeffrey Eugenides is the best American writer born since 1960, but my prediction is that none of these 10 novels will win the National Book Award. It will go to a book few people have heard of and fewer have read.

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Barnes Has to Be Favorite for Booker

Julian Barnes, shortlisted for the fourth time in his three-decade literary career, was among the six finalists for the 2011 Man Booker for Fiction, the prize committee announced earlier today. The Sense of an Ending, his 11th novel, is about four old school friends entering middle age. Barnes’s novel-writing colleague Anita Brookner reviewed it in the Telegraph here. Since he is one of Britain’s most celebrated novelists, Barnes has to be considered the favorite for the prize, even though The Sense of an Ending is a 150-page novella, rather slim for the best novel of the year, even in slim-book-loving England.

My money is on 35-year-old Stephen Kelman, whose Pigeon English is about an immigrant boy from Ghana who finds himself caught up in gang violence in London. Kelman skillfully weaves in sharp-tongued Ghanian slang in a novel that is as much about mastering the English language, and fashioning a distinctive narrative voice, as it is about the marginalization of African immigrants in British culture and society. Kelman revives a style and subject explored to great effect by Colin MacInnes half a century ago.

Two-years-older A. D. Miller was also shortlisted for a first novel. Snowdrops is a crime novel, and when it was nominated for the prize, controversy and celebration broke out in equal measures. Although “genre-bending” is all the rage, the Man Booker follows the parade rather than leading it. Miller is unlikely the win the prize.

Two Canadians, Patrick deWitt for The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan for Half Blood Blues, were both shortlisted for the Booker and longlisted earlier today for the Giller Prize, one of Canada’s top two literary prizes. Veteran 11-book novelist Carol Birch fills out the Booker half-dozen, but another historical novel has to be listed as a long shot only two years after Hilary Mantel won the prize for Wolf Hall.

Julian Barnes, shortlisted for the fourth time in his three-decade literary career, was among the six finalists for the 2011 Man Booker for Fiction, the prize committee announced earlier today. The Sense of an Ending, his 11th novel, is about four old school friends entering middle age. Barnes’s novel-writing colleague Anita Brookner reviewed it in the Telegraph here. Since he is one of Britain’s most celebrated novelists, Barnes has to be considered the favorite for the prize, even though The Sense of an Ending is a 150-page novella, rather slim for the best novel of the year, even in slim-book-loving England.

My money is on 35-year-old Stephen Kelman, whose Pigeon English is about an immigrant boy from Ghana who finds himself caught up in gang violence in London. Kelman skillfully weaves in sharp-tongued Ghanian slang in a novel that is as much about mastering the English language, and fashioning a distinctive narrative voice, as it is about the marginalization of African immigrants in British culture and society. Kelman revives a style and subject explored to great effect by Colin MacInnes half a century ago.

Two-years-older A. D. Miller was also shortlisted for a first novel. Snowdrops is a crime novel, and when it was nominated for the prize, controversy and celebration broke out in equal measures. Although “genre-bending” is all the rage, the Man Booker follows the parade rather than leading it. Miller is unlikely the win the prize.

Two Canadians, Patrick deWitt for The Sisters Brothers and Esi Edugyan for Half Blood Blues, were both shortlisted for the Booker and longlisted earlier today for the Giller Prize, one of Canada’s top two literary prizes. Veteran 11-book novelist Carol Birch fills out the Booker half-dozen, but another historical novel has to be listed as a long shot only two years after Hilary Mantel won the prize for Wolf Hall.

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Not the Booker

The Guardian announced the finalists for its reader-nominated Not the Booker Prize this morning. As I’ve had occasion to say before, literary prizes are just another way of advertising books. The anti-establishment spirit of the Not the Booker is as feeble as complaints about sexist TV commercials.

Even so, one of the nice things about the Guardian’s prize (the winner gets a coffee mug) is that nominations must be accompanied by a defense of the novel in not-less-than 150 words, although Sam Jordison said that the paper “had to be pretty lenient with the rule.” Unexplained “complications” would have ensued otherwise. “So long as people have had a decent stab at writing something,” he admits, “we’ve accepted it.” I can’t make up my mind about that phrase decent stab. After 20 years in the college classroom, I know that a stab can be decent, and yet awfully messy. Still, the Guardian has made a decent stab at replacing book enthusiasm with at least some book discussion, and that’s worth something.

Jordison swears that he will publish his own reviews “within a week.” Desperate for informed recommendations, hungry readers will be waiting impatiently.

The Guardian announced the finalists for its reader-nominated Not the Booker Prize this morning. As I’ve had occasion to say before, literary prizes are just another way of advertising books. The anti-establishment spirit of the Not the Booker is as feeble as complaints about sexist TV commercials.

Even so, one of the nice things about the Guardian’s prize (the winner gets a coffee mug) is that nominations must be accompanied by a defense of the novel in not-less-than 150 words, although Sam Jordison said that the paper “had to be pretty lenient with the rule.” Unexplained “complications” would have ensued otherwise. “So long as people have had a decent stab at writing something,” he admits, “we’ve accepted it.” I can’t make up my mind about that phrase decent stab. After 20 years in the college classroom, I know that a stab can be decent, and yet awfully messy. Still, the Guardian has made a decent stab at replacing book enthusiasm with at least some book discussion, and that’s worth something.

Jordison swears that he will publish his own reviews “within a week.” Desperate for informed recommendations, hungry readers will be waiting impatiently.

Read Less




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