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.