Sunday, October 18, 2009

Playing the Ponies in the Penny Press!

One of the surest signs that the British take literature and reading more seriously than America (not that there's enough doubt on the point to warrant many signs) is the betting action surrounding the Man Booker Prize. There are bookies; there are long-shot odds; there are reports of both in the London press. That kind of quotidian penetration is a sure sign that actual people actually care about something. Weather reports run in every edition of every newspaper; fluctuations in the Van Allen radiation belts don't.

There's nothing like that in the general literary life of America. Most of the United States' 4.2 hundred readers think nothing about the winners of major literary awards, and even those who do can scarcely work up the enthusiasm to bet on the outcomes. True, the little gold "Himmelfarb Award Winner" stickers that adorn the lucky authors' book covers tend to increase sales, but handicapping the ins and outs of the awarding itself isn't done by the man in the street. The millions of people who hang on every development in So You Think You Can Dance couldn't pick Walt Whitman out of a police lineup and infinitely prefer Salma Hayek to Salman Rushdie.

So you have to give Liesl Schillinger points for trying to stir the pot in today's New York Times. She writes a column given the title "Words Without Borders" all the upcoming National Book Award bestowal, and her faith that more than a couple-dozen of her readers give a crap is touching.

I certainly give a crap. I like the National Book Award. A great many of their choices for history and nonfiction have been hugely worthy of the honor, and the list of fiction winners includes some magnificent volumes that also richly deserved being singled out.

The problem here is that the vast majority of National Book Award recipients for fiction haven't been worth the paper they were printed on. Schillinger, after discussing this year's finalists, writes, "And yet ... not all fiction rises to this level," and when I read that, I wanted to say "Yes, quite a bit of it rises several levels higher." For every Flannery O'Connor or Eudora Welty the National Book Award praises, there are a dozen talentless makeweights who've also got the prize for fiction. That ratio gives me butterflies for this year's announcement.

So let's do a little bit of bookie-style handicapping ourselves, shall we? Here are the nominees:

Colum McCann for Let the Great World Spin
Bonnie Jo Campbell for American Salvage
Jayne Anne Phillips for Lark And Termite
Daniyal Mueenuddin for In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Marcel Theroux for Far North

The first thing you notice right away are the omissions: no Philip Roth, no E. L. Doctorow, no Mary Gaitskill, no Philip Caputo, no James Ellroy, no Ron Carlson, no Arthur Phillips, no Wells Tower, no Colson Whitehead, no John Irving, and so on. Some omissions are as disappointing as they are predictable (John Wray's Lowboy and Philippe Meyer's American Rust deserve to be on this list).

But let's concentrate on the names we do have - a mixed bunch, as Schillinger points out. McCann's Irish-born, and his book is, as Schillinger very kindly puts it, "a kaleidoscope of New York City lives set in the 1970s but doubling as a 9/11 allegory." Campbell is from Michigan, and this is her debut story collection. Mueenuddin was born in Pakistan, and his, too, is a debut story collection. Phillips is from West Virginia and is of course the author of the extremely good Machine Dreams (one of the National Book Award's other conspicuous snubs), and here she's nominated for her rather pat and unfilling (but beautifully written) latest novel. And Theroux (whose author photo puts him at right about the same age his father, the writer Paul Theroux, will always be in my mind) is up for Far North, which Schillinger describes as "a post-apocalyptic fable ... written in an American idiom but set in Siberia."

The diversity here might be part of the selection committee's point. The article raises again the specter of Horace Engdahl's studied comment last year that American fiction tended to be "too isolated, too insular." Although it should have been obvious to any five-year-old with a Google news-feed that Engdahl was displacedly attacking George W. Bush, his comment nevertheless sent huge neighborhoods of the American literary and academic communities into existential tailspins, orgies of self-doubt and self-evaluation (followed by doubt of the evaluation and evaluation of the doubt). It's not too big a stretch to see this list of nominations as a response to that comment, despite Schillinger's opinion that time has cooled its sting.

After all, this list can't be called insular! Three out of the five weren't born in this country! Two out of the five don't even currently live here!

If we operate on the assumption that such nonsense actually motivated the nominations, then it's safe to say it will motivate the choice of a winner. So Phillips and Campbell are out. The PEN/Faulkner Award was just won by Netherland, another gawd-awful novel pimping out the tragedy of 9/11 for shamefully cynical purposes - major literary awards apparently don't mind that kind of ghoulish self-aggrandizing, but they hate being seen to copy one another. So McCann is out.

That leaves Theroux, for a science fiction novel nobody's read, and Mueenuddin, for a genuinely decent collection of short stories every publishing critical journal on Earth (with one or two notable exceptions) has read and praised. And it's a debut collection, which shows the Award is open-minded. And he's from Pakistan, which sure as Hell shows the Award isn't insular.

I think it's safe to call it: Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders will win the 2009 National Book Award for fiction.

Which means, given my track record with any kind of prognostication, Jayne Anne Phillips should probably start clearing a space on her awards shelf ...


Sam said...

Ha, this is great. Literally yesterday I was engaging in this exact same handicapping, and I found a site called that has actual odds you can actually bet on. They have McCann at 11/10, Theroux at 9/4, Mueenuddin at 11/4, Phillips at 6/1, and the other what's-her-name at 8/1.
My feeling is that the McCann is too crappy to win (and I like your point that it would be a repetition of last year). And I think it's been too long since a woman was awarded, and Phillips is one of those stolid, deserving veterans who will receive the prize based on a respected career and a pretty good new book.
But naturally I hope against hope that your prediction comes true.
Nevertheless, I'm going to paddypower now and putting a c-note on Phillips.

Anonymous said...

What you don't quite seem to understand is that the national book foundation does not choose books. The judges do. And the judges panel is different every year. the judges are not part of the institution that awards the prize. they're novelists, and they don't pay attention to the image or reputation of the NBF, or care who won the pen faulkner or whether american fiction seems insular. the prize is utterly determined by the dynamic of 5 personalities, and often, the dark horse wins. It has nothing to do with prior winners or Horace Engdahl or any of that.

Another thing, you don't bother mentioning any of the poor choices, "not worth the paper." what books are you talking about, one wonders...

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