Friday, October 14, 2011

National Book Awards and Relevant Irrelevance

Interesting article in from a few days ago, arguing that the National Book Award has become irrelevant by choosing irrelevant books, particularly their fiction selection.

The writer, Laura Miller, expects to see "observers pointing out the absence of two widely praised novels - "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach and "The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides - and the fact that four of the five shortlisted titles are by women."

Great book. Everyone says so.
But there's so much wrong here in this kind of assertion. First of all, I hate it when writers are coy: if SHE thinks that Eugenides and Harbach's absences from the list is some indication of a "frustrating impasse with the press and the public" then she should come out and say it instead of attributing the gripe to hypothetical future observers. I realize writing a piece griping about two books you like being left off an awards list is petty and whiny, but be petty honestly instead of hiding behind intellectual smoke and mirrors.

More worryingly: why is the tendency to avoid works present in the public consciousness (i.e., the North American media circuit which typically focuses on the same five books for cycles of a few months every year) some sign that the awards are irrelevant? She asserts that, "The NBA for fiction often comes across as a Hail Mary pass on behalf of 'writers' writers,' authors respected within a small community of literary devotees but largely unknown outside."

In other words, if the book isn't covered on NPR, in the New York Times or the New Yorker and a select few other outlets, the work is not appealing to the "mass market." I guess her overriding point is that the NBA selected books are irrelevant because they don't go on to make bestsellers lists or then get accepted into the media cycle along with the other handful of books that make that cut. It's true that, as she claims, "People who can find time for only two or three new novels per year (if that) want to make sure that they're reading something significant," but I'm all for opening up the market and consciousness as widely as possible to as many different books as possible. I'd rather have the market allow for a million copies of 10 titles (as unevenly spread as it may be) than a million copies of two titles.

The assumption seems to be that money and sales and 2 minute interviews with the author on the Today show equal "relevance" but as we all know, what's relevant today is often forgotten in two years. I mean, the last ten years of NBA winners - Peter Mathiessen, Susan Sontag, Dennis Johnson, Richard Powers, William Vollman, Shirley Hazzard - there is hardly an example of an irrelevant nobody.

We often hear this argument in regards to the Nobel Prize for Literature. As problematic and complicated its selection process is, as unexpected as the selection of some of the Nobel laureates are, this argument, "I've never heard or read anything by X author, therefore the awards are irrelevant and elitist," is childish and the only distinction between that argument and Laura Miller's argument is that hers lacks the nationalist tone underlying it.

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