I was making coffee and listening to NPR this morning when my partner (and several surrounding apartments) might have heard me say "WHAT?!?" I had just heard that William Vollman's EUROPE CENTRAL had won the National Book Award for fiction. The announcement was made as a kind of footnote to Joan Didion's win in nonfiction for THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (which was almost a foregone conclusion, and must make things strange for her, as the award comes at the cost of the deaths of her husband and daughter).
To be honest, I had forgotten that Vollman had even been nominated for the award -- I had glanced at EUROPE CENTRAL when it came out in hardcover and shuddered at how difficult it looked, filled with respect for those who would tackle its 800 pages. And my surprise (and initial indignation) came from the fact that he's not only difficult, but very little known, and it seemed like a purposefully pretentious choice on the part of the judges.
But as I look back at the nominees, I realize there's not really anyone I think should have won instead. Doctorow's MARCH (the only mainstream bestseller) was clearly the favorite, followed by Gaitskill's VERONICA, but I haven't read either or felt any desire to do so. Steinke's HOLY SKIRTS is the only one I know much about, since it's a fictional biography of insane genius Dadaist model perfomance artist New Yorker Baroness Elsa. And Christopher Sorrentino I've heard spoken of respectfully, but he also seems dauntingly difficult.
Fortunately, I was able to recover from my reflexive reaction thanks to having my thoughts on the subject of book awards crystallized by A.O. Scott's brilliant article in the Sunday Times Book Review. Scott explores the paradoxical complaints about the NBA, the Booker Prize, the Whitbread and Pen Faulkner and all the new literary awards cropping up all the time: either they're disgustingly commercial or disgustingly elitist, snobby or pandering. Written before the NBA was announced, his article is amazingly prescient:
"Anyway, the winners will be the obvious choices, authors who have already won plenty of prizes and acclaim, in which case what's the point? ... Either that, or the winners will be people nobody outside a tiny elite has ever heard of... in which case . . . well, see above."
Vollman falls into the second category, obviously, but when one honestly considers the options, that doesn't seem so bad. Sales of his book will likely spike briefly, and perhaps longer if it gets good word-of-mouth from average readers. As a bookseller, I am more likely to have positive feelings about literary awards because of this fact, regardless of fairly or arbitrarily they are awarded. But it does matter whether the books deserve their prize, if only because the award itself needs to maintain its value and integrity. If the NBA winner veers one year toward the commercial and the next toward the obscure, perhaps that's for the best in order to strive for balance and interest readers of all kinds each year.
In my long-held opinion, the lists of nominees for book awards are more helpful and indicative than the actual winner. The shortlist of nominees this year obviously contains some serious writers whose critical reception suggests they deserve a wider readership, at least among those interested in the heavy stuff. Maybe I'll even give Vollman or Sorrentino a try myself. I have a long plane flight coming up, and if they don't keep me interested, maybe they'll help me sleep.
Congratulations to all the winners. I'm especially pleased that Merwin won the poetry award -- I'm a fan of his work, and while I haven't gotten a chance to get to MIGRATIONS yet this will be a good motivation. We booksellers will happily be selling all the winners through the holidays, and hoping their reputations continue to grow.