Friday, October 13, 2006

Comment: Awards Week, with Audience Participation

As you probably know if you're a person who reads about books, it seems to be awards week in book country.

Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize for THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS.

Her fellow shortlisters were:
Kate Grenville for The Secret River
M. J. Hyland for Carry Me Down
Hisham Matar for In the Country of Men
Edward St Aubyn for Mother’s Milk
Sarah Waters for The Night Watch

(Since this is a British Commonwealth prize, some of these books have not yet been published in the U.S. and may be unfamiliar.)

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature (which I personally think is wonderful and inevitable.)

And the shortlist was announced for this year's National Book Award:

Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions (Pantheon)
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)
Jess Walter, The Zero (Judith Regan Books/HarperCollins)

Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster)
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (Alfred A. Knopf)
Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin)
Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (HarperCollins
Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Alfred A. Knopf)

Louise Glück, Averno (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
H.L. Hix, Chromatic (Etruscan Press)
Ben Lerner, Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon Press)
Nathaniel Mackey, Splay Anthem (New Directions)
James McMichael, Capacity (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Young People's Literature:
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (Candlewick Press)
Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death (Front Street, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press)
Patricia McCormick, Sold (Hyperion Books for Children)
Nancy Werlin, The Rules of Survival (Dial/Penguin)
Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (First Second/Roaring Brook Press/Holtzbrinck)

I admit I strongly approve of some of the panel's choices, and find myself baffled by others (click here for a list of this year's National Book Award judges). Don't have a lot of time this morning to expand upon that, so I thought I'd ask you what you thought instead.

First off, what is the point of literary awards? To make up for the meager and unprofitable life of an author by offering a bit of glamor and/or money? To draw attention and boost sales of the best books of the year? To serve as a marker of changing public tastes? To have everyone in the tiny insular world of books pat each other on the back? Other ideas?

And once you've decided that, how well do awards achieve that objective? Are some better at certain goals than others? (Which award winner sells best is a subject of much discussion by booksellers.) Is this year's array of shortlisters better or worse at achieving these objectives than in years past?

And tangentially, how important is the ultimate winner to you? Does it make a difference which of the shortlisters get the final nod, or is the list itself more interesting?

And the irresistable question: how fair is the judging? Is the winner just the least offensive compromise option? Is there a way to judge literary merit outside of politics?

And as an alternate question, which books or authors do you think should have been nominated for these awards that weren't?

Go to town, folks -- I know you all have strong opinions on these things (I've witnessed many a heated debate about them) so I'd love to hear your thoughts.


CRwM said...

I'm baffled by the inclusion of "Only Revolutions" on the National Book Award short list. At best, it could be put down to a noble failure of an experiment.

Anonymous said...

I thought that one was a strange addition, too.
I think its fine to give out awards, at least to help get an author's work noticed in this ever-expanding swamp of verbage we live in. The monetary aspects are nice, I'm sure. But there are really only three viable ways to award a prize, and each has predictable and unfortunate results.
First, it can be thrown open to the reading public. (Usually the reading public with internet access these days.) Sadly, that tends to award the lowest common denominator in books. Examples of this are the Hugo and, the shame of booksellers everywhere, the Quill.
There are prizes judged by members of organizations, like the Nebula whose winners are selected by members of the SFWA. This leads to better choices, sometimes, because when it comes down to it people who write books themselves are just better judges than the populace at large, and in fact have usually read more widely. These awards, however, are so clubby that it can be discouraging. In the case of the Nebula that means established genre writers only. Up'n'comers might be nominated, but the understanding is that if they're serious enough about writing well in the field, there will always be another chance to let them walk onto the stage. For awards like these, the individual books themselves are almost incidental.
Lastly there are the awards judged by a panel or, worse, a single individual. Could you be utterly fair in that position? What would it even mean to be called fair or unfair in a role like that? What if you genuinely liked the book your longtime friend wrote more than any other you'd read?
I suppose my point here is that as much as I appreciate seeing these authors garner acclaim, maybe it's best not to mistake lists of awards nominees for assigned reading.

Anonymous said...

I'm just waiting for your review of Richard Powers' latest. Will your enthusiasm for him continue?

David de Beer said...

Interesting that the Nebula and Hugo was mentioned. Frank Herbert had some interesting comments on that exact matter. It was a foreword he wrote for a selection of Nebula winners.

I'll go see if I can track down a link to it.

I don't know, literary awards - are they really all that different from the self-congratulatory Oscars?
I just can't help remaining skeptical.
It's more like a peer thing really - awards are writers/ artists peers giving a nod of the head.
Unfortunately, it very easily becomes popularity contests.