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:

Fiction:
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)

Nonfiction:
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)

Poetry:
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.