Award-Winning Fiction Should Not Make Our Head Hurt

On the back page of this weekend’s NYTBR, Laura Miller notes correctly that the annual hue and cry over the supposed obscurity of the National Book Award fiction nominees “was turned up a notch” this year, but that’s about all she gets right as she continues the Times calumny heaping (about which the newly arrived Mad Max Perkins has some choice comments), declaring the NBA short list is “like an especially emphatic thumbed nose in the direction of the literary establishment.” Pretending that she can read minds, she says the rationale of the judges “surely goes something like this”:

Since accolades and sales are already so unequally distributed, why not use a national prize to even things out a little and draw the spotlight to books that have been unjustly passed over? The judges are fellow fiction writers who feel they know all too well how easily good books go unnoticed. As one of this year’s judges, Stewart O’Nan, retorted to the complaints, “It’s not a popularity contest.”

Practically casting O’Nan and the other judges as the art fags who finagled their way onto the high school yearbook staff so they could replace the jocks and pep squad snapshots with photos of all their Goth friends, Miller then suggests that her “impression” of the shortlist—”the great books you should have been reading and the press should have been covering”—is, in fact, what the judges had in mind, then says they got it all wrong anyway, because “none of them could be reasonably expected to please more than a small audience” because they’re too busy ignoring the demands of plot and “sidestepping readerly expectations.” And one can apparently be sure that a novel that sidesteps readerly expectations—by which Miller seems to mean her expectations as a reader projected onto the population at large—can’t possibly be as good as one by “Philip Roth, Russell Banks [or] Cynthia Ozick,” all of whom, as readers are well aware, have been overlooked this year even though they deliver unto readers precisely what is expected and would never think to traffic in “cool, ironic, and merciless” prose like Lily Tuck’s.

From this essay, one learns Laura Miller doesn’t like “prose poems,” for one thing, which leads her to conclude that “neither [Florida and Madeleine Is Sleeping] merits a spot on the short list, let alone deserves the award itself.” One also learns that she, using her critical pseudonym “most of us,” prefers “a strong story over perfect writing.” And we learn that while Miller believes “it’s too crude to say these five books are neglible,” she doesn’t have any problem suggesting such a thing. But her most flagrant misstep is her arrogant pronouncement of “a nagging conflict built into the awards themselves” at the essay’s end:

For people who read, say, four novels a year, prizes help narrow down a bewilderingly vast field of candidates. Awards have become, as the critic James Wood put it, “the new reviews.” The publishing industry, the press and the public want the National Book Award for fiction to serve that purpose… The judges, however, see it as an honor given to a writer by other writers, and apply very writerly, if not downright esoteric, criteria in making their decision.

That the industry likes awards as marketing tools should come as no surprise, and unfortunately it’s also no great shock that a press which pays less and less attention to reviewing (and otherwise talking seriously about) literary fiction would want the National Book Foundation and other prize committees to pick up the slack so NYTBR can devote two entire pages to a non-story like Lee Siegel’s pretentious, ambivalent meditation on Marion Ettlinger—which might even be characterized as a too-long review of a year-old coffee table book. One wonders, however, how Miller knows what “the public” wants…and then wonders why, if she wants NBA nominations to be the “new reviews,” she’s so upset that she thinks they’re telling her she and her colleagues spent the last year “wasting time and column inches on safe big-name talents and inferior crowd pleasers.”

Unless, that is, “the Academy Awards of the book business” should reinforce the Times mindset which put forth the notion that among the nominees this year only Kate Walbert’s Our Kind was worthy of full review (not, you’ll note, by a staffer) upon its initial release. When one thinks about that in light of Caryn James’ attack on “precious writers’ program language” and Charles McGrath’s disdain for much of The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, perhaps a theme emerges: Maybe Stewart O’Nan and his colleagues should have been focusing on “big and sprawling” comedies with “a good story” instead of “beautiful sentences, formal experiments and infinitely delicate evocations of emotional states.”

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14 November 2004 | theory |