~Post by Brian C.
Laura Miller at Salon.com has recently written about the irrelevance of the National Book Award. And although I disagree with her overall declaration about the relative importance, or the lack of importance of the National Book Award, I’m willing to concede that she may have a point. The Pulitzer and Booker may have more literary gravitas, and the NBCC and Orange Prize may have a more street cred, so the National Book Award may be somewhere in the middle. Not a ‘big prize’, but not quite a specialized, independent prize, either. For some this middle of the road placement might speak to mediocrity, but for me it feels just right. I like the National Book Award, but that’s just one opinion. What I do take umbrage with is Miller’s reasoning in coming to her valid conclusion.
Miller writes critically that this year’s fiction list “…is an assortment of low-profile and/or small-press offerings, with the exception of Tea Obreht’s best selling debut, The Tiger’s Wife.” My reaction to this is two part. Firstly, under what category would Julie Otsuka be considered low profile? She certaintly isn’t published by a small press. Secondly, so what? Small presses have always done great work. They’ve been steadily publishing wonderful, challenging, accessible works for as long as they’ve been in existence. Now, with less expensive social media outlets, maybe we’re seeing them more because we’re able to see them more? I don’t really know why small houses are getting more notoriety during awards season, but Miller seems to be pointing to a plot at the National Book Awards to get smaller publishers some notoriety, even though they may not deserve it.
But wait, there’s more… the conspiracy goes further. Miller points out that four of the five books nominated are written by women! Gasp! This must be part of the National Book Awards conspiracy to give books by women more recognition than equally deserving books by men. She also says that they chose the wrong women. Miller points to Ann Patchett and Amy Waldman being passed over, despite their being ‘prominent’.
So, the conspiracy among NBA members is to favor books from small houses and/or women, but not women of prominence. I submit a list of recent winners:
2010 Jaimy Gordon Lord of Misrule – Vintage paperback
2009 Colum McCann Let the Great World Spin – Random House
2008 Peter Matthiessen Shadow Country – Modern Library
2007 Denis Johnson Tree of Smoke– -Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2006 Richard Powers The Echo Maker—Picador
2005 William Vollmann Europe Central — Penguin
That brings us to 2004, which was, as Miller points out, “much discussed” because all shortlisted books were by women. Lily Tuck won that year. She’s published by Harper Collins. Miller’s conspiracy theory is wrong because the numbers don’t add up. It’s also wrong because she’s perpetuating an ideology that makes us question the validity of all art created by women.
The conspiracy stuff bothers me, but not too much. I live in Austin, I’m used to conspiracy theories. What bothers me most about Miller’s essay is when she calls y’all stupid. I’ve worked in a book store for my entire adult life, and I’ve come away with a little knowledge about the people who walk through the doors. Here’s the dirty little secret: BookPeople customers are as well read as BookPeople employees, and the employees here read a lot. Our society is incredibly literate. Miller argues that the NBA is trying to force feed the larger reading public books that exhibit a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling, and that those books don’t matter that much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off. She makes this offensive statement while telling us that what people want is Jeffrey Eugenides. Has she read Eugenides? Mr. Eugenides, who will be coming to BookPeople, is one of the most challenging writers working today, regardless of how big or small the author’s press may be. I wonder how he would feel to be the poster child for the types of books that appeal to a general public that doesn’t want to be challenged? I don’t know him, but I hope he’d be offended by Miller, too. Note to Ms. Miller: people like hard books, just ask Paul Auster or Jennifer Egan.
If you like the National Book Award like I do, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But I don’t think that the National Book Award committee has partaken in a huge conspiracy to get you to read books that you don’t want to because you’re stupid. That’s just silly.