Last week, hot on the heels of the Man Booker Prize announcement, the National Book Foundation announced their nominees for the 2008 National Book Awards. (Since I really only read fiction, for the purposes of this rant, I will only refer to the fiction portion of these awards. Thank you.) The NBA’s are given annually for literary excellence by US citizens for books published in the States within that particular calendar year. The NBA judging panel – comprised of five authors working in that genre – selects 5 finalists culled from the ranks of what has been submitted over the past year. Would this year’s panel be able to bring us a list of worthy titles? Perhaps their names alone would foretell the quality of the finalists. The panel: Gail Godwin (chair) – never read her. Her books strike me somewhat as “ladies’ fiction”. Rebecca Goldstein – never heard of her. Elinor Lipman – more ladies’ fiction. Not my thing, although moderately respectable. Reginald McKnight – never heard of him. Mr. Jess Walter – one of my all-time favorite authors and hopefully the man who will save this year’s awards. Not sure if he has gotten over getting hosed in 2006, when he was a finalist for The Zero.
Here’s what they came up with:
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
Home by Marilynne Robinson
The End by Salvatore Scibona
I was just going to complain about the list and how there are not any books worth reading on the list and how there is nothing that really appeals to me among them, and I started think about all the books I read in 2008 that didn’t make the finals – pointless thoughts, really, from a man without any influence, outside the walls of the bookstore where I toil and within the meager pages of this blog. But as I looked over the list of books I have read in the past year, there actually were very few American novels that struck me as worthy of the National Book Award. I think that David Bajo’s 351 Books of Irma Arcuri, while not widely read, is certainly brilliant enough to make the list here. Is Nam Le eligible for The Boat? I don’t know, but he should be. Personally, I am shocked that David Benioff’s City of Thieves is not a finalist – this is far and away the finest piece of fiction, American or otherwise, that I have read in the past year. It is really a tragedy that is not on the list at all. The only “consolation” for him is his winning the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Award for Best Fiction last weekend. At least I was able to vote for him on that one. Sigh.
So I think I will complain about the quality of this list after all! Robinson can’t win – she already has a Pulitzer within the last five years, so that just wouldn’t be fair. But I have to think she’s the favorite. Peter Mathiessen seems to be stretching the rules of the award a bit with his “new book” – a re-edit of his trilogy from the 90’s (Killing Mister Watson, Lost Man’s River, and Bone by Bone). He has cut a significant portion from the books for the new edition, but it still seems like a stretch. He is a 3-time nominee now, with one win (The Snow Leopard, 1980 winner for General Nonfiction paperback) and while his body of work is extremely worthy, is it really fair to give him the award for best fiction of 2008 for 3 reworked novels from 1990-1999? You can see from my list of my read books on this site that I never finished The Lazarus Project – it still intrigues me, but there’s something about his style that just keeps me out. Telex From Cuba received quite a bit of positive press when it first was published and I think it may be the darkhorse in this. It does sound compelling (and I still may end up giving it a shot), but I’ve stayed away from it because of the soccer moms and La Jolla elderly that have come looking for it. And I have never laid eyes on The End, nor have I ever heard of Salvatore Scibona (above). He and his novel may be very fine, but I can’t really get on board with nominating a book I’ve never heard of for the best book in all the land.
I’ve said before that it is unfortunate that these award panels feel the need to pat themselves on the back every year and nominate books that they feel are worthy despite their lack of consumer demand or critical acclaim. Look at the sales history for NBA nominees & winners just from the 2000’s – its a who’s-who of publisher returns and remainder titles. It’s this snobbish, backward thinking that has lead us to abominations like the Quill Awards – a useless, embarrassing series of awards that has the opposite effect by allowing the unread masses to overload the nomination boards with Nora Roberts titles. There needs to be more of a middle ground – how can you put Salvatore Scibona on the list and leave David Benioff off it? What are you trying to tell me, the well-read consumer, about the quality of titles available? The NBA Foundation should take a cue from the mess surrounding the Booker longlist this year – see my post on that from August – there was substantial fallout from the snobbery surrounding Jamie Byng and his whining over the commercialization of some nominees, but ultimately Booker got it right with Aravind Agiga – the best book in the bunch.
I’m not saying that the National Book Awards need to be fan-friendly or even critic friendly, but they should follow the buzz from the last year’s worth of publications as a guide to how to select the best of the best. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has gotten substantial buzz over the summer – mostly from Oprah, true, but it had a solid industry following before The O caught on. Yet it is surprisingly not on the list. City of Thieves. Ethan Canin’s America America maybe. The five books that made the list are not buzz-worthy and therein lies the rub – I want to want to read the books nominated as the five best novels published in America for the year. These five don’t wow me and send me out to buy all five. They are unfamiliar and feel pretentious and elitist – the woman in Omaha who happened to read Edgar Sawtelle for her bookclub is going to feel ostracized by an award foundation that picks 5 books that may not even be available in her local bookstore. What message is this sending to our diminishing reading public? “You’re too stupid to even understand how we select these titles, so just shut up and buy the ones with the gold stickers on the cover.”