Smiley vs. McInerney: The book world is generally so polite and civilized, that it’s sort of fun when a kerfuffle breaks open as it did last night at the New York Public Library. The event was a champagne reception and judges’ panel to discuss the finalists for the Man Booker International Prize, an honor bestowed every two years on a living writer who writes in English, or is widely available in translation. Up on stage were The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown, acting as moderator, and the three judges: novelists Amit Chaudhuri, Andrey Kurkov, and Jane Smiley.
Midway through the question-and-answer session, Brown asked the judges if the deaths in recent years of major literary figures such as Updike, Bellow, and Mailer represented the end of an era. With fewer readers, straitened times for book publishing, and less coverage of books in the media, could such literary giants ever emerge again?
Smiley’s answer was tart: “When those figures died, they were colossal— in New York. They were not colossal in San Francisco or Minneapolis.” She went on to argue that the literary world is more dispersed than it used to be, “but it’s just as passionate.”
Updike was not a big deal in San Francisco? I for one considered that a strange notion, but Smiley does live in Northern California, I thought, so perhaps she knows better. The novelist Jay McInerney, however, wasn’t having it. He spoke up from his seat in the audience, addressing Smiley directly. “Were you insulting San Francisco or Minneapolis? Or Updike and Mailer?”
Tension! “I was hoping not to insult anyone,” Smiley replied, smoothly. “I meant that New York literary culture is different from the rest of the country.” Smiley said that she was “fond” of Updike’s work, but when pressed by McInerney, she admitted that “Mailer totally passed me by.”
McInerney made the point that Updike lived in Massachusetts, not New York—but Smiley wasn’t backing down. “Updike was seen as a New Yorker in St. Louis,” she said, firmly.
Smiley grew up outside of St. Louis, and lived in Iowa for years, and she seemed to warm to the opportunity to burnish her Midwestern credentials in front of a New York literary crowd. A pop quiz was in order. “How do you feel about Frederick Manfred?” she asked McInerney. McInerney indicated he didn’t have any feeling one way or another about Manfred. (I thought, who?) “Well, Frederick Manfred is a big deal in Iowa,” Smiley said. “How do you feel about Giants of the Earth?” Same response from McInerney. “ Giants of the Earth is a big deal in Minnesota.”
I’m not sure Smiley got the best of McInerney there. Is it really possible that mid-century Iowa writer Frederick Manfred or the 1927 novel by Ole Edvart Rolvaag Giants of the Earth (I had to look it up) are bigger than John Updike in corn country? Hard to imagine. But, of course, I’m a New Yorker so I’ll yield to Smiley’s better judgment.
A Look at the Nominees: The nominees have been named for the Man Booker International Prize, and I’d call it an underdog list.
Where’s Philip Roth? Toni Morrison? Ian McEwan? At the press conference announcing the list this morning, held at the New York Public Library, judging chair Jane Smiley took care to indicate that she and the other two judges, Amit Chadhuri and Andrey Kurkov, wanted to bring attention to relatively unknown writers. “We hope this award will generate an interest in translated literature,” she said. “Five years from now maybe there will be a more diverse group of writers translated into English that a set of judges can look at.”
That’s a noble goal and it’s true there’s a shameful lack of translated literature being published in the U.S. right now. Still, the only British writer the judges picked is…James Kelman? Taken together, the U.S. group, Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow, and Evan S. Connell, feels strangely pallid. V.S. Naipaul, the only Nobel Laureate on the list, is probably the heaviest hitter here, though that Nobel will likely disqualify him from winning.
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Not to be confused with the Man Booker Prize, which recognizes a single novel every year, this “International” version honors a writer’s entire career. The only criteria is the writer must be living and his or her work must be available in English. It’s given every two years; the first was awarded in 2005 to Albanian novelist Ismail Kardare. Chinua Achebe won it in 2007.
Since the prize is still so new, my gut tells me that for all Smiley’s talk about exposing unknown writers to a larger audience, the prize will in the end recognize someone on the shortlist we’ve heard of, perhaps Alice Munro or Mario Vargas Llosa.
After all, Man Booker wants its award to compete with the Nobel, and a little name-recognition will help. The administrator of the prize, Fiammetta Rocco, literary editor of The Economist, eagerly took a question this morning about how the Man Booker International stacks up against that august honor from Sweden. “This prize has a much greater transparency,” she said, indicating the announcement of judges and a shortlist (the Nobel publicizes neither). “The lack of transparency in the Nobel has given rise to the idea that it’s quite a political prize,” she continued. “There’s absolutely nothing political about this prize at all.”
Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.