The National Book Award Has Gone to Hell
Once a literary prize more prestigious than the Pulitzer, the National Book Award has lost its way by trying to please too many people. The result is mediocrity.
Only two bets are certain when the National Book Awards will be announced at a ceremony on November 16: Bob Dylan won’t win because he didn’t publish a book, and Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize novel The Sellout won’t win because it didn’t even make the NBA long list. A fiction judge in 2005, I’ve reviewed the fiction finalists the last seven years and have managed to pick four winners, but it’s tough to make a buck as a book tout. The panel of five judges changes every year, so there are always different tastes, criteria, personalities, and loyalties in play. When two friends of mine were on recent panels, discord was so intense that each judge picked one finalist, the kind of situation that can produce unpredictable horsetrading and compromise winners. Corruption can also enter in. The year I was a judge, one colleague tried to give the award to a family friend. Another judge supported the writer with whom she shared an agent.
Given the numerous rave reviews of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, it would seem to be the heavy favorite this year. So was Toni Morrison’s Beloved in 1987, but it didn’t win and bitter racial controversy ensued. Complaints about the vagaries of literary prizes surfaced in 2003 when a book columnist accused the NBA of “constitutional perversity” and again in 2004 and 2011 when publishers and journalists objected that writers with low sales figures were being rewarded at the expense of more well-known money-making novelists.
Our panel in 2005 was accused of vagary when we gave the award to the unpopular (and unlikable, to some) William Vollmann for his challenging and long sequence of stories Europe Central. Our decision elicited gasps from the crowd at the ceremony who expected respectable E. L. Doctorow’s movie-ready novel The March to win, but the three judges who voted for Europe Central found it to be the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of 20th century history.
Those three judges on the 2005 panel were literary novelists. In recent years and, I think, this year, the fiction award has been diminished by the National Book Foundation’s stated intent in 2013 to “broaden” participation on the panels. Since then, panels have included booksellers, a genre novelist, a media academic, and journalists, as well as literary novelists. After the panels were opened up, vagary has been less a problem than predictable mainstream mediocrity. This is unlikely to change in the future. When Lisa Lucas, the new executive director of the foundation who last worked for a film festival, was asked about mass-market fiction, she said, “I’m not sure that trying to draw some distinction between literary fiction or mystery is really helpful.”
NBA junkie that I am, I read all ten works on the long lists to see what judges leave off the short lists of five, a way to gauge the probable winner. Last year was family values time at the NBA; most of the ten were about families and were accessible to anyone in the family, from average teen to foggy senior. I have nothing against families or accessibility, but when the finalists were announced I was disappointed, though not surprised, that the few books with some modest elements of originality were left out of the final five in favor of more conventional and, therefore, more commercial works.
Echoing a pizza ad popular then, I said, “Better judges, better books.” But mediocrity is also a product of the NBA’s nominating process. Publishers pay a fee for each book they nominate and agree to cover expenses for travel and promotion if one of their authors is chosen as a finalist. To please their writers, deep-pocket publishers nominate many books that, I discovered, were obviously neither literary nor prizeworthy. In this pay to play system, small presses with a distinctly literary mission are priced out and judges are overwhelmed with 300 books.
Since the rise of publishing conglomerates, many literary novelists unwilling to pander, as Jonathan Franzen has, to the popular audience have been publishing with these independent presses. But in the last decade, very few works from small presses have been finalists, and only one, Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, has won. This year, not a single book from an independent press made the fiction long list. By contrast, the Booker prize winners this year and last were published in Britain by a small press.
The glut of nominated books can lead to vagaries of omission as well as predictable mediocrity. Our panel divided up the 300, 60 for each person for initial screening. Each judge would pick 5 or 6 for the other judges to read, so add 20 on top of the initial 60. Few judges have the leisure to read all the books in their pool. It seems to me, after reading all the long lists introduced since 2013, that works requiring a lot of time or a lot of care because of unusual stylistic features (such as the 800-page Europe Central) rarely make the lists. Last year, for example, several well reviewed but lengthy works—Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, Garth Hallberg’s City on Fire, and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity—were not included on the long list. This year, unfortunate omissions are ambitious and lengthy works by Annie Proulx (Barkskins) and C. E. Morgan (The Sport of Kings). If each publisher or each imprint of the large publishers were allowed only one nominee, small literary presses could be more competitive, judges would not be slush pile scanners, the long lists would include more substantial, wide-ranging works, and the winners should be major, important books that could function as models of literary aspiration for young writers.
After Percival Everett was a judge in 1997, he included in his novel Erasure a lengthy parody of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple entitled “My Pafology.” It won the novel’s narrator the National Book Award and made him rich and famous. Last year, family was the familiar hook. This year the long list is pervaded by pathology, a daytime TV shortcut to eliciting readers’ interest, a high risk for oozing sentimentality. A woman’s whole life is dictated by her abnormal reproductive organs. Syphilis ruins a gay relationship. A romance is threatened by the mental illness of the woman’s father and mother. A woman and her daughter are hunted by a psychopath husband/father. A father’s suicide drives a protagonist into clinical depression and drug dependency. These are the books that didn’t make the final five.
One of the finalists is also rooted in pathology. August, the African American narrator of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, takes at least a decade to accept the fact of her mother’s suicide in Tennessee when August is 8. In 1973, August, her younger brother, and her father move to Brooklyn, where August copes with the trauma of being motherless by bonding with three black girls who represent possibilities (and tragedies) for August as she moves from child to adolescent and ultimately becomes an anthropologist who studies funeral practices. In their late teens, the girls discover jazz, and the novel is like an improvisational ethnography of a Brooklyn other than the one that is now a brand. Through short, sometimes disconnected paragraphs, we learn about the foods, customs, sexual practices, and religions of Bushwick. Although Woodson’s musical style pleases page by page, the novel lacks the “thick description” employed by the real anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Except for August, the characters are thin, development is rapid, and at 170 small pages, Another Brooklyn is more an outline of than an immersion in Woodson’s adolescent world. Her title recalls James Baldwin’s Another Country, but her book has little of Baldwin’s adult seriousness.
Trauma and anthropology also mark Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, where 22 men gather every year at a Midwestern motel to re-enact the horrific and career-ending injury in 1985 of pro football quarterback Joe Theismann. Most of the men are suffering middle-aged malaise or family problems that they escape temporarily as they rehearse the binding scapegoat ritual they hope will protect them from tragedy. Bachelder lets his many characters tell their brief stories and shorter anecdotes over the course of two days together. Space and time are compacted, but without protagonists the book’s effect is diffuse, like a collection of flash fictions. The men believe in each other when they organize into two teams for their one play, but Bachelder doesn’t believe enough in his clever reunion conceit to extend and deepen The Throwback Special as do the best football novels, such as DeLillo’s End Zone and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
The Throwback Special and Another Brooklyn respond to recent history. Paulette Jiles’s News of the World returns to the 1870 of Texas where 71-year-old Jefferson Kidd undertakes a 400-mile journey in a wagon to return a 10-year-old girl to her relatives after she has spent four years in Indian captivity. Kidd makes his living traveling around the frontier reading “news of the world” to paying customers who want “tales of the remote … dressed up as hard information.” Jiles is a whiz at historical local color, and her remote tale has numerous conflicts with land and animals, comic cultural differences, and a shootout with evil men who want to kidnap the girl for white slavery. But the sentiments are sweet and the very happy ending is somewhat unlikely in Jiles’s alternative to the pessimistic westerns of Cormac McCarthy.
Amazon has various categories of books under 200 pages. These first three finalists are just under or very close to that 200, what Thoreau called “Little Reading” in Walden, what I call “inchlings.” The novels are professionally crafted, modestly inventive, unabashedly heartfelt, but they are minor works. None comes close to the kind of substantial achievement the NBA should be honoring as the best or most important American fiction of the year. If one of these inchlings wins, the award will be an embarrassment, if not a vagary.
Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, about the perpetrators and survivors of a 1996 terrorist attack in Delhi, has the press of the near present and, for Americans, the pull of the other. Mahajan gets inside the rather simple minds and petty problems of his Kashmiri terrorists as they plan the attack that will kill, along with 11 others, the two children of a middle-class Hindu family. But the novel’s primary concern is aftermath: how the parents differ in their responses to loss and to the boys’ Muslim friend Mansoor who survived the bomb. Mahajan follows Mansoor, who retreats into digital reality, to adulthood and education in America before returning him to India where another terror plot is underway. To qualify for the National Book Award, a writer has to be a U.S. citizen. Born in Connecticut, raised in Delhi, Mahajan knows his fellow citizens generally prefer the personal problem and the intimate detail over ideological complexity in their fiction. But The Association of Small Bombs is still an admirable attempt to show how the political, like shrapnel, blows randomly into the lives of individuals and families.
The Underground Railroad reverses the relation between personal foreground and cultural background in The Association of Small Bombs. Whitehead brings race and politics forward; individual character recedes in his fantastical reworking of a familiar 19th century form, the escaped slave narrative. A literal secret railroad moves his representative young heroine, Cora, from Georgia to South Carolina and eventually to Indiana, with long stopovers in historical but also invented landscapes that recall Reconstruction and even 20th century exploitation of American blacks. Whitehead has the required cruel slave master and adds a maniacal slave catcher for woman-on-the-rails melodrama but focuses more on white groups who appear—and only appear—to have altruistic schemes for black “uplift,” the theme of Whitehead’s first (and still best) novel, The Intutionist, about an elevator inspector. There the mechanical becomes the richly metaphorical, even metaphysical. But Whitehead’s railroad just seems an entertaining way to move Cora from one allegorical space to another. The migration story of slaves and their descendants has built-in significance for Americans, but on second reading The Underground Railroad is less imaginative and not as profound as reviewers have asserted. Most of Whitehead’s novels transform sub-genres, such as the detective novel or zombie tale, but the history embedded in the escaped slave narrative resists his attempt to remake it as an American Gulliver’s Travels, which he has said was a model.
I think Whitehead’s novel is the best of the finalists, the one most likely to be read in five years, but judges sometimes “punish” writers and books that have already received widespread attention, such as Oprah’s selection of The Underground Railroad for her Book Club. I have a hunch—note, a “hunch”—that votes will split between Woodson and Whitehead, and that The Association of Small Bombs will emerge as the compromise winner.
Some months ago in this space I identified a trend I called “commercialit,” craft fiction, like craft beer, for popular consumption produced by young MFA-holding novelists whom one might expect to be artists rather than artisans. In attempting to reach what the National Book Foundation calls “new communities” of book buyers and to please its corporate sponsors, the National Book Award for fiction—once more prestigious than the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—has turned toward commercialit and artisanal creations. In my judgment, this year only two books of ten have any reasonable claim on the award. And don’t expect any high-literary vagaries such as Europe Central or strenuous and lengthy works such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a winner in 1974, or Gaddis’s JR, the winner in 1976, or Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (2008), or Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009) to receive the award anytime soon.