When the National Book Award nominations were announced this past autumn, they were greeted with a great amount of grumbling—grumbling that I began to feel was fueled in part by the national malaise presidential politics had caused to befall every conversation in the country. But grumbling nonetheless. The nominated books were criticized for having been written by relatively unknown women who all lived in New York City—though such a demographic fact might equally have been reason for celebration. (The choice of Elfriede Jelinek for this past fall’s Nobel Prize for Literature was faulted too, not for her uninflected pessimism or the threads of caustic misanthropy that weave through her work, and which in fact group her with many other recent winners, but for her insufficient fame outside Vienna, which does not.)
“The revenge of the midgets,” one writer said to me of the National Book Award nominations.
“They should change the name to the ‘Gotham Municipal Book Awards,’” said another.
“How are we supposed to sell books,” cried various publishers, “if the book awards do this to us?”—giving it away that a book’s future has already been pretty much designed in advance by a company’s sales force, who look to an award neither as due respect nor as cultural candy (with all of candy’s meaningless and slightly sickening fun) but as further marketing assistance on an already commercially blessed book. Even boasting a book award, a novel less well funded right from the start can have a hard time shaking off its publisher’s preconceptions, turning around, and having some other life. That is, if the award comes as a surprise. But, of course, if the award is not a surprise, there will be a different sort of grumbling—as no doubt we will soon witness with the initiation of the Quill Awards, a new people’s choice–style prize, set up just this year by Reed Business Information and various local NBC-affiliated television stations, apparently in response to all that autumnal muttering.
Literary muttering attended to at all, sad to say, can seem an amusing and heartening thing.
The response to the National Book Awards that left the biggest impression on me was this one, by a former nominee. He said, “Well, all I know is that if Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is on the list, it means the judges are actually reading the books.”
Ideas of Heaven, short-listed for the Story Prize as well as the National Book Award (it won neither), is a beautiful and peculiar collection of interlinked stories—“a ring of stories” the author herself describes it, since the stories form a kind of circle, the last story cycling back to give new meaning to the first, and all the stories having small, sometimes arbitrary, sometimes dramatic links among them. Its author has written four previous works of fiction, including the novel Lucky Us, an unintimidated update of La Bohème (AIDS substituted for consumption, Brooklyn lofts …