Confessions of a Book Award Junkie

There is always controversy over book awards.  Recently 30 publishers in the UK signed a letter to the organizers of the Man Booker Prize asking that the decision to include Americans  be overturned.  I’m neutral, though we do have plenty of American awards already.

So what better time to post “Confessions of a Book Award Junkie,” an essay I wrote in the 1990s?  Enjoy!


Those of us who grew up in the ’60s watching beauty pageants and the Oscars suspected early on that awards were arbitrary—a conjecture that never spoiled our enjoyment of the spectacle. My mother and I loved these shows. We huddled on the davenport and picked our favorites. Our criteria were self-evident and sound: Miss Alaska on the basis of cuteness! Julie Christie because of her British accent! The Sound of Music because we’d actually seen it! If the judges didn’t agree with our choices–and our odds were roughly as good as picking a winning horse in the trifecta–the evening was shot.

These days I lack interest in pageantry, and Hollywood glamour makes me cranky (the hair, the gowns, the shoes, the tearful speeches–where are the jeans-and-sweater types?).

No, my interest in awards is bookish. I confess, I am a book award junkie. I secretly wonder, Why can’t the National Book Awards and the Booker Prize do it up like the Oscars? Although I find book awards both silly and exciting (how can judges narrow the field to a single best?), I am enthralled each fall by the announcements of the winners. Even though I may not agree with the selections and sometimes dismiss them as politically motivated, it’s a good way to learn about the contenders on the literary scene. It is safe to give these books as Christmas gifts, because people are vaguely awed by awards, though many prize winners prove bloated disappointments, fated to be sold or traded at used bookstores.

In case you’re not an insider, the National Book Awards, sponsored by he National Book Foundation and selected by writer-judges for a single term, honor American works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. There is often grumbling about the choices, and this year (1996) was no exception, as reported in a recent New York Times article. Barbara Grossman, a senior vice president and publisher at Viking Penguin, commented, “Do you think the judges take a perverse pleasure in picking authors that no one has ever heard of?” And Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar Strauss & Giroux, called the list of finalists “almost willfully fugitive.”

I admit, the choices are a bit strange. The fiction award went to Andrea Barrett’s workmanlike but uninspiring Ship Fever and Other Stories, a collection of short stories about scientists, several set in the 19th century, reminiscent of A. S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects, though without the brilliance and passion. In short, I was often bored. The other choices were also a bit obscure. For your Christmas shopping convenience, you may want to know them, though: they are Elizabeth McCracken’s overrated first novel, The Giant’s House, Ron Hansen’s Atticus, Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Janet Peery’s The River Beyond the World. I was more impressed by this year’s non-fiction winner, James Carroll’s An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. This memoir about Carroll’s complicated relationship with is father is powerful, despite his dense style and tendency to pontificate. Carroll, a novelist, former priest, and the son of Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll, who directed the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, documents his struggles to assert his own identity as a priest and anti-war activist during political and philosophical clashes with his father. Did I love this book? No. Would I recommend it? Yes.

There are some award-winning books this years that I whole-heartedly recommend. The Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, is a more reliable guide in terms of consistent quality and readability, perhaps because its field of contenders comprises English, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, Australian, South African, and the entire Commonwealth. In the 1990s, two of the more breathtaking winners have been Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and A. S. Byatt’s Possession. The 1996 Booker nominees are also stunners. The prize was awarded to Graham Swift’s Last Orders, a moving novel about four friends who come together after a friend’s death to scatter his ashes at the seaside. These working-class men, the central narrator being Ray, a good-humored man who frequents the racetrack, have complicated relationships with one another and their late friend. Their relationships are explored through flashbacks, tricky shifts of viewpoint, and Ray’s account of their trip to the seaside, marked by frequent stops and quarrels. This would make a wonderful Christmas gift.

Some of the runners-up, however, are easier reads. Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace is a historical novel, impressively researched and beautifully-written. It tells the story of Grace Mark, a Canadian convicted of murder in 1843 at the age of 16, and her relationship with Dr. Jordan, a young psychoanalyst who arrives at the prison in in 1851 to extract the details of the crime. Atwood, whose range is breathtaking, doesn’t let you down, though I prefer her novels about contemporary women. Be on the lookout for her twists and turns of thought and language.

I also enjoyed Sheila Mackay’s The Orchard on Fire, a novel set mainly in Kent, England, during the narrator’s ’50’ s childhood. Eight-year-old April and her best friend, the daughter of an abusive pub owner, have sometimes happy, more often puzzling encounters with other adults. And their observations of the world around them are often comical and always perceptive. And here my recommendations stop. Although I am eager to read the remaining nominees, I did not receive from the publishers my copies of the two available in the U.S. in time to read them for this article. They are: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, and Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark.

So that’s the news on the award front, and I hope you can find the books!

Oh, Come on! The National Book Award Fiction Finalists

Atia (Octavian/Augustus' mother) in "Rome" (played by Polly Walker)

Atia (Octavian/Augustus’ mother) in “Rome”

When I saw the announcement of the National Book Award fiction longlist in the Washington Post this morning, I thought, Here’s something I can get behind.  But then I nearly spit out my tea.

“This is a f—–g starf—-ers’ list!  The trollops!”

Excuse the f- words. I’m watching the second season of the HBO series, Rome, and every other word is f—.  “Very British,” my husband says.  “Very HBO,” I say.  I also now call everyone a trollop, because Atia, Octavian/Augustus’s mother (played by Polly Walker), uses the t-word.

The National Book Award has long been the equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, to my mind:  I’ve never taken the Pulitzer seriously, what with their occasionally refusing to award it.  Now the NBA has a longlist-shortlist system, just like the Booker.  The poetry longlist was announced on Tuesday.  The nonfiction yesterday.  Today the fiction.

I don’t mind that my favorites of the year (see sidebar) didn’t make the longlist.  What I do mind is that there are only four writers on this list whose work I’ve never read.

Come on, give me something to work with here! I like to discover something new.

The list:

National Book Awards fiction 2013 lonTom Drury, “Pacific” (Grove).
Elizabeth Graver, “The End of the Point” (Harper).
Rachel Kushner, “The Flamethrowers” (Scribner).
Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Lowland” (Forthcoming from Knopf on Sept. 24).
Anthony Marra, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” (Hogarth).
James McBride, “The Good Lord Bird” (Riverhead).
Alice McDermott, “Someone” (Farrar Straus Giroux).
Thomas Pynchon, “Bleeding Edge” (Penguin).
George Saunders, “Tenth of December: Stories” (Random House).
Joan Silber, “Fools: Stories” (Norton).

I’ve read reviews of every book on this list except Pacific.

I’ve read all of Alice McDermott’s books.  I’ll read this one, too.  She won the National Book Award in 1998 for Charming Billy.

I admire Joan Silber, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, James McBride, and Thomas Pynchon (who won the NBR in 1974 for Gravity’s Rainbow).

And so there are only four I’ve never read a word of.

“Is something wrong?” a family member asked.  He had spilled coffee all over his tie so wasn’t in the best of spirits.

“They’re trollops!”  I answered.

“Trollope?”  he asked.

“The judges!”


He went out the door.  I know I will have better luck discussing this online.

The judges are:  former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath (chair), Charles Baxter (a brilliant novelist and short story writer),  Gish Jen (ditto),Rick Simonson, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, and René Steinke (a novelist I haven’t read).

Perhaps all these books are masterpieces.

Perhaps the judges have their eye on one of the few, very few, longshots.

It’s always wonderful when the award goes to someone unknown, though of course the unknowns are no longer unknown:  Lily Tuck, Andrea Barrett, Jaimy Gordon.

Perhaps the judges should develop a narrative about the writers for us so we’ll have something to care about.

MEANWHILE, EVERYONE IN THE UK is raging because the Man Booker Prize has been opened up to Americans.  They much prefer the Commonwealth, they say.

What is the Commonwealth?  one wonders.  O Can-a-da!  India, South Africa, Australia… is the “wealth” really “common”?

The Americans revolted long, long ago.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident…,” etc., etc.

There is no reason for the Booker to be open to Americans.

Americans do qualify for the Orange Prize/Women’s Prize, and often win it.

And so the Brits and I are steaming about different awards.