Musings on NBCC Finalists – 2011, redux

So sorry about yesterday's mysterious disappearing post. Once again Typepad gobbled a long piece I'd been working on for more than an hour. It upset me that I'd expended all that time and energy only to lose it all. At least it wasn't a novel, eh? I know, I know, perspective… yadda  yadda. But when you're already having a bad life day stuff like this doesn't do a person any favors.

Regardless, it's embarrassing Tweeting I'd posted a new blog post, only to send visitors to a blank page. And Twitter's customer service? Underwhelming, to say the least. I'm still irate at how little they cared, giving the most cursory response, solving nothing. I've been with them six years, giving them a big chunk of money for the privilege. I could go elsewhere for free, yet I've stayed here. You'd think that would mean something but I suppose apathy rules, as it does pretty much everywhere.

As I'd been saying before my post went amiss, my personal nomination for the fiction prize didn't make the cut. My choice was Goldie Goldbloom's The Paperbark Shoe, the book that was for 2011 what Jon Clinch's Finn was for my 2007 – an unexpected smack to my gob. It's these first-time novelists I love discovering; it's such a rush being among the first to see their skill and future potential. And it was satisfying Finn went on to make a big splash, being added to several university reading lists as a companion to Huckleberry Finn. I can't claim responsibility for all that but I spread the word every chance I got. I can only hope I brought The Paperbark Shoe to a wider reading audience. Who knows? Maybe.

This year's out of nowhere nomination is Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia. Just so happens I've read it, when The Rumpus chose it as a bookclub selection a few months ago. Because I was late to the discussion and wanted to participate I read it quickly, not giving it much time to impress me. Then again, when a book knocks me sideways I know it right away. The first sentence is key and the first paragraph almost always seals the deal. And that didn't happen with SA. I'll give it one more go but honestly I don't see it as the winner. But just to be nominated is an incredible honor for one of the more obscure titles.

Then there's Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child, another underwhelming read, one I dumped halfway through when a major character fell off the scene, angering me and making me lose interest. Hollinghurst's prose just wasn't there for me, either. I know the critics fell all over themselves praising it. I just don't quite understand why. Maybe it took a turn for the better after I left off but a prize-winning novel shouldn't lose the reader, ever. As with SA, I'll try it one last time, reserving final judgement 'til I do.

Teju Cole's novel Open City was an exception to my first paragraph rule. For the first half to three quarters I would have given it a full five stars, no reservations. Then came a long, dull political screed interrupting the narrative. Political themes are all well and good but don't slip them in halfway through a novel. Give the reader a little inkling what's coming earlier on, include a transition.With no major segue the politics turned a fantastic book into a slog. I didn't even finish the book. And, okay. I'll try it again.

I'm seeing a theme here. You?

That leaves Eugenides and Pearlman, the only two whose nominations I haven't tried. They're both queued up on my Kindle, so I officially own all the fiction finalists. This one category is all I can handle this year but I'll have my pick ready before the board declares the winners in early March. Disclaimer: And, so you know, though I have nomination privileges I have no part or influence over the winners.

Alas, the rest of my original post is lost to the ages. I recreated a lot of the original but it pains me knowing a lot of it was lost. Maybe it would have pained you had my little disaster not happened. Sometimes things work out for the better.

If you have any thoughts on the 2011 nominations/awards I'd love to hear them. Just drop me a comment in the usual place, and, again, sorry about Typepad's gaffe. I'll post thoughts on the fiction finalists as I read. I, for one, will be interested to see if re-reading any books I disliked the first time changes my opinion. Truthfully, I doubt it. Without that prior knowledge my early prediction (and don't hold me to this…) is either Eugenides or Pearlman, though Hollinghurst has gotten an awful lot of critical acclaim. And sometimes awards go to critically beloved books which have been passed over for other awards, intentionally or not I honestly don't know.

One book I'm surprised didn't make the list is Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones. What a masterwork! Yes, she won the National Book Award but frankly I don't think there's an award out there this book doesn't deserve. It's just that magnificent. If she wasn't a consideration I'd be shocked. Guess you can't let every deserving book make it into the finals. I recommend putting this novel on your reading list, if you haven't already. Then try and tell me it didn't deserve a spot here.

Congratulations to all the nominees. I wish you the bet of luck.

But here they are, the finalists for books written in 2011:


NBCC Finalists 2011



Teju Cole, Open City (Random House)

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (Knopf)

Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (Lookout Books)

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner)



Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random)

James Gleick, The Information (Pantheon)

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Maya Jasanoff, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (Knopf)

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead: Essays (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)



Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing (W.W. Norton)

Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace (Free Press)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown)

Luis J. Rodríguez, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone)

Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt)



Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of the Revolution (Little, Brown)

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press)

Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (Knopf)

Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking)

Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press)



David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber)

Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf)

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday)

Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture (Open Letter)

Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press)



Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World (New Directions)

Aracelis Girmay, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions)

Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon Press)

Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Bruce Smith, Devotions (University of Chicago Press)


The Continuing Debate on Fiction in the 21st Century, or, Honey, Take it From Me…

Thought-provoking article in Sunday’s London Times about the state of contemporary fiction. The assertion of the writer is contemporary fiction is turning to mush, largely due to the constraints of political correctness but also due to a general dumbing-down of most of the western world. Authors are so concerned with not offending anyone, he asserts, they’re turning out a new brand of milque-toast prose, rather than the groundbreaking fiction of decades past.

Are writers today too afraid to really say anything? Has fiction become formulaic and, dare I say, bland?

I’ve had many problems with contemporary fiction, but at the same time I’ve been very impressed with much of it. There’s David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, for instance, not to mention most of the Booker longlist books I read and enjoyed last fall. If it’s not harkening back too far, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was a stellar novel. France has also given us Amelie Nothomb, an extremely cerebral writer whose works I revelled in last year. There are too many others to name, frankly, and despite the fact I read constantly I find my brain usually balks when I ask it for a straight list, but you get the idea. There are an awful lot of really staggering books out there.

I don’t agree all of modern fiction is dumbed-down. Some of it is, absolutely, but if you look at every decade you’ll find something that’s drivel. The simple fact is the publishing industry isn’t out just to serve mainly the erudite elite crowd. If they aimed at that they’d all be living on the streets, dressed in rags. Publishing is a business, and its main purpose is to serve the mainstream, as that’s where the bulk of the money is. We can argue about how that strangles art, and I’m more than sympathetic to that, but it’s also necesssary to separate publishing as a business entity from publishing as a way to further the art of writing. Sometimes those things blissfully cross paths, and when it happens that a truly gifted writer is also a bestselling writer that’s wonderful, but generally that just isn’t the case. For better or worse, the general public tends to buy a lot of middle-to-lower brow writing. That’s the simple fact.

There’s a lot of garbage being published these days, I would agree with that. It’s irritating to me personally, especially when some of these books arrive on my doorstep for review. Sometimes I do go ahead and review them, struggling valiantly to get through them (often resorting to skimming large passages, while simultaneously holding my nose to prevent gagging) but other times I just give these horrible books away. It’s just not usually worth wasting my already tight reading time on something with absolutely no merit whatsoever. I have better things to read. But other times (thankfully or I wouldn’t still be doing this!) I’ll get something impressive from the publishers, something with true literary merit. Most recently that book is Jon Clinch’s Finn, and this book I expect to make a very well-deserved impact on contemporary fiction. It’s an original and imaginative take on a very slight but fascinating reference to Huckleberry Finn’s father in Mark Twain’s novel, and it’s also one of the best-written contemporary books I’ve had the pleasure of reading for review. There are other books like Finn out there, and when I stumble on them I couldn’t be happier with contemporary fiction.



The author of the Times article takes aim at a few writers who’ve produced much better writing in the past but who have, for either reasons of feeling constrained or due to a factor of age, slipped in quality. John Updike was starting-off point. He held up Updike’s recent novel Terrorist as a prime example. I read this particular book, and I agree it was pretty awful. I’d never read any Updike before and chose to start with his most recent book, mostly because it had just come into the library and I would be the first person to read it. Reading this particular book from Updike’s oeuvre turned out to be a mistake. If he didn’t have such a staggering reputation I’d cross him off my list after this effort, but he does have the reputation, so I won’t be doing that. Who am I not to forgive John Updike? Short answer: no one. I wouldn’t dream of it.

The question remains, was Terrorist a bad book because Updike’s lowering his standards to please a dumbed-down audience, or did he just miss a beat this time? Considering his stature, and everything else he’s doing and has done in the world of criticism, etc., I don’t tend to think he’s lowering himself. Rather, I think it’s the latter, that he’s a human being, and in this case he just didn’t rise to the task. I can’t see making a federal case of that.

Every author produces a book below his or her ability once in a while. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think a bad book by Updike is really reason enough to turn a finger on serious literature as a whole. It’s irritating when this happens. When you’re expecting better it’s disappointing to be let down. But let’s not say the entire publishing industry is bad because John Updike produced a lemon. That’s just not the case.

The good stuff is out there. You may have to hunt a little harder to fifinnnd it, but it is there to be found. And when you do find something that’s really good, like Jon Clinch’s Finn, it’s imperative to publicize it. Get it out there so mainstream readers will notice and maybe pick it up. If you waste all your time complaining about the bad books all that energy gets virtually wasted, as all you’ve done is give free publicity to the authors churning out the books no one should waste time reading. Instead of that, turn that force around for the good and champion those who are making the grade but who aren’t yet a household name. Seems to me doing that has the potential to turn the tide, and give momentum to writers whose works the public should be reading.

As my mother has always told me, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. We’d all do better to keep such simple truths in mind, in literature and in life.