Uncle Frank's Diary
Number 26 / May, 2005
Book Awards and the Best Writers of Their Generation:
Too Many of Both
I don’t know what won. Or who won. I don’t care. And it doesn’t matter. . . How can it matter, when in a nation that cranks out close to 10,000 works of fiction every year, the judges who pick the NBA winner for fiction read a few hundred such works in their grueling struggle to find the most deserving?
It takes Uncle Frank some time to get around to chewing on a topic publicly, now and then. He likes to gnaw on it in private, like a dog with a rawhide bone, then, when the thing is good and droolish, he hauls it into the living room and drops it at your feet. Ick.
He’s been gnawing at the notion of book awards for a long time, and not just book awards, but the whole business of book reviews.
Not to pick on the National Book Awards, which surely are not much dumber than the rest, but the last go-‘round in the NBA fiction award battle was pretty characteristic of the whole enterprise of giving awards to writers for their books.
As you’ll recall, the selection of the five finalists for the award raised a ruckus owing to their geographic, sexual, and commercial uniformity. The five favored litterateurs were all women, all from New York City, and none of them, I think, had cracked 3,000 copies sold of her belovedly brilliant-but-obscure book.
The worst of these categories is the geographical. The American book biz has been provincial forever, with New York City and Boston the hubs of writing, publishing, reviewing, and reflection on those three activities. These are the “National” book awards? What kind of “national” perspective derives from drawing all your finalists from the same big city?
In a larger sense, though, so what? Once one recognizes that the National Book Awards ritual is basically nonsensical, it is impossible to care what gets nominated, or what wins. I don’t know what won. Or who won. I don’t care. And it doesn’t matter. (Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels: “I don’t know, I don’t care, and it doesn’t matter anyway.”) How can it matter, when in a nation that cranks out close to 10,000 works of fiction every year, the judges who pick the NBA winner for fiction read a few hundred such works in their grueling struggle to find the most deserving?
That’s what they do, and then announce the one work of fiction published in the United States in a given year that really, really deserves honor above all the rest.
Please: Is anyone willing to join Uncle Frank in calling this practice idiotic? Vast reams of fiction, ranging from hideous to magnificent, roll across the country every year. Most of it, regardless of its merit, disappears from view without a whimper. The National Book Award judges are oblivious of it. Is it conceivable that maybe, just maybe, somewhere in the 9,000 books they didn’t read, there might be one just a hair better than the one they decided is the cream o’ the crop?
Oh, I think so. Now, if the judges openly admitted that they haven’t a clue as to what the best book in the country is, but are picking one they pretty much like to sort of represent all the deserving, and maybe more deserving, books that neither they nor 99.99 percent of the reading public will ever scrutinize, that would be tolerable, maybe. But they don’t do that: They act as though they know what they’re talking about when they make their choices.
They don’t know what they’re talking about. Statistical reality guarantees it. They should be embarrassed to pretend that they do know.
But please, don’t let me pick on the National Book Award judges. They’re no worse offenders in this vein than other award awarders, or book reviewers, either. In the New York Times Book Review of November 14, the lead review on Alice Munro’s Runaway said that she “has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America.”
Pass Me the Doritos
What? What is the reviewer saying? How can he possibly make such a preposterous, uninformed assertion? Oh, I’m sorry: He has read the other many thousands of books published in the past year, and the year before that, and before that. He has also found a way to read all the manuscripts completed but never submitted to publishers, for whatever reason, that are languishing in the bottom drawers of writers of whom we know nothing, but whose labor over their books they probably considered “working” while they were engaged in it, rather than watching TV or sleeping or eating nacho cheese Doritos and drinking beer and watching squirrels run around the back yard—all of which are probably more worthwhile pursuits than picking book award winners.
The world is just full of people who want to tell you what’s the best, and what isn’t worth your time. Remember when would-be cultural dictator Harold Bloom worked himself into a stupid snit over Stephen King’s nabbing a National Book Foundation medal for “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters”? Bloom thinks King is a low-rent hack.
Which must explain why Bloom once edited a collection of criticism on King with the imaginative title, Stephen King (Chelsea House, 1998). Bloom’s introduction to the collection is marvelously patronizing. He obviously despises King’s writing, as he apparently does most of the reading public. King is symptomatic of the Decline o’ the West, blah blah blah. Not that the Bloomster is above cranking out a book to capitalize on King’s popularity, but hey, he doesn’t have to like it while he’s doing it. If you read his intro, you’ll swear that he was grinding his teeth throughout the wretched ordeal.
Bloom and the National Book Awards are all part of the same kultural stew that brings us every pompous “critic’s” estimation of what the good stuff really is. Want a little pointless entertainment? Look in online databases and search engines for phrases like “best writer working,” “best writer at work,” and “best writer in America.” You’ll be surprised how many best writers there are. I fooled around with this sort of searching a while back. Here’s some of what I found. Why don’t you just kick off your shoes for a barefoot romp through the best writers in America?
Jerry Sullivan, in the Buffalo News (March 3, 2002), thinks that Andre Dubus is maybe “the best American writer of his generation, period.”
Keith Pandolfi, of the Times-Picayune (Feb. 10, 2002), says that Richard Ford “is arguably the best American writer working.”
According to Rheta Grimsley Johnson in the Atlanta Constitution (July 21, 1999), Walker Percy is “possibly the best American writer of the 20th century.”
But Jim Coyle (Toronto Star, May 10, 2001) says that “The best writer working in English today is Tom Wappel.”
Cal Thomas (urp!) contends that Martha Williamson is “the best writer working in television” in his syndicated blovation published in the Grand Rapids Press, July 23, 1999.
On the other hand, Jamie Portman reported a month earlier in the Vancouver Sun (June 25, 1999), that actor Rob Lowe considers Aaron Sorking “the best writer working in any medium today.” Does that include pastels and charcoal?
A year earlier (May 1, 1998), Ted Cox, of the Arlington Heights, IL, Daily Herald, claimed that Darin Morgan is “the best writer working in television.” Maybe Morgan, Sorking, and Williamson could slug it out for the championship belt in a WWF extravaganza.
It goes on. The “best writer in America” was, according to Greil Marcus, the late Lester Bangs, wrote Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian (Sept. 6, 2003). I’ve always admired Marcus, and used to laugh myself silly over Bangs, but really…
Jonathan Franzen “is just about the best writer in America now,” says Maya Even, according to Rebecca Rose in the Financial Times (June 21, 2003).
In the Washington Times (June 18, 2000), Ronald Radosh reports that Nat Hentoff considers Norman Mailer “the best writer in America.”
Annie Proulx is “maybe the best writer in America,” says David Thompson of The Independent (London), May 30, 1999.
Apparently Proulx has eclipsed Thomas Williams, whom Stephen King declared “the best writer in America,” according to Joseph Coates in the Chicago Tribune, back on May 24, 1992.
Alice Munro (yup, her again) beats ‘em all, of course, because she is “the best writer working today,” in the opinion of Lily Thayer in the Citypaperonline, Dec. 19, 2001.
Unless, as John Leonard argues, “the best writer working in America today” is Toni Morrison (cited in Books for the Journey Toward Wholeness, Unitarian Universalist Association, May, 2002).
According to www.readings.org, The San Francisco Examiner has called Tim O’Brien the “best American writer of his generation.” Actually, I think it was more likely someone working for the Examiner who said that. I don’t think the Examiner has ever said anything. Newspapers don’t talk.
I’m almost done… two more:
Lorrie Moore is “the best American writer of her generation,” according to Nick Horby in the Sunday Times (London), as quoted in www.fairfieldweekly.com. Yeah? Better keep her away from Tim O’Brien.
And finally, someone in Vanity Fair said that Nicholson Baker is “the best American writer of his generation.” That was quoted in Rare Book Review, www.rarebookreview.com. Keep him away from O’Brien and Moore, unless you want to see blood on the walls.
Boy, there sure are a lot of best writers, aren’t there? Makes you kind of want to drop your pen, unplug your word processor, and go out in the back yard and feed the worms. I mean, if all these people are the best, what’s a shmuck like you doing thinking you have a right to intrude on their turf by composing so much as a grocery list?
The one thing that all these bestowers of “the best” have in common, of course, is that they, like the book award awardsters, don’t know what they’re talking about. But it sure makes you sound pretty smart to announce to the world that you know what “the best” is, huh?
Let’s make a deal: If you read a book that you really like, tell us about it. If you read a book that you really hate that you think deserves attention because of the threat it poses civilization through its badness, tell us about it. But don’t tell us that the good book is the “best,” or that the bad book is the “worst.” You don’t know. I don’t know. Uncle Frank doesn’t know.
And it doesn’t matter, anyway.