Vote for the National American Idol Book Award!
The folks over at the National Book Award, America’s most prestigious literary prize, are inviting readers to help pick the best fiction book in the award’s 60-year history. All prizes for art and entertainment are bogus, of course, but this could be fun anyhow.
A slate of six finalists was determined by a polling of 140 writers “from across the country:” The Stories of John Cheever (1981 winner), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1953), William Faulkner’s Collected Stories (1951), The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1972), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow (1974) and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1983).
Cast your vote at the National Book Award website.
The temptation of mock this project as a sign of the further dumbification of American high culture –which great book gets voted off the island?! — is very great, indeed, but apart from a snarky headline I will resist. A popular vote is not unprecedented, and could result in neat surprises. When British bookstore customers were asked to name the best Brit novel of the 20th century, for example, they came up with The Lord of the Rings—a perfectly defensible selection on terms of literary quality, though one that surely irked the daylights out of the Brit lit establishment.
On the other hand, when a public vote determined the the “Booker of Bookers” –the best novel in the first 40 years of the Man Booker Prize, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children won. No offense to Rushdie, but Midnight’s Children had already won not only a regular Man Booker (1981) but had also previously been anointed best book at the prize’s silver anniversary, making it a three-time winner, which is faintly ridiculous.
I don’t care how great Midnight’s Children may be, is it demonstrably better than John Berger’s G (1972), J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (1983), A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) or Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (2001)?
Really, competitive arts prizes are, to be mean, a joke. Or to be charitable, a useful fiction. After a certain degree of craftsmanship and artistic accomplishment is reached, no meaningful distinctions can be made. In a perfect world, outfits like the National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize or the Academy Awards would stop at the short list of five or six outstanding works produced in a given year.
But human beings like lists, and we like competition, and we like prizes, and we like false distinctions. I suppose it’s a harmless game. Plus I’m willing to concede the publicity value. If the National Book Award helps keep books and reading afloat on the media whirlpool, than I’m willing to go along with the farcical notion that Faulkner is better than Eillison, or Welty is better than Cheever.
The National Book Awards people have put up a list of finalists that grows stronger the more you look at it. All books of excellent literary quality by writers of indisputable greatness, and what’s more, social significance. If we go strictly by this last consideration, then the winner has to be Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1953), a great novel about race published right as the country found itself on the cusp of the Civil Rights era.
My own heart belongs to John Cheever, one of the greatest short story writers of all time, or Flannery O’Connor, another. Cheever chronicled suburban hubris in mid-century New England, while O’Connor revealed the God-haunted grotesques of the Old South’s last gasp.
On sheer literary stature and influence, though, the nod must go to Faulkner’s Collected Stories. The greatest American modernist, and probably the most important fiction writer of the 20th century (without him, Latin American magical realism would not exist), Faulkner is at his very best in the short story.
Actually, the most interesting thing about the National Book Award’s list of finalists is the dominance of the short story. Ironic, because for much of the time in question — the National Book Award started in 1950 — the short story labored as a minor form, much in the shadow of the novel.
If I had been consulted, here are a few novels that might have made my list: The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud (1967); Them, by Joyce Carol Oates (1970); JR, by William Gaddis (1976); Rabbit is Rich, by John Updike (1982); Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen (2008).
But really, I cannot argue with confidence that any of these novels should supplant any of the short story collections on the actual list. It’s kind of hilarious that the American novel, the dominant literary form in the 20th Century, is being shouldered aside, as we look back, by the short story.
In any event, how often will regular readers be invited to vote for the National Book Award? Be sure and make your voice known. Here I go, casting my ballot for Faulkner, which will be offset, I am certain, by at least one enraged Cheever fanatic of my acquaintance.