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Handicapping the PEN/Faulkner shortlist without actually reading any of the books.

February 24, 2010


Colson Whitehead

Let’s agree to say that it’s a testimony to how rich and fecund American literature is nowadays that I have not read a single one of the finalists for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award. Otherwise, I’d have to say, “Boy, am I embarrassed.”

I mean, I read for a living for crying out loud, producing a book review nearly every week. And it’s not like I was dodging these books or their authors. I meant to get to the Lorrie Moore. I’m always interested in new work by Sherman Alexie. And I’ve intended to catch up with Colson Whitehead for some time now.

But alas, it didn’t happen in 2009, so I am useless when it comes to handicapping this year’s PEN/Faulkner. Maybe you’ve read one or more of these books and can give us all a hand here.

The shortlist, announced yesterday: Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna, a story set in the anti-commie witch hunts of the 1950s; Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, a much-praised novel of race and family tension; Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead’s novel of a wealthy black teenager coming of age in 1985; War Dances, Sherman Alexie’s collection of poems and short stories; and Homicide Survivors Picnic, by Lorraine Lopez, a short-story collection.

Lorrie Moore

Actually, now that I think on it, I can handicap this list. If there’s one thing I learned in 20 years as a book reviewer, it’s that –shh, this is a closely guarded professional secret — you can judge a book by its cover. Or by other details gleaned without going to through the troublesome chore of, you know, reading the text.

Reviewers don’t review books without reading them, of course, but we make multiple qualitative judgments every day just to decide what, among the torrent of books arriving with every post, to read. Hey, my time is precious, all right?

For example, title: Best title in this bunch by far goes to Lopez. Homicide Survivors Picnic is cool and ironic and superior but also funny and blue-collar and vaguely Southern. Clever in a look-at-me, don’t-look-at-me kind of way. Quite a trick.

Another nonreading criteria: PC quotient. Alexie is a leading American Indian writer, while Lopez is obviously Latina, both of which score high on the PC index. But Whitehead, like our president, is black, and when it comes to PC, black is the new black, as I’m sure you’ve heard. Plus, Whitehead’s first three novels were praised to the skies by the likes of John Updike, which gives him establishment cred, too.

Lorraine Lopez

Speaking of establishment cred: Lorrie Moore and Barbara Kingsolver each have it up to here. Kingsolver is the author of The Poisonwood Bible, the favorite novel of a certain kind of literary reader, plus she took her family off to live on a pretty subsistence farm in rural Virginia. Moore is most admired for her short stories, especially the collections Birds of America, and short stories always seem a more delicate, hard to cultivate variety of hothouse flower.

But Kingsolver’s novel was not universally praised, subject to some sniping over its passive hero or some such, while Moore’s novel racked up little but critical plaudits.

So, rolling all these non-reading considerations around in a hat, consulting my Magic 8-Ball, counting backward from 17 and turning around three times with my eyes closed, I predict the winner will be: Colson Whitehead.

Sherman Alexie

The PEN/Faulkner, established by money left over from William Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize, is one of our lesser literary awards, below the National Book Award or Pulitzer, but above the National Book Critics Circle Award, if only for the money. It bestows a $15,000 prize on the winner, with $5,000 for the four runners up. American citizens only are eligible.

The winner will be announced March 23 at a big shindig in Washington, D.C., at the Folger Shakespeare Library. 

Of course, if I’d had occasion to read any of these books, and I’m sure they’re all outstanding, my handicapping might play out entirely different. Perhaps some of you have read one or more of the books. If so, help us out here.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice permalink
    February 24, 2010 2:38 pm

    I love anti-establishmentarianism. But using my own formular for winners, I have to go with Lorrie Moore because the part in her hair is not straight. However, I do think Colson Whitehead’s subject matter sounds interesting.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 24, 2010 3:13 pm

    Yes, the part-is-not-straight observation is heavily relied on by Nobel watchers. It’s also been used successfully by Vatican reporters trying to guess the name of a new Pope. I have a feeling all of these books are well worth reading. I can’t say why, but I have a hunch Lopez’s collection might be really good. I’m not kidding about how much I like the title, and I’ve had good luck in the past with university press editions of little-known writers. For example, I highly recommend Lynne Barrett’s The Secret Names of Women (Carnegie-Mellon, 1999), if you can find it. It’s still in print, amazingly enough, and well worth the trouble to track it down.

  3. rachel permalink
    February 24, 2010 4:11 pm

    I haven’t read any of these either! Recently I listened to a short story by Sherman Alexie that I really enjoyed and I have a collection of Lorrie Morre’s short stories I just haven’t read them. I good make snotty comments about the photographs, but my mother always said: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 25, 2010 11:32 am

      So many books, so little time, eh? Once in a while, snotty remarks about author photos are all we can muster. Apologies to Kingsolver. I didn’t have time to find room for her photo.

      Of course, the real point of a prize like this — any literary prize, in fact — is to draw attention to the books and their authors. Maybe now more of us will read these books, and find new pleasures in them.

  4. Candice permalink
    February 24, 2010 4:22 pm

    Go ahead, Rachel. Be snotty. We won’t tell.

  5. Kelly Cherry permalink
    March 1, 2010 4:07 pm

    I wish the Lynne Barrett book had won such a prize.

  6. Connie permalink
    March 2, 2010 2:13 pm

    I’ve read three of five – the ones by Kingsolver, Alexie and Moore – and I’d hand it to Moore right now. Alexie’s stories are quite good, but The Lacuna never really got under my skin in any meaningful way. It felt like well-traveled territory to me.

    I have to say, though, that I’ll pick up Lopez’s book, simply for the title.

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