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Orange Prize for Barbara Kingsolver shows the Brits have no clue.

June 11, 2010

Barbara Kingsolver won the Orange Prize earlier this week, given for best novel by a woman, less on the literary merits of her book, The Lacuna, than on what the British judges naively saw as a chance to spit in America’s eye.

If so, it shows an almost charming naivete on the part of the Brits, illustrating their near-absolute inability to understand anything about America and Americans:

Don’t they know that a) We no longer care enough about books, especially novels, to even notice they’ve given one of their top prizes to a writer deemed in some quarters as unpatriotic? And b) We have no interest whatsoever in anything the English say or do?

Kingsolver, of course, is the much-admired author of novels that are both literary and popular, notably The Poisonwood Bible (1998), the story of a missionary family in the 1960s that attacks colonialism, evangelism and American exceptionalism.

The Lacuna, her first novel in nine years, received decidedly mixed notices when it came out last year, with some reviewers praising it, but others taking off for, as the London Telegraph notes, “plot and characterization.”

A sort of historic epic, The Lacuna is the story of a boy, son of an American father and a feckless Mexican mother, who grows up to become cook and secretary to that trio of famous mid-century communists, Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky. Later, living in Asheville, N.C. as a popular historical novelist, he is persecuted in the McCarthy Hearings.

In winning the Orange Prize and its $43,000 purse, The Lacuna beat out the heavily favored Wolf Hall, by HIilary Mantel, which has already won the Man Booker Prize in England and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the U.S. Other short-listed titles included A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore; The Very Thought of You, by Rosie Alison; Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke; and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, by Monique Roffey.

The Guardian reports that judges were divided among A Gate at the Stairs, Wolf Hall and The Lacuna, with Daisy Goodwin, a television personality and chief judge of the contest, favoring Kingsolver’s book.

“We chose The Lacuna because it is a book of breathtaking scale and shattering moments of poignancy,” Goodwin tells The Christian Science Monitor. “We had very different tastes on the panel, but in the end we went for passion not compromise.”

But Catherine Taylor, also in the Guardian, says Kingsolver’s win was greeted with “a sense of surprise and deflation” by critics in the U.K. Though the novel has “sound merits,” Taylor asserts that its two-part structure is actually two novels stitched together, “neither of which actually works.”

Kingsolver is controversial among those right-wing American organizations who actually know who she is, thanks to a series of newspaper columns she wrote in the aftermath of 9-11.

She questioned reflexive patriotism and the wisdom of an automatic military response, saying, among other things,  “the American flag stands for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder. Who are we calling terrorists?”

While American news of Kingsolver’s win has tended to be straightforward, British news accounts carry headlines like “Orange Prize won by anti-Bush writer Barbara Kingsolver,” or “Orange Prize for Kingsolver will outrage Americans.” Even stories with calmer headlines, like those in the Guardian, highlight Kingsolver’s lefty rabble-rousing credentials.

While my own political views are closer to Kingsolver’s than say, Glenn Beck’s, let me speak for all Americans by quoting the kids on South Park: “We. Don’t. Care.”

Oddly enough, the one Brit who seems to appreciate this is the one who most pushed Kingsolver’s book for the Orange Prize. Asked how she thought Americans would react, Daisy Goodwin replied, “They probably won’t even notice, will they?”

So is anyone outraged at the British impertinence in giving this major prize to Kingsolver?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    June 11, 2010 5:21 pm

    I wouldn’t say “outraged.” Let’s say “disappointed.” I don’t think “The Lacuna” deserves an award. It’s the weakest of her novels in any number of ways (plot and characterization are indeed two of them). I don’t think its scale is particularly breathtaking, and in fact I feel like the Trotsky/Frida Kahlo/Rivera bit has been done to death in books and movies. It felt more like a lecture than a novel with fleshed-out characters and real concerns.

    And it pains me that once again Lorrie Moore’s great “A Gate at the Stairs” loses out again.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 11, 2010 11:42 pm

      Yes, much as I enjoyed Wolf Hall, I’m glad it didn’t win this time. I thought Moore the best of the remaining candidates, but I haven’t read the others. But I really do think Kingsolver was chosen as a poke in the ribs from our cousins across the sea.

  2. Jean permalink
    June 11, 2010 11:17 pm

    What disturbed me more than anything else in this story, is that the British are still giving out prizes to “The Best Novel by a Woman.” Could it possibly be true that they are marginalizing and condescending to women, talented women, at this late date?
    Ms. Kingsolver, whom I have never read, should enjoy the great pleasure of declining this prize (she doesn’t need the money) on these grounds. A small but significant American Revolution. Part 2.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 11, 2010 11:45 pm

      But Kingsolver has already accepted — and the prize was presented by Camilla, duchess of Somethingorother. I didn’t have room to mentioned — I was having new much fun insulting Kingsolver, the Orange, the British in general and anyone else in reach — but I too am bemused the Brits give a woman-only prize. Yep, it strikes me as patronizing in the purest sense of the word.

  3. Connie permalink
    June 15, 2010 3:11 pm

    I don’t know any writers, female or otherwise, who have a problem with a $43,000 check…anybody wants to give me one of those and marginalize me, I’m all for it!

  4. June 16, 2010 2:46 am

    Best Novel by a Woman? That’s odd, since there have been quite a few female winners of the Booker Prize, including my favorite depressed stylist, Anita Brookner. I haven’t read any of Kingsolver’s books, either. I’ll bet the Brits still say “poetess.” Fie on them.

  5. June 16, 2010 2:49 am

    Thanks for reminding me about Lorrie Moore. She’s brilliant.

  6. Red Johnson permalink
    September 11, 2010 8:21 am

    So wait – you don’t care. So much so, that you wrote a whole article just to point out how much you don’t care?

    PS: By expressing indignation that the American flag be equated with intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia… you are agreeing with Kingsolver. Read the WHOLE article not just the angry blogger sound bite.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      September 11, 2010 12:43 pm

      That’s the collective “we,” Americans in general, who, according to the NEA, are reading less year by year at a precipitous rate. Plus, we don’t care what Brits think. About anything. Britannia is the dotty grandma in the nursing home of nations. She can thumb her nose at America all the livelong day, we don’t care. This is a point worth making.

      Did you read the post? The part about how American news accounts reported Kingsolver’s win, and it’s only the British papers that speculate our feelings will be hurt? This is an important historical cultural difference. We historically, not just today, have not paid much attention to the politics of our novelists, unlike Europeans and South Americans.

      As for your second remark, I suggest you take your own advice, and read the entire post. Or read it more carefully: The indignation expressed is not mine but Kingsolver’s. See those little curly things? Those are quote marks…

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