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