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Leaving Franzen off the National Book Award shortlist is inexcusable.

October 14, 2010


Jonathan Franzen: Laugh it off, pal.


Lord knows I’ve mocked Jonathan Franzen at every opportunity since Freedom, the most overrated novel in history, came out in August. But the judges’ decision to leave him out of the running for this year’s National Book Award is just prissy. And you can drop the “r” from that last word and I’d still be right.

Really, it’s an outrage. Snubbing the most talked-about serious novel not only of this year, but this decade, and maybe beyond, requires a thought process that beggars my imagination. I can only conclude the judges — novelists themselves — are motivated by envy: “My book didn’t get this kind of attention — why should Franzen?”

The judges by the way are a distinguished lot: Andrei Codrescu, Samuel R. Delany, Sabina Murray, Joanna Scott, Carolyn See. I would expect better from them, wouldn’t you? They should be ashamed of themselves.

“Obviously, Freedom is the big book of the year, but the question is what the National Book Awards are supposed to honor,” said Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation. “We tell the judges just to look at the books, and that outside chatter is not important. We go with that every year.”

Oh, blah, blah, blah. That statement is unbelievable on its face. Everything about this snub is a reaction, perverse though it may be, to “outside chatter.” Freedom is “the big book of the year,” this is the National Book Award we’re talking about — shouldn’t it at least be in the running? Duh.

Even if you think, as I do, that Freedom falls somewhat short of being a “masterpiece,” as The New York Times and a multitude of other publications have anointed it, it is nonetheless a serious literary novel of great ambition. Franzen brings all his considerable talent and intellect to bear in an attempt to create a fine-grained portrait of how life was lived in the first decade of the 20th century, as seen through the disintegration of one middle-class family.

Freedom deserves to make the National Book Award shortlist on  its audacious scope alone. And for the character of Patty Berglund, one of the most fascinating and fully rendered female characters I’ve encountered in fiction — leastwise, fiction written by a man.

Help me out here. I can’t quite recall the last time a piece of serious literary fiction caused so much positive discussion in the wider culture. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), maybe? David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996)? Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)?  I’m not sure even these reached the crescendo achieved by Franzen’s book.

I’m not saying Freedom deserves to win the thing (Franzen already took home an NBA in 2001). In fact, I think not.

But by leaving it off the short list, the judges of the National Book Award have merely exposed their own pettiness in particular, and underscored the triviality and uselessness of literary prizes in general.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    October 14, 2010 6:27 pm

    Just now had a chance to read this, Chauncey, and you will not be surprised to learn I couldn’t agree more. That “outside chatter” bit infuriated me. Did they even READ it???

    Your comment on Patty Berglund is right on the money, too. I can’t believe a man – especially one who wears those hipster glasses – has a woman’s voice down so well. Some people told me they didn’t like her at all and I just gaped at them. “Liking” her wasn’t the point, really. Patty is about as three-dimensional as you can GET on the page.

    And I gotta tell you: Great House, the Nicole Krauss book, is hugely overrated. It’s got I’m a Very Important Book implicit in every line.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      October 14, 2010 10:29 pm

      I don’t know why or how Nicole Krauss came to be anointed an important writer. I haven’t read her, at least not yet, but Louis Begley took apart The Custom of the Country down to the molecular level in The New York Review of Books in 2005, leaving me disinclined to rush embrace the pleasure. You can read the first section of the review — and it’s worth it, believe me — here:

  2. rachel permalink
    October 15, 2010 11:17 am

    I haven’t read it, although it is next in my book tape line. I completely agree with your sentiments about the award and the judges. It’s the National Book Award, based on the title alone maybe some of the criteria should be based on the “outside chatter.”

  3. Nadia permalink
    October 19, 2010 7:20 pm

    talking about Freedom, you raise the issue of cultural ressonance. But does the chatter reflect cultural resonance or fetishes of the literary establishment?

    I would argue that it’s at least some of the latter.

    Middlesex and Atonement sold more copies and performed better in this readers’ poll. The Corrections was #1 by a landslide with pros, but 8 with readers.

    In this 2006 NYT poll, some talk was generated about the lack of love for novels small in size and big in ambition. One blogger mentioned this, and a commenter replied that it was also soft on ethnic and gender diversity.

    “It might be the case that certain awards and editors are stuck in the mindset that only long books by middle-aged white men are worthwhile.”

    One of the NYTBR editors noted, ” We’ve talked about the underrepresentation of the baby boomers on our list, but in fact they made a strong showing compared with female writers — or, going back to Day 1 of this discussion, any of the other groups on Michael’s catalog of the excluded: nonwhite writers, gay writers, experimental writers, post-boomer writers, and on and on. ”

    Franzen holds only one of those markers: post-boomer. He fits comfortably within the biases seen in the NYTBR poll. The stratospheric level of chatter may reflect the aritistic conservatism of critics. Accordingly the last thing it does is entitle Franzen to a Prize or shortlist for one.

  4. Nadia permalink
    October 19, 2010 7:22 pm

    Also, Connie, a compelling female voice? The memoir sections have a narrative voice comparable to the rest of the book, and don’t particularly fit Franzen’s characterization of Patty.

  5. Elissa permalink
    March 19, 2012 11:51 pm

    Having forced myself to slog through Franzen’s Freedom (OK – I confess I did skim about 100 interminable pages toward the end), I must say it was a terribly mediocre, in fact, rather poorly written book that certainly did not deserve to be considered for any short list of a coveted award.

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