Leaving Franzen off the National Book Award shortlist is inexcusable.
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.