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Surprise winner Tea Obreht has been cursed by the Orange Award.

June 9, 2011

The world’s biggest literary prize for women has gone to a promising but still-unformed 25-year-old novelist for her first book, thereby probably ruining her forever.

Tea Obreht, a Serbian-American, won for The Tiger’s Wife, a novel that attempts to confront the horrors of the Balkan civil war in a series of interconnecting fabulist narratives.

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The youngest winner ever, she beat out more established writers such as Emma Donoghue, the British bookie’s 2-1 favorite for The Room, and fellow American Nicole Krause, nominated for Great House.

Previous winners of the prize, given since 1996, include Zadie Smith, Barbara Kinsolver, Linda Grant and Helen Dunmore.

But it would be a mistake to call Obreht a “relative unknown,” as the Telegraph does. Despite her youth, she’s trailed recognition and praise in her train for years now. She was the youngest writer recognized in The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40 list of authors worth watching.”

What’s more, Random House gave The Tiger’s Wife the kind of promotional push most writers can envision only in their wildest fantasies. It paid off handsomely, with rapturous reviews from the highest of high-brow critics.

Poet Charles Simic, for example, opens his long review in The New York Review of Books comparing Obreht favorably to “Mikhail Bulgakov, Gabriel García Márquez, and Milorad Pavić, the Serbian author of Dictionary of the Khazars.” Then for good measure he throws in Kafka.

There have been some dissenters to the chorus of excessive praise, however. While declaring “Obreht can write,” David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times, observes that she looses balance as The Tiger’s Wife progresses, “pushing us out of the narrative, or narratives, at the very point we want to be drawn in.”

And the Telegraph‘s Philip Hensher, writing in response to the Orange Award, grumbles that The Tiger’s Wife is “competent but lapses into literary cliches.” Specifically, he says, cliches taught at creative writing workshops. Obreht studied under T.C. Boyle at USC.

I fall in with the dissenters. While reading the book, I wondered why I wasn’t liking it more — it’s exactly the kind of high literary fabulism I usually favor. Obreht’s writing, though occasionally banal, exhibits a lyrical beauty. She sketches in a variety characters with convincing economy.

And, given the subtext — she’s writing about the carnage in her native country — she shows admirable restraint with symbolic tools made available by the novel’s fantasy elements. The Tiger’s Wife reminds me of some of my favorite authors and books, from Karen Blixen’s Seven Gothic Tales to Stephane Audeguy’s The Theory of Clouds.

I finished The Tiger’s Wife on a brief trip and when I discovered the book three week’s later in a pocket of my backpack, I realized I had completely forgotten it. For all its pleasure, the novel had left no impression, no aftertaste, no compulsive meditation on its parts.

I do not wish to dissuade anyone from reading The Tiger’s Wife. It’s a remarkably ambitious and accomplished novel from a writer so young. But it’s also the work of an inexperienced author who’s talent, sensibility and technical skill have not quite gelled into a unified whole.

By giving Obreht this distinguished international award, the fools on the Orange Award jury have done her no favor. Nothing is more toxic to a writer’s progress than self-consciousness, and nothing is more certain to burden a writer with self-consciousness than early praise.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2011 1:57 pm

    I wonder what it was like for Carson McCullers to be so brilliant at the age of 23, writing the Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and if it had something to do with the onset of her emotional problems. You may be right about success at an early age. So much of life seems formative, that a young person being able create reflections does seem strange. But you did find some pleasure in Obreht’s novel, so it must be pretty good. Nice to see a review like this, with care and concern for the writer.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 9, 2011 5:26 pm

      Thanks, I did enjoy the book, I just didn’t think it was anywhere close to the best book by a woman I’ve read in the past year. I, too, worry about the distorting influence of early praise for gifted writers. It’s seldom done more good than harm. Consider the lives and careers of these wunderkind: Rimbaud, Truman Capote, Scott Fitzgerald, McCullers and more. Not a happy life in the lot of them, and except for The Great Gatsby, none really fulfilled their early promise.

  2. June 10, 2011 12:48 pm

    Too much too soon always brings the vampires out the next time around. Watch what happens to her now. I’d be scared out of my wits to even write another book after winning such a major award.

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