Thoughts on three recent lists/awards and an elaboration on a previous statement

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Over the past week, three literary lists have been announced.  The first was last weeks unveiling of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist of the best ten books of 2011.  Unlike most other literary awards that select their nominees and winners within a year of their initial publication, the IMPAC takes a closer look at works produced all across the globe two years prior to the winner being announced.  Chosen by participating libraries from across the globe, the IMPAC is an interesting hybrid selection body in that the nominations (up to three per library) come from a decentralized body with the shortlist being derived from that by an international panel of judges.

The result, at least for the 2013 shortlist, is more varied than other literary prizes/awards.  Of the ten finalists, I have read six of them:

  1. City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (Irish) (First novel) Published by Johathan Cape
  2. The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq (French) Translated from the original French by Gavin Bowd. Published by William Heineman
  3. Pure by Andrew Miller  (British) Published by Sceptre
  4. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Japanese) Translated from the original Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Published by Harvill Secker and Alfred A. Knopf
  5. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (Japanese American) Published by Alfred A. Knopf
  6. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (American) Published by Random House Inc.
  7. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (American) Published by Alfred A. Knopf
  8. From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (Icelandic) Translated from the original Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. Published by Telegram Books.
  9. The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold (Norwegian) (First novel) Translated from the original Norwegian by Kerri A. Pierce. Published by Dalkey Archive Press
  10. Caesarion by Tommy Wieringa (Dutch) Translated from the original Dutch by Sam Garrett. Published by Portobello Books

 Of the six, I have only formally reviewed Otsuka’s National Book Award-winning book.  The Barry was perhaps the one I liked least of the others and even that I found to be a very solid book.  The narratives differ widely; there is no predominant literary style or form present here.  Half of the writers did not write in English and while there are more men than women on this particular list, there often is a greater balance between the two on the award shortlists.

Secondly, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was announced this week and unlike last year, there was a winner:

1.  Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son 
2.  Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank 
3.  Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child 

Like last year, having read all of the finalists/winner before the list was announced does color my impressions a bit more than if I had books to investigate first.  Johnson’s book, which was also a finalist for Fiction in the recent National Book Critics Circle Award, was much better on a re-read than my first go-around.  It certainly offers a mixture of genres (political/character study and elements of a thriller) and the prose is very good if not always elegant.  Englander’s collection I thought was very strong when I read it last year.  Ivey, on the other hand, did not appeal to me as much as the other two did, as I found it at times overreaching, with prose that failed to meet the story’s ambitious goals.

And finally, Granta Magazine released their fourth decennial list of the Best Young British Novelists on Monday.   This list of 20 writers under the age of 40 has inspired similar lists from Granta for American, Spanish-language, and Brazilian writers, as well as a similar list of American writers from The New Yorker.  Unlike the other two lists, where I had read the majority of the writers/works featured, there are only three writers on this list that I’ve read:

Naomi Alderman
Tahmima Anam
Ned Beauman
Jenni Fagan
Adam Foulds
Xiaolu Guo
Sarah Hall
Steven Hall
Joanna Kavenna
Benjamin Markovits
Nadifa Mohamed
Helen Oyeyemi
Ross Raisin
Sunjeev Sahota
Taiye Selasi
Kamila Shamsie
Zadie Smith
David Szalay
Adam Thirlwell
Evie Wyld

It is hard to make definitive statements based off the paucity of works/authors read, but Hall, Oyeyemi and Smith certainly are writers whose works I’ve enjoyed greatly in the past and each of them has very distinct styles and narratives that make each individual work a “new” discovery.  Certainly there is talk about how having so many UK subjects who originally hail from outside the country or outside the Anglo-Saxon ethnic group has the potential to redefine in literary terms what it means to be “British.”  I certainly will be exploring these writers’ works in the near future, just as I did with the 2003 list when I bought a copy of that issue back then.

If I had to attempt to connect these three disparate awards/lists, one avenue I would explore would be the concept of “diversity.”  In using diversity as a term, I am not limiting myself to noting authors’ genders or nationalities, although each certainly is important.  No, sometimes those writing stories from non-privileged social/sexual backgrounds end up creating stories that do little to challenge reader conceptions, whether they be from a literary or socio-cultural vantage point.  I saw recently where an earlier post of mine was linked to on Cora Buhlert’s blog (unlike her, I did at least do the courtesy of checking the spelling of her surname) in which she apparently engages in a willful misrepresentation of my views on literary diversity to support her own viewpoints on the issue.  No, Cora, I do not get “annoyed when the diversity they get doesn’t match their ideal of what diversity should look like.”  I just note that for many, awards that cater to “fan service” and which concerns over uniformity in style and motif do affect perceptions of award value:

“Granted, one does not have to have a “political” message in order to be different, but if “diversity” is used to reference only the skin color or gender of the writer and not the stories that they write, then might there be an issue here beyond the typical mass fan votes tend to celebrate the “safe” and “conventional” at the expense of daring to say something different, something that might irritate people?”

 In light of the three lists discussed above, it very well can be argued on the basis of comparison that certain literary awards display more “diversity” on the basis of story styles, motifs, prose, and characterizations than what is found on several genre lists of similar (or slightly less) visibility.  If award lists are dominated by authors retrodding stamped-upon grounds or which depend upon trendy narrative elements to achieve a fleeting measure of popularity, then certainly there will be concern from several corners about the vitality of those awards.  But perhaps the greater issue is that of a perceived divide between what is popular and what has literary merit.  Sometimes, the two conjoin, but if one is rejected out of hand for the other, a disconnect develops that makes it difficult for the awards/award winners to achieve any lasting impact.

Zombies and pirates might be the rage of the past half-decade or so, but I also vaguely recall from my earliest childhood memories that disco once was a very popular musical form, replete with big-name rock groups releasing their own “disco” album.  For every “Miss You” came countless duds and I suspect something similar is happening with genre fictions that rely too heavily upon certain trends.  Their works might sell spectacularly for a while and even garner award nominations, but what happens in a decade or so, when tastes change and zombies go the way of halflings or orcs?  Works that do not possess that “timeless” quality are more likely to be consigned to the dustbins of literary history than works that speak to multiple generations.  That is something that does worry me at times when I think about SF/F fiction.  I just don’t see many “popular” works being produced now that will endure more than a decade from now.  It just isn’t “diverse” enough in the stories being told, at least in my eyes, and the risk of literary inbreeding (something ironically that has been applied to Anglo-American literary novels, with some degree of truth, at least in respect to certain sub-sections of “literary fiction”) is much higher.  That is why I have a dim view on recent Nebula and Hugo Award nominations and a slightly better one on some, if not all, of the World Fantasy, Shirley Jackson, and Clarke Award nominees.  It is also why I see potential in the IMPAC and Granta (short)lists and am ambivalent about the Pultizer list.  Without several literary “conversations” transpiring within particular genres, the risk of said genres becoming dessicated, almost ossified fossils (like that which has befallen the Western genre over the past two generations, with only limited success at revitalizing it) becomes greater.  Hopefully, there will be a greater diversity in these “conversations” and works can be produced that will be both “popular” and possess “literary merit” through these interactions with a world that is changing rapidly around us.

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