January 28, 2014

“Every year we pretend we live in a meritocracy”: a new prize promises justice for overlooked books


"Goddamn it Apollo, I'm kind of busy here."

Updike as Apollo in silly shoes, Spark as Daphne, taller, stranger.

“If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, it is always the wrong book.”

This Monday on the Bookslut blog Jessa Crispin took up an issue we address pretty often here on MobyLives: the infuriating frequency with which lesser (or, worse, safer) books win major literary prizes, in the U.S. and now more than ever in the UK as well. She continues:

Book awards, for the most part, celebrate mediocrity. It takes decades for the reader to catch up to a genius book, it takes years away from hype, publicity teams, and favoritism to see that some books just aren’t that good.

Which is why we are starting a new book award, the Daphnes, that will celebrate the best books of 50 years ago. We will right the wrongs of the 1964 National Book Awards, which ugh, decided that John Updike‘s The Centaur was totally the best book of that year.

Crispin couldn’t have chosen a better year. As we pointed out just last week, Baldwin‘s incredible The Fire Next Time was a bestseller for much of that year. 1963 also saw the publication of Hopscotch and The Bell Jar. These and more are on her list for consideration, and she’s seeking more submissions.

I reached out to Crispin with a few questions about the Daphnes.

The Updike novel is about American male frustration. As an American male I have to say, that sounds pretty great, and definitely something we don’t see celebrated enough in our literature. Why do you think it’s undeserving?

At the moment, the chair of the Daphne fiction prize is arguing that it be included on the short list, so probably it’ll get on there. It had been bumped by other books initially, but this is all still in flux. But I have to say, you don’t think American male frustration is celebrated enough? Russo? Yates? Roth? [Ed. note: I was being facetious!]

We’re not doing a feminist corrective, or a corrective based on any sort of identity politics. I’m just tired of having the same conversations about 20th century literature, which always seems to revolve around these same writers: Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Roth. When you challenge this reduction, when you say maybe there were other books, other stories, other things going on, people get angry! (You should see my inbox.) No, we definitely have chosen the best books to celebrate. We just want to see if they’re right about that.

Maybe Updike really did write the best book of the year! But I doubt it. Hopscotch is a marvel, Muriel Spark is still ten years ahead of us, and in a year that saw The Fire Next Time, Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Making of the English Working Class, and the Destruction of Dresden, we’re guessing a biography of John Keats was not the most important nonfiction book released.

Why revisit the prizes, even if you think they were poorly decided? Isn’t it the place of history to shake free the best books, whether or not we proclaim winners?

Hm. So is History an embodied creature who makes public proclamations about what is good and what is bad? Or is “history” just the act of people?

We revisit the prizes because as writers, prizes matter. I know we are all supposed to be just doing our good work, totally divorced from outside reinforcement like sales rankings and prizes and grants, but we like a little reinforcement. We like a little recognition. Otherwise, you know, despair, alcohol, suicide, or we start writing listicles for some aggregate website because at least then we can get paid.

We’re revisiting the prizes because every year when the literature prizes are awarded, I just about lose my mind. Important, innovative work by brilliant writers gets overlooked and we end up celebrating some mediocre book because it was something that we could understand. And so every year I just about throw myself into epileptic fits of anger when I see the list of nominees, because every year we pretend we all live in a meritocracy, and the best books just happen to be the books that everyone agrees on, that get published by the big corporate publishers, that reinforce our ideas about what gender is, what society is, what history is. Work that challenges our worldview, our norms, our treasured beliefs, and great work should absolutely do that, takes us forever to really deal with and see the value in.

But you know what, I follow the literature awards, and it’s like when I watch the Oscars and I yell at the television. This is my way of rewarding value, even if it’s way past the time when it would do much good to the writer him or herself. The good it might do is letting contemporary writers and readers know they are working in a territory that is so much richer than they may have first thought. And being a noted weirdo myself, this is my way of feeling like I get to participate in literary culture.

Your list of nominees may already have been so heavily sculpted by the same powers that crowned Updike in the National Book Awards in ’63. In order for us to even be aware of them, many of these will be, by and large, books that were given the full might of the publishing industry because they had a chance of selling. Or is that not a real concern this far after the fact?

Totally! But we’re also relying on the good work of people at university presses, NYRB, Neversink, and other “forgotten classic” imprints to bring forgotten work back into the world.

Have you decided how the judging will work here? Or is it simply a poll?

We have selected judges from Bookslut writers, other literary magazines, and novelists. We’re going to be very official, with each category getting its own chair and panel of judges. The shortlist will be mailed out to the judges and everyone has to read them through, even if they’ve already read the book in the past. There will be discussion and then voting. We will be transparent, we will post the list of judges and notes from the process as we go along. We announced a bit early because we were having trouble finding comprehensive lists of books released in the year we’re dealing with (1963) and thought the crowd could help fill in blanks. And they’ve been a tremendous help.

The scene in The Bell Jar where the naked gent just reminds her of a turkey gizzard: that scene is going to win this and every year, right?

We will be designing a specific special award The Sylvia Plath Turkey Gizzard Award in honor of that moment. Sylvia Plath will of course receive the inaugural.

Is this also a salvo against the new, more self-consciously populist National Book Awards? 

Not specifically.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the company of the dead lately, as I’m writing a book about writers and artists who were expats. And of course so many of them struggled with feelings of despair because their work was misunderstood or ignored. When Margaret Anderson faced obscenity charges for serializing Ulysses, the publishing industry totally let her hang, they offered no support, either financial or emotional. And she never really recovered from that moment, it’s like the establishment let her know they thought nothing of the amazing work she was doing in nurturing and distributing the revolution that was Modernism. And while I was reading her memoirs and letters, I just kept thinking, Oh, Margaret, I would stand up next to you in court! I would give you all of my money! Your heart just about falls out of your chest, reading the thoughts of these people who were unacknowledged geniuses, while totally mediocre, forgettable writers were winning the acclaim. This is my way of blowing them a little kiss from the future.


Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.