October 20, 2011

SPAT: Laura Miller vs. Victor LaValle


Laura Miller

The damage was self-inflicted, of course, but it hasn’t been a great week for the National Book Awards. But before the fiasco whereby they forced Lauren Myracle to withdraw from competition, thereby earning the wrath of, well, everyone, Laura Miller took them down a peg with a column headlined, “How the National Book Awards made themselves irrelevant.”

Among other things, Miller suggested that …

… over the years, the impression has arisen that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention. The NBA for fiction often comes across as a Hail Mary pass on behalf of “writer’s writers,” authors respected within a small community of literary devotees but largely unknown outside.

It’s understandable that the judges (all fiction writers themselves) want to correct this neglect, and that the press interprets this as a rebuke to its own judgment. However, the larger reading public has also proven recalcitrant. If you categorically rule out books that a lot of people like, you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of people don’t like the books you end up with. This is especially common when the nominated books exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.

Victor LaValle

In short, says Miller, “the National Book Award in fiction, more than any other American literary prize, illustrates the ever-broadening cultural gap between the literary community and the reading public. The former believes that everyone reads as much as they do and that they still have the authority to shape readers’ tastes, while the latter increasingly suspects that it’s being served the literary equivalent of spinach. Like the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, awarded by librarians, the NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.”

If you’re one of the judges for this years NBA in fiction, well, them’s fighting words. Or at least, they seemed so to judge (and novelist) Victor LaValle. In a column for Publishers Weekly, he observed,

In 2010 the reading public found itself similarly betrayed by the vegetable-pushing bullies of the literary world. That year a somber, lyrical, ponderously beautiful novel made some noise. It was written by an unknown, first-time author, published by a tiny press, and received relatively few blips of attention. Paul Harding‘s Tinkers, put out by Bellevue Literary Press, won that year’s Pulitzer Prize. It beat out Chris Cleave‘s bestseller Little Bee and Lorrie Moore‘s much discussed A Gate at the Stairs. Neither one was even a finalist! Knowing of Ms. Miller’s distaste for such poorly planned prize giving I scoured the Internet—or at least did a Google search—for her screed against the buffoons who dared to award this unpopular, unpublicized novel the top spot. Alas, I couldn’t find a word. But then I checked out the jury list for that year’s prize. The three people who decided to reward this very fine, but generally overlooked novel were Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, a former editor, Charles Johnson, author and professor, and, Salon’s own Laura Miller. What a difference a year makes. I didn’t realize that 2010 had been the year for making people eat their spinach.

The thing is, it’s one of those fusses where both sides are making some sense. So let’s hope there’s a round two.


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives