The Failure of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction




The Failure of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction by Eric Obenauf

November 4th, 2013 reset - +

WHEN THE NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION announced that they would be revealing a longlist of semi-finalists for their 2013 awards, the news was encouraging to everyone in the publishing community. The Foundation also added a respected bookseller to the fiction jury this year and disclosed the longlist for each of the four categories once a day at the popular website The Daily Beast. These actions were intended to signal that the National Book Foundation was evolving, or at least trumpeting its relevance in the modern age.

This year’s fiction longlist was dominated by already brand writers, such as Thomas Pynchon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rachel Kushner, Alice McDermott, and George Saunders. The executive director of the National Book Foundation, Harold Augenbraum, proclaimed to NPR that “he believes the changes that were made this year have led to a rich diversity of writers and books.”

The 2013 National Book Award longlist was reported in predictable fashion by the media, because it is every year, but the temperature amongst readers and publishing observers was monotone. One industry insider pointed out on Twitter that the list felt very “corporate/safe,” while another lamented that they were “bummed to not see one small press book on there.” There were stray grumbles immediately following the announcement, but it was difficult to even find a Twitter discussion of the semi-finalists the very afternoon that the list had been announced.

I genuinely have no qualms with any of the writers longlisted for the award. I’ve recommended Jhumpa Lahiri’s story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, to plenty of readers, and Thomas Pynchon has contributed to the high watermark of American literature, though his most recent books would appear to border the more easily digestible noir genre. The problem is that the work of the writers longlisted falls into the parameters of what I would characterize as, in the words of one of the authors, Rachel Kushner, “stiff, fairly unchanging, and conservative as a form,” which is how she chose to describe her perception of the novel as an art form in an interview with Hari Kunzru at BOMB Magazine.

A watershed moment in contemporary publishing came when Tinkers, the debut novel by Paul Harding, published by the teeny — at the time — Bellevue Literary Press, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2010. This is the destination that the publishing industry had been heading toward for the last half-century. In 2001, five conglomerates accounted for 80% of book sales in the United States, and the motivation behind their practices was the bottom-line. That means that most of the books produced in the United States were generated by five offices, and they cared little about innovation, or creativity, or discovering new voices. Their shepherds were no longer righteous individuals who believed that literature deserved its own place in the cultural arena and that it had something valuable to contribute there. The formula was inverted by corporations as they bought Pantheon, and Knopf, and on down the line, so that the focus became producing literature that was informed by or responding to cultural trends, rather than creating or influencing them. This backward mindset is what would convince readers and many writers to believe that novels are, and may only be, “stiff, fairly unchanging, and conservative as a form.”

The upside of this undemocratic one-percenting of the literary world is that it mothered our present era. New presses took root, staking their reputation on the fresh voices with fresh visions that were being disregarded by the corporate publishers. The same calendar year that Tinkers received the Pulitzer Prize (2010), The Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon (McPherson & Company), won the National Book Award for Fiction, and three of the “5 Under 35” distinctions meted out by the National Book Foundation were published by independent presses. (Grace Krilanovich, author of The Orange Eats Creeps, which we published at Two Dollar Radio, was one of these five honorees.) What the year 2010 highlighted for those not already clued in to the fact is that small publishers are regularly churning out not only top-notch work, but that in many cases their books are of higher quality than those of their better-staffed, better-paid counterparts at corporate presses. This is where our literary culture stands, in the midst of what was referred to earlier this week as “the golden age of indie publishing.”

It does seem disingenuous, considering the current state of publishing and literature in general in the U.S., not to have a single small press title crack the 2013 longlist. Not that including a small press book should be a requisite for any award list, but doing so this year may have demonstrated less prudishness on behalf of a conservative jury, or engaged the public by giving them an underdog to root for. Unfortunately, the longlist appears to represent where our literary culture was, not where it is or where it is going.

This happens every so often, based largely upon the jurors who are selected to serve and their duty to collaboratively circle a winner, that there is a uniformity to their choices and a detached reception by the public. What’s worse about the 2013 National Book Awards’ longlist for fiction is that rather than five slices of plain bread hopping out of the toaster we were met with ten instead. What was the point of expanding to a longlist at all?

I believe very much in the work of the National Book Foundation and its mission “to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.” The National Book Foundation has such an incredible opportunity to engage readers, to broaden readership in this country, and to lead by example, that when it fails to do so and on such a public level, it becomes difficult to bite your tongue.

Certainly, the burden cannot be cast entirely upon the Foundation, since many years it succeeds in its mission, but it does appoint the judges, and it is the Foundation’s responsibility to ensure that the jury’s selections mesh with its aims as an institution. Perhaps, to truthfully ensure that there is “a rich diversity of writers and books” represented, the Foundation should make it a greater priority to appoint jurors with less conservative palates.

Since it is the National Book Foundation’s stated ambition to “expand [American literature’s] audience,” then it could do much better than an extremely narrow and homogenized sampling of the best works published this year. This year, the Foundation went to the pool and never left the shallow end.

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Eric Obenauf is the publisher and editor of the press Two Dollar Radio.

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