Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The greatest Booker Prize injustices

Q. If you could abolish one thing in the book world, what would it be?

A. Literary prizes — they wrongly encourage seeing literature as a contest or a news story. They’ve got to go.

--the novelist Jonathan Coe, with wonderful timing, in a TV interview aired just before his life of B.S. Johnson won the £30,000 Samuel Johnson prize.

So it may be crass to pay undue attention to literary prizes. Nevertheless, I'm usually curious how they turn out. (I watch the Oscars, too.)

And the award I watch the closest is The Man Booker Prize, open to any full-length novel written by a citizen of the (British) Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland and published in the award year. The novel must be an original work in English (not a translation) and must not be self-published.

A complete list of winners and short-listed novels can be found here.

I've read fewer than half the novels short-listed for the Booker, and I've never read all the short-listed novels for any given year. The closest I've come is having read four of the six 2005 nominees and four of the six 1990 nominees.

Not having read all the nominees does not prevent me from sharing some thoughts on past contests, however.

2005. I liked the winner, The Sea by John Banville, and his 1997 The Untouchable is a favorite of mine. But I also enjoyed Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and, had I been a judge, I probably would have voted for Julian Barnes' Arthur & George.

2001. I didn't read the winner, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, though I do very much like and admire three of his earlier novels. Ian McEwan's Atonement, which may be the best novel written in the last 25 years that I've read, lost out. The petty side of me is outraged, but I guess the reasonable thing is to first read the Carey book before giving vent to my disappointment.

2000 and 1999. I read only the winners--Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000) and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999)--and thought they were excellent. Disgrace may be the bleakest, most soul-crushing great novel I've ever read.

1998. I read the winner, Ian McEwan's Amsterdam as well as two of the other nominated novels, and liked them all. I was glad to see Amsterdam win; the interesting angle for me in 1998 was that McEwan published another novel, Enduring Love, and I had a slight preference for it over Amsterdam.

Part 2 of this post is coming soon.

Meanwhile, do you have a bad Booker beat? Share your story/rage: email me.

--Marshal Zeringue

The Great Louisiana Novel

The best novel set in Louisiana is Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. It takes place (mostly) in New Orleans in the late 1950s during Carnival week--and, coincidentally, today happens to be Mardi Gras.

But the Great Louisiana Novel is the second best novel set in my native state: All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1947.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, characterized All the King's Men as

certainly one of the finest American novels. The story of the archetypal Southern populist Willie Stark and his tortured aide, Jack Burden, is emotionally, intellectually and aesthetically unforgettable.

Warren did not describe his story as a political novel. He wrote, "The book was never intended to be a book about politics. Politics merely provided the framework story in which the deeper concerns, whatever their final significance, might work themselves out."

But it is about politics; complex, vivid characters digging up dirt, following orders, seducing and scheming. Perhaps uniquely in American novels, "All the King's Men" portrays people with big, complicated public lives who have even bigger, more complicated inner lives; "deeper concerns."

And here's a summing up that plays a little reckless with the terms "fascist" and "henchman" yet gives Warren his due:

All the King's Men was the most widely read [of Warren's novels] and generated the strongest critical and popular reception. The novel chronicles the rise and fall of a homegrown fascist, Willie Stark, as told by one of his henchmen, Jack Burden. Its first readers praised its treatment of the political processes of democracy as practiced in the South of the 1930s. More recent studies have stressed its innovative structure and its philosophical subtlety. It is the novel in which Warren's special gifts are most in evidence--his sense of history, his inventive language, and his ability to dramatize a large cast of characters against a vividly realized background. --From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Perhaps Willie Stark is "a homegrown fascist" but his character and career is closely modeled on that of Huey P. Long, Depression-era governor of Louisiana, a radical populist much beloved by many Louisianans—like my grandfather, who ate little more than potatoes during those years—who admired and benefited from Long's progressive measures.

* * * * *
The criteria for the Great [Your State Here] novel—I'm making this up as I go—are (1) the writer must be a native of or closely identified with the state, (2) the novel must be a great (or, at least, acclaimed) literary achievement and (3) capture a signal period in the state's history.

For the Southern novels/states, that signal period might well be identified by failure or struggle rather than success, growth or optimism. As Walker Percy said in 1962, there was so much good writing from the South "because we lost the war"—because defeat forced the white South to confront human fallibility in ways the rest of the country never had.

Robert Penn Warren was born in Kentucky and spent only a part of his life in Louisiana, yet he did live there when he wrote All the King's Men. It is a deservedly acclaimed novel: #36 on the Modern Library's list 100 Best novels. And it depicts the life of the most famous and most influential governor in the history of the state.

By the criteria I set, is it fair to declare Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (#6 on the Modern Library list) to be the Great Mississippi Novel?

And what is the Great Alabama Novel? My guess would be To Kill a Mockingbird. (While a huge popular favorite not only in America but in places like Japan and Australia as well, the general critical acclaim isn't as high as for the other books mentioned here.)

And the Great New York Novel? I would propose William Kennedy's brilliant Albany series, the first of which, Ironweed, makes the Modern Library list at #92.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 27, 2006

Would Orwell and Marx have blogged?

There's a lengthy article over at the Financial Times about the promise (over-hyped) and peril (over-hyped) of blogs.

The article is too long for me to actually recommend, but I thought it was worth sharing the answers of a few prominent bloggers to the query: Would "Karl Marx or George Orwell, two enormously potent political writers who were also journalists, ... have blogged if the medium had been available to them?"
“We’re sure Marx and Orwell would have blogged,” said Heather and Jessica of gofugyourself.com. “When it comes right down to it, blogs reach the greatest amount of people in the least amount of time, and they reach the very people Marx and Orwell wanted to speak to most.”

“Orwell, definitely,” said Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds. “Marx would have had to acquire a bit more ‘snap’, I’m afraid, to have made it as a blogger.”

“Orwell maybe,” said [the original Wonkette, Ana Marie] Cox. “Orwell was pathologically productive. He never doubted himself, that’s for sure. And maybe he shares that trait with many bloggers.”

The odd couple; or, My favorite two books of 1995.

In my about the blogger post I claim to be "fairly confident of being the only person who believes the two best novels published in 1995 were The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald and American Tabloid by James Ellroy."

While those two books are very different in style and writing and subject matter, I actually can imagine a great many readers admiring both of them--because they are such quality books--but I would be surprised if they were #1 and #2 on anyone else's list.

Incidentally, other notable books of 1995 include:
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker.
Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth.
Mrs. Ted Bliss by Stanley Elkin.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.
How about you: have you got an odd-couple of favorite books from any particular year (or decade)?

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 24, 2006

Philosophy and fiction

If you haven't been around a university lately you might be surprised to learn that novels are often used to get students to think about philosophy.

The idea is that you can tell people how to live the good life (see, for example, the Ten Commandments), but these first principles often lack the power of a good story (see, for example, all those parables in the Bible).

Many years ago I took an introductory philosophy course in which we read Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, an excellent way to start an investigation of how to live the good life and how one's view might be altered if he was immortal.

I'm no philosopher but if I was ever to teach an introduction to philosophy course I think I would assign Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite writers. Pnin may be his most accessible work, and it's the one he wrote between his two masterpieces, Lolita and Pale Fire.

And, like the two better and better known novels, Pnin is about cruelty (or callousness, a distinction worth making, as this intelligent critique suggests). Pnin is also about compassion, which might seem banal to point out since it's the antonym of cruelty; but Lolita and Pale Fire are also about cruelty and less manifestly about compassion.

So, we have a novel one might use to teach about immortality and another that can be mined for a discussion about cruelty/compassion.

I wonder what other novels are getting a workout in philosophy class....

--Marshal Zeringue

UPDATE: see the March 2, 2006 sequel to this post.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Twice-told tales

I’m always curious about novels that re-work a classic story … and do it well.

Here are just a few off-the-cuff examples of novels I loved that owe a heavy debt to a classic work:
Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, a brilliant novel that echoes Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, which tells the story of the convict in Dickens’ Great Expectations who sets in motion that story but is largely absent from its pages.

Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, an all-girl version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. *

And of course there is the (somewhat playful) homage that Joyce's Ulysses pays to Homer's Odyssey.
In future posts--and in this article--I hope to revisit these particular novels and to come up with other interesting examples of contemporary fiction based on classic stories.

One case that I don't really regard of this category is Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which many reviewers insist is patterned on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway even though McEwan has denied any such inspiration.

--Marshal Zeringue

*An interesting note. Terrific books that they are, I would be surprised to hear someone say that Smiley's or Carey's books were superior to their inspirations. I would even be surprised to learn that Smiley or Carey thought that. But novelist Anne Tyler, writing in The New Republic, has indeed made that claim for Wiggins' book: "John Dollar is a grisly story, all right. It's the kind where you're reading cheerily along and you suddenly say, Wait. They did what? And you go back and read again to make sure, and the truth finally hits you with a sickening punch to the stomach. But precisely what gives the punch its oomph is that you were, indeed, reading cheerily along, up until that unexpected moment. Lord of the Flies was more predictable, more relentless; it was, in my opinion, not half as thoughtful a piece of work."

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

About the blogger

Marshal Zeringue is the founding editor of the Campaign for the American Reader network, including Lit Lists, New Books, Author Interviews, The Page 69 Test, My Book, The Movie, The Page 99 Test, Writers Read and HEPPAS Books.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

About the blog

The goal of this blog is to inspire more people to spend more time reading books. I'll try to do that by shining a little light on books that I like and think others might find worthy of their time and attention.

I'll also ask some interesting people about what books they find interesting or useful.

Most of us don’t need any encouragement to read more—we need more time.

Yet encouragement does work for many people; and if you doubt that claim, I have two syllables for you: O-prah.

And it’s not only Oprah, who created regular readers out of a mulitude of the otherwise idle, who has this power. Many of us read what we read because someone recommended it to us.

With regular postings we hope not to merely recommend worthwhile books but to intrigue you, to give you some reason to seriously consider these books.

Not every book discussed will be to your taste—we’ll range from the high-lowbrow to the low-highbrow, and cover fiction as well as nonfiction—but I hope enough of what you see here will stimulate your interest.

Marshal Zeringue