An alternate reality: A shortlist of presidential candidates is released to the public. How was it generated? What does it mean? No one knows. Time passes, and it’s now November 2008, and the grand announcement is made: Dennis Kucinich is the new president of the United States. Some are overjoyed, others agog — what about Obama? Huckabee? There is much hullabaloo and hand-wringing, but regardless: Kucinich vaults from no chance to win to actually moving into the White House. In the same vein, let’s rewrite the script to 12 Angry Men: 12 jurors deliberate behind closed doors. It’s expected they will find the defendant guilty. Time passes. They emerge with a verdict of ... not guilty!
These utterly unsatisfying scenarios approximate the maddeningly opaque system of major novel prizes in the small and contentious country of contemporary literature. Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke wins the 2007 National Book Award. Why? Though I reviewed it positively in this newspaper, I doubt that Smoke will replace Johnson’s Jesus’ Son as a beloved, nearly perfect piece of literature. Johnson’s award feels a bit like Kobe Bryant’s MVP this year — both have been too admired for too long to not get a prize. And look at the bizarre field from which Tree of Smoke emerged: a book of short stories by the anomalous formalist Lydia Davis; a collection of exuberant and worldly tales by Jim Shepard; and two debut novels, one about colonialism (Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork), and one about office life (Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris). What does it mean artistically for Johnson to rise from this field — for this field to even exist in the first place? Ostensibly, the judges — Francine Prose, Andrew Sean Greer, Walter Kirn, David Means and Joy Williams — are people with strong opinions and passionate criteria, and Johnson’s victory must be the product of aesthetic battles going on behind closed doors.
Last month, the Pulitzer Prize for literature went to Junot Díaz for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, beating out Tree of Smoke among others. A glance at the Pulitzer panel tells us that Prose was again one of the jurists. What happened to make her change her mind about Tree of Smoke? If she valued Oscar Wao so highly, why did it not make the National Book Awards shortlist? The inexplicability of the selection process is frustrating, especially considering the significant consequences. According to The New York Times, when Geraldine Brooks’ March won the Pulitzer in 2006, her book’s sales increased ten-fold.
But let’s not talk commerce here. I’m no accountant, I’m a critic, and I want to know why. Why does a novel win? What do we value in literature? Obviously, only time will tell the true story of literary greatness. The Nobel Prize is as famous for the authors it has snubbed — Nabokov, Borges, Joyce, Twain, Auden — as for those it has lauded, including Dario Fo, Eyvind Johnson. If we accept that prizes are woefully shortsighted, and frequently useless, the only thing of interest left about the prize is the process of its selection. We’re not interested in the ticker-tape parade at the end of the war; we want to see life in the trenches, the blow-by-blow of how something rises to the top. I love competition and sporting events, but literary prizes are all trophy and no action, the most castrated dogfight imaginable.
Which brings me to what I believe is the finest current literary prize of them all, the Tournament of Books, a March Madness–type literary competition hosted by the Web blog The Morning Newsand Portland’s famed Powell’s Books. This year, 16 novels were selected and placed in an NCAA-style bracket, with a critic assigned to each matchup and two “booth” commentators providing meta-analysis of the critics’ criticisms. The tournament was single elimination, and, one by one, the books went down. In the first-round chaos, two No. 1 seeds, Ann Patchett’s Run and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, bit the dust. Booth commentator Kevin Guilfoile speculated as to why: “The debut novelist ... has the biggest and best weapon of surprise, one that the McEwans and Patchetts of the world, even if they continue to turn out great novel after great novel, are no longer capable of wielding.”