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.”
The tone of the tournament’s literary analysis oscillates between dead serious and flippant. Critic Helen DeWitt savaged Brock Clarke’s novel: “Fredric Jameson says of [Theodor] Adorno’s use of Freud: ‘Neurosis is simply this boring imprisonment of the self in itself, crippled by its terror of the new and unexpected, carrying its sameness with it wherever it goes.’ … He might have been writing [about Clarke’s] An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.”
Guilfoile’s “booth” response: “Fredric Jameson who? Adorno what? … Helen DeWitt is one smart cookie, smarter than me, which makes me hesitant to admit that I quite enjoyed An Arsonist’s Guide. …Also, I enjoy the smell of my dog’s paws.”
The critics are not the only ones who have pull in this competition. During the Zombie Round, readers of the blog are able to, by popular vote, resurrect a defeated novel to battle anew — a wonderful embodiment of the schism between actual readers and the alleged elitism of individual critics. Indeed, the tournament feels like a microcosm of the literary world, a delightful window into the skirmishes and warring doctrines of art. This felt particularly true in the Championship Round, when all the previous critics weighed in for the final verdict between Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The match had everything a fan of sports or literature could hope for: Díaz’s novel was the clear favorite, a lush literary epic that fuses the immigrant experience with unabashed geekdom. Multiculturalism and comic books — a 21st-century shoo-in. In the role of improbable underdog was Remainder,a small, strange, intentionally airless book, whose wealthy brain-damaged narrator attempts to replicate moments of “authenticity.” Remainder was knocked out in round two after being savaged by blogger Mark Liberman (“It’s memorable, in the way that botched surgery and disastrous trips are memorable. … You can have my copy, and welcome to it”) but was brought back from the dead in the Zombie Round, and scored an upset over Ferris’ Then We Came to the End to reach the championship.
The bout between these books represented a tradition of heated conflict between books invested in the culture, history and substance of the world and books obsessed with the nature of narrative and reality itself. Díaz’s descriptions are bawdy and visceral: “What he wanted was to suck Beli’s enormous breasts, to fuck her pussy until it was a mango-juice swamp.” McCarthy’s, cold and cerebral: “It looked kinda disgusting — like something that’s come out of something.” This line alone, for my money, qualifies Remainder for contender status. (Or, as tournament judge Ze Frank put it: “Liberman has offered to give his copy away. I suggest you take it. And while you are there, sift through anything else that Liberman is throwing away … my guess is you’ll find plenty of treasures.”)
The upset was not to be. Oscar Wao stampeded through the Championship Round with a final vote of 12 to 4, taking a well-deserved victory, and the coveted Rooster Prize. For those who followed the tournament, Wao’s subsequent Pulitzer seemed like an afterthought — only the Tournament of Books told us why to care. The Pulitzer will boost Díaz’s sales, but the TOB is alive with passion and dissent in a way other literary prizes are not. Books are not basketball. We have no statistics by which to measure their worth in the world or their impact on our minds. Their value can only be found in the debate of those who love or despise them. Shall we save the literary prize from arbitrariness? Then let’s make the TOB a national institution. Let’s have literary showdowns splashed across the covers of book sections, smack-talking critics fighting tooth and nail, and book-loving America in thrilled suspense every March. Let’s throw wide the doors to the temple and expose the steaming entrails of aesthetics — the religion of the literate. Or, at the very least, please, Ms. Prose, the next time you’re judging a literary prize, smuggle in a tape recorder with you, post the transcript and let us witness the story of the fight.
A former intern at L.A. Weekly, Nathan Ihara is a critic and fiction writer living in New York.
More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:
Not Dead Yet: The Novel as Lifeline By JOE DONNELLY
The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon By John Banville
Salman Rushdie: An excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence By SALMAN RUSHDIE
Renewing the Faith: McSweeney's Goes Back to Basics, Makes Publishing Fun By MARC WEINGARTEN
In a Jam: How Suspense Keeps the Novel on Edge By THOMAS PERRY