Monday, April 18, 2005

 

Introduction from the podium, etc

James Marcus here. Last year I wrote an essay for the Washington Post Book World about online criticism. Initially I meant to focus on customer reviewing--the kind of critical mosh pit pioneered by my old employer, Amazon.com--but the piece did expand to include some commentary on blogging. An admission: until then, I hadn't spent much time in the mad, mad, mad world of the blogosphere. My remarks in the piece were fairly cursory (which didn't stop some British blogger from throwing a hissy fit, declaring me a miserable elitist, etc etc). But I was intrigued. Since then I've paid regular visits to a number of literary blogs, and felt a terrible...temptation. Now I'm giving in. So sue me.

First: what I'm reading. Last night I plowed through about half of Vladimir Nabokov's Selected Letters. There was one I couldn't resist sharing, from 1948, when VN was still new to the United States and in rather tottery financial shape. That didn't stop him from (figuratively) pistol-whipping Edward Weeks, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, who had dared to suggest that VN was hoarding his best stuff for the New Yorker. "I have received your letter of September 30 and can only excuse its contents by assuming you were in your cups when you wrote it," he begins, and concludes by sending back $800 the magazine had already paid him. They don't make them like that anymore.

Second: I read an article by Marina Krakovsky in the Washington Post Book World today about the strange, conflicted process of judging literary awards. Having served on quite a few of these juries myself--I spent six years on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and have also judged various things for PEN--I was curious. But I came across something that really bugged me. Toward the end of the piece, the author quoted Margo Hammond, book critic of the St. Petersburg Times, to the effect that Penelope Fitzgerald, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Blue Flower in 1998, didn't really deserve the prize. "We can say it, now that she's died," Hammond confides. "It wasn't the book that people felt passionate about."

Now, I served on the jury that year along with Margo (who I know very slightly). It's true that The Blue Flower was a dark horse, especially in the year of Don DeLillo's Underworld and Philip Roth's American Pastoral. To make my own preferences clear at the outset, I admire The Blue Flower more than DeLillo's loose-and-baggy monster, and would certainly put it on par with the Roth (which alternates sublime passages with particle-board contrivance). But I'm not bitching because everybody doesn't agree with me. What offended me was the suggestion that we threw some old bag the prize because we were rent asunder by Phil and Don. As I recall it (and here comes the Rashomon moment), many board members felt almost obligated to genuflect at the DeLillian altar: it was a big fat book by a major (the epithet is mine) author, he hadn't gotten his share of prizes, etc etc. But once it became clear that Underworld was not a given, the jurors started bolting. Some voted for Roth, some for Fitzgerald. Some may have felt that The Blue Flower was a merely acceptable compromise. If so, they voted for the right book for the wrong reasons. It's a masterpiece, and deserved the prize as richly as any novel in the organization's history.

Okay, the steam has now stopped coming out of my ears. I will resume a civil tone. And Margo, if you're reading this, it's nothing personal.

Comments:
That's awesome - I was really quite scraped when I read that article yesterday because I consider The Blue Flower to be one of Fitzgerald's two real masterpieces (the other being The Beginning of Spring). I admired at least the first section of Underworld as everyone else did and have never cracked the Roth, but the tone and the details of Fitzgerald's book really stayed with me. It deserves any award it gets.

BTW I've worked here at Amazon since '98, have worked with Lang Cook, Steve Duda, and others whom I'm sure you'd remember.
 
I was on the board of the NBCC and while I agree that there have been times when two favored books lose out to the compromise second choice for both factions, it does a disservice both to all the nominated books and to the NBCC itself to reveal the specifics of any particular vote for any particular award. (I am certainly not quibbling with your desire to set the record straight, now that this has been opened up.)
 
Ah, the blogosphere. She's a seductive mistress. I'm glad you've succumbed and look forward to reading more.
 
Hi James -- Glad to see you on the Web. As a Book Babe, I'll toss in this defense of my colleague in crime, Margo, who never intended to diss "The Blue Flower." And I remember the NBCC vote as you do -- that it was really a contest between DeLillo and Fitzgerald, an anima/animus pairing, if you will. "Flower" is deceptively simple but so beautifully captures the early moments of the romantic movement... "Young Werther" in utero. Katharine's admonition about staying mum regarding deliberations is right, of course, but sometimes concrete examples are needed to show the arbitrary but necessary service that literary competitions supply. Best of luck, James. Ellen Heltzel
 
"The Blue Flower" was flawless.

To give it a National Book Award adds more to the prestige of the prize than to the honor of a novel which, in itself, needs no accolade.

I rank it with "Pnin" and "The Remains of the Day" as the finest short novels I've had the good fortune of reading.

Fitzgerald's "The Beginning of Spring" was pretty amazing, too. And "The Bookshop" was also very good.
 
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