Monday, April 18, 2005
Introduction from the podium, etc
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.
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.
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.