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Changing culture of literature

Times Staff Writer

When Lawrence Ferlinghetti stood up last week at his City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco to announce the finalists for the 2006 National Book Awards, he made sure to remind those in attendance that this was a political event, noting, “It’s a great tribute to democracy, that prizes like these still exist.”

Later, at an informal reception, the 87-year-old poet and publisher took a moment to elaborate. “The real culture of America,” he declared, echoing a speech he made last fall after winning the National Book Awards’ first “Literarian” Award, “is not corporate monoculture and television. It’s the writers, teachers, universities, libraries and librarians. That’s the mainstream culture of America.”

It’s hard to say what’s more unexpected: to hear Ferlinghetti invoke the mainstream or to see him take part in an event like this. Since the early 1950s, he has been a counterculture icon, the publisher of Allen Ginsberg and Subcomandante Marcos, who sees literature as a force for change. Still, the issue he raises -- that of the mainstream and literature’s place within it, of why this stuff matters -- is one readers and writers have no choice but to take on.

Twenty-six years ago, the Before Columbus Foundation, a multicultural literary arts organization, created the American Book Awards to honor writers who were being overlooked by other national prizes. The idea, noted Before Columbus founder Ishmael Reed, was to redefine the very notion of the mainstream and what it signifies.

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“American literature in the last decade of this century,” Reed wrote in 1992, “is more than a mainstream.... American literature is an ocean.” In that regard, it’s only fitting that Reed, a noted poet and novelist in his own right, should have been in attendance for last week’s announcement at City Lights.

At the heart of the City Lights event is an effort by the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the National Book Awards, to broaden its base of operations and make its presence more ecumenical in scope. That’s also reflected by the list of finalists, which is eclectic and diverse.

A similar sensibility seems to have influenced two other high-profile literary awards announced last week: the Man Booker Prize, won by Kiran Desai, a 35-year-old Indian writer, for her novel “The Inheritance of Loss,” and the Nobel Prize, awarded to the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who became a cause celebre in 2005 after the government of Turkey sought to try him for commenting on the Armenian genocide. (The charges were later dropped.)

In Pamuk’s case, politics were almost certainly a factor; it’s difficult to imagine him reaching Nobel-level stature were it not for his decision to take a stand. This is in no way meant to minimize his accomplishments -- he’s among the most deserving laureates in recent years -- but to suggest that extra-literary issues don’t (or shouldn’t) have an effect on book prizes is to misunderstand on a fundamental level how such prizes work.

Awards, after all, can’t help but be subjective, reflections of both their juries and their times. Just look at this year’s National Book Award nominees. Among the young people’s finalists is Gene Luen Yang’s “American Born Chinese,” the first graphic novel ever so honored, while the fiction list includes Dana Spiotta’s “Eat the Document,” a kaleidoscopic portrait of a 1960s radical gone underground, and Mark Z. Danielewski’s “Only Revolutions,” a book so nonlinear it comes with instructions on how it should be read.

Are these the best books of the year? That’s impossible to answer -- and I don’t think it’s pertinent in any case. More important is to see them as expressions of their moment, as impressions of where literature is right now.

As someone who has served pretty regularly on prize juries, I’ve always bridled at the assumption that awards should be regarded as definitive, as if any group of three or five or even 24 judges could hope to speak for readers at large.

All one can do is to offer a direction, to say, “This is worth reading. Have a look.” If the choices are challenging or controversial, so much the better, for it only makes the conversation more engaged. This is the politics to which Ferlinghetti is referring: a cultural politics, an opening of the collective point-of-view.

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As for what that means, there’s no way to know for certain, although it does suggest how far we as a society have come. In 1957, Ferlinghetti was at the front lines of the battle for free expression, on trial himself for obscenity (he was ultimately acquitted) after a U.S. Customs official seized a shipment of Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems.”

Forty-nine years later, it’s only fitting that he would see the National Book Awards through a related filter, challenging us to reconsider how we think of literature and its possibilities. Here we have perhaps the most essential lesson of this latest batch of prizes -- that literature does not exist in a vacuum, but is only relevant inasmuch as it is part of the world.

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david.ulin@latimes.com

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David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.


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