Critics Notebook: Literature as a competitive sport

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

When the Nobel Prize in literature is announced Thursday, the choice may be — if the last two years are any indication — a confounding one.

In 2008, the prize went to Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio, a French novelist concerned with colonization and its discontents, whose work was almost entirely unknown in the United States; last year’s recipient was the German-Romanian Herta Müller, whose exquisitely rendered fictions are still largely unavailable here. On Friday, the British oddsmaker Ladbrokes installed Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer as a favorite for the 2010 Nobel, while also giving good odds on three other poets: Adam Zagajewski of Poland, Syria’s Adonis and the Korean Ko Un.

To some extent, all of this is just a smokescreen, since the Swedish Academy is notoriously unpredictable, but what it suggests is an opposing set of expectations, between the judges on the one hand and a more generalized group of readers on the other, about what the Nobel (or, for that matter, any literary award) is meant to do.

Partly, of course, awards are a matter of money. “When a big prize is awarded to an author that is lesser known to our customers,” writes Kerry Slattery, general manager of Los Feliz’s Skylight Books, in an e-mail, “there is a big run on that author’s books and sales are definitely greatly affected.” As an example, she cites Paul Harding’s “Tinkers,” a first novel from tiny Bellevue Review Press, which won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Before the announcement, “Tinkers” had sold 7,000 copies. Afterward, the publisher could barely keep it in print. For 2009 National Book Award winner Colum McCann, the payoff was even bigger; his novel “Let the Great World Spin” has sold 350,000 copies.


These issues come up every year around this time, because October is as close as the book world has to an awards season. Five days after the Nobel Prize is announced, the Man Booker Prize will be awarded in London; the next morning, at Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah, Ga., the finalists for the National Book Awards will be named.

It’s a lot of pomp and circumstance for a corner of the culture that seems increasingly uncertain of its role in contemporary society, where the slow, immersive satisfactions of reading are easily overwhelmed by the onslaught of the information stream. In such a landscape, readers look to awards for reassurance, as arbiters of whether a book or author is any good. Yet while that’s understandable, it is, in its way, another kind of smokescreen, distracting us from the conversation about literature in favor of a more competitive frame.

“There’s a big difference between art and sports,” notes Harold Augenbraum, who, as executive director of the National Book Foundation, oversees the National Book Awards. “In sports, teams go head-to-head against each other, and we see who wins. It’s quantifiable. You can’t do that with something as human as art.”

What Augenbraum is referring to is subjectivity, which resides at the heart of every awards process, for good or ill. Surely, it’s an expression of subjectivity for the Swedish Academy to have focused, over the last few years, on European authors, a worldview made explicit in 2008 by former Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl, who famously called American literature “too insular and ignorant to challenge Europe as the center of the literary world.” But so too is the insistence that the Nobel ought to go to an American ( Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates seem to be the most likely candidates), as if it were our birthright to be recognized on the world’s cultural stage.

No, that’s the thing about prizes: They’re emblematic of those who bestow them, whether on the institutional level or in the jury room. In 2004, the National Book Awards were criticized for the New York-centric, small-bore nature of their fiction shortlist; of the five finalists, four were women from Manhattan, and only one had sold as many as 2,000 copies of her book. This hasn’t happened again, but it’s less a matter of conscious intention, Augenbraum suggests, than of a broader way of thinking about the award. “I don’t see it as any sort of failure on the part of the judges,” he says, “but I do think it’s important to consider the finalists as a group. Now, when I give the charge to the judges, I urge them to think about the shortlist as a slate of five.”

That’s a key distinction, between the finalists and the winners, and it offers a valuable lens through which to think about awards. Consider your own reading: Can you easily choose your favorite book of any given year? Probably not, because reading doesn’t work like that. We admire different books at different times for different reasons, responding in a way that is as intuitive as it is intellectual, that is less about thinking, per se, than it is about a kind of touch.

Judging is a similar process, in which a jury is asked to look at 200, or 2,000, books in a particular category, and sort them out according to a set of standards that is amorphous at best.

What makes a good book? A moral vision? Well, sure, but what about William T. Vollmann, who won a 2005 National Book Award for his novel “Europe Central,” which is, like much of the author’s work, morally ambiguous, meant to shake us out of our complacency? Beautiful language? Absolutely, but what about DBC Pierre’s 2003 Man Booker winner “Vernon God Little,” which uses a clunky vernacular to get at its teenage protagonist’s inner life?


Both books beat out other, more conventionally beautiful finalists: E.L. Doctorow’s “The March,” in the case of Vollmann, and Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane” and Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” for Pierre.

Still, if this seems to indicate a certain flaw in the process, all those books are worthy of attention, which makes the goal of any award less to anoint a single champion than to establish a colloquy.