Got a Good Book and Got All in It

How I Spent My Summer (Reading the 1981 PEN/Faulkner Finalists)

The 1981 PEN/Faulkner finalists

I’m a big fan of book prizes, though sometimes I think I’m the only one. I’m certainly less cynical about them than most of my friends. For some of them, the prize lists exist simply as one more list of books to complain about, but not actually read. [1] The National Book Awards recent introduction of a longlist is a great celebration of books, a chance to talk about more of them and connect potential audiences to titles they might have otherwise missed.

Prize lists have always helped my book browsing (when bookstore browsing was still possible for me—I live in Tucson now). I loved nothing more than getting the poetry slate for the National Book Critics Circle or the fiction list for the National Book Awards and combing the aisles for the thing itself—the book, tucked along with the hundreds of others, sometimes with little possibility that I would have casually noticed it, if not for that prize nomination.

I was most faithful, for a while, to the poets. I had no discernment—and that was a good thing. No poet carried, for me, anything other than possibility. Since I was a stranger to its world, it felt fun and open to discover what I responded to, standing in the aisles of Brookline Booksmith and having to choose the one book I could buy (I was always so low on money). [2]

It was harder to be so open in fiction. Chances were I had preconceived notions about an author and would skip down the list, shortening my read to two or three, but not all five. It was a narrow way of “judging” a book, and I justified it to myself by thinking of the vast numbers of titles I would never get to. Why not, I thought, simply read where my tastes lead me? It wasn’t the most adventurous way to approach books, but I noticed, too, that the fiction lists often struck that balance quite well. [3]

Early in the year, I received an invitation to be a judge for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award. Of course, I said yes. But what a challenge! It would be test of fairness, judicious reading, and broad acceptance of a variety of styles and approaches. It’s one of the big prizes of our national scene, along with the Pulitzer (the denoter of the instant classic), the National Book Award (the gravitas award), the NBCC (the more populist reach, with a guaranteed cherry-pick from the Booker list), and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (which I love for its sometimes unsung international scope)[4]. There are a number of other prestigious awards, to be sure. The Story Prize, devoted exclusively to celebrating the short story collection, merits attention always, and apparently the Booker will now begin including English-language authors the world over. [5]

This is all a very long-winded way of saying I finally decided to pursue a strange idea I’ve had for a long time: to be a completist[6] about one of the major lists, to read all of the nominated books from a prize’s inception, and determine for myself, year by year, a winner. [7].

I had thought about doing it with the PEN/Faulkner slates for a long time (I swear! Even before I was asked to serve as a 2014 judge!). The time span seemed reasonable; the prize began in 1981, with the list maintaining the usual five books a year (a few of them are six, for some reason). I had thought about the NBCC list, dating all the way back to 1975, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, to 1980, but it was the PEN/Faulkner that caught my attention the most because of its range. Over the years, its slate has included the genius (John Edgar Wideman, ignored by the other major prizes, and the sublime Joanna Scott, who got within shouting distance of the Pulitzer); the rare Chicano writers allowed into the limelight (Dagoberto Gilb and the current champ, Benjamin Alire Saenz); the unrecognized masters in our midst (the late Gina Berriault and the very here-and-now Peter Cameron); the ingénue debuting via the short-story collection, so difficult and rare (from David Leavitt to ZZ Packer); and career-changing nominations for talented, hardworking writers lucky enough to have both savvy publishers and eager booksellers ready to support their nods (Ann Patchett and Ron Rash).[8]

Of course, the overall histories of all the major prizes skew woefully in favor of men, both in nominations and prizes given. Diversity arrives late, sometimes in scattershot application; small presses find themselves crowded out of the offerings, even with sharper, more powerful books. Sometimes a sense of recognition for the wrong book is at play, or a sentimental vote for a long career—or, at least, all of the factors that one might make up to justify the mysterious reasons why a slate has taken its shape.

All of this old conjecture is now something I must ignore. The questions, for me as one of the three 2014 judges, are still forming, and they will be formed strictly by the books themselves. They have to be read, after all, one by one, considered of their own accord.

But how nice to spend my summer reading the inaugural 1981 shortlist! Gilbert Sorrentino’s multivocal Aberration of Starlight surprised me simply by reminding me how daring Random House once was with its fiction offerings, with the book’s best moments coming in the biting, venomous renderings of a jealous ex. I muttered a few unkind things on Facebook about John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, lamenting the state of the book’s editing, only to have a few friends chide me with the reminder that the book was posthumous (as if I didn’t know).[9]. Walker Percy’s The Second Coming might be the one clunker in the group, which is hard to admit, but at least I could pinpoint why: about a third of the way through, I swore to myself I’d lay off the use of the rhetorical question in my own writing to signify heavy spiritual self-scrutiny. Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus made me long to be a Barnes and Noble clerk again (just a little), if only to see how many Downton Abbey fans I could lure in with the promise of societal angst, prim posture in the face of utter ruin, and monumental shifts in moral and spiritual stances on the turn of seemingly small events—all with a reminder that the writing wields its Forster lineage with confidence and exquisite grace.

And finally, how surprised I was to agree with the inaugural winner. How many rainy Saturdays had I spent at the Barnes and Noble at Lincoln Center, starting with the As in the fiction section, drawing my finger across the drab, black-and-white cover of Walter Abish’s How German Is It and skipping right over it? I remember my naïve younger self thinking this New Directions book was exactly the kind of “experimental” fiction that I resisted in graduate school: nebulous, plodding, vague. How wrong I was. Set in Germany, the novel tells the story of two brothers attempting to avoid the shadow of their family’s dealings during World War II. Its power comes in a marvelous use of insinuation, of characters finding ways to hint at the wounds of the past without the novel reverting to frequent flashbacks. If guilt is to have any real damaging weight, it’s less the crime committed than the dismissal of that crime, that history. One of the brothers, an architect, futilely works on new, modern buildings, only to be constantly menaced by a shadowy leftist group bombing the infrastructure. How startling must this book have been at the time, with the war only forty years past, and a nation already tiring with the struggle to redefine itself, yet not directly confronting its history in its worst forms. It’s a novel full of surprises, from complex family dynamics and loyalties to the larger, communal revelations. For me, at least, the kind of novel I wish I could write—the perfect blend of the novel daring enough to own its own cultural moment, yet, sentence by sentence, displaying the most stellar, intimate control.

Never judge a book, as the saying goes, by its cover.

  1. [1]A state of circumstances that perfectly captures the spirit of half the articles dissing Orange Is the New Black, the use of the Didn’t Finish button on Goodreads, or the Tucson Unified School District’s approach to Chicano/a literature.
  2. [2]I remember the 1999 NBCC list in particular, which included Ruth Stone’s Ordinary Words from the tiny Paris Press, with its shiny red cover. Rafael Campo’s Diva was on that list, as was Rita Dove and Susan Kingsolving. But it was Tory Dent’s HIV, Mon Amour, which ended up being my first purchase from that list. I lent it out to a friend but never got it back. Curiously enough, in one of the many dusty shops in Bisbee, AZ, I found a copy, but I’d moved on to my current, minimalist state—I give books away very easily now, so hit me up anytime.
  3. [3]Though, sometimes, particular lists had an array I thought perplexing. Now, they appear completely exciting—check out the 1990 National Book Award list to see what I mean.
  4. [4]And I follow Chicago on this one—the prize carries no italics!
  5. [5]The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is also a prize of major proportions, with winners including Haruki Murakami and Edna O’Brien. Maybe I’m biased because I was shortlisted—it’s true!!—but lest you think I’m bragging, I got my just desserts. When I ran begging to my publisher for more publicity after the announcement, their now infamous “It’s not a big enough prize” shot my hopes to high hell. Still, it reaffirmed my feeling that all prize nominations have the potential to really help a book, provided the publisher has the resources–and the will–to make that prize mean something to readers.
  6. [6]I’m a great admirer of the blog Nick’s Flick Picks, which, among other things, features the titular Nick screening every single one of the nominated Best Actress performances in Oscar history. Every. Single. One.
  7. [7]I’ve done this privately with the Best American and PEN/O. Henry anthologies for ages, if only as a self-test in articulation, to figure out why some writing moves, excites, incites me.
  8. [8]Lucky for us, they certainly weren’t told their prize nominations weren’t big enough.
  9. [9]I’m a sentimentalist, but the book’s history never won me over on its more difficult set pieces, especially the ultra-campy gay party, with the poor lesbians relegated to the kitchen, complete with growling.
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