Handicapping the Fiction Award

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ONE big question remains: Who will win the Fiction Prize at this year’s (2017) National Book Awards?

Don’t think for a moment that such choices aren’t made with political and image considerations. This year several competing dynamics are at play.

A.)  The omnipresence in the news media of the ongoing sex abuse scandals favors giving the award to a woman. This year, four-out-of-five finalists are women. Could the judges not award the prize to one of them?

B.)  On the other hand, there’s the (surmised) campaign to make Elliot Ackerman the next John F. Kennedy. See our previous post, and the one before that.

C.)  Jacqueline Woodson, chair of this year’s judging panel, was the target of Daniel Handler’s watermelon jokes at the 2014 event when she won the award for Young People’s Literature. Will this impact her decision this year? Would she be willing to go along with a push to hand Ackerman the prize?

D.)  The X factor is judge Dave Eggers, one of the more powerful figures in the literary business. Several factors are at play with “The Dave.”

One is his psychological need to appear as Munificent Good Guy. This includes a Great White Savior complex. (See his book, What Is the What.) Eggers grew up in one of the richest, most segregated cities in America, and sees People-Of-Color as “Victim.” A variation of Liberal Morality Play, except Dave Eggers lives it. This theory argues he’ll push to give the award to one of the women– Jesmyn Ward most likely, whose life story in spots is truly “heartbreaking.”

On the other hand, Eggers has a personality akin to Peter Ackerman’s (again, see our previous two posts)– a Jekyll-Hyde balance between benevolence and aggressiveness. Dave Eggers respects power and knows Elliot’s father has it. Nothing need be said– these things are sensed. The son, Elliot, is a child of privilege, as is Eggers, and takes a similar global view of the world– and of America’s central place in it. There’d be natural sympathy between the two men.

Of the five judges, Dave Eggers has the standing, reputation, personality, and will to dominate the group. In addition, one of the other judges, Karolina Waclawiak, was until recently an employee of his, as Assistant Editor at The Believer, an Eggers publication. The deck isn’t stacked– but Eggers holds a strong hand.

Jacqueline Woodson is panel Chair. As a black woman (a black woman, moreover, who was disrespected by Handler, a friend of the Dave’s) Woodson carries implicit moral authority, particularly in the world of the established intelligentsia, which by definition is an ultra-liberal world. See the ideological slant of this year’s nominations. If Woodson has determined on a winner, not even Dave Eggers, hyper-sensitive as he is to issues and images of race, would be willing to stand against her choice. But if she hasn’t decided– then the decision is his.

They might agree on the choice anyway.

Here then are the odds for this year’s contest:

Elliot Ackerman:  While he has less than a 50% chance of winning, the offstage presence of all-powerful Dad still makes Elliot the co-favorite to win.

Odds:  3 to 1.
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Lisa Ko:  Ko’s novel The Leavers, about undocumented immigrants, is the most topical and best-positioned politically to win the award. If the panel wishes to send a “So there!” message to President Trump, this book will be the choice. The other “Ko” favorite.

Odds:  3 to 1.
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Jesmyn Ward:  The biggest argument against Jesmyn Ward is that she won the award in 2011. Would she be given another one?

Odds:  5 to 1.
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Min Jin Lee:  Ms. Lee has terrific Insider credentials, as a graduate of Georgetown and Yale and a former corporate lawyer in New York. She also has a big-time publisher in Hachette. However, the plot of Pachinko involves discrimination against Koreans by Japan. Not a trendy cause.

Odds:  15 to 1.
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Carmen Maria Machado:  There are two strikes against Ms. Machado: A.) Has a small publisher, Graywolf Press.  B.) A book of stories by a little-known author is unlikely to win.

Odds:  15 to 1.
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ALTERNATE VERSION
A different “Alt Right” view says that, based on the Radhika Jones hiring at Vanity Fair and other happenings, white males are being purged throughout New York literary culture– they present the wrong image, and so Elliot Ackerman’s real odds of winning the prize are one in 500,000. Under this version, white male publishers Morgan Entrekin, David Steinberger, and the owners of the Big Five publishing companies will commit ritual suicide at the end of the event, a la Cho Cho San at the end of the opera “Madame Butterfly.”

The entire scripted 2017 National Book Awards ceremony is in fact a ritual suicide, only, like “Madame Butterly,” it’s all theater.

(See the other posts in the series, here.)

-K.W.

Ackerman-Kennedy Parallels

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WHEN STUDYING history one finds parallels between this period and that one. Between the past and today. They can sometimes be amusing parallels, and other times informative ones. Patterns of the past give us clues to the present. On rare occasions, they help us predict what might happen next.

The career of Elliot Ackerman, a Finalist for the National Book Award in the Fiction category, has similarities to the early life and career of John F. Kennedy.

The most important factor in both cases is the presence of a powerful father. A self-made, dominating figure who the son needs to please, impress, and match. Both fathers, Joseph Kennedy and Peter Ackerman, can be considered complex and contradictory personalities embodying the contradictions– the virtues and failings– of America itself. Both, determined realists and steadfast idealists, accused of corruption while achieving laudable success and spectacular wealth. Both combined business with politics.

The oldest Kennedy son, Joe, died in a foolhardy airplane mission during World War II, trying to prove his courage. The second son, John, proved his bravery in the PT 109 incident in the Pacific during the same war.

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Elliot Ackerman plunged into war in at least as dramatic a fashion– proven by his Silver Star and Purple Heart. WHY does a young man of comfort and privilege behave in this manner? What internal or external needs drive him?

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Patriotic? Indisputably. Ambitious? How ambitious? A son seeking to escape the very large shadow of a strong and successful father.
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Remember that the JFK myth was based not solely on a heroic resume, but also the credentials of an intellectual. John Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 for his book, Profiles in Courage. A necessary step in his quick ascension to power.

Elliot Ackerman is building as impressive a resume. We can legitimately ask of this man of action if his writing career is one step toward a larger goal. Warrior. Journalist. Author. He’s been involved in politics through he and his father’s organization, Americans Elect.

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HOW BIG a role does Elliot’s father play in the construction of Elliot’s career? How far does Peter Ackerman resemble Joseph Kennedy. HOW MUCH does Peter Ackerman want his son to win the National Book Award? These are questions a literary critic and analyst must ask. Peter Ackerman’s life and career, his remarkable attainments and ambition, his ability to push the limits, demand that we ask them.

One recent war hero, Phil Klay (who has interviewed Elliot Ackerman), has won the National Book Award, for Fiction in 2014.

Can Elliot Ackerman do less?

-K.W.
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NEXT: We assess the odds in the Fiction category– and perhaps make a prediction.

(Read our previous posts! Ours is THE most thorough coverage of the 2017 National Book Awards.)

 

 

Fake Diversity

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NO DOUBT those involved with the National Book Awards are congratulating themselves on the diversity of their selections. Yes, the identity politics crowd is happy. Of the 20 finalists, 11 are persons of color. (Two others immigrated here.) 15 of the 20 are women. Four out of five finalists of the most prestigious category, Fiction, are women of color. For those at home counting, double bonus points. For Fiction alone, there’s a Chinese-American and Korean-American and Cuban-American and African-American.

AS LONG as we’re playing the hyphen game, where are the Polish-Americans and Serbian-Americans and Slovak-Americans? The Croatian/Greek/Hungarian/Ukrainian/Lithuanian/Italian-Americans? Those whose people were brought over here to work brutal jobs in steel mills and coal mines and auto plants– who were never given the privilege to which white skin color supposedly entitles one in the hallucinatory visions of the actual privileged at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Princeton, and Stanford; in the imaginings of those who write the PC rules that organizations like the National Book Foundation now follow.

If one is meant to see representatives of identity at such affairs– where’s mine? They’re not in the white publishers pulling strings behind the scenes, with whom I have nothing in common beyond skin color.

If appearances matter, the Awards appear to have eliminated an entire large swath of America from consideration– especially if one adds in working-class whites in Appalachia, Kansas, the Rust Belt, and other parts of the nation overlooked by Manhattan mandarins eager to appear as correct as possible; those who dominate such “charitable” organizations. (The actual charity involved being minimal.)

Fiction Finalist Jesmyn Ward says of the notion of a color-blind America: “I don’t know that place. I’ve never been there.” (This despite achieving degrees at both University of Michigan and Stanford.) Except there’s no choice but to live in a post-racial America if there’s to be any kind of harmony in this chaotic nation.

More important for an arts organization than superficial diversity of the cosmetic or hyphenated kind is diversity of ideas. At the big Awards ceremony Wednesday night one can be assured there will be NONE.

Will there be a single individual holding an opinion on politics and culture different from the rest of the audience? (A Trump voter, for instance?) If there is, the person won’t announce it! (First reaction if did: “How did he get in here?” Second reaction: Naked hostility. Third reaction: Career over.)

Which brings us to the token straight white male among the Fiction Finalists: Elliot Ackerman. A white guy? How did he slip in there??

Working-class whites are readily thrown overboard when equality and diversity become an issue– though few were on board to start with. But there’s always room for the super-elite, or children of the super-elite, and Elliot Ackerman is proof.

Eliot_ackerman_8929(Elliot Ackerman.)
A genuine war hero in the war in Afghanistan, Ackerman, methinks, is on his way to becoming a U.S. Senator. JFK anyone?

(We’ll assume, for the sake of his own survival Wednesday, that he’s a proper liberal. Likely a neo-liberal. Afghanistan may be tough, but inflamed ideologues in a mob are another matter.)

A Marine for eight years, Elliot served as a CIA Special Operations Officer as well. More recently he was Chief Operating Officer of Americans Elect, a political organization founded and chaired by his father. Elliot was a White House Fellow in the Obama Administration. He’s written for every establishment publication in existence, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, and others. Conspiracy theorists out there can note he’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

THE FATHER
Elliot’s father Peter Ackerman has been a liberal icon, an international scholar, a consultant to student protesters in China, and on the boards of several liberal political organizations. He’s also worked for the investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert where he made an estimated 300 million-plus dollars, was involved in the Michael Milken junk bond insider trading scandal, and paid a $73 million settlement with the FDIC. In 2005 the U.S. Tax Court ruled that Peter was involved in an illegal $1.7 billion tax shelter. He’s had either an exciting establishment career, or a typical one, depending on how you look at things.

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How did Elliot get his book in the Awards, indeed!

Why focus so much on the writers, anyway? Writers are merely the outward excuse for throwing a lavish party for Bigs of New York publishing, with accompanying tax write-offs. The party, not the writers or writing, is the point.

-MORE TO COME-

K.W.