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.
**
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.
**
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.
**
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.

Liberal Morality Play

NBF

The National Book Foundation finalists have been announced. We plan to present some quick examinations of the choices. We intend to ask questions. We may not have answers– the National Book Foundation is a puzzle. A mystery. A morality play.

For instance: This year’s Non-Fiction finalists, all from “Big Five” conglomerate publishers. The list:

  • Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge
    (Atria / 37 INK / Simon & Schuster)
  • Frances FitzGeraldThe Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America
    (Simon & Schuster)
  • Masha Gessen, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia
    (Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House)
  • David GrannKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
    (Doubleday / Penguin Random House)
  • Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
    (Viking / Penguin Random House)

Skewed heavily politically one way, we’d say– as were the other nominees. But after all, this is not a time for competing viewpoints. No– this is a period of crisis. Of outright hysteria! No room for objectivity. Except here.

What’s the reality? Are we seeing from the publishing industry a scripted liberal morality play?

The National Book Foundation is an appendage of the New York publishing industry. A nicely-concealed publicity campaign for the industry. Funding comes from New York publishers in various forms– including the awards and accompanying Benefit Dinner. Publishers whose books become finalists are required to help publicize the book and awards. It’s a win-win situation. Each side publicizes the other. The Dinner, at tres chic, tres expensive Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan’s financial district is a major fundraising event for the foundation. Attendance appears to be by invitation only. One can believe it will be a collection of New York publishing insiders.

The National Book Foundation’s Board Chairman is David Steinberger, CEO of the Perseus Books Group. Vice Chair is Morgan Entrekin, Publisher of Grove-Atlantic. The Treasurer at NBF is Chairman of W.W. Norton & Company, W. Drake McFeely. (NBF’s Board Secretary, Calvin Sims, a long-time internationalist, former Ford Foundation executive, former Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, former New York Times overseas bureau chief, brings rather different qualifications to the table.)

steinberger and weinstein

(David Steinberger and Friend.)

Power! The National Book Foundation is an extension of cultural and societal power.

Conflict of interest? No one is watching. Nobody cares. Least of all journalists at NYC media outlets like the New York Times and The New Yorker. Fellow Members of the Club, most with novels in drawers they’d themselves like to someday have published. Most attended the same Ivy League/Oxbridge/Stanford elite schools as did the scions of publishing.

Thirteen years ago the price of a table at the Awards dinner was $10,000. What is it today? There’s no way of knowing. The information is available nowhere on the NBF website.

Everything about the event reeks of money. Publishers and high-salaried employees sit at high-priced tables and applaud the politically-correct, even radical, selections, which for the most part are window dressing. (A couple bonded-and-bred Insiders are included among the various finalists, along with one outright professional propagandist– attack dog for American Empire.)

New York publishing after all is a prime example of privilege and hierarchy. Centering publishing– and the literary world– in a single overpriced city is the antithesis of democracy, in the view of this commentator.

The Awards– the nominations, finalists, medallions– are theater. An elaborate and gaudy show absolving the ultra-affluent attendees of complicity in any crimes outlined in the books celebrated. Absolution. Pontius Pilate washing his hands. Penance and forgiveness in a one-evening ritual, tasty dinner included.

Is more than this happening?

Stay tuned.

K.W.

 

Granta’s Young American Novelists

A CONTRARY VIEW

Granta cover

LITERARY ARISTOCRACY LIVES!

At least, it lives within tiny literary circles in London and New York. The aristos exist in small rooms with mirrored walls which make their numbers and clout appear greater– to themselves– than they actually are.

And so, Granta Magazine‘s “Best of Young American Novelists 3” has sent shock waves through the clubby room, if nowhere else. Which well-connected New York-based writers should have been included? Which had better been left out?

We’re not talking the 1920’s, when there were a host of culturally-and-artistically significant young American novelists to talk about– Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Faulkner/Wolfe/Dos Passos– giant names, talents, personalities, personas.

No, there is no young Tiger Woods waiting to revive the literary sport. What we get is what we get. The Granta 21.

One can assume the presented writings of the Granta 21 will appear daring to established literati. That everything said by them will appeal to the New York literati mindset and the greater literary mob. They wouldn’t have been included otherwise.

But enough of this rant. What are the facts?

THE FACTS

17 of the 21 novelists are captives of New York-based “Big 5” conglomerate publishing. (Random House with the most.) Of the other four writers, two live in New York City. Which proves that, for establishment lit people, New York remains center of the universe.

Most, if not all of the Granta 21 came up through the system– jumping through the required hoops at select writing programs of Stanford, Columbia, Iowa, or Brown. Most have been awarded with lavish non-profit (tax shelter) largesse: MacArthur Genius awards; grants from PEN, Young Lions, Guggenheim, National Book Foundation– large pools of well-protected wealth. Fellowships as well: MacDowell, NYFA, Fulbrights. There remains a truly massive system in the United States for creating approved writers; the greatest ever seen in world history. Huge bureaucracies. Enormous expenditures via sprawling real estate-gobbling universities, and Manhattan skyscrapers bursting with agents, editors, and publicists. The Granta 21 is what the giant behemoths have produced. Best of the best of system art, for whatever that’s worth.

Our contention is that the 21 aren’t representative of America, so much as a well-screened, well-indulged fragment of America.

IMPERIAL LITERATURE

union jack

Even more than New York City, London– where Granta is based– has an ingrained imperialist mindset. The point-of-view is always tops-down, with the rest of the world there to be colonized by those with the proper tops-down mindset. Everything stems from the ivory towers of Cambridge and Oxford. (In the U.S.A., Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Brown et.al.) Those from outlying territories can join the club by coming to the Imperial City or going through one of the elite academic screening centers.

The sun never sets on the Anglo-American cultural empire.

This isn’t bad or good. It just IS.

EXCEPTIONS

There are a few ringers thrown in. or at least one, in the person of Halle Butler, who lives in Chicago and is published by an indy, Curbside Splendor Publishing, based in Chicago. Hail Halle!

There are two African-born writers who may be American, or may not. Dinaw Mengestu was educated in the U.S., but now lives in Paris. Close enough. Chinelo Okperanta was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writers. In this day and age, editors get diversity any way they can. Everything is global, after all. (Globalism has always been a euphemism for Imperialism.)

Then there’s Mark Doten, published by indy Graywolf Press; fiction editor at indy Soho Press. Doten teaches English at Columbia University, as does one of the four Granta judges, Ben Marcus. Mark Doten straddles both worlds.

QUESTIONS

We have two questions.

1.) Is any one of the 21 “best” novelists under 40 qualified to be in the All-Time American Writers Tournament? They’re the future, after all. The present. Is forty years enough time to show outstanding talent?

garth2

What about Garth Hallberg? Hallberg received an enormous advance for his novel, then a tremendous publicity blitz behind the book from the Manhattan publicity machine. Ever hear of Garth Hallberg? Does he deserve to be ranked with Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Morrison, and company? (Uh, no.)

2.) Are any of the Granta 21 even as talented as the four young writers, under the age of 30, that we recently profiled? See our Overview, which contains links to their work.

Granta‘s 21, or our four? Judge for yourself.

-K.W.

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