Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, which is both a middlebrow novel dressed up (or puffed up, as the case may be) to look like something more daring and a rangy topical novel, has won the National Book Award for fiction. It was the safe choice.
Update: My guess is that Matthiessen’s novel owes its success largely to being championed by Michael Dirda in the New York Review of Books. An article by Charles McGrath in the New York Times said reassuringly that Dirda “compared passages from both versions and suggested that portions of Shadow Country were substantially rewritten.” In fact, Dirda compared just one passage from Lost Man’s River to the new version in the omnibus volume. He writes:
Throughout his essay “An Epic of the Everglades” in the May 15th issue, Dirda relies upon this critical style of generalizing praise, heavy on the adjectives, rather than building a slow careful case for Matthiessen’s novel. Consider his conclusion:
Comparing Matthiessen’s novel to Invisible Man and All the King’s Men (thanks for reminding us who wrote them, Mr Dirda!) seems like it is an argument. Until you stop and ask yourself. What exactly do Invisible Man and All the King’s Men have in common? It’s like an SAT question, or a Netflix commercial. “Finish this series: Glass. Bacon.” “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle!” Matthiessen does not merely resemble Ellison and Warren, however, but Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Faulkner too. Now I know exactly how he writes! The more you examine Dirda’s conclusion, the more it becomes a Thursday-night casserole of leftover advertising slogans.
That Dirda should have given the testimonial that won the National Book Award for Matthiessen is perfectly appropriate, since both the critic and the award are marketing devices of the publishing trade.
Update, II: Just occurred to me. Is any writer ever said to “call up comparisons” with, say, Ford Madox Ford, Mary Austin, or Francis de Miomandre?