Monday, August 17, 2009

Fourth and inches

St. Francis College, located in Brooklyn Heights, has reportedly inaugurated a fifty thousand dollar prize for the best fourth book of fiction (h/t: Mark Athitakis). The fourth book, you see, designates an important milestone in a writer’s career. “With the fourth book,” explains Arthur Phillips, who was nominated for The Song Is You, “I feel like I’m treated as a writer who has been around for a while—and who, if he is going to keep sticking around, is going to have to do something else to keep getting people’s attention.”

But honoring a writer’s fourth book is just as arbitrary as choosing the year’s best book. Athitakis compiles a short list of recent fourth books:

• Joyce Carol Oates, A Garden of Earthly Delights
• Don DeLillo, Ratner’s Star
• Paul Auster, The Locked Room
• Russell Banks, Hamilton Stark
• Ha Jin, Waiting
• David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men
• Michael Chabon, Werewolves in Their Youth
• Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief

Nothing particularly distinguished there. The list gets better if you include better writers:

• Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March [Update: Wrong. Henderson the Rain King was his fourth book, you maroon. Don’t you know anything?—ed.]
• Christopher Buckley, Little Green Men
• E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime
• Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show
• Bernard Malamud, A New Life
• Walker Percy, Lancelot
• Francine Prose, Animal Magnetism
• Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
• Richard Russo, Empire Falls

Indeed, at least four of those were breakthrough novels for their authors, although only Empire Falls could be incontestably described as its author’s best.

The arbitrariness is on full display, though, when you go a little farther back into literary history:

• Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
• George Eliot, Silas Marner
• Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth
• Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
• Henry James, Roderick Hudson (though the first volume of the New York Edition, it was the fourth book he published after Watch and Ward, A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales, and Transatlantic Sketches)
• Rudyard Kipling, The Story of the Gadsbys
• Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary
Mark Twain’s (Burlesque) Autobiography and First Romance

The title I have withheld till now is Jane Austen’s Emma, because it is the only exception to my general observation that the above list contains apprentice and second-rank works. Perhaps writers in the nineteenth century took longer to be around for a while. Or perhaps the idea of honoring a fourth book is a silly bid to get some attention for an otherwise obscure literary prize.


R. T. said...

Sometimes, the fourth becomes a poignant and powerful farewell, and the last work in an all too brief life, as in the case of Flannery O'Connor posthumously published short story collection EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE (which followed her WISE BLOOD, A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND, and THE VIOLENT BEAR IT WAY); as for the fifth published work (also posthumously published), MYSTERY AND MANNERS, it is a nonfiction collection, and cannot be compared to the first, second, third, and fourth books.

Anonymous said...

And further to the above, we might also mention Nathanael West's THE DAY OF THE LOCUST.

ricpic said...

Yes, a prize for breakthrough book might have some merit. Fourth book? Totally arbitrary.

The breakthrough book turned both Bellow and Roth from earnest singles hitters into home run threats. An argument could be made that Dangling Man and Letting Go are superior to their post breakthrough writing, but had they not shed the straightjacket of earnestness neither would have become a name writer.

shade said...

The World According to Garp was Irving's fourth, and certainly much exceeded any of his first three. It also exceeded his fifth, The Hotel New Hampshire, which I hated so much I stopped reading him, so I can't speak to his sixth et seq.

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps the college, or whoever funded the prize, just wanted to break away from the all-too-familiar obsession with youth and premiers in literature and art. Perhaps they wanted to do something that would encourage writers to keep writing, and publishers to keep publishing, even though sales of the first few novels were meager. The only thing I'm sure of: all first-time prizes are "obscure".