Monday, July 01, 2013

10 worst prize-winning American novels of all time

I’ve compiled so many list of best books—best Jewish books, best New York books, best baseball books, best Reagan books, best literary histories, best memoirs—that I am in danger of losing touch with my inner literary grouch. Here, then, is something to irritate even the politest of readers: a list of the ten worst prize-winning American novels of all time. (Or, well, at least since 1950.)

( 1.) Jerzy Kosinski, Steps (National Book Award, 1969). The first “experimental” or “postmodern” novel to win a major literary award in the U.S., except that Steps was neither. The book is a random collection of episodes of brutality. The Painted Bird had been overlooked four years earlier. This award was compensation for the oversight.

( 2.) Paul Harding, Tinkers (Pulitzer Prize, 2010). “Tinker, tinker. Tin, tin, tin. Tintinnabulation. There was the ring of pots and buckets.” The novel’s 192 pages feel like four times that self-indulgent length upon reading. Rejected (with good cause) by every major publisher to whom it was submitted, Tinkers was eventually published by Bellevue Literary Press. The award was widely viewed as a consolation to small publishers.

( 3.) Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones (National Book Award, 2011). If there were an award for best novel for grammar school readers, Salvage the Bones still would not have deserved it, even though Ward’s book is written for ten-year-olds, as Janice Harayda discovered. Adult readers were able to endure it only for the sake of what Ron Charles celebrated as literary history.

( 4.) William Faulkner, The Reivers (Pulitzer Prize, 1963). A pattern is emerging: literary prizes are always a mistake (I could end my sentence there, but I’ll go on)—always a mistake when they are awarded for some other reason than to honor a book. The Pulitzer Prize committee ignored The Sound and the Fury, honoring Oliver La Farge’s paleface-writes-redskin Laughing Boy instead; singled out Margaret Ayer Barnes’s immortal manners-of-the-rich novel Years of Grace instead of As I Lay Dying; preferred T. S. Stribling’s Reconstruction novel The Store to Light in August; and pushed Absalom, Absalom! away to get to Gone With the Wind. Even with the garlanding of A Fable in 1955, the neglect had not been rectified. The Reivers was not only Faulkner’s last book; it was likely his worst. But he had died on July 6, 1962, and when the opportunity arose to honor him posthumously, the prize committee could not resist.

( 5.) William Styron, Sophie’s Choice (National Book Award, 1980). A “flapping, gobbling, squawking turkey.”—Martin Amis. Sophie’s Choice indicts an entire generation of American Jews on “the charge of advancing the ‘racist and violence-provoking’ ideology of Jewish exclusivism. The Jews stand accused of collective amnesia, effacing the memory of other peoples’ suffering.”—“Jews Without Memory.”

( 6.) E. L. Doctorow, The March (National Book Critics Circle and PEN/Faulkner Awards, 2005). Sherman’s March to the Sea becomes an analogue or metaphor for the Iraq War. Or something. Not even those on Doctorow’s political side have any desire to reread this tendentious yawner.

( 7.) William Gaddis, A Frolic of His Own (National Book Award, 1994). Even the Gaddis faithful were saying hosannas when his fourth book weighed in at just under 600 pages. Once again the novelist declines to punctuate speech or identify speakers, which might be effective in a story or short novel (although I am still trying to figure out the artistic purpose of making things hard for the reader), but is wearying in such a long novel. Supposedly a satire on the law, the novel also includes tortuously reasoned legal decisions, in full tortuous detail, which are longer than most Supreme Court decisions, including the dissents. A Frolic of His Own is a great unmovable monument to tedium. What a thing to be remembered for!

( 8.) Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (National Book Award, 1997). Usually it is the Pulitzer Prize committee that mistakes a huffing middlebrow bestseller for a serious novel. Perhaps the NBA jury was cross-eyed from reading Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Little else can explain passing over Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers or Ward Just’s Echo House for this romance in the guise of a historical novel. The lesson for prize juries: leave Civil War novels alone.

( 9.) Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song (Pulitzer Prize, 1980). Everybody praised Mailer for abandoning his typical rhetorical hypertrophy for the simple declarative sentences of this book. What nobody ever says is that a thousand pages of these flat sentences (“Gary was kind of quiet. There was one reason they got along. Brenda was always gabbing and he was a good listener. They had a lot of fun. Even at that age he was real polite”) are enough to make you want to swear off reading forever. Add that no one in the book is anyone you’d ever want to spend ten minutes with in extraliterary life, and you have the best explanation why, if this is his best, Mailer is already nearly forgotten.

(10.) John Updike, The Centaur (National Book Award, 1964). His first novel after Rabbit, Run was an experiment for him—his Ulysses, his rewriting of Greek myth in contemporary terms. As such the novel is ham-fisted and obvious. Neither myth nor Updike’s own story gains anything from the parallels. A shame too, because the story itself, stripped of the classical allusions, is quietly affecting. The main character, a high school teacher, is based upon Updike’s father. What might have been a son’s loving portrait disappears into the novel’s claptrap. Luckily for him and for us, Updike never tried such a thing ever again.


Unknown said...

Which literary prize tends to award prizes consistently based on literary merit? Or do you think (like me) that all prizes con games perpetuated by self-indulgent, wink-and-a-nod reviewing, publishing, and marketing suck-ups?

Rand Careaga said...

9) Puts me in mind of "On a Book Entitled Lolita": --_...all this set forth in short, strong, "realistic" sentences ("He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy." Etc.)._

10) By an odd coincidence, last night I was reading Jonathan Miller's review of The Centaur in the facsimile first issue of the NYRB:

“This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features. The title, grindingly reinforced by the tasteful Hellenic fragment on the cover, sounds the warning note of “significance” and the severe intention is further signaled by a dark quotation from Karl Barth on the title page: something about man being “a creature on the boundary between heaven and earth.” As if one were not tuned by this time to the “universal” wave length, there follows on the next page, before our story really begins, a précis of the myth of Chiron, the weary centaur who sacrifices his immortality as an atonement for Prometheus. …The work collapses finally under this freight of classical reference.”

marly youmans said...

For once, the women are pleased to be under-represented...

Unknown said...

To Ms. Youmans: In any list (or canon), what # or % qualifies as acceptable or appropriate representation of women? Who determines that # or %? This is always an irksome issue. I have never heard of a sensible answer. So, I throw down the gauntlet.

marly youmans said...

Dear R. T.,

I'm afraid that I was teasing the hapless critic who must think of these things often... I have no trouble believing (as a result of the annual VIDA count, etc.) that women writers are overlooked in various ways. But my obsession is with making novels, stories, and formal poems.

Plenty of people feel called to skirmish over these issues; I wish them well and hope they do some good in the world. But I feel called to something else. Brooding on gender, anger, and numerical redress is not in the least helpful to me as a writer, so I leave activism in that area to others.

I do have some experience with the tricky matter of awards. I was on the NBA-YPL judging panel last year, and our group did wonderfully well. We never had to vote; our choices emerged naturally from discussion of the books. But judges, it's claimed, don't work that way. And from all the anecdotes of fights and tears I've heard since, I just imagine that coming to agreement on a winner, man or woman, is often very, very hard for a group of judges.

I should also add that what I am interested in as a reader is the good book. And with a good book, I am not particularly concerned with its author and his or her sex but with getting lost and found in words.

Your gauntlet is lying on the grass. No doubt someone will pick it up.

Good cheer,

The Modern Novel said...

And all Philip Roth books

zmkc said...

Printing this out, putting it in my purse, as a checklist to be used in any visit to a secondhand bookshop. Can't thank you enough for saving me from hours of tedium

Anonymous said...

Do you always allow others to do their thinking for you?

D. G. Myers said...

Do you always allow others to do their thinking for you?

Yes. Always. Without fail.

PMH said...

Had Prof Myers listed the publishers (and agents) of the winning books, I think we would gain an insight into the real function of literary prizes. How many small press and un-agented books are seriously considered?

Unknown said...

Marly, correct me if I am wrong, but I thought you had taken Prof. Myers to task in an earlier posting because of under-representation of women as authors. So, with my tongue-in-cheek, I dropped the gauntlet in front of you but all in good fun.

PMH, perhaps someone familiar with the publishing industry will weigh in on your insight.

Prof. Myers, your postings always give me pleasant diversions in my otherwise ho-hum daily routine. Keep up the great work! Cheers!

Anonymous said...

You neglected "Humboldt's Gift," a pretentious glob of self-indulgent philosophizing, high-brow name-dropping, and conceited intellectualism.

marly said...

R. T.,

I'm a bit allergic to taking people to task. Seems like raising children involves enough of that sort of thing.

But plenty of others are not!


kevin said...

Ah. Surprised you didn't like Tinkers. I thought it a very fine novel. Very well composed. Striking images. And all the rest. Especially like the relationship Harding explores between we the present and our forebears, sons and fathers, etc. Also really thought he did a nice job with the mechanics of the novel. Watch-like. Cheers, K

Anonymous said...

The Academy Awards for literary "big press" never account for the little people. Too many awards have been given to these bindered and copyrighted toilet-paper sheets. My dear sir, I wait with baited breath to join your class this autumn at the Ohio State University.