Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The scandal of literary prizes

The National Book Awards will be announced tomorrow night. All of us high-culture types pretend to disdain them. Perhaps not entirely without reason. If the past really is prologue the chances are good that the prize jury for the fiction award, headed by Gail Godwin, will make the wrong choice. Over the years judges have preferred the middlebrow novel dressed up to look like something more daring or the rangy topical novel which never disturbs the common opinion. Think White Noise, The Color Purple, The World According to Garp.

The most surprising selection in the history of the award was almost certainly Walker Percy’s Moviegoer, which captured the 1962 prize from Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, The Spinoza of Market Street, A New Life, and The Château by William Maxwell. So upset was Alfred A. Knopf that Maxwell had been passed over that he stomped out of the awards ceremony, even though he was also Percy’s publisher.

It is easy to forget just how surprising Percy’s award was at the time. Reporting on the spot, the Chicago Tribune described the prizewinner as “a novel which many of the critics attending the ceremonies had not heard of and few had reviewed.” Yet within two decades its author had become, according to Robert Towers, one of “the dozen or so novelists that one might name to, say, a Czechoslovakian intellectual inquiring about American fiction. . . .”

It is improbable, however, that one would have thought of Percy without the 1962 National Book Award to bring his name before a wider public. He would doubtless have kept writing—he was already hard at work on The Last Gentlemen—but without the prize he might have ended like another novelist who also published his first book in 1961 and by the time of his death had disappeared from print.

A close second in the category of surprise winners was Thornton Wilder, who took home the award in 1968 for The Eighth Day. The 70-year-old writer belonged to a different generation from those who were sweatily making love, not war, that year. Wilder had won the Pulitzer Prize forty years earlier (forty!) for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and ten years after that he wrote the play that condemned his name to be greeted with groans by anyone who had ever to sit through high-school drama—Our Town.

Wilder won out over The Confessions of Nat Turner, Why Are We in Vietnam?, The Chosen, and Joyce Carol Oates’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It is hard entirely to dislike a novel that bested such pretenders to greatness. John Updike wrote the prize citation for a jury that also included Granville Hicks and Josephine Herbst:

Through the lens of a turn-of-the-century murder mystery, Mr. Wilder surveys a world that is both vanished and coming to birth; in a clean gay prose sharp with aphoristic wit and the sense and scent of Midwestern America and Andean Chile, he take us on a chase of Providence and delivers us, exhilarated and edified, into the care of an ambiguous conclusion.(It is doubtful whether the second epithet for his prose was intended to wink knowingly at Wilder’s homosexuality. Although the term was firmly established by 1948, when Gore Vidal wrote in The City and the Pillar that the “words ‘fairy’ and ‘pansy’ were considered to be in bad taste” and it was more “fashionable to say a person was ‘gay,’ ” Updike’s critical vocabulary was simultaneously old-fashioned and direct.)

More interesting is the politics of the award. Updike’s fellow judges were radicals of Wilder’s generation. Herbst (1892–1969) attended the International Conference of Revolutionary Writers at Kharkov in 1930, came home to join front committees, and wrote a trilogy of “proletarian” novels in the thirties. Hicks (1901–1982) was a Party member whose Great Tradition reinterpreted American literature to meet with Party approval. He later turned anti-Communist, but remained a man of the Left.

Wilder’s novel was deeply conservative. As Benjamin DeMott wrote in reviewing it for the New York Times Book Review, the author comes across asan admirer of decorum, self-restraint, disciplined goodness—and as an enemy of misrule, comic reversal, indulgence of personal (i.e., selfish) feeling. At a literary moment drunk on demons and disintegration, obsessed with self—self-aware saints, self-aware psychopaths, self-aware saturnalians—these values can’t be other than a bad draw.Denis Donoghue added contentment to the mix. “Mr. Wilder is so devoted to the ordinary universe,” he wrote in the New York Review, “that he is content to be its witness.”

And maybe that was the point. Wilder’s National Book Award may have been a missile guided at the literary moment and its values. Two old Leftists, assisted by a two-generations-younger man who had already hoped, in a piece written earlier in the year, to admit “political conservatives” into “the halls of fiction” in order “to relieve the present rather shrill unanimity on the left,” may have found a straightedge for rapping the knuckles of the New Left.

That would explain why nothing like Wilder’s prize was ever repeated. And why Marilynne Robinson is unlikely to win tomorrow night. Although she went out of her way to establish her fides in the reissue of The Death of Adam in 2005, openly declaring herself a liberal and courageously praising “Bush bashing,” Robinson is a novelist whose values are deeply conservative, and a bad draw.

Robinson’s Home is up against Aleksandar Hemon’s Lazarus Project (a novel, according to the citation naming it as a finalist, about “our million-year addiction to racism and fear-mongering”), Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba (about “the American executives who were driven out by Castro” and “in denial that their colonial paradise is doomed”), Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (which has been consumed by controversy over whether it constitutes a new and original work), and Salvatore Scibona’s first novel The End (a historical novel set among Italian immigrants).

Home tells much the same story as the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. Two Protestant ministers are friends in the same small Iowa town, but each gets his own novel. Rather than including both perspectives in the same book, as Faulkner did in The Sound and the Fury, Robinson had the interesting notion of writing companion volumes that should be read together like Grant’s and Sherman’s Memoirs or Claire Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House and Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist.

Robinson’s people are white, Christian, native-born. If they are racists they have no occasion to show it. They are content with the ordinary universe. They aren’t cloddishly nostalgic for a lost colonial empire. They are motivated by respect for privacy complicated by the consciousness of being needed, the desire for attachment, and the knowledge that “it was as far beyond [their] power to soothe or mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot.” The intertwining of people’s fates is the cause both of frustration and joy, but outside the confines of extraordinary universes, there is no escaping it.

A political liberal but a cultural (and religious) conservative, Robinson is a longshot to win the National Book Award. Yet she has written the best American novel of the year. And the scandal of literary prizes is that, every now and then, the best book actually wins.

Update: Here is the edition mentioned by Arvid Sponberg in the comments section. I stand by my statement that, at least in The Eighth Day, Wilder was “deeply conservative.” Not politically conservative. In his case, morally conservative. I shall say a little more on this distinction in a coming post.


Anonymous said...

Anyone provoked to further thought about Wilder can find plenty to think about in the newly re-issued edition of The Eighth Day with a foreword by John Updike from Harper Collins. Robin Wilder and Jackson R. Bryer have also edited the just-published Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder. Much material in these letters contradicts the picture of Wilder as a "conservative" writer or one content to "accept the ordinary universe."