Thursday, October 8, 2009

Prize Fighters

"...Booker remains a truly important prize because it's about so much more than the winner, or the shortlist. It has become the indispensable literary thermometer with which to take the temperature of contemporary fiction." (Robert McCrum, The Observer)

This week is unofficially "Prize Week" in the bookworld, with Wednesday's announcement of the Booker Prize winner - Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall - and this morning's unveiling of the 2009 Nobel Prize Winner for (Obscure European) Literature, Romanian poet/author, Herta Müller. And next week (in the "Prize Week" annex), the finalists for the National Book Award will be announced, so lots of gold stickers are coming to books near you. But does any of this matter? Does anyone care?

We here at Warwick's are big fans of the Booker Prize - previous winners include The White Tiger (2008), The Inheritance of Loss (2006), Life of Pi (2002), The Blind Assassin (2000), The English Patient (1992), The Remains of the Day (1989), Midnight's Children (1981) - you get the idea, all great books. My personal favorite author, David Mitchell, is a 3-time Booker nominee (Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, & Black Swan Green) and Scott (the other main contributor to this blog) has had a Booker-nominated title actually dedicated to him by the author (Darkmans by Nicola Barker, a 2007 nominee). You'd think that these amazing pieces of information would be enough to generate sufficient buzz, right? Yet the prize remains shrouded in obscurity in this country for some reason. Last year, at our popular Book Club Night I mentioned that one of my picks, The White Tiger, had just been nominated for the Booker. A show of hands in the crowd revealed that the majority of this well-read group had no idea what the Booker was, nor what its significance is. What does this say about said significance? When I asked them, "Who has read Life of Pi?", almost all 75 raised their hands. "That won the Booker Prize."  "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh," they replied.  I'd like to use this opportunity to take sole credit for all sales of The White Tiger at Warwick's, since it clearly has not been the Booker Prize that has turned it into the huge bestseller that it is.

The historical list of Nobel winners is impressive: Kipling, Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Camus, Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck, Sartre, Pablo Neruda, Saul Bellow, Naguib Mahfouz, Toni Morrison, Jose Saramago, and Gunter Grass, to name a handful.  J.M. Coetzee (2003), the late Harold Pinter (2005), Orhan Pamuk (2006), Doris Lessing (2007) are recent laureates who are recognizable, widely read authors of renown and all people who had been rumored to be in the running for the Nobel in the years leading up to their actual win. 2004 found obscure Austrian novelist, Elfriede Jelinek as the winner and last year Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio won from out of nowhere. Most honest booksellers would admit to having no idea who either were, prior to the award announcements. This year, the early rumors (and the early betting in the UK) favored Israeli Amos Oz, Japan's Haruki Murakami, Canadians Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, and American Philip Roth (the Susan Lucci of the Nobel), possibly ending the 16-year American drought in the Literature department. Alas, it was not to be, as Herta Müller, a German poet/novelist of Romanian birth, was awarded the Nobel this year for her "concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose" that so "depict(s) the landscape of the dispossessed."  Awesome. What was her name again?

Every year, whenever a new major award is announced, I seem to feel that there is some sort of inherent flaw in the selection process. Last year, I defended Aravind Adiga in the Booker contest, railed against the Peter Matthiessen re-write that won the National Book Award, and openly complained (along with the rest of humanity) when mystery man le Clezio was awarded the Nobel. This is the natural order of human nature, I suppose - we are never going to agree, especially when it comes to making lists of "the best" of anything. Either I'm disappointed that no one cares that England's biggest literary award even exists or I'm disappointed that a major award (that consumers are aware of) is given to an author that no one knows exists - it's an "either-or" sort of thing, like Paul Auster novels.
"We" always think that "They" are wrong. The New York Times puts together a Notable list every year that I disagee with half of - to the point that I have come up with my own notable list every year on my own website. The recent poll by the lit-blog, The Millions, named the "best fiction of the millenium so far" with some great choices, some glaring omissions, and a very questionable champion. And David Mitchell should have won the 2004 Booker over Alan Hollinghurst, everyone knows that! Personally, even though I have never read a single word she has ever written, I think there are most likely dozens of more qualified (or at least, qualified) writers in the world than Herta Müller deserving to be honored for their life's work with a Nobel Prize. As of press time, a poll on shows that 93% of humans visiting have never read anything by Herta Müller. 93%! And this poll is right on the Nobel Prize website - as if they're admitting, openly to picking a ridiculously obscure author as their Prize winner!

"What's your point, Seth?" you may ask.

Well, all in all, I guess the lesson here is that you should just read whatever you want - whether or not you've ever heard of Herta Müller or Dario Fo, the Booker Prize or the Whitbread (or is it the Costa Award?) just doesn't matter. Aren't these "accolades" just a matter of opinion anyway? I say, just read, my friends.

Where are they now?
  • Booker winner, Wolf Hall goes on sale at Warwick's on Tuesday, October 13.
  • Several publishers are currently scrambling to reprint the few translated works of Herta Müller.

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