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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Cream of This Year's Fiction According to NBA

If like me you haven't gotten around to reading the finalists for the National Book Award in Fiction, you might find this article handy.* It's a kind of crib sheet with impressionistic descriptions and brief excerpts from each book, as well as the author's own opinion as to which book should win (it's one of the long shots). The winner will be announced tomorrow.

* Truth be told, I rarely read contemporary fiction because I am acutely aware that there is so much of Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Philip Roth that I have yet to touch--to say nothing of Thomas Mann, Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Since life is short, I keep getting pulled back to this calculus: Why invest X hours in a book from 2010 that has a 1 in 500 chance of being truly great when I can instead read a classic that has already passed that test? Honestly I have yet to hear a truly compelling counter-argument--although I feel guilty about the fact that, if everyone followed my logic, the impact on the royalty earnings of my fellow Authors Guild members would be devastating.


  1. Karl, I feel just the same. It took me a couple of years to make it through Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, between many interruptions and the fact that some sentences are the length of paragraphs--but oh, I was amply rewarded for my persistence. And despite having been an English major, there are an embarrassing number of classics I have not read. When I do find time to pick them up, they have, so far, never disappointed.

  2. Although I share your sentiment for the most part, the counter-argument is not about ratios of greatness to dreck. It is about being alive in and open to one's own cultural milieu, which like everything else has a past, present, and future. If time is a river, in the age-old metaphor, we cannot fully ignore the current we're swimming in, even if we want to. It affects us whether we want it to or not, and the effort to live an examined life therefore requires some minimal attention to the cultural products of our time.

    As to what is "hot" now, history shows that only a small fraction of what is celebrated now will be celebrated in the distant future. But I am glad to be living in the age of Bob Dylan, Doris Lessing, Lynda Barry, Bill Viola, John Casey, Sonny Rollins, and the recently departed Stanley Kubrick and Harry Mulisch, among others.

  3. Good point(s), Hilary. It got me wondering about this: who has read a classic that they hated, I mean really hated, and why? Is there a way that they can differentiate between the writer's mastery and what they didn't like about it? And if so, would that lead to codifying the attributes of a master work, aside from whether or not one "likes" it?

  4. Hilary, it's really interesting that your post about our contemporary milieu refers not just to authors but to song writers, movie makers, cartoonists, etc. Actually in my lifetime I have been genuinely EXCITED to hear about a forthcoming new work by people in these and other media much more often than about a new novel. The big cultural markers of my time have been record albums, movies, TV shows, and sometimes nonfiction books . . . but not so much novels.

    And I don't think this is just a personal reaction on my part. I think we're living in a time when the novel plays a distinctly secondary role in shaping our view of the world--unlike, say, 1850-1930, when I suspect it was the dominant art form among educated Europeans and Americans.