And the Winners Aren’t…

Who hasn’t weighed in on the Pulitzer committee’s fail­ure to give a fic­tion award this year to either Denis Joh­son (Train Dreams), Karen Rus­sell (Swamp­lan­dia!), or David Fos­ter Wallace’s posthu­mously assem­bled novel The Pale King. There’s an excel­lent piece of report­ing in the HuffPo explain­ing the inner work­ings of the non-decision, Nashville’s Ann Patch­ett (book­seller and occa­sional nov­el­ist) wrote a ter­rific New York Times Op Ed, Time’s Lev Gross­man weighed in, and then both Patch­ett and Gross­man appeared on PBS’s News Hour, their opin­ions adding to the mil­lions who’d either chimed in, offered their own lists of final­ists, exco­ri­ated the cho­sen, bemoaned the over­looked, decon­structed our “prize cul­ture,” touted the jury’s authen­tic­ity, saw it as yet another death knell of publishing’s hot house culture—the dying of its gatekeepers—promising a brighter future when e-books will bring us an ever wider array of tal­ent. But we’ve heard all of this before. It hap­pens every year a winner’s picked.

Still, it’s a downer. If the World Series were only played dur­ing one week in fall and tor­ren­tial rains made games impos­si­ble, it would suck­eth big time. So I’m depressed about it.

Here are my sev­eral cents.

1. It’s extra­or­di­nar­ily hard to write a good book, not to men­tion a great one.

2. It’s unlikely that an extra­or­di­nary book will get the recog­ni­tion it deserves, espe­cially in its day.

Con­sider that none of Don DeLillo’s first five books sold a lick, or that next to no one read Cor­mac McCarthy’s Sut­tree upon its pub­li­ca­tion (a book which took him twenty years to write, mind you, and is a tow­er­ing work of genius). Moby Dick was con­sid­ered a titanic fail­ure after the com­mer­cial suc­cess of Melville’s South Pacific mem­oir, Typee. Emily Dick­in­son was never pub­lished in her life­time. Alice Munro hasn’t won the Nobel Prize. Nor has Haruki Murakami. Or Cor­mac McCarthy, or Philip Roth, or Don DeLillo. DeLillo, by the way, didn’t win a Pulitzer (though he was a final­ist for Under­world). James Salter’s never got­ten a whiff of any of these grand awards, and peo­ple, I’m here to tell you, you’ve never read a book as great as Light Years (if you haven’t read it yet), or A Sport and a Pas­time, or his aston­ish­ing memoir—he calls it a rec­ol­lec­tion—Burn­ing the Days. And there is so much I haven’t read and not included here, not to men­tion hun­dreds of exam­ples I’m leav­ing out.

3. Awards are arbitrary.

In 1961, Walker Percy’s The Movie­goer—a lovely book—won The National Book Award, beat­ing out Yate’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road. Both went on to write many books after­ward, one between peri­ods of clar­ity in the fog of chronic alco­holism, despair, and rel­a­tive anonymity while the other was crowned the post-modern king of South­ern let­ters. In another uni­verse, Yates antic­i­pated Mad Men and Percy only wrote one good book.

3a. Luck is blind.

4. Kafka begged Brod to burn his man­u­scripts before his death. Brod did not honor his request. Thus we have the Kafkaesque.

4a. X, the great­est author you’ve never heard of, whose novel, Y, is the great­est novel ever writ­ten, had a friend, Z, who, unlike Brod, hon­ored his friend’s deathbed wish, and burned Y.  Though I’m not cer­tain this has hap­pened, it is highly likely to have occurred.

5. To the win­ner go the spoils.

5a. The three non-winners will divide the non-spoils, i.e., a big bump in sales.

5b. Except for Fos­ter Wal­lace, who is beastly dead.

5c. His novel, I might add, was not completed.

5d. The eas­i­est way to fin­ish a novel is to have some­one else do it for you, whether you’re dead or alive.

5e. A novella is a short novel. A novel is a long narrative.

6. Amer­ica loves winners.

7. Lit­er­a­ture is not a spec­ta­tor sport.

7a. Nei­ther is it an agon or a competition.

8. In the past two weeks there’s been a whole lot of talk about books. A good thing.

9. Less is less, to quote the great Stan­ley Elkin, more is more, and enough is enough.

10. Nobody likes a list that ends on 9.

Unfor­tu­nately, the sub­se­quent din has, to a degree, crowded out the final­ists’ achieve­ment, which is get­ting to this penul­ti­mate stage. No small feat when you con­sider the excel­lence and luck required just to make it through the jury’s win­now­ing. It was telling—in no way the fault of Patch­ett or Gross­man, but dur­ing the News Hour inter­view cer­tainly telling—that only at the end of the story were the final­ists finally men­tioned, yet another way this cacoph­o­nous world of instan­ta­neous response and com­ment blares over art, which, more often than not, is slowly pro­duced and is also to be con­sumed thus.

And the Win­ner Isn’t…Novak Djokovic

Ten­nis fans’ eyes were on the Monte Carlo Mas­ters last week, to my mind the most beau­ti­ful tour­na­ment loca­tion on the ATP. My wife, dur­ing her junior year abroad, passed Monte Carlo’s sea­side coun­try club on a moped, looked out over the cliffs, the Bedouin hos­pi­tal­ity tents, the red clay courts—all of it framed by the sea—and thought: This is lux­ury. Next to Madrid’s Magic Box, the cam­era cut­aways to the crowd, decked out and beau­ti­ful, sip­ping Kir Royales and liv­ing their Olympian lives, are unri­valed. So is Nadal here; he’s won the thing an unprece­dented seven straight times.

He won again last Sun­day, demol­ish­ing Djokovic 3 and 1. Yes, Novak’s gramps died. We’re sorry for your loss, sir, but it didn’t seem to bother you as you stormed back against both Dol­go­polov and Berdych from a set down in the pre­vi­ous rounds and, let’s face it, if you choose to com­pete you must take your licks with­out excuses: a W’s a W, an L and L. Did the match tell us any­thing about the cur­rent state of their rivalry? Has Nadal righted the ship given his recent seven-match los­ing streak to the Djoker?

Nadal will never again dom­i­nate against this man, that’s for sure. Novak is sim­ply too good at this point; he’s also tasted too much blood; he knows now how beat Nadal—how to beat every­one, for that mat­ter. But the great rival­ries have ebbs and flows, are often char­ac­ter­ized by runs, peri­ods of ascen­dancy (see: Borg/Mac). Ten­nis is a game of adjust­ments, after all, and despite the fact that Novak’s level was down a notch due to death of Grand­papa, a thump­ing it was nonethe­less, the lop­sided score demon­strat­ing just how high a level he has to main­tain to beat Rafa, let alone play with him. But it also was a study in the Spaniard’s adjust­ments to his nemesis’s game and a demon­stra­tion of what he’s learned from his losses, par­tic­u­larly at the Aus­tralian Open, where, it seemed to me, he finally got to a point where he real­ized he could beat the Serb again.

First and fore­most, Nadal served both aggres­sively and at a very high per­cent­age, mov­ing the ball around the box like a pitcher: he had clutch pop and con­sis­tency. On bal­ance, his depth was ter­rific dur­ing the ral­lies and he took Djoker’s speed from him, often going up the mid­dle, forc­ing Djoker to cre­ate angles. Most inter­est­ingly, I thought, was Nadal’s will­ing­ness to go to Djokovic’s back­hand (the Serb’s lethal weapon) and up the line with his own—a com­plete sur­prise to me and, clearly, to his oppo­nent. All told, these tac­tics were sub­tle pat­tern changes that fret­ted Novak’s usu­ally remark­able antic­i­pa­tion. Com­bine these nanosec­ond hes­i­ta­tions with Monaco’s slow clay, so sim­i­lar in pace to the French Open’s, and they blunted every aspect of Novak’s game, giv­ing Nadal that much more time over the course of the match to dic­tate. And so on we go to Barcelona. It will be a great spring for tennis.

And the Win­ner Is…Gary Shteyn­gart

I had the plea­sure of appear­ing with Gary Shteyn­gart at Wash­ing­ton, DC’s Fol­ger Shake­speare Library last week, a dou­ble thrill for me because its new direc­tor, Mike Wit­more, is one of my best friend’s from Vas­sar, the guy I bounced my ear­li­est writ­ing off of, and so read­ing under his roof (and Willy the Shake’s) was, for me, a coming-full-circle and a gigan­tic thrill. Plus I got access to the library’s vault and saw the folios, Queen Elizabeth’s sig­na­ture and, no shit, her gir­dle. Make that a triple thrill, by the way. Slate’s Hanna Rosin, whose work I greatly admire, mod­er­ated.

On stage, Shteyn­gart is elec­tric, hys­ter­i­cal, poly­phonic, hyper-associative—he knocked back some kick­ass choco­late before we went on—Robin Williams if he were a Russ­ian Jew with lit­er­ary tal­ent. I’d read Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart’s most recent novel, the week before, and not only thor­oughly enjoyed it but also had it enter my dreams. (In my dystopian night­mare, my chil­dren put on a play of Game of Thrones for me, but their imag­i­na­tions, they claimed, were inca­pable of work­ing with­out their iPads. My kids don’t have iPads, FYI; they also don’t watch Game of Thrones.) It was also rev­e­la­tory to hear Shteyn­gart read aloud—he picked the great din­ner scene in the novel when Lenny Abramov takes his beloved, the young Korean Eunice Park, to meet his par­ents. I’d sug­gest to read­ers unfa­mil­iar with his work to per­haps sam­ple an audio of the novel before read­ing it, because it only adds lay­ers to his satire because the var­i­ous voices tell us so much about Amer­i­can cul­ture, and his vision of post-literate United States is at once funny and dis­turb­ing and, I fear, here now.

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