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.
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.
Thoughts? Feelings? Feedback? Write me at email@example.com.