Fiction, Nobel Prize for Literature, Short Stories

The Value of Prizes

It’s been interesting times for literary prizes of late, what with the debate about the Nobel winner, and then the lack of a Pulitzer for fiction.

A recent New Yorker article by Michael Cunningham, “Letter from the Pulitzer Fiction Jury,” made an awkward apology for the fiction fumble produced by this year’s Pulitzer committee, but did little to assuage bemusement.

Cunningham waxes eloquent on the philosophy of giving prizes in genera, as well.

It’s partly a question of what future generations will and will not overlook. What seem fatal flaws to one generation strike the next as displays of artistic courage. Who cares that Henry James went on sometimes at questionable length because he was being paid by the word? Who cares, for that matter, that Marconi merely invented radio transmission when his actual goal was to pick up the voices of the dead?

The three books put forward by his committee were given consideration by the Pulitzer judges, but “none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded,” explained Sig Gissler, administrator of the Prize. “This is the 11th time this has happened in the fiction category; the last time was 1977. It’s unusual, but it does occur.”

Maureen Corrigan, another member of the selection committee, wrote an excellent and outraged response piece, “I’m angry on behalf of those novels,” arguing that to not award a prize is basically to dismiss the novels.  And the point of a prize isn’t to diss the finalists, but to praise them.

More recently, the Guardian UK aired a complaint about a claim by the chair of the BBC International Short Story Award that all short stories need to have a twist.  Of course they don’t and the complaint is valid, but even more interesting is the fact that the complaint’s author used it as a jumping off for a larger point:

Once again, the pronouncement that comes from the chair of this year’s distinguished panel of judges – writers and critics both, who have made a life out of thinking about fiction and what makes it valuable – is privileged over those other, more informed voices, to have the soundbite that carries.

There is tremendous tension surrounding all of these literary debates, and as author Elizabeth Baines put it in her Fiction Bitch blog, “A great pity if a good shortlist of subtle stories is belied by the crass but influential words of the chairman, and their literary project sidelined.”

What’s more, it strikes me that the only winners in these scuffles are people who think awards are pointless, such as this New Yorker online commenter posting under the name PETNARD:

Maybe, just maybe, we should stop even giving prizes like this. Sure it’s helpful for the unknown author, but, like the Oscars, college rankings, or any other award system, what’s the purpose of picking out “one best”? It’s an arbitrary and subjective process that artificially crowns just one best. What’s more useful, perhaps, is at the end of each year, list the best books published, regardless of how many (4, 10, 13, whatever). Pitting books of different genres, stories, styles against one another is as useless as pitting one actor against another who performed in very different stories and styles.

I find this a backwards perspective.  Awards are like pro-wrestling.  They’re not really real, but just because its phoney doesn’t diminish its value.  Plenty of people love pro-wrestling. And the acrobatics can’t be faked.  It’s not about determining a championship.  It’s about the spectacle of it all, and the attendant attention.

What awards do is add value to artists and their expression. The Oscars would never not give an award, because they know this.

Pulitzer medal

Book Covers, Uncategorized

A Book by its Cover

We’ve all heard the story by now of how the printing press revolutionized Western society and launched the Reformation.  

Before Gutenberg, books were made by hand.  Often by monks.  Sometimes over the course of a lifetime.  And each was treasured. The covers were embossed leather, wood or even ivory and studded with gems.  While this pre-printing press-style scribing has not entirely died out, it’s now a curio.

Bookmaking as we know it today began with the printing press and, more importantly, movable type.  Modern book styling was born from the ability to automate the printing process, although for a long time these books were still being bound individually.  It wasn’t until the 19th Century the cloth book cover was finally invented.

Finally, the 20th-century mass-market paperback was invented and, combined with widespread literacy, helped launched the pulp fiction era.

At first pulp covers were wonderfully lurid and low-brow, even on high-brow books, but over time paperbacks became almost industry standard.  Then the “trade paperback” and “literary paperbacks” made them respectable, a shift which set the tone for covers for many years IMHO.

Then came the copy machine revolution (full disclosure, my first publications were in zines), and now, of course, ebooks threaten to sweep away the need for a book cover entirely.  Which, despite the old saw that you should “never judge a book by its cover,” is sad to some of us.

Things are changing.  Book art is quickly becoming an anachronism.  A new revolution is happening.  Wikileaks has nailed its ninety-five theses to the castle church of the internet. There may always be images that help sell stuff, but that’s not the same.

In all the excitement I hope that we never forget that great book covers are something worth celebrating.

Films, Uncategorized

Films About Fiction: Young Adult

Young Adult (2011) works on that shopworn trope of the writer as misanthrope to tell the story of a prom queen soured with age, returning to her home town to try to suck the life out of her high school sweetheart’s happy marriage.  Meanwhile, she drinks too much and works on the final novel in a teen romance series.  That’s the plot, but plot is the least interesting thing about this movie.

Instead it’s a character study of author-protagonist Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a woman self-absorbed to the point of absurdist satire.  For screenwriter Diablo Cody there was something inherently progressive about portraying a woman this emotionally retarded:

I knew a lot of people like Mavis—not as malicious as her, but who are kind of slovenly immature like her, which is the opposite of the way we’re used to seeing women portrayed. I relate to that really strongly and wondered why we didn’t see them in movies. When the movie came out, sure enough, I had so many women tell me that Mavis reminded them of themselves—which I’m proud of, because it’s tough to admit that you’re like Mavis.

Young Adult movie poster

Cody goes on to compare her to a Kardashian, but why then was it necessary to make Mavis a writer?  Why not make her a TV personality or some kind of dilettante (or both)?  Well, we wouldn’t have that great title, for one thing, and for another the kind of books that Mavis writes form a sort of commentary on the kind of person she is.

Although Mavis does several things that are traditional of writers in the movies — struggles to put words into her laptop, eavesdrops for inspiration, and writes in voice over — she is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the similarly self-indulgent character of Hank Moody in Californication.  She has achieved a modicum of notoriety as a writer, at least in her home town, but she has done it by writing someone else’s books.

She may be loath to cop to her true status, but Mavis is just the latest hack hired to tackle one of these never-ending series upon which the publishers continue to slap a popular author’s name (even after the author is dead), and then foist upon the YA market.  I guess those books sell, because from what I can tell it’s an increasingly common practice.

In any case, Cody is using the novels — and the YA genre as a whole — as a metaphor for Mavis’s shallow, hollow self-involvement.  Govindini Murty summed it up pretty succinctly in her Huffington Post analysis:

Charlize Theron’s Mavis embodies all the narcissism of modern popular culture. She’s obsessed with reality TV (the Kardashians drone on in the background of several scenes), a medium that has elevated the navel gazing of minor celebrities to the level of major entertainment. Mavis writes young adult novels that are only thinly-disguised relivings of her own high-school glory days, and she’s otherwise obsessed with appearances and shallow celebrity status. The film repeatedly shows Mavis studying herself in the mirror — either in depressed self-loathing after an alcoholic bender, or with vain self-satisfaction as she puts on makeup to impress her former boyfriend.

All of this comes together in one ridiculous, yet poignant scene:  Mavis arrives at a bookstore in her hometown to find copies of her novels stacked together on a table.  After she convinces the clerk that they’re her novels, despite the fact that there is a famous author’s name on the cover, he tells her this display is the final effort of the store to sell them, and nobody is buying.

Hiding her hurt, Mavis offers to sign the books to increase their value, but the clerk stops her because the books can’t be remaindered if someone has written in them.  In one blow he crushes what little of her self esteem was left.  And, of course, she tries to sign them anyway, because when they disappear so will the proof positive that she ever amounted to anything special.


Chandler Interviewed by Fleming

A rare treat for pulp-o-philes: an interview of Raymond Chandler by Ian Fleming on the topic of “English and American Thrillers.”

Fleming comes across unpretentious and thoughtful as he tells Chandler about how he dashes off a new Bond novel in two months every summer, and then admits that that doesn’t contribute to the quality of the work. He calls Chandler the superior author and when Chandler demurs, Fleming proves his point with a surprisingly insightful commentary about what makes his writing work as entertainment and what makes Chandler’s writing a deeper examination of character.

My favorite moment though has to be when Fleming claims that “James Bond I never intended to be a hero. I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre, fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them.” Put like that, 007’s adventures sound like a cold-war commentary as much as the spy fantasies they more clearly are.


Malcolm Lowry

Although his novel, Under the Volcano, was featured last year in Esquire’s 75 Books Every Man Should Read, I have only ever met three people — male or female — familiar with Malcolm Lowry.

Two of them thought he was a genius, and the third a misanthropic degenerate.

I probably never would have heard of him myself if I hadn’t lived in Kazakhstan for a year. There I was limited to a diet of library books, very few of which were in English, and one of which happened to be the posthumously published short novel, As Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid. I picked it up purely based on the title.

They also had a copy of Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place and his more modestly titled first novel, Ultramarine, and I absorbed those, as well.  However, it wasn’t for some years that I finally got my hands on Under the Volcano.  This was before the Internet, and finding editions of obscure, out-of-print authors was a bit of a scavenger hunt. Nowadays, not only are used copies of Under the Volcano a mouse click away, but it’s also readily available in nifty new edition.

Although challenging, I could not help but admire this grim, gritty, fascinating novel that slams closed with one of the most harrowing and brilliant final pages of any book I’ve read before or since. The Guardian UK recently ran an article recommending that “more people just read the thing.”

An atmosphere of difficulty cloaks the book like the thunderheads that hide the “immense flanks” of Popocatepetl, one of the two volcanoes in whose shadows the doomed alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, his estranged wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh confront their fates. First published in 1947, Volcano had the troubled early life typical of unique books. It sold well in the United States, but in Britain it was remaindered and in Canada, where it was written (Canadians are proprietary towards Lowry, who spent the happiest period of his life there), it sold only two copies between the end of 1947 and 1949. Its reputation grew over the years following Lowry’s death in 1957, but it remains a book that deeply divides opinion. Not because of the book’s “what,” which is fairly straightforward, but its “how”: tangled time schemes and a Faulknerian stream of consciousness are just two of the prominent challenges with which Lowry tests readers.

Nevertheless it is well enough loved to have inspired a John Huston film starring Albert Finney, and lent its name to Creative Writing Workshops in Tepoztlán, Mexico and to London’s Original Mexican Restaurant. (And a lot more than that, actually.) In fact, In 1998 it was rated as number 11 on the list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century compiled by the Modern Library.

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

The New Yorker featured a fascinating retrospective on Lowry’s life and work a few years ago.


Historic Homes of Writers

I recently spent more than a week in Key West, Florida.  A writer friend told me, half seriously, that he was “jealous of your pilgrimage” and another said, “Cheers to Papa!”  And, yes, while I was there I made a visit to the Earnest Hemingway Home and Museum.

Hemingway's Desk

A view of the desk in Hemingway’s writing room.

Although inundated with tourists, the place is kept in excellent repair and simply dripping with tropical grandeur.  Most importantly, for me, the writing room above the shed is decorated in a manner that it might have been at the time when he was there writing To Have and Have Not.

The rest of the house is more of a record of the tastes of his second wife (and rightly so, considering her family money paid for it and that she continued to live there after he’d left for Cuba with his third wife).  Still, it’s neat to see, especially all those mutant cats.

Of course, I have no idea what the house really looked like in the 1930s.  For example, they tell you on the tour that Hemingway kept a boxing ring in the backyard until his wife replaced it with a swimming pool while he was in Spain with his mistress.  But the house itself is gorgeous, and steeped in history.  And all in all, I enjoyed it just as much as any of the historic homes of writers that I’ve visited.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed visiting writer’s historic residences.  Growing up in the Valley of the Moon, I used to visit Jack London’s Wolf House, or what’s left of it, all the time.

I’ve also been to the homes of Russian writers.  And in Massachusetts I made sure visit to the Poe House and took in the Longfellow House-Washington Headquarters, which is really an amazing place to tour.

All these houses are very different.  The only thing they have in common being that a writer did his work there, and it’s nifty to get an idea of where they sat and what they saw out the window.

Here’s the complete list of writer’s homes I’ve visited in the order that I visited them:

  • Jack London – Sonoma, California
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky – St. Petersberg, Russia
  • Dashiell Hammett’s apartment – San Francisco, California
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Edgar Allen Poe – Boston, Massachusetts
  • Leo Tolstoy – Moscow, Russia
  • Earnest Hemingway – Key West, Florida

Update: I also visited The Borges family’s Palermo homestead.  You can’t go inside, which is why I didn’t remember.  (I was reminded by a fun article at Flavor Wire.)