What do you know? The winner of the National Book Award for fiction was the book that comes closest to sounding like "the one book I'll think about reading and decide to read a mystery instead."
It's also the one book among the five that is least like the others.
Lily Tuck's The News from Paraguay, the story of the Irish mistress of a 19th century South American dictator.
Now that the awards are out of the way the lit chat blogosphere will move onto other things---like who got what amount of big bucks as an advance for his/her new novel and whose site has just been linked to by Maud Newton, their usual concerns.
Lots of the bloggists have strongly defended the five NBA nominees against what they saw as unjust criticism by the likes of Caryn James and Laura Miller in the New York Times, both of whom were less than thrilled with the nominated books.
(By the way, it's a sign that you are a little too Blue State if when you read NBA up there you pictured Lily Tuck and not Shaquille O'Neal.)
Much of the argument for the defense seems to me to be less of a defense of the books themselves than a defense of the possibility that the books might be good despite their all being slight, workshoppy, products of a narrow demographic, and not authored by Philip Roth.
In fact, a lot of the counsels for the defense don't even seem to have read the books and their discussions of the nominees center around links to interviews with the authors, as if the defense strategy is, "Look at all these nice, smart women! How can you not believe that they wrote fine books?"
To his great credit, Ron Hogan of Beatrice set out to interview all five nominees himself.
Cheney's main focus is science fiction, but is main interest is writing, and he gives a lot more serious thought to the art of fiction than many of the bloggists of the supposedly literary fiction stripe, whose blogs consist for the most part of book chat, links to each other's sites, gossip and news purely of interest to young writers on the make. Which is why their defenses of the NBA nominees sound suspect to me. I keep hearing the sycophantic simper of careerists trying to curry favor, although I'm not sure who's getting the grooming, the nominees, the nominees' agents, Rick Moody, who chaired the nominating committee, or the publishers and editors of the nominated books.
Cheney teaches high school and right now he has his 11th graders reading one of my favorite books of the last 10 years, Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I'm not sure I would trust a seminar of college English majors with that one, but Cheney's a braver man than I am, and although his students groused and whined at first they seem to be into it now, so even though students in Oklahoma and Cobb County, Georgia are being shortchanged in their educations, there's at least one class of high school juniors up in New Hampshire who are lucky enough to have a teacher who is actually teaching them.
Although he's on the side of the defense when it comes to the NBA nominees, Cheney does, quietly, raise an important point. While Caryn James and Laura Miller wondered how likely it was in a year when Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick produced new books, the five best books would be by a group of nobodies several of whom were publishing their first novels, Cheney wonders how the five best books, any year, never include any science fiction.
Considering that one of the best novels of the last 50 years is a work of science fiction, Slaughterhouse Five, that's a good question.
I'd also like to know how it could be that there are no mysteries or westerns on the list either.
Westerns, you ask incredulously?
Yep. If I made a list of the best books of the last 50 years---which would of course be a list of the best books written in the last 50 years that I've read, making it an incomplete and suspect list---it would include two westerns. Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. And True Grit by Charles Portis.
I'd say Portis's Rooster Cogburn is one of the greatest characters in American fiction except for the fact that John Wayne played him in the movie and I can no longer separate the two in my head. I don't know if Cogburn's a great character because of how Portis wrote him or how Wayne played him.
True Grit includes one of my favorite scenes in all contemporary literature. It was a pretty good scene in the movie too.
Lucky Ned Pepper said, "What is your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?"
Rooster said, "I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker's convenience! Which will it be?"
Lucky Ned Pepper laughed. He said, "I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!"
Rooster said, "Fill your hands you son of a bitch!"
Berger had a new novel this year. Portis hasn't published one in a while, which is frustrating to his fans, one of whom is Scott McLemee, who has a post up about a close encounter with Portis in a bar in Little Rock. It comes with a link you should follow to McLemee's appreciation of Portis as the best comic novelist of our time.
Neither Berger nor Portis specializes in westerns, but both are something else that the list of NBA nominees seems always to lack: comic writers.
Funny is banned from serious fiction circles, while it is a regular feature of mysteries and thrillers, westerns, and sci fi novels.
The most damning thing Caryn James said about this year's nominees is that as a group they show no almost no sense of humor.
That fact alone is enough to keep me from reading any of them. But the real reason I probably won't bother is the one brought up by Our Girl in Chicago.