Monday, April 04, 2005


Today the Columbia School of Journalism announced the 2005 Pulitzer Prizes in journalism and arts and letters. In the latter category, as par for the usually conservative course (2000 being a somewhat livelier year), the selections were about as creative as machine-made poundcake. The Pulitzer Prize in fiction went to Marilynne Robinson, U. of Iowa professor and author of the novel Gilead, which she'd taken nearly a quarter-century to complete and publish after her PEN/Hemingway-winning, extraordinary first novel Housekeeping. The wait, at least for the Pulitzer fiction jury and board, it appears, was worth it. I haven't read the new novel, but Robinson had already won the National Book Critics Circle Award for this new book two months ago, so this struck me as a potentially safe(r) choice. Is the book that good, or is the jury that ______? (I plan to read it at some point soon.)

The Pulitzer Prize in poetry went to...the year 1970. No, seriously, it went to...Poet Laureate and retired insurance exec Ted Kooser, for his collection Delights and Shadows. I've only read a little of Kooser's poetry and find even less interesting about it; he seems like a decent man and dutiful poet, though as businessmen who are also part-time versifiers go, he's no Wallace Stevens. He isn't one of the usual Eastern, California or Southern-based older, white male suspects winning for a book that was far off the mark of their best work; but, and it could just be me, lauding the current poet laureate strikes me as a really tired choice. I can think of at least 10 books of poetry from this past year, really interesting and innovative and great volumes, or, let me add, even work by the old, white, male usual suspects, that could and should have been honored. But alas, we're talking about the most prestigious, and tired, American arts and letters prize here. (Yes, I know, the Wallace Stevens Prize pays more, but it keeps changing names and only goes to people who've won the Pulitzer or Bollingen or something else; and hardly anyone I can think of outside Chicago is aware of Poetry Magazine's well-funded prizes, and the others are all great, but not Puli....)

The Music prize was primed to fire up controversy this year, since the Pulitzer organization was supposedly opening up candidacy for the award to more than the post-classical, mainly academic compositions that have dominated year after year (and that are rarely if ever heard from again). The announced change sent some critics and musicians into serious conniptions. There have been rare interludes (Marsalis in 1997, John Adams in 2003, etc.); but the Pulitzer's notorious history of choices and gross omissions still rankle. However, true to form, the Music jury reverted to form, and the prize went to Steven Stucky (at first I read Sterling Stuckey and nearly fainted!), a Cornell-based composer and musicologist who's affiliated with the LA Philharmonic. (And the finalists were works by Elliott Carter, the oldest-living-modernist composer, and Steve Reich, both of whose work I do enjoy.) So one assumes the mainstream media and moribund (post-)classical musical arbiters were able to sigh in relief; thank the gods it didn't go to the likes of the Neptunes or Don Byron or Elvis Costello or even one of the Hollywood movie schlockmeisters, or anyone else whose work was performed live and who worked off some sort of score. The barbarians remain outside the gate for yet another year.

As for the other Snoozulitzer arts and letters categories, what's to say? The biography prize went to a book on DeKooning. Is it the best biography? I haven't had a chance to read many this past year, so I won't comment, but it also just won the National Book Critics' Circle Award, so.... The history prize went to David Hackett Fisher's study of Washington Revolutionary War campaign, and there's been a burst of Washington-mania of late, so perhaps this annointing fits with the zeitgest, and at least this jury didn't do the NBCC thing and give it to that competition's winner, finalist Michael O'Brien's North Carolina Press study on early 20th century Southern intellectualism, which does look pretty interesting. I cannot remember even one play I saw last year, so I'll call that one a draw....

(Of course one could take the view that Poohpoohlitzers don't matter, that they're the ultimate emblem of a exhausted, late-capitalist, backwards-looking, corporatist and consumerist, centripetal (arts) culture, which is true, except that they still do matter....)

Now, to more relevant awards, the 2005 winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, given by the Cleveland Foundation for works that "contribute to society's understanding of racism or appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures," have just been announced. I know both of the winners in fiction (one actually published a book of poetry), and recommend their books highly: Edwidge Danticat for her new novel The Dew Breaker, and A. Van Jordan for his highly original, powerful collection M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. Other winners include August Wilson for his body of work, and Geoffrey C. Ward for Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, on which Ken Burns based his recent documentary.

I want to give props to artist Alisoun Meehan, who turned me onto and allowed me to tune into the August Sound Coalition this past Friday, when they streamed French philosopher Alain Badiou's talk at the Deitch Projects in SoHo via IndyMedia. Though I only heard portions of his lecture, "The Subject of Art," he broached some provocative themes, such as the limits of subjectivity, body art, death, and suicide as a kind of limit-breaking aesthetic act (which made me think of Ray Johnson's terminal art work in How to Draw a Bunny). Brain-expanding stuff from Badiou, thanks to the bandwidth-craft of August Sound Coalition.


Last night the Yankees jumped the Red Sox and walked away with a 9-2 win to inaugurate the 2005 baseball season. Earlier in the day, Tampa Bay Devil Ray Álex Sánchez became the first player suspended under the new stricter anti-steroids policy. I think it's a bit hypocritical to be punishing any of the people already in the major leagues at this point, since the roided play and record-busting has been going on for almost a decade now uninterrupted, but Congress whipped up a bit of hysteria, and so I guess the Hackommissioner, also known as Bud Selig, decided he had to start somewhere. Sánchez, ironically enough, has hit 4 home runs in his entire career.Sanchez
Álex Sánchez
Tonight, a slew of teams started playing, and so far it looks like a number of the pitchers weren't ready: Arizona lost 6-16 to the Chicago Cubs; Detroit battered the Royals 11-2; and the thin air of Denver served up lots of hits as Colorado swatted around with San Diego, winning 12-10.

Also this evening, the Fighting Illini were unable to throw a knockout punch, and lost the NCAA Men's Championship to the North Carolina Tarheels 75-70. I was rooting for the Illini since I grew up across the river from Prairie State, considered attending that university, and because it's unlikely any school I've ever attended, even for a summer session, will make it even to the "sweet sixteen," let alone the final four. I saw them as underdogs, despite their 4-month number-1 ranking; Illinois has never won a NCAA basketball tournament, and until this game, it appeared to be their year. Only they faced a sharper-shooting Tarheel team with a surehanded inside man, Sean May, who was vanquishing Illinois all by himself during stretches in the second half. None of my favored teams are in the Women's Final Four, so I'm going to go cast the dice and call for Michigan State. The male Trojan team was definitely easy on the eyes.

"Very frequently, narratives and lives are...anisomorphic (not similar in shape to each other). If we forget this and treat our lives as if they possessed the shape of narratives, we may run into trouble. Such confusion is of course a time-honored theme of novels themselves, from Don Quixote to War and Peace. And, as we shall see, politicians, especially those with a utopian or other historical end in mind, typically try to persuade us to overlook the differences between our lives and stories (to treat them as isomorphic). It is easiest to impose a myth on those who are already inclined to think history has a mythic structure."
--Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, p. 20

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