In lieu of a critique, I'm linking to a provocative article, "Crimes against the Reader," in the current issue of the The Believer by Rick Moody, author of Garden State, The Ice Storm, and Demonology (my favorite), among many other works. Moody's piece discusses the New York Times's inane and egregious treatment*, in the full sense of this word, of the 2004 National Book Awards finalists in fiction, its misreading of the judging process and the judges themselves, and the vapid, consumerist values it was advancing. I found myself strongly agreeing with Moody's appraisal of the paper's response, though I think he could have gone much further in his criticism. (I should add that I read only one of the books that was nominated, Christine Schutt's Florida, which is a sharply observed and book, and inestimably better than some of the more elaborately praised dreck out (cf. JSF) there. )
Had Moody pushed more deeply into the awards controversy, he might have focused on the severely shrunken generic and intellectual scope of the contemporary National Book Awards (NBA). This past fall, the National Book Foundation gave prizes in only 4 categories, fiction, poetry, young-people's fiction, and the catchall nonfiction. 23 years ago, in 1983, there were 18 awards, for hardcover and paperback autobiography/biography; hardcover and paperback children's fiction; hardcover and paperback children's picture books; hardcover and paperback fiction; first novel; hardcover and paperback nonfiction; hardcover and paperback history; original paperback; poetry; hardcover and paperback science; and translation! Astonishing, really! Books on science being honored? A mainstream award for translation, which is almost unthinkable nowadays, given that the number of foreign creative works being published in the United States has fallen considerably over the last two decades. In fact, by the end of the 1980s, the period of conservative retrenchment under Raygun and Bush I, the NBA was doling out only 1-2 awards, before expanding in the 1990s to the 4 current ones; it's not hard to imagine that there are people out there who think that even this wizened number is too great.
In fact, 1983 was a momentous year, because not only did Alice Walker receive a (harcover) NBA in the hardcover fiction category for The Color Purple (which then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and butchery by Steven Spielberg), but Gloria Naylor was honored in the "first novel" category for The Women of Brewster Place, a rare instance where more than one non-white person, and in this case, two black women, received top honors in a competition or awards program not specifically geared towards non-white candidates. Once upon a time, there were even NBAs for religious/philosophical books; in my most cynical mood, I could imagine them bringing this category back, especially since the two are again conflated in the popular consciousness, though not in the Platonic sense, but the Bushian/Dobsonian (or Ratzingerian) one.
Perhaps Moody, an influential figure in the contemporary American literary world, will pursue this discussion, though he may want to win an NBA himself (he has the talent to do so), and criticizing those in power, while necessary, is also dangerous. But someone of influence should ask why other genres, which have been vital to the intellectual life of this country, are no longer honored in such a mainstream competition, and what this says about our culture. André Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon and The New Press editor-in-chief, discusses this from the publishing standpoint in his excellent memoir-critique, The Business of Books, and a companion piece, by a highly placed writer-judge, would be useful too.
The Pulitzer Prize--also known as "The People's Prize" (the people, of course, being very powerful and well-appointed)--as I've noted elsewhere on this blog, remains a bastion of conservatism and seems incapable of reform, not even when, as in the music category it's been announced. The third major book prize for American writing is (or was) the National Book Critics Circle Award, which gives no monetary prize. Several years ago, the judges decided to open up the award to non-American work--to the "finest" work "published in English." While I appreciate the global Anglophone sentiment, I seriously doubt writing issuing from the Caribbean, Anglophone Africa, or even Canada and Australia will be given full evaluation, and the choices this past cycle were in line with the other two major awards and not especially daring or revelatory, even if the selected books were deserving. At least the Swedish Academy can right claim that it has brought to world attention such brilliant but not widely known choices as Vicente Aleixandre, Kenzaburo Oe, José Saramago, and Wislawa Szymborska, though its own early record is dreadful, and how can they ever explain away Jaroslav Seifert, when in the last 30 years Wilson Harris, Maryse Condé, Adonis, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, John Ashbery, Yves Bonnefoy, Kamau Brathwaite, Assia Djébar, Rachel de Queiroz, Christine Brooke-Rose, and numerous other deserving authors have so far been overlooked?
At any rate, Moody's article is worth checking out. I recently wrote Jerry Saltz in response to his recent Village Voice column on the glamification of the art world--yes, he meant that it had gone beyond where it's been, if one can imagine that--and offered up the term "commodesthetics" as a name for what he was describing. I'm not sure it fits what Moody's talking about, though, since "commodesthetics" posits the artist-as-commodity as the highest value and chief criterion, while the critique of Moody centers on something else--the pure reification of market success and "popular" acclaim, purged of nearly all the old (western and non-western) aesthetic values....
*Here is an example I don't think Moody cites directly, Deborah Solomon's NY Times Magazine interview with Schutt, which manages to be uninformed, petty and prudish in the space of a single page.