17 October 2004

Familiar is Good, Good is Familiar

MoorishGirl links to an article in The New York Times about this year's finalists in the fiction category of the National Book Awards, an article that spends most of its words bemoaning the fact that none of the finalists are famous, because, apparently, only famous writers deserve awards.

It's a stupid article for a number of reasons, but I'm only going to focus on one, because it's an attitude I can't stand, an attitude that makes me so angry I am barely capable of arguing against it -- the attitude that promotes the familiar over the unfamiliar, that prefers the known to the unknown.

We saw plenty of this with the announcement of Elfriede Jelinek this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. "She can't be any good!" people screamed. "I've never heard of her!"

Now, it may be true that Jelinek's work is terrible, or that the books nominated for the National Book Award are not nearly as good as books by Well-Known Writers. Or it may be that people don't like women winning awards, since all the National Book Award finalists are women. Maybe Philip Roth does deserve more acclaim and money. I haven't read much Roth, have read no Jelinek, and don't find awards particularly compelling for anything other than bringing attention to writers who haven't had enough.

Look at the whining in the Times article, though, by the employees of major corporate publishers -- "We are completely closing ourselves off from the culture at large", "We are not helping the book business this way", "I can't imagine what the conversation was that produced these results" (the last from a man who almost certainly hasn't read all of the finalists, and yet thinks Philip Roth must be included on all awards lists). None of these people are saying, "I read these books and didn't think much of them," but, instead, "These books didn't have expensive publicity campaigns behind them. How can they be any good?" The children of Mammon scream for the tit.

The culture at large? Have you looked at the bestseller lists recently? Or even not recently? Plenty of good fun, yes, but not much of real substance. Fiction of subtlety and depth -- the kind of fiction that deserves major literary awards -- seldom finds its way anywhere near the culture at large, and the culture at large couldn't care less. An award like the NBA should say, "Hey, culture! Look here! This stuff here, this is good!" Anything else is pandering.

Not helping the book business? Ahhh, now we begin to understand. An award is an extension of the corporation's profit plan. Books aren't bringing in as much money as DVDs and Michael Jackson, so clearly they are a marginal activity, and we, the Defenders of Books, should rally together and determine which few books should be promoted more so that they don't disappear into the oblivion of the unprofitable midlist. Philip Roth will keep the illiterate bosses happy.

Can't imagine the conversation? Maybe it went something like this: "Did you like the new Philip Roth book?" "Yeah. Interesting. But you've got to read Christine Schutt's book. It's amazing."

Even though Florida only sold (according to the Times story) about 150 copies before the announcement of the finalists, I didn't find the above conversation particularly difficult to imagine.

The central paragraph of the article is not a quote from a handwringing lackey of commercial publishing, but, instead, comes straight from the author of the article, Edward Wyatt, who, in the interest of feigning balance, quoted the editor-in-chief at Milkweed Editions, then undercut the quotation with the following comment:
Still, however uneasy the alliance between literary culture and commercial publishing, it is not clear that literature benefits when one of its signal awards involves only books read by a few hundred people.
Not clear to whom? Does giving awards to books that sell millions of copies benefit "literature", whatever Mr. Wyatt's conception of it is? This guy should go back to whatever business school produced him.

I know that I've read quite a few books -- and stories and poems and uncategorizable things -- over the past year by writers whose names were unfamiliar to me, and some of those writers proved themselves to be extraordinarily skilled, their work far better than anything I read by well-established names. That doesn't mean lesser-known writers are always good or well-known writers are always mediocre or bad. No, the point is this: What good is served by bringing more attention to writers already drowning in it? Why assume something is bad because it is unfamiliar?

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