On the day the National Book Award finalists were announced, Laura Miller wrote a column at Salon.com titled “How the National Book Awards Made Themselves Irrelevant. Miller argued that the judges—and she singled out the fiction judges—“categorically rule out books a lot of people like” and that ever year “the fiction jury is locked in a frustrating impasse with the press and the public” as to what deserves award attention. One of this year’s fiction judges, novelist Victor LaValle, responds.—Ed.
I read Laura Miller’s recent lambasting of our choices with a great deal of joy. Joy mostly because I love a good fight, and because one of the things missing most from the overly polite—some might say cowardly—world of contemporary literature is a willingness to talk a little smack in defense of oneself and one’s ideals. I’ve read Ms. Miller’s criticism for years and enjoy agreeing with her almost as much as I enjoy disagreeing, but this recent column was just bonkers. I should also state, clearly, that I’m writing only for myself, not the other judges and certainly not the National Book Foundation.
There are many problems with Ms. Miller’s assessment of what’s wrong with this year’s picks but the first has to be that we, this year’s judges, have been put through some secret National Book Awards ceremony wherein we agree “that already-successful titles are automatically sidelined in favor of books that the judges feel deserve an extra boost of attention.” The Masonic Order of Underdogs! If such a thing ever happened then the NBA are really nefarious because they wiped my memory banks clean. I think it’s worth noting here that one of our choices, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, was an unqualified hit this year, winning its author the Orange Prize. And a second, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, was on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller list. How dare all those people have the gall to like books that don’t rate with Laura Miller.
Miller also suggests that the judges were intent on serving the general reading public “the literary equivalent of spinach.” In other words, our picks are meant to edify rather than, dare I even type it, entertain. But I’m at a loss at to how Ms. Miller has intuited this fact. If she’s hacked into the e-mails that the judges shared over the course of this year’s reading period then I want to apologize for our utter lack of Murdoch-worthy gossip. In case she wasn’t privy then I can only say that I served with four smart, passionate people who, above all else, love a good story. And while it was hard work to read through 315 books, from publishers large and small, the enthusiasm, the joy, we communicated to each other felt nothing like the kind of “good for you” motivation Miller ascribes to us. I got knocked on my ass with admiration for more than a dozen of this year’s books. Some of them received lots of attention, many others even less than the books that actually made our list of finalists. These five books worked some special kind of magic on us. In the end, what’s any good reader really hoping for? That spark. That spell. That journey. You really think it’s any different for us than it is for you? The books might differ, but not the alchemy.
Really, none of this should be news to Laura Miller. In 2010 the reading public found itself similarly betrayed by the vegetable-pushing bullies of the literary world. That year a somber, lyrical, ponderously beautiful novel made some noise. It was written by an unknown, first-time author, published by a tiny press, and received relatively few blips of attention. Paul Harding’s Tinkers, put out by Bellevue Literary Press, won that year’s Pulitzer Prize. It beat out Chris Cleave’s bestseller Little Bee and Lorrie Moore’s much discussed A Gate at the Stairs. Neither one was even a finalist! Knowing of Ms. Miller’s distaste for such poorly planned prize giving I scoured the Internet—or at least did a Google search—for her screed against the buffoons who dared to award this unpopular, unpublicized novel the top spot. Alas, I couldn’t find a word. But then I checked out the jury list for that year’s prize. The three people who decided to reward this very fine, but generally overlooked novel were Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, a former editor, Charles Johnson, author and professor, and, Salon’s own Laura Miller. What a difference a year makes. I didn’t realize that 2010 had been the year for making people eat their spinach.
Or maybe it’s just that Ms. Miller, and her fellow jurists, fell in love with a wonderful book and wanted everyone to read it. Doesn’t sound like so terrible a method to me.
Victor LaValle most recent novel, Big Machine, was named a PW Best Book in 2009. Spiegel & Grau will publish his next, The Devil in Silver, in March 2012.