This is the second in a series of posts that try to predict the winners of National Book Awards on the basis on online excerpts of the finalists.
By Janice Harayda
How much do excerpts tell you about a book? A lot. But excerpts from nonfiction books are harder to judge than chapters from novels, partly because they may not show errors that undermine the whole. And the strength of the writing in work of nonfiction may differ from the quality or importance of the research. Who should win a literary prize: the author of a beautifully written book on a minor subject or a cliché-strewn one that breaks ground on a major topic?
Such variables suggest why predicting the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction on the basis of excerpts is tougher than ranking the fiction candidates as I did on Nov. 2. One book shortlisted for the prize to be given on Nov. 16 looks like a nonstarter: Mary Gabriel tells the worthy story of the marriage of Karl and Jenny Marx in her dual biography, Love and Capital, but her writing doesn’t rise above the level good wire-service copy in five online excerpts.
Two other finalists have more serious problems. Deborah Baker rewrote letters that she quotes in The Convert – a book she calls “fundamentally a work of nonfiction” — and the liberties she took should have led to a disqualification by the sponsor of the prizes, the National Book Foundation. Judges also shoehorned in Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, a graphic-format biography of Marie and Pierre Curie, which has art far superior to its text. The National Book Awards are based on the premise that authors should judge authors. If that’s true, artists should judge artists. And if the National Book Foundation wants to honor graphic books, it should create a category for them. As it is, a victory for Redniss would turn the nonfiction prize into an unacknowledged art competition.
All of this leaves two finalists worthy of the award: Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which shows how a poem written in 50 B.C. anticipated 20th-century thought, and Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, a biography of the slain activist. Greenblatt writes more elegantly, but Manning’s book may be more important. American literature has needed for decades a biography that gives a more balanced portrait of Malcolm X than The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a work influenced by ghostwriter Alex Haley’s view of his subject, and Manning has written it. It’s harder to argue that the country needed Greenblatt’s exploration of De rerum natura, however admirable. So if excerpts are a barometer, the contest for 2011 nonfiction prize looks like a two-way race between The Swerve and Malcolm X, with Manning’s book more likely to win.
More comments on the five finalists appear in the following slightly altered versions of Nov. 11 tweets. Each item below is a micro-review of one or more excerpts of a shortlisted book, supplemented in two cases by further reading.
Love and Capital Good story of Karl and Jenny Marx, wire-service writing. Grade: B Based on this excerpt and others.
The Swerve The most elegant finalist shakes the dust off Lucretius. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.
Radioactive Art far better than the text. Graphic books need their own NBA category. No grade. Based on the entire book.
Malcolm X Slow-moving but much needed antidote to Alex Haley. Grade: B+ Based
on this excerpt and and two more chapters.
The Convert A “fundamentally” nonfiction book that belongs on Oprah, not the NBA shortlist. Grade: F for judges. Based on 100+ pages of the book.
You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she will post other comments on the awards before and after the Nov. 16 ceremony. Jan has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.