One-Minute Book Reviews

April 18, 2012

In Defense of the Pulitzer Board’s Decision to Give No 2012 Fiction Prize

Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda 

The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call

By Janice Harayda

My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.

So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.

But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.

The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that  she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.

Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?

Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).

Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 28, 2008

Delete Key Awards Midterm Report – Handicapping the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News,Publishing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:26 pm
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How bad is the worst of the drivel that publishers have flung at us in 2008? Does it just brim with clichés, psychobabble and grammatical errors? Or is it also crass, tasteless and full of needless – if unintentionally comical – sex? You be the judge.

The midterm scouting report below lists passages have a chance to make the finals for the Delete Key Awards, the Internet literary prizes handed out every March 15 to authors who don’t use their delete keys enough. Keep in mind that the race for the Delete Key Awards has a staggered start. Any book published by Dec. 31 is eligible and stronger candidates may emerge. You can help to keep your candidate in the race by leaving a comment that supports a deserving passages.

No callback for this sentence
“Just before the ax fell, lightning struck and my life changed, never to be the same again.”
From Audition: A Memoir (Knopf, 624 pp., $29.95), Barbara Walters. Quote via a review by Kyle Smith in the Wall Street Journal
online.wsj.com/article/SB121038380585382137.html?mod=todays_us_weekend_journal.

Seinfeld was never like this
“Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?”

“You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”
From Change of Heart: A Novel (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95), by Jodi Picoult. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/21.

Deep Frey’d
“He eats most of it with his hands when he’s done he licks the plate clean he has another does the same thing.”
From Bright Shiny Morning (HarperCollins, 501 pp., 26.95), by James Frey. Quote via a review by Walter Kirn in the New York Times Book Review, July 6, 2008 www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/books/review/Kirn-t.html.

Was something lost in translation?
“Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.”

“Heaven and man do not easily come to together, but the wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk.”

“I nearly peed my pants [sic].”
From Wolf Totem (Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95), Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/27.

Whoops
“whoops-musicale (sei tu m’ami) ahhahahahaha / loopy di looploop.”
From a poem in Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara (Knopf, 265 pp., $30), edited by Mark Ford. Quote via a review by William Logan in the New York Times Book Review, June 29, 2008 www.nytimes.com/2008/06/29/books/review/Logan-t.html?ref=review.

Be glad they didn’t! Name your children!
“I say, ‘The library is a boring place! All I will meet there are stinky pages.’”
and
“Miss Toadskin thinks she can gross us out with her science experiments. But I live for that stuff!”
From Read All About It! (HarperCollins, 32 pp., $17.99, ages 4–6), by Laura Bush and Jenna Bush, illustrated by Denise Brunkus. www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Sutton-t.html?ref=authors

Department of overexplanation
A line of dialogue from An Incomplete Revenge: “So, despite Ramsay MacDonald being pressed to form a National Government to get us through this mess, and well-founded talk of Britain going off the gold standard any day now, there’s still room for optimism – and I want to move ahead soon.”

Then there’s passage in which the heroine tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”
From An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel (Holt, 303 pp., $24), by Jacqueline Winspear. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/04/29.

The literal truth
“I literally held Grace day and night for the first year of her life.”
From Comfort: A Journey Through Grief (Norton, 188 pp., $19.95), by Ann Hood.

What comforting words would she have for fourth-degree burn victims?
“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”
The first line of Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – For the Better (Basic Books, 226 pp., $26.95), by psychotherapist Jeanne Safer. www.perseusbooksgroup.com/basic/book_detail.jsp?isbn=0465072119

How green was my chakra
“… Green: / color of the fourth chakra, / Anahata; it means unstuck — / the heart center — / the color of his fatigues.”
From The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (Viking, 84 pp., $21.95), by Frances Richey. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/27.

Hasn’t everyone at times found a suitcase stuffed with $60,000 in cash in the attic?
“Gene claimed that his father had given him $60,000 in cash, which he’d kept in a suitcase in his mother’s attic. He said that his father had told him not to put it in the bank, so Margo figured his father had never reported it to the IRS, and this was his way of protecting Gene, who said he would take the old bills to the bank and exchange them for new ones so that no one would question any transaction or track the income.

“At the time, Margo took Gene at his word.”

From Twisted Triangle: A Famous Crime Writer, a Lesbian Love Affair, and the FBI Husband’s Violent Revenge (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 281 pp., $26.95), by Caitlin Rother with John Hess. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/10.

And finally a moment of silence for …

Clichés that will live forever
“I liked my students to win one for the Gipper, to go out an execute, to keep the drive alive, to march down the field, to avoid costly turnovers and to win games in the trenches even if they were gonna feel it on Monday.”
From The Last Lecture (Hyperion, 224, $21.95, by Randy Pasuch. www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 27, 2008

How Bad Are This Year’s Books? A Delete Key Awards Midterm Report Tuesday

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News,Publishing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:54 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

How bad is the worst writing in books published this year? Does it just brim with clichés, bad grammar, psychobabble and inane or dumbed-down ideas? Or is some of it also crass, tasteless and full of gratuitous – if unintentionally comical – sex?

Find out Tuesday when One-Minute Book Reviews posts the first annual midterm scouting reporting on the year’s worst writing in books. This post will include more than a dozen writing samples that have a chance to become finalists for the next Delete Key Awards, Internet literary prizes that recognize authors who don’t their delete keys enough. One-Minute Book Reviews announces the winners annually on March 15.

To read other posts on the awards and the work of the past winners, click on the “Delete Key Awards” tag at the top of this post or on the category with the same title in column below the “Top Posts” list at right.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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