Pulitzer juror Michael Cunningham received help at least twice in his career from Denis Johnson, a novelist he helped select as a 2012 fiction nominee (the term the awards sponsor prefers to “finalist”). Details appear in this update to yesterday’s post defending the Pulitzer Prize Board’s controversial decision to give no fiction award this year.
April 19, 2012
April 18, 2012
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.
April 16, 2012
The Great Gatsby didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and neither did these modern classics
By Janice Harayda
Consider this if your favorite book doesn’t win one of the Pulitzer prizes that will be announced at 3 p.m. today: The judges for the 1930 prize looked at Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and gave the fiction award to … Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. And those classics are hardly alone in having been snubbed. Some noteworthy losers and the novels that won the Pulitzer instead in the years listed:
Loser: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Winner: The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor
Loser: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Winner: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
Loser: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Winner: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
Loser: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Winner: Nobody. No award given.
Loser: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Winner: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Losers: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Winner: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge
Loser: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Winner: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
Loser: The Great Gatsby
Winner: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
Loser: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Winner: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
This is a re-post in slightly different form of an article that appeared on this site in 2007.
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.
April 14, 2012
Critics have hailed Heda Kovály’s Under a Cruel Star as a modern classic about one woman’s experiences first under Nazis and later under Stalinist tyrants who falsely accused her husband of treason and executed him along with his co-defendants in an infamous show trial. Alfred Kazin wrote when the memoir first appeared in America more than 30 years ago that “it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovály’s splendidness as a human being.” One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of the book next week.
The first book in an award-winning series for children who are starting to read on their own
Frog and Toad Are Friends: An I CAN READ Book. By Arnold Lobel. HarperCollins, 64 pp., $16.99. Ages 4—8 (Grades K—2).
By Janice Harayda
Arnold Lobel called Beatrix Potter his artistic mother. If that’s true, he deserves a Son of the Year award for Frog and Toad Are Friends.
Potter casts a long shadow over stories about animals who act and dress like humans but retain characteristics of their species. Artists often try to avoid the Curse of Peter Rabbit by denying its existence: They create animal tales so garish or absurd that no one could confuse them with Potter’s exquisite naturalism. Lobel stays in the sun by taking the opposite tack: He nods to Potter by giving his stories neo-Victorian settings and clothing, making her era his own. In his “Frog and Toad” early readers, his characters live in fairy-tale cottages with period details — a potted fern, cross-hatched windows, and heavy, carved furniture — made fresh by a palette long on soft greens. This approach makes for escapist fun along with a psychological depth rare in limited-vocabulary books.
Frog and Toad Are Friends introduces in five short parables a pair of gentle amphibian best friends with complementary temperaments — the optimistic and gregarious Frog and the more pessimistic and reticent Toad. Like a long-married couple, Frog and Toad take care of each other in ways that are kind, natural, and amusing. In their first adventure they tackle small tasks that can seem Herculean to children — getting out of bed, coping with illness, finding a lost button, waiting for mail, and appearing in a swimsuit in front of friends.
Frog and Toad have a gift for telling the truth without being mean, a trait that emerges as they splash in a river in “A Swim.” Toad thinks he looks funny in a bathing suit, a striped one-piece Victorian affair, and doesn’t want to leave the water while Frog and other creatures are watching. Sure enough, when he steps onto land, Frog laughs. Toad asks why. “I am laughing at you, Toad,” said Frog, “because you do look funny in your bathing suit.” Far from appearing wounded by this, Toad says matter-of-factly, “Of course I do.” He marches home with his head high, satisfied that Frog has admitted the truth, in a witty sketch that puts a happy ending on the tale.
Perhaps better than any story in Frog and Toad Are Friends, “A Swim” shows Lobel’s command of character. Frog doesn’t hurt Toad’s feelings by telling him he looks “funny” in a bathing suit because that is what his friend wants to hear. His comment is a validation of Toad’s view rather than an insult. And Lobel shows his sophistication as an author and artist in his ability to make such a distinction clearly implicit without expressing it in words. Frog and Toad Are Friends lacks the full-throttle drama of Mr. McGregor racing after Peter Rabbit with a rake shouting, “Stop thief!” But it has many quieter pleasures. Good artistic sons, like biological children, don’t have to look just like their parents.
Best line/picture: The final picture of Toad, marching off proudly in his ankle-length, green-and-white striped Victorian bathing suit, in “A Swim.”
Worst line/picture: None. But this review was based on the original 1970 hardcover edition. The literary and artistic quality of spinoffs and later editions may differ.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 11, 2012
It’s April, and Frog thinks Toad should get out of bed and have fun with him. Toad has other ideas in Frog and Toad Are Friends, the first book in an award-winning series about a pair of amphibian best friends who enjoy gentle pleasures such skipping through meadows and swimming in a river near their neo-Victorian cottages. One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of Arnold Lobel’s modern classic on Saturday.
April 10, 2012
A portrait of the first American military women taken captive and imprisoned as a group by an enemy
We Band of Angels: The True Story of American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese. By Elizabeth M. Norman. Atria Books, 327 pp., $16, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
This book can only lift the heart of any woman who regrets seeing her sex represented in print by Lindsay Lohan’s bail hearings and Kim Kardashian’s prenuptial agreement. Few people may remember that American female prisoners of war existed before U.S. Special Operations Forces rescued Jessica Lynch from captivity in Iraq. But women have been falling into enemy hands at least since the Civil War. And the unlucky group includes 77 U.S. Army and Navy nurses who were stationed in the Philippines when Japanese bombs began to fall on American military bases there on Dec. 8, 1941.
Nurses on the Bataan peninsula worked in an open-air field hospital with thousands of beds laid out in rows under a jungle canopy intended to hide it from enemy planes. They sharpened needles on rocks and tried to ease their hunger by frying weeds in cold cream. After Bataan fell, the nurses were evacuated to Corregidor, where they worked in bomb-proof tunnels. When the Allies surrendered, they became prisoners of the Japanese, who held them in internment camps until the end of the war. It should surprise no one that after an initial flurry of attention, Americans lost interest in the group known as the “Angels of Bataan.”
Elizabeth Norman tries not to overplay the heroism of these nurses, but their extraordinary stories speak for themselves. On the evidence of We Band of Angels, these women were not raped or, in the sense in which the word is used today, tortured. But for more than three years they lead torturous lives, enduring with courage and professionalism their fate as “the first group of American military women taken captive and imprisoned by an enemy.” The nurses deserve a secure place beside the men who inspired They Were Expendable, perhaps the best-known story of the battle for Bataan, and other enduring World War II narratives. Their stories also suggest that we need history of all female prisoners of war. Some of the captives might have a tart response to a recent US Weekly cover story on Kim Kardashian entitled “My Divorce Hell.”
Best line: “By all available accounts the presence of women on the battlefield boosted the morale of men.” This fact and much else in We Band of Angels contradict the cliché that women in combat “distract” men.
Worst line: Only 48 of the 77 nurses captured in 1942 and freed in 1945 were alive when Norman began her research for We Band of Angels, and some turned down her requests for an interview. Such realities may help to explain the stilted characterizations of certain nurses, such as Helen Cassiani: “At twenty-four she was pretty and bright, with dark, curly hair down to her neck, a round face and an inviting smile.”
Recommendation? Highly recommended to book clubs, especially those looking for good nonfiction about women or a neglected aspect of military history.
About the author: Norman is a nurse and historian who teaches at New York University. We Band of Angels won the Lavinia L. Dock Award from the American Association for the History for Nursing and other prizes.
Read more about this book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in the author’s area.
Furthermore: William Lindsay White tells the story of the retreat from the Philippines from the perspective of a torpedo boat squadron in the book They Were Expendable, made into a movie that starred John Wayne.
You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this page.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 8, 2012
Ishmael Beah Foundation Didn’t File Tax Returns for 3 Years, IRS Says / Revokes Exemption for ‘A Long Way Gone’ Author’s Group
The author of a bestseller billed as a “memoir” of a former “child soldier” may face thousands of dollars in penalties
By Janice Harayda
For years reporters have faulted the accuracy of some of the claims made by Ishmael Beah in his bestseller, A Long Way Gone. Now the Internal Revenue Service has faulted Beah’s fund-raising arm, the Ishmael Beah Foundation (IBF), for failing to comply with tax regulations.
The Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax-exempt status of the foundation after the IBF failed to file the required IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ for three years in a row, according to Guidestar, a leading provider of information on charities. Guidestar warns potential donors: “This organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years. Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.” The IBF could face penalties of up to $10,000 per return ($50,000 if the IRS considers it a large organization) or up to 5 percent of its gross receipts per year, if the foundation hasn’t already paid such fines.
Guidestar’s comment that the foundation needs “further investigation” isn’t likely to surprise anyone who has followed closely the story of A Long Way Gone, a bestseller said to have sold at least 700,000 copies since the Sarah Crichton Books published it in 2007. Sarah Crichton bills Beah’s book as a “memoir” by someone who spent more than two years as a “child solider” after being forced at the age of 13 to join the Sierra Leone army during its civil war with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
But some of Beah’s most important claims faced challenges from The Australian in Sydney, the Village Voice in New York, Sierra Eye in Sierra Leone, and other media. The questions raised by the book or news reports on it include:
Was Beah a “child soldier” and, if so, for how long? Beah says he fled his village and joined his government’s army after attacks occurred in his region in 1993. The attacks actually took place in 1995, the Australian learned from published reports and interviews in Sierra Leone. That would mean Beah was a soldier for much less time than he says. “Instead of being a child soldier for two years from the age of 13 he may for instance have been one for two months at 15, which at that time would have been too old to be technically considered a ‘child soldier’ under UN provisions outlawing the use of under-age combatants,” reporters for the Australian said. (The use of children under the age of 18 as soldiers was generally outlawed in 2002, when a multinational treaty raised the previous standard of 15 years set by the Geneva Conventions.)
Did Beah fabricate or embellish events? In a dramatic scene in A Long Way Gone, Beah says that a fight killed six people at a UNICEF-run refugee camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after he arrived there as a refugee. UNICEF found no evidence that such a fight occurred, a spokesman told the Village Voice. Others have asked whether Beah sensationalized his story to please reporters, human rights activists, his editor, or Laura Simms, a professional storyteller whom he calls his “adoptive mother.” Those who have had questions include Neil Boothby, a distinguished scholar on children and war at Columbia University. “My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration,” Boothby told Graham Rayman of the Village Voice. “I’ve seen it over and over.” Children of war, he said, “are encouraged to tell the sensational stories.” Residents of Sierra Leone further challenged Beah’s accounts a Sierra Eye magazine article called “A Long Way Gone Is a Long Way From Truth” republished in the Concord Times of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. The Concord Times article requires a subscription, but One-Minute Book Reviews summarized some of the main points.
Are Beah’s parents and brothers alive? In A Long Way Gone Beah says that his parents and two brothers are dead, but his story leaves open the possibility that they may be alive. On the evidence of the book, he believes his parents are dead because he was told by by one man that they were in a house that burned down. When he went to investigate the blaze, he saw “heaps of ashes” but “no solid form of a body inside” in the charred dwelling. This account leaves open the possibility that his parents escaped from the house or that his sole informant was wrong and that they weren’t there at all. And since the publication of A Long Way Gone unconfirmed rumors have circulated that at least one of his brothers may be alive.
Did Beah use composite characters or pass off other child soldiers’ experiences as his own? Beah refused to answer when Rayman of the Village Voice asked if he had used composites or passed off other child soldiers’ experiences as his own. If he wasn’t pretending to have had others’ experiences, why not just say “no”?
Anyone who wants answers to such questions gained another way to ask them last fall. Ishmael Beah (@IshmaelBeah) joined Twitter in October and said tweet to his followers: “I am still trying to figure out what to post! Maybe I should ask you, what it is that you would like me to post on here?” Beah might start by explaining why he didn’t file tax returns for three years. He might also answer the question: How can we trust anything in him book when we can’t trust him to meet one of the fundamental responsibilities of every resident of the United States?
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 1, 2012
Few picture books influenced mid-20th-century children as did The Little Engine That Could, written by the pseudonymous Watty Piper. Its pictures lack the high distinction of other favorites of the era, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But some baby boomers who recall no other line from their early reading remember: “I-Think-I-Can …” What explains the appeal of this story of a small engine that agrees to pull a long train up a hill after larger engines refuse to help? An answer appears in The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, which ranks the “little engine” as No. 31 on a list compiled by authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. They write:
“Each of us has reserves of strength, imagination, and intelligence. If we concentrate and focus our attention, we can tap those reservoirs and meet challenges that might otherwise have seemed overwhelming. This is the simple yet powerful lesson of The Little Engine That Could. It is especially worth the attention of its target audience because The Little Engine That Could is a morality play for children. It is also very much an American tale in which an individual accomplishes what the establishment is unable or unwilling to do. …
“A valuable lesson for children is that being big doesn’t always make the difference. Those big engines refused to do what the tiny hero of our story accomplished. And she teaches us that we should believe in ourselves, to believe we can do it.”
March 29, 2012
An abducted dog faces cruel masters and canine rivals during the Klondike Gold Rush
The Call of the Wild. By Jack London. Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback. Available in many other editions.
By Janice Harayda
Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild more than a century before Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked away from his combat outpost in Kandahar province and, the Army says, shot to death 16 Afghan civilians. But his classic novel deals with a question often asked about that well-liked former linebacker who stands accused of slaughtering innocents: What turns a product of civilized society into a killer?
London’s answer is neither “nature” or “nurture” but “both,” a prescient anticipation of the modern scientific view that environmental factors switch genes on or off. He develops his theme in an adventure story told mainly from the point of view of Buck, a half-collie, half-Saint Bernard mix, who has spent the first four years of his life as the “unduly civilized” pet of a California judge. Then a groundskeeper kidnaps him and sells him to the first of a series of cruel owners, who soon attach him to sled-dog teams during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In order to survive, Buck must shed more of his civilized instincts with each clash with his brutal masters and with rival dogs who turn savage when starved, beaten, and forced to haul crushing loads in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. By time Buck finds an owner who treats him kindly, the question is: At what point does “the call of the wild” become irreversible, or at least irresistible?
These fictional circumstances are far different those of a sergeant accused of killing 16 civilians on his fourth deployment in a war zone: a man who reportedly had suffered a head injury, lost part of a foot, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, seen a comrade’s leg blown off, and faced eviction from his home in Seattle. But Robert Bales’s life and emotional arc have enough parallels with Buck’s that teachers might compare them with profit in junior high or high school classrooms.
As E.L. Doctorow notes in his introduction, The Call of the Wild is a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.” It shows how a lifetime of restraints can fall away when circumstances are extreme, and it retains its appeal in part because allows us to see that shedding of civilization at two removes: in the life of a dog and in the vast Yukon wilderness that few of us will ever see. The remoteness of the setting invests The Call of the Wild with a mythic allure. And London shows how a good novelist can lend credibility to the kind of transformations that, when described in newspapers, often defy belief.
Best line: “It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were aware of it. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was dawn by three in the morning, and the twilight lingered till nine at night. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with the joy of living.”
Worst line: London’s rendering of the speech of “a French-Canadian half-breed”: “ ‘Tree vair’ good dogs,’ François told Perrault. ‘Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt’ing.’”
Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition that I read). Many editions exist.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.