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 16, 2009

Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone’ Is ‘A Long Way From Truth,’ Sierra Leonean Magazine Says in a Report That Raises ‘Serious Doubts’ About Its Story

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:58 pm
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Anyone who still believes that Ishmael Beah was boy soldier may have doubts after reading the first comprehensive investigation by a Sierra Leonean journalist of the story told in A Long Way Gone, a book billed by its publisher as “a memoir” of Beah’s years as a fighter in his government’s army. Muctaru Wurie investigated Beah’s claims for a report published in the quarterly Sierra Eye and elsewhere. He concluded that A Long Way Gone is “a long way from truth.”

Wurie based his report on an analysis of the book and on interviews with experts on the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, including representatives of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, founded to bring “reconciliation and healing” to victims of the conflict. Beah says he was one of those victims and, based on that claim, and has had a lucrative writing and speaking career in the United States and elsewhere.

Sierra Eye has published a long list of mistakes and other disturbing flaws in A Long Way Gone that have created “serious doubts” among Sierra Leoneans about the book and add to and deepen the questions raised in the Australian by Shelley Gare, David Nason and Peter Wilson. In the West African magazine, Wurie says that Beah describes some events that “never happened.” A list of links to other articles that have challenged or raised questions related to Beah’s claims appears at the end of this post.

Wurie tried to speak with Beah or a representative of his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, but hit the stone wall faced by Graham Rayman of the Village Voice and others when he sought answers to questions about the book.

The most serious problems found by Wurie include:

Ishmael Beah says that when he was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in May 1997: “Someone came on the radio and announced himself as the new president of Sierra Leone. His name, he said, was Johnny Paul Koroma, and he was the leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council …”

Muctaru Wurie says in Sierra Eye: “ … everyone who was here at that time knew that what was described as the most embarrassing coup broadcast of all time was delivered by the late Corporal [Tamba] Gborie, who was later convicted of treason and shot by firing squad.”

Lansana Gberie, a Sierra Leonean scholar and journalist who has written regularly for Africa Week other publications, confirms that Gborie did the broadcast in his book A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone (Indiana Universiy Press, 2005).

Ishmael Beah says that after he arrived at a UNICEF camp for former child soldiers in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1996, a fight broke out between those who had fought for the government and for rebels of Revolutionary United Front (RUF): “Six people were killed: two on our side and four on the rebel side; and several were wounded, including two of the men who had brought us [to the camp]. The military ambulances took off, wailing into the still newborn night with the dead and wounded.”

Muctaru Wurie says in Sierra Eye: “This never happened. I checked newspaper clippings at the Sierra Leone section library at the renowned Fourah Bay College and spoke to many journalists and NGO officials at the time, they all said they had no doubts such an incident never occurred.

“The fact that Ishmael wilfully omitted the name or location of the said centre in Freetown raised further doubts about an event no one here seems to recall.”

Wurie’s contention that the camp fight “never happened” meshes with a UNICEF  statement to the Village Voice that it couldn’t confirm that the fight occurred.

Ishmael Beah says: “The first time I was touched by war I was twelve. It was in January of 1993.”

Alhaji Samura, who was a transcriber for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is quoted as saying in Sierra Eye: “I have read reviews of A Long Way Gone and from what I can see, the book appears to be fictional. I can’t recall a time when someone gave a testimony that they saw the national army recruiting children openly in a town to fight along with them before 1997.”

Ishmael Beah says: “One evening, a neighbor who lived a few doors down from my uncle’s house was listening to a pirate radio station that accused the new government of crimes against civilians. A few minutes later, a truck full of soldiers stopped in front of the man’s house, dragged him, his wife, and his two older sons outside, shot them, and kicked their bodies into the nearby gutter.”

Muctaru Wurie says in Sierra Eye that the incident “never happened”:

“The incident that actually happened (but not mentioned in Ishmael’s book) and caught the attention of the public and international media was the one concerning the woman at Kissy who was listening to FM 98.1 and was later confronted by a soldier whom she defiantly challenged before she was shot. It was the talk of the town and several people flocked to see the dead woman lay on the ground bleeding profusely.

“An incident whereby a whole family was massacred would have raised more public notice –if it did happen. To ascertain this, I called former minister of information, Dr Julius Spencer who was the then head of FM 98.1. He told me clearly that there was not a time he recalled anything like that happened. Spencer, who also happens to be one of the leading literature scholars in the country, said though he has not read Ishmael’s book, the reviews he read makes him doubt if Ishmael depicted the truth in his work.”

Ishmael Beah says that when he left Sierra Leone for Guinea after being removed from the fighting: “The immigration officers were asking for three hundred leones, almost two months’ pay, to put a departure stamp on passports.”

Muctaru Wurie says in Sierra Eye: “The fact is that the average monthly salary was far above that. Le 300 could only get you a pint of soft drink by the time. In fact, a US dollar is exchanged for around Le 800.”

Wurie said he wanted to ask Beah or his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, how “someone who claims to be a native of the country, and also participated in the war, could have gotten it so wrong on so many aspects.” But he hit a stone wall at the firm that issued the book.

“I called twice and mailed them thrice but I only got a promise that they will get back to me which they never did,” he writes. “In fact, I’m still waiting today.”

You may also want to read these articles that raise questions about A Long Way Gone:

“Boy Soldier of Fortune,” the Village Voice, March 18, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah Foundation Didn’t File Tax Returns for 3 Years, IRS Says,”  One-Minute Book Reviews, April 8, 2012.

“UNICEF Can’t Confirm Beah’s Camp Brawl Claim,” the Village Voice, March 19, 2008.

“An Open Letter to Ishmael Beah About Questions Recently Raised About His Memoir, ‘A Long Way Gone,’ by Reporters for the Australian,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Jan. 24, 2o08.

Ishmael Beah Says He Was Shot ‘Three Times in My Left Foot’ But Suffered No Serious Damage,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 12, 2008.

“More Questions About Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Jan. 29, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah Ducks Question About Whether He Used Composite Characters or Passed Off Others’ Experiences as His Own,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Apr. 18, 2008.

“Wikipedia Claims Laura Simms Is Ishmael Beah’s ‘Foster Mother,’ Not His ‘Adoptive Mother,’ As He Claims,” One-Minute Book Reviews, March 11, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah’s Wikipedia Entry – a Point-by-Point Response for Reporters, Producers and Book Groups and Others Seeking Facts About the Author of ‘A Long Way Gone,’” One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 14, 2008.

“Ex-child soldier’s literary best seller is ‘factually flawed,'” The Observer (UK), Jan. 20, 2008.

“School Report Shoots Holes in Child Soldier’s Bloody Tale,” the Sunday Times (London), Feb. 3, 2008.

“Australian Newspaper Questions Ishmael Beah’s Memory,” GalleyCat, Jan. 21, 2008.

“The OTHER Book About Child Soldiers in Sierra Leone,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 4, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah’s Parents May Be Alive and ‘No One Knows Where They Are,’ Wikipedia Says — Entry Contradicts Author’s Statements in the New York Times and Elsewhere,” One-Minute Book Reviews, March 10, 2008.

“Does the Cover of ‘A Long Way’ Gone Show a Soldier in Niger or Another African Country Instead of Sierra Leone? Why Isn’t the Location Identified?,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 27, 2008.

“Out of the Mouth of a Babe Soldier” (Quotes from Ishmael Beah’s book and interviews that appear contradictory), One-Minute Book Reviews, Feb. 5, 2008.

Whitewash on ABC’s ‘Nightline’ — Cynthia McFadden Wimps Out in Interviewing Ishmael Beah About the Truthfulness of his ‘A Long Way Gone,'” One-Minute Book Reviews, Aug. 7, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah May Have Had ‘Nagging Doubts’ About His Story, Wikipedia Reports — A World Exclusive for the Online Encyclopedia? Or Was It Sucker-Punched?” One-Minute Book Reviews, March 2, 2008.

“New Paperback Edition Doesn’t Ease Concerns About ‘A Long Way Gone’ — Questions Reporters, Producers and You, the Reader Should Ask Ishmael Beah,” One-Minute Book Reviews, Aug. 3, 2008.

“Chasing Ishmael – Truth, Racism, the US Media and Blockbuster Publishing,” The Sydney Papers, Autumn 2008.

The links to the articles below in the Australian have expired. Many of the points they make are covered in the articles listed above:

“Beah’s Credibility a Long Way Gone,” the Australian, Feb. 2, 2008.

“Ishmael Beah’s Flaws Poetic License,” the Australian, Jan. 21, 2008.

“Web of Facts Unravel Child Soldier’s Tale,” the Australian, January 21, 2008.

“Child Soldier Questions Beah’s Tale,” the Australian, January 25, 2008.

“US Critics ‘Wanted to Believe’ Child Soldier’s Tale,” the Australian, Jan. 30, 2008.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and has written for many American newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. She is a former vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle who lives in New Jersey.

www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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