One-Minute Book Reviews

March 12, 2009

Battle of the Jawbreakers — 2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist ‘Wolf Totem’ Versus 2007 Second Runner-Up ‘The Emperor’s Children’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:16 pm

Think of it as a Great Leap Backward from clarity, written by a former member of the Red Guards. Jiang Rong made the 2009 Delete Key Awards shortlist for this passage from his novel Wolf Totem, the winner of he Man Asian Literary Prize and the first Delete Key finalist from China:

“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.”

Is that passage convoluted enough to win a Delete Key Award for the year’s worst writing in books? Consider the kind of writing that has won in the past.

A couple of days ago, I posted two lines from Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, the second-runner up in 2007. And after naming her a finalist two years ago, I came across a quote on Amazon that might have been even worthier of an award. Reader-reviewer Gary Malone of Australia said on the bookselling site on March 5, 2007:

“You’ve really got to worry about a novel when a *favourable* reviewer describes the plot’s two main set pieces and one of them is when the cat dies. [The Economist, 19 Aug 2006.] Before getting into that, however, try this sample sentence for size:

‘He remembered his father’s telling him – his father, small as he was himself tall, with sloping shoulders off which Murray feared, as a child, the braces might slip, a bow-tied little man with an almost Hitlerian mustache, softened from menace by its grayness, and by the softness, insidious softness, of his quiet voice, a softness that belied his rigidity and tireless industry, his humorless and ultimately charmless ‘goodness’ (Why had she married him? She’d been so beautiful, and such fun) – telling him, as he deliberated on his path at Harvard, to choose accounting, or economics, saying, with that dreaded certainty, ‘You see, Murray, I know you want to go out and write books or something like that. But only geniuses can be writers, Murray, and frankly son …’ [p. 124]

Is Wolf Totem, translated by Howard Goldblatt, as worthy of an award as The Emperor’s Children? If you’d like to try to tamper with the jury, you have until Saturday. After living with some of the finalists for a year, I have a couple of favorites. But just as I thought that Amazon reviewer’s quote might have been worthier than mine, your arguments might worthier than mine, too.

(c)2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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