Since everybody seems to be talking about it, allow me to weigh in on the Caryn James piece on the National Book Awards. Some reactions have been rather sharp (see here and here for example) although OGIC has come to the defense.
To me the piece seemed valid criticism marred by a lack of focus. There seems to be a couple of things going on here. One is her central critique that the books are too similar. She argues that four sparse short-story orientated books by mostly unknown women writers from New York City don’t offer the diversity one expects from a significant literary award panel.
After introducing this critique, she rather awkwardly tries to discuss the merits of each book in turn. This is the muckiest part of the piece. You are never quiet sure whether the books are good but too similar or if they are all similarly bad. After discussing the books, James then ends by reinforcing her initial point about the lack of breadth in the nominations.
I think the two issues should have been handled separately, or James should have been given more space. It seems to me her rushed review of the books doesn’t help her argument that awards should reflect a range of writing. There is a plausible argument to be made that literary award nominations are best served by highlighting a wide range of writing. This both avoids turning off people by ignoring a particular style or perspective while at the same time communicating that the process was an open one with a wide range of writing being considered.
Granted that books that have already received a great deal of publicity (like Roth’s latest) don’t really need more hype, but these books shouldn’t be punished for being popular either. Regardless, nominating three books that are so similar in aesthetic and whose authors backgrounds seem similar does raise an interesting question, and James is not being snarky to discuss it.
But because she feels compelled to discuss each book in turn in a sort of mini-review, she fails to make a compelling argument about diversity in the nominations nor does she offer much of a review of the books themselves. It seems to me that the editors should have forced James to do one or the other. Either make an argument about the NBA process and or discuss the books themselves. The failing here is not in tone or attitude but rather a lack of clarity and focus.
It is funny how often I worry that my book reviews and commentary tend to meander and get off topic. It is equally interesting how often I run into pieces published by journalists in major outlets whose work is no more focused or elegant than my own. I am not saying that I deserve, or want for that matter, a column at the New York Times, but clearly journalists struggle with the same issues we bloggers do – and sometimes they fail. This is the true power of blogs. Once a large group of intelligent and talented people realized that they could write just as well or better than many “journalists” the gig was up. The media world was bound to change once cheap and effective tools became available for “amateur” writers to communicate with a wider audience.