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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Much Ado About Pulitzer

Here & Now literary critic Steve Almond is skeptical of the emphasis put on the fiction Pulitzer. (Jesse Costa/Here & Now)

The publishing world has moved on from indignation to optimism after the Pulitzer board failed to award a prize in fiction this year.

The panel couldn’t agree on which book to choose: “Swamplandia” by Karen Russell; “The Pale King” by the late David Foster Wallace, which was completed by his editor; or “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson.

After a period of collective outrage, publishers are now saying that maybe the non-award is a good thing. Their rationale: all three finalists will get a boost from the publicity.

Here & Now literary critic, Steve Almond agrees. He says people are now talking about the three finalists and scores of other books that got snubbed.

But Almond says Americans put too much importance on these literary contests, and contests in general.

“Everybody goes into a movie theatre, or picks up a book, or listens to a song and they have a different experience. And it’s a human experience,” Almond said. “This isn’t a box score. This isn’t a game people are playing.”

Almond said that while other countries also have literary awards, the United States seems to have cornered the market on them, with five or six major awards.

“We are like the capital of this way of keeping score,” Almond said. “It’s like late-model capitalism has to say who’s the winner, who’s the loser, which is the commodity you have to value.”

Pulitzer Process

Almond said the Pulitzer process could use a make-over. Right now, three writers and literary critics are tasked with reading hundreds of books and recommending three finalists to the 18-member Pulitzer board. The judges then makes their top-picks. The problem comes about if one of the books fails to gain ten votes, which is what happened this year.

Almond said the conversation about books is more important than the voting.

He believes it would be more interesting to make the debate public and get people talking about literature.

“The most fascinating thing you could do with all these contests is to have a transcript of these conversations, because that way they’d be talking about the books, instead of saying, ‘Book A wins for whatever mysterious reason,’” Almond said.

Do Literary Awards Stand the Test of Time?

“The Ninth Letter” literary magazine recently examined the National Book Award of 1960 to see if it stood the test of time.

The honor originally went to Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus,” but many felt other books were more deserving.

The magazine convened a panel, including Almoong, to re-judge the 1960 award.

Almond and the others chose “Mrs. Bridge,” by Evan S. Connell, and then wrote essays explaining their choices. (See Steve’s essay below.)

Almond said while all the contenders were good books, the influence of “Mrs. Bridge” spans decades.

So the question remains, if the Pulitzer Prize board came knocking on Almond’s door and offered him the prize in fiction, would he turn it down?

“I would of course, completely reverse course,” Almond laughed. “Because as a hard-core narcissist, I would say, ‘Not only did I win, but I want everybody to tell people why I won!’”

Essay: We Are All Mrs. Bridge

By: Steve Almond

Reprinted from Ninth Letter

As much as this will make me seem like kind of an asshole, it has to be said: the 1960 National Book Award given to Goodbye, Columbus is a travesty. It is (to paraphrase Fielding Mellish) a travesty of a mockery of a sham. I realize I am now expected, by the sacred law of literary deference, that code of automatic qualification by which writers defang their most fangy judgments, to tell you how much I love Goodbye, Columbus, and how brilliant Phillip Roth is (as if he needed my endorsement), and how corrupt the entire realm of literary prize giving is because it indulges our childish need to subject the essentially private, intimate experience of reading into a vulgar public debate, all of which happens to be true, and none of which makes the 1960 NBA Award any less of a sham. As supporting evidence, I offer six words. Henderson the Rain King. Mrs. Bridge.

Anyone who has read either of these books will understand the bafflement and consternation felt by myself and the rest of the committee when we learned these books had been passed over. Our thinking went something like this:

Very funny.

Wait, are you serious?

Really?

Oh Christ.

Goodbye, Columbus is, as the blurbs might phrase it, an auspicious debut. Mrs. Bridge and Henderson are masterpieces. The latter is, for my money, the best book Saul Bellow ever wrote, a dazzling existential picaresque propelled by the most brave and ferocious voice ever devised. The first two paragraphs alone make that clear. But it’s my honor—one I had to lobby for, frankly—to discuss Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, and I’m especially happy to do so because there’s a decent chance you’ve never heard of the book, and if there’s one possible good to be drawn from our juvenile lust for Big Stupid Awards it’s that they might rescue certain works of art from the vault of criminal neglect. I will now describe the novel’s plot.

Ahem. Mrs. Bridge is about a repressed upper-class matriach living in Kansas City during the Depression. Its prose is austere and rigorous, devoid of metaphors, devoid of anything, in fact, that might distract us from the muffled plight of our heroine. It is composed of 117 chapters, most of them no longer than a few hundred words. Nothing “dramatic” happens. Mrs. Bridge raises her three children. She teaches them manners, but cannot reach them emotionally. She suffers the neglect of her ambitious husband. She wages brief, doomed little wars against the conventions that imprison her. The end.

It’s impossible to convey how much tension Connell packs into his sentences, how wrenching he renders each passage, without quoting him. Here’s how the novel opens: Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a
child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

It takes a grand total of fourteen humdrum words for Connell to establish Mrs. Bridge’s chronic sense of unease, which gives way to personal dislocation (word 33), crushing doubt (42), a desire to confront the source of that doubt (54), and a sighing retreat from this dangerous impulse (60). Everything is exposed, nothing resolved.

So goes the novel’s basic template. But if this sounds formulaic, please consider any of our famous symphonies, and the manner in which, from a string of simple notes, the great composers create a lush universe. By all appearances, India Bridge is a woman of utmost conformity: fragile, passive, predictable. The scenes Connell presents cleave to the mundane. But time and again, they slam Mrs. Bridge up against the anarchic sexuality and rage and guilt and fear that seethes in the shadows of her impeccable home.

Her children, too. Here’s what her youngest boy, Douglass, recalls of an episode in which he is forced, at age three, to come along in the family car as his mother and older sisters deliver a charity basket to a poor family: Then, while the door was still open and snowflakes were falling on his knees, someone else leaned in—he could not remember whether it was a man or a woman—and quickly, neatly touched the cushion of the Reo. Although many years were to pass before Douglas could understand why someone had wanted to touch the cushion, or why the memory of that gesture should persist, each Christmas thereafter when he saw the basket being filled and trimmed he grew restless and obstinate. Elsewhere, Douglas comes off as a remote figure, determined to defy his mother’s bourgeois dictates. But the memory of this one small gesture reveals him as a boy painfully aware of his family’s entitlement and hypocrisy, the elaborate façade of dishonesty under which they act. He’s not recalcitrant so much as haunted.

I’m making the book sound grim, and I guess it is. But there are passages of such excruciating awkwardness that they come off as a kind of absurdist theater. Every time I read the chapter that chronicles the Bridges’ dinner with a mindbendingly pompous older couple I laugh my ass off. It is the sort of humor that rescues us from utter despair. Connell’s point is not to mock his people. On the contrary, he treats them with the ruthless and tender attention they deserve. He refuses to indict their evasions or dismiss their disappointments. He keeps a meticulous ledger of their stifled hopes.

Connell is writing about the great human tragedy, which is not war or lost love or any of our other grandiose plot items, but an inability to identify and experience our own truest feelings. India Bridge may serve as an exemplar of this crisis. But the book is devastating precisely because we are all Mrs. Bridge. We have all followed rules we don’t believe in and silenced our deepest doubts and fled from the emotional duties of our given moments. We have all lain in the dark with an uneasy expression on our faces, startled awake by “some intimation of the great years ahead.” What I admire most about Mrs. Bridge is the trust Connell places in his readers.

The novel stands as an antidote to the hysterical lyricism that marks so much of what passes for writing these days. I think of it every time I read a student story in which the central aesthetic consideration is an unconscious compulsive effort to compete with the frantic enticements of our dominant visual culture. To read Connell is to have your faith in the ancient pleasures of storytelling restored.

It would be pretty standard issue in this sort of essay to attempt to fit Connell into some grand tradition, as one of the pioneers of suburban angst, say, a forerunner to Cheever and Richard Yates and Updike. But Mrs. Bridge isn’t about WASPs behaving badly. Connell is telling a story about family, the small private tragedies of misconnection, and the price we all pay, every day, for choosing paths of spiritual convenience. This is what sets Connell apart from (and in my view above) those writers with whom he is sometimes lumped.

A decade later, he would return to this subject with the equally brilliant Mr. Bridge, another novel that should have won every stupid literary prize out there, and won none. And still later, Connell gave us Son of the Morning Star, a staggering history of the Battle of Little Bighorn and the ensuing annihilation of the Plains Indians. Connell deserves a Nobel. But he’ll have to settle for the goony praise of his lessers. Mrs. Bridge, like the novel Stoner by John Williams, or the reportage of Ryzard Kapuscinski, will endure not because it’s on the syllabus, but because it continues to be passed from writer to writer, along those invisible vines of need that compose the true canon.

Which is probably a more honest arrangement. The human heart, if roused from time to time, enforces its own meritocracy.

In the end, Mrs. Bridge, like the rest of us, winds up trapped. It’s snowing outside, and the engine of her beloved Lincoln has died halfway out of her garage, in such a position that she can’t open the doors. She tries the horn, which doesn’t work. She looks in the mirror. Finally, she takes the keys from the ignition and starts tapping on the window. “Hello?” she says. “Hello out there?”
It’s so sad! I want to answer her every time. But I can’t.Because I’m stuck inside that Lincoln too.

This essay was reprinted from Ninth Letter with permission from Steve Almond and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Guest:

  • Steve Almond, Here & Now literary critic and proud Pulitzer loser for “God Bless America

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  • Richard

    Self-publishing is the very essence of democracy. Agents and publishers are an anachronism, stubbornly pressing their case for being the gateway through which “literature” must pass, when in reality, their sole criterion for entry is profit. Nothing crazy about it, Steve. Self-publish, full speed ahead!

  • aaron grimes

    Interesting, smart, and provocative take from Steve, as usual. Thanks. I think the stuff about Ninth Letter and the National Book Award isn’t quite right, though. That wasn’t the first year of the award, for one thing; I think 1960 was chosen (presumably by Michael Griffith, whose idea National Book Award Revisited was) because it was fifty years back. Griffith put together a panel consisting of Steve, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Antonya Nelson, Brock Clarke, and himself, and they rejudged the 1960 award from a half-century’s distance, commenting along the way on the quirks and oddities and politics of prize-giving. The National Book Award Revisited concept continued with NBA Revisited 1961 (in Cincinnati Review last year), and I hear 1962 is in the works (at Mid-American Review).

  • Sabra Wineteer

    I’ve always advocated reading (or, at the very least, sampling) the nominated/long listed/short listed books along with the prize winner (whatever prize it might be). It’s a matter of taste and it’s likely you’ll find a better book that didn’t win the prize.

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