Down Goes Mantel! Down Goes Mantel! Down Goes Mantel! Literary Rivalries Real and Imagined

In Uncategorized on June 19, 2010 at 1:57 am
Cover of "Wolf Hall: A Novel (Man Booker ...

Down Goes Mantel! Orange Upset

Okay. Maybe it lacks the drama of Howard Cosell’s call of George Foreman knocking down Joe Frazier but there was certainly a bit of wow when Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna beat out Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall to win this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction.

“The Lacuna was the surprise winner,” reported the LA Times.

“There is a sense of surprise and deflation around Barbara Kingsolver’s win,” commented The Guardian.

Even Kingsolver, herself, said she was “stunned and thrilled.”

There were several factors including that Mantel’s story of life in the Court of Henry VIII in 16th Century England was clearly the hometown favorite and that just two months before, Mantel had bested Kingsolver to win the closest-ever Tournament of Books sponsored by The Morning News.

Here’s the thing… why are we so concerned with which book is better? Which author is better? Now, admittedly sometimes a book that maybe few had heard of  will win a prize opening it up to a whole new audience such as happened with this year’s Pulitzer.

But really. Can’t we judge each book on its own merits? The Tournament of Books is a clever idea but isn’t writing more comparable to golf than basketball? Aren’t you really competing against yourself?

I mean, The New Yorker’s recently released list of 20 writers under 40 to watch is interesting but by giving us the list they’re telling us their special, perhaps more special than others, which is really something that we should be able to figure out by the fact that most of them have received great reviews in places like The New York Times and have written best sellers?

After all, it wasn’t that hard for The Millions to come up with a list of 20 more who are just as worthy.

Time Magazine critic and author Lev Grossman said lists like this are “a unique artifact of late-20th-century popular criticism — as crass and lame as earlier eras of human civilization were, I can’t imagine critics of an earlier era being crass and lame in quite this exact way.”

I think that lists like this and prizes can be useful if they lead to feuds like Norman Mailer-Gore Vidal or Hemingway ad Fitzgerald or Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There have certainly been literary feuds worth following over the years — enough to inspire a book. (I’m being sarcastic).

Show me a list of writers I haven’t heard of that I should read. Give big prizes to writers that deserve more recognition.

Stop trying to make writers into college basketball teams and let them be judged against themselves. Judge the work for what it is not based on what else has come out.

  1. During a 30-year span, I have judged book awards and magazine awards and newspaper awards. This is probably obvious to those who think through the results of awards competitions, but I’ll risk stating the obvious: Judging is a matter of idiosyncracies, of all sorts of tastes predictable and unpredictable. Among five judges from similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, severe disagreement frequently takes place. Many of the “winners” are the result of compromises, and don’t represent what I believe to be the best novel or biography or magazine profile of the past year.

    So, use awards winners as a reading guide, perhaps. But after seeing awards determined from the inside, I don’t take most of them super-seriously, including book, magazine and newspaper awards I’ve won.

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