Monday, April 23, 2012

News: World Book Night

Today is UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day. UNESCO established the day in 1995 to promote reading, publishing and copyright. (Although, it has been reported that the date was chosen partially because both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on April 23rd in 1616, this may not be fully accurate, due to a discrepancy between the Gregorian vs. Julian calendars.) 

Today is also the first World Book Night. The goal of World Book Night is for avid readers to spread the love of reading to people who do not read often. It started in the UK last year, when a group approached authors and publishers about distributing books for free. Their theory was that if someone (even a stranger) personally handed a book to someone who seldom read saying, “I loved this book,” the other person might read it. Although last year’s giveaway did not occur on April 23rd, it was such a success that it has now spread to the U.S. and Germany, and has been moved to coincide with the UNESCO day.

In each country, volunteer “givers” signed up and chose a single book, which they had read and loved, from a preselected list. In the U.S., 25,000 “givers” will each be distributing 20 copies of their chosen book. The books include: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Bel Canto by Ann Pachett, Just Kids by Patti Smith and The Stand by Stephen King. In the UK, 20,000 people will be giving away 24 copies of their chosen book. The books include: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. (I was unable to find information on Germany.) In each country, givers were asked to distribute books within their community, but preferably not simply to friends. 

In all cases, the authors have graciously agreed to forgo royalties. Additionally, printing, binding and shipping services were all donated or offered at steep discounts. Each book was printed in a special World Book Night edition to publicize the event, as well as to help prevent resale. 

So, keep your eyes peeled tonight. You just might see someone by your subway station or in your local bar giving away books.

  I'll be giving out copies of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I chose this book because I love it, but also because, even though it was a Pulitzer-prize finalist in 1991, I thought it might be one of the less familiar books from the list. It is a collection of closely related short stories, but not a novel in stories. Still, all of the stories take place during or in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Although Tim O'Brien has written about his service in Vietnam as memoir, he has always been clear that this is a work of fiction. I also chose the collection because, although the title story has become very well known and has been anthologized many times, the other stories are as good, if not better. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guest Post: In Defense of the Pulitzer Board

Amy here. Again. Fulfilling my role of being contrary.

Everyone is up in arms about the no-award year for fiction. (And by everyone, I mean the industry as reported by the New York Times, Ann Patchett, and my husband. But that’s a start.)

We don’t know what happened –whether it was an intentional snub, or whether they simply couldn’t garner a majority. But either way, I have no problem with it. And here’s why:

No “Pulitzer book” was published this year.

What is a Pulitzer book? I don’t know that I could generate a precise definition, one that would include all the right books and exclude all the wrong ones. But here’s a start:

They are big, sweeping, ambitious books that tell the stories of American lives.

Often, they involve multiple generations, or at least the lifespan of one quirky character.

They’re compulsively readable without being too light.

They’re not overly fancy or experimental. (The books are, after all, chosen mostly by journalists, not the literary elite.)

They’re of truly high quality, both in prose and in heart. I believe them.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all the books that win fit this mold. But the Board never seems to stray too far from this category, and they return to it again and again. It’s Middlesex. It’s Cavalier & Klay, and Empire Falls. They don’t have to be the very best, most artistically accomplished, groundbreaking books. But it’s a towering achievement in a certain micro-genre.

And nobody wrote one this year.* So what? Keep writing, authors. Keep reading, readers. There are other awards.

*The closest book I came across was The Art of Fielding. It fits the general description, but – and I may be alone here – I found it to be utterly without sparkle. Almost as if it were written by formula, like those movies you think are produced purely for the purpose of getting Oscar nominations. It fails my last criterion. In short, just not good enough.

News: No Pulitzer Prize in Fiction - My Thoughts

Well, my four posts predicting the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction were for naught, the Pulitzer Board chose not to award the prize this year. Immediately after the announcement, my Twitter feed exploded with dismay from publicists, reviewers, and avid readers. Still, a no-award year is not unprecedented. Since the inception of the prize, it has gone unawarded eleven times, including three times in the 1970s. And yet, since the last no-award year was in 1977, some people thought the no-award practice had ended.

The lack of an award is a function of how the Pulitzer is chosen. As I mentioned in one of my prediction posts, the prize is awarded through a two-step process. First, a jury comprised of reviewers, authors and/or academics (usually three people) review submitted books and choose three finalists. Then, those three finalists are passed on the full Pulitzer Board, a body of approximately twenty. The Board has full discretion to choose a winner. The lack of an award shows that the Board was unable to reach a majority vote any of the finalists.
One thing to note: the Board is mostly comprised of journalists; there is only one author/literary person: Junot Díaz. In one of my previous posts, I wrote that I thought that journalists might scoff at a very “literary” finalist, such as Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, and thus choose something more “accessible.” In the end, I don’t think the jury’s chosen finalists even gave the Board the chance to choose an excellent and accessible book. 

In fact, the finalists left me scratching my head, and not merely because I totally struck out with my predictions! The finalists were, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, a novella which had previously been published in a literary magazine; Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, a debut novel which, in my opinion, was simply “okay”; and The Pale King by the late David Foster Wallace, which was published as “unfinished.” Given the choices of the jury, I am not surprised that the Board couldn’t agree on a winner.  They didn’t have a fully fleshed out, above average novel, or even a full collection of short stories, to choose from.

Thus, I do not fault the choice of the Board not to award the prize, but I do question the choices of the jury. I am most shocked to see Open City ignored as a finalist. I thought it was much more serious and thought-provoking than Swamplandia! Compared to recent years, 2011 was, no doubt, a weak year when it came to Pulitzer-eligible books—those by an American author which dealt with “American themes.” Still, I think there were better options than the ones the jury made. I wrote extensively about six in my prediction posts, but I will offer two more. Even though I thought that the narrative of the PEN/Faulkner-winning and National Book Award-nominated, The Buddha in the Attic was a little bit too “cute,” I would have preferred to have seen it as a finalist. The same is true with the National Book Award-winning, but flawed, Salvage the Bones.  

Although, I just indicted the jury, I will give them an “out.” Any judged award, regardless of the discipline, is subject to the idiosyncrasies of the judges. There is no such thing as objectively good art. This was evident in the nominations of the other three major literary awards: the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Each award chooses five books as finalists. Between the 15 slots, 13 books different books were chosen. (It is true that some of the awards allow foreign authors, and do not have a “preferably about American life” mandate, but put that aside.) Most of all, none of these books were among the Pulitzer finalists. I have no doubt that the jury advanced the books it thought were most worthy, without any ulterior motives. I am just commenting that I would have made different decisions.

The Pulitzer is the only major literary award that chooses to pass on awarding the prize when the competitors “fall below the standard of excellence.” (language from Pulitzer website.) In not awarding the prize, the Pulitzer Board shows that it will not sacrifice its values to meet the desires of the publishing industry. Publishers love the Pulitzer because winners are virtually guaranteed to sell many books, for years to come. But the Pulitzer is more than an economic benefit to publishers; it is also a helpful guide to readers.  The Pulitzer often directs non-serious readers to interesting books which they might not have otherwise read. Thus, readers are also major losers in a no-award year. And yet, pushing readers toward quality literature is merely a result of the prize, not its mission. It should not be a consideration of the Pulitzer Board, and obviously was not.

A very good post from Bookriot argues that the lack of an award should not be a comment on the state of American fiction. The author argues that while 2011 was, somewhat, weak, 2010 was a strong year and 2012 is looking to be strong also. I concur. I would be shocked if the Pulitzer Board declined to award the prize next year.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Countdown to the Pulitzer...Part 4: My Final Predictions

This is my 4th and final post in my “Countdown to the Pulitzer” series. The prizes for journalism, letters and the arts will be announced today at 3pm.

To recap, I have written three other posts, each featuring two pairs of books:

The Long Shots: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson. (See post here.)

The “Middle of the Road” Contenders: Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman and The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. (See post here.)

The Favorites: The Angel Esmeralda by Don Delillo and Open City by Teju Cole (See post here.)

First, I recently learned that I had not done careful enough research regarding eligibility. Patrick deWitt is not eligible to win because authors must be U.S. citizens, not merely residents to be eligible. (In fact, he was also ineligible because his book was first published in Canada. Eligible books must be first published in the U.S.)

In place of The Sisters Brothers, I am going to substitute in another “long shot”: The Submission by Amy Waldman. This debut novel follows a committee designing a memorial to a terrorist attack. The attack looks much like 9/11, occurring in New York City and with similar perpetrators, but it has fictionalized elements. The tension in the novel comes when the winning design, chosen through a blind submission, is revealed to have been submitted by a Muslim-American. The novel tackles important and thought provoking issues of racism, fear and forgiveness. Still, it is squarely in the “long shot” camp. The prose is at times cumbersome, and the setting doesn’t work in its favor. As I mentioned when writing about Ten Thousand Saints, and Open City, I feel like the Pulitzer committee may be apprehensive to honor two books set in New York City in back-to-back years. (Last year’s winner A Visit from the Goon Squad was primarily set in New York and its environs.)

My predictions

The prize is announced with a winner and two, unranked, finalists. My predictions are:

Winner: The Angel Esmeralda by Don Delillo

Finalist: Open City by Teju Cole

Finalist: Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

It is true that the title story of Delillo’s collection takes place in New York, and thus I am, somewhat, undermining my argument regarding a non-New York book winning. Still, the collection is not New York centric; the other stories take place in other places, some of them abroad. In fact, an argument could be made that the collection doesn’t fulfill the criteria of the prize, which is supposed to honor a work of fiction “preferably dealing with American life.” Still, there plenty of previous winners which don’t fully deal with American life. Conversely, there are very few examples of books with non-American characters, in non-American settings winning. This is the reason why I have completely discounted one of my favorite books from last year, The Tiger’s Wife.

As I have written previously, my intention has been to predict the final outcome, not to make my own personal selection.  The Angel Esmeralda was not necessarily one of my favorite books from 2011, but it was an excellent, memorable collection. As I have considered all of the factors which I can think of, honoring DeLillio makes the most sense to me. Still, the Pulitzer Board sometimes makes surprising decisions, such as in 2010 when the little-known Tinkers by Paul Harding won.  Part of me would not be surprised if this year’s prize went to a book that no one is talking about. There really isn’t a clear frontrunner like eventual winners A Visit from the Goon Squad was last year and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was in 2008. Regardless of the outcome, I am excited to write more about it later this week. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Countdown to the Pulitzer...The Contenders for the Fiction Prize: Part 3, The Favorites

The Pulitzer prizes, including the prize for fiction, will be announced on Monday at 3pm Eastern time. This is my third post regarding the possible contenders. If you haven’t already, please read my posts on the long shots and the middle of the road possibilities. As I mentioned before, these posts are my predictions of the final outcome, based on a multitude of factors, not necessarily what I think the final outcome should be.

I will post a final prediction, with some short (shorter than here!) thoughts, on Sunday. 
Please return then.

Favorite #1: Open City by Teju Cole

This was one the many remarkable debut novels of 2011. It has already won the PEN/Hemingway Award for first books of fiction (whether novels or short stories) and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In fact, this is one of the major reasons why I have made it one of my personal favorites to win. In 23 of the last 33 years, the eventual Pulitzer winner was first nominated for the NBCC. That is one heck of a track record! 

This novel was one of the most beautifully written books that I read last year. At the same time, it has been rightly faulted for having very little plot. (This happened a lot during the Tournament of Books final, when it lost to The Sisters Brothers.) In much of the novel, the narrator simply takes walks through Manhattan. I can understand why many readers found it boring. And yet there is a lot under the surface. In the end, the story had me reflecting and thinking back on it more than many other books I read last year. That is certainly is a point in its favor. A strike against it: it is set in New York City. As I mentioned in my “long shots” post in reference to Ten Thousand Saints, although “diversity” of settings (or themes) between winners of back-to-back years really shouldn’t really be a consideration, I still think the Pulitzer Board could take it into account. And yet, all thing being equal, this novel has an excellent shot of winning.

Favorite #2: The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo

Spanning 32 years this is a beautiful collection, especially the last five stories. Not many short story collections have won the Pulitzer. Last year’s winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad and 2009’s winner Olive Kitteridge are truly “novels in stories,” and thus not “collections.” Even Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, which won in 2000, is different from this book because the stories in that collection were written over a shorter period of time, and some were new to the collection. (In DeLillo’s case, all of the stories were previously published in magazines or literary magazines.) In this sense, The Angel Esmeralda could be called “collected” stories, but that is splitting hairs. Regardless, books of “collected” stories have won (or been named finalists) before.

The only criteria given for the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize is “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” Because the criteria does not say anything like the “best work of fiction from the previous year,” some people who post to a Pulitzer message board that I follow speculate that the prize could be awarded as a “lifetime achievement award.” According to one poster, this has been done before, although not recently; the two examples he highlighted were The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter from 1966 and The Stories of John Cheever from 1979. (Note: I do not know anything about these collections.) In the opinion of many people, at age 75, DeLillo is one of the best writers of his generation. (I have to admit that this was my first exposure to his work, so I can’t comment on it, but I figure any author who has won two National Book Awards, and been a finalist two other times, must be good.) Although this collection is probably not as good as other Pulitzer winners which I’ve read, considering other circumstances, it is without a doubt good enough for me to mark it as a “favorite” to win.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: I Am an Executioner: Love Stories by Rajesh Parameswaran

By Rajesh Parameswaran
Knopf. 272 pp. $24.95.
The stories in Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection are set in turn-of-the-century India, modern-day America, fictional countries in unnamed time periods, and on a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy in the 24th century. Yes, it seems that Parameswaran truly wanted to assemble a varied collection. And I haven’t even mentioned the non-human narrators of two of the stories (or three, depending on how you count).

The collection opens with one of the non-human narrators, in this case a zoo tiger. The tiger, Ming, is in love with his handler. (The “love stories” subtitle is not always quite this literal.) Despite being a somewhat “tamed” zoo animal, as well as an excellent storyteller and observer of the world, we soon see that Ming is still a tiger; he has the same innate animal instincts of his wild ancestors. When he feels threatened, he will attack. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that the story does have a happy ending (or beginning for that matter). In fact, the story is highly unsettling; I cringed and squirmed. It was only because of Rajesh’s clear, engaging prose that I never wanted to stop reading.

The title story is similarly unsettling. It is, in fact, narrated by an executioner. The “love” in this story? The executioner’s love for his job. Even when a young girl somehow ends up on the death row in his fictional country, he is not perturbed. He is convinced of the fairness of the judicial system and feels that if this young girl has been sentenced to death, it has been done for the right reasons. Most of all, he is ready to, in his words, “execution” her. But the executioner is not an unlikable monster. Like the murderous Ming, Parameswaran is able to put some humanity into this proud “killer.” This is quite a feat.

Other stories includes a metanarrative, where the narrator imagines the narration of the story of a man in a photograph, complete with the parenthetical comments by the photographed man, who interrupts where there imagining narrator got things “wrong.” It is one of the most engaging of the collection, but also the most gimmicky. In fact, most of the collection feels gimmicky, especially the final two stories, which include the translated memoir of an elephant (you read that right!), and the aforementioned story set on an alien planet, where humans cavort with human-sized indigenous insects. Simply put: in too many of the stories it feels like the author is trying too hard to be clever. Even the “love stories” organizing premise becomes a joke.

I devoured these stories quickly, and although I will never forget them, they are not stories I want to return to again and again. They are blisteringly original and entertaining, but they don’t rise to become something more than themselves. Sadly, it’s a classic case of the journey being more fun than the destination.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

News: Department of Justice Sues Apple and Five Publishers

This morning, the Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five of the “big six” U.S. book publishers—Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins and Macmillan (the lone exception was Random House)—charging them with collusion in the move to the agency pricing model for e-books. The alleged goal of such “collusion,” and the move to agency pricing in general, was to raise the price of e-books. Shortly after the filing of the suit, settlements with Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins were announced, but it appears that Apple, Macmillan and Penguin plan to fight. 

Agency Pricing

Under agency pricing, the publisher sets the price that a retailer must charge and the retailer keeps a commission as the “agent” of the transaction. For this reason, since agency pricing agreements have been in effect, the price of an e-book from any of the “big six” publishers has been the same whether purchased through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Google Books or any other retailer.

An interesting thing to note: it does not seem that the DOJ is challenging agency pricing itself, but merely the manner in which it was instituted.  In fact, as I wrote when “anticipating” this news last month, a 2007 Supreme Court decision rejected a “blanket ban” on mandated prices, thus changing a long-established interpretation of antitrust law. (Especially if you're interested in the law, check it out. It's interesting.)

Additionally, the settlements which were announced do not seem to bar agency agreements entirely. Rather, the agreements change in one important way: e-book retailers regain some pricing power. Whereas prior to the settlement, e-book retailers could not discount an e-book sold under agency pricing at all (even if they wanted to), now they may forgo their commissions on such sales and apply them as a discount. Still, it seems that e-book retailers will not be able to sell e-books at a loss because the aggregate discounts cannot exceed the total commissions paid by the publisher during a period of “at least one year.” This portion of the settlement is the most confusing. More information can be found here, although the link may expire.  If you want to read the entire settlement agreement, you can do so here

How is Apple Involved? 

When the iPad launched, Apple wanted to get into the e-book business. At the time, e-books where still sold on the wholesale model; publishers sold e-books to Amazon (and other retailers) at a discount to a “list price,” and (like physical books) the retailer could choose the retail price. When Amazon made a point of offering best-sellers for $9.99, it was likely doing so at a loss, as a way of attracting more customers. Publishers hated the $9.99 price point. They feared that consumers would become accustomed to such a price and, since Amazon could not lose money on every book it sold, their wholesale prices on all e-books would have to drop to reflect this.

When Apple first approached the publishers at setting up the iBookstore, it knew that the publishers were upset. (It is also possible that it didn’t want to have to lose money on e-books like Amazon, although that is unclear.) Still, the allegation is that Apple first floated the concept of agency pricing, and demanded that no other retailer receive a different agreement. 

Results of Agency Pricing 

Whether or not there was “collusion,” there is no doubt that agency pricing raised the price of e-books; there are no e-books from the “big six” currently selling for $9.99. And yet, as counterintuitive as it sounds, there is an argument that higher prices actually led to more options for consumers. (I first talked about this in my post from March.) This point assumes that other retailers could never have kept pace with Amazon’s price points. But with prices universal, Barnes and Noble’s Nook was able to soar, and even Apple was able to claim a portion of the market. Since agency pricing was instituted, it is estimated that Amazon's share of the e-book market dropped from about 90 percent to around 60 percent, with Barnes and Noble and Apple at 25 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

Unanswered Questions and Going Forward

Random House was the only “big six” publisher not sued because it was not part of the negotiations when Apple and the other publishers were working to establish agency pricing. In fact, Random House only started using agency pricing last year, more than a year after the other companies had begun. Since it seems that agency pricing itself is not in question, it’s possible that the Random House agreements will not have to be altered, as the agreements with settling defendants will have to be.

Still, given the way Amazon has been behaving recently, it seems unlikely that it will negotiate materially different agreements with publishers of similar size. It was clear back in February that Amazon is willing to go to extraordinary lengths if publishers do not give it the agreements it demands. They removed hundreds of titles from publishers associated with the Independent Publishing Group after the group refused to give a deeper discount to the list price of their e-books. (Those books were sold under the wholesale model. See my heavily biased post on this issue.) Amazon is also trying to get publishers to spend significantly more money for so called “co-op advertising,” where specific titles are spotlighted on the website. One article claimed that Amazon raised fees by 30 times their 2011 costs.

In the wake of this suit and settlement, it remains to be seen what kinds of agreements Amazon (and Barnes and Noble) will demand. Will they stick with a revised agency pricing that gives them some pricing power? Or might they demand a return to a wholesale model? If the goal is lowering the price of e-books for consumers, wholesale pricing might make a small, but not huge difference. Publishers are likely demand a whole sale price that keeps their revenue consistent. For instance, on an $11.00 e-book, right now the publishers keep 70% or $7.70. Suppose they demand the same $7.70 as the wholesale price. Amazon could then set the price at their desired $9.95 target and still make a good profit. But the gain for consumers in their pocketbook will be a loss in the end. Amazon will regain a bigger chunk of the e-book market and thus be able to dictate better terms from publishers. Through better terms, publishers will make less revenue. If publishers make less revenue they will have less to risk on paying for new talented authors or even old established authors. What looks good on the surface, is anything but good. The quality and quantity of content produced by major publishers is in danger with lower e-book prices.

There was a separate law suit filed by the State Attorneys General of 15 states, claiming that the agency pricing model led to the overcharging of consumers. I was surprised to see that Hachette and Harper Collins agreed to pay $52 million in “consumer restitution.” I would have thought they would have fought this particular accusation. Still, although I have not seen the agreement, I would bet that they agreed to pay without any admission of wrong doing. Consumers feel as through e-books should automatically be cheaper than physical books. They think that e-books must be *much* cheaper to produce. The fact of the matter is that “most of the costs of publishing a book are fixed (acquisition, cover design, editing, marketing, etc), and don’t go away in a digital world.” (From my March post.) At some point, publishers will need to persuasively make this point to consumers. The cost of paper and binding is small in the bigger picture. Through book prices, consumers are paying the author, a talented editor to make sure the writing is well put together, a marketing team to make sure that they even hear about a book (and to make sure that the publisher can turn a profit that can be spent elsewhere). A low price is bad for everyone.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Countdown to the Pulitzer...The Contenders for the Fiction Prize: Part 2, The Middle of the Pack

The Pulitzer prizes will be announced on April 16th. This is my second post looking at possible contenders for the fiction prize. If you haven’t, please read the first post on the long shots.

These posts are predictions of the final outcome, not necessarily what I think the outcome should be. As I mentioned in a footnote to my previous post, the way that the final winner is chosen is interesting. A jury of fiction “experts” (writers, reviewers, and academics) chooses three books and forwards them to the full Pulitzer Board. The Board, mostly comprised of journalists, chooses the final winner. (The two other become named “finalists.”) Thus, the Pulitzer is different from the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and PEN/Hemingway Award which are chosen by people who read literature more widely.

I can see circumstances under which the Board might not choose the book which the jury liked best. In fact, although it has not happened recently, there have been multiple years where the Pulitzer Board rejected all three of the jury’s finalists and chose not to give the award at all. 

Middle of the Pack #1: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

A few months ago this was my frontrunner/favorite to win. Upon further reflection, and upon reading some other remarkable books, it has dropped from that place of honor. I feel like the story of (mostly) young people on a small college campus may be too “insular” a story to honor. My friend Amy made an interesting (somewhat) related comment in December. (Also, if you haven’t read her excellent guest post, please do!) As Amy stated, the writing is often good, but rarely awe-inspiring. The story is good, but not deep. I would add that it’s not especially thought provoking. To me, the characters are certainly memorable, but I’m not sure that the story is. Still, it is in the hunt. I would not be at all surprised to see it as a named finalist. 

Middle of the Pack #2: Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman

I am only about 1/3 through this collection of 34 stories, but I almost made this one a “favorite.” (Stay tuned for that post.) I mostly changed my mind based on the Pulitzer Board having the final say. The stories are lovely. From what I’ve read, they are certainly award worthy. In fact, the collection has already won the National Book Critics Circle Award. (It was also a finalist for the National Book Award.) Apparently, Pearlman has been known in “literary” circles for years—she is 76 and has been publishing short stories since 1969—but has not found as wide a readership as other short story writers, such as Alice Munro. I must admit, I was fully ignorant of Pearlman's work. When she was nominated for the National Book Award in October, I saw comments on Twitter from people who were thrilled that she was "finally" being "recognized." I was very curious to learn more about her. I am excited to complete her collection, and read some of her other work. Still, I can’t help but feel that this collection will not resonate with the journalists on the Pulitzer Board. And yet, I will not be at all surprised if it wins.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman

By Megan Mayhew Bergman 
Scribner. 240 pp. $24.00. 
According to her biography, Megan Mayhew Bergman, “grew up in North Carolina” and “lives in Vermont with her veterinarian husband, two daughters and several animals.” Thus, it is not surprising that the stories in her excellent debut collection include young mothers, plenty of animals, and mostly East Coast settings. Many of the stories explore the connection between humans, animals and the natural environment. Most take place in rural settings or small towns; Raleigh and Washington, DC are two exceptions. (As much as I adore New York, I must say it was a pleasure to read a full twelve stories with nary a mention of Brooklyn or Manhattan.) In part because of these settings, the collection feels very “quiet,” while at the same time not lacking tension and emotion. 
In the opening story, “Housewifely Arts,” a woman and her young son travel to a roadside zoo in search of an African Grey parrot that used to belong to the her mother. The parrot could imitate the mother’s speech and the young woman longs to “hear” her mother again. What could easily be a story of mourning that has been told before becomes something much more. It is not surprising that it was selected to appear in the 2011 Best American Short Stories.

Characters in other forms of “mourning” appear in other stories. In one a young woman can barely forgive herself for an accident that nearly killed her dog.  In another a teen girl knows her mother will soon die of cancer. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” a young woman wrestles with a biological desire to be a mother and commitment she has made to her boyfriend not to have children, for environmental reasons. In this case, she mourns for the loss of part of her life, no matter which decision she makes.  The remarkable thing is that, despite all of this “sadness,” the collection does not feel heavy. The stories are never emotionally manipulative. Bergman’s characters find contentment in their lives, even if they do not always find happy endings.

Amidst these stories of struggle come stories of discovery or hopes of discovery. In one story a veterinarian gives his pregnant wife an ultrasound in the vet office because he missed the last OB appointment. (Bergman said in an interview that this story was based on personal experience.) In the title story, a bird enthusiast goes searching for a woodpecker which is probably extinct, but he believes could still be lingering in a swamp. The characters in these two stories retain an innocent, optimistic view of the world, even when, they too, are confronted with obstacles.

Upon reading some excellent short stories (stand alone and collections), I often want nothing more than to see what the author can do in the longer form of a novel. In the case of Bergman, I want nothing more than to read more of her compact, crystalline prose in the short story form. In her collection, Bergman exposes the fragility of life and relationships while affirming the strength that lies within everyone. These stories are never obtuse. In fact, Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a short story collection for anyone who says, “I don’t like short stories.” Read the opening story, and try not to read more. Whether in short or long form, I hope we hear from Megan Mayhew Bergman again soon.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Countdown to the Pulitzer...The Contenders for the Fiction Prize: Part 1, The Long Shots

The Pulitzer prizes will be announced on April 16th. Between now and then I will present a few short posts on possible contenders for the fiction prize.

Today I present two “long shots,” one of which I have read, one of which I haven’t.

Long Shot #1: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
If you scroll back one post, you will see that The Sisters Brothers won this year’s Tournament of Books. I mentioned that three of the past seven winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer. That’s not a bad track record. Moreover, it has already won and been a finalist for two other awards. It won Canada’s Governor’s General Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Are you confused? Patrick deWitt was born in Canada but currently lives in the U.S. Therefore, he is eligible for Canadian and Commonwealth prizes by birth and should be eligible for the Pulitzer by residency. 

Still, from what I have read in reviews and commentaries (I have not read the novel), I think that deWitt’s novel will have a tough time. It is a variation on a “Western,” but variation should certainly be stressed; it is certainly more “literary” than “genre.” And yet, I don’t see much evidence of recent Pulitzer committees embracing anything verging on “genre.” Cormac McCarthy’s dystopic-esque The Road won in 2007, but most other recent winners lacked such a category beyond “literary fiction.” This is likely because of the prize is described as going to “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” (emphasis mine) Stories verging on genre might have a hard time fitting into this framework. Still, The Sisters Brothers does explore a real era of American history, even if it has been made more fantastical, and it has also garnered enough acclaim to be in the running.

Long Shot #2: The Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

It has been over a year since I read this debut novel. I remember liking it a great deal, but maybe not *loving* it. (It's a book I want to re-read, for sure, if that says anything!) Still, it shares some traits with past Pulitzer winners: it explores a specific time and place in American history, in this case New York City in the 1980s. It highlights the punk rock movement, confronts the AIDS epidemic and paints a vivid portrait of the (then) gritty East Village. A major strike against it winning may be the fact that last year’s winner A Visit from the Good Squad had a similar setting (New York City and its environs) and some similar themes (punk rock). Ideally the Pulitzer judges should be choosing on a novel which they think is the best of the year under the guidelines of the prize, without consideration of “diversity.” * Still, I can’t imagine that a consideration such as that would go undiscussed. It has been nominated for the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction (given as part of the LA Times Book Prizes); named one of the top five fiction books of 2011 by the New York Times; and named to the best of year lists by other publications. It’s in the running.

*Actually, an interesting note on how the award is decided: A judging panel, mostly of writers and reviewers selects three finalists that are then passed on the Pulitzer board, which makes the final selection of a winner. The two others become announced “finalists.” Thus, two committees are involved. I supposed anything can happen!

Monday, April 2, 2012

PEN/Faulkner and Tournament of Books Winners

PEN/Faulkner Award Announced

Last Monday, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka was announced as the winner 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award. Although billed as a “novel,” the book is very short (fewer than 40,000 words) and reads more like an extended prose poem.

Last month, I wrote about the history of the award. What I did not write about was the sometimes “strange” choices of previous winners. Last year, the award went to a collection of collections of short stories – a single volume of books which has all been published separately. At the time, some people questioned: if the volumes were not award worthy separately, why were they together?

This year’s winner did not raise that kind of question, but the selection of finalists raised some eyebrows. Excluding the winner, the finalists included two short story collections; one collection billed as “three novellas”; and only one “traditional length” novel. Ron Charles, Fiction Editor at the Washington Post, called this last fact “regrettable”, listing many great novels from 2012 which were left out, while at the same time noting that this should not be a debate between short and long fiction.

I would concur. Having read the winner and all of the finalists (with the exception of We Others), I was a bit flummoxed by the choices. Desai’s collection was beautiful, but I would have I loved to see something else honored in its place. Most of all, I did not enjoy Bank’s novel at all. For me it did not exude the emotion that other reviewers noted. I found it flat and charmless. I would have been happy to see it replaced by any of the novels that Charles mentioned.

The Tournament of Books Winner

The 2012 Tournament of Books wrapped up on Friday and the winner was Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. Unfortunately, this was one of six competing books which I had not read, so I was unable to give it the respect that it was, apparently, due. I did predict that it would advance in the quarterfinals, but the rest of my predictions didn’t go well, with the exception of Open City making it to the championship round.

It was a very interesting competition. Each of the judges wrote persuasively in favor of their chosen book. While the exercise spotlights the fact that all literature is subjective, in round the judge was able to articulate specific reasons for liking one book better than another. If you have not read any of the match-ups, I encourage you to do so! I especially enjoyed the match-ups on March 15th, March 21st and March 27th.

The tournament has been running for eight years. In three of those years the winner has gone on to win the Pulitzer. I have a feeling that The Sisters Brothers will not be the fourth, but it’s got an outside shot. Unlike last year, where A Visit from the Good Squad seemed to be a prohibitive favorite, there doesn’t seem to be any stand out book this year.

Over the next two weeks, leading up to the Pulitzer announcement on the 16th, I will be spotlighting some of the books I think will be contenders.