The national book awards are due out tonight. I was going to do a little bit of handicapping, but, you know, the reality is that I don’t have the faintest idea who is going to win. And there’s no wagering.
So the post is going to be about whether I care.
There are many awards, but to start with let’s look at the NBA.
I looked back at the fiction winners. The last book I read that won was Let the Great World Spin.
For non-fiction, the last book I read was The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
Both of which were, you know, AWESOME.
Apparently, though, winning a National Book Award does not send me scurrying to the bookstore to snag a copy.
The last Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was All the Light We Cannot See, which I may have read before the prize was awarded and would have read because Anthony Doerr and I attended the same college.
The last non-fiction club was The Metaphysical Club (not enjoyed) and the last biography was Chernow’s bio of George Washington (loved).
I’m not saying that if I am at the bookstore and they have those little laurel things on the front I don’t give it a second look, but the track record speaks for itself. I don’t make a point of reading award-winning books.
I can remember three instances when I read books because they were involved in awards.
I read one of the Hillary Mantel books because it won the Man Booker prize. Did not enjoy. (I get it, she’s great. Did not find it readable). DNF.
I read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James because of the Man Booker. It’s great but was also a DNF. Just reached a point where I felt like I’d heard all I needed to hear.
Third, was American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, who is a Michigan writer with a low-key university publisher who ended up nominated but not winning. This is a collection of short stories that was just great…Hillbilly Elegy but five years ago. I eventually saw her at an appearance in Ann Arbor.
But she didn’t win. And, the national book awards later announced that they were revamping their nominating procedure to avoid the chance of “obscure” story collections being nominated.
So there’s that.
Here’s the thing. Awards are won for a lot of reasons. Sometimes they win because they are great art, sometimes because they reflect their time especially well, sometimes because they fill a political need (I’m looking at you, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) etc.
What they all have in common is that they are subjective. And so am I. When you get to something as personal as fiction, I just think it is hard to let other people pick ONE book that is the best and have it work for you.
Later this year, I’ll let you in on how I build my reading wish list.
Ultimately, I read literary fiction and non-fiction for pleasure. Not to impress people or be up to date on the craft or on the bleeding edge of literary fashion. Heavens knows, not to talk at cocktail parties, which I don’t ever get invited to and if I did I suspect there isn’t any talk of the National Book Awards.
If you want, you can watch the National Book Awards live tonight. There’s no red carpet show.