When the nominees for the National Book Award were announced this week, I was embarrassed to note that I’d read not one of the fiction shortlist, not even Tea Obrecht’s  widely praised Tiger’s Wife. I was pleased to see that small presses (Bellevue, University of North Carolina Press) were represented among the nominees, and I looked forward to the pleasant possibility–dim though it may be, given my to-read pile– of getting hold of these novels. Thus, it was with dismay that I read Laura Millers piece in Salon in which she accuses the National Book Award of being “irrelevant” on the grounds of its “esoteric” choices. Miller argues that the NBA should instead help the people “who can find time for only two or three new novels per year read something significant.”

While I don’t dispute her claim that most of the nation neither knows nor cares about publishing industry buzz, I would submit that the reading public—whether pointy-headed out-of-touch intellectuals or occasional book buyers in search of a good read–has little difficulty encountering the season’s Big Books. Geoffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, one of the novels she singles out for having been passed over, is everywhere. The same was doubly true of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (cover of Time Magazine, anyone?).

Miller might dispute the judges’ choices on the basis of merit (having read none of them, I can’t comment on their worthiness) but to be categorically dismissive of these selections, which she likens to the “literary equivalent of spinach,” seems not only unfair, but absurd.  We all know that book promotion and review coverage are in short supply, so if the NBA sets out to cast a wider net than what the media serves up, how is that a bad thing?

What do you think?

5 Responses to Spinach?

  1. I’m pretty sure those people who only read 2-3 new books a year rely heavily on media exposure, and pick up the books they see advertised everywhere–WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, THE HELP, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, etc. And they’re helped along even more if a movie version is made. And I’ve heard quite a few of my acquaintances of this type lament that these books are overexposed, though they don’t seem to know where to turn to find other books they will like. I tell them the library or a bookstore or Amazon, but it would just take so much effort to pick the right book! Well, sometimes they’ll go to Amazon, but word-of-mouth seems to be the most popular source for finding new books to read.

    But I think in general, most of these people are out of touch with book awards and how books are selected for them or what authority/meaning any of them have, and so the NBA is just as irrelevant to them as any other award. It’s a question of ignorance or apathy on the part of the readers’ more than esoteric-ness of the awards. But I question how much the two are related. If we make the NBA less esoteric, will that make readers pay any more attention to it? If we award the NBA to books that would have done well with these readers anyway, will they take notice and come to see it as a seal of approval and seek to read other winning books? But if we start doing that, there’s a chance we’ll only award books that would have been read anyway, and that raises the question of whether the NBA is bringing attention to “significant” books at all, depending on how one defines that loaded term.

  2. Emily says:

    As a reader, I have found the most entertaining fiction is on the best seller list, has won an award of some sort and is generally not difficult to find.

    The Salon writer adopts a superior attitude and a willingness to generalize like wild across several populations of readers. But then she probably had a deadline and reached for something to say to fill those column inches – digital pixels – the white space?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Laura Miller has her head up it.

  4. Sarah says:

    Laura Miller is also the journalist who railed against NaNoWriMo last year, saying that encouraging writers disenfranchises readers somehow. She has a lot to say, but almost none of it has any merit.

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