Mark Athitakis Newsletter #4

Awards, a few additions to the canon, empathy.

Front Matter

1. Book awards: I'm for 'em.

2. My late friend D.G. Myers used to dismiss book prizes as publicity ploys to sell books. This, like many things David said, used to irk me. But at this point, books need all the help they can get. Fine, David, they sell books; what of it?

3. What else advocates so broadly and in such attention-grabbing ways for books like awards do? The few remaining bookseller chains that are left? The scarce snippets of TV time dedicated to books and authors? <scoffing noise> Critics?

4. We've got Terry Gross, we've got Barnes & Noble, and we've got book prizes. That's it. That's what we have to spread the word at scale about books beyond the people who are already passionately committed to them---a group of Americans that, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, might at best fill a college football stadium.

5. Disclosures: I've judged book prizes, and have enjoyed doing so. I've twice chaired the fiction committee of the National Book Critics Circle, which selected Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah and Marilynne Robinson's Lila during my stints in that role. I was also a judge for last year's Kirkus Prize in fiction, which went to Lesley Nneka Arimah's story collection, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky.

6. Those are all good books; you should read them. But they were not my choices alone. "Fiction chair" means that I served as a suggester, coordinator, moderator, ship-steerer, book-orderer, have-you-considered-er. Ultimately I was just one of a number of judges. My privilege was to offer my opinion, not to impose my will on others, all of whom have their own opinions.

7. It's messy. 

8. William H. Gass on literary prize juries: "There will be members too lazy to do the work, or too busy, and those who will pretend they've read every line of everything when they are ignorant even of the blurbs. There will be quirks and tics and idiosyncrasies brought into play the normal person could not imagine or allow in the bedroom. Some will want to ram their friends and fancies through into the glare of all that glory no matter what (besides, wouldn't Ann or Phil or Billy do the same for them - when that other jury meets next Tuesday?), while others will be so intent on bending over backwards all they'll see is sky. Some jurors will try to intimidate others, or, failing that, will try to gang up, their cliques meshing like a zipper, and sometimes they'll succeed. A few will be honestly persuasive about weak work, while the most effective will simply be stubborn. Some judges, some juries, abide by their names and treat each work before them as someone accused of a crime."

9. Was Gass wrong? Look, Gass was a great American writer because he had a grasp of vivid language and a knack for taking our mind's most hyperbolic, most cynical tendencies and making them look like realism.

10. So, no, a literary prize jury isn't the den of snakes and dimwits Gass made it out to be. But, yes, it’s messy. And people---at least the people who'd fill the stands at Literature Falls University, anyway---sense the system's imperfections, that there are complications and prejudices at play---that whatever "authority" awards pretend to is a sham. Literary people are not famed for their collaborative nature; we sense that too.

11. Tracy Kidder: "I know that choosing winners is often a negotiation, and that negotiations over matters of taste can end up awarding the prize to everyone's third choice."

12. This sense of the messiness, I think, is part of why every awards announcement is accompanied with a chorus of dissatisfaction and litchatty kibitzing: The awards are too safe, too obscure, not diverse enough, too effortfully diverse, too cravenly engineered to sell books. Because it is impossible to quantify what a "best" book is, people assume that there is some reductionist scheme at work that disregards something meaningful about literature. In the process of elevating particular books, the argument goes, we're cheapening books in general.

13. But schemes? Nah. You could look at the prizewinning selections I've had a hand in---Americanah, LilaWhat It Means...---and say I've helped do my bit on behalf of women writers, or writing on Nigeria. But I've fallen short in terms of international literature, or books in translation, or small presses, or books that are weird the way that "provocative" or "daring" in the way under-appreciated writers (like, say, William H. Gass!) are. But none of that was top of mind for me—or, to the extent one can tell these things, anybody else. "Read broadly"---that was the goal. Going into this process with a mission beyond "read broadly" is folly. Start doing that and you'll soon be caught up in a host of arbitrary categories to consider. You will feel that, as the movie WarGames succinctly put it, the only winning move is not to play.

Bad literary-prize judging strategy, visualized

14. Looking at the National Book Award longlists, announced last week, I'm mostly struck by their peculiarities, that (to choose among the titles I’ve read) Jeffrey C. Stewart's magisterial biography of Alain Locke, The New Negro, can somehow "compete" with Rebecca Solnit's Call Them by Their True Names, a brief collection of essays and reportage about Trumpism and its aftereffects. That Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers, a sweeping novel about AIDS is in the running against Tommy Orange's fragmented novel about contemporary Native Americans, There There. 

15. I can hear David’s voice in my head again—-that all such selections do is reflect a liberal fashion for books about identity politics. But any longlist can be run through that filter, if one so chooses; how we argue about lists is a subjective process. And there’s always a whiff of condescension in such statements—-a suggestion that in the name of longlisting a diverse range of books we’re promoting weak books. My time as a book-prize judge has broadened my conception of what a “best” book can be, in no small part because of the breadth of experiences of those I’ve co-juried with. But it never prompted me to lower the bar for what a “best” book is.

16. Time might confound and sometimes mock those choices, but they always have. Is The Centaur a good John Updike novel, or even a good novel? Who now dares braves the wonkish procedural mountain of Advise and Consent? Did you know The Dancing Wu Li Masters won a real deal, no foolin’ National Book Award? Weird times, man. Awards are the messy place where ideas of what’s best collides with the best that seems to be available at the moment.

17. It’s messy. So be it.

Concierge Desk

Five (or seven) novels that Vulture list of the 21st century literary canon missed:

Andrew Holleran, Grief (2006): A remarkable elegy for the aftermath of AIDS, and a rare well-made D.C. novel. I’m not sure the books below would make a top-ten list of my favorite 21st-century books; this one would refuse to budge from my top five.

Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen (2015): Highsmith-brand noir for the 21st century: Bleak, candid, a little gross.

Ha Jin, A Free Life (2007): I expect zero support for this. Jin, along with Paul Auster, is America's worst top-tier fiction writer, and many reviewers found it a slog to read about one immigrant family's epic ordeal off its mortgage. But it was published before both the housing crisis and the rise of autofiction, and its patient, plainspoken nature might get a better hearing now as an immersive journey into the anxiety of assimilation.

Jane Smiley, Some Luck (2014), Early Warning (2015), Golden Age (2015): Smiley's Last Hundred Years Trilogy, a steady year-by-year trek through one American family's experience from farm life to environmental destruction, is a lesson in the fragility of relationships (political, familial, geographical) and the persistence in our nature in spite of it. (At least until the wilding climate-change subhumans begin menacing us; it doesn’t quite stick the landing.)

Richard McGuire, Here (2014): McGuire's graphic novel might be more powerful in its original six-page iteration, exploring one patch of ground's transformation over a few hundred million years or so. But I love the book version’s lavish expansiveness, its doubling down on idea that you can tell a wealth of great stories about one place if you just stop to look.

The Concierge Desk takes requests. Drop me a line at and let me know if it’s OK to use your name.

What I'm Reading, Essay Dept.

Charles Finch's essay on the concluding volume of My Struggle in Slate is a smart look at what makes Knausgaard so appealing and frustrating; for what it's worth, Karl Ove does run on exasperatedly about Celan and almost certainly gets some of his history wrong, but I think his concern about othering is in its own way a potent variation on the slaying-the-father theme that drove the entire project. BuzzFeed has a fine excerpt from Imani Perry’s biography of Lorraine Hansberry, focused on her friendship with James Baldwin, the kind of call-and-response across in their works, and their ability to “swim in each other’s imaginations.” In Harper's, Will Self bemoans the fate of the printed book, book culture, and even the book itself. Fine, OK; see "Front Matter," above. But I do appreciate his retort to the people who seize on that endless parade of studies about how reading fiction makes us more empathetic or something. "People of sensibility have always been readers, which is by no means to say reading made them so—and who’s to say my empathy centers don’t light up when Anna [Karenina] throws herself to her death because I take a malevolent satisfaction in her ruin?"

End Notes

I would have written a short newsletter but I didn't have much time so I wrote a long one. This song is about as close as I've ever come to liking jam bands:

Thanks for reading. Send correspondence to Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.