So, after six weeks of near-unanimous cartwheeling and trumpet blasts from the nation’s book critics (including me), after a touching reconciliation with Oprah, after losing and then recovering his world-famous glasses, Jonathan Franzen has suffered an indignity: He has been left off the short list for the National Book Award, the prize he won nine years ago for The Corrections.
What should we make of this surprising refusal to shower acclaim on Freedom, the most acclaimed novel of the millennium? Is it a snub, an injustice, a petty backlash? Or is it a brave act of rebellion against the PR-driven literary-industrial complex that wants us all to bow down to King Franzen?
It’s probably none of that.
Awards, notoriously, mean almost nothing — particularly in literature, where the architecture of competitive sports is just flat-out silly. Literary prize-choosing is always a fickle, unsatisfying process: It’s often just a way to settle scores, or send political messages, or strategically boost careers. As Nathan Ihara put it yesterday on the lit blog MobyLives, every book prize is “the imperfect result of literary bickering, in-fighting, and vote wrangling by semi-arbitrary judges with highly subjective concepts of literary worth.” He links to a fascinating Guardian piece that compiles insider gossip from 40 years' worth of Booker Prize judges — and their stories of politics, nepotism, ignorance, and bullying will make you want to disregard pretty much every fancy medallion you ever see on a book cover again. You could, infamously, build a first-rate library out of authors who’ve been denied the Nobel over the last 100 years: Chekhov, Joyce, Nabokov, Borges, Roth (so far), et al.
I still believe that Freedom is a great novel; I still want to eat some of its sentences with tiny little corn holders. Had I been a National Book Award judge, I probably would have gotten all frothy arguing on its behalf.
That said, there are plenty of more-or-less reasonable reasons for the judges to have excluded it. Maybe they wanted to avoid the "obvious" pick, to declare their independence from the literary hype-cycle machine, to make a little media splash. (I can sympathize: I find myself worrying, already, about my own end-of-year top ten list: It seems boring to put Franzen on top, and yet Freedom is probably the best book I've read in 2010. I’m still not sure what I’ll do.) Maybe the judges were feeling philanthropic and wanted to help books that weren’t already best sellers. Maybe they wanted to make a statement about the male bias of the book industry, so they nominated four women and excluded the reigning alpha male. Maybe they figured that Franzen already has his NBA, so it’s somebody else's turn. (Only Roth and Updike have won twice.) Or maybe they just didn't love Freedom — a position I’d argue against, vehemently, but which is in the end perfectly valid.
But we shouldn’t make too much of this. As David Lodge put it, about the Booker: “A committee is a blunt instrument of literary criticism.” The only reliably sharp alternative is one’s own private readerly attention: the act of crawling, line by line, through a text yourself. Anything else is just hype, and should be treated as such.