A Critic Starts to Wonder How Books Get Chosen
Your narrator: a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. A reader since the age of three, a writer since the age of seven, never understood why kids don’t like doing book reports. Read about 150 books in 2018, reviewed about 70 of them. Knows that’s a lot in the regular world, can no longer tell if that’s a lot in the critical world based on social-media chatter among other reviewers.
PEN America shortlisted 55 books for its various awards this year. Around 20 of them are out of my line as a reviewer (science and sports writing, poetry). Out of the 35ish that remain, I’ve read three, have heard talk to the point of annoyance about ten, and expect fewer than five will be remembered 15 years from now.
It took me just a few years of involvement in film as a scholar (and failed maker) to discover how meaningless the Oscars are. They’re pageantry, in every possible sense of the word: the costumes, the exploitation, the fakery, the dead ends disguised as opportunities, the ouroboros of money that fuels and feeds them. The Oscars measure popularity rather than merit. Their prestige is phony, and it floats on a sea of cash. Awards depends on what studios can afford the most advertising saturation, who can send out the most screeners, how much sponsorship an actor or actress can win from fashion brands. Sometimes the best film wins, but usually not. All the films profit from the spectacle, but they have to spend for it.
Film scholars and decent film critics know that the Oscars are only slightly better than pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at assessing a film’s quality. Part of the reason I’m an infrequent film critic is the deep cynicism I feel about film in America, and the Oscars are just one prong of it.
The Lit World’s Big Lie
I perceive that cynicism starting to nudge its way into my stance as a book critic, after only a year of being one full-time. The plague of year-end lists was really the turning point. Even I hadn’t read most of the books on those lists, and I do this as my job. Having read less than ten percent of the PEN-nominated books in my line is about what I expected, based on those lists. But it still seems an outlandish figure, when nearly all of the 150 books I read last year were published in 2018. How can I have read so many eligible books, plenty of which were very good indeed, but not have read most of these books?
The snipey bitch within me who grumbles about the Oscars got going on that question. Maybe the PEN-nominated books aren’t actually the best ones of the year, she said. Maybe they’re just the most monied books of the year. Or maybe Random House persistently sends galleys to hundreds of industry professionals, while smaller presses like Unnamed choose a few dozen. It’s possible, like with the Oscars, that the people who vote on awards lists just pick the books they’ve heard of, even if they haven’t read the entire field. That criterion, books they’ve heard of, is usually based on marketing spend and sometimes on word-of-mouth. And it means that the same books that got pushed relentlessly on critics and the public get pushed into awards lists.
I’d prefer to think it doesn’t work like that. Money in publishing is so different from money in Hollywood, and small presses are healthy in ways that indie film isn’t right now. But as I watched the same five books land on every single best-of list, all of which I’d already heard about so much throughout the year that I barely even wanted to read them, I wondered. As I observed that Open Letter and Deep Vellum earned no shortlist spots for translation, even though they released all of the most interesting books in translation I read in 2018, I wondered. As I noted that the small-press spots on the shortlists are dominated by relatable work instead of adventurous work, I wondered.
For a combination of reasons, I read and reviewed very few of the most popular books of the year. I can’t evaluate whether the ones I read were better or worse than the books on the PEN shortlist, because I didn’t read them all. But I can still get the gist of what PEN is measuring here, and I’m not confident that it’s quality.
To read all the books in a given year and evaluate them would be superhuman, and I’m not asking PEN to do that. Plus, I’m still only a year in. I don’t understand publishing from all sides, nor what the overwhelming changes of the last ten years have wrought to the state of things. But I don’t have to know those things to question the motives and the criteria underneath these pageants. What I’m wondering now is why I ever thought that the integrity of literary awards was inherently more sound than those for film.
The Coldiron Awards
Overlooked by PEN, as determined by me and me alone:
Thirty-Seven by Peter Stenson (novel)
The Making Sense of Things by George Choundas (short stories)
The Last Englishmen by Deborah Baker (biography/nonfiction)
Things That Helped by Jessica Friedmann (essay)
[It] Incandescent by Amy Pence (poetry)
Hunting Party by Agnés Desarthe (fiction in translation)