2009 National Book Award Winners

Young People’s Literature — Phillip Hoose: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Poetry — Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy
Nonfiction — T. J. Stiles: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Fiction — Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

8 thoughts on “2009 National Book Award Winners”

  1. Trevor says:

    KevinfromCanada has reviewed Let the Great World Spin. Read his review here.

  2. It was quite a good book with some memorable moments and scenes — but also a fair number that did not work very well at all. Seems to me that it confirms the NBA’s reputation for choosing a somewhat off-the-wall winner. Others who have read it tend to confirm my assessment: you want it to work and it often does, but it fails often enough that it is not great.

  3. tolmsted says:

    Speaking of “somewhat off-the-wall” winners… I’m a bit shocked that The Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor won The Best of the National Book Awards.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Flannery O’Connor. But the best? We’re not even talking about the best ever… just the best of the group of 6 we were allowed to vote from. Or even of the 3 Southern writers in that group. I feel like I’m caught up in a heard of lemmings following the marketing machine off a cliff.

  4. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the comment, tolmsted! It really made me think, as you can see from my long response. What are the ones you thought should have won over O’Connor, both from the shortlist and the whole group?

    I agree that O’Connor definitely had an advantage over Pynchon in this one. I have never read Gravity’s Rainbow and know no one personally who has. I can see why she’d beat him out in a popular vote.

    But I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say her win was based on the recent ressurgence in popularity — or, even if it was, I don’t think it’s fair to say her win is otherwise unjustified. I think it’s so difficult to come up with a best of the best when you have books from the best authors (though not all of them have won for their best works, obviously). In fact, I don’t really believe they can be stacked hierarchically unless there is a tier system involved. That said, I can think of only one other winner I’d have had trouble putting below Flannery O’Connor and that’s John Cheever. Therefore, I opt to put them both in Tier One. Perhaps as the years pass, and I get more of these winners under my belt, I’ll put some others in Tier One, or Tier One will be restructured with O’Connor and Cheever moving down a rung.

    I kind of doubt the latter will happen though. When I was teaching a survey of literature class (one of those impossible courses in poetry, drama, short story, novel), she was the only author I stopped and focused on for several days (well, besides James Joyce, but I devoted the last month to him). And rather than read only one selection from her ouevre, as was typical in this skimming class, I had my students read several of her short stories. While there are several authors I would say “you should read anything he or she wrote,” I actually mean it when I talk about O’Connor.

    Of the other four finalists, I think Invisible Man is brilliant, but I didn’t like it as much as O’Connor. I can see where others would like it more. I also can’t find any technical faults in it that would have me push it below O’Connor, so perhaps it should have won, though in my opinion it shouldn’t have. I also like O’Connor and Cheever more than I like what I’ve read from the short stories of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, but I haven’t read as many of their short stories. Again, though, I can’t say it’s anything more than personal response to the works. I do think Faulkner and Welty are brilliant, and I’m glad we have them here. I’ve already admitted I haven’t read the Pynchon, and I’m not seeing Gravity’s Rainbow on my reading horizon at the moment, though I did just purchase The Crying of Lot 49.

    I do share your frustration that we voters were limited in our choice for “best.” I was really frustrated when this happened in the Best of the Booker in 2008. I have to choose from a list that included The Conservationist and The Ghost Road but not The Remains of the Day or Possession or The Sea, the Sea? Really?

    At least with this year’s Best of the National Book Awards in Fiction I didn’t have any major disagreement with the list. Then again, I’ve read far fewer of these winners than of Booker winners. The only absences I was surprised by are Goodbye, Columbus, The Moviegoer, Sophie’s Choice, and The Color Purple — but I haven’t read the last three I listed there, so I was only surprised because of their reputation. I don’t think any winner since The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty has been nearly as good as O’Connor and Cheever, and I have read most of the winners of the last 25 years. Some great, truly wonderful books, yes — but to me none that makes me feel O’Connor robbed the award. I admit I haven’t read any of Updike’s Rabbit books, and I haven’t read, oh, lots of others. But I suspect that is why the committee gets together and narrows it down for us, so we don’t vote based on a book’s reputation or based on our own incomplete reading. And so that some of the neglected ones have a chance, though it appears they will remain neglected based on this shortlist and this winner. But these problems don’t go away with the shortlist. As you said — and I suspect you’re right — O’Connor probably won because more people have read her shortstories than those of Eudora Welty or even of John Cheever. More people have spent the time getting to know her than have spent the time working through the rich and rewarding symbols and references in Invisible Man, and I’m a sample of the incredibly large group who never took the time to do that in Gravity’s Rainbow. Certainly others are still bitter that they had to read Faulkner in highschool. O’Connor’s win wasn’t really a surprise, then, given this shortlist. But I still believe it wasn’t without merit of its own.

  5. tolmsted says:

    I suppose I should clarify. A new biography of O’Connor came out in 2009 by Brad Gooch. It was reviewed in most major literary review journals, including a review in the New York Review of Books by Joyce Carol Oates. Slate’s Audio Book Club also reviewed her short story in June, “The Misfit”. Her book of short stories, All That Rises Must Converge, was featured in an episode of Lost, which in turn led to further exposure in the Guardian UK and several Lost Book Groups (amazingly, there’s quite a following of books featured on the show). I also believe, though I may be wrong, that her books were re-issued this year with new cover art. I do know that her books have been more heavily featured on the tables of the big box bookstores – because it was something that caught my attention over the summer.

    It just makes me wonder if that extra push had more to do with her being selected, and ultimately winning, The Best of the National Book Award than her literary merit. And for her to win over William Faulkner, who has been so much more influential to 20th century literature in general and writers in the American South in particular seems bizarre to me. Not having read any Pynchon I have to say that Faulkner or Ellison would be my choice from the list given. Of the larger list of all the National Book Awards winners, I can’t really say. I hadn’t considered it. I’ll have to think about that one.

  6. Trevor says:

    I hear what you’re saying — and that may very well be why she won the popular vote — from someone who came to love O’Connor before her recent biography I’m saying I think she deserved it on the merits. I might feel differently had Faulkner won with As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Absalom, Absolom, but he won for this collection of short stories. When I put the authors side-by-side, Faulkner is definitely more influential. But put the books under consideration side-by-side, I think O’Connor beats him in influence too. At least it is a very close call. Hard to imagine a writer today who hasn’t gleaned something from O’Connor short stories or Faulkner’s novels, but his influential novels never won. Ellison, on the other hand, I can see winning, but not because he was technically better.

    This is fun, tolmsted! I like a good discussion.

  7. Trevor says:

    By the way, I also heard that a character from Lost (I haven’t seen a single episode) was reading The Invention of Morel. Someone there has taste! And almost has convinced me to watch the show . . .

  8. Lost actually has featured a lot of books that you might find interesting… supposedly they are meant to provide parallels/insights into the show. Here’s a good link if you’re interested. http://lostbooks.blogspot.com/

    Perhaps you’re right that of the actual book’s representing each of the authors O’Connor’s is the stronger. And possibly O’Connor is the better short story writer (though Faulkner’s collection Go Down, Moses! was equal to any of his novels in my opinion). But O’Connor being equally or more influential, I’m not so sure. I think people forget about Faulkner’s breakout book, Sanctuary, because it has fallen out of popularity. Once you recognize it, you can see how he/it has influenced authors in ways most people don’t associate with Faulkner – i.e. the more horrific undertones often associated with O’Connor and McCarthy.

    I haven’t read most of the past winners, so I have a feeling we’re on equal footing re: making judgments (or equally handicapped). That said – I don’t see The Color Purple as particularly influential, though a good read. And I just don’t think Walker Percy registers on the radar anymore. But Updike, Bellow, Cheever, Doctorow, Oates and Roth… even on a bad day, how bad can they be?

    I’m going to dig out my Flannery O’Connor tonight to revisit. Poor Ishiguro… pushed to the side again! I blame you! (ha!) I, too, like a good discussion.

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