Magazine article The New Yorker

PRIZE FIGHT; INK Series: 2/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

PRIZE FIGHT; INK Series: 2/5

Article excerpt

The host of a dinner party on Fifth Avenue, not long ago, greeted guests with a question: "Can you tell me how cliches subjugate people?" The occasion for this puzzler was that afternoon's announcement of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded to a little-known Austrian writer named Elfriede Jelinek. Jelinek, according to the Nobel citation, had won "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power." Pardon?

Rumors began circulating that even Morgan Entrekin, the head of Grove/Atlantic, which has published Jelinek, didn't know who she was when people stopped to congratulate him at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Not true: "I'd heard of Jelinek," Entrekin said last week. "But I had not read Jelinek." Anyway, Entrekin had already moved on to a newer topic of literary-prize chatter--the National Book Awards, whose finalists were announced last Wednesday. "I haven't read one of those books," Entrekin said, of the five fiction candidates. "I'm sure they were all worthy in their own way. But I had only heard of one of them."

Consider some of the writers who were eligible this year: Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick. And the nominees are: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Christine Schutt, Joan Silber, Lily Tuck, and Kate Walbert. All of the authors are women, and each lives here in New York City. According to the Times, only one book has sold even two thousand copies.

"I'm sort of astounded at this list," the novelist Thomas McGuane said last week. "It's got a provincial tone--five women from New York? Maybe it should be called the Municipal Book Awards."

McGuane, who was a finalist for the award in 1973, for his novel "Ninety-two in the Shade," is no stranger to the selection process. He chaired the fiction committee in 1995--the last time, incidentally, that Roth won, for "Sabbath's Theater." "The judges range from cynical to earnest," McGuane explained, noting that, with hundreds of books to choose from, the task is, on its face, impossible. "You have some judges who just read forty-three words and give up." (Michael Kinsley, one of 2002's nonfiction judges, caused a minor furor when he admitted that "you must put aside any fuddy-duddy notion of not judging a book by its cover, or at least by its title.") "Generally, the winner is three people's second-favorite book," McGuane said.

Stewart O'Nan, one of this year's fiction judges (and a decidedly earnest one), doesn't see what the fuss is about. …

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