Taking Sides: John Sutherland on Why We Couldn't Care Less about US Book Prizes
Sutherland, John, New Statesman (1996)
It's the season of London literary parties. Next time you're at one, and conversation flags, try kick-starting it with the following questions: "What do you make of the National Book Award for fiction a couple of weeks ago? Did you enjoy the book? How do you think it compares with the Quill Award--that was a bizarre choice, wasn't it? But not as naff as that thing they chose for the Pulitzer last April." Chances are, eyes will glaze over. It's one of the anomalies of our special (literary) relationship that, whereas America takes intense interest in our premier fiction prizes, we wholly ignore theirs.
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times (to name but two) comment at length on the Man Booker circus before, during and after the event. By contrast, the three major American prizes for fiction typically pass without notice in the British press. Barely a reference to them can be found in the 2006 archives of our major broadsheets. Nor, alas, has mention of them been made in these pages. They might as well happen on Planet Nowhere, as far as the London literary world is concerned.
So what were the American winners? The NBA, founded in 1950, is the body closest in spirit to our Man Booker. The very first award went to Nelson Algren for The Man With the Golden Arm; the 2006 winner, announced with huge (American) razzmatazz on 15 November, was Richard Powers for The Echo Maker. A dense meditation on epistemology and identity, the book won't even be available here until early next year. Nor is there any great impatience for its arrival. …