NBCC, Take Note

A few people have criticized yesterday’s post, pointing out that the NBCC fiction nominees are about celebrating “the best” or “the most noteworthy books of the year,” with the idea that it doesn’t matter if an author has received accolades or not.

This is a fair point, but what is “the best” about exactly? Since we know that the NBCC created a committee and spent an entire day settling upon these mostly lackluster candidates, one must ask whether “the best” are genuinely being sought through the NBCC’s current consensus approach. Did the NBCC Board Members even talk about a book like Scarlett Thomas’s The End of Mr. Y or was it simply not in its collective radar because one of the judges doesn’t read books set in a dimensional universe? Was this really a matter of delving deep for “the best” or settling upon a group of ten pretty good books that everyone had already read?

Is not celebrating literature the act of submerging one’s self across a broad spectrum, particularly areas that run counter to one’s interests?

Finding “the best,” in my view, means plunging into books in direct conflict with one’s sensibilities, while simultaneously embracing those established (and deserved) voices that speak to the collective timbre. It can be done. It was done with the National Book Awards, and one need look no further than this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist to find another eclectic array. The list includes a genre staple like M. John Harrison, while recognizing a left-field candidate like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart.

One Comment

  1. This is why we have different awards with different criteria and different mechanisms for selection.

    A mechanism like the NBCC’s that uses a fairly large group for input will naturally tend toward more widely read books and authors since there’s less opportunity for a single voice to champion the less heralded and to have an impact on the discussion.

    Still, there’s a number of small an independent press books on the NBCC lists in addition to your usual suspects.

    I still don’t get why the selections are definitively “lackluster.” The two I’ve read, (McCarthy and Ford) I’d easily put in my top 5 for the year. I don’t read as broadly or as much as you, but it isn’t all the usual suspects. As a reading experience I’d put them far ahead of The End of Mr. Y, which I (personally) admired more than enjoyed.

    Which points out the inherent bullshitness and subjectivity of all awards, even those (or maybe especially those) that seek to reflect some kind of critical “consensus.” One person’s masterwork from an accomplished an revered author (The Road, or The Lay of the Land) is a nother person’s dismayingly predictable, lackluster choice.

    Have you read any of the fiction choices? (I’d be curious on your critical takes if you have.) Or are you dismayed because you found the books wanting or because you have a reflexive sympathy for the underdog or underappreciated?

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