The Puttermesser Papers: A Novel

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A Story Made Purely of Feeling: The Millions Interviews Cynthia Ozick

For most of her career, Cynthia Ozick has written challenging and brilliant fictions that examine the metaphysical aspects of Jewish culture, examining fabled belief systems, gender dynamics, and the walls culture might build with even-handedness and cautious interest. Novels and short stories like The Puttermesser Papers and “The Shawl” engage with cultural values and history in unique and dark ways, while several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, examine the value of criticism and the state of the literary novel today. Erudite, intellectually rigorous, and brimming with generous insight, Ozick’s work as a critic and thinker demands a kind of attention from the reader, requires the reader to think along for the promise of revelation. We corresponded about the new book via email. What follows is a conversation with someone just as interested in and excited about literature as they were when they first put pen to paper. The Millions: In a Paris Review chat you did in 1985, you talked about having your routine consist of rising in the late afternoon and working through the night. Has anything changed since then in terms of how you approach the work? Cynthia Ozick: Much blood has gone under the bridge since then. In the last half-dozen years, I've turned into a Snatcher: I read in desperate snatches in the interstices of the Quotidian, and dream of finding three uninterrupted quiet hours to think, moon, mentally maunder, and, above all, write. I am pursued by an anti-Muse; her name is Life. Her homely multisyllabic surname is often left unenunciated, but to certain initiates it may be whispered: Exigency. TM: What’s your reading life like? Are you reading for, say, an hour or so, and then drafting/editing for a while? Is there urgency to write every day? CO: Unlike in earlier years, I nowadays consume public information voluminously. I read both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (one is the poison, the other the antidote, and make of that what you will!), and also many magazines, both the traditional kind and the digital. In terms of living wholly in one's own allotted time, the world is not too much with us. Decades ago, though, it would have been inconceivable for me to acknowledge this. Whatever counted as "politics" was of no interest; nothing mattered but capital-L Literature and its inevitable sibling, History. Still, writing, whether fiction or essays, is something apart from "information," and rises out of the well of intuition: every human mind has its individuated "tone." So when you ask about "the editing process," and speak of "drafting/editing" — I find these reparative procedures foreign to me. I will not move on to the next sentence until the previous one is fully satisfactory.  Perhaps there are two species of writers: those who complete an entire manuscript provisionally, with permission to go back to "polish the verbal surface," as one such writer once described it, and those who endlessly and obstinately fiddle in place. (As for writing every day, see above.) TM: You’re a writer who develops both formative essays and novels and short stories in nearly equal measure. Since part of drafting fiction involves investigating certain aspects of life, I wonder what you see as being the overlap between scrutiny in your essays and scrutiny in your plot lines, or if they're completely separate. CO: The difference is crucial: it's between knowing and unknowing (rather than not knowing). If you are going to write an essay on, say, twilight in Sweden, or on Henry James, you know that much: you have your subject already in hand. But if you set out to write a story, whether long or short, you begin with less than a glimpse: a shred of idea that once moved you, or the wisp of memory of a mother and daughter you encountered for seconds as you passed them in a train, or simply an inchoate feeling. Plotting, though, can be intellectual or serendipitous, a deliberate plan or a revelation or an insight, and this can apply also to the "plot" of an essay; but overall an essay is an assessment, or rearrangement, of given materials, while a story must discover what it is made of in the very course of its own making. TM: I’m interested in how this differentiates from writing an essay or a piece of creative nonfiction. CO: In writing fiction, one creates a character, but very often it's the character who influences the trajectory of events and ultimately creates the story. This wouldn't necessarily apply to certain types of genre fiction, such as the detective novel, where the writer is in full control and follows the design of a prepared plot.  But when the imagination is untethered and free, the writer may lose control of the character, and the character may stubbornly decide against the writer's initial wish; or else the character reveals a motive that the writer never anticipated. This can hardly happen with what's called "creative nonfiction," despite the permissive adjective. The subject matter of non-fiction is fixed, chosen, unalterable. A nonfiction piece on the Civil War, say, can't change the nature of the battles; both action and outcome remain today what they were then. The writer may play around a bit with the personalities of Grant or Lee, but the spine of the narrative is immovable. As for the "personal" essay, the writer, like a character in fiction, can assert whatever she desires; as in fiction, she is immune to the fact-checker. TM: What do you think it might take in order for a writer to produce a "great American novel" in today's literary landscape, or even one that has relevance and power beyond what it achieves in the insular writing community? CO: How vast is the invisible infrastructure of this proposal! It puts in question an entire culture, and how a civilization expresses itself.   Some say that the Great American Novel has already come into being, in The Great Gatsby, or in Moby-Dick, and a good case can be made for each of these. Dreiser's Sister Carrie might be another candidate, or The Scarlet Letter, or The Adventures of Augie March.  Your query, though, speaks of the current literary landscape, confirming that "what it might take" still isn't clear. One answer might be that the day is young — but can we see any inkling of a presumptive heir to Bellow or Updike or Nabokov, or to so many others of the previous generation (the list would be long and impressive) who have left a formative mark on American experience? One sign, or omen, would be the presence of a writer of formidable language power, willing to use all the sources and resources of American prose; instead, we swim in a welter of the slipshod easy vernacular. Also absent, so far, is some overriding feeling or idea, or, at the least, something larger than pipsqueak cynicism. Finally, given that the country is roiling and boiling toward some unknown new dispensation grounded in narrow competing triumphalist claims, where is the bold and necessary ironist who will write our Death of Ivan Ilyich? Or else, and why not? Maybe what we are waiting for will be the Great American Comic Novel! And a final caveat: the lineaments of a sublime work of the imagination can't, after all, be prescribed, and one is guilty (mea culpa!) of tendentious theorizing if one dares to do it. TM: Is technology perhaps counterintuitive to to serious literary debate, analysis, and scholarship, or do you feel that it marks a sort of natural progression and provides a platform to showcase what writing has come to in the age of the iPhone? CO: Last year I finally surrendered my pen. I could not conceive of writing seriously on a keyboard facing an illuminated rectangle, and used the computer mainly as a means of transcribing a completed work (as was the typewriter in the past). The keyboard and the monitor struck me as enemies of the freedom of language, since it seemed that the words could come only through the pressure of one's fingers on the narrow neck of a pen. Or to say it otherwise, the ink flowed directly out of the hand; and what was ink if not language? Yet now, as you see, I've learned (to my amazement) that one can actually think on a computer! TM: In a culture of writers that either embrace the concept of direct narrative or a fractured storytelling structure, would the middle ground between the two extremes be something new to emerge, and if so, where does it lie? CO: Either-or has never been storytelling's only available way; from early on, there has always been that "middle ground." Mostly it has been a companionship between fiction and an interpolated essay, side by side in the same novel. We see this in George Eliot and in E.M. Forster, where we hear the author's reflecting voice; it might be called the "intelligence" of the novel: intelligence in both senses, the writer spying on her characters, and the writer's mind exposed. The "fractured" novel (Ulysses is the great modernist instance, but think also of Zadie Smith's NW and Joshua Cohen's Book of Numbers) has so far not permitted amalgamation with any other form. Accretion, fragment by fragment, replaces logical chronology Yet despite its jagged unexpectedness, what fragmentation has in common with direct narrative is a paradoxical coherence: we know and feel what we are meant to know and feel. And if there is no middle ground between fragment and form, so be it: why should fiction, the ultimate territory of genuine freedom, eschew extremes? In life we are rightly persuaded to pursue the middle way. But in literature (three cheers for extremes!), what we want is what Kafka relentlessly demanded: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. TM: David Foster Wallace was an ardent fan of your work, citing The Puttermesser Papers as one of his favorite books. As a critic, writer, and cultural anthropologist, I wanted to know if you've considered the relevance of his work, and whether or not he shifted the direction of post-modern fiction yet again. CO: It was an astonishment to be told not long ago that David Foster Wallace was even aware of my work, let alone had read any small part of it. It was even more startling to see a photo of the flyeaf of his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, on which appears a long list of words transcribed from the book, ostensibly because they were new to him. How could this be? If I hadn't with my own eyes seen that list, I would have thought the rumor of his affinity was no more than a hoax. After all, Infinite Jest is a free-wheeling and exuberantly abundant novel with a fervently reverent and always growing readership, and not only is my own experience as a writer lightyears from his, but in subject matter and in literary temperament Wallace and I have nothing in common. His mind is encyclopedic and digressive; my scope is far more limited and my reach into the world definitively tamer. His novels are termed postmodern, and so they are, but in their appetite for overflowing tangential inclusiveness they also resemble the all-devouring 18th-century novel (Richardson, Fielding, Sterne). And finally: Wallace's most original gesture is the art of the note — footnote and endnote, but especially footnote. Whether this alone (the seductive power of the asterisk) will "shift the direction of postmodern fiction" is doubtful. Once it has been done, and done so lavishly, it may seem superfluous to do it again. TM: It seems that [The Puttermesser Papers] has a certain staying power, particularly among men. What do you think it is about the work that stands out, be it the brutality of the plot or the force of the prose? CO: I’m afraid that I am unable to address this generous assessment of "staying power." Time will, as they say, tell; and in some cases — though certainly not in mine — Time has already told. (See David Foster Wallace above.) Most writers and their books quickly fall into posthumous eclipse, and I don't doubt that I will be among them. TM: You said that fiction is the ultimate territory for genuine freedom, but is fiction not without rules? The novel can take many shapes, as can short stories, but there's still something familiar within each mutation. Would you argue that genuine freedom works best with some sort of familiarity to constrain or guide its line of thinking? CO: I agree that familiarity of form is most conducive to the reader's comfort, and that feeling at home with its "rules" increases readerly enjoyment. Joyce's Ulysses, which (after, say, Dickens and George Eliot and Trollope) seemed to have no rules at all, was hard going for its earliest readers, though certainly not nowadays, when stream of consciousness has become commonplace. Eliot's The Waste Land was once dauntingly impenetrable; today its technique is ho-hum. The very concept of "rules" means familiarity, knowing what to expect; but even revolutions eventually evolve into the humdrum. As for constraining or guiding a line of thinking, isn't that for sermons and tracts? TM: A large part of your fiction writing has involved chronicling the Jewish-American experience… CO: Here I hope you will allow me to demur. This is certainly true of other Jewish writers, at least those who are inclined to contemplate their heritage; call it, though without denigrating its art, sociological fiction. I am altogether without interest in the Jewish-American "experience," if this term is intended, as you phrase it, to scrutinize and investigate the meaning of that identity, both how it plays out in conventional society and [the writers'] own personal heartbreak over legacy and fractured tradition. Again, all that is sociology, particularly the concern with identity and the deeper roots of the self. I am drawn elsewhere: to the Jewish metaphysic and its long and steadfast history. It is these grains of perception, I believe, that sustain my thinking and kindle imagination. (A recent story in this mode is “A Hebrew Sibyl,” which appeared in Granta.) As for the sociological: Irving Howe, a stellar critic who was part of the group of literary luminaries who came to be known as The New York Intellectuals (all of them now nearly forgotten), once commented that after the generation of the immigrants, the American Jewish novel would die of lack of subject matter. And then — beware definitive declarations! — came the influx of those remarkable young writers who as children fled both the Soviet Union and Iran. For such embattled lives, having endured restriction and calumny in their earliest years, personal heartbreaks over legacy and fractured tradition may be vitally pertinent themes; or may not. But for American Jews, who for the first time in two millennia have the inconceivable good fortune of living freely and without overt fear, and who have rarely known an ounce of oppression or indignity, and who for the most part are now four or five generations distant from the immigrant period…for these, the identity question is simply another floating particle in the egalitarian multicultural movement. (Recall Irving Kristol's quip: "They used to want to kill us, now they want to marry us." And they have: 70 percent of American Jews are intermarried.) Those deeper roots of the self are more superficial than felt.  When roots are genuinely deep, they are not scrutinized or investigated; they are as intrinsic and unremarked on as breathing. Self-knowledge in the Socratic sense is indifferent to roots, and Jewish self-knowledge can only mean knowledge, and what is knowledge in the absence of historical and textual and linguistic awareness? Which is why most novels by American Jewish writers are a branch of social studies. Nor would I quarrel with this: stories are free to be whatever they are. TM: Writers who are conscious of coming from rich national and historical backgrounds tend to have their work characterized as being "haunted" by those important works of national or cultural identity that came before….Do you think it's appropriate to draw those comparisons on the basis of legacy and cultural background, or do you think there should be a distinction between what a writer of a certain background is looking to achieve, and how a critic or academic might group them based on previous works of a certain genre?" CO: Well, we know what Saul Bellow thought of how critics and academics grouped him! He retorted with his famous quip — Hart, Schaffner & Marx, mocking how he and Roth and Malamud were, in effect, regarded as a kind of Jewish-owned haberdashery. But your question is serious and important, and we've had two elegant answers from two significant Jewish writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer: "Every writer needs to have an address." Harold Bloom: "The anxiety of influence." Both these succinct insights acknowledge that origins not only count, but continue to carry their force. (The term "haunted" confused and misled me because of its baleful resonances.) Criticism would be blind and deaf if it failed to recognize affinities and legacies, as it always has: in America, Transcendentalism, the Harlem Renaissance, naturalism, and so many other literary movements and groupings, whether conscious and voluntary or critically observed. But this doesn't make writers into pawns! Or turn Hawthorne and Melville, with their similar Anglo heritage, into Siamese twins! Or Bellow, Roth, and Malamud into Jewish clothiers. It's a sublime paradox, sublime because the seeming contradiction fortifies rather than diminishes: every writer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; and yet, contra Donne, every writer is at the same time an island entire of itself. The continent is humanity; but every continent contains someone's own home address. TM: At this point in your career…do you feel any differently about your work, either the work you're developing or the work you've done? Do you feel that your role as a writer has taken on any sort of prominence? CO: My diary with its innate depression contains the felt truth of any answer I might give. I have been driven to write — to be a writer — from a very early age, but have never been able to think of it as a "career," a schemer's word that suggests aggrandizing hot pursuit.  And for a very long time I was unpublished, a failure in my own literary generation: a circumstance that has left its mark. I am always surprised to discover a reader, and when I do, it is usually in the context of  "I never heard of her before." As for what I feel about past work, I wish I had done more. And I begin to wonder whether reviewers who have found my novels unsympathetic may be right. I still hope to write a story made purely of feeling. TM: Are you working on anything now that you're hoping to release? CO: Yes. On a story made purely of feeling. TM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by this? CO: This brings us instantly back to Tolstoy, though I am thinking here not of a novel, but  rather of a story: The Death of Ivan Ilych, wherein ultimate aloneness in the face of imminent dying leads to a kind of catharsis, and revelation overcomes dread. Or the haying scene in Anna Karenina, which envelops the reader in bodily joy and the intense companionship of laborious achievement. On second thought, an entire novel can't be made purely of feeling, since such sublime moments are exactly that: moments. Pure feeling mostly occurs at the extremes of life: terror and joy.

Are You, Or Have You Ever Been, a Jewish Writer?

In the fall of 2005, when my first novel came out, I was invited to speak to the Jewish Book Council, a group of representatives of Jewish community centers and synagogues from across the country.  I was one of about 25 writers who were to stand before them that afternoon, in the first of two or three sessions they’d hold. We were all sorts of Jewish writers, corralled into a giant hall—a handwriting analyst who had written about the signatures of celebrity Jews, a young woman who had gone to China to teach English but had ended up starring in a soap opera there, and Ira Katznelson, the great Columbia University historian, who that year had written a book about racial inequality in 20th Century America. We were called up, one after another, and allotted two minutes each.  They sat in front of us, mostly late-middle aged, mostly female, presumably Jewish, all of them with reading glasses and notebooks—the scariest possible bar mitzvah crowd, deciding whom to invite to speak to their particular audiences, in San Diego or Palm Springs or Shaker Heights.  I was given an orange tag, not a red one, which meant I had to leave before hors d’oeuvres got served, and since my last name begins with B, I went early in the program. Usually I do pretty well in front of audience, but this time I blew it.  Did I mention, when I got to the podium, that I had published a previous book of stories, or that the stories had won some big awards?  Did I say that one of the awards I’d won had been Jewish?  No.  I told them I lived in Brooklyn, and I mumbled something about how my novel had been a labor of love, and how I hoped they would love it too, if they read it.  Then I wandered past my seat (the only writer not to return to his seat), and went to the back where the wine glasses were (nobody else had touched a wine glass), and in full view of the ladies, downed a plastic glass of cheap Chablis. Still, I got a couple of gigs. Even now, a good half of the paid readings I get invited to are sponsored by Jewish organizations. In fact, Jewish readers took interest in me even before they had read me.  When my first story was published in Zoetrope, there was an item about it in the Jewish Daily Forward, in their Walter Winchel-esque “Knickerbocker” gossip column, “Gabriel Brownstein has published a story.” —the assumption being (I guess) that their readers were rooting for a guy with my name.  Even non-Jews take interest in me as a Jew.  About 90% of the time I get book reviews assigned, the authors of the books are Jewish.  I’m not complaining—those books have been good—but had my father dropped the second syllable of his last name, no way would you see my by-line on an article about Singer or Roth. “Are you a Jewish writer?” That’s the big question—the question every Jewish writer gets asked when he stands before a Jewish crowd.   It’s a question about allegiance, I guess, about identity—and because the answer is so obvious  (my last name is Brownstein, I’m sitting in a synagogue basement, hawking a book) it feels a little bit needling, posed with a raised eyebrow, and the eyebrow I imagine is my late Great Aunt Henya’s, drawn in an orange pencil to match her permanent’s rinse. I’ve worked out different replies.  The rim shot: “No, I’m a Korean gynocologist.”  Or “Yeh, yeh,” with the flap of the hand (Yiddish being the only language where a double positive is a negative).  But the fact is inescapable: Were I to convert to Catholicism and to renounce the pen for dentistry, that would only make me a more interesting Jewish writer. As a kid, I’ll admit it, I thought of them like an all-star team, The American Jews—Saul “The Sultan of Swat” Bellow roaming right, Bern “the Iron Horse” Malamud at first, Grace “Pee-Wee” Paley, the slick-fielding shortstop, and in center my hero, Phil “The Jersey Clipper” Roth.  All I wanted, maybe starting at about fifteen, was to be a utility infielder on that squad, maybe a pinch runner, but certainly to wear the uniform.  And that uniform was never the long black coat and yarmulke.  Alexander Portnoy wanted to be “just a center fielder,” not a Jewish center fielder.  None of my heroes took the field with a big YIDDLE on their chest, or played for the home team. And that’s what drew me to them—their ambiguity, their irony, the same things, it turns out, Cleanth Brooks liked about literature. My team by now has won so many championships that their influence is pervasive.  Everyone wants to wear the cap.  It’s not just Updike with his Beck books.  Barack Obama, on the campaign trail, acknowledged his debt to Bellow and Roth.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is over-populated with brilliant, superreal Jewish caricatures—the assimilated Larchmont housewife, the downtown hippy, the neo-con sage—Franzen (not a Jew) even has a Jewish identity rediscovery subplot.  Some of my favorite recent Jewish short stories have been by non-Jews, like Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise,“ about a New York painter’s colonoscopy, or Anthony Doerr’s beautiful requiem for a dying Holocaust survivor, “Afterworld.” Not long ago, William Deresiewicz wrote an interesting article in the Nation about the state of contemporary Jewish letters.  He noted that the Jewish subcultures that spawned the great Jewish-American writers of the midcentury are all gone, and that it’s no longer possible to be a Jewish-American writer as Bellow and Roth and Malamud and Paley were, moving from the margin toward the center while embracing both.  The Jewish writers of my generation whose subject is most overtly Jewish—Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nathan Englander—tend to write historical fiction, and they seem not to be following the madcap assimilationist comedy of Portnoy’s Complaint but more the elegiac lyricism of Cynthia Ozick, as in The Shawl—a search for something lost, a search for authenticity.  But that search for authenticity is not what I love. It’s not that I’m ambivalent about being a Jewish writer, but that the kind of Jewish writer I am is ambivalent. I’m more attuned to the dissonant chord than to mournful harmonies, and reading Ozick—ah, she’s so brilliant, nobody’s smarter—I can get uneasy.  In the Puttermesser Papers, for instance, a character begins riffing on Yiddish, with its only one word for knife: “By us, we got only messer, you follow?  By them they got sword, they got lance, they got halberd . . ..  Look it up in the book, you’ll see halberd, you’ll see cutlass, pike, rapier, foil, ten dozen more.  By us, pike is a fish.”  And it’s feels like a sermon not a story, as if the character is mouthing the author’s beliefs, by us we’re gentle, by them they’re mean, and this for me shades quickly toward Ozick’s politics, the kind of Zionism that brooks no irony or ambiguity, or much sympathy at all for the other guy’s sufferings or cries for justice. What happens when Jewish fiction becomes identity fiction?  Here we come to the difficult thing at the heart of this essay and the heart of contemporary Jewish-themed fiction, i.e., fiction about the Holocaust.  Here, irony and ambiguity seem out of place:  I may find my ethnicity comic, but Nazis most certainly won’t.  Ozick’s "The Shawl" is not the first piece of fiction by an American-born Jew to re-imagine the horrors of the camps, but it is one of the most influential.   And “The Shawl” is beautifully written, six-pages long and composed as if in a trance.  A mother watches as her child is thrown against the electrified fence of a concentration camp:  “And all at once Magda was swimming through the air.  The whole of Magda traveled through loftiness.  She looked like a butterfly touching a silver vine. And the moment Magda’s feathered round head and her pencil legs and her balloonish belly and zigzag arms splashed against the fence, the voices went mad in their growling.”  In direct contradiction of Theodore Adorno’s dictum that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” Ozick turns Auschwitz into poetry. Her writing, in some ways, is the antithesis of the flat-eyed, clear-eyed prose of Primo Levi, whose Survival in Auschwitz chronicles the awful banality of the place, and examines the daily bleakness of mass slaughter with his clinical chemist’s eye. As a writer you can’t help but be struck by Ozick’s audacity, but now, thirty years after “The Shawl,” it’s become habitual. Everybody turns Auschwitz into poetry—serious writers like Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Englander, and less serious writers and film-makers and TV-show producers, all the way down to Holocaust kitsch like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A world-wrenching mind-boggling horror—a set of horrors that no one can wrap their mind around—has become a genre, holocaust fiction.  And like the Jewish comedy that I so love, the field’s open to everybody.  I can hardly go two semesters of creative writing classes (at a Catholic school, natch) without getting a concentration camp story.  And yet when I taught Survival in Auschwitz recently in a graduate literature course, my students didn’t much like the book.  So dry, they said.  So bleak.  It was missing something.  In most Holocaust stories, they said, you got that little ray of sunshine, of redemption—the triumph of the human spirit. Bellow, of course, didn’t much like being categorized as a Jewish writer.  He was uncomfortable with Isaac Beshevis Singer (“too Jewy”) and joked that he, Malamud, and Roth were the Hart, Schaffner and Marx of American letters.  The great Jewish writers of the 50s saw identity and history as unsteady things.  Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” ends with its hero running from rabbinical studies toward love, and the old matchmaker, Salzman, muttering prayers for the dead.  The viewpoint in Roth’s late great Israel novels—The Counterlife and Operation Shylock—is doubled, two Roths, split identities, the whole concept of authenticity set ablaze. Perhaps in the work of contemporary historical Jewish novelists we’re seeing a counter-reaction, an attempt to put that fire out and reclaim all that was lost.  Maybe people are done reading about ambivalent Jews.  After all, you can be a Jewish writer these days, a Jonathan Lethem or a Joan Silber, and not really write that much as a Jew at all.  Meanwhile, the very best of the current Jewish writers who write on Jewish themes, Michael Chabon and Allegra Goodman, have managed to leap the dichotomy between the old ironists and the new earnestness largely through the sheer force of human comedy.  American-Jewish fiction remains rich in potentialities—infinite numbers of stories to be written about family, history, assimilation, Zionism, philo-Semitism, anti-Semitism, ideology, and power—no wonder people are still interested. I went to a conference not too long ago on Asian American writers, and “Are you an Asian American writer?”  the writers were asked.  For me, it was a little trip through the looking glass, and I wondered:  Is this how it goes all over the country?  You invite a panel of writers, troop them up under the fluorescents, and then ask, “For us or against us?” David Henry Hwang, the playwright, had a good answer.  He said that for years he had resented the categorization, but in time he had come to terms with it.  You have to get categorized, he said, one way or another—Jewish writer, gay writer, women’s writer, sex writer, what have you.  He talked of friends, fine playwrights with unspectacular careers, who had never been categorized, and said, look, that’s why they never took off.  You need to get categorized in order to succeed. Truth is, these days, any writer who gets any attention should count himself lucky.  A reader, somewhere, from some reason, is thinking of you—that alone should be cause for a happy dance.  So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am a Jewish writer.  Invite me to your community center, please! (Image: Seychelles Island-1, from zeevveez's photostream)

The Prizewinners 2008/2009

With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P 4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N 4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon - C, N 4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - B, I 4, 2007, Animal's People by Indra Sinha - B, I 4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N 4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I 4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I 4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C 4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W 4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C 4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C 4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I 4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I 4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P 4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W 4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N 4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P 4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W 4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I 4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W 4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P 4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I 4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W 4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I 4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I 4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W 4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W 4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N 4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I 4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W

The Prizewinners Revisited

A while back, I put together a post called "The Prizewinners," which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the "best" books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original "Prizewinners" post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W

The Prizewinners

The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one's yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year's National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of "big name" literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I'd love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)
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