Short of the finalist lists again

Given that it’s the Board of Directors that really picks the finalists, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that, once again, none of my personal books of the year and at best one of the books I voted for is on the short list for the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award. At least I’ve read a few of them this time so, rather than repeat the complete list, I’ll simply mention those and why they didn’t end up getting my vote in the awards process. I should also note this is limited to the categories in which I read one of the finalists or voted (thereby excluding, for example, the biography and poetry categories, respectively).

I read two of the fiction finalists and am thrilled to see there are two works in translation on the list. I read both Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and one of the works in translation, Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key.

As I think I’ve indicated before, to me Freedom‘s buzz was stronger than its content. I’m certainly not disappointed I read it but it was a long stretch from being on my best novel of the year list. And for whatever reason, Keilson’s books just didn’t grab me. I think Keilson does a far better job getting the reader invested in Comedy in a Minor Key than Death of the Adversary, the other Keilson work I read this year, but as much as I love translated literature, it wouldn’t be on my best of list. I’m guessing my favorite novel of 2010, Emma Donoghue’s Room appealed to more of a mainstream readership than literary critics tend to represent. If Keilson is among this year’s finalists, then Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone unquestionably should have been among last year’s.

I also read two of the autobiography finalists, Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22 and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which I read this past week. I’m not surprised either is among the finalists given the nominating process and the make-up of the organization and its board of directors.

Just Kids is marvelously written but two things, both somewhat idiosyncratic, kept me from really liking it. First, I’m not very familiar with Robert Mapplethorpe’s work (and, to be honest, some of his subject matter don’t interest me) and I have only a general familiarity with Patti Smith. Greater knowledge or appreciation of either would have increased my interest in the book, although I can’t say reading it sent me out to explore either more thoroughly. The one I feared would exist is there and that’s that the book is as much a story of New York City and its art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s as anything. The extent of your interest in or familiarity with those will undoubtedly impact your view of the book.

Hitch-22, meanwhile, is undeniably Hitchens and Hitchens is a critics critic. The problem is that his experiences are so different from most anyone else that it often seems as if he is boasting or name dropping when he is not. There is also an element of his writing, something anyone who’s read him knows or should know, that can be a bit off-putting even though it makes him who he is. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” (to borrow an unliterary phrase) but my enjoyment of the book wasn’t such that I would consider it among the best of the year.

Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is the only nonfiction finalist I’ve read and I believe was on my ballot. The “problem” it suffered is one of timing. Released just before the end of 2009, I read the book in February. I was quite impressed with it but its impact lessened over the months and in light of what I thought was the best nonfiction work of the year, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (Quite frankly, I can’t believe that book is not a finalist, again perhaps reflecting that it was too mainstream.) As a result, I honestly can’t recall if it was listed on my ballot, which should not reflect poorly on the book itself. Still, the fact it didn’t have a great lasting impact may say as much as anything.

In the end, it’s totally irrelevant what I voted for or didn’t, especially since the process is such that those votes aren’t that significant in the overall scheme of things. It’s just that, once again, there seems to be something resonating in my comments that suggests why I have such a poor record in casting votes for this award. This is a literary award. As such, the literati undoubtedly impact what works are selected. Being an inveterate reader does not make one literary-minded, let alone render them a literati. Unquestionably, being an illiterati in flyover country is a significant drawback to knowing what the “best” books are, whatever that may mean.

I divide all productions into two categories: those I like and those I don’t like. I have no other criterion[.]

Anton Chekhov, March 22, 1890, The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov

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