Book Awards: Really?

Book AwardsI was reading a short notice announcing the finalists for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was intrigued when it was pointed out that there was no overlap between this award and either the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Think of it: three prestigious literature awards each had a different view of what they considered the best recent fiction. Could that be possible? Was there collusion?

Here are the three lists of finalists for fiction:

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XFX: Bleeding Edge

IBM 360When I went to college nothing was computerized. I had a friend who regularly went out to Cal Tech and would sit at his kitchen table for hours pouring over thick stacks of printer paper. Computers were at Cal Tech and Shakespeare was at the UC. By the early 1970s I was working with computers, mostly for data communications and data analysis. A little more than five years my technological experiences went from my first electric typewriter to programming the then mighty IBM 360. What a combination: steeped in poetry and drama yet being paid to conduct traffic studies and coordinate message switching activities in the telecommunications industry.

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Will you read these?

NBAOver here in the politically challenged United States we have our own national book award called, conveniently, the National Book Award. What amazes me is that we have not as yet attached a commercial sponsor to the award: How does the Qualcomm Book Award sound? Maybe the EBay Book Award? The Red Bull Book Award?

Today the National Book Foundation announced the 2013 National Book Award finalists, with five nominees in each of the four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. The winners will be named at a gala dinner and ceremony in New York on Nov. 20.

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XFX: Stephen Dixon

Johns Hopkins has the reputation for an excellent Creative Writing program and one of its major assets was the writer Stephen Dixon. Dixon was nominated two times for the National Book Award, first for his early novel Frog and later for Interstate. I mention this because it serves to frame my experience with Dixon.

Back in the ’90s I read my first Dixon piece, Interstate. I hated it. If you look back through my early postings it was prominent on my “Worst” list and remains there to this day, even though my opinion has changed considerably. Interstate is not the type of novel that Forster describes: even though you might find the appearance of a plot, or of characters, the narrative structure subordinates all those normal novelistic things and takes over the novel. Dixon tells a simple story of a father driving along with his daughter when another automobile creates a dangerous interaction on the road, a gun is brandished, a tragedy occurs or is about to occur … and then the father is driving along the road with his daughter but the circumstances are slightly different and when the second car arrives …

That’s the book:  a short narrative, altered slightly and repeated over and over. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to have my literature-brain poked and nudged at that time because I remember hating this novel and agonizing my way to the last page. But for some strange reason, I read more works by this author and he rapidly won me over. I could see the value of the experimentation Dixon displayed in Interstate:  variations on a theme being more common in music but why not in writing too?

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