Get in line, please – there’s enough prizes for everyone!

A New Yorker review of The Economy of Prestige, a book by James English where he argues that “the threat of scandal” is essential to the viabilty of a literary award, and that it is “at least as important that the prize go to the wrong person as that it go to the right one.” That explains Banville. (sorry Lavanya).

When the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to Sully Prudhomme, in 1901, the choice was regarded as a scandal, since Leo Tolstoy happened to be alive. The Swedish Academy was so unnerved by the public criticism it received that its members made a point of passing over Tolstoy for the rest of his life—just to show, apparently, that they knew what they were doing the first time around—honoring instead such immortals as Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, José Echegaray, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Giosuè Carducci, Rudolf Eucken, and Selma Lagerlöf.

English says that for prizes to “matter” they need to be thought of as “fundamentally scandalous” by the public – scandalous in the sense that art should really have nothing to do with winning or losing.

In English’s view, therefore, [Toni] Morrison’s friends and admirers violated the protocols of prize-bashing not because they publicly criticized the choice of the National Book Award judges but because they acknowledged that the award really matters, that it is (in their words) a “keystone honor” that helps to validate a book and establish its author. Their statement pointed out, in the frankest terms, that there is a literary marketplace, and that power and authority–“cultural capital,” to use the term that English borrows from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu–accrue to those who succeed in it. Art does not receive its reward in Heaven; it is one of the things that belong to Caesar.

English speculates that this willingness to speak without embarrassment about the significance of prizes and awards, and about the whole economy of cultural production and consumption, may, paradoxically, signal the demise of the prize system.

The book also sounds a hopeful note for wannabe creators:

There are now more movie awards given out every year–about nine thousand–than there are new movies, and the number of literary prizes is climbing much faster than the number of books published.

Nice. I’ll remember that for the next time I run into an award winning writer.

“Reclusive writer one of the best,” says Blogger

‘Tis the season for the coming out of recluses : First Illayaraja, famously idiosyncratic genius, performs his first live concert in decades, and even manages to enjoy it. Then, an actual, substantive Philip Roth interview appears in the Guardian. And now, Annie Proulx – who equates celebrity to being displayed on a meat rack – reluctantly talks to a few publications before the release of Brokeback Mountain, the movie based on her New Yorker short story from the late nineties.

Proulx started her career writing hunting stories for a men’s magazine, and to avoid the inevitable “What’s a name like Annie doing in a magazine like this?” – the editor wanted her to change her name to something more, well, masculine. Joe or Zack, perhaps? Finally a compromise was arrived at: Proulx added an E to her name and started writing as E.A.Proulx. Even after she became popular, the E persisted. BrokeBack Mountain was her first work as just plain Annie – even the Pulitzer winning Shipping News was credited to E. Annie Proulx. [1]

Most of Proulx’s tales are set in rural America, and her writing is brilliantly evocative (and unconventional and surprisingly humorous), effectively doing what she wants it to do – “make landscapes rise from the page, to appear in the camera lens of the reader’s mind.”

More than her lyrical writing, the allure of Proulx’s work lies in her steadfast refusal to glamorize a landscape that’s often a victim of its own beauty in the hands of lesser writers. Her rivers always run brown, and she’s not afraid of staining the pristine snow of the mountains with a little bit of pee. People treat animals cruelly and handsome, hardy cowboys fall in love with each other. Fly fishing is hard work, rodeo bull riders whimper when they fall and life on the whole is pretty darn hard. It is the average working class world, projected on white snowscreens.

In her own words,

It is not pastoral nostalgia that shakes me but imagined histories built on such slender clues as a rusted tobacco can nailed to a lodgepole pine and containing a miner’s claim from the last century, or an unchecked panhandle windmill boring a mad hole in the sky…

My introduction to Proulx was through The Shipping News, her Pulitzer winning book about a quintessential loser named Quoyle. Saddled with the responsibilty of raising his two daughters when his wife leaves him for another man, Quoyle decides to move his family – the kids and an old aunt – to Newfoundland. Actually, it was the Aunt’s will, and Quoyle complies. He finds a job in a newspaper office, and slowly, the family starts to settle down in the aunt’s ramshackle old home. As the gloom of winter starts to take over, Quoyle starts experiencing something close to hope.. “it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”

The Shipping News is a brilliantly written book, and Proulx possesses an acute awareness of her setting and characters. Every character has a backstory, and exhibits the odd quirk or two (but never quirky enough to be caricatures) and when they all come together, it makes for a very satisfying read. Did I say brilliantly written? At unexpected moments, Proulx decides to do away with prepositions and conjunctions in her sentences, adding a wry, darkly funny tone to the writing.

Quoyle, grinning. Expected to hear they were having a kid. Already picked himself for godfather.

Quoyle at the back of the meeting, writing on his pad. Went home, typed and retyped all night at the kitchen table. In the morning, eyes circled by rings, nerved on coffee, he went to the newsroom.

And then there are the gimmicks. Each chapter begins with the description of a knot from The Ashley Book Of Knots, and after a few chapters it is fun to try and figure out what would happen based on the knot described. Here’s the first chapter:

Quoyle: A coil of rope.

A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.

For what’s essentially a catalog of a gloomy life, The Shipping News can also be incredibly funny. Quoyle tends to think in newspaper headlines, and Proulx uses this throughout the book to great effect. Just this one “trick” lightens up the book tremendously, and transforms what could have easily become a laborious literary novel into an accessible classic.

Saw the commonplaces of life as newspaper headlines. Man Walks Across Parking Lot at Moderate Pace. Women Talk of Rain. Phone Rings in Empty Room.

Here’s an excerpt.

Coming back to Brokeback Mountain, Proulx says she spent more time on this short story than she would on a novel and it shows. It is a beautiful short story. (In fact, all the stories in Close Range are great reads).

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

Jack and Ennis end up tending sheep together on Brokeback Mountain, and their friendship turns into a sexual relationship. The change happens without ado – naturally, almost like it was destined to happen. It is cold, come in to the tent, there is enough room on the bed, then it happens. It is clich?d, but Proulx intended it to be clich?d: it is not really that different, she seems to be saying. Their love is forbidden love; Jack wants them living together but Ennis is worried about the consequences. The two of them part ways and try to lead “normal” lives – wives, kids – while pining for each other. And then,… I won’t give it away, just read it if you can get hold of it somewhere.

Update: A Brokeback Mountan FAQ at annieproulx.com.

And a Falstaff review of the movie.

[1]: I got this from the Complete New Yorker, which is my stranded-on-a-desert-book now. Ok, DVD, but still.

Simply Beautiful

Where I'm Calling FromA striking feature of the Lord of the Rings books is the author’s vivid rendering of Middle Earth. J.R.R Tolkien chose an imaginary setting for his books, but he provided his readers so much information about them – maps, historical contexts, evocative descriptions of landscapes – that it was hard to believe that the whole thing was made up. Tolkien filled his books with an overwhelming amount of descriptive detail at every opportunity he could, creating an array of detailed snapshots of the setting for readers. The effect was something unusual – a credible fantasy.

Stylistically, there couldn’t be a writer farther away from Tolkien than Raymond Carver. Where Tolkien would use a hundred words, Carver uses ten; where Tolkien’s characters wax poetic, Carver’s just grunt. Tolkien took pride in the length (and breadth) of his works, Carver was a minimalist from the Hemingway school.

But after reading Where I’m Calling From, Carver’s last collection of short stories before his premature death, one can’t help feeling that Carver did to the human being what Tolkien did to Middle Earth – his stories are a series of silhouettes that spotlight the world of his subjects. Like Tolkien’s verbose snapshots, the silhouettes work rather well. No writer I’ve read comes close to capturing the textured world of the guy next door as well as Carver does here.

Carver’s most remarkable achievement is the genuineness of his characters. A few sentences into every story a familiarity envelops you – you’ve met these people, you know how they talk – followed by awe at how true it all sounds. The dad in Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes could’ve so easily been mine; the odd couple in Put yourself in My Shoes could’ve been the weird people next door that maids hated to work for.

The whole experience of reading a Carver book is mind-blowing – it is like watching events unfold at your neighbor’s house through a skylight. And it is here that the author’s spare style comes in so handy – Carver keeps his descriptions down to a minimum, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the backdrop: these people could be your neighbors as much as they are mine.

A lot has been written about Carver’s minimalist style, but while his writing is spare and stark, he has an amazing eye for just the right details – passing mentions of an odd stray dog, a wet shoe or daddy’s muscles somehow lend a more complete feel to the stories, and the overall effect is that of something way more than the sum of its parts. (I so want to pun on his spare sentence construction and him not sparing a detail, but I’ll pass).

In “What’s in Alaska,” for example, two couples get together for an evening. And as the evening progresses, laced with drinking and drugs, Carver chooses to focus a lot of attention on the brand new shoes of one of the men – his doubts about the shoes seem to somehow mirror how he feels about the changes in his life. It is totally unexpected, and incredibly poignant.

Midway through the book, there seems to be a slight shift in Carver’s style. He’s a little more chatty, and the tales have a sunnier feel to them. You could sense a writer trying to break free from a style that was starting to cramp him, but unfortunately for Carver (and us) his life ended before he could finish his experimentation.

According to this essay by William Stull, professor at the University of Hartford, sometime after the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Carver thought he would hit a dead end if he continued to head down the path of increased minimalism, and

[…]what followed over the next two years was an artistic turnabout, “an opening up” during which he restored and expanded the work he had pared down under the influence of editor Lish, Hemingway’s “theory of omission,” and his own purgative impulses. Two small-press books, Fires and If It Please You, display the outcome of this process. In addition, Carver wrote a dozen new stories in a higher, more hopeful key. The first of them, “Cathedral” (Atlantic Monthly, September 1981), he termed “totally different in conception and execution” from his previous work.

Truth, I’m sure you’ve heard, is stranger than fiction. If you believe that, then Carver’s short stories are the closest fiction can get to the truth.

Update: Here’s Falstaff on Carver. Neat.

Quoigning Words And Digesting Tales

Graham Greene, we hear, sucked at spelling. And so, when playing Scrabble, he resorted to the classic poor speller’s trick: quoigning new words.

The problem, according to Meyer, was that [Graham] Greene’s spelling was “deeply dubious”, and the pair did not have a dictionary. During a stay in Tahiti, Greene produced the words “zeb”, which he claimed was an Elizabethan word for “cock”, and “quoign” which he insisted was Shakespearean, quoting: “Yon castle’s quoign that Duncan’s spirit haunts.”

Meyer thought the line was as dubious as Greene’s spelling and, in the sultry Tahitian nights, tempers frayed. The pair were still arguing when they reached San Francisco, months later. They ran straight from the ship to a second-hand book store and found a dictionary.

The word was in, spelled “quoin”, which satisfied Greene, though as Meyer pointed out, “quoin” would not have landed on a triple letter score.

I don’t feel so bad now for tricking my eleven year old nephew into believing that qyonder was the one of the few words in English where a u didn’t follow the q. Think it meant a problem at a distant place. I hope he mentions me in his autobiography, but given that he hasn’t bothered to look up qyonder yet, that is a very distant possibility. He isn’t that good at cricket either.

Mr Greene and Scrabble (Through Bookslut)

Meanwhile, everyone else in the world seems to have watched the new Potter movie. I want to go watch it tomorrow, so that I can tell people that the book was so much better than the movie. To make that statement with authority, I had to read the book first, so I read it online here – check back next week for the post that tells you the book is so much better than the movie.

The Guardian Digested Read is my (very belated) find of the year.

Why, I even read the entire dirty book that Falstaff talks about so much. In five minutes, no less. Let’s see you beat that buddy.

And before I sign off, check out Gayathri’s crisp little review of Harold Pinter’s A Birthday Party. And wish the soon to be marriajed (damn, that’s better than qyonder) Veena. To balance out the sexes, here’s another bad speller exposed.

Update: Somehow, this post would like to think it spawned this one. It feels rather proud about the fact.

It is as if we are too pug-nosed individually, but together, we create a patrician nose a Roman would be proud of. And from atop that noble proboscis, we gaze down upon the world. For all our toils for the sake of being included, exclusion is the ultimate reward.

A Collection Most Cloying

Inspirations for books can come from the most unexpected of sources – from the obvious in your face incident to tangential, barely related happenings that spark trains of thought that lead to novels. Nabokov’s Lolita apparently “was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

Muses lurk everywhere. In the right hands, apes with charcoal in their hands can become seductresses.

In the case of “Sujatha” Rangarajan, one does not need to look too hard to find out where the muse lurked: His typical middle class Brahmin upbringing – a unique mix of conservative and liberal extremes, a steady diet of Dahl, O.Henry and Carver, an engineering education, and an interest in science fiction.

Drawing themes from the milieu he was most comfortable and using a lot of techniques borrrowed from the masters – mostly Dahl methinks – Sujatha developed a successful formula early in his career. A matter-of-fact prose style with a lot of irony thrown in helped make him immensely popular, and that popularity persists to date.

At seventy, he is prolific as ever – supplementing regular columns in several magazines with the occasional work of fiction. If you allude about his popularity to Sujatha, he will bristle. He is convinced that the whole popular tag is a conspiracy to belittle his literary achievements, and says as much in his introduction to “Sujatha’s Selected Short Stories”, a two-volume collection of a hundred and something of his best short stories.

But the truth is, after the initial creative burst that helped him break into the league of very popular writers, Sujatha stagnated; he was reduced to churning out story after story using the same formula. And I don’t blame him for it – an environment where your name guarantees instant commercial success is not really conducive to self improvement. He also alludes in the introduction to the pressures of working with deadlines affecting the quality of his stories.

The best evidence of this stagnation is this anthology – after the refreshing effect of the first few stories ennui sets in. It is not that the quality of the later works is bad – no matter where you start in the book, the repetitive nature of the stories in the anthology becomes evident after the first few stories. It’s all the same after some time: The wry first person narratives (always male, almost the author), the bold (for those days) descriptions of women, the twists at the end, the slightly macabre plots and the upper middle class setting.

This is not to say I didn’t like the book: taken one at a time, most of the stories in the anthology are competent, and a handful of them are outstanding. Sujatha’s use of irony is especially good – in one my favorite stories, a family discovers a bag filled with money at their doorstep. Scared, they want to go hand the bag over to the cops, but the husband realizes he has no money to hire an autorickshaw to go to the police station. He sends his wife off to borrow some money from the neighbors.

If the books had been whittled down to about twenty of his best stories, this would have been a collection to treasure. As it stands though, the books are a little too long, and a little too repetitive. Do buy them both, but don’t read them in one shot – take your time, and read a lot of other authors in between.

PS: I have to mention this – the production quality of the books is awesome. Uyirmai Padhippagam has done a great job – typo-free hardcovers at this price are very cool.

Cross-posted on teakada.

A (Contemporary) Classic Downer

The incessant patter of rain through the night. Dawn, the trees greener than before, drops of water clinging to leaves. Rays of sunshine reflect off the water, and find a way to enter the room through carefully placed layers of window dressings fortified with towels and sheets. Crows cawing, interspersed with sparrows chirping. The maid screaming at her son, in a voice that would have made a tenor immensely proud, asking him not to pee outdoors. A lone mosquito buzzing malaria and dengue in my ear, waking me up several hours ahead of schedule. Bad days, I now know, begin this way.

Later that evening, I finished Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, a book that the author’s website describes as a contemporary classic. Hmm.

Now if a book starts with,

Before I really begin this book, let me first tell you what this book is not. It is not a guide on how to live through college.

you really have no business reading it. But I did. I mean, who can resist a low priced book that promises to let you relive the best years of your life?

Five point someone is about the lives of three underachievers at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology – a series of missteps bring them to the brink of (academic) extinction. And then, a magical missive arrives and sets things straight. But the book is not about the plot: it is a just a series of incidents that are supposed to make you all nostalgic about your own life at college.

Five point someone is also about atrociously bad writing that hovers precariously in the region between just awkward usage and outright bad grammar.

“God, you look a mess,” Ryan greeted in the toilet as we were shaving together.

I kind of went inside myself in that short span of time before Cherian’s office door opened again and sealed our fate, just sat quietly and ignored what Ryan and Alok said, that is if they did say anything.

The writing manages to effortlessly overshadow any merits the book might have – believable characters, realistic dialogues and (on occasion) funny incidents, resulting in the poorest read since the likes of um… can’t think of anything right now. The Inscrutable Americans, maybe?

The book did (is doing) really well in India – apparently due to a smart publishing strategy that priced the book very low. Chetan Bhagat even got himself a follow-up deal to write another book called One Night @ the Call Center, and that book is out now. Ominously, Bhagat’s website touts this one as another contemporary classic. Hmm once again.

Jai Arjun Singh has good words for One Night @ the Call Center – he calls it an improvement over Five Point Someone. Now that’s not saying much, is it?

The Da Vinci Pendulum

Talking about Foucault’s Pendulum, there is a sense in which you did the Da Vinci Code before Dan Brown did. Of course, you did it as a myth that takes on a strange reality and he did it as it was historical truth.

I told Dan Brown’s story. My characters are his. I gave the broad picture of this kind of literature.


Umberto Eco
, in The Hindu. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that Mr. Eco is claiming he is Dan Brown’s inspiration. Oh, well, Christmas is approaching and I guess people want to confess to their crimes. Good Lord, please spare Umberto. He is just a professor who writes books on Sundays.

A-List

Time Magazine makes a list of the best books of this century – a list skewed towards popular literature – and me likes it very much. Le Carre makes it and so do William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. And Bellow and Roth. Very cool.

Update: John Le Carre has long been a personal favorite – I’d argue a bit over the book chosen to represent Le Carre in the list (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Little Drummer Girl would’ve been better choices, but at least they didn’t pick The Constant Gardener), but no quibbles with him being in the list. He did the hardest thing you could ask a writer to do: making literature out of the most dumbed down fiction genre. Now if he’d only start writing codebreaking books set in the Vatican…

William Gibson and Neal Stephenson are much overlooked writers. Just because they write Science Fiction, the literary types sneer, hold their noses and walk away from them. But if the value of a book lies in the amount of (smart) entertainment it provides, then NeuroMancer and SnowCrash are right up there with the best. Cryptonomicon too, but I’ll live with this.

The Oscar Of Books

Boyd Tonkin in the Independent

Yesterday the Man Booker judges made possibly the worst, certainly the most perverse, and perhaps the most indefensible choice in the 36-year history of the contest. By choosing John Banville’s The Sea, they selected an icy and over-controlled exercise in coterie aestheticism ahead of a shortlist, and a long list, packed with a plenitude of riches and delights.

The Dublin novelist, whose emotional rage is limited and whose prose exhibits all the chilly perfection of a waxwork model, must today count himself as the luckiest writer on the planet. This was a travesty of a result from a travesty of a judging process.

Rick Gekoski in the Times

In the end it came down to a debate between The Sea and Never Let Me Go, and we made the right choice. The Sea was the best book of the year. It is not going to be the most popular, and after the award was presented I was immediately bearded by an irate bookseller from one of the big chains, who told me that it was a “disgraceful” decision, and that The Sea would be impossible to sell. I don’t know if that is true, and I don’t care. Banville has written a complex, deeply textured book, with wonderful, sinuous and sensuous prose. You can smell and feel and see his world with extraordinary clarity. Banville has written a complex, deeply textured book, with wonderful, sinuous and sensuous prose. You can smell and feel and see his world with extraordinary clarity.

John Sutherland, in the Guardian.

Banville doesn’t always help his own case. A few hours before the ceremony he confided to an American journalist that The Sea was “a bad book”. With authors like that, who needs Tibor? Nor, it would seem, was Banville indulging in false modesty. He came over to London from Philadelphia on the day of the award and booked his flight for 8am the following day. He wouldn’t win. No chance. Bad book. Pack your bag.

Banville is, as I observe him, an egregiously modest writer. He is also, as I read him, an egregiously good writer.

Karthik, on this very blog.

This is almost Oscar quality bitching, but not quite there yet. The language, guys, work on it. Avoid plenitude, egregious, travesty and sinuous. Avoid bearded too, unless you want to refer to someone with excessive facial hair on the chin. You can use weirded if the person sporting the beard is not male. Sensuous is ok, use it a lot more. But please, no Joan Rivers.

In case you are wondering, I haven’t read The Sea. I am planning to go to the local bookstore tomorrow and ask them if they have “The Sea.” I have even odds on what I’ll get:

1. A C Language Primer.

2. An incredulous look.

But then, tis’ the season for long odds.

PS: The Babu doesn’t like the choice, even after a (prescient) parody of the agonizing wait.

And oh, if you have time, check this short story by Falstaff out. Very cool.