The Problem of Criteria: So What Makes A Book Award-Worthy Anyway?
October 14, 2011 § 18 Comments
The National Book Awards were announced this week, and a lively debate ensued about why 5 lesser-known novels were chosen over the front-running novels that many critics and reviewers were betting upon. The always trenchent Laura Miller wrote an interesting response about how the NBA has made itself irrelevant and why its stickers are now as “teacher-approved” (and thus unappealing) as those of the Newberry Medal.
I agree with many of Miller’s points, and that the NBA seems to be making statements of sorts with their choices of late. However, I find myself muttering the same comments this year as I did when a similar debate ensued after last year’s list was announced: Upon which criteria are the novels being judged?
I received a PhD in English in 1998; given the zeigeist of English departments then (as well as my own interests), much of my graduate training revolved around the question of canonicity: what makes a masterpiece? Are there objective grounds or is it relative? What role do race, gender, etc. etc. play in which literary works are elevated to the ranks of the great? Who gets to make those decisions? Which formal attributes are lionized over others? (difficulty=good; sentimentality=bad).
So when I read about the NBA debates I wait, and wait, for this question to emerge. But it doesn’t. The discussion revolves around whether the nominees should have been nominated or not, and speculation on why the judges made the choices they did (or did not). But that next step–discussing upon what criteria do the judges base their decisions? making explicit upon which criteria those unhappy with the judges base their critiques–seems left untaken.
So what is it that makes a book great (for critics, judges, readers, academics)? Formal experimentation (and of what sort)? Political acumen? Historical resonance? Suspense? Ratio of dialogue to description?
I had a discussion with a friend who sits on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. She was discussing whether she should cast her vote for a novel. She was leaning against voting for it, because, three months after reading it, “the characters are fading from my mind.”
To which I said: “So a great book, for you, is one that has memorable characters?” She looked at me, surprised, unsure if she agreed. But all I had done was to make explicit her implicit criterion.
She eventually agreed that yes, a great book is one with great characters. So if everyone had her criteria, we could all debate whether the five books the NBA nominated contained great characters or not, and we could discuss the great characters in non-nominated awards.
But nobody is stating what they think makes a great novel, so we can’t get traction on the debate.
Here’s the thing: memorable characters do not, for me, make a great novel. So I would not join in that debate. But at least I would know where everyone stood, and be able to articulate why I do not share their grounds for judgement.
We can agree or disagree on criteria. We can claim there are none, that it is all taste, or politics, or old white men in leathery studies drawing straws, or great characters (Huck Finn FTW?) . But we should at least address the issue of what we think makes a literary work great when we give awards for greatness and critique those who award them.