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The year in review: Literary prizes open our eyes to unexpected writers

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Can anyone name the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature? He is an octogenarian Swedish psychologist and poet with a huge reputation in his country of nine million — the Robert Frost of Sweden, according to the editor of the literary magazine Granta. But I imagine that Tomas Transtromer (below) is little known anywhere else. After he won, I remember reading that his American publishers were anxious to put out more copies of his out-of-print volumes of poetry.

So Transtromer is not a world name in literature. But then again, who among living authors is? Many pop stars and actors are known the world over, and maybe even a couple of movie directors (Steven Spielberg?), but writers? If Salman Rushdie comes closest to world stature, it’s because he became a focal point in the war between Islam and the West rather than because of any vast readership. It could be that a writer of thrillers such as John Grisham or even Stephen King — or most likely J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter’s gifted creator — is the most recognized authorial name in the world. Who knows?

It’s an interesting little speculation, but global appeal isn’t a concern of those who award literary prizes. Yet because the Nobel recognizes a life’s work, not a specific book like most literary prizes, one expects to have heard of the writer.

That is not always the case, which is probably a good thing. Writing is often so completely entangled with culture that even exceptional writers often have only a local impact, on their country or their region. One of the best books I’ve ever read, “Palace Walk” by Naguib Mahfouz, would not have come to my attention if it hadn’t been for Mahfouz’s winning the Nobel in 1988. The award piqued my curiosity about him, leading me to a novel that is an extraordinary portrait of Egyptian society told through the life of one tradition-bound family.

Most literary prizes, despite being of tremendous significance to the publishing industry, are probably quickly forgotten. But they drive up book sales. An unknown author, given sudden recognition with a nod from the Pulitzer, National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle judges, begins to make a name for herself. In an era when excitement emanates from glowing electronic media, I think the annual literary prizes are about the only way for the book world to draw attention to the high culture of the book that valiantly persists in a world of battling kaleidoscopic images.

Following is a recap of the fiction and nonfiction winners of the major literary prizes for 2011, and some of the controversies they kicked up. Too elitist? Disgustingly populist? It was reassuring that the awards provoked some arguments, a mild confirmation that good books are still viable things, if only for a minority with the stamina and inclination to read them.

First, however, I offer my own choices for the best books of 2011. Since I’m the only judge here, I’ve had to contemplate much over the past year about what makes a successful narrative. For me, it’s writing that plunges me into another world through its peculiar beauty combined with a sense of momentum — not plot as much as a writer’s ability to reveal how things roll forward and change from original impulses.

2011 ArtsCriticATL CHOICE FOR DISTINGUISHED FICTION

“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury). The publisher sent me this book because the writer was going to appear in Atlanta. The grim title and white cartoon dog on the cover immediately put me off. Dog?What was this novel about? I didn’t plan to read it; I cracked it open just so I wouldn’t feel guilty about putting it aside without reading a word. I didn’t like the first sentence or the opening paragraphs, about a pit bull terrier named China birthing puppies in a shed. It took a few pages to convince me that Jesmyn Ward is a real writer. She writes with incredible style and strength. Once her story about a dirt-poor black family preparing for a storm named Katrina on the Mississippi coast drew me in, it wouldn’t let go. These were hard, scrappy, violent lives without beauty or morality to raise them up. Yet the abiding love of four siblings for each other was a hugely redeeming factor, as love always is. I called the book a “small masterpiece” in my review. Few other publications covered it. Then it won the National Book Award and the literary world asked, “Who’s Jesmyn Ward? How could a writer no one’s heard of win the country’s top literary honor?” Well, for one thing, she can write and tell a story both. (See my full review here.)

 

2011 ArtsCriticATL CHOICE FOR DISTINGUISHED NONFICTION 

“Thoughts Without Cigarettes” by Oscar Hijuelos(Gotham Books). This memoir, by the first writer to bring serious attention to Latino writing in America with his 1989 novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” received much less attention than it deserved. It is beautifully evocative of a young man’s growing up in mid-century New York on the edge of Harlem. His parents’ stormy marriage, his dislocation between two cultures — Cuban and American — his forays into music and his ultimate unexpected vocation of literature, followed by sudden literary stardom in the early 1990s is served up in a feast of wistful, elegiac reflections on all those intimate things that most of us remember only fleetingly in our daily lives. Reading this book about Hijuelos’ relationship with his parents and his childhood world, absorbed in his nostalgia, we remember moments of love and beauty in our own pasts, and all the disappointments in between. (See my full review here.)    

2011 NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS

Fiction

This award was totally out of touch with what people were reading, went the argument against this year’s group of little-known fiction finalists: Andrew Kriva for “The Sojourn,” Tea Obreht for “The Tiger’s Wife,” Julie Otsuka for “The Buddha in the Attic” and Edith Pearlman for “Binocular Vision.” And probably the most obscure was the young black novelist from rural Mississippi who was named the winner: Jesmyn Ward for “Salvage the Bones” (see above). Not straight out of Mississippi; Ward’s talent has been cultivated at Stanford and the University of Michigan, where she was feted with many awards.

Nonfiction

“The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton & Company). An innovative history about how one manuscript, “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius, was plucked up after a thousand years of neglect and changed the course of human thought.

2011 PULITZER PRIZES

This year the prizes for fiction and nonfiction went to popular writers, those who’ve garnered a lot of good press and are becoming book club favorites, which doesn’t mean they are in any way undeserving, because both books are very accomplished works.

Fiction

“A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan (Alfred A. Knopf). A satire about our image-centric, celebrity-obsessed, digitally fixated world. The first draft was written longhand on yellow legal pads, the author told the National Book Critics Circle, which also awarded her its fiction prize.

Nonfiction

“The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner). This tome brings to life tremendous research and clinical observation in a kind of historical mystery: what is this insidious disease and how do we attack it?

2011 NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARDS

These awards were presented in March for books published in 2010. It was something of a literary upset and a surprise to me that the lesser-known Jennifer Egan trumped Jonathan Franzen for the fiction prize after Franzen’s long-awaited “Freedom” had generated great hoopla in the media.

Fiction

“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan (Alfred A. Knopf). See above.

Nonfiction

“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House). In this widely acclaimed book, Wilkerson, a former New York Times reporter, condensed the phenomenon of black migration northward from the Jim Crow South into the life stories of three African-Americans in this widely acclaimed book.

 

2011 MAN BOOKER PRIZE

Controversy broke out around this British award when the chairman of this year’s judging panel, Dame Stella Rimington, emphasized “readability” as a key quality of the short-listed books. The literati mocked the “dumbing down” of the esteemed Booker. Rimington, a spy novelist who was the first woman director-general of MI5, Britain’s counterintelligence agency, held her ground, and a group of celebrated writers, headed by a London literary agent, lashed out against the perceived lapse in standards by announcing the establishment of The Literature Prize for novels “unsurpassed in their quality and ambition.”

 In the end, the 2011 Man Booker went to Julian Barnes, a prolific, well-regarded writer, which appeased the literary establishment, who murmured that the judges had ultimately realized the folly of their “readable books.” Barnes won for “The Sense of an Ending” (Alfred A. Knopf), the story of a divorced middle-aged man who must reconsider his past and revise his estimation of himself.

2011 MAN ASIAN LITERARY PRIZE

Finally, in the interest of providing a global perspective, here’s a relatively new major prize for Asian writers whose work appears in English, established by the Man Group, the same investment company that sponsors the Booker. In October, the long list of 12 nominated books was announced. Unlike the 2011 National Book Award, which went to an unknown writer, or the Man Booker, which went to a favorite, this award is aimed at grand writing that spins epic tales on the scale of the great 19th-century novels. “Could it be that as the world’s economic center of gravity is moving eastwards, so too is its artistic energy and ambition?” asks its chairman, David Parker.

The short list will be announced January 10 and the winner named at a dinner in Hong Kong in March. Here are the 12 contenders.

“The Wandering Falcon” by Jamil Ahmad, Pakistan (Riverhead Books). The linked stories in this slim book read like documentary reports from the harsh country where Baluchi tribes and the Pakistani military meet. Ahmad, a senior member of the Pakistan Civil Service with firsthand experience of the region, offers an insider’s view of these tradition-bound tribes, which now support the Taliban.

“The Good Muslim” by Tahmima Anam, Bangladesh (Harper). A young Bangladeshi woman returns home to confront her brother’s radicalism.

“Rebirth” by Jahnavi Barua, India (Penguin Books). Moving between southern India and Assam in the east, this novel examines a young woman’s uncertain marriage and her bond with her unborn child.

“The Sly Company of People Who Care” by Rahul Bhattacharya, India (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). An Indian cricket journalist escapes his stale life, arriving in Guyana, a forgotten colonial society where the descendants of slaves have made a new world in the jungle.

“The Colonel” by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, Iran (Haus Publishing). This book has been banned in the author’s home country for its indictments of the Islamic Revolution and what it has done to its children.

“River of Smoke” by Amitav Ghosh, India (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The second installment of Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy follows the fate of 19th-century convicts and indentured laborers from Calcutta tossed upon Chinese shores in a storm.

1Q84” by Haruki Murakami, Japan (Alfred A. Knopf). This epic, set in 1984, poses questions about the nature of reality and the power of personal stories to influence each other.

“The Folded Earth” by Anuradha Roy, India (Free Press). A young woman in the Himalayas, escaping great sorrow, is a schoolteacher by day and a typist by night for her landlord writing a magnum opus.

“Please Look After Mom” by Kyung-Sook Shin, South Korea (Alfred A. Knopf). This Korean best seller follows a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon in a Seoul subway station.

“The Valley of Masks” by Tarun J. Tejpal, India (HarperCollins India/4th Estate). A fantasy novel that examines the pathologies of power and dogma to give us a vision of the future.

“Dream of Ding Village” by Yan Lianke, China (Grove Press). Censored in China, Lianke’s fictional account of how AIDS is spreading in rural China through illegal blood-selling is based on three years of undercover investigation.

“The Lake” by Banana Yoshimoto, Japan (Melville House). A young woman, hoping to get over the grief of her mother’s death, spends too much time staring out her window and eventually embarks on a hesitant romance with a young man across the street, escaping trauma of his own.

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