Literary awards can seem so arbitrary when you think of the sheer amount of books and the relatively small amount of ‘judges’ who read only a few. And how so much personal context—your life story, your perspective, your surroundings, how you read the book—goes into one’s judgment of it. But awards give way to fun discussion, I suppose. Perhaps an award may help you discover a book that a group of people have deemed worthwhile in some way. Maybe you’ll disagree.
Last year I picked up Less by Andrew Sean Greer simply because it had won the 2018 Pulitzer, and I liked it well enough. However, I was blown away last month when I read one of the finalists, In the Distance by Hernan Diaz. And see, the awards have produced in me a feeling of resentment towards Less, a perfectly fine book, for being called ‘better’ than the book I preferred.
The other day, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to Richard Powers’ 600+ page tome about trees, The Overstory. Powers has been distinguished before for his novel The Echo Maker, which won the National Book Award in 2006, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The Overstory was shortlisted last year for the Man Booker Prize.
Personally, I think The Overstory could have won this solely on the basis of its first section of interconnected short stories (called “Roots”). But after that, it became mired in its repeated facts, magical realism that undermined those environmental facts, and it’s sometimes an eye-rolling portrayal of women (a manic pixie tree girl, if you will). Could just be me, though. Have you read the tree book?
The two finalists for the prestigious annual prize, which is awarded to American authors writing about American life, included Tommy Orange’s There, There and Rebecca Makai’s The Great Believers. There, There, a treatise on what it means to be Native American in modern times, is an exciting debut and a refreshing perspective—I’m looking forward to reading more of Orange’s works in the coming years.
I haven’t read The Great Believers yet, though I’ve had plenty of people recommend it to me and it’s on my list. The Pulitzer site describes it as
“An artful novel that chronicles a mother’s search for her estranged daughter against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, and contemplates the ripples of grief affecting generations of survivors.”
Have you read these novels, or plan to now that they’re award-winners or finalists? How do you feel about trees?