Tuesday, February 22, 2011


By now I’m sure I’ve read thousands of novels and short stories, by students and professionals both. I’ve been a fiction judge three times for the National Book Awards (chairing that committee in 1999 and 2009), three times for the Pulitzer Prize, once for the PEN/Faulkner, twice for The Los Angeles Times Book Award, and I’ve judged so many other contests that I can no longer remember them all.

The  funny thing about being a teacher---especially a teacher of writing---is that you develop the habit of reading from start to finish whatever anyone puts in front of you, whether you like it or not, with your red pencil in hand, because your job is to grade and comment on it.  But when those contest books arrive on my doorstep from UPS, and I open the boxes, and spread out in front of me on the living room floor approximately 300 novels and story collections, I’m confronted with the same question over and over again---a question that reaches all the way back to my teens.  With all these books before me, where do I start? What do I really want to read. And each time I face this dilemma, I come to the same realization. I don’t necessarily want to start with this best-selling book by a famous author. Or that book, which had a huge publicity campaign behind it. Nor am I interested in a book because it has an award attached to it. Or because a teacher told me I should read it. Or because it’s about timely social or political issues. And I’m certainly not interested because someone says that everybody is reading it, and therefore I should read it too so I can discuss that book when it comes up in a conversation.

 No, when I stare at that pile of 300 books sent by the Pulitzer committee or the National Book Foundation, what I do is try for a moment  to forget  absolutely everything I’ve learned about literature in the last fifty years. I want to forget all the critical and aesthetic theories. I want to forget all that I know as a teacher of writing and all I’ve experienced as a writer publishing since I was seventeen.  What I’m saying is that when I begin looking through those books, what I’m hungering for is the same innocent  enchantment I had when I was a reader of twelve or thirteen. At that age, when I turned to the first page of a novel or a story, I knew nothing at all about the writer, his (or her) previous works, or whether the book was literary or pulp fiction. I didn’t know what was good writing or bad. All I knew, at age thirteen, was that sometimes when I stumbled upon a story, my experience from the first page----in fact, from the first sentence---was that a kind of spell was cast over me. It was the experience of mystery and wonder, and needing to know what happens next, often after hearing that powerful, opening phrase, Once upon a time. In the midst of this enchantment, I didn’t want to stop reading, or go to bed or do anything else until I’d learned how events in the story unfolded, because I was certain the outcome had meaning for my own life. I know now that what I was experiencing is what the late John Gardner called storytelling as “a vivid and continuous dream.”  

 Forty years later this is still the experience I want when I turn to a novel or a story. In works such as these, one never has the feeling that a writer is trying to tell a story. We aren’t even aware of the writer, only of the  compelling world he (or she) has delivered to us. 

Before I retired from teaching, I once tried to see what my graduate students had to say about this matter. I went to class and before we settled down to work, I said, “Can anyone tell me the difference between a writer and a storyteller?” My younger students seemed baffled by that question. However, there was a man in that class who was a retired English professor, and an author who published one of the first Vietnam novels in the late ‘60s. (He was auditing my class.) When none of the other class members spoke up, he raised his hand and he simply said, “I’d much rather have dinner with a storyteller than a writer.”

 I think this distinguished gentleman---his name is George Sidney and his 1969 novel is called For the Love of Dying--- gave us something to think about. All the technique, craft, and literary theory we accumulate as writers must be in the service of that most deceptively simple and yet most difficult of achievements----delivering undamaged a whopping good, imaginative and original story. A story so good, Aristotle says in his Poetics, that one should be able to just turn to the person next to him, summarize the events of the story, and his listener on the basis of that synopsis will be moved to pity and fear. A story of which we can say what John Gardner said of Par Lagerkvist’s novel The Holy Land, that it compressed the complexity and difficulty of modern life “into a few stark and massive symbols in which all our experience and all human history are locked.” As a writer, I find that these kinds of stories humble me. They are stories that endure, hold us in suspense, and liberate our perception. (All the above is excerpted from my essay "Storytelling and the Alpha Narrative" in The Southern Review, winter 2005.)

 Do these prizes and awards help establish literary careers? The answer is yes and no. It all depends on the quality of the book. Can you tell me who won the National Book Award in 1987 or the PEN/Faulkner in 1986? An embarrassing number of award-winning books vanish after the book season when they were published. And today, in 2011, our national literary prizes (and I include the Nobel prize in this judgment; please read the Nov. 16, 2000 historical analysis of all these awards by Salon's Laura Miller) have been tarnished because they have gone to way too many books for non-literary reasons. The reading public is well aware of this and simply not as excited anymore by who wins. (But consider the case in 1953 when Ralph Ellison won for Invisible Man. The runner-ups on the short list that year were Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, which later won a Pulitzer, and Steinbeck's East of Eden, another enduring classic work of fiction. We rarely see a year like this anymore in contemporary American fiction.)

Nevertheless, a national literary prize can make a difference in a writer's life. When I won the National Book Award 21 years ago, I had a meeting with other judges for the National Endowment for the Arts fellowships to go to the day right after the ceremony. Despite all the hoopla and excitement, I had made a commitment to finish that assignment. In the cab with me as I went to the meeting was a 30-ish poet who was very excited that I'd won, and she said something to me I'll never forget. She said, "I just want to have ONE good year." What that means for a poet, I don't know. And I don't know if she ever had that one good year she hungered for----one that maybe brings a national literary prize, big sales or a MacArthur. 

Whatever. But she correctly knew she needed that to lift her "career" to the next level. Before receiving the National Book Award, my novel Middle Passage had sold around 4,000 copies in the 6 months after its publication. After that award, it became a national bestseller, and is now in its 20th printing from Scribner.

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