"It was imprudent of us, in the first place, to become authors. We could have become something regular, but we managed not to.
We were lucky, but we were also determined." Roy Blount Jr

"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Reading Award Winners

I'm famously slow to read bestselling books, fiction or nonfiction. Not because I assume that what's popular can't also be good, or that there's too limited a choice among books that sell well. I'm not snobbish that way, though I'll cop to being something of a literary snob, just not as usually defined. What I am really is very demanding, it's the writer's curse to read and absorb differently from other readers, much of the time.

While my tastes are wide-ranging, I tend to read selectively and subjectively. Even more so lately. My habits are changing, in that I very often disregard certain titles that, not so very long ago, I would've rushed to the store to purchase in hardcover. These days I'll wait for the paperback. Or just not bother at all unless there's a truly compelling reason (it relates to my work, the time period in which I write, or it's a fave novelist's or historian's brand-new title.)

I've surprised myself lately in reading two, count 'em, two much lauded award-winning books. One is a novel, one a memoir.

Early this month I participated in NH Writer's Day, and our keynoter was Paul Harding. His novel Tinkers received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and he's sort of "local" in that he lives in Massachusetts, and his book was championed by a NH bookseller all the way to the Pulitzer committee. My conference role was to record his comments for the NH Writers Project newsletter, and I would be meeting him. So I bought and read his novel. I enjoyed it very much. Not only for the beautiful, evocative writing and interesting narrative choices, but because it's so grounded in the reality and nostalgia of rural New England.

He turned out to be a personable and amusing speaker and teacher, fully cognisant of his great (and unexpected) good fortune. And he signed my copy of his book, to be added to my little collection of signed Pulitzer works.

Paul's quote that spoke to me most that day was, "Your writing can only be as good as the best stuff you've read." I ought to stick it up there on the header, it's long been my own mantra. In fact, when I've taught writing, I've said much the same.

When purchasing Paul's book I also picked up Patti Smith's memoir of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. It's about as different from Tinkers as can be, the tale of two aspiring urban artists making their way together in a strange and changing culture. It won the National Book Award. It was a wonderful read, the kind that keeps me thinking and keeps me stirred up long after I reach the end.

I thought I knew a lot about Smith, being a casual fan of her music. I remember that she happened to be buying flowers at the Greenwich Village shop right next door to the restaurant where my cousin's wedding luncheon was taking place one sunny spring day. The Chap and I refer to that whenever we see her on telly or hear her name. (The late Geraldine Ferraro, a friend of the bride's family, was among us, so it was quite a day for celebrity-sighting.)

As an author, a lot of people I know are other authors. Most of them aren't household names.

When I totted up the award-winning or otherwise distinguished writers I've encountered, I was surprised. In addition to Paul (Pulitzer) and Patti (Pulitzer, Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres), there are Stephen Spender (C.B.E.), Clive Barnes (C.B.E.), Eudora Welty (Pulitzer, Presidential Medal of Freedom, National Medal of Arts, P.E.N. Short Story Award, Legion d'Honneur), Alfred Uhry (Pulitzer & Academy Award), Tennesee Williams (Tony Award, 2 Pulitzers, Presidential Medal of Freedom), Lanford Wilson (New York Critics Circle, Obie, Pulitzer, Theatre Hall of Fame), Elizabeth Hardwick (Guggenheim Fellow).

You'll note that lots of them are dead playwrights and poets, not novelists. These encounters took place when I was a student of theatre and verse.

I remember them all quite vividly. Eudora was truly special. Spender was really old and feeble. So was Tennesee Williams--this wasn't long before he died--and I'm fairly sure he was intoxicated or otherwise medicated and he looked and sounded terrible. His talk wasn't especially illuminating and yet--there before me was the great brain that had imagined so many iconic characters of the American drama. So I had to be impressed, even as I acknowledged disappointment.

It's a sad truth that most often, when meeting literary idols (where of Williams' stature or not), my most prevalent emotion was disappointment. Except for Eudora, and Paul Harding, and one other colleague I shan't name for fear of affronting the rest, they never lived up to what I imagined beforehand. With regular people, people I've previously only known online, and when introduced to friends of friends, the opposite is true. Why is that?

Now, I've won awards myself. When my publisher was providing judging copies, I submitted myself for a peer-award, the RITA (current finalists recently announced.) My own scores were all over the map, so when I ceased getting the books I stopped entering. Every time I looked over the list of finalists, I found books I hadn't read or didn't care to read because they too closely aligned with genre requirements that chafed me. Perhaps there would be an outlier, one book that I'd actually read and truly loved, but which frankly looked like an example of "Which one of these is not like the others?" Once in a while that book would win the award and I would feel validated in my tastes.

I have some placques of my own on the wall, a shrine to the first phase of my career, although I'm seriously inclined to take them down to make more space for art. I was privileged to receive a couple of bestseller awards, a big ego-boost. Readers' choice awards were particularly meaningful. But I must admit that the critics' awards gave me the biggest tingle. As a sometime book reviewer myself, I can't help but respect the judgment that goes into selecting the best of the best of a big bunch of books read not for pleasure, but because it's your job.

I read the publishing trade press daily, I'm always aware of major book award recipients. I should challenge myself to go beyond mere awareness, and make an effort to read more of them. Based on recent experience, it would be beneficial and eye-opening.

No comments: