Michael, our fiction editor, talked five smart writers—Alexander Chee, John McNally, Keith Lee Morris, Leah Stewart, and Justin Tussing—into reassessing the 1961 National Book Award for fiction. There’s no medal or cash prize to hand out, but we have a winner. To find out which book won, and to read our judges’ essays on the five finalists, you’ll have to get your hands on our summer issue, available in May. But here’s a hint: The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter, the actual 1961 National Book Award winner, didn’t even come close.
Michael initiated this project last year, when he conscripted Antonya Nelson, Steve Almond, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Brock Clarke into judging the 1960 National Book Award for fiction. The judges’ decisions and deliberations appeared in Ninth Letter (one of our Monster Mags of the Midwest friends at AWP).
The plan is for this project to continue, rotating among three journals. As soon as we learn which journal will host the 1962 NBA redux, we’ll let you know.
Why do this at all? (Aside from the obvious: It’s a hell of a lot of fun.) Below, we’ve posted a snippet of Michael’s intro from last year’s reassessment of the 1960 award, followed by an excerpt of Leah Stewart’s forthcoming intro for the 1961 reassessment:
Michael Griffith (excerpted from Ninth Letter):
. . . . What troubled me at core was my own hypocrisy [ . . . ] If in 1999 you’d asked me what books I liked best that year, Jane Shapiro’s The Dangerous Husband would have tripped off my tongue, and Susan Sontag’s In America, which I’d read with chilly admiration and not a few longueurs, wouldn’t have been in my top twenty. But would I, drafted by miracle onto the jury, have touted Shapiro’s novel (which centers on a woman moved by her spouse’s feats of ever-more-aggressive clumsiness to hire a hitman) over a smart, big, highly wrought book by an eminence like Sontag? Not forcefully enough, I’d guess, because Sontag had written exactly the kind of book I believed prize committees were designed to reward. I would have wondered, “But which will LAST?”—and would have come up with the (it now occurs to me) false answer that the Sontag would, and would have given scant weight to the argument that we the committee might have some small part to play in what would (or at least might) last, and thus should be counted on first and foremost to pick a book we LIKED, a book we’d want to recommend to flesh-and-blood friends rather than to the abstractly imagined hanging judges of posterity.
The dreary worthiness prevailed; in fact, Shapiro’s acid domestic comedy probably never even blipped across the committee’s screen. It was this sort of choice that fueled my crankiness—yet when I was asked to give a list of my favorite novels for a volume called The Top 10, I promptly began ticking off unsinkable classics I’d be embarrassed to leave out, rather than the urchin-spiked oddities I love best.
All of which gave rise to the [Ninth Letter special section]. With the help of William Gass, whose terrific “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize” set me on the path, I started wondering, “What sorts of ambition do prize juries tend to value most highly? What things in fiction actually do endure, as opposed to what kinds of things in fiction do we imagine will endure, or what kinds of things do we feel constrained to call enduring because we’ll be ashamed if they turn out to endure while we were touting a book about a cabal of zombie robots who infiltrate the Orange County PTA?
If you looked back in 2060 at the best novels of today, I mused, what might you come up with? And then it occurred to me that one might assemble a committee of writers and take a look back fifty years instead, revisit the work of the National Book Award Committee of 1960. After we named a winner, I thought, we could each append a short essay—to take up the cudgel for an undervalued or long-forgotten favorite, to reassess the anointed books of that year, to reflect on the ebb and flow of literary reputation, to investigate the politics of award committees, etcetera. I was lucky to find four fantastic writers to help: Brock Clarke, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (whose first novel, Madeleine Is Sleeping, was among the finalists caught up in the bewildering controversy of 2004), Steve Almond, and Antonya Nelson.
Leah Stewart (excerpted from our next issue):
[In 1961] the prize went to The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter, a (to my mind) rather dreary, heavily allegorical book that dropped fairly quickly off our radar. The other nominees were: Louis Auchincloss for The House of Five Talents; Kay Boyle for Generation Without Farewell; John Hersey for The Child Buyer; John Knowles for A Separate Peace; Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird; Wright Morris for Ceremony in Lone Tree; Flannery O’Connor for The Violent Bear It Away; Elizabeth Spencer for The Light in the Piazza; Francis Steegmuller for The Christening Party; John Updike for Rabbit, Run; and Mildred Walker for The Body of a Young Man. At that time, the contenders for the award were books published in the previous year, so we hunted for other books from 1960 we might want to consider, but came up empty, though Keith did jokingly suggest Green Eggs and Ham.
As we set about narrowing the list to five books we’d consider seriously, the four that seemed fairly obvious for reasons of fame and longevity proved also to be, in our opinion, the most worthwhile in and of themselves.
To read our judges’ 1961 National Book Award deliberations get a copy of our summer issue.
You can read about the reassessment of the 1960 award, and about the inception of this rotating feature, in Ninth Letter. Also, keep an eye out in the months ahead for news about where the upcoming feature—a reassessment of the 1962 National Book Award—will pop up next.