About Literary Bests

Recently I was asked to choose, from a list of books that had won a certain literary prize, the three best works of American fiction of the last sixty years. I don’t know how many other people are also being asked to vote on this list; the three works that get the most votes will be announced as the best American fiction since 1950.

This request seemed at first fairly similar to judging a literary competition or jurying a literary prize, and I’ve done that pretty often, finding the responsibility heavy but endurable. But this, I just couldn’t in conscience do. The list to choose from was strong in well-known names, of course, but it left off dozens of books and writers that were in my eyes as good or better than most on the list.

I wrote explaining my inability to participate, and got back a kind and unreproachful letter from the director of the event. It was both troubling and reassuring to find that he understood my feelings clearly. He asked, off the record, if I ignored the prescribed list and picked any three books as the best of the last sixty years, could I do that?

I had to say no.

I don’t believe there are three “best“ works of American or any other fiction of the last sixty years — or ten “best,” or a hundred. Maybe a couple of thousand?

There are a whole lot of good writers and good novels. (Yes, of course there is even more mediocre and bad fiction; so what?) Some good novels are outstandingly good, and I have my favorites — sure! Every reader does. And the novels and stories that a whole lot of every-readers plus some honest and serious critics continue to hold in esteem over six decades might even be beginning to deserve that much abused word “great.” But there are so many different kinds of fiction, so many standards by which to judge fiction, so many ways in which one work may excel another — who’s to say which handful of them are “the greatest“ or “the best“?

And when you’ve said it, what have you gained?

To say Don Quixote is the “best novel of the 17th century” is, let’s face it, stupid. Why and how is Don Quixote excellent? Why can every Spaniard quote from it? Why is it read and loved after 500 years? — Those are real questions, useful questions, that lead a reader into the book.

It seems to me that an award, a “best of,” in literature, doesn’t serve literature at all. It serves to supply commercial booksellers with a readymade commodity, and lazy-minded readers and teachers with a readymade choice. They needn’t pay attention to the books that didn’t win the prize, they needn’t exercise their own critical faculties, they don’t have to think, they can just order the prize book and believe they’ve read all there is to read.

I believe that serious artists work long and hard to do the best work they can. I also believe that “best” is a pernicious concept when applied to any art from outside, as a value-judgment.

“Best” has a place in technology. There really may be a best mouse trap or salad spinner or harvester combine, at least till a better one’s invented or the technology is perfected. Otherwise “best” belongs properly only in the sphere of competitive activities — that is, capitalism and sports.

Despite the theories of (almost universally male) critics and psychologists, the practice of an art is not inherently a competitive activity. It can be made into one, and male competitiveness often makes it into one; but the passion to do something you have a gift for doing as well as you can do it is not originally driven by the need to excel others or even to show off. I think our tendency to consider art as a competition is a mistake, and a rather sick one. People work extremely hard at something they have a gift for because the work is intensely, immediately, and reliably rewarding. External rewards are nice but really not much compared to the satisfaction of making something beautiful, knowing you’re doing work as good as you can do.

There have been literary competitions ever since ancient Greece, and though they tend like all competitions to grow corrupt, to select the predictable, and to favor work by men over work by women, they serve as spurs to artists who need spurring to excel themselves. Competitions and awards arouse also interest in the audience, even if it’s the kind of interest more appropriate to a horse race (witness the hysteria of betting on some of the Booker Awards). And to the author, particularly early in a career, an award can be a true and much-needed validation — a Beautiful Reward, like the Boss sings about.

The first awards I was given were beautiful rewards to me. They were like being given a strong hand up a hard climb. They gave me strength by justifying my trust in my readers and my trust in myself as a writer. They came from the science fiction community, and were of value chiefly within that community.

But since then, ungrateful as it may sound, many prizes I’ve juried, awarded, or been awarded have left me increasingly uneasy about the arbitrariness and injustice of the choice and the arbitrary need to pick a single winner. Particularly with the “big” national prizes, the pleasure of award and recognition, given or received, is damaged and diminished by knowledge of how the system plays into the advertising machinery of the bookselling business. Praise becomes fame becomes commodification and so on round — a closed circuit.

A good book deserves recognition — but must all the good books on the shortlist be dumped, thrown aside? To name one winner is to create a whole slew of losers. Why? What good is that?

I wish we could get off this one good novel a year kick. Or three in sixty years, for that matter. How mean, how ungenerous we are. I wish we could and would celebrate our writers continually and in droves.

I wish we gave literary prizes freely, the way they used to at the Pet Show at Codornices Park in Berkeley when I was a kid. Every kid in the neighborhood brought their pet, and every pet got a prize: for Soulfulness — for Loud Meowing — for Unusual Spot Placement — for Being the Only Skink…. There was no Best of Breed (there were very few breeds) and certainly no Best of Show. I‘d have some trust and interest in literary prizes like that: for Soulfulness — for Sitting Up and Begging Nicely — for Passion Well Expressed — for Being the Only One About Elderly Entomologists in Love....

You think literature would suffer, if prizes were given so freely? You think sharing praise diminishes its worth? You think good books are written in order to win praise and prizes?

I think not. I think the desire to win praise and prizes is likely to produce a mediocre and predictable novel on a trendy topic in a mode approved by the Sales Department of a large commercial publisher and sanctified by the buyers for the chain bookstores. I think good novels are written by writers who want with all their heart to write this novel, which is like no other. And which is therefore, as things stand, rather unlikely to win a prize.

— UKL
July 2009

“On Literary Bests” is featured at the Book View Cafe Blog on 30 July 2009.

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