National Book Awards. Lauren told you to expect a backlash. This one so fast and furious, though, so close to what Lauren predicted, I almost spit out my drink at Barbes two nights ago and had to stop reading until this morning.

New Yorker--I am beyond a love letter on this one. It is time for some dirty talk: you are the biggest slut in town and you deserve a smack for that. I am putting this reactionary Talk of the Town piece about the National Book Award nominees all being women up here in its entirety because you have been a very, very bad boy.

The host of a dinner party on Fifth Avenue not long ago, greeted guests with a question: “Can you tell me how clichés subjugate people?” The occasion for this puzzler was that afternoon’s announcement of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded to little-known Austrian writer named Elfriede Jelinek. Jelinek, according to the Nobel citation, had won “for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” Pardon us?

Rumors began circulating that even Morgan Entrekin, the head of Grove/Atlantic, which has published Jelinek, didn’t know who she was when people stopped to congratulate him at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Not true: “I’d heard of Jelinek,” Entrekin said last week. “But I had not read Jelinek.” Anyway, Entrekin had already moved on to a newer topic of literary-prize chatter—the National Book Awards, whose finalists were announced last Wednesday. “I haven’t read one of those books,” Entrekin said, of the five fiction candidates. “I’m sure they were all worthy in their own way. But I had only heard of one of them.”

Consider some of the writers who were eligible this year: Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick. And the nominees are: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Christine Schutt, Joan Silber, Lily Tuck, and Kate Walbert. All of the authors are women, and each lives here in New York City. According to the Times, only one book has sold even two thousand copies.

“I’m sort of astounded at this list,” the novelist Thomas McGuane said last week. “It’s got a provincial tone—five women from New York? Maybe it should be called the Municipal Book Awards.” [Will somebody please do a count of how many times it has been five men from New York? Did anyone call it "Municipal" then?--Eliz.]

McGuane, who was a finalist for the award in 1973, for his novel “Ninety-two in the Shade,” is no stranger to the selection process. He chaired the fiction committee in 1995—the last time, incidentally, that Roth won, for “Sabbath’s Theater.” “The judges range from cynical to earnest,” McGuane explained, noting that, with hundreds of books to choose from, the task is, on its face, impossible. “You have some judges who just read forty-three words and give up.” (Michael Kinsley, one of 2002’s nonfiction judges, caused a minor furor when he admitted that “you must put aside any fuddy-duddy notion of not judging a book by its cover, or at least by its title.”) “Generally, the winner is three people’s second-favorite book,” McGuane said.

Stewart O’Nan, one of this year’s fiction judges (and a decidedly earnest one), doesn’t see what the fuss is about. “This is just five really good books,” he said. “There were a lot of books this year written by writers with large reputations, but it’s not a popularity contest. I think we’re all happy.” He went on, “If I were handicapping I’d give all five an even, twenty-per-cent shot.” [Stewart O'Nan: please come read at Cupcake's Men We Love night happening sometime in 2005. Thank you. --Eliz.]

Historically, all the judges do not end up happy. Antonya Nelson, who chaired last year’s fiction committee, said that she’d received an e-mail from Rick Moody, this year’s chairman, asking for advice. “My only advice was that they ought to commit to being agreeable with one another,” she said. She recalled a cocktail-party conversation with another former judge. “The committee he’d been overseeing had been acrimonious,” she said. “He sincerely felt that the book they’d chosen was a real compromise.” So she told her panel, “I don’t want to be at a cocktail party in the future bad-mouthing any of you.” (They chose Shirley Hazzard’s “The Great Fire.”)

McGuane’s committee was notably contentious and didn’t decide to give Roth the prize until an hour before dinner was served at the awards banquet. “I loved ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’” he said. “But not everybody agreed with me. In fact, I’m confident that at least somebody on my committee was disgusted by the experience and sorry to be associated with the prize.”

Whatever the case, the judges seem to be working from a murky set of guidelines. “We were charged with finding something that’s enduring,” Nelson recalled. “So we inclined ourselves toward the bigger palette, the historical sweep.”

O’Nan said that he has read “The Plot Against America,” Roth’s new book, which, arguably, has been the year’s most celebrated literary release. “I think it’s a wonderful reworking of history that he tries to then fulfill. And it works for a while, but then he realizes he’s painted himself into a corner he can’t get out of, and he throws his hands up and says, ‘Oh, help!’” He added, “It’s a good try.”

Roth ranks higher on O’Nan’s list than Tom Wolfe, however, whose novel, “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” is due out next month. “Ay-yi-yi, John Irving was right: the guy’s not a novelist,” O’Nan said. “It’s nice that he thinks he’s the new Dickens, but he’s just not. Wow! What are you gonna do?”

McGuane, for his part, thinks there’s not much you can do, given that the awards are inherently anti-democratic. “When I see an institution like this one apparently tanking, I’m not all that sorry, because there’s just no way to make it viable,” he said. “My first thought was, Well, this was the meltdown we were promised.”

— Ben McGrath
O'Nan giving me a little hope here. The rest of you: no more love letters from me.

Will someone tell McGuane not to worry--the men-to-women ratio in the New Yorker and all the others of its kind, the New York Times Book Review, tenure track teaching positions, and the number of serious novels published should keep that meltdown from happening until you are long gone, dude.

And, Ben McGrath, you were so coy up there at the beginning, jeez louise. The last time I turned on my television, society's cliches were out in full force subjugating people to the point where extensive cosmetic surgeries, designed to make everyone look like an LA aerobics instructor, can be viewed pretty much any hour of the day, where despite orange alerts blah blah blah the local news still tenaciously stirs up ratings by portraying young black men as a major threat to public safety, where you can't find a woman above a size 4 and if she's a size 8 there's a press junket about how it's so great a full-figured gal gets her own tv show about how imperfect and slightly pathetic she is. *


We here at Cupcake have our work cut out for us, but, in a way, that's good news, because we are going to have a blast doing it. Watch for the Cupcake Liberation Front this spring.


*Not to mention that old chestnut of the genius male writer, toiling away, sentence after inspired sentence in a oak-lined study, winning prizes, smoking a pipe, teaching at Yale, publishing in the New Yorker. Could this one possibly subjugate anyone?

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