Yes, I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, a situation soon to be remedied. In the meantime, check out this piece by Louis Menand in the latest New Yorker. It’s about one of my favorite preoccupations, the literary marketplace, and not incidentally features an author I recently nominated for the Underrated Writers Project:
In 1987, Paco’s Story, by Larry Heinemann, won the National Book Award for Fiction. The acclaim that greeted this selection was less than universal, and the reason â€” no fault of Heinemann’s â€” is that 1987 was also the year of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Morrison’s novel was a finalist for the award, and it had been widely regarded as the favorite. We can assume that she was disappointed, and we know that her friends were, because, after Beloved also failed to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (which went to Philip Roth’s The Counterlife), forty-eight of them published a statement in the Times Book Review. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison,” they complained, “she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy. The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied.” A few months later, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Five years after that, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize.James English has a lot to say about this episode in The Economy of Prestige (Harvard; $29.95), his ingenious analysis of the history and social function of cultural prizes and awards.
(Perhaps this will go part of the way in explaining how I could describe a National Book Award winner as underrated. For a full understanding, read Close Quarters.)