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Laura Miller at Salon thinks that the National Book Awards are too narrowly focused on “literary” fiction, excluding, for reasons that have nothing to do with actual merit, genre books that might be better than the chosen finalists, as a matter of rote. I think I probably agree. Even though I’ve only read one-and-a-half of the finalists this year so far (I’m trying to read them all before the winner is announced), I’ve noticed already that there’s a sameness and an old-fashionedness to these books as a group, a constrained scope and intent and even set of language choices that I’m not accustomed to in my daily reading.

I usually read much weirder books, in other words. Which is fine. There’s no accounting for taste. The thing is, I thought everybody had weirder tastes these days. I didn’t realize that such direct narratives would still be popular among the most sophisticated of the literati. After David Foster Wallace, after Kathy Acker, after Don DeLillo, after Joan Didion and Thomas Pynchon and Jack Kerouac, after, oh, I don’t know, the last half-century of great American crazy fiction, we’re still only interested in straightforward this-happened-then-this-happened-then-this-happened-then-I-made-a-complicated-but-startling-metaphorical-observation-then-I-had-an-epiphany kinds of stories? I’m not saying I haven’t liked the finalists I’ve read (I have), but I am saying that reading them so far reminds me of reading much older books.

Everybody compares “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” to “Catch-22” but I think maybe that’s just because somebody on the cover blurb did so. It reminded me more of Ken Kesey in prankster mode, or even the book that the TV series M*A*S*H was based on. The one I’m halfway through, “The Yellow Birds,” is fine and ineffable and pretty and gritty and macho and etc., and also feels, despite its contemporary subject matter, to be a product of the middle of the last century. A very carefully-wrought product of the middle of the last century — not Norman Mailer so much as maybe Vance Bourjaily. This war story could have been set in Mesopotamia in 1943 just as believably as Mesopotamia in 2003, with only a few details changed.

I want to repeat: I do like these books. But they are of a type. And that type is much tamer than the type of fiction I expected to find at the tippiest top of the literary field.

D. G. Myers, at Commentary, who seems much more cranked up about the “problem” than Miller (or I), calls this list the “worst National Book Awards list since the last one,” and points out that the judges are all writers, rather than critics or readers, so they select based on writerly concerns, rather than the kinds of concerns that motivate people who read, rather than write, books.

I don’t know what the problem is. I’m not specifically bothered or offended by the lack of genre, the way Miller is, though I wouldn’t mind seeing Cory Doctorow or George R. R. Martin (yes, whatever, fuck you) show up on the list sometime. I also don’t think it’s a bad idea to have writers judging their peers. I’m just perplexed by the conventionality of these narratives generally, in every way, genre and beyond.

But I’ve only read one and a half out of five. I do know the other authors by reputation, and by past works, though, so I’m expecting more conventional, well-wrought, unsurprising excellence.

I’ll keep you posted.

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