A Chat on the National Book Awards

Article by liz

It’s awards season for the book world, and the booksellers of Brazos are keeping a close eye on the races for the big ones--like the National Book Award, the winner of which will be announced in two weeks. When we like a book, we REALLY like it, so as you can imagine, we’re watching this one closely, and have undeniable favorites. Liz, Ben, and Keaton had an impromptu chat around the counter one evening this week about the fiction shortlist for the National Book Award.

Liz: Ben, who are you rooting for?

Ben: I'm rooting for Marilynne Robinson and LILA. She's my bet. There's a patience in her fiction I admire a lot, that you don't see very much of these days. I think her books would be hard to publish if she weren't Marilynne Robinson, because they're sort of slow, and languid. (...Are you transcribing this? ...Did you just transcribe that?) Keaton, do you have feelings?

Keaton: I’m abstaining from feelings because no one gave ORFEO [a longlisted title by Richard Powers] any love. [laughs] ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is probably the front runner. But I wouldn't be surprised if they gave it to Marilynne Robinson for her whole trilogy.

Ben: But, you know, they’ve given it to some dark horses: Jesmyn Ward [for SALVAGE THE BONES], THE GOOD LORD BIRD. Who’s your dark horse?

Keaton: Oh, STATION ELEVEN, definitely.

Ben: And I know SALVAGE THE BONES and THE GOOD LORD BIRD had some cultural heaviness to them, too. What’s the cultural heaviness of STATION ELEVEN?

Liz: I’d say that STATION ELEVEN is controversial, almost, among literature these days, in that it doesn’t think the modern world is completely irredeemable and gross. It thinks very fondly about some of the conveniences of the modern world, the smaller stuff that most fiction thinks is, y’know, kinda dumb. The motto of the Traveling Symphony, and one of the main characters’ favorite quotes, is “Survival is insufficient.” That’s a Seven of Nine quote from Star Trek: Voyager. And it is treated with due reverence. Which is kind of a controversial stance in mainstream literature, that those forms of art are acceptable.

Keaton: It’s more optimistic.

Liz: Yeah, and that seems sort of unpopular these days.

Keaton: [laughs]What does it say about our cynical, cynical world, that optimism is a faux pas?

Liz: [laughs] Exactly. STATION ELEVEN is more about the collective, how we’re better off together.

Ben: So you think that ties in with the zeitgeist right now?

Liz: It’s hard to articulate. Especially when I know the tape is on. [laughs] I think it’s partially--the backlash to the backlash against society right now, saying that there are still some good things about it. It has great things to say about how people as a whole are all responsible for our cultural legacy, even in the silly choices we make day to day about something as simple as reading comics.

Keaton: It makes me think about how art programs are being cut from schools, because people think they aren’t necessary. When, in this book, it seems to be the only necessary thing.

Liz: Very much. It has a great stance on art being important.

Ben: Do you think the discourse about the book that’s swirled around it--whether it’s “genre” or not--will help the book or hurt it? Or is it just time for that sort of book to win?

Liz: I think it’s hurting it--because it’s not actually hard genre, or science fiction. It’s speculative fiction, in that it considers not-the-world-that-we-live-in, a world beyond. Don’t get me wrong, I love science fiction! I would be happy to give it the label; I’m just not sure it’s accurate. But I think science fiction is far more literary than most people give it credit for being, and STATION ELEVEN does what good science fiction does: it interrogates our own world through a removed lens. But I think it’s being hurt because a lot of people are writing it off because of this whole genre discussion, because so many people still dismiss genre fiction out of hand.

Keaton: And in a time when so many literary writers now are playing around with genre a lot more. It’d be a nice coup d’etat for genre!

Liz: One of the reasons I’m rooting for it!

Ben: It feels like Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner [THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY]; it was about comic books, sort of, but more than that, it had that sweep of history that important literature has.

Liz: Exactly--it was about the world. And STATION ELEVEN is so much about the world, and people’s individual histories and choices, and their relationships to art. That is SO literary.

Ben: So about that sweep of history, then--Keaton, you’re pulling for REDEPLOYMENT because…?

Keaton: I think it’s the best piece of war literature for our contemporary times--and I loved [similarly-themed 2012 finalist] THE YELLOW BIRDS. With REDEPLOYMENT, more than half the short stories don’t even take place on the battlefield. A lot of them are about soldiers before they leave, or after they come home, and how they deal with that. It has a whole bunch of different perspectives--it destroys the idea that there’s only one type of war experience you can have.

Ben: Does it have that same poetic feel THE YELLOW BIRDS had?

Keaton: It’s definitely not as lyrical; it’s more dirty realism.

Ben: Were there any stories that really struck you?

Keaton: Oh, the whole book really struck me. But yeah, there’s a few--there’s one story about a couple of returning young vets, one of whom is very badly injured, in a bar in Brooklyn. And they’re talking to a very liberal Brooklynite girl who wants their stories for an anti-war play, to express soldiers' experiences, but it has to have a political slant. And it’s interesting because they don't agree with her on anything--the story is very much about how there are things about war that cannot be communicated if you haven’t actually experienced it.
And then there’s a story about an artillery team--they fire on an enemy location, miles and miles away, that they’ve never seen. They know that they’ve got multiple confirmed kills--of people they've never seen, and will never see. And one of the younger guys on the artillery team can't really wrap his head around it. So he goes to the morgue to see if he can find out what happened, and if he can see the people he killed. And it’s about his experience--not about the fight, or the combat. Well--there are a few combat scenes. But there’s no real combat in REDEPLOYMENT. It’s more ruminative.

[Store manager Jeremy drifts past the counter.]

Ben: So, Jeremy, what are your thoughts?

Jeremy: On what?

Ben: On the National Book Award fiction list. Who’s worthy?

Jeremy. Oh. It's awards season. It's not about who's worthy. [laughs]

So who do you think is worthy, Houston? The National Book Awards will be announced November 19!

An Unnecessary Woman By Rabih Alameddine Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802122940
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Grove Press - November 11th, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel By Anthony Doerr Cover Image
ISBN: 9781476746586
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Scribner - May 6th, 2014

Staff Pick Badge
Redeployment By Phil Klay Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594204999
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Penguin Press - March 4th, 2014

Lila (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel By Marilynne Robinson Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374187613
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - October 7th, 2014

Station Eleven: A novel By Emily St. John Mandel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385353304
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Knopf - September 9th, 2014

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