If I Gave the Award

Having just posted the review for the last of the shortlisted books for the 2020 James Tait Black Award, I find it is time for my feature, where I decide if the judges got it right. This time it’s going to be a hard one, for none of the nominated books struck much of a chord with me. Usually, I judge the books by how I reacted to them, as most people would do, I think.

Often, I start with the book I liked least, but I am not even sure which one that is. So, I guess I’ll start with the winner, Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. This book is by far the most experimental of the four shortlisted books, which I’m guessing is why it’s the winner. It is mostly one 1000-page sentence—except for short passages of regular narrative—and it breaks just about every rule of fiction I can think of. I felt that Ellman got details wrong for her character, a middle-aged American Midwestern housewife. She seemed too old and too British. The novel was compelling enough in an odd way for me to finish (that is, I kept wondering why I was still reading it), but didn’t have much of a payoff.

A lot of people are calling linked short stories novels these days. The James Tait Black award is for fiction, but almost every entry I have read so far has been a novel or a novel of linked stories, so Sudden Traveler by Sarah Hall is an anomaly. That is, it is definitely a collection of short stories rather than linked stories making a novel. Some of these stories are slice of life and some quite fantastical. Although I liked another book I read by Hall, I am not generally so comfortable with short fiction (although I like the linked story novels) or with the fantastic, and I found some of the stories perplexing. If this book had any overarching theme, I guess it might be girl power.

Although I liked Girl by Edna O’Brien, it is definitely the least experimental of all the entries. It is a very short, straightforwardly told story about a young Nigerian girl who is kidnapped and the results of that even after she is returned to her family. O’Brien’s writing is beautiful and the novel is affecting.

I’m ending with Travelers by Helon Habila, a novel of linked short stories about the plight of African refugees in Europe. Does that mean I liked it best? I’m not even sure. If I had to pick a winner, I guess it would be either Girl or Travelers. I had more of a response to Girl but think it is slighter than Travelers. Do I think the judges got it right this time? If they are awarding for experimentalism, maybe, but I’m not even sure whether Ducks, Newburyport deserves all the accolades it got. I think that sometimes reviewers in any genre of media get excited because something is different, and this may be a case of that.

10 thoughts on “If I Gave the Award

  1. Silvia July 5, 2022 / 5:24 pm

    I enjoyed this post a lot. I appreciate all the work you take and your insight into this award. Loved your linked and short story explanation and the reasons why you think they gave first price to the winner book.

    I can’t judge from experience but I can say that I 100% trust your discernment as a reader and having a character wrong that way would have been very off putting. I don’t know, merit decreases. However, when I read Quichotte and thought that Rushdie nailed the female character, someone closer to that profile could judge the accuracy. And not that we read fiction for accuracy, but that issue plus the experimental thing… I think in general we are a generation always chasing new fads, as if important turns in style, thought, etc could happen every 5 minutes. I may be a humbug with my comment, LOL, but what’s wrong to adhering to something we know well, and contribute by going into more depth, as in writing more typical fiction like the title you like best

    • whatmeread July 5, 2022 / 11:49 pm

      Thanks for the comments. I have to admit I didn’t get far enough into Quichotte to get to the female characters.

      • Silvia July 5, 2022 / 11:52 pm

        Rushdie’s Quichotte? Or Cervantes Quixote? I meant Rushdie and the female Indian actor shows up at the beginning. I was thinking about contemporary authors who choose main characters or characters in general to, as you mentioned, end up not getting them quite right.

      • whatmeread July 6, 2022 / 9:10 am

        Rushdie’s Quichotte.

      • Silvia July 6, 2022 / 9:11 am

        Really? The lady that he is obsessed with doesn’t show until later?

      • whatmeread July 6, 2022 / 9:12 am

        I just said I didn’t read that far in the book.

      • Silvia July 6, 2022 / 9:14 am

        My apologies. LOL. It was just a quick-and not very meaningful to you hahaha-, example. I am trying to say that a price winner book should have strong points not just being different as you comment. But it’s just a price and this year, maybe next winner it’s a more solid choice, and this one will add that experimentation.
        Maybe they didn’t see a more conventional title that stood up, and went for the book that added something.

      • whatmeread July 6, 2022 / 9:32 am

        That’s possible. I didn’t think any of them were particularly strong.

  2. piningforthewest July 11, 2022 / 2:25 pm

    I’ve just picked up Ducks, Newburyport from the library, I had requested it and had no idea it was such a chunkster. I don’t even think I’ll begin to read it – too many books that I really want to read are waiting in a queue. It’s a shame, as I’m trying to read all of the James Tait Black books – but I know I’ll never manage to get to the end of that project.

    • whatmeread July 11, 2022 / 3:37 pm

      You could try it and see if you like it. I kept wondering why I didn’t stop reading but finished it. Yes, it is huge!

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