Category Archives: Writing Awards

Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

There’s an interesting article over at the Guardian book pages from their literary critic, Robert McCrum, about the different types of writers that tend to get considered for literary awards. He draws from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, The Fox and The Hedgehog, as a way of classifying the types. (You can download the essay by clicking here), and read more about Berlin in this article in The Independent.

In fiction, Berlin’s famous distinction between hedgehogs and foxes, drawn from the pithy fragment attributed to the classical poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) remains influential. Hedgehogs, in Berlin’s celebrated essay, see the world through the lens of one big, defining idea. They include Plato, Dante, Proust and Nietzsche. Foxes, who scour the landscape, drawing on a wide variety of experience and are indefatigably averse to a single explanatory idea, include Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, James Joyce and, dare I say, Salman Rushdie.

McCrum doesn’t stop there, though. He also contrasts “history course novels” (such as those produced by Pat Barker and Ian McEwen) and the kind of “English course novels” that Martin Amis and Lorrie Moore write. Then, in nonfiction, there are the “mores” and the “differents.”

Mores are writers who, as the label implies, are immensely gifted and vastly superior to their fellows, but are conventional in their vision. Classic mores include Thomas The World Is Flat Friedman and Niall The Pity of War Ferguson. Your different, who might be a hedgehog or a fox, is a mould-smashing one-off, usually an original, and probably quite undisciplined, writer. Differents include Dostoevsky, Oliver Sacks, Naomi Klein, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell and Atul Gawande. As readers, we may be better satisfied, in the short term, by the mores, but it’s the differents we remember, and who will probably have the lasting influence.

McCrum’s argument is that “foxes” and “mores” win more prizes than “hedgehogs” and “differents.” It would take more of an in depth survey than I am prepared to carry out to prove him right, but I can certainly get on board with the idea that we live in a fox’n’more orientated society, and it’s these writers who seem to earn the most money. We demand versatility from our writers, and breadth of knowledge. It ain’t easy being different!

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The Dept. of Cross Cultural Misunderstandings

Salman's Prize

Salman's Prize (pic. care of UnBeige)

So Salman Rushdie was recently honored at the Moth Ball (a fundraising event for the popular and acclaimed storytelling forum). He got a designer statuette! There it is, above. Awesome. It’s a peace sign. Only, in my homeland, if you turn that thing around, it means something very different. No, not victory, my sweet, innocent American readers. It means F*#K OFF. He. He he he he.

Yes — I am more amused by that than I probably should be.

Man Booker Prize: Not About Literary Value?

Like every other book blogger in the Western Hemisphere, I’m here today to chew over the Man Booker Prize shortlist, announced yesterday. Here it is:

Aravind Adiga — The White Tiger
Sebastian Barry — The Secret Scripture
Amitav Ghosh — Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant — The Clothes on Their Backs
Philip Hensher — The Northern Clemency
Steve Toltz —  A Fraction of the Whole

Two first time novelists, one woman, and no Rushdie.

The two first-timers, Aravind Adiga and Steve Toltz, are currently getting the best odds, though how the bookies calculate these things I have no idea. Here’s a link to The Guardian’scondensed read” version of the books. And here’s an absolutely fascinating article, also from The Guardian, in which Man Booker judges from previous years talk about their experiences. Warning, folks: It ain’t pretty.

Continue reading

More Juicy Links. And Mashed Potatoes.

David Carr Will Save Memoir! Or so says Leon Neyfakh at the New York Observer. Apparently Carr, author of a new book about his drug experiences, was so loathe to trust his drugged out memories that he reported on his own life, interviewed his friends and family, and even hired a private investigator. This makes him, in Neyfakh’s eyes, memoir’s “…white knight, galloping in to show how a personal story can be engrossing, shocking and true.”

This hilarious collection of Carr’s mashed potato analogies suggests otherwise, though.

Stuart Jeffries on the non-reading epidemic. Pithy.

There is a thing called reader’s block. It is not the same as writer’s block. In fact, reader’s block is a phenomenon partly explained as a reader’s all-too-understandable response to so many writers not having writer’s block.

My man Salman might just win the Booker prize again.

And, care of Booksquare, Jennifer Epstein, author of the Painter From Shanghai, on moving from writing books to blogging and blogs:

These short, sharp little sites and pieces can be vastly engaging and informative, and I’ve found several that I truly love. That said, they feel like the very antithesis of the way I write; tight deadlines, immediate readerships.

For New York type writing folk, Guernica magazine is looking for a managing editor and benefit director.

The Brief, Wondrous Words of Junot Diaz

“Yo, dude, I think you might have won a Poo-litza!”

This, apparently, is how Junot Diaz received word of his big win.

I used a Junot Diaz story in one of my workshops last week — “Fiesta, 1980” from the story collection Drown. It chronicles the experiences of an adolescent Dominican boy as he navigates his nausea and family life during a trip to a party in the Bronx, with flashbacks that reveal the deeper dynamics behind the up-front action. We spent a lot of time talking about point of view in the workshop. It’s a first person retrospective piece that sometimes brings the reader in close to the 12-year-old protagonist’s experience, and other times privileges the adult narrator. The shift between the two is sometimes smooth, sometimes jarring. Diaz gives us a few lines of the protagonist’s dialogue, only to puncture the illusion of our closeness to the character by throwing in adult words or perceptions. In this way, we are both inside and outside of the protagonist’s mind at the same time. The narrator is effectively treating his younger self as a character. This is a technique called indirect interior monologue — and in the first person, it’s more often employed in memoir and personal essays, when writers often have to recreate some version of their younger selves on the page. See this great essay by David Jauss for more on indirect interior monologue and other techniques of point of view. It’s technical, but worth it.

In the meantime here’s a link to an interview with Diaz, (from which the opening quote of this blog entry is taken) conducted by Meghan O’Rourke, Slate’s culture editor, and Deborah Landau, the director of NYU’s MFA writing program. (Try as I might, I couldn’t embed the damn thing. Anyone with the know-how, please help me!)

O’Rourke looks comfortable on camera. Landau, not so much. But it’s still a good interview, not least because it gives a good feel for how Diaz really thinks and talks. Just how autobiographical is Diaz’s work? That’s something else we discussed in our workshop. The point of view in “Fiesta, 1980” certainly leads us to read it as nonfiction, and “Junot” would seem to have so much in common with his protagonist “Junior” (also the protagonist of his Oscar Wao book?) that it’s not hard to make the imaginative leap and think it’s as much memoir as fiction. But, of course, that’s pure speculation.

It’s interesting that NYU is teaming up with Slate to produce this kind of content: a service to writing students and interested Slate readers alike, and an indication that NYU’s program is at least trying to utilize new media technology as part of its offerings, which is more than can be said for some other MFA programs.

The Warwick Prize For Writing

I take it back. A couple of posts ago I said that the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction was the most lucrative award for fact-based writing in the world. Then I go and find out about Warwick Prize for Writing. I hadn’t heard about it before because it’s brand new — the debut biennial award will be given in 2009, when some lucky writer will be £50,000 (or $100,000) richer. But here’s what makes this award particularly interesting:

1) It’s open to all genres, from poetry to scientific writing, other forms of nonfiction (creative or otherwise) to fiction.

2) It’s open to all forms of publishing, from internet based works to self-published books to works in translation and co-authored books.

Presumably illustrated books and kids books could be included too — why not? Everything else is.

3) It’s international — work must have been published in English, anywhere in the world, within a two-year time frame.

And here’s the clincher:

4) The theme for the inaugural award is, wait for it, complexity. The banner from the top of this post is borrowed from their website. The message it contains might not be cheery, but it’s certainly interesting, and, well, not easy.

So, to summarize, this is an intellectually rigorous award, available to all writers published in English, regardless of form or genre, and open to experimental work. The judges are interested, as it says in their FAQs, in exploring “what literature is, and what new shapes and forms it might be taking.”

Wowzers. In this era of “high concept” pitches for fiction and nonfiction alike, that’s like getting a lungful of sweet Alpine air.

The final thing I love about this award is that it’s democratic too. According to booktrade.info, “…all members of the University of Warwick Staff – from nursery staff and gardeners to professors and porters – are invited to make a nomination for a prize entry by August.”

This is complexity for the masses, people — as all great literature should be.