We all know the caution about never saying “never,” but I’m going to defy that advice and state unequivocally that my novels have zero chance of winning a National Book Award. Ever. And what’s more, I’m fine with that.
My certainty stems from the fact that I spent the past few days reading Let the Great World Spin, a 2009 novel by Colum McCann. I picked it up at my nearest public library, and didn’t realize until I got it home that it had won the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction. That gave me pause, as I don’t read much literary fiction these days. I’ve reached the age when I read mostly for pleasure and not so much to broaden my horizons. Too often lit fic seems to dwell on (wallow in?) life’s more squalid aspects. I’ve seen squalor firsthand, thanks, and frankly, I don’t care to read about it. It leaves me depressed. But I saw the cover blurb from Dave Eggers (perhaps best known as the author of the 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), praising the novel’s “passion and humor and pure life force on every page.” And I thought, “Okay, then. How much of a downer could it possibly be?” So I cracked the book and started reading.
And oh, what a downer it was.
As the days passed and the pages turned, I could feel myself sinking deeper and deeper into a bog of despond. It didn’t take long for Glen to notice my mood and perhaps five seconds more to deduce the cause of it. Several times he urged me to return the book to the library unfinished, but each time I refused. Why? Was I enjoying it? Not one bit. But I couldn’t help admiring it. McCann is a brilliant writer.
He sets the book primarily in New York City; his focal point is high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 death-defying walk across the void between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, 110 stories in the air. Then McCann dips into and out of the lives of a number of major characters (including Petit), with sections of the book devoted to each character's point of view. He occupies their heads, peeling back the layers of personal history that make them the complicated, damaged people they are. Petit’s dangerous feat serves as the book’s extended metaphor: the characters are effectively 110 stories above the street, doing their best to edge along life’s high-wire and make it safely to the other side. But what their actions produce instead are the all-too-common tragedies of real life: arrests, car accidents, alcoholism and drug addiction, suicide, sons dying in war.
And of course as I read the book I was thinking also of the Twin Towers themselves, how they fell to ruin in 2001, and reflecting that none of us can reach the end of that metaphorical high-wire alive. When the book came out eleven years ago, its connection to 9/11 would have been even more painful, perhaps unbearably so for sensitive readers. (For a perceptive, beautifully expressed review, read Tom Junod’s July 2009 Esquire piece here.)
Well, finally I finished it, and I can’t tell you how relieved I was. And though it may not be as jaw-dropping as Philippe Petit’s daring stroll through thin air, Let the Great World Spin is an important novel by a writer of great skill, a high-wire act in its own right. I’m sure it deserved its National Book Award. But it’s also grim as hell. Not once in 368 pages did I smile at the “humor,” or thrill to the “passion” and “pure life force.” Instead, I read the whole thing with a frown and my lips pinched tightly together. Only briefly, near the end, did I feel a modicum of hope that a character’s fate might amount to something more pleasant than the literary fiction equivalent of “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” My hopes were left to wither, however, when very soon that character walked out of the book’s pages forever. Yes, just like people do in real life.
What I’m left with now—other than a determination to give it some time before reading literary fiction again—is a better sense of why I write what I do. Fantasy is genre fiction, and like all the rest of genre fiction, it’s often scorned by readers of “serious” books and viewed as pretty much the antithesis of the literary stuff. True, my characters must deal with violence and sadness and occasionally death. Some of them commit vile acts. Grim things sometimes happen. But that’s as close as my books get to the world we actually live in. Because here’s what I won’t do: I will not leave the characters I love stranded without hope for the future. To do that, I’d have to be stranded without hope myself. Call me sentimental, but that’s just how it is.
So, no. I’ll never win a National Book Award for Fiction. And I’m fine with that.