September 17, 2009



Interesting and varied list of finalists. Past winners such as Oscar Wao and Special Topics in Calamity Physics have gone on to garner other accolades.


Oy! Do they all have mfa's? Almost every venture into mfa debut fiction has left me unsatisfied and uninspired, and that makes me not want to read these books... Sadly, my experiences have left me prejudiced against them. (Sadly, because presumably there are awesome first books out there by mfa-ers, but at this point I don't even want to try...)


Philipp, Patrick, Paul Pipkin. Predominance of P!


It's actually Yiyun Li.


Some MFAs, to be sure, but a couple of the authors have unconventional backgrounds. And American Rust, for one, doesn't read like a book written by someone who has only spent his life in universities. Meyer dropped out of high school. Didn't get into college until he was 22.


I have to say I don't put much stock in a prize where such a large number of people have to pleased. I mean, a LOT of librarians have to like these books in order for them to rise to the top here. And crowd-pleasing generally doesn't correlate with truly great writing, at least rarely for a first-time writer, whose strangeness is often seen as off-putting initially (Wise Blood is a great example of this). This often changes as the reading public grows accustomed to their style- McCarthy, Morrison, Wallace, etc. But I think it's rare that something truly great (read: strange, discomfiting, even angering in its departure from naturalness) can find a secure audience quickly. It often takes two or three books (or, hell, a lifetime) for people to learn how to read a deeply idiosyncratic writer. Which is all just to say I don't put much stock in this stuff... I still like personal recommendations by people unafraid to grapple with the best books.


Kati, thanks - very embarrassing; I just copied and pasted from the website. I'll let them know as well.

And, JT, Mark is right - I've read all these books and they don't feel like that familiar, dreadfully workshopped MFA book we've all come to know and dread. I'd say these books are worth your attention.

And MBP, with all due respect, I don't really know what the heck you are talking about. From everything I know about this award, there's absolutely no requirement to please anyone other than the judges. I'm not sure where you get your information, but I can assure in this particular case, it's entirely off the mark.


TEV, no offense intended at all. I just looked at the website for the prize where it explains that the judges only read a small selection of books that a larger group of librarians, staff and library members called Common Readers recommend to them. It doesn't appear that the judges read all of the books submitted for the prize, only the ones that pass muster with the bigger group. The website explains it under 'selection process'



Mark, I have to admit I totallyagree with JT on this. When putting so-called unconventional backgrounds aside, all these authors do for certain have one thing in common: an MFA. Which really means having enough money to study at a good program, probably getting recommended to a good agent by a famous writer, getting sold to a good publisher by that good agent, getting blurbed by that initial famous writer, then getting reviewed by good newspapers because of that famous blurb and that prestigious publisher. All of which adds up to: meh. Money and good fortune, for sure, but not unique talent. Am I the only one bummed out by this? And, yes, I am an aspiring writer. And, yes, I have no money to go these famous programs. Unlike Meyers who chose to drop out of high school and become a part of the working class, I was born into it. I didn't have that privilege to choose.


So here's the deal: I do have a little bit of skinny on this award but I'd prefer not to say anything until after it's awarded. If you all can bear with me until then, I promise to come back and tell you more. But I can say this - I am told that each of the final judges had the opportunity to introduce any title for consideration, whether it came from first round readers or not, and the judges panel was not solely comprised of MFAs. So there is more nuance to all this than you guys are allowing for. And as a general rule, I urge people to try to avoid the whole "MFAs rule the world" canard because it's just not true. Do they have disaproportionate influence? Maybe. But is the lack of an MFA a barrier to publication? No way. Yours truly is case in point.

Matt Briggs

Conversely, I was poor enough to get an MA (the program I went to only had an MA not MFA at the time.) They offered a modest stipend, cost of living in Baltimore was low. So yes, MFA/MA in creative writing are expensive, but many writers get a discount. Furthermore, many published writers just don't have the degree. It's a vast, swampy discussion. In general, I find our culture's growing requirements for certification and the endless proliferation of lit awards kind of disconcerting. BUT I read The Cradle, which is on this list, and thought it was really good.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
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