Are the Good Really Good?


What do the following people have in common?

  • Michael Cunningham
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Michael Chabon
  • Richard Russo
  • Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Edward P. Jones
  • Marilynne Robinson
  • Geraldine Brooks
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Junot Diaz

If you said they all won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction within the last ten years, you’d be right. But I’ll be honest with you—I’ve only heard of two of them and haven’t read any of their books.

Am I the exception? Maybe. But here’s the thing. I’m a college graduate, an educator for years, more recently a writer (with vested interest in all things fiction). On top of this, I’ve had a number of highly respected “book people” (professionals in the book business) recommend a couple of these authors (which is why I’ve heard of them), I even have a copy of one of the books, and have started it at least twice. And still, I haven’t read a single one of these authors.

So maybe most other authors have. But what about my teacher friends, all college graduates, as well. Or my family? Co-workers in the church library? Never mind my neighbors and other friends.

But Harry Potter? Left Behind? The Shack? My guess is, nearly everyone I know has heard of these books and their authors, and a good number have read at least some of them.

This divide between what people are reading and what books are winning awards mystifies me. Not because none of the Left Behind books won a Pulitzer but because few of us are reading the winners.

Of course, I could be completely off on this. Maybe these authors have been sitting on top of the New York Times best seller list, and I just missed them. Maybe their books are at the top of the Amazon ratings, and I didn’t see them (I did just check, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is currently ranked number 55, which lends credence to the idea that I just missed out!)

But here’s a quote from a CNN article on the Pulitzers, “Pulitzer Prizes set the standard of excellence“:

Many of the past winners in the area of literature have not been best sellers, and many of the winning plays have been off-Broadway.

So I’m wondering, are the publishers trying to sell these award winners to the public? (Hence the problem is marketing.) Or is the public giving a pass to many of the award winners? (Hence the problem is that good writing generally isn’t selling well).

If the latter is even part of the problem, I want to figure out why. My working hypothesis is that readers come to stories to get lost in another person’s world—to experience the joys, the challenges, the soul searching—and if the writing is beautiful, all the better; whereas the board of professionals responsible for nominating and selecting award winners looks primarily for creativity, with little concern for communication.

It’s a hypothesis, but if it is even close to true, I think it has something to say to writers which I’ll address in another post.

Published in: on December 17, 2008 at 12:57 pm  Comments (10)  
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