Sunday, October 5, 2014

My own national book awards

The long list of National Book Award nominees for nonfiction for 2014 was released on September 17. It came to my attention when a friend on Facebook pointed out the limited diversity of the list--just one woman, and no people of color (more accurately, one, Anand Gopal).  But the lack of diversity is just one of the list's problems. If the major goal of non-fiction is to provide insight into important questions facing the larger society--certainly I think this is the goal--the list is almost a complete failure. Excluding Gopal's book, which sheds light on how Afghanis have experienced the American occupation of Afghanistan, I can't see how any of the books on the list (I admit I haven't read them) could qualify. Some of the list reads like a parody of current publishing cliches. There is neo-gilded age kitsch called "The Innovators." There is presidential hagiography, the main form of popular history in the US. Apparently we are moving on from Lincoln to FDR. If you pay any attention to these things, you will not be surprised that the words "at war" follow the president's name in the title. Another author has written a memoir apparently focused on her dysfunctional parents, not at all an overcrowded genre, and hailed as a breakthrough because it is in cartoon form ("the first cartoonist honored by the National Book Awards in the adult categories"). I would add, only a couple of decades after "Maus." A journalist travels around China in another title--I'm guessing he meets ambitious people who aren't too worried about the government, discovers there is a lot of corruption and pollution, and that inequality is growing. Three titles form a mini-treatise on the religious views of the nominating committee. "Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic" sounds like pushback against Tea Party nonsense that postulates the founding fathers as fundamentalist Christians. But then "The Heathen School: A story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic" sounds somewhat sympathetic to Christian efforts to educate a multicultural cast of "heathens", demonstrating that the nominating committee is not rigidly anti-religion. And then E.O. Wilson's "The Meaning of Human Existence" offers a scientist's reflections on deep philosophical questions, showing that these sorts of meditations are not the monopoly of the religious. Rounding out the list are titles on Tennessee Williams and Paris under the German occupation seemingly plucked at random from a list of respectable sounding books published this year. What a dismal, unexceptional list. Excluding Gopal, efforts to engage with the major problems of our time are practically absent,  unless you want to believe the culture war between the religious and secular still constitutes the major dynamic.And the sad thing is this has been a great year for non-fiction works. I therefore offer the following list of books that should have been honored. It is not especially counterintuitive. A number of these books have gotten a fair share of attention. Two hit the bestseller list. This only raises more questions about the official list.(disclaimer--I haven't read all of the books below. I don't claim to agree with everything any of these authors say)

1. Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century I wasn't able to find rules on the National Book Award's website. I certainly hope, for their sake, that the rules forbid authors based outside the US. How else to explain the absence of the unchallengeable non-fiction book of the year? Simultaneously a serious economic history, an endorsement of a populist prognosis that the rich seem to be getting almost continuously richer at the expense of everyone else, and a bestseller, Picketty played a key role in returning inequality to public debate, after it had receded with the demise of Occupy.

2. Gerald Horne, The Counter Revolution of 1776 Horne's depiction of the American colonialists as simultaneously obsessed with expanding slave society and terrified of the prospect of slave revolt is not easily shaken. His narrative culminates with a fresh approach to the American revolution, as a rebellion against the prospect of abolition.

3. Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge Perlstein's history of the US in the seventies generated unfounded charges of plagiarism. His real crime--chipping away at the halo around Ronald Reagan, the signal historiographical achievement of the right wing in the last thirty years.

4. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything A very timely intervention putting both questions about the role of the state and the question of capitalism on the climate change agenda. 

5. Simon Head, Mindless:Why Smarter Machines are Making Humans Dumber Largely neglected, perhaps because of its unfortunate subtitle. A serious examination of the transformation of the labor process by computer business systems, that also highlights how these systems migrated out from the military. A worthy successor to Harry Braverman's "Labor and Monopoly Capitalism."

6. Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity A true story of slave rebellion that inspired fiction by Herman Melville provides a window into the relationship between slavery and capitalism.

7. Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism  Now famous as a book The Economist declared was too hard on slaveholding whites, this also illuminates the relationship of slavery and capitalism. A big topic getting very belated attention is worth two nods on the list.

8. Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction That the Civil War presaged the total war of the twentieth century is a cliche; this book left me convinced that we should think of the wave of reactionary violence after the Civil War, ultimately successful in defeating the push for African American rights, as a precursor to the twentieth century reactionary terror in Spain, Indonesia, Chile, etc.

9. Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars Provides actual historical background that can be used to put the current attacks on teachers' unions and public schools in context.

10. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People's History of the United States Rather overdue telling of American history from the perspective of its victims. Hopefully this just released book will reopen a question that the American left has quietly abandoned.

11. Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City  Among other things, this ethnographer witnessed the police kill a man and falsify a report about it. Her subject--the relationship of young African American men to the justice system that torments rather than serves them--is crucial.

I could go on. There are many books being produced that develop insights into key historical and social questions of our time. These are books whose goal is not to score a few academic points, but to foster debate among a much broader public. Some of them have actually succeeded in doing so. I don't really understand the case for honoring the non-fiction on the long list of the National Book Awards as opposed to my list. Perhaps they have some other criteria. Maybe they have a more aestheticized understanding of non-fiction, in which what matters is the artfulness of the prose and the narrative structure. This sounds like a terrible idea to me. But even so, such a list probably wouldn't include celebrations of dot com entrepreneurs and presidents. Those books are not the next "In Cold Blood." Rather, the list seems to be saying "don't raise important questions. Keep producing grist for the NPR mill. We will honor you anyway."