A little Thanksgiving disgestif, as I mull over a lot of threads we’ve got going on…all of them circling around the idea of what makes a Newbery book.
I’m no personal fan of Philip Roth. But I’ve been appreciating what he has to say about his retirement. In Sunday’s NYTimes he said: “I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”
I know that the process of writing is different for every author. But no excellent writing comes without struggle, and it’s helpful to hear from a celebrated writer just how wearing that struggle can be. Celebrating distinguished literature honors that struggle. A fine work of literature exists alive and separate from the author–it joins the reader as part of each one’s own memory–and the struggle is not a part of that, and not visible. The struggle is only the auhtor’s…and an award should be what makes it worth it.
If I can see the author’s struggle in a work, then it’s probably not distinguished. If I can see that the author didn’t struggle: it’s certainly not. You can see either when you can see the author in front of their text. When they tell rather than show. When a works’ purposefullness is more apparent than its story. This doesn’t mean a work is bad…but it may mean it doesn’t need an award.
I’ve been spending time at a local art gallery drinking in the works of William Harsh. A review of the exhibit compared his early work to his later work, saying…more or less…that while in his earlier surrealist-influenced work you could identify all the elements and name them, and place them… in his last works, nothing is identifiable as of-this-world, … “yet everything looks as tangible as a doorknob.” There is something in these later works that makes the totally foreign and unidentifiable seem living, real, believable. They achieve “liftoff” in a way the earlier ones didn’t quite.
This is what some of the best writing out there can do, too. We have to muddle our way through a lot of really good work, hold each up against the other, try calling it distinguished, disagree, find something better…in order to identify the best out there. I always hope, in the end, that the medals go to works that truly achieve “liftoff.” Our job (most of us) is one of connecting readers with great books, medal or not. Though the Newbery award is certainly for those readers, in my mind, it’s more important that it’s for the writers/creators: awarding them for the struggle, so that they’ll continue, and so that others have a standard to shoot for.
Now, Roth’s retirement coverage was clearly engineered, but when a Newbery-winning author gets their retirement covered on the front page of the NYTimes, we’ll know we’re doing right by the award. Who would you most like to see there? Not forcing them into retirement…just wishing them the honor. I’m going to toss it out there for Russell Freedman, though he doesn’t seem to me to be the retiring type.