Taking Us Back To Good Ol' 1961

Awards are a wonderful thing. 86FRVS4HAV4C We can be delighted when we receive them, and we can scorn them as being political and phony when we don’t. It’s the ultimate “have your cake and eat it, too”. What reader hasn’t bemoaned the work in the Best American series, or complained about who received the Pulitzer Prize? This year, the LA Times announced that Jennifer Egan won the National Book Critics Circle award and ran a picture not of Egan, but of Jonathan Franzen. Philip Roth won the Man Booker International Prize, and in response one of the judges quit and then blasted Roth’s writing in the press. Awards can get our blood boiling. Awards–particularly in the moment when they are given and fully absorbed in the present culture, and under the heavy influence of politics–might not always acknowledge the work that will be the most enduring.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that it really matters who won. Besides, how can anyone know, in the here and now, what book will have staying power for decades or centuries. It’s really an impossible goal. The winners and nominees are, probably, all very good books. But isn’t it interesting to take a look back and see how these books hold up?

That’s exactly what the editors of The Cincinnati Review have done in their summer 2011 issue. They have reassessed the winners of the National Book Award in 1961, and asked, who is the deserving award now? It’s a fun and interesting exercise. Check it out: the winner that year was The Waters of Kronos by Conrad Richter. Did you read that one? No? Maybe? But chances are you probably read Rabbit, Run or A Separate Peace (a book I once wrote about rediscovering) or The Violent Bear It Away. Regardless, you can go to the National Book Foundation’s site and look at any year your wish and then head to your local library and do some catching up.

Forty years seems like a good time for a retrospective. The writers participating include Alexander Chee, Leah Stewart, John McNally, Justin Tussing, and Keith Lee Morris, five writers who know quite a bit about writing and reading. None of the writers had read all ten nominees before, but all had read at least a few, providing the symposium with a mixture of old memories and fresh eyes.

On Updike, Alexander Chee wrote:

I’ve scoffed before at our culture’s new cult of the sympathetic character–good fiction is often about awful people, I say at those times–but this book turned out to be the test of my feelings on the matter.

On O’Connor, John McNally wrote:

The Violent Bear It Away is really Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, and it suffers from many of the same problems that first novels (unpublished first novels) often suffer from.

There’s more. A lot more. But I wouldn’t ruin it for you. It’ll make you nod at times, make you frown in disagreement, and hopefully, send you back to your bookshelves to pluck some of these classics down and read them again. After all, literary journals aren’t supposed to be in our own little vacuum, and this is one of those terrific features that stretches beyond what is typically expected of the “little” magazines.

And maybe what’s most fun about the project is this: it’s about reading. That’s all. Reading each short essay about what the experience of reading has been like for each of these writers might be the most enjoyable part of the feature. It might be the most interesting thing I’ve read this summer, in part because of the way it connects so many things – current writers, literary journals, writers in the past, books with a legacy – and makes me think, and feel moved, and re-read those novels.

But wait: this feature didn’t begin this year. This was a cooperative project with Ninth Letter and Mid-American Review. Last year, Ninth Letter looked at the National Book Award in Fiction for 1960; you can order a copy of the issue here. And next year, Mid-American Review will revisit 1962. Unless you have a DeLorean and a flux capacitor, you can’t get that issue yet, but you can visit MAR now and read what they are currently publishing. And, of course, you can get the current copy of the Cincinnati Review now. Kudos to the editors of Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, and Ninth Letter for coming up with such a smart and fun feature.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.