A couple of months ago, I read yet another critically acclaimed contemporary novel that made me want to scream, "But the emperor has no clothes!" This one happens to be Bonnie Jo Campbell's Once Upon a River, which will probably be announced tomorrow as this year's Pulitzer Prize winner. I won't be surprised because I had to slog my way through it, which seems to be a pretty good indicator for something winning a major prize like the Pulitzer. I only slogged my way through it because it was on our list for the One Book One Community committee I'm on, and I felt it was my duty. I really wish I hadn't bothered. (Other members of the committee are not so diligent, gleefully announcing about some book they hated that they didn't bother wasting their time after the first 40 pages -- probably wise, given how many books we have to read.) I have to admit, though, that I often slog my way through such books, even when I have no call of duty, always hopeful that I'm going to find some redeeming quality, something that will make me think "So, that's what all the fuss is about!" I rarely do, and you'd think I'd learn, but I don't, and so I plod on until the bitter end and then want to throw the book across the room (or hit all the critics over the head with it).
Meanwhile, shortly after I read that catastrophe, I read a brilliant book that, as far as I can tell, has barely gotten any attention at all: Amor Towles's The Rules of Civility. In fact, I only discovered it because someone had returned it to our library, and I had to check it in and send it off to the other library in our system where it lives. I was immediately drawn to its cover (yes, I do judge a book by a cover, which is usually a better indicator than what the critics think of it). Shortly after I first saw it at the library, it, too, ended up on our One Book, One Community list. It's a wonderful rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags tale of Depression-era New York City, full of lovable characters, not the least of which is the city itself.
So, why does a book like Once Upon a River get picked up and carried around on all the critics' shoulders while a book like The Rules of Civility sits on the bench? I'm quite sure it's because contemporary critics like a certain mix of ingredients. In fact, take these ten ingredients, mix them up in any way you'd like, and you're bound to win some sort of literary prize.
1. The book must be grim. grim. grim. Avoid humor, levity at all costs. This is, of course, what will make it real, what will help you garner endorsements that say, "This gritty portrayal, reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, will make you question all you hold true about the grim realities of becoming a man in 21st-century America." The likes of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mark Twain probably wouldn't be published today since readers might actually laugh at the things their characters do and say, and, you know, laughter is just so unreal.
2. All settings must be bleak, and your characters must be uneducated and poor (another reason Trollope and Austen wouldn't be published today). If you're going to write about the American South, you must write about people living in shacks in Appalachia during a horrible drought when babies and beloved grandparents die from heat stroke. If you're writing about New York, you must write about those living in sub-standard tenement housing during the worst winter on record, babies and beloved grandparents freezing to death. Writing about London? Your characters are squatting in squalor. You get the picture, which has not even a slight hint of a bright color anywhere.
3. If you're writing a coming of age novel (why do I say "if"? It is, of course, a coming of age novel), and your main character is female, it's no longer enough for her to deal with the fact that she was orphaned at age 14. No, not only was she orphaned at age 14, but she was also sent to live with the uncle who has been sexually abusing her since she was three. She will go on to be raped at least three times by three other men before she is 21. She will also wind up pregnant. Oh, and yes, the boyfriend who got her pregnant is an abusive drug addict. Despite all she goes through, make sure that even your most empathetic readers won't really care less what happens to her by the end of the book.
4. If your main character is male, he either never knew his father, or his father is a drunk who is more absent than present and who "loves" with his fists. This boy's a wise-beyond-his-years high school dropout with a vocabulary that belies this status but who still manages to do so many stupid things that he is certainly headed for prison, especially since he thinks nothing of fighting back with his own fists. Provide a great hope that he might turn out differently from his father -- here's an idea: some kind, idealistic man who takes him under his wing and gives him the chance to live somewhere else. Or, even better, a girl from a loving family who thinks he can be saved -- then yank that hope away as painfully as possible, so that, by the end of the book, your "hero" has become a clone of his father. Your last sentence might read, "The prison door echoed as it slammed behind him."
5. Mix up your tenses as much as you can. Write in the present tense and the past tense. Write in the future tense, too, if it makes sense (and even if it doesn't. If it doesn't, the critics are sure to think that you are deep and clever beyond all imagining, especially if you are a "bright young thing").
6. Likewise, mix up your narrative voice. Switch back and forth between first-person and third-person narrative, especially if you've begun with the first-person but need to explain something your narrator couldn't possibly know. Apparently, unlike me (who might be so cruel as to judge you a lazy writer), the critics will marvel at your "clever use of voice."
7. Get your characters to provide all kinds of lengthy background information via dialogue, because, you know, we all talk like this, "Well, cousin, as you will recall, your sister went off to New York when you were six years old. If only she'd stayed home where she belonged. You were too young to receive the phone calls all about Ronnie this and Ronnie that, but your poor mother was beside herself with worry over that guy, who, of course, turned out to be a drug dealer. If only Suzie hadn't gone to New York, we wouldn't be sitting in this rehab center today." The critics aren't bothered by such dialogue. Maybe they talk this way. Maybe they're also in the habit of explaining things to people's siblings that shouldn't need explaining.
8. Hit your readers over the head with symbolism. When your 16-year-old protagonist decides to tell her 36-year-old boyfriend she's pregnant, make sure you open the scene with a description of the fried egg breakfast she's cooking him, something like, "She watched the clear liquid turn to white and take shape, hoping she wouldn't overcook the yolks and wondering how he would take the news." A mother cat nursing kittens would be a good addition to such a scene. If your young male hero is headed for a life in prison, send him to a dog fight where he witnesses poor, weak dogs, stuck in their small crates, destined to die.
9. Make sure there are elements in your book that will encourage critics to compare it to classics. For instance, you can set it on a river (any river, apparently. It doesn't even matter if it's not the same one) a la Bonnie Jo Campbell, and it will draw "inevitable" (at least, according to one critic I read) comparisons to Huckleberry Finn. Set your book in an English village, and you will be a 21st-century Austen. Write about a teenaged boy, even a deaf, dumb, and blind one lost in Mongolia, and he's bound to draw comparisons to Holden Caulfield. Then again, if he's blind, he might be Oedipus. Don't make him blind. Caulfield is "edgier" than Oedipus, and you, of course, must be "edgy" (a favorite word amongst the critics).
10. Finally, most important of all: make sure your ending is ambiguous. Do not tie anything up -- or even together -- if you can possibly help it. The more you can make the reader think, "Huh?" the better. Besides, the more ambiguous it is, the easier it will be to write the sequel.
That's it: Emily's recipe for an award-winning book. Please let me know if I've missed some killer ingredient that will make it even better. I'm off to eat some dessert. Sophie Kinsella (who is actually an excellent writer and never pretends to be anything she isn't), anyone?