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Literary highlights of 2009, a poetry scandal, the Man Booker International Prize, artists’ writings and a new study on Robert Ryman

Amit Chaudhuri

An award-winning novelist, critic and musician who lives in Calcutta, India, and Norwich, UK. He is Professor in Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia, UK, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

The Man Booker International Prize is turning into an award that might compensate, in its seriously ‘literary’ intentions, for the self-regard of its older, more light-headed sibling, the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction. I say this not only because I judged the former (along with Andrey Kurkov and Jane Smiley) in 2009. The Booker Prize for Fiction, as it ages, has been regressing into a crowd-pleasing sweetness, an eschewal of difficulty, an ingenuous love of fun, but without any of the ironical relish that Bob Dylan recorded in his lines: ‘Yes, I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ The Booker Prize began in 1968 with some of the best writers of the day acting as its jury members, but, for several years now, as it aggressively rids itself of its adult origins, it has encouraged a mixture of newscasters, chefs, politicians, comedians and minor novelists to judge what the best book published each year in Britain might be. The Man Booker International, a biennial prize on its third outing in 2009, given to a writer for a body of work in fiction that was written in or translated into English, has started out as the other Booker once did, with writers as judges, and with an unstated but clear belief in the category, ‘literature’. I wonder how long it will survive in its present form; whether it will alter the system from within or change (as the famous tend to) as it becomes more famous.

After discovering (and sometimes re-reading) an array of the world’s most interesting writers, the shortlist we came up with for the Man Booker International Prize reflected the assessments we’d had to make about what was important in contemporary fiction. We dispensed – perhaps scandalously – with Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis; John Updike died or he might have been a serious contender. We included the work of such fascinating mavericks as Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešic, Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Italian Antonio Tabucchi, the octogenarian Indian writer–activist Mahasweta Devi, the elusive, masterly American Evan S. Connell (whom no one seems to have heard of), and the greatest living British novelist, James Kelman. The prize went to Alice Munro, whose incredible early stories – about young girls, aunts, safety-pins, torn blouses and train journeys – I was reading on a plane to Vancouver recently; her new collection, Too Much Happiness (Chatto & Windus) is written in what Edward Said called ‘late style’: contrary, humane and courageous. The other great literary occurrence of 2009, was, for me, the elections for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry at the University of Oxford. It had, in many ways, the features of what Alain Badiou means by ‘event’ – a radical break in the ordinary flow of time and subjectivity. On the one hand, the tawdry details surfaced early in the form of the ‘sex dossier’ about one of the candidates (and, with the support of the English Faculty, the one most likely to win): Derek Walcott. For he, author of the 1990 epic poem, Omeros, and bard of St. Lucia, had, decades ago, threatened to reconsider a student’s grades unless she had sex with him. It turned out that one of his two rivals, the poet Ruth Padel, just might have been implicated in the resurfacing of this old blemish. Walcott withdrew; Padel won over her rival, the Indian poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, but had to resign when it emerged that she had encouraged a journalist to follow up on the Walcott story. What was astonishing, though, was that Mehrotra, whom few people in Oxford had heard of when the nominations were announced, received 129 votes – surely more than any outsider, ever. These weren’t the votes that would have otherwise gone to Walcott; his camp had decided, out of a sense of deep aggrievement, to abstain; but Mehrotra’s extraordinary poems and essays had been circulating for a month among faculty members and graduate students, many of whom had been surprised by them, and then converted. As his supporters claimed, Mehrotra was not an ‘easy postcolonial choice’, but a reminder that cosmopolitanism has had a rich, long and complex history outside of the West. In all kinds of ways, these elections were sui generis – in the end, they were no elections at all; they were taken up by the media, as well as by one of the candidates, as one among many contemporary ‘reality’ shows, which are not only about winning and losing, but about a gratuitous, possibly redemptive, exhibition of emotion. Yet, in spite of all these constraints, they introduced a remarkable writer to an inward-looking landscape. Mehrotra will read and lecture at Oxford early this year.

Brian Sholis

A writer and editor. He is currently studying American History at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, USA.

My reading last year was a whiplash affair; I caromed between books on contemporary art and books on American history. Among my favourites were Jackson Lears’ Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877–1920 (Harper), which expands upon the insights of his first book, No Place of Grace (1981). Whereas that earlier volume cast a series of late-19th-century anti-modern prophets as unwittingly complicit in the arrival of therapeutic consumer culture, in his new book Lears views the period as a cauldron of proactive revitalization. This search for new spiritual and physical beginnings led, he persuasively suggests, to unintended consequences – not least to martial ambition and America’s arrival on the world stage as an imperialist power.

Later in the summer, I enjoyed my friend Suzanne Hudson’s study Robert Ryman (MIT Press), subtitled ‘Used Paint’. The book not only shrewdly frames Ryman’s practice as a pragmatic ‘open inquiry’ made up of constituent parts (primer, paint, support, edge, wall) but also includes a brief and fascinating discussion of Victor D’Amico, an unknown-to-me pioneering art educator who worked at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from the 1930s to the ’60s. Another book from MIT will no doubt prove of enduring value: Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson’s Institutional Critique, an anthology of artists’ writings that follows their collection of artists’ writings on Conceptual art published in 2000. That the new anthology opens with a 1966 essay by Wiesław Borowski, Hanna Ptsazkowska and Mariusz Tchorek, and that it interpolates early contributions from South America with more familiar texts by the likes of Andrea Fraser, Hans Haacke and Allan Kaprow, indicates the editors’ attention to the art-historical shifts of the last decade. Institutional Critique will certainly be worked into the syllabuses of many graduate art history courses. Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815, the latest 750-page brick in the multi-volume ‘Oxford History of the United States’ published by Oxford University Press, should likewise find its way onto the reading lists of US history surveys. My admiration for both Wood’s earlier books on the American Revolution and the OUP series is widely shared (by, for example, Pulitzer Prize committee members). Though I’ve only dipped into Empire of Liberty it seems as well-crafted a narrative and as talented a synthesis of recent scholarship as one would expect.

But of all the reading I did last year, nothing sticks out in my mind as brightly as does a hilarious brief passage in scientist and documentary filmmaker Steve Nicholls’ Paradise Found: Nature in America at the Time of Discovery (University of Chicago Press). To depict nature’s bounty, Nicholls scrutinizes the copious written descriptions left behind by the first European explorers of North America. The abundance and vitality of flora and fauna worked both to the advantage of such adventurers and, as indicated by the words of one hunter in the Carolinas, occasionally to frustrating disadvantage: ‘We saw plenty of Turkies, but perch’d upon such lofty Oaks, that our Guns would not kill them, tho’ we shot very often, and our Guns were very good.’

is curator of photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, USA.

Issue 128

First published in Issue 128

Jan – Feb 2010
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