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Felipe Alfau and the NBA.

When asked in the spring of 1990 if I would serve as a fiction judge for the National Book Award, I accepted straightaway. Asked to propose another name, I gave that of William Gass, who also accepted. Stylists rarely get a chance to judge anything since most of those who officiate in literary affairs in this country labor under the fetishistic delusion that prose ought not to be too pleasurable, for writer or reader. Time and again, one finds prose lauded for its "lean," "terse," "taut" quality, and anything that comes along with an iota of personality or distinctiveness gets blasted. Only puritans, or puritanical liberals, would insist thus on sameness and strictness. People who harp on paucity have a poor sense of the world.

All that summer, works of fiction arrived at the door, and went next to the garage or the dining-room table. By September there were half a dozen more or less permanent residents of the table, being dipped into again and again, admired and prized, ranging from Felipe Alfau's Chromos, Mary Caponegro's The Star Cafe, and Elena Castedo's Paradise, to Joanna Scott's Arrogance, Steven Millhauser's The Barnum Museum, and Sandra Schor's The Great Letter E. Thank goodness, I thought, for women; otherwise there would be four blanks on the table. Those six books had rhetorical vigor and lexical splendor. Their estimable authors knew that prose is not a mere expository medium but an instrument to play, a voice to sing. No barbarous monotony here, but a straight line back to such illustrious forebears as Faulkner, Proust, Mann, Woolf, Nabokov, Beckett, and even Joyce. The pleasure principle was bearing fruit after all; but the rejected and semi-rejected books in the garage, gathering dust and housing spiders, made me pause. In about 170 out of some two hundred, I had been unable to find a superb sentence, an unforgettable phrase, a scene that burned home. My choices were not representative of the fiction the country was writing. Too bad for the country, too bad for publishing. Clearly, almost nobody knew good from bad.

The next event in what was to become a sorry process was the first conference call. Gass and I had chosen much the same dozen contenders, but I no sooner gladdened about that than the female judge from Arizona began a tirade about what she called masturbatory writing, which to her taste characterized the West-Gass dozen. She was against that kind of thing, and in any case it had been a long time since a black writer had won. Wait a minute, I said, given too much to digest: "Are there any other writers you think masturbatory?" She rattled off her list of the damned, mostly the illustrious forebears listed above. Another judge, the supposedly savvy one from the red-hot vacuum of Manhattan, wanted to bestow the award on someone who had won it before, to be on the safe side. Previous winners weren't banned from entering or winning, but to make honorific lightning strike twice was too much for Gass and me. It would suggest the judges had no ideas of their own, and wielded only a big rubber stamp. That conference call was untidy and unsatisfactory. One or two judges really admired the twaddle in the garage, were looking for work wholesome, mild, vapid, and virtually anonymous, and had no taste at all, being into the bargain rather thinly read. The voice of the woman from the University of Arizona jarred my skull, reminding me of my semester there as visiting novelist. At the first meeting of my MFA workshop, the students pleaded to be allowed to talk about Proust, Beckett, Nabokov, all of them proscribed locally. I was moved, and we welcomed in the banished geniuses for fifteen weeks while the winter sun shone. I knew from the outset why half the writing faculty cut me dead.

The five judges moved onward to a second conference call, which Gass missed, and I felt mighty lonely as good books fell by the wayside en route to the magic final five. In the end, after some mathematical misadventures, which I had despondently drawn attention to, we had before us a quintet that Gass and I complained about: it represented our standards, criteria, and lifelong beliefs very little. Only Alfau had gotten through the Chinese Wall of the Babbitts. Schor had actually died during the judging. The other three judges, becoming a phalanx of righteous anti-hedonists, made a gesture: Gass and I could take one of the final five out and put one in. In went Castedo, like Alfau an author of Hispanic origin. That was as far as Gass and I got. The final five now included Charles Johnson's The Middle Passage, an inferior, nervously didactic novel I read twice, wondering why it was inferior to Johnson's other books. Surely a black novelist writing about slaves should have written with more apocalyptic force; but clearly such a book appealed to the schoolteacherly tastes of the other three judges.

Anyway, my mind said, leaping back in time, what's wrong with masturbation anyway? Why such fear and loathing in 1990? We weren't discussing fascism or terrorism, but only an octave of self-ablation. I had a keen sense of having wasted my time. People who knew me and what I stood for would gape and ask how in hell I put my name to a list such as that of the finalists. Eighty-nine-year-old Felipe Alfau, staring at the TV in his nursing home, was unmoved by his nomination; he had waited too long, having written Chromos in 1948. I shallow-graved my chagrin by pondering his novel and inditing that labor of love, the citation for him, which went as follows:

Finished in 1948, Chromos sets an imaginary Alfau dreaming in front of old calendar pictures by the light of a match. Before the flame gutters, a real novel has come to him: a tart and eloquent, sly and feisty kaleidoscope of New York Spaniards, wrought in fire amid the cante hondo of the heart by a hunger artist almost lost, unpublished, to oblivion.

I hoped it would be persuasive, but only Gass felt its plea. I began to worry, wishing I'd managed to get Chaim Potok's The Gift of Asher Lev into the final five, or Michael Rothschild's Wondermonger. Too late. I thought of all the writing I hadn't done from spring to fall. Why have to argue like a demon merely to inject into the judging some elementary aesthetic criteria such as obtain in an MFA seminar or even a writing class for seniors? Here were Gass and I, having devoted much of our lives to fiction in a certain mode, being outvoted by a trio of moaxes. Giving in to middlebrow flummery made no sense at all.

The day I flew in to New York for the judges' meeting, I had a call from Roger Cohen, saying the New York Times Book Review had given him my number. Would I talk to him about the judging? I did, spelling out the philistinism and sappiness I had heard on the telephone, and the rabid zeal of the woman from Arizona, who said quite openly that black was going to vote black. If only taste had voted taste. If only there had been enough taste in the judges to discern excellence where it showed. For my aestheticism I was later to be denounced as curmudgeon; racist; bigot; but I had dismissed Johnson's book early on, and I had argued for two Hispanics.

You can't win. De gustibus, runs the old tag, non disputandum. It's no good arguing about taste. It's no good clamoring for A Winner either, then, just for the sake of having one. Maybe all two hundred books should have been divided into three categories: Can't Write At All; Can Write; Writes Well. That, indeed, would be no more slanderous and insulting than the present system. I said a lot of this to Roger Cohen, but he didn't print it. What he did print, though, was enough to make the air electric on the following day, the day of the judges' lunch in an obscure eatery uptown (and not at the Algonquin or the Plaza). The woman from Tucson, who didn't know Gass or his work, misindentified the other male judge as Gass. It all sorted out. Mathematically, if Bill and I had voted someone else as our Number One, and not Alfau, Johnson might not have won; it was that close and pointless. Three of my fellow-judges were angry with me, and spent some time denouncing Roger Cohen too; but I have become inured to middlebrow wrath over the last thirty years and have no intention of coming to heel. If I am to judge, all I ask for is excellence, and I will cry Chapeau! When the Arizona judge danced on the table at that night's NBA dinner in the Plaza, was she dancing for literature? Or for loyalty? The Manhattan judge had already confided, his tone one of exclusive self-importance, how the Pulitzer jury did things, but who by then cared?

Relegated to a table on the fringe of the proceedings for speaking when I had never promised to be silent, I heard out the ceremonies, writhing now and then as the banalities piled up. There was, that year, not even an award for poetry to enliven things (though several publishers had entered volumes of poetry for the fiction contest - a smart and significant idea). There is a rough justice in all this: the majority of prose writers, certainly in English, are stolid, wooden, and tone-deaf; the least they can expect is judges of the same caliber, to confirm them in their sameness. The nonfiction judges ignored some wonderful writing, no doubt because in their role as paralytics they had failed to recognize the able-bodied waltzing by as participants in literature. Those who win, it seems, do so for not masturbating in their public prose. The book trade has to be seen to be behaving itself.

Amid the fallout and the sleazy terminal moraine of judging, I remember being able to tell some of the truth on The McLaughlin Group. Ms. Scott and Ms. Caponegro were honored by the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters instead, and Ms. Castedo won the Chilean National Prize for Literature. Mr. Alfau has just published his collected poems. And there is talk on and off the Rialto of a new prize in the offing, to be awarded for style. Of course.
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Title Annotation:Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau; National Book Award
Author:West, Paul
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Truth or Temptation? Don Pedro's refutation of time in 'Chromos.' (Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau)
Next Article:Recalled to life.

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