1963: To borrow a line from Frank Sinatra, it was a very good year. Many fine works saw the light of day in 1963, some celebrated and some unsung—but to get to the point, a lot of good books were published. (I bet you thought you knew where I was going with that, didn’t you?)
Over at Bookslut, they think it’s time for a book award do-over, 50 years later. “If you look back at the books that won the Pulitzer or the National Book Award,” their premise goes, “it is always the wrong book.” And much as I do love the whole process of literary prizes—the longlist, the shortlist, the speculation, the delight, the disparagement—they have a point there. If you’re looking back at a time when the publishing industry was largely run by a bunch of middle-aged white guys in New York, the major book awards of the day tended to navigate pretty faithfully by their lights.
Which is not to say the prizewinners were undeserving, necessarily. But the choices were maybe somewhat constrained. By Bookslut’s reckoning, a publishing year that brought us Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle—among many others—that saw John Updike take the 1964 National Book Award for The Centaur might merit a second look.
Hence the Daphne Awards, a literary mulligan half a century down the line. Bookslut intends to work in organized fashion, hewing to the standard categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s books, with judges and chairpersons and a party. And while it’s all pretty entertaining, it’s not silly. As Jessa Crispin told Dustin Kurtz in an interview at MobyLives,
We revisit the prizes because as writers, prizes matter. I know we are all supposed to be just doing our good work, totally divorced from outside reinforcement like sales rankings and prizes and grants, but we like a little reinforcement. We like a little recognition. Otherwise, you know, despair, alcohol, suicide, or we start writing listicles for some aggregate website because at least then we can get paid.
(If those are my choices I know which one I’d take, but that’s not, I think, her point.) Bookslut welcomes suggestions for their longlist, and I’m thinking book clubs everywhere could do a lot worse than to take on the eventual shortlist as a sort of golden anniversary reading challenge. I’m hoping the deliberations are at least a bit transparent, so I can follow along with the proper kind of enthusiasm that one marvelous product of 1963 might have for another.