The PEN Literary Awards: Picking The [Under] Dog

I fully intended on going to the PEN Literary Awards last night, I really did. I RSVP’d, for one thing, and anyone who knows me knows I’m compulsively polite on that count, because the PEN people certainly must have set aside those two plastic cups of Merlot and a couple of cheese cubes with my name on it. But more than that, I just liked the shortlists. They looked like I could happily read my way straight through them, and the books there that I had read I liked very much. Plus I wanted to see James Hannaham, whom I had the great good fortune to meet on an otherwise miserable flight out to Portland, OR, and then see read at Powell’s a few months ago, emcee.

I even chose my reading accordingly. A while back I had picked a book somewhat randomly out of the giveaway pile at work, a slim short story collection called The Dog by Jack Livings. I didn’t know the author, didn’t know the title—I’m basically as attracted to anything with the word “dog” in the title as your average eight-year-old. I might have thought, at first, it was Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog which a few friends had read to mixed reviews. But this book, in fact, was not on the radar of anyone I know.

And that’s always an interesting factor, when I get to feel like an innovator. It’s not as if I run in any kind of rarefied literary circles—my life is not the Algonquin Round Table—but I talk about books a lot, online and in person. It’s rare, honestly, to find something that looks promising that no one I know has mentioned. Finally, and maybe predictably—cf. my comment above about titles with the word “dog” in them—Steve Donoghue reviewed it at Open Letters Monthly and piqued my interest.

Of all the titles on the PEN shortlist, this was the only one I’d heard pretty much nothing about. It was an underdog in every sense of the word, including the fact that it was languishing at the bottom of a pile of books on my desk at work. So when I decided I would be hitting the PEN Awards, I dug it out and started reading.

And it’s good. This isn’t a review, as I don’t review books I haven’t finished and I’m only halfway into Livings’s collection. The stories are set in corners of contemporary China that don’t see a lot of literary action, each one finely detailed, dusty and smelly and bearing a hint—often more than a hint—of menace. I need some kind of method for picking books from my pile, and this one, I thought, worked exceptionally well.

But then, as perhaps you can guess by the overarching tone of regret—at least there’s supposed to be one here—I didn’t go. It had been a lousy week and a half in my world, the highlights of which included a serious home breakin and burglary, a bad case of poison oak, and a birthday. By the end of my workday I was tired as dirt, and it was a Monday. The thought of getting in at 11:00 and having to take out the recycling just made me want to weep. So I went home, ate enchiladas, crawled into bed.

underdogBut around 9:00 an email popped into my inbox announcing that The Dog had won the Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction—which was, for some reason, oddly validating. I might not have been sitting in The New School auditorium holding my breath along with everyone else, poised over my phone to tweet the winner, but still. I picked the dark horse! I picked the underdog! At least I picked it out of my big pile of books. And I so rarely get to be the first person I know to read anything with a buzz around it, that made me happy. When everyone I know is racing to get their copies, I’ll have my battered galley safe at home, thumbed through and studded with sticky notes. “Let me know when you’ve finished,” I’ll say, “and we can talk about it.”

Congratulations to all the PEN winners! Sorry I wasn’t there. But it was fun anyway.

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