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How the first National Book Awards reflected 1950s America

“In the start of a new series reflecting on 75 years of the awards, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes about how societies and juries read and recognize literature”

The National Book Awards will celebrate its 75th anniversary at this year’s ceremony, on Nov. 20. To mark the occasion, The Washington Post has collaborated with the administrator and presenter of the awards, the National Book Foundation, to commission a series of essays by National Book Award-honored authors who will consider (and reconsider), decade by decade, the books that were recognized and those that were overlooked; the preoccupations of authors, readers and the publishing industry through time; the power and subjectivity of judges and of awards; and the lasting importance of books to our culture, from the 1950s to the present day.

“Prizes sometimes predict a future member of the literary hall of fame; sometimes they’re simply given to the books that a majority of judges can agree on,” writes Viet Thanh Nguyen in this first piece in a series by the Washington Post. He recognizes how these awards reflect important cultural concepts:

The cultural landscape has shifted a great deal because of political and social transformations that became increasingly visible starting in the 1950s, such as the civil rights movement and the Beat Generation. Greater attention is now paid to diversity in literature, from the ranks of published authors and their editors to the composition of literary juries and the recipients of awards.

In examining the nominees and winners of the 1950s, he finds many groups neglected: science fiction, works by writers of color, Jewish writers, openly gay writers” in what could “be seen as the genteel literary equivalent of White supremacy.”

One of the major themes of literature by writers from minoritized populations is the erasure and silencing of those who are dominated, both past and present. That theme extends to how societies and juries read and recognize literature.

Looking back over the nominees and winners of the National Book Awards from the 1950s, Nguyen realizes “a haunting possibility: the books that might have been written by those who were suppressed before they even had the opportunity to find a voice.” Throughout the article Nguyen illustrates many features evident in a study of Life Stories in Literature.

A True Crime Syllabus

“How did we become so obsessed with “true crime”? This multidisciplinary syllabus shows how we view crime as a whole and how those views have changed over time.”

Academic research company JSTOR asks, “how did we become so obsessed with crime that the media now has patterns of language for describing this phenomenon?” This article, which includes free links to the academic resources discussed, looks back at the history of true crime writing and its development over time. There are a lot of linked articles in the following categories: historical examples of “true crime”; science and pseudoscience; true crime society.

U.S. Audiobook Sales Hit $2 Billion in 2024

Publishers Weekly reports on the “steadily growing” popularity of audiobooks. A recent survey found that “38% of American adults listened to an audiobook in the last year, up from 35% reported in 2023.”

The Booker Prize-nominated books that were rejected by publishers

“The road to Booker Prize recognition isn’t always smooth,” John Self declares on the Booker Prize website. However, “the path to winning the Booker Prize is often far from a smooth one, and a win can come at the end of a long and bumpy road of rejection and frustration,” he continues.

Self looks at a few Booker-Prize winners that were first turned down for publication  “and speaks to editors, authors and agents about why those books struggled to secure a publishing deal.” He includes the following books: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart; The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka; Life of Pi by Yann Martel; Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann; and Swimming Home by Deborah Levy.

Before ‘Fans,’ There Were ‘Kranks,’ ‘Longhairs,’ and ‘Lions’

Finding the fans of past eras can be a tricky task. Language changes a great deal over time, and much of how we view and discuss fan culture today is mediated by the big modern structures that shape our fannish worlds, from industries like Hollywood and sports leagues to the spaces, both analog and digital, that bring fans together.

This turns out to be a much more complex matter than you might think.

Why Can’t Robots Click The “I’m Not a Robot” Box On Websites?

I bet, at least once in your life, you’ve had to click a little box next to the statement “I am not a robot.” After that, you may have been asked to click on all the squares that show streetlights.

What’s really going on here? It’s a program called CAPTCHA, which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. But how does the website decide who’s not a robot and who [what] is? The explanation may surprise you.

AI Is a False God

“The real threat with super intelligence is falling prey to the hype”

Navneet Alang takes a VERY deep dive into AI in the Canadian publication The Walrus. “Businesses have been eager to rush aboard the hype train,” Alang writes. “But there is also a profound belief that AI represents a threat.”

It’s not that one should simply resist technology; it can, after all, also have liberating effects. Rather, when big tech comes bearing gifts, you should probably look closely at what’s in the box.

Eruption: Steven Spielberg approached to adapt new Crichton-Patterson novel

Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton died from cancer over 15 years ago – now, his unfinished “passion project”, about a humanity-threatening volcanic eruption, has been completed by fellow literary giant James Patterson and is already generating heated interest in Hollywood.

Here’s an emotional, heartwarming story about the “passion project” Michael Crichton left unfinished at the time of his death at age 66 in 2008.

 What Does Freud Still Have to Teach Us?

“Come for the Oedipus complex. Stay for the later troubled musings on the fate of humanity.”

In this piece for The New Yorker, Merve Emre examines Freud’s life and its significance for the present. She begins with a summary of the key works in the “more than thirty full-length biographies of Sigmund Freud in circulation today,” in which she discusses the nature of biography as well as the works’ content. 

Freud is, of course, best known among the public for his notion of the Oedipus complex. But also of interest to writers, readers, and other creative folk is his concept of repression as the source for imagination:

What if he had never left his home town? What if he had married the girl he had fallen in love with that summer? Freud knew that all people ask questions like these, and that, upon asking them, life suddenly appears in split screen, with one side drenched in color and the other black-and-white, with long interludes in which nothing much seems to happen. Human beings, Freud wrote, “find reality unsatisfying quite generally, and for that reason entertain a life of phantasy in which we like to make up for the insufficiencies of reality.”

Emre concludes with the melancholy musings brought on by world events in the years leading up to his death in 1939.

China Miéville Writes a Secret Novel With the Internet’s Boyfriend

“After nearly a decade of silence, the beloved sci-fi author opens up about loss, love, and a collaboration with Keanu Reeves. A WIRED exclusive.”

What synchronicity! I came to this article to read about Miéville’s latest, and the connection with Keanu Reeves was a bonus. But near the end of the piece I found out that the collaboration between Miéville and Reeves is “about Sigmund Freud. It’s practically Freudian fan fiction.”

Read on if you find a Freudian collaboration between Miéville and Reeves as fascinating as I do.

© 2024 by Mary Daniels Brown

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