Reading Margo Hammond’s thoughts on the selection of the NBCC’s fiction award in 1998 (quoted earlier today), I kept thinking back to John Sutherland’s description of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace as the “quietest (most boring, some would say) Booker for some years,” a sentiment his fellow judges from 1999 were quick to disparage. I wondered if Margo’s fellow judges had similar disagreements with her characterization of The Blue Flower as a passion-less choice, but there was no way to know — until Publishers Lunch linked to House of Mirth, critic James Marcus’s blog.
Now, I served on the jury that year along with Margo (who I know very slightly). It’s true that The Blue Flower was a dark horse, especially in the year of Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. To make my own preferences clear at the outset, I admire The Blue Flower more than DeLillo’s loose-and-baggy monster, and would certainly put it on par with the Roth (which alternates sublime passages with particle-board contrivance). But I’m not bitching because everybody doesn’t agree with me. What offended me was the suggestion that we threw some old bag the prize because we were rent asunder by Phil and Don. As I recall it (and here comes the Rashomon moment), many board members felt almost obligated to genuflect at the DeLillian altar: it was a big fat book by a major (the epithet is mine) author, he hadn’t gotten his share of prizes, etc etc. But once it became clear that Underworld was not a given, the jurors started bolting. Some voted for Roth, some for Fitzgerald. Some may have felt that The Blue Flower was a merely acceptable compromise. If so, they voted for the right book for the wrong reasons. It’s a masterpiece, and deserved the prize as richly as any novel in the organization’s history.