by Dory Athey on Oct 14, 2015

Jill Bialosky, author of the new novel The Prize, wrote an essay for The Millions about literary prizes, the great American novels that never won any, and what constitutes award-winning literature.


October 14, 2016

What Qualifies as Greatness: On Literary Awards Season

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a prize. In 1925, the year it was published, the Pulitzer went to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big. How many readers have read this book or remember it?

In 1952 Catcher in the Rye lost the Pulitzer to The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Catcher in the Rye is a short novel told in the first person and is about a teenager disenchanted by the world of adults. The Caine Mutiny weighs in at over 500 pages and is a sprawling novel of life and mutiny on a Navy warship in the Pacific dealing with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. Which work would now be regarded as literature?

In 1937 Margaret Mitchell took the prize for Gone with the Wind, the same year that William Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom!

Poor Ernest Hemingway. In 1930 A Farewell to Arms, along with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, lost the Pulitzer to Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In 1941, the year that Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction at all. We may remember the winner of a prize, but we often fail to recall the finalists that year or the vast array of deserving works that were overlooked.

Now that awards season is upon us, with various lists of contenders for the Booker, the National Book Award, and soon the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, it is interesting to step back and examine the place of prizes in literature. Do they necessarily reward greatness or works that, like a fine wine, gain stature over time? Do they simply reflect the taste of the jury at a particular moment in history? Or is it a little of both?

Prizes are not awarded by an omniscient god. They are based on a jury. The Pulitzer typically invites three to five judges to recommend works that then go to its 19 to 20 member board of newspaper journalists to make the final decision. The National Book Award seats five jurists. According to its blog, Critical Mass, The National Book Critics Circle divides “into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.” Although their choices may be worthy, does the 24-board-member committee have its ear tuned to the winds of media hype? When they meet to choose their finalists, typically announced in January, are they looking for the best books that year, books that may have been overlooked by the judges of the National Book Awards, for instance, which holds its award ceremony in November? Or do they hop on the bandwagon and support the same five or 10 books that — because a seven-figure advance was paid and publishers have a vested interest in getting the books known —  are getting all the attention? Or because the NYTBR has chosen to give the book front-page acknowledgment? Or because a particular author’s work has been ignored in the past, even if the new work isn’t as strong as earlier work? Do they purposely seek out a book by a smaller press to stir up debate? Why is it that the same books generally tend to be acknowledged by various prize committees?

Roxanna Robinson, president of the Authors Guild says, “I am very wary of a book that has won more than one prize. Then it seems like a lemming award. Two things I wish would change: One, that prize-awarders would agree tacitly not to award more than one prize to any given book. There are always a number of good books in any season, and for one book to get more than one award is a huge waste of public attention — there are other books that could use it. Two, I wish some of the many First Novel awards would shift their sights to writers in mid-career. Those are the writers who often need support, if their first books weren’t blockbusters, or didn’t win a prize.”

About awards, author Alex Kates Shulman’s feelings are mixed: “Of course I like getting one, which feels validating, and my desire to read a book shoots up a little bit if it has won an award, even though I know the process is basically corrupt. Awards help the few and hurt the many and probably make literary culture a little less welcoming to most writers and more clubby. Having been on award committees, I’ve seen that those who have an advocate or friend on the committee (preferably male and loud) are the ones who usually win. And then there are those writers, some very good (or who seldom get reviewed): I’ve seen them get discouraged and even depressed — the opposite of validated.”

What happens to writers who do win awards? Does it affect their own perceptions of their work? I asked Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. “Winning the Pulitzer Prize affected me in many helpful, sustaining ways. It was certainly surprising. The attention it brought to my work helped me find more time to actually write, which no doubt affected my process, too. But one’s creative process is a mysterious, unknowable source, and I doubt anything external can really affect what takes places at its core.”

The Pulitzer and National Book Awards help the publishing industry because they ignite sales and interest in books in general and invite traffic into the bookstore. If consumers go to the bookstore to purchase the latest novel by Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout after it won the Pulitzer, the likelihood is that they will pick up or be made aware of another book. Prizes affect sales, advances, and influence. Prize-winning books that earn a gold stamp of approval, even if the judging that goes on behind the scenes is subjective, tend to be volumes that book club members will choose for their book club inflating further the worth (and sales) of the book. But while prizes offer a greater visibility for an author and his or her award-winning book, do they necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?

Joyce Hackett, whose novel Disturbance of the Inner Ear won the Kafka Prize for fiction, said her book “gained far more recognition that it might otherwise have, after it won. Still, prizes reflect one thing: the taste of this year or this era’s committee.  A book like The Known World, which won every prize, has only grown in stature since it was published. On the other hand, the Nobel list is littered with people who are no longer read.” But still she sees the benefits of such distinction: “One of the great things about literature is that it’s as individual as the souls who read and write it. Well-read people can have completely contradictory, equally valid lists of what’s great and what’s unreadable.”

Perhaps, in the end, a work’s worth can only be based on the beholder’s sense of what qualifies as greatness, and it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.

When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945, he refused to accept it — as he did for all awards — out of fear that by accepting the award he would be aligning himself with an institution. He believed that individuals must create their own purpose in life. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case,” he said. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul SartreNobel Prizewinner.”

I can’t think of many writers today who would not want to sign their name as a Nobel Prize winner.

by Dory Athey on Oct 06, 2015

Read about Patricia Goldstone‘s new book Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi in Newsweek‘s review: “Mark Lombardi’s Art Was Full of Conspiracies — Now His Death Has Become One.”

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mark Lombardi’s Art Was Full of Conspiraries—Now His Death Has Become One

The three-story redbrick building at 435 South Fifth Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is on the ragged edge of what New York magazine in 1992 called “the new bohemia,” a waterfront warehouse district primed to receive the artists priced out of Manhattan. The conceptual artist Mark Lombardi arrived in the city’s newest, coolest art district about five years after that memorable designation, eventually settling in the neighborhood’s Dominican section. He was coming from decidedly un-bohemian Houston, where he had worked for the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, started galleries and tried to publish books of investigative journalism before turning to conceptual art, where he had found late, improbable success. He was approaching 50, making him more than twice the age of many of the painters, gallerists and performance artists starting to crowd into the Polish taverns on Bedford Avenue, dreaming of fawning spreads in Artforum.

A visitor to Lombardi’s studio would not have seen the usual evidence of the fine arts, because Lombardi was not an artist in the manner of Michelangelo or Georgia O’Keeffe. He was less interested in the creation than the idea behind that creation, echoing the cerebral ethos of conceptualism. The movement had been defined in 1967 by the painter Sol LeWitt, who declared, “The idea itself, even if it is not made visual, is as much of a work of art as any finished product.”

The concept that fed Lombardi’s conceptualism was that a clandestine economy, bound by no law, shuttled money between concerns in Texas, the Middle East, the Vatican and the Beltway. That money translated into oil barrels, or bundles of cocaine, or crates of arms, and inevitably manifested itself as ruthless power of the few over the many. Lombardi thought the best way to defeat this corrupt global cabal was to show it its own reflection. As journalist Patricia Goldstone writes in Interlock: Art, Conspiracy, and the Shadow Worlds of Mark Lombardi, the first major book about the artist, his work was “a continual visual history of the world’s shadow banking system” and “the evolution of a shadow, worldwide web of private intelligence and military firms.” No haystacks or wheat fields for this artist; no rainy Paris boulevards.

Lombardi’s “narrative structures,” as he called them, were based on information he culled from public documents, and while there is a sort of mad beauty to the crisscrossing arrows of his drawings, their main currency is not beauty but information, the feverish connections between the Saudis and the Bushes, between the millions shuttled from London to Riyadh and a brutally suppressed peasant uprising Latin America. He was like an investigative reporter whose medium just happened to be the schematic drawing.

After many years of disappointment and obscurity, Lombardi caught the public’s eye in the late 1990s, with shows in Houston and then New York. The New York Times praised his “beautiful” drawings for their ability to “suggest an evil order underlying apparent chaos,” comparing him in that regard to postmodern novelist Thomas Pynchon. In 2000, he took part in a group exhibition at PS1, in Queens; meanwhile, the Whitney Museum of American Art was planning to buy one of his major drawings. He was becoming, as Joe Biden might say, “a big fucking deal.”

For reasons Goldstone does not sufficiently elucidate, Lombardi became unhinged as spring approached. Yes, he was divorced and in debt, but these were chronic concerns, which artistic fame could easily alleviate. An accident with an errant sprinkler pipe damaged a drawing called BCCI – ICIC & FAB (a version of which the Whitney would eventually acquire). The apogee of his artistic and investigative efforts, the drawing focused on the operations of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, a rogue institution straight out of a John le Carré novel. Reconstructing BCCI over the course of four sleepless days may have, Goldstone speculates, “unhinged the artist” for good. But this is only conjecture.

Whatever the case, friends remember Lombardi as “really on edge,” haunted and paranoid in the final weeks of his life. On March 22, he was expected at the opening of the Whitney Biennial in Manhattan but never showed. Friends became worried and called the police. An officer from the 90th Precinct, which is across the street from Lombardi’s studio, found him in his apartment, hanging from a sprinkler pipe. Next to him was a bottle of champagne.

That he was not much of a champagne drinker is only one of several inconsistencies about Lombardi’s death. The bigger one is that while he may indeed have suffered from a psychiatric disorder, he was on the cusp of great professional success and thus unlikely to seek a permanent way out. That’s why some have never been convinced that Lombardi committed suicide. “You’re never going to come up with a good reason for him killing himself,” the gallerist Deven Golden, who showed Lombardi’s work, told Goldstone.

Goldstone is clearly attracted to this line of thinking, despite no evidence of Lombardi having been killed by one of the many powerful and/or dangerous men who figured in his work. True, it would make for a better story, but the story is pretty compelling as is. For example, Goldstone notes that “the FBI was fully aware of Lombardi’s art” and that its agents came to the Whitney after 9/11, demanding to see his BCCI drawing. “Nameless security officials,” Goldstone writes, also closed down a posthumous show of Lombardi’s works at the Drawing Center, a well-regarded lower Manhattan institution, on opening night.

The Wall Street Journal, which is not generally known for trafficking in lefty conspiracy theory, noted in 2002 that Lombardi’s drawings “suddenly have a role in the global war on terrorism,” singling out their “impressive” scope, from the Saudi banker and Osama bin Laden associate Khalid bin Mahfouz to Arkansas tycoon and Clinton friend Jackson T. Stephens. His drawings, the Journal said, featured “some of the shadiest and most familiar individuals in finance and politics worldwide.” It is entirely possible that Lombardi went one provocation too far.

However he died, Lombardi had achieved the dream not only of artists but of conspiracy theorists: He had gained attention from the powers that be.

Mark Lombardi was born in 1951, in Syracuse, New York. He was 12 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and, as Goldstone tells it, the bloodshed of Dealey Plaza in Dallas would forever haunt him, giving his worldview an ominous cast.

Lombardi went to Syracuse University in 1971 to study art, only to discover, as Goldstone writes, that he “lacked the ability to draw.” That might end most artistic aspirations, but it did not end Lombardi’s. He was a devoted disciple of James Harithas, then a professor at Syracuse and head of the Everson Museum of Art, an unabashed left-wing provocateur. A show organized by the Everson, “From Teapot Dome to Watergate,” had a profound effect on Lombardi, aligning him with the explicitly political, often didactic sensibility that was to mark his work.

After college, Lombardi followed Harithas, who had been hired by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and was in the midst of creating there what Goldstone calls an “anarchic spirit” at odds with the conservative image of Texas. She paints an unflattering picture of the erstwhile Lone Star Republic as a “parallel state” drunk on oil money and uninterested in political scruples. Clearly sympathetic to the conspiratorial mindset, Goldstone aligns what she calls the Texas Raj with the German-Jewish bankers of Manhattan and the military-industrial complex tumescing in the Beltway. Goldstone can, sometimes, seem to tease out the kinds of connection between power and capital that animated Lombardi’s art, as well as the novels of Pynchon and Don DeLillo. She can also, however, seem only a step away from the graying hippie passing out leaflets about the New World Order and the gold standard.

By the late 1980s, after about a decade in the “boys’ club of badly behaved boys” of Houston, as Goldstone calls it, Lombardi abandoned any hopes of becoming a painter. He started two art galleries, but he was as inept an entrepreneur as he had been a draftsman. Without many prospects, he drifted toward the deadly seas of middle age.

His breakthrough came in 1987, as he was talking on the phone with Leonard L. Gumport, a lawyer in Los Angeles. (Lombardi would later put the conversation in 1993, but Gumport stands by the earlier date.) Lombardi wanted to know about the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, whose financial entanglements Gumport was trying to unravel. As they delved into the complex matter, Gumport suggested that Lombardi draw an explicatory interlock, “a type of flowchart used in antitrust litigation and accounting that involves graphing the relations between interlocking boards of directors,” in Goldstone’s words.

Lombardi tried to publish a book on Khashoggi but failed. Yet he somehow grasped that the drawings that formed the backbone of his research were, themselves, a form of art. So he kept drawing, subsisting, as Goldstone puts it, on “alcohol and overextended credit” while allowing his marriage to dissolve. In 1996, Paul Schimmel, a former classmate from Syracuse who now headed the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, came to Houston to judge an arts competition. He was especially astounded by a drawing called Neil Bush, Silverado, MDC, Walters & Good, which was submitted anonymously. “When I saw this obsessive-compulsive chart, filled with facts and paranoid fantasy—there was nothing like it,” Schimmel said. He chose the drawing as the winner.

Mark Lombardi had what Goldstone calls “his first big recognition.” He was approaching 50.

Conceptual art is not beautiful. It is like a culinary movement that declares a war against flavor, yet nevertheless demands that you taste its creations. One famous conceptualist work by Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System as of May 1, 1971, essentially traces the New York properties of a single slumlord through charts, maps and photographs. The work isn’t pretty, nor wants to be, but it does convey a message as earnest and profound as that of any fresco in Venice.

Lombardi’s first exhibition, in the fall of 1996, had 26 works, with titles like Charles Keating, ACC, and Lincoln Savings and Banca Nazionale del Lavoro, Reagan, Bush, Thatcher, and the Arming of Iraq. Though he collected information on thousands of note cards, the drawings were presented without explicatory legends or commentary, even if the artist’s political leanings were obvious. You were supposed to be awed by the information, the astounding connections that all could see but few could trace.

That winter, when the Drawing Center in New York asked him to partake in a group show, Lombardi decided that he’d move to New York. He had, as he said, “one continual drawing in my head,” and his existence in Brooklyn was devoted to translating that image into works of art. In his free time, he indulged in the chasing of women and the consumption of intoxicants. He made a business card that proclaimed “Death-Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy.” (That became the title of a posthumous German documentary about his work shown at the Brooklyn Film Festival.)

Goldstone argues that he was “the first artist to do metadata,” the kind of visualization that, today, is a commonplace means of understanding the world: masses of numbers made into attractive, coherent pictures by data ninjas with Stanford degrees. Lombardi did it all without the Internet, which he apparently disdained. He stored his information on note cards, of which there were some 14,000 at the time of his death.

Today, there are 20 of his drawings in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, according to the Manhattan museum’s online archive of his work. Goldstone says that the prominent Gagosian Gallery recently had one of his drawings on sale for $450,000. Harithas, his mentor, calls Lombardi “the first great artist of the 21st century,” an astounding claim about someone who found his medium only in the last years of his life.

“Lombardi is more than a conceptualist or political artist,” argued Jerry Saltz of The Village Voice after Lombardi’s death. “He’s a sorcerer whose drawings are crypto-mystical talismans or visual exorcisms meant to immobilize enemies, tap secret knowledge, summon power and expose demons.” But demons dislike exposure. One way or another, they will take their toll.

by Dory Athey on Oct 05, 2015

Eric Berkowitz, author of The Boundaries of Desire: A Century of Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identitiestackles how brutal the law can be to women who have been raped in his powerful new op-ed for Salon: “Parental Rights for Rapists?


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Parental rights for rapists? You’d be surprised how cruel the law can be

When a woman who’s been raped decides to keep her child, she may be in for years of harassment and manipulation

In 2009, Jaime Melendez raped and impregnated a 14-year-old girl in Massachusetts. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to lengthy probation, and was ordered to pay child support. Then he pulled a familiar, and perfectly legal, maneuver: He demanded visitation rights, and offered to drop his demand if he no longer had to pay child support. A few years earlier, a North Carolina woman became pregnant as the result of rape and placed the baby for adoption. To complete the process, she was required to get permission from the father – who was in jail awaiting trial for the rape. He told her he would agree to the adoption if she didn’t testify against him at the trial. “What do I do?” she later asked. “Protect society or protect the adoption?” The law provided no answer.

For the one-third of rape victims who become pregnant and carry their pregnancies to term, the law can be cruel indeed. A father’s right to be an active parent is no less hard-wired into the law than that of a mother. Rape victims are often forced to consult with their assailants on matters such as schools, summer camps and religious practices, and also to share custody. In about 15 states, rape victims have no legal protection against decades of intimate ties with the men they least want to associate with. Other states provide only minimal remedies. A woman’s decision to keep the child can thus bring years of manipulation, harassment and intimidation, as well as interference with her efforts to recover from her rape.

Women still have the right to terminate pregnancies that result from rape, but many victims’ religious, moral or other beliefs make that simply not an option. As expressed by attorney-advocate Shauna Prewitt about her pregnancy, “My body – a body which felt so dead after my rape – had not only created life, but was nurturing life, and I was amazed … I chose to raise my rape-conceived child.” It took years of court battles with Prewitt’s attacker before his parental rights were finally cut off. “I got lucky,” she wrote.

About 35 states allow courts to terminate the parental rights of rapists, but most of them require that the men first be convicted. However, given that less than one-fifth of rapes are even reported, and only about 5 percent of those result in convictions, these laws might just as well not exist. About nine states don’t require rape convictions, including Wisconsin, which also allows the mother to seek the termination of the father’s parental rights without first notifying him. In May, after years of dithering, Congress passed the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act (RSCCA), which pledges money for states that pass laws denying parental rights to men if the mothers show (usually in family courts) that they have been raped. Notably, the victims need only prove that the rape occurred by “clear and convincing” evidence — not the tougher “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal courts.

So far so good: Yet another gaping hole in rape law is starting to close and victims can now look forward to the day when their decisions to keep their children do not bring the ongoing presence of the rapist himself. What can possibly be wrong with that? In fact, several things, each of which shows why rape remains such a confounding area of the law, and why even the most well-intentioned measures can cause more problems.

In the first place, it’s ill-advised to conduct rape trials in the family courts, which are clogged to the rafters and not set up to handle such complex cases. True, family courts can cut off parental rights in contexts such as child abuse, but resolving the subtleties of rape claims without the “machinery or protections” of criminal courts is a formula for bad results. We are already seeing the chaos – and the lawsuits — that result when universities try to adjudicate rape cases, particularly when the accused claims he didn’t get a fair trial. In July, in a closely watched case, a California court threw out a University of California San Diego hearing panel’s penalties against a male student for sexually assaulting a female classmate. The court found that the entire process was botched and unfair. No one is happy with the criminal courts in rape cases, but shifting such cases to less-equipped forums could compound the problem.

Second, easy as it is to say that “rape is rape,” not all cases are the same. The predatory stranger, husband or acquaintance does not equate, for example, with a man who had consensual sex with a minor. Statutory rape cases come up all the time, particularly when the female is underage, the male a young adult, and the girl’s parents are hopping mad about the relationship. While the sex may technically be illegal, the accused man may still be ready and willing to fulfill his duties as a father. In these circumstance, it may well work an injustice – particularly to the child — to bar the father from his child’s life, regardless of whether the mother (or, more likely, her parents) wishes he would just go away.

Too often lost in the discussion about rape-conceived children are the voices of the children themselves. Who speaks for them when, as infants, their fates are being decided? Nowhere in the RSCCA is there a requirement that they be represented by independent counsel. And what if they later wish, despite everything, to have contact with their fathers? Assuming that a father is able to have, for example, supervised contact with the child, is it right for the mother to block the relationship? In these circumstances, the mother’s well-founded desire to avoid contact with the father may not coincide with the child’s best interests.

Of course, abortion is not in the child’s best interests either, but as Prewitt points out in a brilliant law review article, the readiness of most pro-life advocates to embrace a “rape exception” implicitly expresses the view that a rape-conceived child is a “wicked product” of a crime and less deserving of life than other children. “After all,” Prewitt writes with a heavy dose of irony, “What raped woman would willingly choose to give birth to her ‘rapist’s child’? What raped woman would choose to continue the victimization of her rape?” I am staunchly pro-choice, but once one takes the pro-life position, there should be no room for a rape exception.

The issue of rapists’ parental rights highlights a key, and uncomfortable, flaw in the mainstream pro-life argument. If life begins at conception, then the unborn child of a rapist must be valued equally with one conceived through consensual sex. And once the child is born, its interests may well diverge from the desires of the mother. Clearly, we need reliable mechanisms to prevent rapists from using their parental rights (and the paucity of court convictions) to continue their torment of their victims. In many circumstances, fathers should be barred from exercising parental rights for some period of time. But once rape victims choose not to terminate their pregnancies, then their own needs must be balanced against what is best, in the long term, for the children. In the end, the welfare of the child must prevail.

Eric Berkowitz is a San Francisco-based human rights lawyer and the author, most recently, of The Boundaries of Desire: A Century of Bad Laws, Good Sex, and Changing Identities (Counterpoint 2015).