Plainsong by Kent Haruf in paperback as published by Knopf Doubleday, which notes the book was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Knopf proudly announces that Haruf is an also-ran, the loser of an award that is not worth winning. The silver seal on the cover of the book is like the proudly displayed gold star of a teacher’s pet. Haruf and his ilk rule over writing workshops everywhere. Such workshops are the Monacos of the writing world. Tiny, insignificant kingdoms propped up by the dog and pony show of an outdated royalty structure.
The National Book Award is clearly all about royalties and pushing product for the major publishers. At least, Ivana Trump’s Free to Love has integrity: the integrity of proud and aging whore who has fucked her way into notoriety if not respectability. Ivana is the Madame Swann of trash literature. Ivana knows her books are junk but she is laughing all the way up the bestseller list and into the bank.
Books like Plainsong put on the airs of high culture all the while denying their status as moneygrabbing, publicity seeking Grub streetwalkers. The authors of these books are the hardest working hos in the book business: Teaching their arts of seduction to aspirants in the ho game, running around the country signing anything put in front of them at struggling independent bookstores that stress their unique importance to the community all the while offering the same tired titles as the superstores but at higher prices and with less selection, and appearing on any radio or public access television program hosted by some lady decked out in vintage librarian stylings from the mid-1970s and whose taste in literature goes back even centuries earlier.
I am reminded of a song that, unlike Plainsong, actually won an award:
You know it’s hard out here for a pimp (you ain’t knowin)
When he tryin to get this money for the rent (you ain’t knowin)
For the Cadillacs and gas money spent (you ain’t knowin)
Because a whole lot of bitches talkin shit (you ain’t knowin)
To win the National Book Award, or worse yet, The Book Critics Circle Award, virtually guarantees that the book will eventually find its way into the garbage. The publishing industry and its critics hate sticking their neck out and taking a chance on something really groundbreaking. They prefer the supposedly higher ground of tried and true literature which keeps their nose in the air (aka financially just above water) and their feet firmly on the ground. By and large, any book recognized as a classic by the mainstream press and critics upon publication, might very well be a good read (and heralded with five star ratings on Goodreads) but it is not vanguard literature. For poetry, this is doubly true. Any book of poetry that wins a major award has been granted an immediate death sentence. It quite simply will not be relevant in fifty years. The literature that pushes the envelope gets returned to sender, while the true junk mail wins the awards.
There are exceptions, most notably Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow in 1974, which won the National Book Award, but the Pulitzer Prize showed the award circuit’s true colors by embarrassing itself in refusing to grant a Prize that year rather than honor Pynchon’s classic. In order to keep his integrity as an author, Pynchon was forced to send a trashed Prof. Irwin Corey to piss all over the ceremony and give the award the respect it deserved.
So just over a decade after publication, Plainsong busks quietly at the dump, hoping to get picked up to perform just once more its tired song and dance. It forms a chorus with Patricia Henley’s Hummingbird House, Ha Jin’s Waiting, Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, and Jean Thompson’s Who Do You Love: the other finalists in 1999’s literary version of American Idol. Waiting and House of Sand and Fog are particularly popular performers at the dump.
On the first page, Haruf defines plainsong as “any simple and unadorned melody or air.” At the Ellsworth Dump, Haruf’s book lets plaintively lets loose its silents but violents adding its melody into the over-ripe air as dusk approaches.