Can a Book Prize Controversy Sell “Ducks, Newburyport”? 

I have nothing against award-winning books, but I try to use my time wisely.

That said, I am considering reading Lucy Ellmann’s experimental novel, Ducks, Newburyport,  which won the Goldsmiths Prize recently and was shortlisted both for the Booker Prize and the Saltire Society literary Award in Scotland.  It is on my Christmas gift “shortlist,” mainly  because of Parul Sehgal’s dazzling review in The New York Times.

 A literary prize “scandal” has put me off, though.

Lesley McDowell, a judge for the Saltire Society literary award, resigned from a panel of five judges because Lucy Ellmann’s novel did not win.  Three of the judges voted against Ducks, Newburyport, two for it. McDowell believes it was a sexist decision.  According to The Guardian, she is indignant that the prize went to Ewan Morrison’s Nina X, a novel by a man writing from the  point-of-view of a woman.  She insists Ellmann’s Ducks is a “masterpiece” by a woman from a woman’s point of view.

And so the judges disagreed.  Is that a big deal?

Has any small-press novel garnered as much attention this year as Ellmann’s novel?  That indicates the book is well-respected, and that the writer has powerful friends.  This  1,000-page novel, told from the point-of-view of an Ohio housewife, apparently in only one sentence, is available at my local Barnes and Noble.  I glanced at it:  it is very accessble.

Our own favorite small-press author, the late Stephen Dixon, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1991 for his experimental novel, FrogThe Baltimore Press described the 769-page book as follows: “Composed of 21 chapters — each with the word “Frog” in the title — it tells the story of a nondescript, middle-aged man named Howard Tetch and his family, moving back and forth in time countless times, recasting events from different perspectives.”  He did not win.  Sounds like Dixon and Ellmann had some things in common.

McDowell claims that not all the Saltire Society judges finished Ellmann’s 1,000-page novel.  Again, I may be in Cloud Cuckooland, but this sounds like a smart move.  If the judges dislike a book after, say, 30-50 pages, is it likely they will change their mind on page 1,000?  And how do the judges find the time to read all of these books?  Don’t they need a sane process of elimination?  (You see, I am far too pragmatic for the world of award politics!)

From what I’ve heard, Ducks, Newburyport is not for everybody.  I am interested in it, but I hate award “scandals”:  the Nobel Prize scandal last year, a judge for the International Booker Prize resigning when Philip Roth, our great American writer, won, and on and on.

 Perhaps literary prize scandals sell books.  Alas, they depress me.

The fact that Ellmann’s small-press novel won one award (the Goldsmiths Prize) is astonishing!

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