Critical Mass

Notes on Judging the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Awards


Molly Giles, winner of the Balakian award, sent these notes on her experiences as a judge for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction this year; the award went to Kate Christensen’s novel “The Great Man.” Finalists were Annie Dillard’s “The Maytrees,” David Leavitt’s “The Indian Clerk,” T.M. McNally’s “The Gateway: Stories,” and Ron Rash’s “Chemistry and Other Stories.”

At first it was fun. Free books! New ones! Hardbacks! There was nothing I loved more than seeing a big brown UPS box waiting by the back door when I drove home from work. I’d cradle the box inside, open it with care, unpack the contents on the dining room table, fuss over which of the bright glossy covers to choose first, curl up on the couch, read for hours, write copious notes, then stack the finished book against the walls of the guest bedroom according to whether I loved it, liked it, learned from it, could use it to teach from or knew someone else who would enjoy it. I felt rich and lucky.

How long did that last?

Through the first six boxes at least.

Maybe through the seventh.


I’d come home from work and have to steady the car so as not to ram it into boxes 8,9,10,11, 12, etcetera. If the weather was fine I might leave the boxes outside for a night or two to punish them; if it was raining I would sullenly drag them into the garage but I would not let them into the house. I kicked them as I passed. When I was caught up enough I stabbed them open with a dull butcher knife and divided the books inside according to size (small was good) and print (large was really good). When I vacationed in Mexico I divided by weight, tossing 12 of the lightest into my suitcase next to my snorkel.

I read in bed, in beaches, on benches, in bathtubs, in bars, in beauty shops, in bus stations, on board airplanes, between courses. I am a slow reader. I recalled Woody Allen’s response to finishing WAR AND PEACE in five minutes:  “It’s about Russia.”

Woody seemed too wordy.

Month after month I did nothing but read. I hunkered down, hooded over. Finally, the last box was emptied. A bare space glimmered on my dining room table. I could have friends over again—assuming I had any left. The guest bedroom was available too: insulated wall-to-wall, it was the safest place to hide from tornados. I had twenty-six pages of single spaced notes, a new trifocal prescription, a deep respect for my two fellow judges, who had been sweet tempered and supportive, and I’d been in the company of some of the most wonderful writers in America.

What did I learn?

That most of what gets published deserves to get published.

That most of what deserves to get published also deserves to be showcased in bookstores, airports, and book clubs—and is not. Few of the titles I loved were publicly visible.

That best-selling authors write as well as writers no one has ever heard of.

That many writers no one has ever heard of should be best-selling authors.

That short story collections are, on the whole, better written than novels. As a result they take longer to read. And they are clearly harder to publish. Most of the collections I read had already won a short story contest.

That so-called “young adult” books are among the best fictions being published.

That American writers write about war, but not about this war. Only a few books dealt with Iraq and even fewer with Vietnam. The Civil War was the big one this year.  That American writers prefer the past to the present: the bulk of the novels I read were historical fictions, many of them based on real people. While I enjoyed reading about Woody Guthrie, Florence Nightengale, Errol Flynn, Rilke, Hitler, Byron, Pocahontas, Stephen Crane, Edward Curtis and William Blake, among others, I wondered why…why rely on the known instead of the invented? Some novels even recycled fictional characters: Huck Finn’s father, Gregor Samsa. My conclusion: it’s easier for novelists because this way they know the end.—Molly Giles