Cultural critic and former NBCC board member Greil Marcus, author of “Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century” (1989), “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll” (1975), and “A New Literary History of America,” published this week. is a visiting writer at New York University.
I ran for the NBCC board in 1983 because I was irritated by the nominees and winners—not to mention the sitting board members, some of whom had been irritating me for years. I was from the Bay Area; everything chosen seemed East Coast genteel to me, not to mention insular (didn’t these people realize that most novels set in Manhattan or its suburbs were regional novels?), literary in the most self-conscious sense, as if books were being chosen so that the books would elevate the reputation of the group, rather than the other way around. For general non-fiction, Nick Tosches’s “Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story,” wasn’t nominated—I was sure it hadn’t even been mentioned by the mandarins sitting around the table. The same for “Unfree Associations,” Michael Covino’s pop-culture drenched book of poetry (one poem, a masterpiece of declension, made of up solely with titles of spaghetti westerns, was scarier than any of the movies).
So I arrived at my first board meeting with a California-sized chip on my shoulder. I was shocked and not a little humbled to find that people whose reviews I’d sneered at were not only warm, welcoming, generous, and open, but funny, unpretentious, and wore their sometimes vast knowledge like a baseball cap. I spent a lot of time sitting back and listening. It was good talk. There was a lot of vehemence, and a lot of doubt—about the value of this or that book, but more so about the value of giving awards, of the parameters of what could be considered and what couldn’t or shouldn’t be, about whether we had the right, or the judgment, to render judgments—which no one seemed hesitant to voice. At the same time we might have been negotiating a bill regulating the banking industry: there was horse-trading, secret deals, promises of favors to be repaid next time around, all over the place. Anything to block that horrible corny novel of Wasp manners! I missed it all as soon as I left.