Don't Write for Awards

National Book Awards finalist Emily St. John Mandel says pomp and circumstance can derail the everyday work of creating complex, flawed characters.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Emily St. John Mandel was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in Fiction. It’s one of literature’s highest honors, and yet she says the experience felt strange, disorienting, somehow beside the point. In her essay for this series, St. John Mandel explores her own ambivalence, comparing the rush of awards and recognition with the inglorious, private struggle of writing itself. When the outside world encroaches, a passage from Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” helps her concentrate on the things that matter most.

St. John Mandel’s NBA-shortlisted novel, Station Eleven, imagines life after unthinkable catastrophe. In the opening section of the book, a hideous virus wipes out most of earth’s human population, and nearly all its culture. Years later, a traveling theatre troupe performs King Lear in scattered encampments, and searching for the Museum of Culture, where a small society safeguards a trove of old world trinkets—cell phones, snow globes. Like Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of plague survivors make sense of disaster by singing songs and telling stories, Station Eleven examines the ways we look for meaning in the darkness.

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of three previous novels: Last Night in Montreal, The Singer's Gun, and The Lola Quartet. She’s a staff writer for The Millions, and she lives in New York City.

Emily St. John Mandel: Some years ago, I read a fascinating piece on the Guardian’s website about the experience of judging the Booker, with interviews from various people who’d served as judges over a 40-year span, and came across the following gem from Hillary Mantel:

“I’m glad I was a Booker judge relatively early in my career. It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value.”

A third sentence gives more context: “Even the most correct jury goes in for horsetrading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.” But those first two sentences by themselves are tremendously consoling in years when you’ve got a book that didn’t make it to the jury stage, so I copied them to an index card and scotch-taped the card to the wall of my office, where it’s been ever since. When I moved a year ago, the card came too.

It’s a delicate point that Mantel’s expressing—because, of course, literary value and literary prizes sometimes do coincide. Or as James Wood puts it in that Guardian piece, “Some wonderful books win the Booker, of course, just as the flypaper occasionally catches some really large flies. But it means—or should mean—nothing in literary terms.” (Incidentally, he opens his reminiscence of the 1994 jury experience by noting that it convinced him to never again serve on the jury of a major literary prize.)

Both Mantel and Wood touch upon the extreme subjectivity of literary awards. It’s the kind of sentiment that brings obvious comfort in years when you have an award-eligible book that’s been nominated for nothing, but what surprised me was how useful the Mantel quote was to me after Station Eleven was shortlisted for a National Book Award this year.

Being nominated for an award feels the way I imagine winning the lottery must feel: You’re deeply grateful and a little disoriented, you feel very lucky, and you know that it could just as easily have been someone else. Trying to express this to friends brings charges of selling oneself short, but this misses the point entirely: It’s not a question of confidence, it’s a recognition of subjectivity. I am not denigrating Station Eleven when I say that from the moment I found out about its inclusion on the long list, I was aware at all times that a different jury would very likely have picked an entirely different set of books.

Mantel doesn’t specifically go into this in the Guardian piece, but an interesting aspect of living with a quote is that sometimes the quote can begin to take on a significance beyond what it strictly actually says, and what the quote on my wall began to signify to me was the vast distance between literary prizes and literary work.

In the weeks leading up to the National Book Awards ceremony, I found myself thinking of the Mantel quote often. There was something steadying about it. Those weeks were frankly very strange, and the quote flitted through my thoughts in the days that were the most surreal, the afternoons when I left my day job early—I’m a part-time administrative assistant in a cancer research lab—to go to photoshoots at national magazines or to be interviewed on NPR. I was thinking of the quote in the car on the way to the awards ceremony and also on the way home, a little disoriented, the evening already turning a little dreamlike in retrospect even though I’d just been there and was almost still in it, even though I was still in my gown. Where had I just been? It had been fun, and the finalist medal was a magnificent weight in the palm of my hand, but what did any of this have to do with writing?

Setting all questions of the subjectivity of literary awards aside, the practice of writing has absolutely nothing to do with awards ceremonies, or lists. (This is the sort of thing that should go without saying, but sometimes quotes are useful in reminding us of the obvious.) Several years ago, at a very different kind of public ceremony, I heard words that cut to the heart of what I try to do, daily, at my desk.

Some months after Norman Mailer died, my husband and I attended his memorial service at Carnegie Hall. We’d never met him, but his work had been important to both of us. My husband had read nearly everything he’d written. I’d read much less of his work, and had found some of it a little hit-or-miss, but The Executioner’s Song changed the way I wrote.

I’d written a novel by the time I read that book, although a year and a half would pass before a publisher bought it, and in that first novel I’d been trying for something more or less the opposite of The Executioner’s Song’s style, a kind of prettiness that in retrospect seemed too fussy. I read The Executioner’s Song and fell in love with the prose style. The sublime clarity of it, the unadorned spareness. In my next book, I decided, the prose style would be clearer, sharper, more precise. And then Mailer died soon after, and it seemed only right to pay my respects.

We sat in a high balcony in Carnegie Hall. Far below were the people who’d actually known him, the people who’d published him, his friends, his widow and his small army of children. One of the speakers—was it Sean Penn? I think it may have been, but the image is hazy—read a passage from a now-famous essay that Raymond Chandler published in the August 1944 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In that essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” Chandler begins by describing the night world of the private eye in noir fiction, the underworld in which the noir detective lives and works, and then he goes on to describe the protagonist himself, his place in that world:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.

The passage continues at length, but these are the words that stay with me: neither tarnished nor afraid. I had a passing familiarity with the quote when I heard those words at Carnegie Hall, but hearing them read aloud snapped them into focus. It seemed like a decent way to approach the writing of protagonists, and all these years later, the words stay with me. These are the words toward which I lean when I write. Writing believable characters is the aspect of fiction over which I agonize the most. To be entirely untarnished or entirely unafraid is to be inhuman, but Chandler’s words serve as guideposts: I’ve never written a protagonist who was so tarnished that it was impossible to sympathize with his plight, or so afraid that it was impossible for her to take action.

It is important to me to try to live honorably, and in the moments of life that require particularly careful navigation, I find myself repeating the words to myself. Be neither tarnished nor afraid, I find myself thinking, and I try to follow this advice. I am trying very hard, always, to be unafraid and to remain as untarnished as possible. It’s always seemed to me that you could do a lot worse than that Chandler quote if you were looking for loose instructions on how to conduct yourself through the hours of your writing, through the days of your life.