Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize is a laudable effort to encourage politically progressive imaginative writing, and this year’s selected novel Mudbound that “tells the story of the contempt that greeted African-American veterans who returned to the Mississippi Delta after serving their country during World War II” is surely valuable and may be a great novel. Racism is as great an issue today as it was decades ago; the racist nature of the explosive growth in incarceration in the U.S. is merely one manifestation today. But is a novel set in the wake of WWII the most timely choice, and in that way the most conducive to social change? Were the other more timely submissions so very much more deficient, at all deficient, or in fact superior aesthetically, etc, to the winner? When Mudbound comes out, it might make for an interesting exercise to compare it to Homefront, Glory, and Washburn (three books of fiction of social change that I submitted as a single novel titled Homefront for the 2004 contest), and also compare it to Andre Vltchek’s novel Point of No Return (submitted for the 2006 contest) or even the forthcoming novel Master of Fine Arts (that I also submitted for the 2006 contest), and also compare it to other such submissions, if any, and you be the judge. All three of these submissions failed to survive even the first cut in the Bellwether contest. Maybe Andre’s novel and my own books are unaccomplished, written by a couple politically disengaged people with no writing experience or evident skill, heedless of the world and the people in it today; that’s one possible answer, easily looked into. The other possible answers are quite telling too.
“Writers should embrace the idea that their work is political rather than running from the label,” novelist Barbara Kingsolver said. “In fact, some of the best writing is political…. Because of this climate in the U.S. that political art is taboo, the writers will tell you it’s not political. I’ve heard John Irving say he’s not a political writer. There is nothing to be worried about. It’s absolutely the domain of art.”
Kingsolver created and personally funds the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, the only major North American endowment or prize for the arts that specifically seeks to support a literature of social responsibility. At yesterday’s event she announced the 2006 winner, Hillary Jordan, who receives $25,000 “and a contract with Scribner publishing house for her unpublished novel, Mudbound. It tells the story of the contempt that greeted African-American veterans who returned to the Mississippi Delta after serving their country during World War II.
A worthy novel in concept, and, in all likelihood, in achievement. Yet it’s difficult not to think that — during this time of war and this time of lightning fast global connection and information, even direct access, and during this time of the ever bloody occupation of Iraq, and during this time of the increasing threats of hostility directed from the U.S. further into the Middle East and into Latin America and elsewhere — highly accomplished American novels of contemporary war will continue to be passed over in favor of, say, the next great novel of the French and Indian War, or its wake, that might garner the 2008 prize. In a time of state aggression and state terrorism and non-state terrorism; in a time of nuclear proliferation; in an increasingly perilous time of environmental catastrophes, those arrived and those impending, it’s long since time for skilled novelists, let alone politically engaged prizes, to get up to speed in these areas, not least.
Also, is a contest nearly the best way to go about facilitating the publication of politically progressive imaginative fiction? Instead of producing a single novel every two years, wouldn’t the prize money be better spent founding such a publishing house itself? Or recognizing more novels with a much smaller prize or none at all? After all, these novelists aren’t writing for the prize money, one would think. That said, one would also think that simply going with accomplished but more timely novels would help make the Bellwether Prize something more than it currently is.