Claire Tomalin’s Chicken Little Story

On Tuesday night, the panel for Britain’s prestigious Whitbread Prize announced that Claire Tomalin had won its award for “Best Book of the Year” with Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. The initial splash of publicity enthusiastically fastened on the unusual fact that Tomalin had beat out her husband Michael Frayn, who, like her, had won a best-book-in-its-genre prize (in her case, Biography; in his, Novel), and thus was eligible to win the larger honor. (And who had very charmingly threatened to start a bread-roll fight if she in fact won.)

But no one has commented on what Tomalin said soon after she accepted the prize. “One of the things that does delight me about doing well with this book is that it is a pure book,” she noted. “It is not connected to a television series, it’s not connected to a film, it’s just something I wrote sitting in a lot of libraries, sitting at my desk quite alone. It is very heartening to know that a book like that, with no glamorous connections, can be a prize–winning book.”

What’s perplexing about this statement is that all the recent winners of the Whitbread Prize have been what Tomalin calls “pure books.” They include Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and his collection The Spirit Level; Ted Hughes’ Tales From Ovid; and Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, a symphonic and accomplished historical novel. Nor have the recent winners of other major British prizes exactly been literature-lite: Yann Martel, who won this year’s important Booker Prize for The Life of Pi, may not be Melville, but his novel is an investigation of religious belief and in no sense unserious. Last year Peter Carey won it with his historical novel (written in hard-to-parse dialect!) The True Adventures of Ned Kelly. Meanwhile, here in what the Brits might think of as crass, synergy-crazed America, the Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded to Richard Russo’s hefty EmpireFalls. No soufflé or Gucci sunglasses there. The National Book Award gave its fiction prize to a first novel by the relatively unknown Julia Glass. In its nonfiction category, it awarded a prize to Robert A. Caro’s hefty Master of the Senate, a biography of Lyndon Johnson so extensive that Michael Kinsley, one of the prize’s judges, wrote here about, well, not quite getting all the way through it. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single prominent award-winning book in recent years that was not written by people who sat at their desk quite alone (and in some cases, even blindfolded, in the case of Jonathan Franzen).

So what’s going on here? Tomalin’s offhand statement reveals that the literary world’s anxiety about status has reached such a pitch that even successful, intelligent authors like Tomalin are moved to express their gratitude that “pure books” are still being read. This seems a sad form of self-hating. Declensionist fears are a perennial in the book business—the book industry is always in mourning for a vanished golden age. But Tomalin’s are particularly odd: In the last few years, many serious books (from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to Jonathan Safran Foer’s ambitious debut Everything Is Illuminated to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club) have received popular attention. Last year also saw the widespread praise and recognition of small but excellent novels like Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine and Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles, a tiny, intensely distilled reimagination of the Iliad and the Odyssey that could easily have slipped between the cracks.

It’s worth pausing over Claire Tomalin’s words simply because it’s so easy to say things like this with the best intentions—and to nod in agreement. Sure, it’s true that writing serious books is probably not the surest path to financial security, and Tomalin was probably reacting to a culture in which novelists have begun to write with one eye toward movie options. But adopting a Chicken Little attitude doesn’t help anyone. Whatever the flaws of book prizes, they continue to have a huge effect on book sales—especially of lesser-known writers. Which makes it clear that readers are hungry for ambitious books. So, don’t celebrate Tomalin’s victory as the victory of the “pure book” over the impure lure of the lowbrow. Just be glad that things are running as they should: A distinguished book won a distinguished award. And when an enterprising movie producer tries to option Tomalin’s book for the BBC or A&E, she should accept with glee. After all, her husband Michael Frayn has already adapted several of his novels and plays for the screen. Or perhaps that’s just one more thing to throw bread rolls about.