Last week, MIT historian John Dower won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. The week before, he won Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize, the week before that, the Anthony Lukas Prize. In November, he won the National Book Award. In March, he was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Believing that the book awards haven’t become as utterly disconnected from merit as have the Oscars, I decided to read Embracing Defeat to see what Dower did right. So herewith a few tips, derived from Dower’s example, on how to sweep the awards.
1. Think big. Dower takes on nothing less than all of Japanese culture after World War II, from the high politics of Gen. MacArthur and his machinations to keep Emperor Hirohito in power to the street life of orphans scavenging for food and prostitutes servicing American GIs. Embracing Defeat isn’t an epic narrative, but it dazzles with its breadth.
2. Wear your politics lightly. Japanese-American relations make for explosive racial politics, which surely helped Dower garner the PC vote. But Dower refrains from tirades about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he never sermonizes about the American occupiers. He simply lets their unconscionable policies–extreme censorship, hasty war-crimes trials–advertise their own failings. Plus, he’s clear-eyed. When Dower mocks the U.S. memos explicating the “Japanese mind,” he casually adds that the Japanese had their mirror-image directives about the Americans.
3. Use irony, not polemics. One of Dower’s subjects is the Americans’ imposition by fiat of a democratic constitution. But he avoids the easy criticism, which lesser authors would level ad nauseam, that the imposition made Japan’s democracy illegitimate. Likewise, when he describes how the Americans censored Japanese newspapers for criticizing Soviet communism–because they didn’t want to undermine the victors’ moral authority–it’s with amusement, not indignation.
4. Be a revisionist without saying so. Dower upends conventional wisdom about postwar Japanese history. But he doesn’t waste words rehashing the findings of previous historians or trumpeting his critique. He works his revisionism seamlessly into his analysis. In showing how Japanese feminists demanded suffrage before the Americans granted it, he does so with such modesty that most readers won’t realize he’s debunking the commonplace that the United States brought the idea of sexual equality to Japan.
5. Be funny, but don’t crack jokes. Dower has wit to spare, but he spares his readers the wince-worthy one-liners that debase, say, so many New York Times op-ed columns. Dower’s barbs sting because they’re selective. In characterizing MacArthur’s sweeping power, Dower notes that unlike the Allied occupation presence in Europe, the Japan force “was American with but token exceptions (such as the stationing of British and Australian forces in nuclear-bombed Hiroshima).” No go-for-the-jugular jokes necessary.
There’s a lot else that Dower does well, and a few things he doesn’t do so well (the book can be tough-going at times). But the above qualities are sufficiently rare among the history books I’ve read of late to convince me that Dower deserves his new shelf full of hardware.