Thursday, February 6, 2020
Ann Kjellberg, founder and editor of Book Post, a book review newsletter, appraises Columbia's Super-NOS Festival:
We found ourselves entangled in another ingenious literary invention this week: an American outpost for Russia’s Super-NOS prose competition. The NOS Prize (an acronym for “new prose” in Russian, and also a reference to Gogol’s story about the appendage) was founded in 2009 as an original kind of literary prize, one in which the internal mechanism of the choice would be entirely visible and, indeed, participatory. A panel of jurors (prominent writers and critics) present and argue for their choice of best book from a roster they assembled ahead of time (in another layer of transparency, past jurors have published their disputatious correspondence compiling the list). They are interrogated by a panel of “experts” (in this case, graduate students in Russian literature), and they arrive at an anointee that includes votes from the jury, the experts, and the audience.
The NOS prize is awarded every year in various places, and this year the remote panel in New York selected from ten years of NOS winners to arrive at a “Super-NOS” for the decade, and what a decade it was. NOS prize founder, the publisher and philanthropist Irina Prokhorova, described the rationale for the prize: In Soviet times judgments about what to read were political and unchallenged. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Prokhorova felt, the country needed “new instruments for evaluating literature”; she indicated that open debate in Russian society is still not exactly thriving. She created the NOS prize as an ongoing vehicle for real-life discussion of what it means to have literary merit. For example, the jurors and experts wrestled with the question of whether the decade’s winner should be the book that was the highest literary achievement or one that was the most representative of the moment, or that brought something new into literary language. Prokhorova observed that today’s Russia is “not a pleasant place, not a cozy place,” and needs a new literature to capture this reality. In the end, the book that carried the day, Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard, which has been translated into English by Jamey Gambrell, was almost provocatively grounded in the Russian classics and crafted in a timeless amalgam of styles. The book was just too much of a masterpiece, it seemed, not to win. There was some remorse about this. Some jurors noted how many great books weren’t on the list at all, such as those of Nobel-prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich and novelist Victor Pelevin. But a juror remarked to general assent that Sorokin has described himself as an Orwell for contemporary Russia, and we all need our Orwells. (One interesting feature of the NOS prize is that it covers fiction and nonfiction. The runner-up to The Blizzard was Maria Stepanova’s internationally celebrated reflection on memory and the past, which will be published next year in the US by New Directions.)
After the contest Prokhorova asked some of us if we thought there was space for such an institution in the US. I quipped that we don’t seem to have any shortage of argument, but when I think of some of the controversies now roiling the literary world it did seem like it would be welcome to have some setting in which people of divergent views sit down, face to face, and try to change one another’s minds, and those of their audience, rather than denouncing a faceless antagonist before a faceless crowd on our digital platforms.
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Pictured: Maria Stepanova, Super-NOS runner-up and former Joseph Brodsky Fellow