Tag Archives: awards

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern


This is the book that beat Ready Player One for the Locus Award (Best First Novel). Now, I adored Ready Player One, so I had to see what could beat it.


Well, I definitely liked Ready Player One better, but I can see why The Night Circus won. Contests and prizes and general acclaim tend to go to subtle, ethereal, almost inscrutable writing, not stuff that’s more plot-based, no matter how well-constructed or well-written that plot is.

I did like The Night Circus, just not as much as Ready Player One. I found the use of present tense jarring at first, but after the first few pages I got used to it. (Sidebar: we have been so conditioned to past tense in prose that any use of present tense is going to be seen as innovative and/or disruptive. The very best example of present tense done smoothly and well is Bleak House, where the narrative switches between past and present depending on whether it’s first-person Ada or third-person omniscient narration. My personal favourite is The Rainmaker by John Grisham, which sucked me in before I fully realised it was present tense – and then when I did realise, about a third of the way in, I had to go back through and make sure it was deliberate and not just a proofreading failure.)

So the present-tense didn’t bother me. No, what bothered me were the short second-person passages. Now, I don’t know about you, but my exposure to second-person narration, and hence my initial reaction when faced with it, is Choose Your Own Adventure type books. As such, I kept waiting for some sort of disaster to strike “me” walking around the circus, and when nothing did I felt tense and disappointed. One review I read said that it put the reader in the middle of the circus, but it didn’t do that for me – it just took me out of the story and broke the connections I was forming with Celia, Marco, Bailey, Poppet, etc.  I found it unnecessary and pandering and even now, after finishing the book and thinking about it as a whole, I don’t think it added much, if anything, to the story or the structure. It tipped the balance and broke the story-bubble and, for me, one of the greatest strengths of the book was its balance.

For if we learn anything from the circus, it is that destruction follows imbalance. The entire point of the competition is to tip the balance between chaos and order and, in doing so, to destroy the other player. (Collateral damage includes destroying a part of yourself, and anyone else who may have unwittingly gotten involved.) Celia and Marco work best when they are creating together, when they are each enhancing what the other has done – for one of them to win would destroy not only what they have done together but what they would do in the future. And the only way the circus can continue is if the balance between them is maintained – if either one of them tips the balance, the circus and everything in it will disintegrate.

And the book itself, outside of the second-person interludes, is fairly well-balanced between the various threads: Celia, Marco, and Bailey; those affecting the circus and those being affected by it; exposition and events. But then the second-person interludes come in, describing things that haven’t been introduced yet, or things that were described better and more evocatively a few pages before, or things that you think should become significant but never reappear.

Maybe on a reread, this won’t bother me so much. But when I finished Ready Player One, I wanted to jump back into the world, to go deeper into the details and find the hidden meanings in references. I don’t feel the same way about The Night Circus or Erin Morgenstern’s writing. It was nice enough, but I’m not compelled to reread it or relive it. I won’t turn down another book by Morgenstern, but I won’t rush to read it, either.

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Pulitzer Prize thoughts

The Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, and the big news on all the book blogs and book news sites is that there was no prize for fiction awarded. This is seen as probably the worst thing to hit publishing since the establishment of the ebook as a viable format. There has been a lot written about how terrible it is  that no winner was chosen, that no book can be celebrated (and its sales increased) by the recognition that a Pulitzer gives.

One problem is the lack of transparency. The selection and voting process is closed, so there’s no way of knowing whether the lack of a winner means that the panel didn’t think any of the finalists were worthy of the prize, or whether it means they all were. The only word from the Committee was that they don’t discuss their voting – and with only winners’ information in the press releases, the implication is that no book was worthy.

Publishers and booksellers are missing out on a real marketing tool if they just stick to that. It’s something that the prizes in the UK have managed to do for years now – promote the finalists as much as they promote the winners.  The Pulitzer – and every book prize – should not be about celebrating only one book, about promoting and marketing only one book, but about promoting and marketing excellence in literature overall. The lack of a winner is troubling, but instead of bewailing the fact that one book wasn’t a winner, celebrate the fact that three books were finalists. Three very different books, I would like to point out, which makes it even better. It’s been a year, as many years are, where book awards have been criticised for not having enough variety or ignoring quality books because they’re too popular, of losing touch with regular readers and increasing the divide between popularity and quality.

If I were in charge of a bookstore right now, I would have a table up near the front, covered with Pulitzer stuff. I’d have the three finalists for Fiction, the winner and finalists for biography, history, poetry, non-fiction, and a selection of past winners if there’s enough room – but there might not be. Have some of the compilation books: Best News Reporting, Best Crime Reporting, etc. Show off ALL the books, not just the winners. Let people know that there’s more than one good book in a category every year. Show people that there’s a book – a high-quality book – out there for everyone, no matter what style, form, or genre they’re interested in.

This is an opportunity for book marketing, not a tragedy; I really wish people would stop treating it like one.

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