Tuesday, April 19, 2005

And the Award Goes To....

In catching up on my magazine and newspaper reading, I ran across an interesting article in the Post's Book World by Marina Krakovsky. Part of the continuing Making Books focus, this article looks at literary contests; why we have them, how they work, who they benefit. Although a little cursory, it takes a pretty good look at this side of the publishing industry.

I have mixed feelings about contests. They certainly provide exposure for writing that often wouldn't get it otherwise. The article mentions Richard Russo and how the Pulitzer transformed his writing career, and he's definitely not the only one. And readers often need guidance to break out into reading authors different from their normal staples. But the general arbitrariness of dubbing one book "the best" really is pretty ludicrous. But we, meaning readers, always want to know. We have to know.

Unfortunately, anytime you judge art by committee, there's an unavoidable middle ground that's found or created. Work that's controversial, either by technique or by subject matter, is likely to have some avid fans, but also some rabid opponents. It gets pushed aside for work that all can agree on. This little snippet from the article says it best:

"It happens all the time in prize committees," says Freeman, "where two books that have a lot of supporters split the vote, and a third book comes in from behind." One such upset occurred in 1998, according to the NBCC's Hammond. "There was a huge contest" between Don DeLillo's Underworld and Roth's American Pastoral. The winner? The Blue Flower, by British author Penelope Fitzgerald. "We can say it, now that she's died," says Hammond. "It wasn't the book that people felt passionate about."

Personally, I get more from the end-of-the-year lists by various critics. We all have our favorite critics and magazines, and I'm more willling to take a chance on a suggested book from Michael Dirda than I am from the National Book Award commitee.

But would I turn an award down if one came my way? Hell, no!



Jen said...

That's wild—and makes me feel somewhat better—that the winner of these contests is usually something milqetoast. Of course, you can usually figure that out by reading it. On another note, don't you hate it when you read an issue of a literary journal and you're dumbfounded how any of the pieces got chosen? They're not any better than your piece, that got rejected, and you've forgotten what they were about ten minutes after you read them.

Hebdomeros said...

I had that experience with the newest Third Coast, and it's why I didn't bother to do a review. With one exception, I didn't have much of a reaction to any of the pieces, good or bad.

LadyLitBlitzin said...

Wow, that's totally interesting and makes sense. I agree with Jen -- yeah, you'll read the winner of some contest in a lit journal and be like, what the hell? That's not that great and it's forgettable and blah.... it's interesting to think that by taking chances you may have some passionate fans but some major detractors, too.

Ah, mediocrity... ha.

But really, accounting for all the varying shades of taste, it is indeed a sort of ludicrous thought: "this is the BEST."