On October 27 New York Times headlined 10 WRITERS RECEIVE WHITING AWARD HONORS. Julie Bosman, the latest reporter covering book publishing at the Times, wrote that “The Whiting Writers’ Awards are usually given to people who are not yet known even in literary circles. But the recipients are young and talented, and often go on to fame and acclaim, as did winners from years past like Jonathan Franzen, Sarah Ruhl, Colson Whitehead and Michael Cunningham.” This announcement, and a following letter we received from the Whiting Foundation, drew little more than a snooze for it was, as Yogi Berra famously said “déjà vu all over again.”
In 1989 Judy and I were hoping to get Berry Fleming, a masterful Southern novelist, fuller recognition for his life’s work, resurrected after we published 12 novels of his over a three year period of time. Why so many books so close together? Well, Berry was approaching 90 and didn’t have much time to enjoy these republications and original novels if we did a book a year. One of the things we thought would bring him even more attention was the possibility of winning an award given by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and/or gain membership to this 250 member society. However, nominations for these honors could only be made by members of the Academy.
Living and working here in the Hamptons, the only members I had ever met were Ed Doctorow and Kurt Vonnegut. I wrote to both and asked if I might send them some of Berry’s books. Doctorow said “Sure,” and I passed them on to him at the tennis courts in Sag Harbor. That didn’t work out, as Doctorow became irritable when I asked weeks later if he had started to read Fleming. “Not yet,” he said curtly. A month later I asked again and he became even more annoyed. “If you think badgering me will make me read him, you are sadly mistaken.” We never spoke or played tennis together again.
With Vonnegut the exchange was much more rewarding, for it made me realize how fruitless our attempt was. To quote from his letter:
I congratulate you on your efforts to get deserved recognition for Berry Fleming, so you and he are surely on my conscience. At the same time I feel helpless, since the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters is much like the Exxon tanker with the skipper dead drunk in the lavatory off the engine room. It doesn’t act the way it’s supposed to.
I myself no longer attend meetings because of its lack of maneuverability. Too many good writers (and no doubt painters and composers and historians and architects and so on) have gone to their graves believing that they lacked that indefinable certain something which kept them from joining the cream of the cream. Irwin Shaw and James Jones and Richard Yates have failed to get in for a couple of maddening reasons at least: first, poets campaign for each other like politicians, so that most of the writers honored are poets now, and second painters and musicians and so on get to vote on writers, too and have never heard of Yates and Fleming and are often log-rollers, too “If you vote for an artist you never heard of in my field, I’ll vote for one I’ve never heard of in yours,” and so on.
When Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win a Nobel Prize, the Academy and Institute asked him if he wouldn’t please become a member. To his discredit, he accepted.
I now say, and I am not alone, that the Academy and Institute should not exist, since its main achievement is broken hearts. Please give Berry Flemming my love.
Vonnegut’s letter came back to mind when I read about this year’s winners of The Whiting Writers' Award, which are presented annually to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays. To quote from their website: The award, sponsored by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation has been presented since 1985, with each winner receiving $50,000. This year three novelists won this award. Nominations come from an anonymous group of nominators, literary professionals across the country representing all literary genres who are likely to know about emerging writers at the beginning of promising careers. The majority are writers, often teachers as well, and the list has included editors, agents, critics, bookstore owners, reading series organizers, dramaturgs, and artistic directors of theaters.
Nominators are contacted by the foundation and are each asked to nominate one emerging writer of exceptional talent and promise. The roster of nominators changes annually, although some nominators have served more than once. I would also add that the judges, who receive these nominations, are also anonymous.
Having received this mail I called Kelly Rosenheim at the Whiting Foundation and asked her to remove us from their mailings, and in a follow-up email spelled out my reasons for this:
As said, it's my belief that The Whiting Awards suffer from a serious bias against small independent publishers, given the anonymity of those who refer novels to you and the anonymity of the judges who choose the winners.
Staring our 33rd year of publishing quality fiction we win more citations for our novels—per book—than any publisher in America, large or small. We've had Nobel Prize nominees, a National Book Award finalist, PEN New England and PEN Hemingway winners and finalists, Edgar and Hammett prize winners and finalisst, and a host of other citations. In 1988 we were a runner-up for the Boston Globe Literary Press Award. In 1997 we were honored with the Poor Richard's Award given by the Small Press Center for "having done much to advance the cause of small press publishing over a period of at least two decades." In 1998 we won the equivalent of a publishing "Oscar" for our previous year's list: The LMP Award for Editorial Achievement—a prize open to every publisher, large or small in America, and voted on nationally by our colleagues in the book industry. All you need do is go on our website to substantiate these assertions.
But here's the rub. We rarely sell more than 3,000 copies of any novel we do, and recognition within the industry is not the same as recognition among “the writers, teachers editors, agents, critics, bookstore owners, and reading series organizers” that you cite among the anonymous nominators you use. Additionally, nearly every other major or minor award allows publishers to submit titles. They all have transparency and list their judges. If all of the above mentioned awards were not open to publisher submission, we would likely have no citations to cite.
So my belief is that there is no reason to believe that few—if any—nominators and judges have likely read the books we and other small independent publishers produce. And if that is the case, your awards lose both luster and a certain credibility. Whiting is free to choose how they handle their awards. But to assume that their choices are the most deserving, given the secrecy surrounding the process, is arbitrary at best and folly at worst.
I never did get a response from Kelly. Nor find out what a ”Literary Professional” is.
Over and above all this, we honor three special people. Barbara Holland, the gifted writer and satirist whose Hail to the Chiefs: Presidential Mischief, Morals & Malarkey from George W to George W we published in 2003 and Jean Warmbold whose three Sarah Calloway mysteries we published between 1986 and 1990 (June Mail, The White Hand, and The Third Way) have both passed on recently.
Jay Landesman, who is still with us, but barely, is 93, confined to his bedroom and not available for conversation for the past few months has been inspirational: a valued friend, soulmate, and iconoclast who always went his own way. Born in St Louis, he first emerged as a night club owner (The Crystal Palace), went on to New York and started publishing the journal Neurotica and became a playwright (The Nervous Set—starring Larry Hagman, among others, with song lyrics written by his wife, Fran). He then moved to London, preaching the values of brown rice and organic food, and shortly afterward became a book publisher (we did co-editions together). In 1987 we published his autobiography Rebel Without Applause. Jay was the original hipster, a great raconteur and listener, someone I loved from the moment I saw him during my first visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair in the ‘80’s, where he was promoting The Good Dog’s Cookbook, wearing a chef’s hat, with a dog at his feet, ringing a bell and asking for contributions for the good dogs of London at his stand.
I think of him often, and how much he meant to me.
More to come next month concerning new approaches to marketing. Meanwhile a special thanks to Caleb Kercheval (firstname.lastname@example.org) who has revised and redesigned our website. It is now a thing of beauty!
I look forward to your comments.