Monday, March 21, 2016

WHY I STARTED DACTYL REVIEW AND THE DACTYL FOUNDATION LITERARY FICTION AWARD


As publishers it has been a delight to have published three of Victoria N. Alexander’s novels over a period of two decades:  Smoking Hopes (1996), Naked Singularity (2003), and Locus Amoenus (2015).  Her range, inventiveness, and themes varied greatly and all three books represented different stages in her own life. And with this briefest of introductions, I turn over this blog to Tori who offers a spot-on critique of the way literary fiction is treated in general and what she is doing to improve things.

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“I had been director of the Dactyl Foundation in NYC for some dozen years, organizing art-science collaborations and hosting poetry readings, before it occurred to me that we were doing nothing to support literary fiction. As a literary fiction (LF) novelist myself, I was well aware that these unlikely-to-be-bestsellers could use some support.  But it was not immediately clear to me what I could do to help.  Hosting readings did not work.  Poets tend to turn out for each other and buy each other’s work; they dedicate poems to each other and even write about each other’s poems, but not LF novelists; they are as independent as cats. They keep to themselves, don’t do reviews, fear influence, and reserve their admiration for dead authors.

I was such a writer, I realized. What could I do to get mavericks, like myself, to form a community?

“From personal experience, I understood that what LF writers need most (in order to get more readers) are sympathetic reviewers and an extended shelf life. Literary fiction needs reviewers who won’t judge the work by the standards of other genres. It needs other literary fiction writers. LF takes time to find its audience. Books aren’t given much time in front of judges and audiences. Those that don’t make it in six months are thereafter ignored.  No one in publishing denies this, and yet there are no awards for the best five-year-old novel, no reviewers interested in what came out last year.

“Literary fiction is not produce; it won’t spoil. It is not trendy, but of an enduring quality. I like the fact that the Permanent Press keeps my titles available in the back-list catalog.  When I signed on with my first novel, in 1996, I took comfort knowing I would not be remaindered, pulped or go out-of-print. What Marty and Judy Shepard do as publishers, I wanted to do as a foundation director, not just offer an initial opportunity for good books but also help keep them in front of audiences.

“I realized, too, that it would be necessary to share the responsibility of judging books in order to form a community would be self-sustaining. So in 2010, Dactyl Foundation launched Dactyl Review, dedicated solely to literary fiction, created for and by literary fiction writers. We publish reviews of only the best novels and short story collections, as judged by other literary fiction writers. Authors support the kind of work they admire by writing reviews and this also helps the reviewers build readerships for their own work. The reviewer’s signature is linked and followed by the title of his/her book that is most similar to the book being reviewed.

Dactyl Review also offers the $1,000 annual Dactyl Foundation Literary Fiction Award, which differs from most awards in a number of ways. One, the award is not limited to new books. Any literary fiction book by a living author published in any year is eligible for the award. We know that good books are often overlooked the year they come out. Two, we do not accept nominations from authors or publishers for their own books.  Dactyl only accepts nominations from other published literary fiction authors. A book is nominated when another writer reviews it on Dactyl Review (then the author or publisher has to accept the nomination before the book is officially in the running). Three, we do not require the nominated author or the publisher to send in copies. Dactyl Foundation purchases a copy of every book entered. Four, eligible works must be published, but we accept self-published as well as traditionally published. Five, there is no entry fee. Six, nominations can be made at any time. This year, the Dactyl Foundation award winner is Lindsay Hall for Sea of Hooks, which also won the Pen USA Fiction Award. Our open requirements help insure that we get the best entries not just money-backed entries and not just entries that conform to a list of bureaucratic constraints.

“One might think that leaving the judging up to self-designated LF authors and accepting self-published entries would invite a flood of low quality, not very literary, fiction.  This is not what has happened.  We’ve attracted quality reviewers. That’s because reviewing is hard work. We ask our reviewers to support all opinions about the quality of the writing with excerpts. (How often have you read a review of your own book that says things—good and bad—that are not at all true? as if the reviewer had only skimmed your book.) The review has to be very specific, and this seems to scare off lazy reviewers. It also prevents bullshit.  A reviewer cannot claim a writer has a “lyrical style” without backing that claim up with a brief example. Occasionally, we do get writers and publicists, who haven’t bothered to look at our “about us” page, asking us to review their books. I let them know that’s not what we do, and I invite them to review someone else’s book instead.  Predictably, the prima donna author will reply by saying, I don’t do reviews. I don’t have the time. And we are happy to let them leave us alone. 

“Several Permanent Press authors have participated, including Charles Holdefer, Ivan G Goldman, Marc Schuster, Bill Albert (as a reviewee), and Charles Davis. In 2013 Permanent Press author David Schmahmann won the award for his The Double Life of Alfred Buber, reviewed by Holdefer.

“All this may beg the question, What is literary fiction? Definitions vary, but only slightly. Typically, LF is defined as writing that is stylized or poetic, not always literal, connoting more than it denotes. It often treats a social or humanistic theme from an unusual perspective and is often in conversation with literature of the past. It tends to question stereotypes more than confirm them and avoids sentimentality.  Literary Fiction is the non-genre genre, but it can partake in the conventions of a traditional genre, like mystery or romance, doing so with a wry twist, sometimes with a view to subverting or expanding conventions.

“The Dactyl Review offers a little bit of what every literary fiction writer needs. We do need each other because the commercially-driven publishing industry is geared toward economic efficiency, spending the least amount of time on products that most people will buy. LF is for the uncommon reader. I invite my fellow Permanent Press authors to create some good review karma for yourself by reviewing a writer you admire, new or old, known or unknown. Once you have reviewed a couple of books, you can also offer your book to the community for review.  Next time you ask fellow writers to blurb your book, let them know they can turn it into a review and post it on DR. A Dactyl Review which gets to go into the ‘editorial review’ section on Amazon. We are here to help literary fiction writers help each other.”


To reach Tori you can call her at 845-667-9114, email her at alexander@dactyl.org, or read more about her organization at dactylreview.org. And, needless to say, I welcome your comments here on The Cockeyed Pessimist

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COMING UP NEXT WEEK AND THE WEEK AFTER is a two-part blog from Danner Darcleight entitled An Uncommon Bond. Danner's prison memoir, Concrete Carnival, will be published by us in September (along with Marsilio in Italy and Blackstone Audio in the USA) and will likely be talked about domestically and throughout the world as he is a supremely gifted writer. Darcleight is 39 years old and has already served 17 years of a 25-to-life sentence. In this two-part blog series he discusses his five year relationship with Lily, the woman he married while in prison.

2 comments:

  1. Just calling back after visiting the Dactyl review - great books and great reviews. Thank you for the link.

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  2. Dactyl Review is an excellent forum for the conversation about literature. It is both open and committed. I like writing Dactyl pieces and I like reading them.

    ReplyDelete