On November 8, 2010, I wrote a blog entitled TWO AWARDS YOU CAN’T BELIEVE IN, citing the Whiting Writers Award’s and the Awards given by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, my complaint being that closed nominating systems, where fiction cannot be brought to the attention of judges by publishers, but only by “insiders,” is inherently arbitrary and lessens the integrity of such prizes.
This year it’s time for an anniversary update, about the arbitrary process of selecting “winners.” Award winning fiction is not like award winning athletic events, played out in the open. Additionally, there are so many literary awards, many designed to raise money for the sponsors of these prizes who may break down fiction (and non-fiction as well) into dozens and dozens of sub-categories and charge more in submission fees than either the National Book Awards or the Pulitzer Prizes do. Okay, one can add on the back cover of a book that it won the Hollywood Book Award, or was a winner, gold, silver or copper finalist for another award, but these things do not add to book sales and are never publicized in the mainstream media.
I have the greatest respect for The National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes, for they are open and winners surely do flourish (I have the same respect for the Hammett Prize and Edgar Awards when it comes to mysteries). You pay your entrance fee and send five or six copies out to jurors and if the Gods are with you, the payoff is excellent. The National Book Critics Circle has some impact, but here, too, only books read by members are paid attention to, and the list of rotating critics who decide from year to year whose book is “worthy” of consideration, generally speaking, review books from one of the six conglomerate publishers that crank out, through their hundred or so imprints, 85% of what gets published, read and reviewed. No entrance fees are charged, but this NBCC Award is less than completely open.
This arbitrariness extended overseas this year, as regards the Man Booker Prize for fiction, when a great brouhaha arose when many in in the British literary establishment charged that Man Booker morphed from awarding their prize for excellent fiction to honoring commercial fiction instead, and these critics have decided to give their own award to restore a higher standard. First we export McDonalds to England, followed eventually by a decline in the excellence of a major book prize.
Here in the States the media covered well a press release from the Whiting Foundation announcing that TEN WRITERS OF EXCEPTIONAL PROMISE EACH RECEIVE $50,000 WHITING WRITERS AWARD. I suppose if any of us could afford to pay out $500,000 in award money each year, we’d get a lot of publicity for this, too. But it still remains a closed loop. Money talks but quality walks when it comes to promotion.
Another beef I have with promotion has to do with our reverence for youth rather than age, the prime example being the annual awards given by the National Book Foundation’s honoring “5 Under 35” each year. Why not honor, at the very least, “7 over 70?” In case the NBF wants to consider such a category, let me list five novels by writers who will be septuagenarians and octogenarians in 2012, and a sixth from an octogenarian we’ll be publishing in early 2013: These are Isaac: A Modern Fable, by Ivan Goldman; Looking for Przybylski by K.C. Frederick: An Unattended Death, by Victoria Jenkins: The Man on the Third Floor, by Anne Bernays; Knock Knock, by Suzanne McNear; and in early 2013 The Conduct of Saints, by Christopher Davis (and perhaps some other publishers could supply additional titles to the competition).
Ultimately, of course, some brilliant fiction is never considered for any prize at all; Man Booker only awards their fiction prize to citizens of Britain, Ireland, and Commonwealth nations first published in the United Kingdom. The Pulitzer and National Book Awards only give prizes to U.S. Citizens. And you can be sure that nobody at the National Book Critics Circle or The Whiting judges ever got to read about or consider Charles Davis’ Standing at the Crossroads (which we published this year), or his earlier novel Walk On Bright Boy. Charles is an Englishman, living in France. His novels were not published first in the U.K. He’s not an American citizen, but more a citizen of the world, who has also lived extensively in Africa and other parts of the globe. His novels have drawn accolades from the pre-pub reviewers (Kirkus, PW, Library Journal), a host of excellent bloggers, a few regional newspapers, but nothing from the important national newspapers like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post. What follows is the very latest review of Crossroads, written by Claudia Robinson for the Luxury Reading web site on October 28 (it makes me wish there was a fiction award for Novel of the Globe, for I would surely like to nominate this book for it):
“It was danger that brought us together, danger that has driven us up the mountain, and it is danger that eventually jostles us unceremoniously into one another’s arms. Otherwise, it would not happen. Even if we had met in another place at another time in which the tender marrying of white skin with black was not condemned, we are too far apart in hope and in despair to be a likely couple. But when two people are pursued across a mountain by the Warriors of God, some coming together is inevitable.”
In a land torn asunder by violence, the hot, stifling air rife with the scent of impending war, two souls, polar opposite in every sense; color, religion, purpose, faith and drive, collide and implode with an unnamed need and desire, with a only a dry, unforgiving desert as their witness. Kate is a white scholar, seeking to put names to the atrocities done to human nature in the name of God, by documenting, and photographing, everything she sees. Her travels lead her directly into the path of a black, barefoot librarian, seeking to share the written word, it’s beauty and power, with all he comes across.
Inexplicably drawn to one another, the unlikely duo stand firm and fast against the regime, but a small victory is quickly discounted as the pair find themselves lost and pursued in the desolate and disparate mountains of Africa. Embodying and indemnifying everything the Warriors of God stand against, Kate and her barefoot librarian are pit against nature, mankind and themselves, as they defy the odds and attempt to stay one step ahead of death. Despite their hunger, their fear and the certainty they feel that escape is not possible, the two manage to find love in the wilderness, fusing their need for one another with the need to survive, to exist, to co-exist, despite their multitude of differences.
Written with painstaking detail, mellifluous grace and seamless eloquence, Standing at the Crossroads manages to at once engage, enchant and haunt the reader. An obvious labor of love, this tale of star crossed lovers, and their will and passion for justice at all costs, explodes across the pages in lyrical prose, that can’t be explained accurately, but must instead, be experienced.
Brilliant, intelligent, heartbreaking, Standing at the Crossroads is powerful and passionate, leaving readers to hold their breath, fists clenched, in alternating bouts of pleasure and pain. Only 159 pages long, it dares anyone who picks it up to put it down, proof positive, that sometimes, the best things do indeed, come in small packages. Sublime from start to finish. Rating: 5/5
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