Thoughts on the AWP Book Prize: “No Winning Manuscript”

August 19, 2015 § 17 Comments


Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

Rachel Hanel weighs in on the judge’s decision that no nonfiction book entry wins the AWP prize this year:

On Monday, AWP announced that it would not name a winner for its annual Award Series in the nonfiction category. Part of the announcement reads: “The Award Series guidelines have stated—ever since the inception of the Series in 1975—that the judge makes the final decision and no award is given if the judge finds no manuscript that merits the award.”

(You can read the full announcement here )

I get the disappointment the entrants feel. It’s disappointing enough to not be chosen as a winner or finalist when a decision is made, so it feels especially grating to learn that the entire field did not warrant a winner.

I have entered many contests and have been disappointed many times by not being selected, especially when I thought my work was in pretty good shape. But then I read the winning entry and almost always am blown away. I want to read the winner’s work and say, “Holy shit, that is good.” I feel good for that writer and it reflects well on the magazine/journal/organization giving out the prize.

I wouldn’t want to read a winning piece in a contest I had entered and think, “Hmmmm, really?” That does happen; sometimes judges and journals do feel compelled to choose a winner because people have paid an entry fee. But like the AWP announcement states, an entry fee should not be seen as a golden ticket or a raffle chance. On occasion, no work may stand out as stellar.

The decision was met, unsurprisingly, with criticism. I read a blog post written by someone who had entered the contest and I appreciate his passion and disappointment. I would imagine others feel same as he does.

But I do disagree with a statement he made: “The choice to say that no nonfiction book submitted is worthy of her (or, by proxy, the AWP’s) selection is an outright dismissal of a hell of a lot of artistic, intensely wrought, truth-telling work, and make no mistake: it will be seen as a wholesale value judgment of an entire year’s crop.” I’m sure there was artistic work in the bunch. I’m sure it was intense, and I’m sure the writers told the truth in literary ways. But I would ask this of the entrants: Did you submit your absolute finest work? Are you sure you submitted something near perfection? I wrote seven drafts of my memoir before it was published. It is quite tempting to submit a manuscript before it’s ready. And you know what? I did that. A lot. I think I even submitted it to the AWP contest. But now I realize anything before that seventh draft was not ready. I suspect the judge, Lia Purpura, saw a lot of great work but judged that the writing was still rough.

Now a judge needs to adhere to the highest ethical standards. No work should be chosen if it truly is not worthy from a literary standpoint. But if there are personal issues at play, or a surly attitude, or a need to be a renegade (“I’m going to be the judge who doesn’t choose a winner, so there!”), then that’s a problem. I trust that AWP administration chooses judges who are fairly and honestly evaluating the entries using only the top ethical and literary standards. If they didn’t, their entire reputation would be on the line.

I have no doubt that some of those who submitted to the nonfiction contest will have those manuscripts published someday. I’m sure there were a lot of gems in the bunch. In no way does Purpura’s judgment mean that all the writing was bad, only that it shouldn’t yet take the form of a published book. More work will make those manuscripts shine. Or maybe another judge will deem them publishable as is. Who knows? But if a judge says that no entries are worthy of a book award, I am willing to trust that.

____

Rachael Hanel teaches mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013 by the University of Minnesota Press.

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§ 17 Responses to Thoughts on the AWP Book Prize: “No Winning Manuscript”

  • You bring up some good points. I too have been guilty of sending out work before it was ready, but I still think the decision reflects badly on the process. As someone else suggested to me in conversation, the judge often doesn’t see the entire slush pile. Could someone have gone through the slush pile again? Or, could one of the pieces that was not quite there be returned for rewrite/revision as they do in academic circles?

  • The dismissal of the work serves two purposes: a rebuke to artists and the elevation of the judge to a status that is more regent than literary critic. Neither are compatible with honest criticism.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you. I am always secretly pleased to read someone admit that they send out work before it is ready. I have done that Every Single Time. And I have read work that clearly was undercooked, as well. I tend to trust the process and Purpura to give an host accounting. I like the idea suggested here that there may have been some great work that also still needed a few drafts to get to where it should be. I am currently reading a well-known work of nonfiction that is underdone, and the fact that it was a breakout work from a very talented author does not alter the fact that it needed a couple more drafts. I have read other work by the same author, who has become better and better with time.

    And that’s what most of us fail to give to our work: enough time.

  • Sammy D. says:

    Tough call and you bring up very good points. As a reader of many ‘award winners’ I,too, want to be blown away by the winner, or at least be able to point to clear reasons it was chosen.

    Judging is by nature subjective, and I do understand the contestants’ disappointment. I hope, at the very least, the judges took time to let the top contestants know their pieces were ‘close to prime time’ rather than blanket rejection for everyone.

  • Chris says:

    Difficult to believe all the writers sent work that wasn’t “ready”. The decision reflects on the judge not the writers and their work. The commentary continues the “blaming the victim” mode.

  • I’m pleased to see that “grade inflation” hasn’t reached the AWP. One shouldn’t be forced to award a prize that doesn’t appear (according to the judge) to be merited. Maybe no one book stood head and shoulders above the others. Maybe the entries left the readers feeling that there must be something better out there? Maybe we should just accept the rejection and move on?

  • Robert Hyers says:

    One of the larger issues you do not address here, which John Proctor’s blog post does address, is the ethics involved in using contests as income streams. With the proliferation of MFA programs, as well as the growth of AWP’s power within our industry to the point that it has implicitly threatened those who have criticized its lack of diversity, it’s becoming increasingly clear that as artists there is a culturally elite class who derives a good part of their incomes from judging these contests littered with an underclass of artists who have little to no chance of winning. The idea that there is no ms worthy of publication is unbelievable. And the fact that AWP refuses to refund entry fees shows just how much the culturally elite are relying on these contests as income streams. In a world in which our art can be used to not only reflect, but subvert and reinvent the larger and mostly malicious power discourses going on around us, I feel that, as a community, we can, and need, to do better.

  • rbshea says:

    I read Rachel’s post and the AWP explanation. I’ve posted the following comment on the AWP notice site.

    I write non-fiction but have not submitted to AWP contests this year or in the past.

    With that disclaimer, I find this anonymously authored explanation somewhat confusing even contradictory in its fundamental justification for the judging.

    This article states that judging in the non-fiction category (and presumably in other contest categories) is based on “the highest literary standards” and “upholds standards of literary excellence.” Okay. What are those standards and who decides what they are? Because, as noted, “judging is a highly idiosyncratic and subjective process.” How are the judges selected and what literary standards are they provided with apart from their personal preferences? Or are those personal preferences what define the standards?

    For the most part, the rest of the explanation reads like a corporate legally-infused defense of the outcome, no refunds, opportunity for new authors, etc.

    Perhaps I missed it because I don’t enter contests but are AWP’s standards of literary excellence in the categories it defines published somewhere? Or is that solely defined by judges in these contests? Is there an explanation from this year’s judge, Lia Purpura, describing her reasoning for the “no winner” decision? Again, maybe I missed that if it exists. If not, it seems a reasonable thing to expect AWP members, particularly those writing in non-fiction, and contest participants to receive. Agree or disagree with her decision, at least that way, her reasoning and judgement are shared.

    A final point. In future, I suggest if such explanations are necessary from AWP management, could they please not be anonymous? Transparency is or should be part of the commitment from this organization and not just in literary contests.

    • John P. says:

      The explanation on the AWP site was sent to all contest participants this past Monday, and signed by Executive Director David Fenza. I’m not sure why they left off his name on the site. Still no explanation or justification (that I know of) from Purpura on her decision.

      • rbshea says:

        Thanks, John. Is it unreasonable to expect that judges, in this case, Purpura, present and share the reasoning behind their decisions? It seems to me that part of the conversation that literature represents, contest or not, requires that part of the dialogue. Literary critics e.g. James Wood, and reviewers do that. How is a judge in these contests not acting exactly like a critic/reviewer?
        In this case, AWP comes across like some government or corporate agency vs. the role it claims, at least in academia.

  • jbarrettwarner says:

    Agree on all counts. And yet, I wish they had created a list of honorable mentions from the thousands. Even if no clear winner was evident. Now all the submitters can only say “I entered my manuscript and lost to no one, but no one won either.”

  • Wow, I try hard. No, I DO hard. I want my writing to stand like a redwood, invincible. And so do other ambitious writers. And yes, I’d love to be read by my best audience who in turn feel absolutely thrilled they spent the time. But it can be incredibly hard to know if the work is ready. That’s why editors are indeed our best friends–that is, if you expect your work to be a heat-seeking missile, not a bee-bee. Invariably, when I get something back from a smart reader/editor, I improve it.

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