Thoughts on the AWP Book Prize: “No Winning Manuscript”
August 19, 2015 § 17 Comments
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.”
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.