Essays Fiction 2009

Eyes on the Prize

Literary awards are inherently subjective, potentially corrupting, and oftentimes humiliating. They are also perhaps the most powerful antidote we have to the decline of serious fiction. and—as the author, the editor of The Best American Short Stories 2009, discovered—the best way of bringing good narrative to a wider world that desperately needs it.

Image: Joel Castillo

A few years ago, I was nominated for an award. Awards are nice; I don’t blame people for taking joy in receiving them, or for becoming teary and/or inarticulate if they are forced to give an acceptance speech. I now think that’s preferable to being loaded to the gills on a generous friend’s anti-anxiety meds.

The ceremony was long, and many awards were given out that night. The occasion was videotaped, as everything now seems to be. As each category was announced from the stage, the nominees’ names were read out, and each of us was expected to stand at our place at various groaning tables, flanked by our spouses and friends and those in the publishing industry whom I always think of as having drawn the short straw at the office that day. I had had two vodka martinis before the ceremony, and bottles of red and white wine surrounded each table’s floral centerpiece. Although I was too nervous to eat, my thirst was endless. My husband recalls my having an unerring sense of when a camera was anywhere near, for in those moments I would heave a glass toward my mouth while he fruitlessly attempted to stay my hand.

Some time later, I won in my category.

I took to the stage gamely (or so I was told) and said something short and ambiguous that was later used as a positive endorsement of the proceedings. For the remainder of that evening, I met other award winners and other nominees. We were posed singularly or in groups for photographs in which I had my award in one hand and a cocktail in the other. I also seemed to be smoking. People congratulated me: other writers, publishing professionals, strangers who were readers and who had liked my book.

Apparently—and again I know this mostly from my husband—I had only one thing to say.

“You know this is bullshit, right?”

When a happy, more well-adjusted award winner would inquire what I was referring to, I would bray while holding up my golden statue: “This. Award. Bullshit. Right?”

Why my fellow award winners and nominees have not kept in touch is beyond me.

I said what I said for many reasons, and not all of them have to do with my own insecurities or the toxic swim of booze and pills that greased the pathway of my thoughts from brain to tongue that night. Consider, for example, Groucho Marx. If he never wanted to be part of a club that would have him as a member, then my discomfort on awards night most likely has something to do with this same phenomenon.

But there’s more.

I had long distrusted anything that smacked of a prize, and I still do. Of course, in the end, prizes, awards, scholarships, contests, elections, appointments, best-ofs and worst-ofs, most hideous sex scene, most overvalued stock, best American city, highest-ranking university, most valuable player, best ass, best rack, best book are subjective measures of one person’s or group’s taste against that of another. Enough of this can breed a culture, and culture, by definition, is inevitably corrupt.

Of course, this distrust is also personal and involves school. Doesn’t everything?

When I was a freshman in high school, the state of Pennsylvania instituted programs for students deemed gifted. But my joy at lording this status over my more academically talented sister was short-lived. The gifted program at my school chose to focus on one course per year, and during my sophomore year—the first year of my eligibility—the focus was on math. To put it mildly, this was not my gift. I found myself placed among a small group of students who ever after would be known as “dumb gifteds.” Along with six others thought equally hampered, I was segregated from the smart gifteds and put in a special classroom with a warden-like geometry teacher whose stiff canvas skirts seemed prison-issue.

How could you be gifted one day and a moron the next—simultaneously the best-of and the worst-of? That was our question. Only two of us studied. One of us took such an arcane combination of drugs that he ended up in a coma and woke with permanent brain damage. I got a D. In the regular classes, my sister was doing swimmingly.

Advance nearly 20 years. I am in graduate school. Though I have taught freshman composition as an adjunct for a decade in New York City, I am a teaching assistant now, and I am placed in what the school refers to as a Pod. A Pod is a group-teaching situation, in which four teachers must agree on the grading of student papers, meet weekly for roundtables, share e-mails, and check in with each other on a daily basis. My problem with groupthink makes me bristle. I feel as if I’ve been moved from New York to an ashram, and no one’s told me. My fellow teachers are peppy, bright, bossy, and majoring in critical theory. I am frightened.

A Vietnamese student writes a personal essay about being beaten with a wooden spoon daily as a child. Compelling material. But the essay is written poorly and riddled with grammatical and spelling mistakes. I’m thinking C– but, soft at heart, or so I think, I propose a C. The Pod is horrified. The argument put forth is that for sharing such deeply personal material, the student should be judged differently from the rest. In the face of forces greater and more adamant than myself, I fold. The final Pod-approved grade is a B+. I hand the paper back to my student, and I know we have done her no favor.

I was reminded of the Pod one night when I listened to a writer recount his experience as a judge for the National Book Awards. Forces both greater and more adamant than he—and with longer publishing histories and greater clout—made him fold and choose a book he did not believe in.

Up until now, I have avoided sitting on awards panels. Since 2000, I have avoided writing book reviews for the same reason as many other writers: writing a book, whether good or bad, is so difficult that standing in judgment is not something I’m comfortable with. I rarely blurb, though admittedly when the book is terrific or from a small press or an unknown or overlooked author, I feel I must. I believe a blurb is a moral contract a writer makes with the unknown reader, not something that should be done as a favor to a friend or to your publisher or because maybe the author’s spouse writes a column somewhere or is powerful and can/could help you, down the line.

In spite of these reservations, I take writing and competition very seriously. I believe that all writers should compete—even if I now know this to be a quixotic quest—on a level playing field.

Why, then, did I decide to take on the job of editing The Best American Short Stories 2009?

I was honored to be asked.

And there you have it: the job is an award. It was also far off. I said yes a full two years before the stories would be passed on to me, having been whittled down from thousands to 120 by Heidi Pitlor, a woman who reads nothing but magazines and literary journals eight days a week. Then the day came when the first pile of stories arrived at the post office and I waited with my little slip for the oversize package. “Heavy,” the postman who handed it to me said, and as I walked it home, clutched to my chest like the stack of books it resembled, I realized something. To have one’s work included in the Best American Short Stories annual volume is, indeed, an award of a kind, and even if the winning writers whose pages I had not yet seen would avoid the public humiliations of ball gowns and tuxes, and the losers might take their poison in peace upon news of their exclusion, I would be the final arbiter of who did and who didn’t make the cut.

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