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.

By Alice Sebold

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.

I returned home, petted the dog, and threw up.

We are living, as I write this, in the worst economic conditions almost any of us can remember. In the world of publishing, good people have lost their jobs, and more job losses are on the horizon. Whole divisions of venerable publishing houses are falling away. Historic names are disappearing overnight, there one day and gone the next. The individuals who have survived so far are not quite sure why, and spend hours every day doing a job—editing quality fiction—that the powers that be are beginning to deem no longer necessary.

But I think highlighting good fiction is more important now than it ever has been. Because of this, I’ve also come to feel that now, more than ever, awards are a necessary crapshoot from which, on balance, all of us benefit.

Briefly, in the wake of 9/11, a poetry renaissance occurred, when many of us—clueless about how to survive the hopelessness that immediately followed—turned for succor to poems written in the wake of the world wars. Something in the way Siegfried Sassoon or W. H. Auden could bend the atrocities of the trenches or the invasion of Poland into lyric form, and reflect ourselves back to ourselves, gave us hope at that time. Often, a reflection in the mirror, even if hideously accurate, stands as confirmation of existence, and this mere confirmation then serves as hope—we are still alive in dark times. Old poets, and some new, flared brightly for a time in instantly published anthologies or on ever more muscular blogs. Within weeks, however, we were told by our government to go out and buy new cars or bigger houses; everything, we were assured, would be all right as a result. So we put down the sustaining challenge of the poets and took up our machine-stamped plastic cards that entitled us to be “a member of the club” or to “earn points toward a free windjammer.”

And now here we are, encountering another sort of ground zero—this one economic—and my house is stacked with photocopied short stories whose paper clips fall to the floor after being decorously pulled at by the tiny teeth of cats. Journals, of all sizes and shapes, lean against a wall of my office—unfiltered supplements to the winnowed pile Heidi Pitlor adds to at regular intervals, and from which I hope to pull an unknown author. I have gone, in a few brief months, from being overwhelmed with the burden of this responsibility and even, admittedly, from being a shade cynical about the process, to being awed by possibilities and by hope for the future.

Narrative, after all, is perhaps the most powerful antidote we have in the face of what at first may appear to be insurmountable odds. If this weren’t true, the Incredible Hulk would never have become so popular with so many powerless children, the novels of Orhan Pamuk would not be publicly excoriated yet covertly embraced in his native land, and The Catcher in the Rye would not stand as it still does today, as a timeless, ageless call into the wild abyss.

To say that the stories I chose for The Best American Short Stories 2009 will save your life, vanquish the collection agents pounding at your door, or return your child, spouse, or cousin from the war is obviously ridiculous. But more than mere solace is to be gained from reading good stories—short stories in particular. Stories provide endless access into other worlds, brought forth by an infinite number of gifted minds. A story about grief can comfort; a story about arrogance can shock and yet confirm; a story populated largely by landscape, whether lush or industrial, can expand the realm that we inhabit.

I read more than 200 short stories this year. The publisher of The Best American Short Stories allows for only 20 to be published under that name. Eleven stories were total “yes” moments for me, when I wrote “It’s in!” immediately after finishing the last page. Then I had 30 vying for nine spots, and 15 vying for six, and finally three vying for one. Was the judging process scientific? Not in the least. Does this volume include stories that every writer—being honest—would give his or her eyeteeth to have written? You bet. Are the merits of some stories arguable? Certainly. But I promise you this: every story in the final selection deserves to be read. Deserves to be published. Deserves, in the case of some newer or lesser-known authors, to help lift these authors out of the slush pile, and to help them—here is what a prize or a best-of can do—find a larger audience in the world.

A hospice worker I know is fond of saying “A nurse can’t be an island,” meaning that helping others is impossible if you can’t reach them. The same, to me, seems true of narrative. In a busy world of things competing for attention—things often easier to turn to than a literary journal or even the rare glossy magazine that still prints short stories—awards and prizes for this form seem important, and editing a best-of collection becomes an imperative; reading for it, an honor.

As a late-to-publishing person, I have done a 180-degree turn: now when I’m browsing in a bookstore, I see golden and silver badges on books. I see starbursts and crests, learn of readers’ circles and celebrity endorsements, find blurbs on the front covers of hardbacks. If our economy had stayed robust, no doubt someone would have mass-produced Margaret Atwood’s remote-control signature arm and re-engineered it to grab you by the lapel, shove a book into your hand, and haul you to the checkout. All of these things are done in the pursuit of a perfect storm of readers.

A good nurse can’t be an island.

Nor can a good story or a best-of collection of stories. They must reach, they must affirm, they must reflect us, in both delight and sorrow. Whether this is done through humor or history, from an imagined town, or via a series of letters written by an inhabitant of an internment camp does not matter. Great poetry will always be available to us, and so will good fiction, but what both of them need now, and what an award or a best-of might bring them, are more readers.

I will now go pet the dog, feed the cats, and read that National Book Award winner who, even with his golden seal for all to see, I found remaindered at my local bookstore. Here’s the catch. His work may survive because of that seal; I can no longer judge this to be a bad thing.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/eyes-on-the-prize/307534/