Thursday, June 08, 2006

"And then they were upon her."

Yesterday's ritual stoning has brought up a host of discussable topics--netiquette, ethical reviewing, awards, Edward Tulane, the relationship between an author and his or her book--but where to start?

I do have to laugh when I think about the editorial I just turned in, in which I applaud the relative lack of rancor surrounding children's book awards compared to such prizes as the Pulitzer or Man Booker. But despite our kerfuffle here, I do think that while children's book award prizes inspire grumbling, there's not much in the way of scandal. (Of course, there was that author who told me about getting a midnight phone call from a "friend" on the Newbery Committee, telling said author that the medal was in the bag. It wasn't.) Most of us seem to take these things philosophically, as in, "it's not what I would have chosen, but they must have had their reasons," and then we move on.

As far as reviewing goes, I don't think it's that difficult for most reviewers to forget about Awful Author or Attractive Author when reviewing a book. More of problem is separating that book from the author's reputation and/or his or her previous books. You neither want to add to the legend nor go all iconoclastic on it, either--the book in front of you is the only that matters for the moment. I do remember one book, a Holocaust memoir, where the author blended false modesty and survivor's privilege in a way that made not reviewing her a real challenge. Jeez, now I sound like Ann Coulter.

22 comments:

Melinda said...

I loved Keith Olbermann when he was on SportsCenter. Now I really love him. Tee hee!

Of course children's book reviewing is different than getting comments from folks you don't even know on a blog, which is open to any yahoo who can figure out how to use a keyboard (myself included).

Though I must say I've been subscribing to your magazine since 1997, so take that.

Melinda said...

So I'm not just *any* yahoo.

Elizabeth said...

Roger, you wrote "Most of us seem to take these things philosophically, as in, 'it's not what I would have chosen, but they must have had their reasons,' and then we move on." Blog readers, is that true? Is everyone so philosophical about these things, or is Roger just better medicated than the rest of us? I still think there was a HUGE omission on the Printz committee this year, though I liked all the choices that made it (Sorry, Printz members. I respect you but I still wanted another). I'm still mad about a book all the teens testified in favor of but didn't make BBYA...I have a list of grudges as long as my arm about books that should have gotten awards and citiations. The day I retire, my first action will be to travel to ALA and when the notable committee asks for "Audience comments?" I will SPEAK UP!!!

Hollis said...

I'm still mad about a book all the teens testified in favor of but didn't make BBYA...
Well the teens aren't on voting members of the committee, and "teen appeal" is, according to most BBYA committee members with whom I have served, secondary to literary quality. Remember, too, that committee members have read all 100+ books. Teens may have read only the one they are so passionately promoting.

This does harken back to a bunch of posts a few weeks ago where we discussed literary criticism vs. literary appreciation, and I think the teens at BBYA thing came up then...

KT Horning said...

Elizabeth, I'm not sure you do respect the Printz Award committee if you're still second-guessing them all these months later. I don't always agree with the choices award committees make, but I know enough about how much work goes into their preparation, discussions, and deliberations to trust the process and respect the committee's final decisions.

I agree with Roger that there is a refreshing lack of scandal and politicking with children's and young adult book awards. The midnight call he decribed to an author was most likely a huge error in judgment and complete breach of professional ethics on the part of one committee member. It is definitely the rare exception, and not the rule.

Jennie said...

I will say that I'm strongly in the "huh. Not what I would have chosen, ah well" camp of award titles.

I've disagreed with several of them, but what am I going to do about it? Deep breath, move on.

I am especially easy going about the children's books awards. I will admit that I am a naive outsider to the publishing and book world, but I see a lot less of the politics and hand-greasing in the children's book awards than in the adult book awards. Usually, when I disagree with an adult book winner, I can be "well, he only got that because his publishing house blah blah blah" where with kid's books, I'm usually like "Well, obviously the committee saw something I totally missed." But my perceptions of things could be wrong. It's been known to happen. ;)

KT Horning-- why can't Elizabeth respect the Printz committee members and still strongly disagree with that they chose? I still disagree with several the awards announced at ALA in January. It's not ruining my life, but I tend to bring it up when awards are getting discussed. I know the work the committees did, I just don't agree with their conclusions. I'm not writing them nasty emails... it's just another one of those "huh. They obviously saw something I didn't."

Andy Laties said...

Friends, colleagues and former employees of mine have been on the Caldecott committee. At least for that award, it seems that every year there's an "explanation" that circulates sub rosa. A battle of wills -- a compromise -- a disqualification for obscure but unavoidable reasons...and, the knowledge that the Caldecott means (as I last heard it) an instant 100,000-copy order for the chosen book, meaning money for the artist and author plus a stipend for life (and the authors' children's lives) since libraries and bookstores will maintain the book on hand forever. The Caldecott and Newbery are obviously highly unusual among awards, in this way. I don't know as the BGHB awards have such a huge direct economic impact. But, what I heard, was that the people on the Caldecott committee often do have some sense of which contestants have financial need, and which don't need more money, and that this can play into the selection. Perhaps others will dispute the idea that these awards in particular aren't "scientific" since I do know that they're famously systematic and the mechanism should theoretically eliminate the possibility for such weird biases as "He really needs the money" or "It's her year".

Anyway, despite all of these factors, or, because of them perhaps, I think it's not a big deal if the "wrong" book wins. The main thing is that the awards programs serve as a mechanism to encourage strong editorial work in an era when hard-headed market analysis is becoming a very powerful force in book creation. Better to have awards programs as the inspiration to publishing houses to produce "winning" books than to rely solely on predictable and demonstrable demographic, focus group and survey data to "inspire" editors.

Hurrah for the Horn Book for maintaining their independent awards program for all these years, and for keeping it as a focal point for the book industry. You're the adversary of the TV-spinoff-book publishing temptation. As long as SOME book wins each year, and LOTS of editors and publishers vow to win next year, the awards program has accomplished its objective.

KT Horning said...

Andy Laties wrote: "But, what I heard, was that the people on the Caldecott committee often do have some sense of which contestants have financial need, and which don't need more money, and that this can play into the selection."

Speaking on behalf of ALSC, I can tell you that this is not only untrue, it is also one of the most ridiculous rumors I have ever heard about the awards. Committee members have absolutely no insight into authors' personal financial lives and, even if they did, it would have no bearing on their decision.

I hope that the next time you hear one of your friends, colleagues or former employees spreading this kind of nonsense, you will set them straight.

Again, as Roger said in one of his earlier posts, reviewers (and, by extension, award committee members) focus on the BOOK, not on the author, the author's mother, or the author's bank account.

Roger Sutton said...

Andy, I have to say that I've never heard that one before. But, K.T., what you are describing are the rules, and you are assuming that each committee (and each individual member) follows them. Where I think Andy might be right (for the wrong reasons) is when a committee (or committee member) decides, even unconsciously, that it/she wishes to make a mark, to give an award to an unexpected choice, or at least to give it to someone who hasn't won before. This desire can tilt the odds toward a less-well-known honoree, who probably isn't as financially secure as someone who has already won an award. I'm not saying this is the norm, simply that it is a factor that I have seen operating in award committees in which I have been involved.

Andy Laties said...

KT -- I heard this bizarre statement about the committee members sometimes discussing authors' financial situation back in about 1990 from a leading children's bookseller who is friends with a lot of authors and librarians. She is friends in particular with an extremely prolific and successful children's author, one of whose first books had won a Caldecott Honor medal. She was telling me about why this author and this authors' friends knew (felt they could be confident) that the author could never win the Medal itself: because everybody in the field (now) knew that this author was married to a wealthy man. Not only was this author very successful financially on her own (via turning out terrific books that sold really well) -- but there was so much extra wealth in the household.

Of course such considerations should not enter into anyone's judgement. But -- realistically, now -- come on. The librarians on the committee generally speaking are OF COURSE also members of American society. We do all have feelings about "need" and "deserves".

Just a few days ago the Eric Carle Museum hosted a big multi-author event. One of the authors told the audience about how all his royalties from a specific one of his books went to pay his child's terribly high medical bills.

Although he wasn't an author well-known to the audience, when that audience emerged from the auditorium and flooded the shop, his books sold extremely well in comparison to the other authors who presented on the same podium. And the specified book sold the best: people asked for it.

Imagine a Caldecott committee whose members are deciding --AFTER all the narrowing down to the final few excellent choices -- between a book by an illustrator whose child is widely known in the industry to have very high medical bills, and a book by an illustrator whose husband is widely known in the industry to be extremely wealthy and is known to have no need for any more money.

But -- maybe (OK -- probably) you're right and I'm totally wrong and my informant was just trying to keep me amazed and entertained and one-up me with her insider knowledge. Or -- maybe it only happened once. Or maybe she was exaggerating -- or, jealousy, envy -- were influencing the storyline.

Anyway, something for committee members to try be on guard against.

Andy Laties said...

Actually, though, here's a more widely accepted example of the same sort of "judging bias": The author who has already won the Caldecott or Newberry once has a strike against her when her newest book comes up for judging this year.

That is: Sure, OK, Barbara Cooney and a few others (Marcia Brown, right?) won the Caldecott Medal twice. But everyone in the industry knows that the committee will shy away from giving these most prestigious awards to the same author(s) in neighboring or near-neighboring years. Even to have the same illustrator win the Caldecott twice in the same decade would seem just a bit yucky to everyone. People would grumble, "He already won. Why did they give it to him again. We should share the wealth!"

Well: This is an illegitimate consideration, right? But it's broadly, tacitly, shared.

Andy Laties said...

Hey! This brings us full circle.

Last year, BGHB was predictive: HELLO, GOODBYE WINDOW was a winner, and, six months later, it won the Caldecott.

Now, TULANE has just won BGHB. Our inbred "club" immediately speculates: Will TULANE win the Newbery?

However: Will the fact that DiCamillo's title DESPEREAUX won the Newbery in 2004 turn out to illegitimately, completely unfairly, but informally, de facto, hurt or wreck DiCamillo's chance to win the Newebery in 2007 for TULANE?

Of course, everyone, when asked, will say: "There should be no bias against TULANE simply because the author won this biggie award a few years ago." I'm not talking about words, though -- but absolutely private, secret-ballot, actions.

jonathan said...

Oh, come on, Andy! Surely, you can see the unreliability of your own rumor when the source isn't even someone who served on a committee: a bookseller who knows an author who knows a librarian. Please.

Of course, people have biases and prejudices and all kinds of ridiculous and unconscious notions that fall outside of the Newbery/Caldecott criteria, but they are not a part of the discussion, and as such they really cannot explain why a committee reached a certain decision because it's a mistake to think that the committee is of one mind about anything.

Yes, they come to a consensus decision on the books that are chosen, but not a consensus on the unchosen books. Thus, while KT may have a major problem with the illustrations in a book, and Roger may have a major problem with the text, I may just like other books better, and then of course, you're checking everybody's bank account. Four different reasons for not picking the same book.

Andy Laties said...

Ouch. I do so love a good conspiracy theory! Oh cruel disabuse.

Great point about the chosen/unchosen consensus thing.

Lolly R said...

As a member of a recent Caldecott Committee I can only draw on that one experience. There are all sorts of restrictions on what I am allowed to say about it so I will tread carefully.

We were a diligent and hard-working committee and as that last weekend of discussions began we felt awed and a little tongue-tied by the enormity of what we were doing. But once we started discussing each book (hundreds of books and very intense) all we talked about each time was THE BOOK. In fact, there are rules about not being able to mention other books from other years during our deliberations, and that includes other books by the person whose book you are discussing. I can only speak for myself, but not a single thought went into WHO this award was going to. After the final vote I did think about having to defend the choice later, but my thoughts were about defending the BOOK not the person. When it came time to write the press releases, we honestly did not know for certain which of these folks had won what in the past.

My tunnel vision (i.e. books only) during that weekend was the most extreme I have ever experienced. I suspect it was a lot like being in a sequestered jury: we went home each night dog tired and had to be back in the conference room at 8 the next morning.

I suppose I will sound hopelessly naive when I say that I was flabbergasted so many people assumed the award and honor books were based on anything else. Yes, I've been in this business for 25 years and should have known better. But this was the first time I really understood how completely off-base those assumptions are.

It's certainly possible that not every committee takes their instructions as seriously as we did, but having done so and still had to deal with all the Monday morning quarterbacks, I have to say it was a real eye-opener.

Andy Laties said...

Great testimony. I yield to superior (and more current) experience.

Jane said...

Well, Andy--I was afraid that people were going to think that that I was the oft published author in question till I realized that since I'd been married to a West Virginian college professor of little money, it couldn't possibly be me!

Just to scotch any Other Rumors than might be running around there.

Jane

rindambyers said...

Kerfuffle? Did you make that word up? Is it for common use now? Lovely word!

You'd think, once in a while, folks would be excited, happy, etc., to see a book, instead of a movie or a music video or music CD, now and again win a little award here and there.....I suppose some folks simply must grubble, no matter what...

Jane said...

Kerfuffle IS a lovely word, and I--for one--have used it for years. Not to worry. You can borrow it whenever necessary.

Do you know "taraddidles"? It means extended lies.

And "blevit",which is one-and-a-half units in a one unit container. Sort of like my life right now.

Jane

Elizabeth said...

I am really enjoying these posts, and seeing all these views aired. KT's point that I haven't read all the books nominated for the Printz last year is a good one--publishers are an incredibly biased lot, biased toward the books we've worked on and loved, or the authors or artists we know so well, and all that gets us, in terms of this discussion, is the right to wallow in our indignation when something we loved didn't get what we hoped. Marnie Hodgkin, the former head of Collins children's books who worked many years ago for the legendary May Massee at Viking, used to say of Ms. Massee "All her geese were swans." Yeah, we're biased.

Roger Sutton said...

Our blog discussions came up last night when R and I had some friends over to watch the Tony Awards. One question being tossed around was whether The Pajama Game beat Sweeney Todd for best musical revival because out-of-town producers wanted to hype it for a road tour. We'll never know, of course, but a big difference between the Tonys or Oscars and the Newbery is the method of choosing a winner. The former have hundreds of people voting discretely; the last involves hours of discussion by fifteen judges in closed sessions, which means that it is less likely that a hidden agenda could win the day.

Nina said...

Yes I'm way behind here, but in case anyone is still reading this fascinating thread...I'll just say that in my experiences on the Newbery committee, when it comes down to the final choice, the author as a person doesn't matter a whit. I think that through the year as we assembled our lists of favorites, all kinds of biases probably waffled through the atmosphere. However--we get the best books assembled, then talk them nearly to death, and the strongest books take on their own lives and personalities. In the end, who cares who wrote it?