Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Who Gets to Win

Britain's Commission for Racial Equality, a government funded watchdog and advocacy group, takes issue with the Decibel Penguin Prize, an Arts Council-funded contest for short stories from U.K. writers from Asian, African, or Caribbean backgrounds. (Thanks to Galleycat for the link.)

The debate sounds familiar. And while Marc Aronson (and Andrea Pinkney in her response) did much to throw light upon it, we aren't done with it yet. But being done with it is precisely not the point, I suppose.


Mitali Perkins said...

I read this article, too, and posted about my reluctance to see an identity-based award for those of us "of Asian descent" in the children's lit world: Ethnic Book Awards: Discriminatory or Necessary.

Andy Laties said...

Well I've said it before about a year ago on this site but I'm in favor of tons and tons of different awards because that means tons and tons of stickers to put on the front of books and stupidly enough, readers pay inordinate attention to the existence of a sticker on the front of a book. And buyers for stores (and libraries) pay attention too. They know absolutely nothing about the awards process -- they just know that the book won SOME award.

When I set out to write a book, because I am a bookseller, I knew that it would HAVE to win an award and I entered it in some fairly obscure awards programs and paid entry fees, and by golly it did in fact win an award from Independent Publisher Magazine whose awards program is so very generous with stickers for small press books. Including the runners-up, I think there must be 300 titles each year that end up entitled to put stickers onto their books. My book was Best Book of the year on the subject of Writing & Publishing and this was one of about 75 categories that had winners and runners up. Boy do people look differently at my book since it has a swell gold sticker on the front. And I can tell people that I wrote an award-winning book. So what if it's a weirdo, obscure award and I had to pay an entry fee? The readers are oblivious to this. Strangely enough.

Am I cynical? Not at all. I spend my time trying to persuade people to buy and read good books. Ethnic authors, specific subjects, era-specific, genre-specific, values-promoting, age-level-appropriate -- I want plenty of awards for every decent author. I do not care about these arguments about whether a certain kind of award discriminates or plays favorites or leaves someone out. That just means we need more awards. I want every decent book to have a sticker on the front because of the BEHAVIOR that sticker elicits in readers, NOT because of the "meaning" of the sticker to anyone else, anywhere else in the book production process. Sorry if the feelings of some author are bruised. Sorry if the government of England misunderstands Book-Marketing 101. "Everyone has won and all must have prizes," saith the Dodo. (Just do NOT tell the general public that such a system is essentially in place.)

fern said...

It all just sounded like "so why isn't there a white (or men's) history month?" to me when I read the comments from readers under the article. (As part of the captive audience of a college newspaper, I'm very familiar with this particular bit of sophomoric argumentation.) It seems to me that there are perfectly good reasons for looking for "literary quality"--and for looking to see what it might look like--from folks in all different parts of the venn diagram, especially if those folks have not had access to the spotlight in the past. You don't level a playing field by declaring that starting now it is level. Books by ethnic minority authors serve multiple purposes for all sorts of readers. As long as the sticker identifies the prize focus reasonably clearly, buyers can decide for themselves whether the shiny label is the kind of seal of approval that's useful to them or just another one of those insidious "special privileges" that have made being white/male/straight so much more stressful than it used to be.

Andy Laties said...

Well, I must say, that speaking as your token White/Male/Straight person, yeah, sure, all you "others" are a threat, of course, but, I can still OWN the company that sells "your" books and still make a profit off all you freaks and weirdos and (oh, I forgot that I'm a Jew. Can I come back into the room now?)

rindawriter said...

I feel horridly confused when I hear this debate yet agin restated, wondering why it is that the differences between us as human beings are always, always more important to us than the things that we share--or could share--did we consider them to more important to our relationships than our differences.

An as always, I feel pain, the echo of great pain, passed down in my mixed race family from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother to me...and now even to those younger than I. It's hard to describe the depth of that kind of pain...being disliked and even deeply hated by members two or more races simply because you're a mixture of all of them. That's the hate my grandmother had to endure all of her long life.

For anyone interested, genetic scientists aren't using "race" as a scientific term anymore when describing a person's genetic heritage......I saw a whole long show about it on PBS. It was quite a shock to one African-American professor to find out that, genticially, he was 50 percent white....

As far as awards are concerned....we need to be making bridges--not boundaries.

Roger Sutton said...

In the excellent post on her blog linked above Mitali (and joined by Rinda here) makes the point that it's only going to get harder to tell who is what, and I too would be uneasy deciding who is or isn't genetically qualified for a book award.

Andy says the more prizes (and resulting stickers) the better, but won't we reach a point where both cynicism and pervasive stickering will defeat the purpose? The point of a sticker is to highlight a book, but if they all have stickers the distinction is lost.

Andy Laties said...

Well -- of course my posts are partly in jest. The issues are important and I didn't really address them one bit. I figure that since I'm the voice for Profit and Capital here that I should at least throw those perspectives on the table. In truth I'm happy to have people with a conscience and a sense of moral goodness insisting on fighting back against the pure-play marketing. However, in answer to Roger's question about what happens when every book has a sticker on the front: in fact many books DO now have stickers on the front, saying things like "By The Author Of Goodnight Moon" for a rather weak book, or, "Now A Major Motion Picture" for a rather weak book, or "New Revised Edition" for a book no-one ever heard of in the first place. The stickers really do help sell books, and if every book had a sticker the bookstore might look more like a supermarket but shoppers would quite possibly buy more books. My point about how I wish lots more books had gold stickers is best attacked by simply saying that I completely missed the point. So what if I'm in favor of much much better marketing of books to customers? This doesn't mean we should do it by developing new ways of highlighting the ethnic differentiation of authors and readers. We could just as easily put a sticker on a book that said, "Best Book Published On July 18, 2003" of "Best Book By An Author Who Works At A Children's Museum". If the sticker were pretty enough -- that would still satisfy me.

I have said nothing of relevance to this conversation and now accept being booted out of the room again.

Lynn said...

Much of the worth and/or significance of said sticker depends on who is giving the award. Purchasing those specific titles for a library is not always a given, but depends largely on how they fit in to the collection policy and curriculum use of the book. For example, I'm not a big fan of the Children's Choice award books, but an intructor here uses them each term for a literature class. I support the curriculum and buy the books.

It is often difficult to purchase a good book where the character's just happen to be of a different ethnic backgound as opposed to one written specifically to hightlight the same. While more diverse quality literature is the answer, does not some sort of award system (if not frivilous) help promote the literature itself?

(Here's hoping that made a modicum of sense ...)

Andy Laties said...

I just received a catalog in the mail from a company that specializes in "Employee Recognition" awards. The awards you can buy for dispensing among employees are for a wide variety of characteristics, and it reminds me that Americans love to give and get awards. When you check out of the chain office supply store there are Employee Of The Month photos on the wall for the past year and surely every employee in the place has been honored.

I believe that THIS is the problem. The culture is so inundated with prizes and awards that there's a reverse psychology in play among readers and book-selectors (librarians, teachers, booksellers). It's not so much "Oh look, this won an award" but "If it didn't win an award it must not be any good". BECAUSE pretty much anything can get an award these days.

It's too late to stop this. The damage to the credibility of awards processes in general has been done. (And, remember that even for the biggie prizes in the world -- well -- Henry Kissinger has got a Nobel Peace Prize!)

From this standpoint, the ethnic awards programs are dumb because can't we just think of some OTHER basis on which to give fine books Yet Another Award??

And yet -- I return to the hard facts of the market -- and to the simple irritating truth that book-buyers do self-select their market segment. Marketers don't really make up the concept of market segmentation. It appears to be a good outcome of hard statistical analysis of consumer behavior.

I have an African-American section in my bookstores, and I group the relevant books there. I've been criticized periodically for this practice. When I opened my first store, in 1985, I integrated all the books alphabetically by author and didn't have an Af-Am breakout section. For two years, every few days, upon request of a teacher or parent, I systematically went through my store and plucked out books with Af-Am characters, for these buyers who wanted to see such. Finally I caved and created the separate section. Sales of those books went up, and those customers no longer needed to request assistance. The market segment existed. I had to cater to its needs. Theory be damned: practice will out.

rindawriter said...

Andy, I won't be the one to boot you out of the sandbox....I am not infalliable myself to the lure of stickers...although I am making myself read the fine print on them more often now...but it's hard not to desire a book with a big, round, perfect, gold or silver or coppery colored, richly embossed STICKER on it...with the book just sitting there, you know, silently screaming "own me, own me! You'll look so intelligent, so CLASSY owning me..."

Anonymous said...

And so there is the story of a third grade teacher who bought a number of titles from the "awards shelf" of her local independent bookstore. She wanted to have her class choose the book she would next read aloud to her class. (ignore for the moment the practice of having third graders vote on the class read aloud or the teacher not reading the book ahead of time; that is a matter for another time and place) Her practice is to read the back covers aloud to the class so they can decide what they would like to hear.
The first is sounding pretty good until she reads something about the boy who learns about himself and his sexuality. ("Ohh, too much lovey-dovey stuff in this one," she quickly dismisses, her face reddening." She grabs the next one, starts to read and instantly puts it aside." The students question, "Too much lovey stuff??" She says, "yes" and moves one.
The titles of these two award winners?

Looking for Alaska
Postcards from No Man's Land

The class chose "The White Stag."
Just can't make stuff like this up.

Reading beyond the award sticker is hard for some folks. Blinded by the light of the shiny sticker...


miriam said...

My 2 cents - my sister (a teacher-librarian)has a display every year of the short list of Children's Book Council (Australia) awards before the winners are announced. Except for one book in the past 10 years, the children in her library have never chosen what the experts considered to be the winner. Maybe why we have several awards here which are chosen by hundreds of school children from each state.(& which rarely match titles chosen by the experts).