The news that Coke Newell’s novel On the Road to Heaven won Best Novel at the new Whitney Awards could have interesting implications for the LDS market, at least in my wishful thinking. Since the novel also won the Association for Mormon Letters’ Novel award earlier this year, Newell’s work is clearly the consensus novel of the year, and is the first to take that honor.
But despite the apparent universal honor for the book, the book still doesn’t appear even in Deseret Book and Seagull Book’s online websites (let alone their actual stores). Why, On the Road to Heaven is published by Zarahemla Books, a relatively new LDS press and aparently one that the large LDS chains don’t think they should pay attention to.
The problem is particularly interesting, given that the Whitney Awards are selected by a broad range of industry participants, instead of a small group of academics.
Awards tend to be divided into two rough camps. First, and more traditionally, are what I call “academic” awards. These awards are selected by a jury (usually just a few people) who have either academic or other qualifications relevant to the award. Most often these are either academics or critics. Well-known awards that operate like this include the Nobel Prize and the Pulitzer Prize. In the Mormon markets we have the AML awards and the Mormon History Association awards that are run this way.
The second system for deciding awards is much more democratic. Members of an industry group or some cross-section of the industry, sometimes including thousands of people, vote on the books that have been nominated, which also tend to come from a broad group in the industry that can nominate. In film, the Academy Awards operate this way, as do the People’s Choice Awards, and a host of other well-known awards. In our case, we have both the Pearl Awards (given by the Faith Centered Music Association) and now the Whitney Awards that are run in this fashion.
I’m NOT trying to claim that one system is better than the other. Both have strengths and drawbacks. Academic systems can come across as elitist or out-of-touch with the public, but they can also be much more consistent and be based on clear standards. The popular awards tend to be more fickle, based on fads and popularity (who still believes that Titanic was the best movie of the year in 1997?), and they seem ready to divide the awards into an ever-increasing number of sub-categories. But these popular awards are also more responsive to the public and more in touch with the public feeling.
With the advent of the Whitney Awards, we now have both academic and popular awards in place for fiction and literary works. That is a huge improvement, IMO. What one award system misses because of its weaknesses, the other is likely to pick up. And I have to conclude that a consensus pick, like On the Road to Heaven, says a lot.
[Although, since the Whitney Awards are new, they probably don't carry as much weight as they will (I hope). For what it's worth, On the Road to Heaven is the only work on both award lists].
Given this environment, I now wonder exactly what the effect of a consensus between these two awards systems will have. Supposedly the managers of each Deseret Book and Seagull Book store votes in the Whitney Awards (they have a right to — don’t know if they did or not). It is certainly true that winning an AML award hasn’t necessarily led to Deseret Book carrying a title. But if their managers are participating, I would expect that to lead to carrying the award winners.
It is in the best interest of the Whitney Awards’ sponsors to see that the award winners are available as widely as possible, and that retailers promote them as Whitney Award winners. So perhaps Deseret Book will be under a bit more pressure to carry Whitney Award titles.
In the end, however, I’m not quite sure that Deseret Book and Seagull will actually comply. I hope that they will, and I think it is in their best interest. Awards do sell books.