An open letter to the Whitney Awards Committee

10.17.12 | | 16 comments

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I’m a big fan of the Whitney Awards. I think they’ve filled a need with great success and have been managed professionally and sensibly. I’m always certain to nominate books I read that qualify and are deserving, and every year intend to actually act on my Academy membership and vote a category, but never quite succeed.

I do have two suggestions that I believe would further improve the Whitneys which I would like to humbly present publicly, in order to invite an open discussion of my suggestions’ merits.

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Suggestion the first: Expand the borders of date eligibility

I know this has been frequently offered to you and that, no doubt, you have considered how to implement it. And so far you’ve stuck with the simplest solution which is just to remain at “Publication date must be between January 1st and December 31st of the award year.” (All quotations from rules accessed Oct. 11, 2012 at this page.) It’s simple and clear and understandable and inadequate.

The problem is that any book released in January has an enormously better chance of being read while nominations are open than a book released Christmas weekend. That’s just a fact.

Last year the big “controversy” was David Clark’s The Death of a Disco Dancer, released in late October and was widely beloved. It was not a finalist and although it did receive enough nominations, it’s non-finalistiness was widely perceived as resulting from too few people reading the novel in time.

The secondary “controversy” (whined about by the same group) was the non-finalist status of Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab. My understanding is that novel was insufficiently nominated.

Adjusting the publication dates would solve both that Disco Dancer‘s perception problem and Moab‘s not-enough-people-had-read-it-yet problem.

Here’s my suggestion for new rule language: “Publication date must be between January 1st of the year prior to the award year and December 31st of the award year. Any book nominated enough times to qualify for the Preliminary Awards Ballot in its first year of eligibility will not be eligible for nomination in its second year.”

Thus books with late-year releases will not be penalized merely because of their release date.

Please consider this change in language as I’ve just purchased Courtney Miller Santo’s The Roots of the Olive Tree and James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus—both of which I anticipate adoring but neither of which do I anticipate reading before nominations close. (Alas! I am too busy rewriting my own novel which, if plans hold, should be out . . . in December. Natch.)

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Suggestion the second: expand the borders beyond novel novels

By which I mean this:

Definition: “novel” in these rules refers to a work of fiction that is at least 50,000 words in length.

With an exception for YA novels (“greater than 20,000 words”), this is all that the Whitney Awards award. And I certainly do not want to suggest that the judges be forced to spread themselves too thin—they are already heroically reading an enormous amount of literature to keep this show running. I do want to suggest that the Whitneys consider a miscellaneous category.

One novel I nominated this year logs only 30, 000 words. So it’s out. Last year—remember Monsters & Mormons?—that was a great book. But a collection, not a novel. Ineligible. And what about graphic novels? We’ve seen some great ones from Mormons of late!

So my suggestion is that the Whitneys offer an award to Worthy Miscellany. Works clearly worthy of the recognition, but not novels. Let them remain ineligible for the Novel of the Year and maybe even Best Novel by a New Author awards—but so many worthy novellas and collections and comics should not be overlooked.

How to fit this into the current paradigm is a much more complicated question, but here’s a suggestion:

Any sufficiently nominated work that meets the requirements of 2b (dates of eligibility) and 2c (a member or members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), but does not meet the definition of the novel may be considered for the Worthy Miscellany award. Judges assigned to any genre may read works in the Worthy Miscellany as they have time. If at least 15 judges rate the works and find at least three works worthy of being considered finalists, then Worthy Miscellany will be a category presented to the Academy’s vote.

Just a thought.

Thank you for your time and kindly consideration. I appreciate all you do and hope my suggestions have been presented in a way that reveals my respect and continued support for your efforts.

16 comments: “An open letter to the Whitney Awards Committee

  1. William Morris

    In regards to request one: I suggest that independent Mormon fiction publishers who want to be nominated for the award publish their novels no later than the end of September, and that they and the author work to make sure that the novel gets the minimum nominations needed. To me the onus is on the publisher and the author — the committee has created a rather low threshold for consideration.

    As for request two: I have some sympathy for it, but the category is too nebulous to be useful, comparing across genres is difficult, and I don’t know that the market produces enough works for it to really be meaningful. I’m already hesitant about the split in the YA category. In my opinion, YA speculative books should be part of the overall speculative fiction category.

  2. Rob Wells

    I’m no longer in charge of the Whitneys, so none of this is official policy, but it’s kind of the reasoning I had in mind when I made the current rules:

    1) I can see this as a concern, certainly. Especially for authors whose books get released December 26th (as Jeff Savage’s will be this year). I wouldn’t be opposed to a more flexible time schedule. On the other hand, time has proven again and again that an author can very easily rally their friends to quickly nab five nominations. (I know that’s far from perfect, and it hurts authors who aren’t specifically trying to get nominated.)

    2) This has been one rule that we always stuck with tightly: that the Whitneys are for novels only: no anthologies, no novellas, no poetry, etc. We always figured that it’s better to focus on one thing and do it well, than to spread too thin and exhaust our resources. (In this case, our resources are mainly manpower: it’s awfully hard to find willing judges to read all the nominees.)

    There’s also a problem with a Miscellany category about how to judge it: how do you truly compare a short story anthology to a graphic novel? While I admit that comparing ANY two books will always be subjective and unscientific, a Miscellany category really seems to be comparing apples and oranges. It really seems like a can of worms that we never wanted to touch.

    All of that said, Heather Moore runs the show now. She gets to make the tough decisions. :)

  3. William Morris

    I will say, though, that I think there’s room in the field for some recognition of short stories. What the AML does is inadequate, imo.

  4. Th.

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    Rob—

    In your experience, what percentage of the nominations do you think come from “friends” rather than “readers”?

    Because while I agree that, in the Facebook era, just about everyone could get five friends to nominate (and in a matter of hours), I would imagine that getting five readers to nominate will inherently take longer. Which is why I don’t agree with William that the threshold is low enough to compensate for the time issue. It’s fine for those who just care about getting nominated, but maybe not for those who only want to be nominated if they, quote/unquote, deserve it.

    Granted, I think the post-nomination process prevents the Whitneys from becoming a popularity contest, but I don’t know how many unpopular kids get to that stage.

  5. Luisa Perkins

    Good if problematic input, Theric.

    I am not on the committee anymore, but if I were, I’d suggest your name to the chairperson as a future committee member.

  6. Heather Moore

    Some of my thoughts (as 2012 Whitney President):
    1. Expand borders of dates of eligibility. As a committee, we’ve discussed this many times. A book that is published early in the year, or even through Oct/November, certainly has a better chance of being read and nominated of course (each book requires 5 nominations in order to advance to judges round). Authors who know their book is coming out in December can send out their review manuscripts to reviewers and (hopefully) procure nominations that way. We also accept nominations on books that aren’t officially published yet, as long as that publication date will be in 2012. Many of the national publishers will send out ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) and we’ll get nominations off of those.

    2. The Death of a Disco Dancer. I’m not sure why there is a controversy about David Clark’s The Death of a Disco Dancer. I was on the committee in 2011 and I remember that being an excellent book. Just because it came out at the end of October doesn’t mean it didn’t get any less consideration from the judges. It went to the judges round like all of the others in its category and had the same weighted consideration. The judges had until the end of January 2012 to read the 2011 books and cast their votes. Many of the fall and late fall 2011 books became finalists. Also, it might be interesting for people to know that although the tallies are computer generated, if there are very close numbers, we do a physical recount. Many times there is just a point or two difference between a finalist and the next place down.

    3. Steven Peck’s The Scholar of Moab. My recommendation to any author is that if he/she has a late year release and would love to be considered for a Whitney Award, to take the opportunity to send out review copies early and include in a nice letter to your reviewers information about nominating the book if the reviewer is so inclined.

    4. Expanding the eligibility dates. As mentioned above, this has been discussed multiple times. The consensus is that there are so many books being nominated and so many books advancing to the judges’ rounds that a 12 month cycle is the most sensible. In 2011, we had over 45 books nominated in the YA Speculative category alone. This prompted us to add a Middle Grade category for 2012, but only after careful consideration of past, current and future trends. And by the numbers that are coming in so far in 2012, YA Speculative will still be a very large and very competitive category. Another huge category is Romance. Incidentally all of the categories continue to grow as self-publishing grows.

    5. Compilations or collections eligible? The Whitney Awards is currently focused on honoring novel-length books which of course you know. There are many other categories that could be considered if we lifted that requirement. The question has come up often and one of the big deterrents is manpower, and the other big deterrent is having enough books published in a sub-genre to make the category competitive, therefore keeping the award a great honor. Adding any category means it needs to be sustained for a good number of years in order to maintain the integrity of the award and not to make it seem willy nilly with back and forth changes each year. We added the Middle Grade category in 2012 after seeing trends for the past 2-3 years in the Middle Grade genre growing, and the fact that most Middle Grade authors write 3-5 book series, makes it a good change that we can hopefully sustain.

    6. Expanding to other categories. This is continually under consideration and discussion. Just as the Middle Grade category, we are watching trends and seeing if new categories can be added, and then subsequently supported with staff and judges. We are always open to suggestions, such as the suggested “Worthy Miscellany,” and ideas that might put a specific genre on our radar. But I do agree with some of the other comments that it would be difficult for a judge to determine the best of the best between publications that are quite different if the only thing in common is a shorter length.

  7. Katya

    It was not a finalist and although it did receive enough nominations, its non-finalistiness was widely perceived as resulting from too few people reading the novel in time.

    I don’t understand this causality. Are you saying that the judges didn’t make it a finalist because there wasn’t enough buzz surrounding the work? (You aren’t suggesting that the judges didn’t actually read it, right?)

  8. William Morris

    I think the perception was that it didn’t even get nominated.It did get nominated, but wasn’t selected as a finalist. Which is a different issue, albeit one that fans of the novel might still find problematic.

    edited because I misunderstood what Katya was responding too

  9. Emily M.

    Interesting suggestions, Theric. I would have liked to see Monsters and Mormons recognized too.

    My biggest suggestion is to split the General Fiction category into General Fiction and Inspirational Fiction. I don’t know that I actually see this happening, but I can dream a little.

    Here’s why: inspirational fiction, i.e. fiction toldb with an overtly didactic/moral purpose, is really its own thing. It has a centuries-long tradition, in fact. And whenever I read a General category that’s dominated with inspirational/didactic books, I automatically move them to the bottom of my rankings, because I don’t like being preached at.

    But that’s not really fair to those books, which may be good representatives of their genre. It’s just not a genre I happen to like. It’s also not fair when people who love inspirational fiction automatically privilege that over general fiction.

    Separating the categories would help this problem. I doubt there will ever be a dearth of inspirational fiction in the LDS market, and this would open up the General category so that some of the indie favorites have a better chance at recognition.

    Having said that, I have a great deal of respect for Rob, Josi, Heather, and everyone who works to make the Whitneys possible. It’s never going to please everyone in every way, but I think overall the Whitneys are excellent, and I appreciate the many hours that go into making them possible.

  10. Th.

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    Which, Emily, is why I’m so grateful to get these responses. I think for the Whitneys to maintain their cachet, they need to be discussed now and then.

    Although I still wish that a Worthy Miscellany-esque idea would work, I know it really isn’t. I just find it frustrating because each year since the Whitney’s second year, I’ve been aware of a crazy worthy book that didn’t quite qualify. Alas.

    Katya: I was trying to talk about realities and perceptions of realities at the same time. Which can be confusing.

    Emily again: I think giving inspirational its own category is a terrific suggestion. I also think it would “legitimize” the Whitneys among those who dismiss the prevalence of inspirational fiction in the general category. And I want the Whitney’s to be treated as legitimate by all comers.

    Alternate open-window suggestion:

    The Best American series (rules vary by book) gives a window, say, September to August while nominations are open until December. That way, even a book released at the end of eligibility still has six months to garner nominations. Perhaps leaving the eligibility window open, while extending the time to nominate until midyear would be a more elegant solution. Of course, that gets in the way of current LDStorymakers scheduling, but perhaps that’s a more manageable alteration?

  11. Katya

    Katya: I was trying to talk about realities and perceptions of realities at the same time. Which can be confusing.

    Or Borgesian. (Even though you don’t like him, as I recall.)

    So, were you saying “Some people were so surprised that it wasn’t a finalist, they assumed it must not have been nominated at all, because if it had been nominated, it would surely have been a finalist?”

  12. William Morris

    You know, if there is a crazy worthy book out there that is award worthy but not eligible or unlikely to receive a Whitney award, there is the option of dropping the AML Board a line recommending they take a look at it.

  13. Christian Sorensen

    What if, instead of lengthening the nomination period, there was a consideration to shorten it? Meaning, instead of a January 2 release having 363 days to garner its nominations while a December 26 only has 6, every book gets 30 or 60 days from date of publication. This would level the buzz field and also more naturally pace the judges in their reading.

  14. Th.

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    That’s a pretty interesting idea. I think I would like 90 days better to allow books time to get noticed, but most books, traditionally, are noticed at first or not at all, so why not?

  15. Jessie

    The problem with eligibility periods is that no matter how you shift them around, there will always be some books that are around for a longer period of time than others. I’m not yet convinced that ‘buzz’ for a book is influencing the voting; the 5-nominations threshold is fairly low and is not hard to achieve, even for a book published at the end of the year.

    I do, however, like the suggestion to split the Fiction category because it can be very hard to try and judge between books written for different purposes and with different audiences in mind. Based solely on the books that did make it to the finals, it appears that last year’s judges did not have a book like ‘Death of a Disco Dancer’ in mind at all when deciding what constitutes ‘award-worthy’ fiction.

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