The greatest fault of literary awards is that they, like the review industry, are largely directed at new writing. There is no reason why the “best” books should be “new” books. Whereas commercial fiction is topical, trendy, and has a very short shelf life, literary fiction is not. If an industry supporting quality writing is to succeed in this changing publishing world, it must distinguish itself from the fashion industry where being “the latest” is every thing. A new philosophy for literary fiction publishing must focus on the maturing title as well as the new one.
It takes time to write novels. Novelists tend to lose half their friends in the process. They come out of writing a novel like a convict coming out of an extended solitary confinement. The word “marketing” hasn’t crossed their minds and if it did, not in connection with their literature, which is simply going to be spontaneously “recognized.” Before long they become aware of the award system out there, and they adjust their expectations and get to work. It takes time to win awards. There are not that many available, and so thousands of books are trotting around in front of a handful of judges. Statistically this is not good. An author might have to try the same award a couple of times before his book gets in front of a judge that likes the work. To make matters worse the notification cycle is typically longer than the human gestation period. The author has about as good a chance getting published by a small press as winning an award, and if he gets a publishing contract, he is out of the biggest part of the awards race which focuses on unpublished writing.
Many prizes for novels are offered by small presses, which are looking for books to publish, so obviously those have to be “new” in the sense of unpublished. But the “prize” is usually around $1000-$3000, tending more toward the lower end, and a contract to publish. So they’re not actually awarding your book so much as buying it, cheap. Which is not to say that small presses are cheap. Small press publishers and editors are probably even poorer than poets–if you can imagine that–and more selfless and underappreciated. The simple truth is literary fiction novels by unknown, albeit award-winning, authors are expected to lose money.
There are few prizes offered for novels by organizations other than presses, and most of those awards are offered either for a best first novel or best novel published that year. What about a best third or fourth novel? A best five-year-old novel? What should we do about all those books that have fallen through the cracks in this publishing and award system?
Dactyl Foundation (where I am director) is trying to remedy this problem with a website dedicated to literary fiction and an award of $1000, no strings attached. The only requirement is that another literary fiction writer has to nominate your book by reviewing it. So to all those novelists who were busy doing something else the year your book came out (like writing, for example) and missed the contest deadlines, and to all those novelists whose book came out on Sept 10th, 2001 or some other such unlucky date, here’s a chance for you to get the recognition your great book deserves.
Here’s more info www.dactylreview.com. Winners of the award will then become part of a community that will help select subsequent winners.