Friday, April 22, 2005

Judging Pen/Faulkner

I recently had the pleasure (sort of) of being one of the judges for the Pen/Faulkner Awards. It was a pleasure in many ways and certainly an honor. I only say "sort of" because receiving and reading 370-some books of fiction is a daunting prospect. It's terribly hard to give all those books fair consideration. In a way it's impossible and fairness has nothing to do with it. The best you can do as a judge is... Well, it's to do the best you can do, to take the responsibility seriously and to try to be as impartial and as broadminded as possible.

The other judges were Herbert Gold and Kathryn Harrison. We were all very different writers coming from very different perspectives, but I think in the end we worked well together. Instead of being the sort of ego battle these things often are we managed to listen to each other, to compromise, to think of the totality of the finalist list instead of getting too caught up with our own favorites. Without a doubt, some wonderful books didn't make it on to the list. Maybe I'll mention some of my favorites at a later date.

But I'm content with the list and the winner we came up with. They are The Green Lantern by Jerome Charyn, The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Prisoners of War by Steve Yarbrough. And the winner was War Trash by Ha Jin.

Among other things, I said this about War Trash...

"At the conclusion of War Trash I sat in awe at the journey Ha Jin's understated words had taken me on: travails of enormous political and personal complicity, wrung through with emotion that somehow manages to be both melancholy and clear-eyed, a story so complete in its breadth and depth that it stretches from the half-forgotten Korean war of the last century to the contemporary America of The Simpsons. I knew without question that War Trash was not only a great novel; it was an award winner of the highest order."

I also wrote the citation for Prisoners of War. Saying this...

"Yarbrough asks us to look at difficult aspects of our shared social history. He shows just how deeply people's lives are entwined, often so mysteriously that the players themselves cannot recognize the bonds. And he manages all this with writing that is deceptively humble, quietly sophisticated. Characters develop through their own words and deeds - even when one of these things contradicts the other - with subtlety and humor that almost masks the accurate depths of his portraiture. He is a compassionate writer who most rewards a careful reader, one who'll take the time to turn his prose over sentence by sentence."

And I wrote the citation for The Dew Breaker...

"Danticat draws brief, poignant sketches of her characters. She juxtaposes the crimes of the past with their aftermath and focuses on the emotional resonance that lingers on over lifetimes. We are reminded of the incredible resilience of the human character, even as we're asked to look into the face evil. The dew breaker may be the pivot around which these stories revolve, but this novel is really about how all these troubled characters share in the ongoing tragic drama that is Haiti."

So, we had some good books up there. I'm also proud of the diversity of the list. We had male and female writers, white, black, Asian writers, from the north, south, west and even one living abroad. Far too often book awards show a limited perspective on what our national literature is. I'm glad that we looked more broadly than that. And the thing is that it's not really that hard to come up with a diverse list. There are many worthy books written by a variety of people in the country every year. As judges we have only to require ourselves to look broadly. If you do the books will appear.

I don't think its necessary to have any sort of token system either. Of course I hoped to have books on the list by people of color. This meant that I looked and read carefully on that account. But if the books weren't there I wouldn't have pushed for lesser works to fill some designated slots. It can happen more organically than that. If you begin the search with the assumption that there ARE good books by people of color out there then there's a good chance you're going to find them AND/OR know them when you see them. Of course, it wasn't hard to find either Ha Jin or Edwidge Danticat. They were both deservedly on lists all over the place - except for the National Book Awards, of course.

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