Regarding Recognition

This year’s Lambda Literary Award finalists in gay poetry are

darkacre, by Greg Hewett (Coffee House Press)
Other Flowers: Uncollected Poems, by James Schuyler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Pleasure, by Brian Teare (Ahsahta Press)
The Salt Ecstasies: Poems, by James L. White (Graywolf Press)
then, we were still living, by Michael Klein (GenPop Books)

There were 33 submissions for this award. Of the 33, 7 were either collected, selected, or otherwise edited volumes of work by one or more poets. And to my knowledge, only 1 of the submissions was a republication of an existing volume of work.

The critique I offer here is not of the Lambda Literary Foundation, the judges who selected these volumes, or of the writers I am going to discuss. Instead, I want to critique a practice in the literary community of awarding significant prizes, money, and recognition to volumes of work that I feel are somewhat counterproductive to recognize.

Of the 52 years the National Book Award has been given, it has recognized a Collected, Selected, Selected and New, or Complete poems of a single author 23 times, or slightly less than half of the time.

Of the 91 Pulitzer Prizes awarded for poetry, a volume of this type has received the award only 22 times (or 24% of awards).

Of the 35 National Book Critics Circle Awards, a volume of this type has received the award only twice, or 5% of the time.

Although it has often seemed to me on an anecdotal level that awards are more often granted to republications (in whatever form) of previously published work, this is really only the case when it comes to the National Book Award, which is almost dominated by this type of publication.

On one level, it seems unfair and a bit unethical to pit “the best” or “all” of an author’s body of work, when published as a single volume, against a new volume of perhaps more varied work by another writer. But then this gets down to what I feel are my core values relating to awards: that they should support the best contemporary work rather than the best career, and these are not often the same thing.

The poets who tend to win with their omnibus or selected collections tend to be canonized writers; that is to say, they are white men and women (but, historically men) who write in a specific mode, often the dominant mode of their era. It’s clearly not a stretch to see that work that interrogates the dominant mode or in other ways works against it is rarely recognized, even when it may be of higher quality.

Awards of this nature, by virtue of their naming and their scope, purport to recognize “the best” book published in a given year. By extension, “the best” book becomes, for many, an essential read. It becomes, over time, a cultural touchstone for our historical moment, our experience, our sensibilities, particularly when this award purports to speak for the body of artists and readers as a whole.

From the three examinations above, it’s clear that the various organizations seem to have different philosophies about what work to recognize. Are we to assume by these numbers that the National Book Award is, in intent and act, recognizing significant careers, while the National Book Critics Circle Award is more effective at recognizing individual works of merit? It would seem to be the case, and perhaps the balance these organizations bring to the “big 3” is meaningful for that reason.

I’m disappointed that James White’s The Salt Ecstasies is a finalist for the Lambda award this year. But not because the work does not have merit; in fact, this book was especially important to me when I first encountered it and I am absolutely thrilled it has reappeared as part of Mark Doty’s Re/View Series through Graywolf Press. However, the book was originally published in 1982 and, while it includes some supplemental writings (diary entries and an introduction from Doty), it is relatively unchanged from its original publication.

This book’s status as a finalist, more importantly, has supplanted another poet’s opportunity for recognition. Of the 33 submissions for the award, there were numerous other worthy volumes deserving of a place in the finalist circle. Poets whose careers would be enriched by this recognition. Poets who, over time, are likely to become more widely known and appreciated poets of our time.

It may be of interest to note that, to my eye, in no other Lambda Literary Award category this year has another republished or collected/selected/complete volume of an author’s work has been recognized as a finalist. Only in poetry.

I’m interested in knowing other perspectives on this–what are some arguments in favor of recognizing republished work for these awards? Please share.

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