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Ahem, dear National Book Foundation…

It’s early Saturday morning, and I’ve been up for a while trying to write a blurb for a new collection of short stories that will be coming out from Northern Illinois University Press. Something That Feels Like Truth by Donald Lystra. Look for it. You’ll like it. It will probably be hard to find, but the effort will be rewarded. Lystra has been publishing his work in good places, won an NEA Fellowship, and is a deeply talented writer. But he’s no spring chicken. He isn’t a recent graduate of a sexy MFA program. He doesn’t live in Brooklyn. He had a whole life as an engineer and couldn’t devote himself to his art until he took early retirement. In the blurb I mention his intelligence and empathy as well as his clear, crisp prose.

I feel grateful to Northern Illinois University Press for publishing this collection. It is a book that deserves an audience, even in a time when we are uncertain who might comprise an audience for well written, passionate fiction. We’re not sure if the effort is valued even by people who are supposed to value it. Just this last week (and I’m writing this in mid-January) someone at the National Book Foundation, when explaining their expanded short list of finalists for the National Book Award, slurred, in passing, “collections of short stories published by university presses,” implying that no one would actually want to read these books.

Now after being pissed off for a moment, I realized that this was one of those moments of public speech when the thing said is not really what the speaker meant. After all, it seems as if the National Book Awards have been willing to risk support for lesser known books in recent years. Still, I know I wasn’t the only one out here in Michigan who immediately thought of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s brilliant and troubling collection, American Salvage, which was published by Wayne State University Press in 2009 and was then, quite rightly, short-listed for the National Book Award. The nomination helped rejuvinate Campbell’s career, which appears to be doing quite well now, particularly after the publication of her novel, Once Upon a River. (By the way, that novel is a lot of fun to teach undergraduates, in case anyone is looking for new novels to put in their curricula.)

I know that Annie Martin of Wayne State, the editor of their Made in Michigan series where Campbell’s stories first appeared, was pissed off too. She sent an e-mail around asking some of us to contact the National Book Foundation with our concerns. A couple of people were concerned about doing so because they hold out hopes that something they write may actually be nominated at some point. I can be free of that one desire. Even though I’ve lived in Michigan for almost forty years and am recognized occasionally as a writer of the Great Lakes  region, I remain a Canadian citizen. Even if I published something worthy of that kind of notice, I am ineligible for the prize! In some sense, it’s kind of liberating.

So I wrote an e-mail to the National Book Foundation. I can’t find the e-mail right now, but I know it was short and maybe a bit snarky. I wanted to make sure they knew that I recognized that someone must have misspoke, but I also wanted to make sure they knew that some of us out here thought the comment uncalled-for. Much to my surprise I heard back almost immediately from Harold Augenbraum, the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. He wrote (and he gave me permission to quote him):

I want to correct the perception that the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards have a bias against university press books, which seems to have been conveyed in the Associated Press article announcing changes in the National Book Awards selection process. It is most certainly not the case. I have been Executive Director for nine years, and during that time we have made a concerted effort to include small and university presses by making sure that the publishing houses that publish our judges are well represented by both large and small, profit and nonprofit. In my remarks at the National Book Awards Medal Ceremony in 2011, I crowed about the fact that the twenty Finalists were published by fourteen different publishing companies (that’s not imprints, that’s companies). We are thrilled at the collections of short stories and other fiction and poetry that have been Finalists or winners from university and small presses (Bonnie Jo Campbell, Edith Pearlman, Andrew Krivak, etc.). The panel the Foundation is sponsoring at AWP in March actually focuses on how the National Book Award can have an impact on small presses, with four small press directors on the panel. I myself published a co-translation of a collection of short stories with a university press just last September! Morgan Entrekin himself publishes authors whose work he finds in university presses (see Dagoberto Gilb, for example)! Please be assured that there is in no way a desire on our part to lessen the participation of university press books in our work. As you can see from the above, on the contrary.

In the new system of choosing more finalists, the National Book Awards will be advised by booksellers and librarians, as well as by writers and representatives of the publishing industry. This is probably a great addition, but there are some problems with the new system. If hundreds of booksellers and librarians — people we all love and admire — are involved in the process, how many small and university presses will be able to afford to send copies to all of them? Still, I choose to read Mr. Augenbraum’s response as reassuring. I appreciate his candor and  his concern that this little brush-fire will shape too many perceptions about the National Book Awards. Since those awards will continue to create much of the public response to new work, it will remain a concern for many of us. And we will have to keep watching. I’ll bet that in their better moments Mr. Augenbraum and his colleagues hope we keep paying attention.

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