And the Winner Is…

by Wendy Hornsby

 A couple of years ago, when asked to chair a book prize nominating committee, I offered a wimpy Maybe next year, instead of just saying No. The next year rolled around and, shazaam, I was tagged, It.

I’m not complaining. I always learn something useful about writing and publishing when I serve on a book or story award nominating committee. It turned out that last year the timing was good for me to take a turn on one. Book submissions would not begin arriving from publishers until after the manuscript for The Color of Light was in Meredith’s hands, and after I had retired from teaching. I thought that maybe that particular immersion in the printed word would be a good first post-retirement project. And immersion it was.

            At first, books arrived in a trickle; one at a time, two at a time in padded envelopes. There was plenty of time to read each one from beginning to end. That does not mean, however, that I actually did make it to the end of every book, or even to the end of the first hundred pages that I had committed to. It doesn’t always take a hundred pages to know that some books are just not award contenders.

Around October, the number of books landing on committee member doorsteps began to surge. That surge grew to a deluge as the December deadline approached. Every day, more cartons, big and small, arrived; I quit counting at about three-hundred. I developed a simple sorting system. As I read, I wrote brief comments. When I was finished with a book, it went into one of three heaps: No, Take another look, Contender.

            For me, one of the more interesting parts of the process was the serious commentary exchanged among committee members: wonderful prose, ingenious structure, snap, plot holes, inconsistent characters, errors. Some books developed cheerleaders who might say, “Yes, this one is good, but is it as good as…?” as a reminder of an earlier submission, being careful that something worthwhile did not get forgotten. It became apparent early on that the five readers on the committee had very different tastes in books, but in the end that didn’t matter very much because everyone appreciated good writing, good structure and story, and that intangible that is author voice. Consensus on who should be nominated was not difficult to achieve.

            Will I consider serving on another writing award committee? Sure, but not this year. Ask me another time.

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