Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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March 20, 2009

I entered The Mud of the Place for a few awards, most of which it has no chance of winning, but I figured its best chance was with the gay-related ones. The finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards were supposed to be announced on or before March 15. Mud was one of 18 titles submitted for Lesbian Debut Fiction. I had my fingers crossed that it would make the cut. It didn't. I was bummed.

I'm still a little bummed, but them's the breaks. In the weeks before the finalists were announced, I occasionally flipped through my mental list of why awards are of limited value. I've judged enough of them to know that after you've eliminated the entries that don't meet the criteria or just aren't very good, it's pretty much a crap shoot. 90 percent of everything might be crap, as Theodore Sturgeon famously said, but that still leaves you with 10 percent that isn't, and some of that 10 percent is bound to be excellent. So how do you decide what's "the best"? Judging the best bread or zucchini or beach plum jelly at the fair is challenging enough, but bread, zucchini, and beach plum jelly are straightforward compared to a novel, a story, an essay, a poem.

How do you judge "the best" when there's no way to quantify excellence? Most judges, I suspect, let their guts decide -- "it knocked my socks off," etc. -- and come up with rational reasons later. So it comes down to the judges: who are they, what are they accustomed to, what will knock their socks off without knocking them over? Joanna Russ once wrote about reading Zora Neale Hurston for the first time. Hurston had been "rediscovered," by Alice Walker and others, and much hoop-de-do was being made about her work, so Russ was surprised that she wasn't all that impressed. Russ being Russ, she didn't blame Hurston for this: instead, she started exploring how her own background and literary traditions had shaped the expectations that Their Eyes Were Watching God had not met.  This is why Russ is so great, and why her absence from the feminist and sfnal literary frays for the last 20 years is such a loss to anyone who cares about these things.

Along those lines -- I'm still scratching my head over the fact that Cormac McCarthy's The Road won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Like would it have happened if any of the Pulitzer Prize fiction judges had read any science fiction in the last 30 years?

So it's entirely possible that the five finalists in Lesbian Debut Fiction are conspicuously better in every way than The Mud of the Place, in which case a big "hurrah!" for the writers and congratulations all around. It's also entirely possible that Mud doesn't fit the Lambda Literary Award judges' notion of what lesbian fiction should look like in 2009. The "Lammy" process has never been known for its transparency either.

The bummed-out feeling is fading fast. When I realized that Mud wasn't among the finalists, I didn't think for a moment that this meant that Mud is a mediocre book or that I'm a lousy writer. What I regretted, and still regret, is the loss of an opportunity to reach a national audience.

It didn't hurt that my guest appearance on Vineyard View, an hour-long interview show on the island's cable TV station, aired Wednesday night. I went over to a friend's to watch it. I thought it was great. I mean, hey, if I'd been hearing about this novel for the first time, I think I would have run out first thing in the morning and bought it, or borrowed it from the library.

P.S. March 28. I put out the call on FEM-SF for the source of that Joanna Russ quote. Within a few hours I had both the source (thanks, Stan!) -- her wonderful book How to Suppress Women's Writing -- and the actual quote (thanks, Liz!), which goes like this:

It was episodic.
It was thin.
It was uninteresting.
The characters talked funny.

Russ then recounts how she read other novels and some African-American literary criticism.

Then I re-read Their Eyes Were Watching God.
It was astonishing how much the novel had improved in the interval.


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