Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why this book and not that one?

I think a lot about this question. Especially when it comes to recognition and awards.

The average reader probably doesn't think much about it, but we writers do. Most people probably assume that the best books rise to the top--the survival of the fittest and all that. But of course it's not that simple. It's not even always true, strictly speaking. I mean, think about it. There are something like 20,000 children's books published a year, give or take a few thousand. No one can possibly read them all. There are a few very influential awards and reviewers. This means that there are a few people, generally well read and respected, who make the decisions about which books deserve stars, awards and recognition. Award committees generally deal with only a very small pool of books--only those that have been nominated or submitted by the publisher, the writer, a librarian...

Some writers are blessed with publishers willing to pull out all stops to make sure their books get noticed and seen in all the right places. Some are not so well favored. Some writers are pros at self promotion and know how to create avid fans on the strength of their personalities alone. Some would rather have root canals.

Laurels go to those books that manage to come to the attention of reviewers and committees through promotion of one sort or another. And yes, awards and recognition are given to well written books, but these must first be books that appeal to the taste of the individuals in positions to give them recognition.  There really is no way around this. Readers understand this, surely. How many times have you read, and been totally unimpressed, by a book that's received multiple kudos? Or adored a book that no one's noticed?

Think about what this means for books of color, if you will.

Where am I going with this? Well for one thing, I think we should all champion the books we love, especially the ones that don't receive as much attention as we think they should receive.

I just read Helen Frost's newest book, Hidden. What a beautiful cover--one that exposes our prejudices in a very subtle way over the course of the book. It's a  compelling story: a  mom goes into a quickstop to pay for gas. There's a gunshot and the little girl in the car dives to the floor, hiding. Someone gets into the car and speeds away. It's not the mom. The girl hiding is Wren. The daughter of the man driving is Darra. The two girls meet, years later at camp... I couldn't put this book down. It's taut and well written and goes to the core of things.  Here's a book able to make kids say, whoa, who knew poetry could make you bite your nails? Frost has even invented a new poetic form, ready made for teachers. Will it find it's way into schools? I don't know. It will fare better than most because of Frost's reputation.

How many good books are out there there with nothing working in their favor, promotionally speaking?

We writers  tend to worry about our books once they're published and out in the public. Our books are like our babies, after all, and we want everyone to love them. Our maternal--or paternal--instincts kick in and we want to protect them and defend them from attack but we can't. We count their stars, proudly. We view every star not given as a death toll. We've been known to spend inordinate amounts of time tracking their travels via Google searches, all of which does little to feed our writing life.

Yes, we're extremely gratified when our books receive recognitions and awards and sell well. But deep down inside, I think we all understand that a lot of what happens is happenstance. Deep down we know it would be better to ignore all of the hoopla, or lack thereof, and just keep following the whisper of the stories given us. Because in the final analysis, that's what it's all about.

Jo Knowles has posted a wonderful post on just this her blog. This resonated with me:

I want to get back to those pre-published writing days when, while in the writing mind, I was truly IN the writing mind. I wasn't thinking about what my agent or editor might think of the sentence I just wrote. I wasn't thinking about reviews. Or sales. Or best-of lists. Or snarky GoodReads.

I was thinking of story. Of character. Of words.

There was a purity to that time and I want to get it back.
Me too! For me, this means a New Year's resolution to severely curtail time on the Internet, to quit worrying about how my published books are doing, to quit taking what readers see or don't see personally--remembering that I cannot control what a reader brings to a book. And most of all, it means returning, fully, to the real work.

I think I'll start now.