Lambda Literary Foundation changes its mind & its awards (again)

I woke up this morning to find out via my feed reader (thanks Teddypig!) that the Lambda Literary Foundation has decided to allow non-LGBT writers to compete for its annual awards. For those have forgotten, or who weren’t paying attention in the first place, or didn’t care, the LLF decided in 2009 that only self-identified LGBT writers were eligible to enter. Prior to that decision, eligibility for the awards was based on book content rather than the orientation/identity of the author (I use both words advisedly, since they can mean different things, LLF used both terms, and it was never clear what they meant by either). A small taste of the debates that followed the announcement of the policy change in 2009 can be found here, here, and here, with a fanhistory wiki roundup here.

The LLF explains their U-turn thusly:

In its review of the LGBT-only policy, the LLF Board of Trustees took into consideration LLF’s mission statement

The Lambda Literary Foundation nurtures, celebrates, and preserves LGBT literature through programs that honor excellence, promote visibility and encourage development of emerging writers.

and core provisions in its Bylaws.  The Board also noted that the large majority of finalists and winners of the Lambda Literary Awards have been LGBT authors, but not all of them.  There have also been a small number of outstanding books about LGBT lives written by our heterosexual allies.

I’m not sure if they mean there have been a small number of outstanding books, etc. competing for awards, or only a small number have been written, but whatever.

I don’t really know what to say. I have no insight into the decision-making process of the LLF; they state that as part of the decision-making process

the LLF Board solicited opinions from individuals in the LGBT book community, including publishers, authors, important donors, readers, and casual supporters. Those opinions represented both sides of the issue and were, in many cases, intensely held.

Intensely held. Mmm hmmm. I bet they were.

Judges must still be “self-identified LGBT,” so identity will still provide a gatekeeping function.

In addition, awards recognizing new and mid-career LGBT authors have been introduced. Full text of LLF’s statement is here.

Comments? Reactions? Data-free or data-rich speculation? I’m still trying to figure out what I think, beyond “huh.”

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7 thoughts on “Lambda Literary Foundation changes its mind & its awards (again)

  1. I feel pretty ambivalent about the whole thing. On one hand, I think it’s short-sited to exclude books based on characteristics of the author rather than the material. On the other, it’s Lambda’s award to define however they choose. I’ve read some books that have made the shortlist, and find the nominations to be no more predictable than any other industry award. That is, some of the books I’ve tried have been great and others leave me wondering about the panel’s taste and judgment.

  2. I didn’t have any beef with their earlier decision but the inclusiveness may be better for readers. This is pure speculation on my part, as I have no market research to back it up. Still, I suspect that while some readers of LGBTQ fiction probably care passionately about the author’s identity, many care more about finding the best fiction dealing with LGBTQ characters and issues regardless of who the author is.

  3. “Still, I suspect that while some readers of LGBTQ fiction probably care passionately about the author’s identity, many care more about finding the best fiction dealing with LGBTQ characters and issues regardless of who the author is.”

    I have conflicted feelings about that statement. Basically, I’m all for any author to create stories in any way they like, but to say something like that as well as “the inclusiveness may be better for readers” are not something I feel comfortable with.

    There is a tiny annual book award for East Asian literature. It was originally created for East Asian authors who mainstream publishers expect to pen memoirs or novels about their immigrant experiences, East Asian culture, Asian family life and/or racism. They don’t want to write that type and so because of those restrictions imposed by mainstream publishers, they tend to have their novels published by small presses. Unsurprisingly, small press novels rarely get a look or mention in the mainstream. Hence, the annual book award for East Asian authors.

    Almost from the start, the organisers received complaints by non-EA authors for not allowing them to submit their books featuring EA characters. Non-EA authors argued that the contents matter, not their actual ethnicities. After maybe four years’ worth of debates and complaints, the organisers backed down and allowed them in. Today, after six or seven years, non-EA authors – with better known publishers, better publicised and more reviewed books and higher author profiles – are dominating the list, regardless of whether the contents actually portray EA countries, peoples and/or experiences accurately or realistically.

    I do nurse resentment toward to the original complainants because they ignored the fact that EA authors are part of a marginalised group, which is why the award was created in the first place. Some have acknowledged they wanted to submit their books to the award to get the “stamp of authenticity” on their EA novels. What truly angers me is that as the result of all that, EA authors are back to being under-represented again while facing the same old restrictions and limitations on what they could write and where. So I question this statement “the inclusiveness may be better for readers” where literature awards for the minorities are concerned.

    • I completely understand your discomfort, and I’m not saying that marginalized groups shouldn’t have separate awards to recognize the best writing within that minority. OTOH, I think that with any award, the greater the pool of competitors, the more recognition the awards themselves get from the public.

      So for example, I think it was meaningful to more people here in the U.S. when Toni Morrison (an African American and female author) won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize than say, when she won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations the same year she was awarded the Pulitzer. I suspect that may hold true even for many African American readers, though of course I can’t speak for them.

      When I wrote my earlier comment, I was thinking about the entire readership of LGBTQ fiction, and not just those readers who identify as LGBTQ. I was speculating, as I stated, about what is more useful for that readership as a whole. But — I am also a member of a religious minority, and I know that it means a lot to me when a Jewish person wins an award competing not just against others of the same group.

      I still remember when Mark Spitz came to Israel to compete in the Maccabiah Games. It meant so much that he would do so, but it would not have been nearly as meaningful if he hadn’t had eleven Olympic medals at the time. His importance to us stemmed from his having competed in the Olympic Games and won against the world’s best athletes, and no amount of participation in the Maccabiah Games could have equaled that had he not medaled in the Olympics.

      Perhaps sports is not the best analogy, but I chose it because it’s an arena in which Jews aren’t traditionally believed to excel. Anyhow, to continue with the analogy, I’m not saying that the Maccabiah Games shouldn’t exist side by side with the Olympic Games, nor that they should be opened them up to non-Jews. I’m simply stating that to many sports viewers (even in Israel!) the Olympics are superior and that is because they are open to a much wider group. If I had to choose between one or the other, I would choose the Olympics.

  4. I feel very conflicted about this. OTOH I agree w/Janine’s points that good writing is good writing and should be recognized if it fits the thematic description. OTOH I agree w/Maili’s point that marginalised writers should be able to have an award which recognises *their* work in this area. Many other groups have it, after all.

    I think some of the problem for LLF was that when the awards began they didn’t limit eligibility to members of the group, and then when they changed the terms they raised all kinds of other issues, e.g., writers who may be closeted have to out themselves to qualify.

    I’ve been a little surprised by the lack of discussion about the changes (although maybe it’s out there and I just haven’t run across it). I wonder if many readers basically got so sick and tired of the virulence of the debate that they don’t want to invest in the subject again.

  5. I have mixed feelings also. I liked the non-inclusive rule better, but I can think of some deserving books/authors that might get recognized under the changes. I suppose I’ll cheer for them half-heartedly.

    Overall, this is a letdown and I agree with Maili’s points. Straight authors are already enjoying many advantages. I don’t know that I would enter to win if I were in their position.

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