Monday, September 8, 2008

They Coulda Been Contenders

On Sept. 21, Jhumpa Lahiri will be in Cork, Ireland, to receive the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and its generous prize of 35,000 euros. We already know who the winner is because on July 5, the judges for the award announced that they were jumping right from their long list of thirty-nine books to naming Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth as the winner, bypassing the traditional announcement of a short list of four to six books.

The three judges felt strongly that Lahiri's book was far and away the best, but that's not a good reason to bypass the short list. A book award isn't just about choosing a winner; it's also about honoring other worthy books. Those named would have gotten some extra attention and presumably more readers--and the authors might be packing their bags to head to Ireland for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Festival, which begins on Sept. 17. Instead, everyone on the long list but Lahiri will stay home.

For most authors, being on a short list for a prestigious award adds a valuable credential. It could be the honor that tips the balance toward selling another book, having work reviewed, winning a grant, or getting a job. Announcing finalists can also stimulate discussion leading up to the announcement of the winner. A short list is not only good for the authors and publishers; it's good for the award itself.

The problem is, having judges choose both the short list (or finalists, as most U.S. book awards call them) and the ultimate winner isn't very logical. Why have a two-tiered process with the same group deciding in both instances? I'm sure judges for other prizes with similar procedures have been tempted to simply announce a winner, too. Mindful of this, we set up The Story Prize so that it really does have two tiers. Founder Julie Lindsey and I choose the three finalists, then turn those books over to three independent judges to choose the ultimate winner.

This isn't to pass judgment on the merits of the O'Connor Award's choice of a winner. Unaccustomed Earth has garnered loads of favorable reviews and sat atop the New York Times Best-Seller list for a week--an extraordinary accomplishment for a short story collection. It looks to be a serious contender not only for The Story Prize but also for the National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN Faulkner, the Pulitzer, etc. Had the O'Connor judges called attention to other worthy books, it might have helped make those authors contenders as well, instead of being stranded on a long long list, which is what they were, let's face it.