I'm about to do something I've told myself many, times since deciding to make writing my profession I would never do, something I frequently judge other writers when they do it, something I'll probably regret tomorrow, or next week, or even a couple of hours from now: I'm writing out of bitter, despairing anger.
I just received notification from AWP that Lia Purpura, the judge of this year's nonfiction book contest, to which I submitted my manuscript, has decided that no nonfiction book manuscript submissions merit the award.
Honestly, I didn't expect to win, or even place, in this year's competition. The contest was my first submission of my first book ms, and I have no idea how far along it got in the (non-)selection process. If it had been awarded anything I'd have been the luckiest writer in the world. I did, however, look forward to seeing who the winner was, knowing that the award could be that writer's entrance into the fairly insular world of academic publishing. Purpura herself saw her first publication when Judith Kitchen selected her collection, Increase, for the prize in 1999.
By choosing not to give the award (or the prize money), Purpura and the AWP have perpetuated the feeling, which seems to grow at a roughly equal rate that the AWP has for the past 20 years, that the whole institution is rigged. Every year since I started paying AWP dues in 2011, my social media circles explode with people who come back from the conference feeling disconcerted and alone, like they just went to a big dance club where they weren't on the list, and every year I've patted the pavement at the book fair, talked to publishers, communed with other writers, and most importantly continued writing, writing, writing - all the while staving off the sinking feeling that every square centimeter of the independent publishing fishbowl had already been called.
I think it's important to state that I'm not attacking Purpura personally or professionally. I really, really love her nonfiction work - her essay collection On Looking is one of my favorites - which is perhaps why I'm taking her dismissal of every manuscript she saw (which, in her defense, had already been whittled down from thousands to ten by who-knows-who) so personally. The choice to say that no nonfiction book submitted is worthy of her (or, by proxy, the AWP's) selection is an outright dismissal of a hell of a lot of artistic, intensely wrought, truth-telling work, and make no mistake: it will be seen as a wholesale value judgment of an entire year's crop. I'm trying my hardest to imagine a way of taking the decision not to award one of the literary nonfiction community's most respected annual awards as anything but this.
I'm going to stop here for now, and post a copy of the letter from AWP Executive Director David Fenza. And who knows, I may delete this post in a couple of hours, or tomorrow, or next week, once I think better of it.