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G&A: The Contest Blog

Sonny Mehta, publisher of Alfred A. Knopf, has been named the recipient of an award for lifetime achievement in publishing from the Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW). Mehta, who came to Knopf in 1987 after several years as a successful publisher in England, will be honored for his work with authors such as Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, V. S. Naipaul, and Michael Ondaatje at a dinner in New York City on Friday.

The ceremony will commence the AAWW's first Page Turner literary festival, held at Brooklyn's powerHouse Arena on Saturday. During the event, the winners of the twelfth Asian American Literary Award, given for books published in 2008, will also be honored. They are poet Sesshu Foster, fiction writer Jhumpa Lahiri, and creative nonfiction writer Leslie T. Chang. Foster received the prize for his collection World Ball Notebook (City Lights Publishers), and Lahiri for her short story collection Unaccustomed Earth (Knopf). Chang won for Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Spiegel & Grau).

The runners up are, in poetry, Jeffrey Yang for An Aquarium (Graywolf Press) and Monica Ferrell for Beasts for the Chase (Sarabande Books); in fiction, Ed Park for Personal Days (Random House) and Amitav Ghosh for Sea of Poppies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and in creative nonfiction, Kavita Rajagopalen for Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West (Rutgers University Press) and Kau Kalia Yang for Late Homecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir (Coffee House Press).

The AAWW is offering tickets to the dinner honoring Mehta and the literary awards ceremony on the Page Turner Web site.

In the video below, poetry award winner Foster talks about investigating the human spirit through literature.

The literary journal of Washington and Lee University, Shenandoah, is accepting entries for its second annual poetry contest, open to writers living in or born in Virginia. The winner of the Graybeal-Gowan Prize for Virginia Writers will receive five hundred dollars, publication in the magazine, and copies of a broadside of his or her poem.

The judge is National Book Award finalist Brendan Galvin, whose sixteen poetry collections include The Strength of a Named Thing (1999), Habitat: New and Selected Poems 1965-2005 (2005), and Whirl Is King: Poems From a Life List (2008), all published by Louisiana State University (LSU) Press. A review of Galvin's Ocean Effects (LSU Press, 2007) published in the Valparaiso Poetry Review describes him as being among "the ranks of poets to whom an acute understanding of the natural world—the wonders of its workings and of human interaction with it—are of first importance." 

Last year's Graybeal-Gowan winner, selected by poet Betty Adcock, was University of Virginia professor Kevin Hart. He won for his poem "March," which was published in the journal's Spring/Summer 2009 issue.

Writers may submit up to three unpublished poems (two copies of each) and a brief bio that establishes eligibility by November 29. Shenandoah does not charge an entry fee for this contest.

 

 

Last Wednesday night, the winners of the Whiting Writers' Awards were addressed by Margaret Atwood, author of more than forty books of poetry, fiction, essays, and works for children, and herself the recipient of many literary honors, the Giller Prize and the Booker Prize among them. Atwood's speech, reprinted below, invoked the ten writers of poetry, fiction, plays, and nonfiction who each received the fifty-thousand-dollar Whiting Writers' Award to remain vigilant and tenacious in their vocation, encouragement we thought would speak to many readers of this blog. 

It’s a great honor to have been invited to speak to you this evening. The occasion is a happy one—it’s the moment when the Whiting Foundation recognizes and encourages brilliant upcoming writing talent. Congratulations to all! (I’ll put you on my blog.)

My role here is a secondary one. It’s what you might call the Duchess role—what Duchesses would be doing if America hadn’t thoughtlessly done away with them in 1776, thus inaugurating 213 years of Duchess Envy. All my life I’ve fled the idea of being a role model—for heaven’s sakes, don’t live as I’ve lived, I want to tell the young—but I appear to have turned into a sort of role model anyway.    

On this occasion it seems that I’m to act as a kind of symbolic dignitary—writers can’t be actual dignitaries, as they are by nature too undignified—and wield a virtual wand of blessing, like the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, or wave a banner from a casement window as the young troops ride out to do battle. Gird on your word-swords, I must say to them! Buckle up those adjectives! Make sure your plots are tight, your epigrams sharp and pointed, your lyrical intervals lacking in bathos. Be vigilant—there are ambushes everywhere. On one side lurk the critics, getting ready to sneer and denounce, or worse, to praise for the wrong reasons; on the other side your parent figures, who always wanted you to be doctors, and who have furnished themselves with a list of writers such as Checkhov who were writers, yes, but doctors too: why can’t you do that? This is not helpful.

And on the third side is a stack of bills—bills for things like the rent—that whisper in their papery voices about the impossibility of making a living doing what you most wish to do. Alas, there is no inevitable connection, positive or negative, between talent and money. A bad book can make piles of money, a good book none. Or else a lot. It does happen. But nothing can be foreseen, because writing is among other things a form of gambling. You can win in one throw. You can lose disastrously. Fortune is a notoriously cruel goddess.

This is the moment for a bracing quote from Tennyson: "Doubt Not, Go Forward—If thou doubt’st, The Beasts will tear thee piecemeal." Fare well, I will say to the anointed ten—the fate of our language is in your hands, and it is a crucial fate—for if these the future guardians of it should falter or disappear, and if even our human language should fail us—should it become a rusty and untrustworthy tool—where will that leave us?

But perhaps I should climb down off the soapbox and give some more practical advice. Forget what used to be called "literature," I might say. It’s too risky. Too hard to drop-kick it through the gateposts of the best-seller lists, and the inability to do so—in a winner-take-all environment—can be fatal. Write cookbooks, or books about vampires—you’d do well with either. Or troll through the classics, adding monsters—Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the Body Snatchers, Jane Eyre and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, War and Peace and Heads That Grow Out of Your Armpits—the possibilities are endless! Better still—mix and match even more, and do a Vampire Cookbook! On second thought, maybe not—limited menu. But a Miss Manners Guide to Monster Etiquette—now that would sell! With a little ingenuity and no shame, you can do well. Then, under a different name—a very different name—you can dash off a few masterpieces.

Here’s another helpful hint: Invent some critics, then have them say some laudatory things about your work. This has been done. A painter friend of mine in Toronto made up an art critic called Don Rouge Humber and quoted him in ads, saying things like, "So stunning words fail me" and, "An oasis of pure optical pleasure," "Depilatory fine art with a consistently crispy crunch – delightfully deconstructionist!" My friend thought people would surely realize that Don was pretend, but not so. He sold a number of pieces to folks who turned up, ready for a serious art experience because the esteemed critic Don Rouge Humber thought so highly of his work.

But perhaps I should put on my seriousness hat, and offer some words of cheer, to young writers and to readers and to publishers, as well—to all who inhabit the republic of the written word, as all are essential to the survival of that noble republic. For it cannot have escaped you that we live in trying times. When interviewers start asking you about the state of publishing instead of the state of gender relations, you know we’re in trouble. Is poetry doomed? Is the novel doomed? Is the book doomed? (Not so far as I can see, or not yet.)

Or—a different sort of—Do the young still read? A question that invokes some long-gone non-existent golden age in which all the young did read, and nothing but praiseworthy classics. Not in my high school, I might tell them. Reading complex literary works in the century or so in which we’ve had something like universal literacy—has been a minority taste. But a minority taste well worth acquiring, for it really can be transformative: It can change lives.

But stories—just as stories—are not a minority taste. They’re a universal. Dennis Dutton, in his book The Art Instinct, proposes that art—and especially narrative art—is an evolved adaptation that human beings developed during their eighty-thousand-generation-long sojourn in the Pleistocene—a time when the ability to tell your kids about the time Uncle Mort got eaten by a crocodile, right over there, would have given those kids a distinct evolutionary advantage over other kids who could only find out about the crocodile firsthand. The arts are no frill—they’re part of our essential toolkit as human beings. We’ll make music and compose poems and tell stories as long as we’re on the planet. What’s at issue is the kinds of songs we’ll sing and the kinds of stories we’ll tell. And that’s where you’ll come in.

It’s not a profession, this track you’re on. It’s a vocation—a calling. There’s no pension plan, there are no guarantees, and there’s no magic potion. What you’ve chosen to do is brave and risky, but it’s also necessary—increasingly necessary as we move into a future for which no one, right now, has a convincing blueprint. You’ll be taking the ancient, ancient human language and its songs and stories that have been passed down to you, changing as they go; and through inspiration and hard work, you’ll fashion them into new forms that will in turn be molded by their time, as everything we’ve done is, and has been; and then you’ll pass these forms on in your turn, if we’re lucky. If we are all very lucky.

So that’s the real magic potion: luck. That’s what I should be saying as I wave my virtual wand: Good luck to all of you. Very good luck!

The Lord Mayor of Dublin has rolled out the longlist of titles being considered for the 2010 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The sum of nominations from libraries in forty-three countries, a total of 156 novels published in English in 2008 are up for the one-hundred-thousand-Euro award. 

Among the nominees are Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison for A Mercy (Knopf); Marilynne Robinson for Home (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which won the Orange Prize last year; and Aleksandar Hemon for The Lazarus Project, a National Book Award finalist. Debut novelists also received nods, among them Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger (Free Press), winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, and Hannah Tinti for The Good Thief (Dial Press), winner of the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction's John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize. Husband and wife Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt each received a nomination, he for Man in the Dark (Henry Holt) and she for The Sorrows of an American (Henry Holt). The full longlist and information about each book is posted on the IMPAC Web site.

Selecting the winning book will be novelists Anne Fine, Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Abdourahman Waberi, and Zoë Wicomb, and scholar Eve Patten.

The shortlist will be announced by the Dublin City Council on April 14, 2010, and the winner on June 17. Previous recipients of the award, given since 1996, are Colm Tóibín, Per Petterson, Orhan Pamuk, and recent Nobel winner Herta Müller.

Three poets and four fiction writers have received 2009 Whiting Writers' Awards, given to recognize emerging writers of "exceptional talent and promise," the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation announced last night. The recipients of the fifty-thousand-dollar prize in poetry are Jericho Brown, Jay Hopler, and Joan Kane, and the fiction winners are Adam Johnson, Nami Mun, Salvatore Scibona, and Vu Tran.

Brown is the author of the poetry collection Please (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008), and Hopler's first book is Green Squall (Yale University Press, 2005). Joan Kane's debut collection, The Cormorant Hunter's Wife, is forthcoming this fall from NorthShore Press.

Johnson has published two books, the short story collection Emporium (Viking, 2002) and the novel Parasites Like Us (Viking, 2003). Mun's debut novel, Miles From Nowhere, was released by Riverhead last December, and Scibona's first novel, The End, was published by Graywolf Press in May 2008. Tran's first novel, currently untitled, is forthcoming from Norton.

Awards were also given to playwright Rajiv Joseph (Animals Out of Paper, Gruesome Playground Injuries), and nonfiction writers Michael Meyer (The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, published by Walker & Company in 2008) and Hugh Raffles (In Amazonia: A Natural History, published by Princeton University Press in 2002).

Winners are chosen by a panel of writers, scholars, and editors from a pool of nominees recommended by roughly one hundred anonymous individuals working in the literary arts. The foundation, which also awards grants to doctoral students working on dissertations in the humanities, created the Whiting Writers' Awards in 1985.

If you’ve read our Recent Winners pages over the past few years, you've likely come across the name of fiction writer Siobhán Fallon. A graduate of the MFA program at the New School in New York City, she is the recipient of short story prizes from Meridian, Roanoke Review, and Briar Cliff Review, a residency from the Millay Colony, and, most recently, the Alexander Patterson Cappon Fiction Prize from New Letters for her story "Inside the Break." Since she has seen her stories receive a number of honors, we asked Fallon to share with us her take on submitting to writing contests.

How many contests do you estimate you have entered? And how many did you enter before winning your first award?
I have entered about a hundred contests in the past decade, maybe more. I must have entered about twenty contests before winning my first one—that sounds so bleak, but it gets easier!

What do you look for in a contest?  
I look for a contest run by a magazine and/or university that I recognize, or perhaps a judge’s name that is familiar. I also try to submit to contests with fees below twenty dollars, which helps me limit my otherwise limitless waves of submissions.

How do you select a piece to submit to a competition?
By now I am familiar with most of the magazines that I submit to so I am aware of the style they are looking for. There are magazines that like very realistic fiction—adjectives be damned—and those that prefer something more fantastical in plot or language. I try to tailor my submissions to the tastes of the magazines. If I’m not familiar with the actual journal, I try to read anything and everything the magazine has online.

Do you have an organizational strategy for tracking award deadlines, submissions, and honors received?
I have a battered little notebook that I write all of my submissions and rejections in. And I scribble the heck out of Poets & Writers. I try to keep a story out at one or two contests at all times. Then if I get a rejection letter, I know that that same story is waiting to be read at another magazine, and therefore there is still hope.

What is the most rewarding aspect of receiving an award?
Knowing that the story is done. No more editing or rewriting, no more cover letters and SASEs and bon voyages out into the literary unknown. Knowing that story is a success, finally, and therefore so are you.

What award has been of the most value to you?

My first award, from Crab Orchard Review, was amazing. The editor, Jon Tribble, was very hands-on. He spoke to me on the phone numerous times, seemed to genuinely love the story, and made me feel like a star. It was the perfect beginning. And my latest win at New Letters has been extraordinary too—New Letters sent out press releases to all my local newspapers, as well as my undergraduate and postgraduate alumni magazines. We writers spend so much time alone with our writing, unsure of how well we are doing, that any and every shred of praise feels divine.

Have you ever had a negative experience as a result of winning a prize?
I won a prize once that was a little less than satisfactory. I received an e-mail saying I had won, but I never actually spoke with a living person, nor did I get a chance to look at galleys. I just got the check and, eventually, a copy of the winning issue in the mail. They didn’t even mention the win on their own Web site. However, it was because of this win that Jennifer Barber, the excellent editor at Salamander, read my work and requested my stories. And then my agent, Lorin Rees, picked up a copy of Salamander in Boston and liked my story enough to track me down and sign me. So all in all, the win, though in itself it lacked a bit, ended up really helping my career.

What piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
At the New School for Social Research MFA program, our professors often emphasized that submitting to contests was a better gamble than submitting to an ordinary slush pile. Unless I have a connection with an editor or am sure that a literary magazine is looking for stories very much like my own, I only submit to contests. I think this philosophy has served me well. Sometimes it is hard to come up with the fifteen dollars over and over and over again as the rejection slips pile up and wallpaper your entire bedroom, but remember that your submission fees are supporting the arts, and one of these days a portion of those accumulated fees will end up in your pocket. And usually a magazine subscription or the prize issue is included [in the entry fee], so when you submit again you will know what that particular magazine looks for. As an added bonus, when you win a contest, you get top billing in the award winning issue, your name is mentioned in Poets & Writers, and of course you deposit the prize in your emaciated bank account! There isn’t the same triumph associated with placing a story in a magazine through the regular submission path.

The annual Oregon Book Awards, honoring works by in-state authors, were awarded last night to Portland writers Matthew Dickman and Jon Raymond. Dickman received the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry for All-American Poem (American Poetry Review), and Raymond received the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction for Livability: Stories (Bloomsbury). Both writers, though early in their careers, are no strangers to recognition of their work.

Dickman, who won for his debut collection, recently received the ten-thousand-dollar Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University. He was chosen for the Stafford/Hall Award by the winner of Claremont's 2009 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Matthea Harvey. Dickman's book came into publication as part of another award, the Honickman First Book Prize from the American Poetry Review, and also received the May Sarton Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008 along with four other emerging poets.

Raymond, whose debut story collection was selected by Robert Olmstead for the Kesey Award, has two film credits to his name, both based on stories from the book. Wendy and Lucy, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, was adapted from his story "Train Choir," and Old Joy, a 2006 Sundance feature starring innovative musician Will Oldham, finds its origins in the story of the same title. Raymond is also the author of a novel, The Half-Life (Bloomsbury, 2004).

The finalists for the poetry award are Alicia Cohen for Debts and Obligations (O Books), Endi Bogue Hartigan for One Sun Storm (Center for Literary Publishing), Andrew Michael Roberts for something has to happen next (University of Iowa Press), and Crystal Williams for Troubled Tongues (Lotus Press).

The finalists in fiction are Miriam Gershow for The Local News (Spiegel & Grau), Gina Ochsner for The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight (Portobello Books), Barbara Pope for Cezanne's Quarry (Pegasus Books), and Leslie What for Crazy Love: Stories (Wordcraft of Oregon).

An award in creative nonfiction was also given to state attorney general John Kroger for his memoir Convictions: A Prosecutor's Battles Against Mafia Killers, Drug Kingpins, and Enron Thieves (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The finalists were Bibi Gaston for The Loveliest Woman in America: A Tragic Actress, Her Lost Diaries, and Her Granddaughter's Search for Home (William Morrow), Debra Gwartney for Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and Floyd Skloot for The Wink of Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life (University of Nebraska Press). Ted Conover was the judge.

The award winners will be promoted in libraries and bookstores and offered a chance to participate in the Oregon Book Awards Author Tour.

Below is a trailer for Wendy and Lucy, cowritten by Raymond.

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