Thursday, December 30, 2010

Choice Assortment

My prize committee days are done, or near enough. The PNBA Awards will be announced in the New Year. The bookstore where I work will, of course, be promoting the winners in the usual way: with mention made on the store's website, a display on the sales-floor, shelf-talkers for the respective winners in the sections, etc. Hopefully, we will also have the opportunity to celebrate with at least one of the winners. Every year the sponsoring organization, our very own association of independent booksellers, makes available all kinds of handsome materials with which to bring these books to the attention of our very own, independent customers. It can be quite gratifying, all unsuspected at my desk on the sales-floor, to see new readers find these books, readers who might not have done so otherwise, especially. Makes a nice resolution to my three years service.

In so large a bookstore as the one in which I work, local and regional authors do not necessarily stand out from the mass, unless they do a reading, or they or their relatives live up the street, or they can claim a champion on staff and have a "Staff Favorite" card written up, at which point the book may have a chance at finding new readers in the permanent, and quite popular display of the same name. Books can last -- and sell -- in such a display for a very long time indeed, even without being widely reviewed elsewhere, even with new titles being added regularly to the selection. In the trade, we call this sort of thing "hand-selling," something publishers, major and minor, are always encouraging those of us still in the independent bookselling business to do, with all manner of unlikely objects, and even a few good books. The fact remains though, whatever the enthusiasm of publishers' reps, however many recognizable names are quoted on the jacket of the advanced reading copies we are sent, however high-flown the rhetoric in an editor's accompanying letter with each ARC we get, booksellers only promote the books in this way that they actually want to sell to their customers. True, we would like to sell all our books, but that ain't going to happen, so meanwhile, we let most books sell themselves as best they can, and then we try very hard to sell our favorites. (If, for instance, you think Mark Twain made it onto the bestsellers list this year exclusively because of the noble efforts of the University of California, or with much help at all from or Barnes & Noble, -- to say nothing of Garrison Keillor in the New York Times Book Review -- think again. We still have stock, by the way.) That being why our customers trust us; we may have or can get the books a customer wants, but we are also prepared to ballyhoo the books we like best ourselves. Unless we're idiots or snobs, we won't discourage anyone from buying anything they may want from us -- please do (seriously, please) -- but if we may make a suggestion? Even an author with a national reputation can benefit from such individual attentions, so then imagine what might be done for a new, or lesser known local novelist, or poet, for a new book of regional history, etc. But, again, for any book to be promoted in this way, to actually be hand-sold in an independent bookstore, that book must be read and liked well enough to be recommended by some independent bookseller. That is the one thing we do that has yet to be bettered by the advertising and promotions departments of the corporately funded chains, or more efficiently replicated by a computer program at an international commercial website. Such monstrously powerful and productive institutions can resurrect reputations, reprint classics, discover and elevate new authors and titles onto or at least in the range of the bestsellers lists if they choose to do so, but only an individual bookseller can still have an actual, as opposed to a virtual, conversation, reader to reader, with our customer. Well, that is what being listed for a regional book award can do, to begin with, is find readers for good books, first among independent booksellers, and then within the actual, and yes, even virtual, communities still best served by the bookseller of similar interests and tastes.

This is very much the season of the book awards, of course: top-ten-lists, critics' prizes, popularity polls, high sales, etc., and these tend to pop up everywhere; newspapers, magazines, the web, et al. But, had you noticed? These lists also tend to have a remarkably predictable sameness to them. True, there are occasional surprises, specially among the foreign prizes, or, as happens with even greater irregularity, the rare small press title that breaks through, like Paul Harding's Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer this year. What a regional award can do, does do, and what a national or international award, however prestigious, may not do, is recognize worthy titles that may, as yet, have no purchase on The New York Times Book Review, the prestigious committees of the National Book Award, and the whole critical apparatus that puts a novelist, every ten years or so, onto the cover of a national news magazine. The regional award is an extension of the hand-selling about which I've just been rattling on; it is an opportunity for the surviving independent booksellers in a given place, to not just talk among ourselves -- which we actually do too little of otherwise anyway, most of us, more's the pity -- but to speak to our neighbors and loyal customers with something like the authority otherwise only available to more influential reviewers, the major publishers themselves, and the national media who seem most often nowadays to only take note of independent bookstores when they hold wakes.

There was some discussion in this last year's deliberations as to the definition and purpose of making and promoting what's called the short-list. This is not a new idea, or original to us. We started announcing our short-list, I believe, right around the time I started on the committee, and while I had nothing directly to do with adopting this practice, I endorse it whole-heartedly. I thought it a grand idea. Still do. The fact is that each year there are at least a couple of hundred titles that are submitted for review by the awards committee. The list grows throughout the year. Traditionally, there was no more mention made by the committee of the majority of these books thereafter. The winners were announced, the rest, like most books, as I've already mentioned, were left to sell themselves. The secret at the very heart of such deliberations as those undertaken each year at the annual meeting of the awards committee in Portland, -- and just here I run the risk of being shunned by the lodge for life, if not something worse, by revealing this fact to even the quaintly small public ever likely to read what I write -- the secret I nevertheless share with you now for the very first time, is the genuine sense of accomplishment and relief with which we all agree to eliminate as many books as possible from further consideration before we move on to the books that each member of the committee hopes to encourage everyone else on the committee to read, or read again. Shocking, but true. On a much more modest scale, what we do at that meeting is actually not all that different from what the buyers at our bookstores do every day, or at least every season; we make discriminations as to how best to spend the limited time and resources available to us, and just as important, how not. If every committee member felt an obligation to read every book submitted straight through, from picture books to academic history, and to then report all the points in favor or against awarding said title the recognition of an award, well... not only would we have been unable to get anything actually done, but I for one would have walked calmly to the roof of the Airport Holiday Inn -- after the free lunch -- and thrown myself down to the parking lot below. You can not conceive some of the books submitted. Honestly, I still stand amazed. Yet, interestingly enough, it is not the truly eccentric or unthinking submissions that weighed most heavily on our earliest deliberations. The laughably impossible books are actually few enough and far enough between that they earn an inevitable affection and always are made mention of earlier on even than those we may have already decided to champion for a prize. (How bland would the mix be without the occasional hard nut, odd odor, or indigestible fragment of inert matter? Makes one pay good attention to what's on one's plate.) No book is ever dismissed simply for being exotic. The committee will, and does, read anything: any subject, any format, any opinion, any genre. The heavy work is clearing off what's been tasted and found disagreeably bland, warmed-over once too often, ill-prepared or too dry to swallow. What's left on the table is always surprisingly much, believe me, but nowhere near the unhealthy pile that awaits the committee at that first sitting.

By adopting and promoting a flexible shortlist, the awards committee allows for the best of what's been submitted to be recognized as such, without insisting that every book we specially admired deserves an award. This is not the pee wee league and not every author gets a plaque for attendance. Nothing like that. The short-list allows for a looser consensus, and uses a wider determination than the final awards. Unique and worthy additions to the booksellers' stock, every title on the shortlist is there because the book is important enough, sufficiently innovative or addressed to an issue or readership otherwise too little served by just the actual awards. When the final awards are selected from the short-list, something which is never an easy or less than mildly contentious process, the selected books and authors receive recognition as the very best of what I would have to say is almost without exception an impressive list.

Which isn't to say that in my three years on the committee, (note how often here I've continued to refer to same as "we," even as I happily bid my responsibilities therein a grateful goodbye,) I thought every book that made it onto the short-list wonderful. These are independent booksellers making these decisions, mind, a notoriously polite, but individual crew, to say the least. I like to think, in my time, I earned my place as among the most consistent of the Cassandras at our annual lunch meeting; know to bemoan not just the sorry state of things, and predict the coming ruin of polite letters, but also to meet many a more cheerful smile with many a doleful frown. While I'm proud to say I never suggested any of my fellow committee members go and have their heads examined by a professional, I was not shy at any time of expressing my displeasure at even some of the books that made it all the way. Win some, lose some, and wish some had never made it out of the committee alive (books, I mean, not my colleagues. I'm not a violent person.) Another function of selecting and publishing the short-list has been to allow a greater diversity of opinion than would be altogether seemly in the final awards.

Some members in good standing of the committee other than myself were heard to express -- within the privacy of our locked cell -- a not altogether supportive opinion of books ultimately destined by majority vote for the short-list. Some of these nominations, suggested invariably with the best, and most noble motives, were found to be ludicrous by at least one other member. I know because I both championed books others hated and hated books others championed. As with any such collective endeavor, I don't doubt feelings were now and then bruised. (I'm rubbing one or two old sore spots as I write.) As I will answer to the committee no more, let me just say finally without fear of contradiction, that in every instance of dispute, history will bear me out and the rest of you -- and you know who you are -- can go straight to Hell. (That was a joke, by the way. You were wrong, and I was right, but I'm actually quite fond of you all and I don't believe in Hell, or rather, I do, but only in the sense of indoor smoking-bans, public cell-phone conversations, and reading the New York Times Fiction Bestseller List.) Actually, what necessitates and justifies a short-list is exactly the kind of minor controversy generated by at least some of the titles invariably included therein. That, my dears, is the point of championing diversity, as well as excellence.

So now I'm done, and once again free to pursue my own thoroughly eccentric reading habits, free from outside responsibilities and obligations, I have naturally reverted to the kind of quirky, highly personal reading-projects that will keep this effort of mine from ever reaching a wider audience. I can, with a clear conscience, read my way through all four volumes of Edward Fitzgerald's complete correspondence. (Do come with. Frightfully good, don't you know.) I can now take a day or two, and thanks to a miserable head-cold shared with the long-suffering husband, thus canceling our traditional Christmas dinner, spend days in bed feeling very sorry for myself indeed and reading nothing but golden age mysteries end to end by the likes of Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. I can, and did finish a Zola novel I started I know not when. I can start a second Balzac before I've finished another, and I've done just that. I am giddy with free choice.

I am also genuinely grateful, let me say yet again, for the opportunity and privilege of having served. I won't say I'll miss it, but it was awful nice to have been thought of at all. It really was fun.

My parents, among this year's Christmas package, sent us a two pound box from my favorite hometown chocolatier. Dad told me on the phone that when they went into the shop to get it, he picked up one of the standard two pound boxes off the shelf, (the husband and I, even with head-colds, are hearty eaters,) and my Mum made him put it back. She then had a box composed according to my well-known preference for butter-creams, chocolate melt-aways, etc. It is not yet New Year's, and I am somewhat ashamed to say that we are already near the bottom of the box. Now, a two pound box of chocolates is always a welcome addition to the pantry of this house -- potential gift-givers, and regular readers, take note -- but a two pound box of carefully selected favorites? Well, now, that is just better. It is. It is.

(If you look closely at the photograph reproduced above, you will see that there is still a butter-cream or two to see me through New Year's Eve. We'll be staying in. Can do as we please. Don't even have to put on pants. I'll be reading Balzac until the ball drops. Enjoy whatever it is you're planning.)

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