On June 2, 2014, the Lambda Literary Awards celebrate their twenty-sixth anniversary. Deacon Macubbin, owner of Lambda Rising Bookstore and publisher of the Lambda Book Report, started the awards in 1989. The first year of the "Lammys," (as many affectionately call the awards) winners included Paul Monette for Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, Edmund White for The Beautiful Room is Empty, Dorothy Allison for Trash, Carl Morse and Joan Larkin for Gay & Lesbian Poetry in Our Time, and Karen Thompson and Julie Andrzejewski for Why Can't Sharon Kowalski Come Home?
In the twenty-four years that followed winners have included Assoto Saint (The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets), Jewelle Gomez (The Gilda Stories), Achy Obejas (Memory Mambo), Robin Becker (All-American Girl), Maureen Seaton (Furious Cooking), Peter Gomes (The Good Book), Loren Cameron (Body Alchemy), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Jeff Mann (A History of Barbed Wire), and Michael Bronski (A Queer History of the United States). The Lambda Literary Awards are an important form of recognition for authors, publishers, and readers of LGBTQ literature.
Over the twenty-six years of the Lambda Literary Awards, the categories and process for selecting finalists and winners have changed--often with some discussion in communities that care about the Lammies.
Both Lawrence Schimel and I have been involved with the Lambda Literary Awards--and with the organization that administers the awards, the Lambda Literary Foundation--in a variety of ways. Together, we took some time to discuss about the awards and the state of LGBT literary culture. This is an edited version of their reflections.
What is your history with the Lammys?
Julie: As you know, Lawrence, one of my passions is book reviewing. I love reading good book reviews by thoughtful critics, and I believe writing book reviews is critical training for writers. I came to Lambda Literary through the Lambda Book Report--back when it was still a print publication! --and volunteered to write book reviews. That work was a great joy, and I learned a lot from Charles Flowers when he edited my book reviews. Charles asked me to be a judge for the Lammys, I think, first in 2007. I was a judge for lesbian non-fiction and over the years, I have read in a variety of categories including lesbian poetry, lesbian fiction, and LGBT Studies. And, of course, I still write reviews at LambdaLiterary.org, to feed my reading, writing, and thinking habits.
Lawrence: I've also had a long history with the Lammy Awards and the Lambda Literary Foundation, in general. My very first book, published under pseudonym in 1995, was a finalist, and since then I've been a finalist for the award 14 times under my own name, winning twice: in 1998 for PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality (co-edited with Carol Queen and published by Cleis) and in 2008 for First Person Queer (co-edited with Richard Labonté and published by Arsenal Pulp Press). Books of mine have been finalists in 11 different categories (including Best LGBT Anthology, Best Non-Fiction Anthology, Best Fiction Anthology, Best Science Fiction/Fantasy, Best Spirituality, Best Gay Erotica, etc.). As the publisher of A Midsummer Night's Press, books I've published have twice been finalists: Roz Kaveney's Dialectic of the Flesh, which was a finalist in Best Transgender Fiction (even though it's a poetry collection) and your own anthology Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, which was a finalist for Lesbian Poetry. I've also been happy to serve as a judge for the Award over the years, in various categories, although since I publish in so many different areas I've often had to decline to judge in a particular year to avoid any conflicts of interest.
Aside from the Awards, I've written reviews for The Lambda Book Report, and used to write the "Lambda Libros" column of English-language reviews of Spanish-language LGBT titles.
What is the significance of the Lambda Literary Awards in your estimation?
Lawrence: Awards mean different things to different people in the publishing ecosystem. For authors, even just being a finalist is an important recognition of the work they've done, especially important for our LGBT books that often are ignored by mainstream media or awards for critical attention. For readers, awards (both finalists and winners) are a way of signaling that a book by an author previously-unknown to them might be worth their time and attention. For publishers, awards give them a chance to try and generate renewed interest in a title, through placement in bookstore and media who might have overlooked it before.
An example from my own publishing history: In 1998, I had two books (my first short story collection, The Drag Queen of Elfland, and the anthology PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality) which were both finalists for three different awards: the Lambda Literary Awards (where PoMoSexuals was actually nominated in two separate categories, so I had three Lammy finalists that year), the Firecracker Alternative Book Award, and the Small Press Book Award. As a result of these seven awards nominations, all of which were to be announced at Book Expo America that year, Publishers Weekly wrote a little sidebar on me and those two titles, in one of the issues published just before BEA.
With awards there is a window of opportunity between when the finalist list is announced and when the winners are pronounced; this time can be useful for things like trying to generate additional foreign rights sale; while the final verdict is still up in the air, foreign publishers may be more likely to snap up a title before it is possibly declared the winner and the price for the rights goes up (especially as other publishers might become interested once it has won the award).
The Lambda Literary Awards, in particular, have been very important for LGBT Books. For a long time, LGBT Books were regularly (one could even claim systematically) ignored or excluded from many mainstream awards. Hence, the need for the awards. The Lambda Literary Awards recognize the important work of many authors from our vast and diverse community. Over the past twenty-six years, our communities have grown and changed; we've seen the number of categories and what they were likewise grow and change. And because the awards have been around for so long, and were so vigorous in their criteria for years, they began to be acknowledged and recognized beyond our LGBT communities--which is one of the things the awards were meant to do.
Julie: There are two groups that give awards specifically for LGBT books: the Lambda Literary Foundation--the Lammys--and the Publishing Triangle. Both of these awards are crucial to the LGBT community and to readers, writers, and publishers. The Publishing Triangle is an organization of people working in the publishing industry--so those awards recognize, in addition to authors, the publishers, designers, agents, and publicists involved in getting books out into the world. The Lammys, which have always had more award categories and, generally, involved more people in the selection process, are equally important in the community.
Awards bring publicity to LGBT books. Particularly at this moment: we see our bookstores closing down and there are few physical spaces that focus people's attention on LGBT books, awards become more and more important.
Lawrence: I served as the Co-chair of the Publishing Triangle for two terms, and one of the problems associated with some of the important initiatives that both Lambda Literary Foundation and Publishing Triangle create and advocate for is that they often function as a catch-22. When the Publishing Triangle created National LGBT Book Month, it was a vitally important promotion; it helped get LGBT titles into mainstream bookstores, especially the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. This resulted in LGBT books reaching many communities that might have a chain store but not a specialty LGBT store, but as a result of the very success of this initiative, a lot of mainstream publishers now only publish specifically for this promotional opportunity, so instead of having LGBT books published all year round, mainstream titles tend to clump in their release dates so that they're all published just in time for National LGBT Book Month and pride celebrations, as if being gay were a seasonal thing like Christmas. Or mainstream review venues might focus on LGBT literature only during June, coinciding with National LGBT Book Month and the anniversary of Stonewall and many Pride celebrations around the US--ignoring the fact that they have LGBT readers who read the newspaper every day and are continually hungry for books that might reflect their lives and interest.
There are more finalists this year and last year than in previous years. The Lammys were limited to five finalists per category. What do you think about this increase in finalists?
Julie: Well, I have to say, as a past judge, this is a great move! I think people do not realize how difficult the judging process is--there are a lot of great books that are nominated in each of the categories. Being able to provide MORE recognition to awesome titles by LGBT authors feels right and appropriate.
At the same time as an author whose book was NOT chosen as a finalist, it was even harder when I realized that there were TEN finalists in my category. When there were five, it was easier to think, wow, those are all amazing books, I understand why I wasn't among them, and certainly, I was sixth! Somehow, thinking, certainly, I was eleventh, just doesn't have the same ring!
So, I vacillate between thinking, yeah, have more finalists and let's recognize more authors and thinking, what about the quality, how do we ensure excellence? On one hand, there is no need to be stingy in recognition and award giving--especially since it is very much "in the community." On the other hand, a smaller number of finalists brings more prestige. Smaller numbers of finalists add more of a sense of excellence. But prestige doesn't keep publishers in business nor keep food on writers tables.
It is a balancing act between recognizing great work and building prestige.
Lawrence: I agree that it's a tricky situation, but personally I am not in favor of the increase in the number of finalists for a number of reasons. Primarily, because it waters down the prestige of the Lammys as a brand, which I think doesn't help anyone in this world of books: particularly READERS and other book professionals (librarians, reviewers, etc.) who look to the award as an indicator of quality. The increase in the number of finalists makes it look like the criteria has been lowered to allow for more books.
I do wonder if this change is a byproduct of the demise in LGBT Bookstores, which were once a large part of Lambda Literary's core body of members and judges (not to mention, the Lambda Literary Foundation began at Lambda Rising Bookstore, which started publishing the Lambda Book Report and later created the awards). Back when there were so many LGBT Booksellers around and involved, they were able to provide important and necessary input on what readers want and need (from the awards and the organization). While I support and am in favor of many of Lambda Literary Foundation's programs, I do think that the emphasis has shifted more to focus on writers of LGBT literature instead of on that literature itself and ways to get it out into the world and find readers for it.
Changes in technology have made it easier than ever for people to create independent publishing houses and/or to self-publish, and I imagine that the increase in the number of nominees was something lobbied for by publishers and authors, eager to have a greater chance at the distinction of being able to say "Lambda Finalist" and thus help them to stand out in a crowded marketplace, and the board agreed that it was in the best interest of these authors and presses.
Obviously, no author whose book is on the extended finalist list is going to complain about these additional awards, nor will publishers whose books are finalists.
But I don't think it is in the best interest for the award itself.
(Full disclosure, I did not submit either of the chapbooks A Midsummer Night's Press published in 2013, so I am not expressing sour grapes that our titles were not finalists.)
What is your hope for the Lammys over the next five to ten years?
Julie: I want Lambda Literary to address the issue of how to we find more readers for LGBT books. I've written about this before and I think we need to talk about it incessantly. We need people to buy and read LGBT books in order for publishers and authors to survive. I believe that Lambda Literary needs to think about how to identify more readers and promote reading more in the LGBT community.
For a while, Eloise Klein Healy, a phenomenal poet and a publisher of Arktoi Books, was working with a group called The Future of Publishing and I think that was a vital move as well to address this issue of finding readers and promoting great LGBT books, particularly ones outside of the mainstream publishing industry.
I would also like to see the Lambda Literary Foundation do more to nurture the broader landscape of LGBT literature, including doing things to promote and support small LGBT presses and LGBT periodicals. Having a vibrant small press community publishing LGBT books is vital to nurturing authors and writers and building great writers over the long-term.
Lawrence: I agree that increasing readership for LGBT books should be a priority for the Lambda Literary Foundation.
Efforts could be made for the website to be even more active. Especially now that the awards have increased the number of finalists, there are many finalists that wind up never even being reviewed by the Lambda Literary Review. I'm not saying that being a finalist should automatically entail getting a review, but I think it should be the other way around: if these books which are finalists are supposedly the best LGBT titles, space and attention should be given to them (either before the finalists are announced or certainly after).
I would love for Lambda Literary to be more pro-active in creating community in LGBT publishing as well, the way Carol Seajay, years ago, created the Feminist Bookstore Network, and was a focal point not just for booksellers but for feminist publishers as well. As you know, I've tried to create something like this at events like the Associated Writing Programs Conference, creating and paying for myself an LGBT guide to the Bookfair and to the LGBT-related panels taking place at this important annual literary event. But I feel that this should not be something put together by an individual, but rather under the aegis of a broader umbrella, like Lambda Literary. This sort of efforts can be done at other events, like BEA, and helps the myriad and diverse sectors of LGBT publishing cross-promote one another and their titles, and lets readers and media people find content that might interest them, which they might not otherwise be able to identify in the vast sea of those bookfairs.
I would love for Lambda Literary to analyze, like VIDA does, the number of LGBT books reviewed in mainstream media.
These are just some important activities that I think Lambda Literary could do, beyond existing important writer-focused programs like the Emerging Writer Retreats, in its role of advocating for LGBT Literature as a vibrant and integral part of the larger cultural landscape.