Jim Hayman: Last week Josh Bodwell, the talented and energetic young Executive Director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, sent out a press release announcing that nominations for MWPA’s 2012 Maine Literary Awards were open and that submissions will be accepted between now and March 1st. (Forms and guidelines for submission of new work can be found on the MWPA website http://www.mainewriters.org.)
Traditionally, awards have been given in a number of broad categories that include fiction, non-fiction, poetry and children’s works. This year, for the first time (and in Bodwell’s words as an experiment), the organization is going to be awarding not one but three awards in the fiction category.
In addition to general fiction (or literary fiction as its called,) separate awards will be going to the best crime fiction and for the best speculative fiction. Writers of these works can now enter them either in the general fiction category or in one of the two new fiction categories.
As a Maine writer of suspense/thrillers and, for the past six years, a member of the MWPA Board of Trustees, I’ve long been urging the organization to broaden the awards to include these new categories.
The argument against adding new categories is that fiction is fiction and that making a distinction between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction” is artificial and unnecessary. A lot of crime novels including, for example, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and more recently Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River are unquestionably works of high literary merit. And, on the other side of the coin, a lot of so-called literary fiction is anything but literary. In fact, some books I’ve dipped into are barely literate.
However, I believe that there is good reason to add the new categories for the various genres. The first is that crime fiction, by definition, adheres to certain conventions that don’t apply to more general works and should be judged, at least in part, on how well it delivers on these conventions. There is always a murder or, more occasionally, some other kind of crime committed. There is always a villain who must be caught. And there is always a sleuth, sometimes a cop or private investigator, sometimes an amateur, who solves the crime. I believe an award is merited for authors who do an exceptional job of bringing these elements together.
I also think adding separate awards for unquestionably popular categories of genre fiction will heighten interest in both MWPA as an organization and strengthen the writing, publishing and book-selling communities in Maine.