Op-ed: The Lambda Literary Awards Are a Shambles
Writers and publishers love awards. Winning one provides tangible proof that all the naysayers during the writing process, the tepid reviews, the sales numbers, must all be wrong. Losing to your peers provides an opportunity to show grace in public and, while muttering on the car/plane/train ride back home, stokes your ambitions for the next project.
Almost all the genres that bookstores can come up with have awards; sometimes too many. Edgars for mysteries, Hugos for science iction, even a Truman Capote Award — which is not for gay fiction as one would expect but literary criticism (do booksellers still stock such titles?). LGBT writers have the Lambda Literary Award, which began small 25 years ago with such categories as AIDS, Gay Men's Small Press Book Award, and Lesbian Mystery/Science Fiction. The community needed an award to celebrate its authors, who were often the only voice for the closeted, the isolated, and the persecuted.
As the years passed, the awards grew and categories were added and changed, arguably with the times. There is no longer an award for AIDS literature — do we choose to forget? And now Transgender Fiction and Nonfiction, among others, are considered. The awards celebration sponsored by the Lambda Literary Foundation has become longer and more elaborate. Probably more costly, though I remember some years there was an open bar and some plastic cups for vino.
As opposed to the vast majority of literary awards, the Lammys are judged in secret — well, they tell you the judges’ names in the program booklet but not who judged which category. Why the velvet curtains? Is it to protect the foundation from scrutiny? Concealing the identities of judges prior to the ceremony and even then not revealing their specific responsibilities is the opposite of transparency.
Supposedly an author who has a book nominated cannot serve as a judge the same year, but that rule has been broken. Last year, Richard Labonte, the fellow managing and overseeing the judging, an esteemed editor who had won several times previously, actually had two books as finalists. Did the board or the overseer himself sense any conflict of interest? If so, nothing was done. Two slots on the Lammy shortlist were kept from writers whose careers would have benefited from the cachet of being a finalist, in a manner that reflects poorly on the foundation.
The awards category's three-card monte has been and remains discriminatory. Mystery, poetry, romance, and erotica benefit from a split between gay and lesbian awards, but not fantasy/horror/science-fiction or Best Anthology, in which gay and lesbian authors must compete against each other. As a publisher of F/H/SF and anthologies, I am very aware that there are sufficient titles published each year on either side of the gender divide to support pairs of awards in these categories. Why no recognition by the Lammys of the expanding field of graphic novel, or photography books (or do they worry about costs of shipping trophies to Bruno Gmünder in Germany?).
Three of my friends broke their silence regarding their experiences as Lammy judges last year. Each told me disturbing accounts. No overall rules for the judges in every category to follow. Not every judge had to read every nominated book — or even all five finalists. So publishers wasted time and money sending in books that ended up being ignored. Judges treated each other with petulance and no one from the foundation enforced any common sense or responsibility. Now, maybe not every category had such problems, but what I heard coupled with the complete lack of transparency from the foundation has left me with the impression that the Lammys are a shambles. Their original focus, to highlight good queer literature, has been lost to the art of fund-raising. The cost of submitting titles goes up and up. The awards event now puts more emphasis on special guests and late-night parties than on the literature and authors it’s advertised as celebrating.
There is a new coordinator of the Lammys; the board of the foundation must have heard the many authors and publishers (myself included) who complained this spring and summer. I hope Kathleen DeBold can restore some sense of integrity to the awards. As of now, however, the secrecy of the judging, the poor category choices, and focus away from books to nonbook celebrity MCs and presenters and guests make one wonder. At the 2011 event, Edward Albee, a great and good literary figure, who has never made any secret of his wish not to be consigned to the “gay lit” ghetto, received a special Lammy he did not need and (going by his lengthy acceptance speech) did not appreciate. Could the celebration of queer literature not have been better served by stronger acknowledgment of less well known writers whose careers (and egos) could really use the boost? Who would not bite the hand offering them canapés?
I fear the Lammys have become all pomp and lip-synching, like a bad drag show under poor lighting. The time has come to brighten the lights, raise all the curtains, and let the entire stage and showcase be seen and enjoyed as the celebration it was always intended to be.
STEVE BERMAN is a writer, an editor, and the owner of Lethe Press.
UPDATE: The Lambda Literary Foundation will post a rebuttal Monday on Advocate.com.