Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to attend the National Book Awards Finalists Reading. I thought that, in lieu of a critique this week, I’d talk a bit about the experience.
The National Book Awards are always on my radar. I try to read the Pulitzer and National Book Award fiction winners every year. These awards are on every publishing professional’s radar, but getting nominated is no easy feat. Some five hundred books are submitted in each category, and only five become finalists. Those five hundred submitted titles aren’t even a fraction of the number of published books in a given year. This year’s awards were particularly special for me, because an editor I know beat those insane odds and saw a title nominated.
So there I sat in the New School auditorium, within spitting distance of the twenty nominees whose books made it from their hard drives to one of the biggest stages in the American book world. Each nominee read a short excerpt. It isn’t until you hear an author read his or her work out loud that you realize you’ve been reading it wrong. There are cadences you’ve missed as your eyes scanned the page, subtle sleights of pen that you can’t pick up on unless you’re actually hearing the words. This is particularly true of the poetry. No matter how you read it on the page, it takes on new meaning when the poet reads it as he or she intended it to sound.
What struck me about the authors in all categories was their sheer virtuosity with language. As they read their work aloud, I could tell that they’d read it aloud to themselves as they wrote it. Their prose knew when to stop and start and stop again; their em dashes and commas became the literary equivalent of musical rests in their compositions. They understood how their words would sound, how they would resonate, how even a single word or phrase could be monumental to the story at hand.
It’s dizzying to consider all of the pieces that had to fall in place, just so, to bring these books to the top of the heap. It’s not just that the writing was daring and beautiful and intense; the books also fell into the right hands at the right time. And this is the single most important thing I can convey to you in light of this experience: Even for these literary masters, it took time for their books to see the light of day, to fall into the right hands at the right time. When you submit, the odds can seem against you. I’m sure most of the authors in the room that night never thought that their titles were going to rise from the stacks to become permanent fixtures in American literature. Before they were dazzling audiences with their words, these people sat bleary-eyed in front of a computer or notebook and agonized over every sentence. Most of them faced rejections. Some of them probably considered giving up.
In other words, they were, and still are, just like you.
It’s the authors who keep plugging away at it who increase their odds of making it to the top of that slush pile, or scoring the high-profile agent, or piquing a top editor’s interest. So please keep writing. Perhaps even more importantly, keep reading. And, whatever you do, don’t let those odds daunt you. If you’re reading this blog, you likely know someone who has scored a book deal or self-published a book. So you know it’s not impossible. It is, however, hard work, so step away from this blog now and get back to your work in progress!