mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)
mabfan

The Ardai Affair

There's been a recent brouhaha bubbling up over with the Mystery Writers of America, and I thought it would be instructive to bring it to a wider audience, because it also points out something that I think that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America do right.

Also, at the center of the storm is one of my best friends from high school, Charles Ardai, and I unabashedly feel like giving him even more publicity for his fantastic novel Songs of Innocence. So there.

The facts are these:

A few years ago, Charles co-founded a publishing company, Hard Case Crime, which has done a successful job of bringing back old pulp mystery novels and publishing brand new ones with the old pulp sensibilities. If you peruse the mystery section of any bookstore, you've probably seen their books, with the distinctive yellow ribbon on the upper left corner of the covers. Hard Case Crime has also been featured in many news stories; CBS News Sunday Morning did a piece on the company and on one of the artists from whom they were commissioning new cover paintings.

Charles is not only a publisher, but also a published author in the field of mystery and science fiction, whose first story, "The Long Day," appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine when Charles was only 18 years old. His first novel, Little Girl Lost, was published in hardcover by Five Star, and then brought out in paperback by Hard Case Crime. Charles published it under the anagram pen name Richard Aleas (read the surname aloud if you don't get the joke) but never hid the fact that he himself was Aleas.

This year, Charles published a sequel to Little Girl Lost, the aforementioned novel Songs of Innocence. This time, rather than find a publisher to bring out a hardcover edition, Charles chose to bring it out directly in paperback from Hard Case Crime. I've read both books and found them powerful, well-written, and entertaining, and I wasn't surprised when Publishers Weekly chose Songs of Innocence as one of the 100 best novels of the year.

But because Charles brought out the book under his own publishing company, the MWA has ruled it ineligible for consideration for the Edgar Award. According to Lee Goldberg, who is the arbiter for this particular decision, the book is self-published and therefore ineligible for the award. Sarah Weinman brought this ruling to the attention of many more people on her blog, and the discussion on both Goldberg's and Weinman's blogs have been fascinating to read.

The MWA lays out its rules for Edgar eligibility at Edgar Award Information page. The key sentence, I presume, is the one that reads "While the author does not need to be a member of MWA, the work itself must make the author eligible for active status."

As a former officer of SFWA and someone who has served as chair of a Nebula awards jury for many years, I find this fascinating. Because with this one rule, the MWA has decided that Charles's novel cannot be considered for the Edgar, despite the fact that Charles is already an Edgar Award-winning author and that no one questions the quality of Songs of Innocence. Not only has the book been published by an actual, legitimate publisher, but it's garnering kudos from many critics, including, as I noted above, Publishers Weekly.

So why won't the MWA consider the book for the Edgar? Is it fair for them to deem it self-published and then rule it ineligible?

Well, I think they're half-right. Since Charles himself does co-own Hard Case Crime, I would probably agree that the book could be considered self-published. Even though this is a special case of a legitimate publisher bringing out the book, as opposed to Charles just printing copies on his own in his attic.

But just because the book might be considered self-published, why in the world would that render it ineligible for the Edgar? Why should Edgar eligibility be tied into the rules for membership eligibility?

Before I go further, let me note that I completely agree with both MWA and SFWA that self-published works should not be eligible criteria for membership. Both organizations exist to help professional writers, and "professional' has to be defined somehow. Furthermore, by creating a definition of what constitutes a professional publication, both organizations manage to have some influence on things like payment rates, which is to the benefit of the membership.

But when it comes to award criteria, why should it matter? Let's leave aside the fact that Charles, being an editor and publisher as well as a writer, is not going to publish a book that he thinks is of low quality or that will lose him money simply because he wrote it. If he writes something that he thinks is crap, he's going to bury it and never let it see the light of day. (Private message to Charles: I presume this is why I'm the only other person in the world who owns a copy of "The Dreams and Designs of Bartholomew Fitch"?)

But if someone who can't get a novel published decides to self-publish, and by a sheer fluke the novel happens to be brilliant, why shouldn't it be eligible for awards?

SFWA acknowledges this. If you check the SFWA Awards Rules and compare them to the SFWA Membership Requirements, you'll see that a work can be eligible for a Nebula even if it's not eligible as a credential for SFWA membership. Now, as far as I know it's never happened that a self-published work has made it to the final ballot, but I do recall a self-published work or two that made it to the preliminary ballot. SFWA acknowledges the possibility that quality might exist where MWA apparently does not.

So, while I can be pleased with SFWA and puzzled by the MWA, there's not much more I can do except encourage folks to pick up Charles's novel and see for yourself what the controversy is all about. I guarantee you'll have a great reading experience, if nothing else.

(If you're interested in reading more, Sarah Weinman's post about the controversy can be found at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind: Is the MWA Going Too Far With Its Self-Published Definitions. Lee Goldberg's own post on the situation can be found at A Writer's Life: Playing Favorites II. Mediabistro weighed in at Mediaistro: Edgar-Winning Charles Ardai Ineligible for Edgar?. And finally, the New York Post even picked up the story for Page Six, at Case of the Conflicted Imprint.)
Tags: books, personal, sfwa
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