The landscape of literary awards can be an intriguing one to follow. They can point readers in the direction of books that they might enjoy. Seeking a great work of debut fiction? The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize might be a good indicator of your next favorite read. Does work in translation catch your eye? Then the Man Booker International Prize might be an award whose shortlists and award winners are in your wheelhouse. I suspect that one of the reasons for the popularity of the Tournament of Books is due to the relative transparency of its process: readers tuning in to the site over the course of the competition can see lengthy explanations from each judge as to the reasons for their votes, along with heated commentary and further discussion.
Last year, the Brooklyn Public Library launched the Brooklyn Eagles Literary Prize, a literary award that is “awarded to one fiction and one nonfiction author who has lived in Brooklyn, portrayed the borough in their work or addressed themes relevant to its life and culture.” The shortlist for this year’s award was announced earlier this week, and includes books from the likes of Tanwi Nandini Islam, James McBride, and Idra Novey.
A borough-specific literary award can be a tricky thing to pull off. “From the beginning, the Eagles and the Library agreed that our Literary Prize would celebrate the spirit of Brooklyn,” said Amy Mickel, a director of outreach at the Brooklyn Public Library. “In the beginning we debated whether or not to put parameters around what that ‘spirit’ might be, but trying to define it seemed futile.” Ultimately, the three parameters quoted in the previous paragraph were applied to the process. Mickel also noted that the librarians involved in coming up with this year’s shortcuts delved even more deeply into those questions.
“A book’s connection to our borough is special, and without having defined it ahead of time, we can see the spirit of Brooklyn come through more strongly than the rest,” she said. “The books and the ideas contained therein drive the conversation, not the criteria.”
Mickel mentioned that the awards had helped to increase attention on the Brooklyn Public Library system, and to increase awareness of “the role of the librarian as someone deeply embedded in and committed to his or her community.” Another goal, she added, was “for Brooklynites to recognize that these awards are rooted in a ‘by us, for us’ mentality: the majority of our librarians, as well as the judging panelists, live and work in Brooklyn and the titles we select to be honored are for the people of Brooklyn, too.”
The creation of this award also leads to some interestingly blurred boundaries. Mickel pointed out that the award isn’t simply presented to “the best book about Brooklyn (the place).” Instead, she said, “[t]he books that will comprise the shortlists all in some way convey the life experiences of the borough’s residents, have the potential to reveal Brooklynites to each other and provoke deep conversations along the way.”
Attempting to find a handful of books that can reflect the experiences of 2.5 million people is no easy task, but the goal of creating conversations is a laudable one regardless. (And it’s not necessarily surprising to see that Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines appears on both the fiction shortlist and on the selections for the Gracie Book Club.) One of the best things that literature can do is start a debate; that this is one goal of this particular award suggests it’s off to a good start.