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Why the National Magazine Awards Quietly Dropped Its Fiction Category

By posted at 12:00 pm on January 27, 2017 0

On January 19th, while many of us held our collective breath over the results of one national contest, the American Society of Magazine Editors released their list of finalists for the 2017 National Magazine Awards for Print and Digital Media. Curiously absent from the announcement were nominees in fiction, which ASME chose not to promote for the first time in nearly 50 years. The announcement made no mention of the category’s sudden disappearance.

For Michael Ray, editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, the distinction was particularly significant. Writing last Thursday via email, he said the award “breached the ostensibly isolated atmosphere of literature and recognized the fiction writer among a broader peer group of writers and before a more diverse and populous audience of potential new readers.”

Anthony Marra, whose 2016 NMA winning story, “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” Ray edited, expressed his disappointment in ASME’s omission. “Writing, editing, and publishing short stories in literary magazines is a labor of love for all involved,” he said. “They aren’t clickbait. They don’t make much noise or much money. And yet the best of them long outlast the paper on which they were first printed.”

While ASME has retained the category of “General Excellence in Literature, Science, and Politics,” such broad scope leaves little room for individual recognition, instead favoring the total yearly production of a magazine over excellence in a single piece. This year, Poetry is the only literary magazine nominated in that category.

Last September, Women’s Wear Daily released an email circulated to editors around the magazine industry from ASME Chief Executive Sid Holt. In what amounts to the closest document to a public announcement, the message cites declining fiction entries and, most surprisingly, concern that “few ASME members say they are competent to judge the category.”  ASME’s website describes its members as “senior editors, art directors, and photography editors employed by qualified publications.”

Susan Russ, senior vice president of communications at ASME, said that with the diminished numbers of submissions, fiction entries had “less than a fifth the number of entries [than] comparable categories.” While the decision to “suspend” the category, she said, “was not a judgment on the value of fiction or [ASME’s] ability to judge entries,” it is unclear — outside of an attendant fall in submissions fees, perhaps — how the small pool affected the organization.

The arts face an almost certainly precarious future. As a genre, short fiction has long struggled with recognition, and is too often minimized as a stepping-stone to more serious literary enterprises. According to Russ, “ASME is considering alternative ways of honoring fiction,” leaving open the possibility of a new award outside the existent NMA format. But such a move could further isolate fiction from the rest of print culture.

It’s entirely possible, however, that fiction may be back for next year’s contest. Losing touch with the power of writing is not something we can now afford to risk. And National Magazine Award or not, over the coming years, we’ll be needing all the good stories we can get.

Image Credit: Flickr/Phil Roeder/Ken Hawkins.

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