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Thoughts on the Shirley Jackson Award

By (December 12, 2009) No Comment

I cruise a constellation of blogs written by authors who primarily (even, exclusively) write horror, science fiction, and/or fantasy. While I justify this use of my time as a practical interest in “the industry,” my motivation is primarily a morbid fascination with the squabbling, the self-righteous ranting, the bla bla bla-ing (T.V. shows Netflixed and sweated over, pro-wrestling fixations carried over from a humiliating adolescence, etc.), and the very bad ideas that make up the bulk of these posts.

Falling, maybe, into the “practical interest” category has been the latest promotion of The Shirley Jackson Award, a fledgling award for horror and fantasy fiction and an alternative to the Bram Stoker Award.

Last year, The Shirley Jackson Award committee, to raise awareness and presumably money, invited a couple dozen (plus) authors (only one or two a name anyone not deeply engaged with small press horror would recognize) to blog their own “Jack Haringa Must Die!” story (Jack Haringa is the editor of Dead Reckonings, a magazine of short, genre fiction reviews and occasional essays)—to imagine a humorous and/or gruesome death for Haringa in a few hundred words. These stories were collected, with an additional two non-blogged originals, in a slim volume called Jack Haringa Must Die!, to be sold online and at conventions for $10 a pop. Last month, a similar promotion was launched, this time, “.”

Curious, I read Keene’s blog entry on the stunt and scrolled through the comments to see what folks were saying, and I came across this comment, written by David Kearny:

I’m a little surprised they’re doing this again. Did the Jack Haringa book do well? I read it; most of the stories were built on private jokes that fell flat for me, who is outside the circle of friends who wrote them. I’m not attacking the concept, nor the cause, but if the goal is to make money for The Shirley Jackson Awards, shouldn’t a book be devised that people not on the committee or directly involved with it would want to own? …I hope this collection evolves into something more thoughtful than the last—considerate, that is, of the audience it seeks (rather than the audience it already has). I did like Laird Barron’s story in the last book… but the rest were uninteresting at best.

Brian Keene replied, thoughtfully, and corrected Kearny’s assumption that “Brian Keene is Dead” will be a book:

To clarify: This was devised by Paul, Nick, Nick, Lee, myself and a few others. Our goals were simply to once again raise awareness of the organization and hopefully earn some donations…

There are no plans at this time to collect the stories into a second volume. Not saying we wouldn’t do it if such an opportunity presented itself and the monies went to the org. But as of now, there are no plans and no offers. The goal was simply to increase awareness, if only for a day. And to have a bit of fun doing it. ;>)

All well and good, and it does sound like fun, but Kearny got me wondering this: why promote an award named for Shirley Jackson and with the goal (presumably) of being taken seriously as an award worth winning with writings unrelated to Jackson and of such highly limited interest? Wouldn’t the committee serve the reputation of the award better—and create a more interesting artifact—by taking inspiration from the award’s namesake? Would it have been a better use of the undoubtedly limited resources used to publish Jack Haringa Must Die!

to instead compile an anthology of essays written (perhaps exclusively) by women about Jackson? With the money spent to print Jack Haringa Must Die!, a few women authors could have been paid to create original fiction inspired not by an advisory board member but by Jackson herself, which could have been posted on a website with a “donate here” button for readers to click. I suggest women authors in both cases for good reason: I suspect it’s no accident that the award is named for a woman author, that by doing so the committee consciously chose to underline that genre fiction is not exclusively the domain of boys, a common—and totally understandable—perception. Indeed, of the twenty-eight entries in Jack Haringa Must Die!, I count only six by women.

I think Kearny’s questions can be boiled down to two very obvious questions: Why is a literary award creating anthologies of tossed-off fiction with a localized appeal rather than linking itself to more thoughtful work and why is The Shirley Jackson Award committee ignoring Shirley Jackson?

Adam Golaski
 is the author of Color Plates and Worse Than Myself. He co-edits for Flim Forum Press, and is the editor of New Genre. Check in on Adam at Little Stories.