Edgar-Winning Charles Ardai Ineligible for Edgar?

By Neal Comment

songs-innocence-cover.jpgSarah Weinman may have left GalleyCat, but that doesn’t mean she’s stopped breaking stories. Yesterday afternoon, she posted on her own blog about Charles Ardai‘s run-in with the Mystery Writers of America. In addition to co-owning Hard Case Crime, which specializes in original and long-out-of-print pulp thrillers, Ardai also writes private eye stories under the anagrammatic pseudonym Richard Aleas, in which guise he’s won the MWA’s Edgar Award for the short story “The Home Front.” But the new Aleas novel from Hard Case, Songs of Innocence, has been ruled ineligible for Edgar consideration, even though Publishers Weekly just called it one of 2007’s best hundred new books, because the MWA says Ardai’s financial interest in the Hard Case imprint makes it a self-published novel, even though the Hard Case line is actually published and distributed by Dorchester (making Ardai’s position somewhat akin to that of a book packager, though he’s billed as a publisher).

“It’s not that I think the book would have been nominated or won the award otherwise,” Ardai said when he told me about the situation over the holiday weekend. “It might, it might not, and either outcome would have been fine. It’s a matter of principle: Why should this book be the one title published all year by a legitimate, MWA-approved publisher, in the conventional advance-and-royalties-and-publisher-pays-for-everything fashion, to be singled out as ineligible?”

Good question! “This decision is no reflection whatsoever on the quality of the book, which many of us on the committee have read and enjoyed,” MWA Awards Chair Lee Goldberg told Sarah. “In fact, the point of our guidelines is to assure that decisions about Edgar eligibility are made regardless of a work’s perceived quality (or lack thereof) or the popularity (or lack thereof) of the author.” And that “rules are rules” approach sounds fine, except… “decisions about Edgar eligibility are made regardless of a work’s perceived quality”? You could argue that the quality of a potential candidate for a juried literary award should bear a little more consideration than questions of provenance.

But you wouldn’t get anywhere with Goldberg making that argument: “If we allow Charles’ book to be considered for an Edgar,” he adds in the comments to Sarah’s post, then we would have to accept all self-published titles for consideration, otherwise we would [be] guilty of blatant favoritism. Charles has my respect and my sympathy but the MWA is not prepared at this time to accept self-published titles simply to allow Songs of Innocence to be considered for an Edgar.” Ardai counters, reasonably enough, “Given that there is no danger of a bad self-published title winning an Edgar, the question I’d pose is what benefit there is to the organization from categorically banning self-published titles from consideration for the award… Any rule that forces a judge to say, ‘I loved this story, it’s the best one I read all year, but I’m prevented from giving it the award it deserves because of this rule that says I can’t’ is a bad rule and deserves to be changed.” That way, Goldberg counter-counters, lies madness, or at least “a popularity contest.”

Goldberg tries his best to shut the controversy down: “The only reason Sarah is peeved about this situation is because Charles is a remarkably talented, award-winning writer and a highly respected publisher. If we were talking about someone else—a writer with a book from PublishAmerica—this wouldn’t be an issue for her… I don’t think we should allow self-published books to be eligible for Edgar consideration.” Obviously, I can’t and won’t speak for Sarah, but I’d just circle right back to Ardai’s point—what’s the MWA’s beef with self-published books and stories in the first place? If the organization is operating under the assumption that self-published fiction is all bad, then Ardai’s novel disproves the assumption handily, and who knows but that some book from iUniverse or Lulu.com or even, yes, PublishAmerica might disprove it even further, except the poor saps who choose those companies generally don’t have the resources to get their books noticed the way Ardai does through Hard Case, and the only reason people are having this fight over Ardai and not one of those saps is that they’ve actually read Ardai’s novel.

(Ultimately, though, it’s more likely that the MWA simply doesn’t view self-published authors as professional enough to merit their attention—suggesting, as do their membership requirements, that you’re not a real Mystery Writer of America unless somebody else pays you to be one.)