Local view: Much of region's literary talent goes unrecognized
The Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards, given yearly by the University of Minnesota Duluth Library in affiliation with Lake Superior Writers and Friends of the Duluth Public Library, has honored many excellent writers from our region with awards ...
The Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards, given yearly by the University of Minnesota Duluth Library in affiliation with Lake Superior Writers and Friends of the Duluth Public Library, has honored many excellent writers from our region with awards for fiction, poetry, children's literature, general nonfiction and creative nonfiction. Such gifted writers as Cynthia Kraack, Ellie Shoenfeld and Jen Wright were honored with awards for 2009, and entries for the 2010 award will be invited later this year.
The one criterion that governs all entries is that the book must explicitly reflect the culture and lifestyle of our region. Therein lurks a problem.
Imagine a young veteran returning from Iraq to Two Harbors and writing a bestselling account of her war experiences. It would not be eligible for the most publicized book award in her own locale. Or stretch your imagination to include the notion of a modern-day Shakespeare living in Hermantown. I don't recall overt regional references in Shakespeare's great sonnets; but it wouldn't pass the Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards entrance exam. And of course fiction set in cyberspace or in other imagined worlds would be out of bounds. Ursula K. Le Guin would be ineligible. Dante would be ineligible.
Regional pride is a good thing, but much good writing in the Arrowhead region doesn't show up on the Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards' radar because of an exclusionary criterion.
Certainly any writing of quality done by someone living here is a product of our culture, just as "The Divine Comedy" was a product of Dante's time and place even when they are not mentioned explicitly.
Northeastern Minnesota is a place of diverse talents, interests and views. The Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards' refusal to celebrate the variety of our literary productions results in a diminished version of who we are. The irony is that it would be simple to maintain an award in the area of regional themes while opening other categories to all writing.
Henry James cogently observed that a belief in artistic freedom requires that we judge creative writing by criteria of art and craft, not of subject matter. When subject matter becomes a requirement, cultural gatekeepers discourage creative work in the broad sense.
Of course it would be entirely appropriate for a private institution, say a church, to award writing within the area of its own interests and beliefs. But UMD is a public institution; we all support it with our taxes, and Lake Superior Writers is supported by its status as a nonprofit organization.
The present celebration of diverse literatures and cultures in the curricula of our best universities is the result of a long struggle against entrenched interests that offered narrow definitions of what matters in the culture, definitions from the perspective of one gender, one ethnic group, one sexual orientation and so on. Even the notion of "world literature" -- the biggest region of all -- did not include writing from developing countries. By opening the gate further, these universities now offer an enriched view of who and what we are as a people.
The Northeastern Minnesota Book Awards, Lake Superior Writers and Friends of the Duluth Public Library know these things and should honor them in practice.
Bruce Henricksen operates a small literary press in Duluth called Lost Hills Books.