Whitney Finalists 2013: First Impressions

The finalists for the 2013 Whitney Awards were announced last Friday and people are already talking about who was included, who wasn’t, and which books are likely to be winners. As I did last year, I’m going to share a few of my first impressions this month, and then follow up at least once during the next two months after I have read more of the finalists.

Who was included: My first, general, impression was that there were a lot of familiar names and familiar publishers in this year’s group of finalists. Then I looked more closely and realized something else–this year’s finalists are dominated by female authors. Out of the adult fiction finalists, 23 of the 25 books were authored by women (and the majority of them feature female protagonists). In youth fiction, 12 out of the 15 finalists were written by women, and many of them also feature female leads. The Young Adult General category books are all stories about young women, four of them with contemporary settings and one historical. Also, Heather Moore has dominated this year’s group with 4 books as finalists in four different categories. If I remember correctly, that’s the highest number yet for any author.

Who wasn’t included: Every year with the Whitneys, as happens with most other awards, there are books that just don’t make the finals for some reason or another. I’m not surprised that Ryan McIlvain’s Elders is not one of the finalists in the General category, but I was surprised and disappointed that Ryan Rapier’s The Reluctant Blogger didn’t make it. I know it received enough nominations, and in my opinion it is a much stronger book than at least two of the other finalists. Another book that could have ended up in historical was Songs of Willow Frost, especially since Jamie Ford won a few years ago for his first book Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I was also surprised to see, yet again, Orson Scott Card left out of the finalists. Another author who has been consistently excluded is Dean Hughes, whose recent series Come to Zion has yet to see any books make it into the finals. Annette Lyon is another established author whose most recent book (Band of Sisters: Coming Home) didn’t make it either.

What I’m planning to read: I like the change made last year to separate Youth fiction and Adult fiction because it makes reading the finalists more manageable. As I did last year, I plan to read all 25 titles nominated in the Adult categories. I’ve previously read 8 of them, so that makes my task easier. Most of the finalists that are left for me to read are somewhat shorter books that shouldn’t take too much of my time; this may be an optimistic goal, however, since I’ve recently started an online graduate program. I’ll do what I can and report back in a month or two.

First impressions: I’ve only read two of the books in the General category so far, Mile 21 and The House at Rose Creek. Out of those two, I thought Mile 21 had much more complex characters and a more original plot. I’m most looking forward to reading Love Letters of the Angels of Death because of the positive reviews I’ve read and the intriguing plot. I’ve also only read two books in the Historical category; the other three are all by authors that I’ve read before and enjoyed, so this could be a tough category to decide on. I feel the same way about the Romance category–I’ve read 3 of the books and there are some strong contenders here. I love Melanie Jacobson’s writing and want this to be her year for an award, but Julianne Donaldson and Sarah Eden are some pretty stiff competition. I don’t have a lot to say about the Mystery/Suspense category or the Speculative Fiction just yet since I’m not very familiar with the books that are finalists. I’ll have to post more after I read some of them.

What do you think about this year’s finalists? Which ones have you read and which are you planning to read?

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17 Responses to Whitney Finalists 2013: First Impressions

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Hi Jessie,

    Thanks for the rundown. I haven’t even had a chance to look at the finalists yet…

  2. Wm says:

    My quick reactions:

    1. I’m toying with reading the titles in the General Fiction category.
    2. None of the finalists in the Speculative category were on my radar.
    3. I’m pleased to see some self-published titles make it on the list of finalists.
    4. It’s Covenant-heavy (although I haven’t crunched all the numbers to see how it compares to other years), but that shouldn’t be a surprise since Covenant publishes a lot of the Mormon genre fiction that gets published.

    • Jessie says:

      Along with the fact that its Covenant-heavy, my impression is that a lot of these authors are involved with LDS Storymakers in some way. I worry a little that certain types of books will be nominated and chosen by the judges as being more “Whitney-type” books and that other authors and types of books may be overlooked simply because they are not the type that usually end up in the Whitneys. I know that the intent of the awards is to recognize all new LDS fiction, but a natural tendency for all people is to like something more that is familiar. I wonder if the Whitneys have been around long enough now to start developing a certain ‘type’ of novel that is more likely to be favored.

      • Wm says:

        I don’t know. The Whitney Awards has been very clear that they’re here to serve the wider community and not just LDStorymakers. And they’ve done that in both what they’ve said and in some of what they’ve selected as finalists in the past.

        Hmmm. Maybe I should attempt the Speculative category and see how much I agree with the choices there.

  3. Ryan says:

    Thank you. Your mention was very kind.

  4. JQuist says:

    Thanks for the mention, Jessie. I’m interested in this comment conversation about LDS publishers. My novel was published thousands of miles away from the LDS publishing heartland. It’s from a small literary press in Montreal, Canada that sells in the mass fiction market with no targeted distribution to specialized LDS markets. I was very pleased my book was selected as a finalist anyway and I think it’s a sign the Whitneys are willing to look outside the familiar houses. Good for them, better for me. :) Hope you enjoy the book. Thanks again.

    • Jessie says:

      I’m looking forward to reading your book–one nice thing about the Whitneys is that it’s a chance to read things that I wasn’t aware of that don’t come from familiar publishers.

  5. Finalists and winners over the years include books from mainstream LDS presses, small independent LDS presses, national presses, indie published books, Storymaker and non-Storymaker books. Naturally, there is going to be some disagreement about the merits of various books and what should or should not have made the finals, but I think the Whitneys are doing their job very well as far as judging on merit.

    • I should clarify by adding “and doing their job as well as it’s possible to do it in such an inherently subjective endeavor.” Judging fiction is tough. Do you weigh this factor more heavily or that factor more heavily? There are EXCELLENT books that don’t make the finals. I’ve served twice as a Whitney judge and twice on the Whitney committee. The book I listed as my top choice in the category I judged this year didn’t make the finals.

      • Jessie says:

        Yep, the same thing happened to me when I was a Whitney judge. Several of the books I rated most highly didn’t make it into the finals, and two of the ones I didn’t like did make it. Another thing I like about the Whitneys is that the process not brings together so many different types of books, but also people with so many different opinions and ideas about books.

        I ask these sorts of questions every year, as much for myself as for others, since as you point out, judging fiction is so tough and so highly subjective. Do I sometimes rate books highly because they are familiar and I know the author or like their previous work? Do I sometimes treat a book more generously because the author is new or the style or subject matter is different? Do I sometimes treat a book more harshly because I don’t like the subject matter or some of the other content? A lot of these things we do are subconscious and I think it’s good sometimes to step back and ask ourselves some questions to re-evaluate our personal process for nominating and voting on books.

        • That’s an excellent point about stepping back and reevaluating our own judging processes. What are we favoring and why? Are we judging on the factors we want to be judging on, or are other factors influencing us subconsciously? Thanks for a thought-provoking blog and comments, Jessie!

          I do love how the Whitneys have introduced me to books I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. Like last year–The Rent Collector, Dancing on Broken Glass, and Night on Moon Hill are probably all books I otherwise wouldn’t have read, and WOW! What incredible books.

  6. I agree The Reluctant Blogger should’ve made it.

  7. Jonathan Langford says:

    The thing that concerns me most is the gender balance question. Granted that there tend to be more female authors these days, still, the numbers cited above seem kind of extreme. If I were in charge of the Whitneys, I would be looking at the gender balance in the panels of judges to make sure there is at least the potential for stories that appeal more strongly to guys to make it into the top tier.

    • Mindy Holt is the current Whitney president; that would be good feedback to pass on to her. I wonder if it’s more difficult finding men willing to judge?

      • Jonathan Langford says:

        That could be. I haven’t been asked to be a judge, but if I had been asked, I would have had to turn it down; lack of time, and I’m just too slow a reader.

        I’m frankly in awe of those who serve on the judging committees. It may seem like poor thanks to quibble about the process as we’re doing here, but hopefully, this is all in the spirit of helping the Whitneys to remain a force for good in Mormon letters.

  8. Andrew H. says:

    You can see the finalists here: http://whitneyawards.com/wordpress/2014/01/31/2013-finalists/

    There is always a book that I totally missed in my week in review pieces. This year it was Jennifer Quist’s Love Letters of the Angel of Death. It sounds like it was a worthy nominee.
    Ryan McIlvain says he is no longer a member of the Church, so it understandable that Elders was not nominated under the rules of the awards.
    Heather Moore was nominated 3 times!
    General would have been stronger if it had included Rapier’s Reluctant Blogger and Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost.
    Mystery could have used Michaelbrent Collings’ Blood Relations: A Good Mormon Girl Mystery.
    Speculative could have used Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood and one of Card’s novels. (Card’s two novels probably could have slotted into either speculative or YA speculative).
    YA Speculative is a strong group, with two skilled new authors, but Brodi Ashton’s Everbound probably was a strong contender.
    Middle Grade might have used Shannon Hale’s Ever After High.

    I am going to try to read more books this year, I look forward to reading several of these.

    Sorry I have been late getting to my Mormon Market Year in Review. Hopefully I can get to finishing it next week.

  9. Andrew Hall says:

    Correction, Heather B. Moore has _4_ finalist novels.

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