The Lambda Book Awards don't have a red carpet yet, and it's probably just as well. TV viewers wouldn't get to see all those plastic Beautiful People so familiar at the Oscars, Golden Globes, etc. They'd have to look at a bunch of unplastic poets, journalists, novelists, scholars, historians, playwrights and eroticists straggling along the red carpet - along with editors, publishers, agents, critics and other unvarnished ancillary workers in an art that is facing some real economic problems right now.
Yes, the Lammies offer no anorexic actresses in gowns that cost more than most authors earn in a year. No older actors wearing tuxedos and those stretched-tight smiles that tell you how much work they've had done. No TV interviewers who have the same pre-fab look as the celebs they're ambushing with their mikes. Indeed, the occasional effort to look non-plastic and human on the red carpet gets a loud boo-hiss from the Fashion Police.
After 19 years of following BookExpo America to various cities around the country, the Lammies just held their 20th edition in a new permanent home - West Hollywood's Pacific Design Center.
Last night, after a gala reception, the ceremony took place before a packed house in the elegant Silver Screen Theater. To emphasize the permanence of the move, the Lambda Literary Foundation has left its old east-coast haunts and moved to a new office at 5482 Wilshire Blvd, #1595 in Los Angeles.
Mayor John Heilman, city council member John Duran and other city-government notables were on hand to assure everyone of a warm welcome in WeHo.
As one of the presenters, I looked around at the throng of LGBT book people and realized that "real people writing real stuff" is one of the issues around book-industry struggles right now.
Book awards, whether they're LGBT or mysteries or sci-fi or romance or children's books, are all about recognizing good writing. But it's one thing to write a good book, and another thing to get a good book read. Reading takes effort by the reader... especially a well-written novel or book of poetry that might require the reader to use some imagination. When I was young, the newest well-written book by an American literary figure - like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952 -- touched off national headlines and stampedes to bookstores. Today you have to be a tabloid superstar, or a notorious criminal, or a maverick politico like Scott McClellan, to get headlines for your book, and stampedes to your page on Amazon.com. And today, more often than not, your high-profile book is written by a ghostwriter.
For 3000 years or more, books have been there for humanity. Books were the world's prime conveyor of information, news, ideas and artistic sensibilities. Starting with the first use of movable type in China around 1000 B.C., through the West's transition from scrolls to bound books in the early centuries A.D., books hit the 19th century with invention of the motorized rotary press, which catapulted printing into mass volume. The 20th century gave us the digital "print on demand" press that works like a super-copier. Today we go more digital, with e-books that can be downloaded onto Kindle, Amazon.com's revolutionary new wireless portable reading device, that is even shaped like a tome.
Yet the ever-higher tech in books faces an ever-lower rate of literacy. And it isn't the average Americans' fault that they don't read much. Young people get to slide through school without having to read much or use their imaginations. They get most of their news, ideas and information all pre-digested and spoon-fed to them by TV and the Internet. Their attention span is crimped to the 60-second sound byte. Even the job world demands less in the way of reading skills than it used to.
So real writers, and real writing, are finding themselves a little marginalized right now.
Last night at the Lammies, for me, the defining moment was the "In Memoriam" slide show - a presentation of photographs of all LGBT authors who died during the awards' 20 years of history. The presentation was inspired by that memoriam done at the Oscars every year. Photos ran the gamut from world-famous, notorious and well-known to lesser-known.
But author head-shots don't look anything like airbrushed Hollywood head-shots. Seeing them all together, in a single documentary presentation, was overwhelming - those honest faces untouched by the plastic surgeon. They had wrinkles and scars and moles. There were a few funny hats, and strange-looking dresses, and startling hairstyles. All their eyes had that look of hard experience, hard work, the fierce will to tell the story against all odds. In some cases, their faces showed the ravages of advancing illness. Few of those women and men could be called "stunning" or "handsome." Yet their collective legacy is massive.
Last night, as envelopes were torn open and winners came forward, little was said about the problems that the book industry faces. Everybody glowed as Pioneer Awards went to Ann Bannon, Malcolm Boyd and Mark Thompson.
Women's fiction winner Ali Liebegott did touch on the economic challenges when she said, "I thank my publisher, Carroll & Graf...who is now defunct." Her line got a wry laugh from the audience, but it wasn't a ha-ha kind of laugh. The demise of this gay-friendly mainstream publisher, one of the casualties of a distributor's Chapter 11 last year, is a sad thing.
As the crowd adjourned to a dessert reception and more chatter, I couldn't get those images of the author head-shots out of my mind. In fact, I found myself feeling confident that books would somehow weather the storm. Real books and real writers have been around for 3000 years, so they can't possibly linger forever in the present shadow. Perhaps e-books, and inventions like Kindle, will carry books forward into a future where popular literacy will hopefully revive again.
Meanwhile, we have our photo-gallery of living LGBT writers - older writers who are still producing, young writers getting their first books out -- real people who wrestle with the real angels of sexual orientation and gender, who tell the real stories of those wrestling matches, and defiantly show their real faces to the world.