Linda Fairstein has been rightly celebrated by many as a feminist icon. For more than 25 years, she was head of the largely male sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where she was involved in several high-profile cases, including the “Preppy Murder” case and another I will get to in a minute. Fairstein used her pioneering legal work as the basis for 20 mystery novels featuring Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Alexandra “Alex” Cooper. The books have been lauded for their insider view of the Manhattan D.A.’s office as well as for their deep historical knowledge of the New York sites where they’re set.
Late last year, Fairstein — whose most recent book, “Blood Oath,” came out in March — earned the esteem of the Mystery Writers of America, which announced that it would honor her and “Gorky Park” author Martin Cruz Smith with the lifetime achievement Grand Masters Award at a banquet to be held in New York on April 25. The Edgars are the most prestigious honors in the mystery genre, and the Grand Master is the highest accolade. Past winners include Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ross Macdonald, Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, Walter Mosley and Sue Grafton.
Two days after its initial announcement, the Mystery Writers of America said it had changed its mind: Fairstein was not to be honored.
At issue was one of the other high-profile cases in which Fairstein was involved. In 1989, she oversaw the interrogation (conducted by another prosecutor) of the Central Park Five, the five black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for the rape of a 28-year-old white female jogger in Central Park. The teenagers maintained that their confessions were coerced. After DNA evidence exonerated them in 2002, all charges were vacated.
Fairstein has steadfastly defended the work of her office, and her crucial involvement in the case is a matter of public record. Fairstein appears in scenes from the 2013 Ken Burns documentary “Central Park Five.” In 2018, she published an article in the New York Law Journal headlined, “In Defense of the Central Park 5 Prosecution.” Presumably, this information was available to the Edgar Awards committee.
But the announcement of Fairstein’s award set off a Twitter fight. Attica Locke — whose novel “Bluebird, Bluebird” won last year’s Edgar for best mystery — tweeted that Fairstein was “almost single-handedly responsible for the wrongful incarceration of the Central Park Five.” (Locke is also a writer for the forthcoming Netflix miniseries on the Central Park case, “When They See Us,” in which Fairstein is played by Felicity Huffman, who is warding off troubles of her own.) Locke urged the Mystery Writers of America to reconsider. Fairstein responded, suggesting “a civilized conversation so I can refresh you with the facts.” Another flurry of tweets concluded with Fairstein admonishing Locke, “Talk to me about the other 6 men viciously attacked in the Park that night, which these and others admit doing. You don’t care about them? Good night.”
The fact that Fairstein was personally involved in what many now see as a racist miscarriage of justice made members of the Mystery Writers of America very uncomfortable. (The case gained fresh notoriety in 2016 when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump insisted to CNN that the five were guilty. At the time the case was being tried, Trump took out full-page ads urging that New York reinstate the death penalty.) As more members expressed their displeasure, the organization backtracked, then issued a bland statement pledging to review its awards process. Good luck with that.
The process of evaluating contenders for an award — literary or otherwise — has never been tidy. Is the work the thing that’s being judged? The life? Some mishmash of both? And, if the life is being factored into the process, must one’s entire record of opinions and actions be unanimously judged to be humane and just?
Consider that in 1948, Ezra Pound — then incarcerated as a mental patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington on treason charges for fascist broadcasts he made in Italy during World War II — received the Bollingen Prize in poetry for “The Pisan Cantos.” The New York Times headline the next day read: “Pound, in Mental Clinic, Wins Prize for Poetry Penned in Treason Cell.” Then there’s the case of director Elia Kazan, who received a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Oscars ceremony. Kazan had never apologized for “naming names” of fellow members of the Group Theatre who, like himself, had once been members of the Communist Party. Should Pound or Kazan have been honored?
Those who believe that art and literature should be judged strictly on their own terms, separate from the life and times of the human beings who created them, would say yes. Implicitly in this camp are the mid-20th-century literary critics who espoused a reliance on close readings of texts known as New Criticism and, later, deconstructionist critics like Roland Barthes, whose classic essay “The Death of the Author” pooh-poohed any attention to an author’s biography as naive.
These days, the awards process seems to have become especially vexed. In November 2017, when it was revealed that multiple women had accused the husband of a Nobel board member of sexual assault, several other board members resigned, and the academy subsequently announced that there would be no literature prize in 2018; instead, two prizes are to be awarded this year. In February, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute rescinded an award for the activist Angela Davis a few days after announcing it. At issue was Davis’s support of Palestinian rights and perceived outspoken criticism of Israel. Then, the institute apologized and again offered the award. (To date, it’s still not clear whether Davis will accept.)
Complicating matters is that we no longer seem to have a consensus about who “deserves” these awards — even on their own terms — so cordoning off the art from politics, or as W.B. Yeats termed it, “the dancer from the dance,” is itself just another kind of argument to process. When, for example, the 2019 Pulitzer Prizes were announced earlier this month, some critics on social media pointed out that since 2000, only six women have won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. “It doesn’t help,” one person wrote, that Junot Díaz is on the board. Last year, Díaz was accused by several women of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse. Lost in this conversation is not only whether the winner — Richard Powers’s “The Overstory” — is worthy of the prize but whether we even have broadly acceptable language that can convey what being “worthy” on the “merits” (itself a contested word) even means.
It’s impossible for award committees to evade the potential political and social conflicts that permeate every point in the process — honoring the work, honoring the life, honoring the career. But they can at least be prepared. They can thrash out any substantive issues in the recipient’s record before they hit “send” on the news release. Then they should own the decision, rather than renouncing it like some hapless prisoner at a political show trial.
As for Linda Fairstein, the question is not, “Does Fairstein deserve the honor?” but, rather, “Should the Mystery Writers of America have been able to plausibly defend giving an honor to Fairstein, regardless of who protested or why?” If it couldn’t, it should have known that before announcing that she had won. By withdrawing Fairstein’s name after it was criticized, the organization appeared both feckless and perversely ignorant of the career of the very person it, days earlier, presented to the public as deserving of its imprimatur.
What’s required is for award committees to do their work and to respect their evaluative judgments enough to stick by them for more than 48 hours. Their own award for doing so will be the self-knowledge that they honored their professed values of moral and intellectual seriousness. These days, that might be the hardest award of all to deserve.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.” She won an Edgar Award for criticism in 1999.