Top five ways to improve One Book, One Denver -- and great Colorado authors to consider

For years this space has been the repository of staff rants about the weird selections made by the city's One Book, One Denver program -- most of which have little or nothing to do with Colorado and seem to be, at best, a nod toward oh-so-PC mediocrity. The worst offender may be this year's choice, Kathryn Stockett's The Help, a chick-lit yammer that Jef Otte described as "a been-told-a-million-times story of racism and white guilt below the Mason-Dixie Line."

Here's a thought, if not a solution: Think local.

Of the seven titles selected for a citywide reading experience since 2004, only one -- Articles of War by Nick Arvin -- is the work of someone who actually lives in Colorado. A little more provincialism might be a good thing, unless the program is supposed to offer nothing more than a dose of respected-but-safe "good reading" (like last year's To Kill a Mockingbird) designed to make us all better neighbors.

I don't mean to disparage the obvious merits of a Harper Lee or John Nichols. But there are surely enough decent authors with strong local ties whose work helps to illuminate the history, joys and sorrows of living in this part of the country. The selection process might have to be revamped to get there (both Annie Proulx and David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle were on the short list in 2010 but lost in the "popular" vote to Stockett), but it's high time to delve into the richness that Colorado writers have to offer.

Here are a few suggestions for the future nomination process:

1. Seek out neglected classics. The culture czars could start with John Williams, subject of this week's cover story "Like an Open Book," whose work has been more honored and read elsewhere than here, even though he taught at the University of Denver for thirty years. All three of his best novels are back in print, and Butcher's Crossing would take Denverites on a chilling and instructive journey into the Colorado Territory of the 1870s. Although set in the Midwest, Stoner, his novel about a college professor who learns the true price of integrity, would also be a splendid choice.

2. Seek out deserving but neglected authors. This is a little trickier, since one requirement is that the title be widely available. There are plenty of local treasures whose work has fallen out of print or are a bit hard to find, including two writers mentioned in the Williams piece, Joanne Greenberg and Seymour Epstein. But Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden appears to be perpetually in print, and Epstein's early novel Leah (not local in setting but certainly no further afield than The Help) is being reissued by the Montemayor Press, which also has published some of Greenberg's more recent work. And earlier generations of Colorado authors who went elsewhere to be discovered, such as John Fante, are waiting to get their props, too.

3. Don't snub genre. The one time the OBOD crew tackled a mystery, it was Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, which prompted a lot of head-scratching about dated lingo and all those cocktail quips. But there are plenty of compelling mystery writers working the hardboiled street hereabouts -- John Dunning, Stephen White (a bestseller who hardly needs a citywide boost), Marianne Wesson and Rex Burns, to name a few. Colorado's horde of sci-fi and horror writers , including Connie Willis, Dan Simmons, Ed Bryant and Mario Acevedo, is no joke, either. And while Paolo Bacigalupi's adult sci-fi may be too "sophisticated" (i.e., graphic sex and violence) for the kiddies, his young adult novel Ship Breaker is darkly entertaining for all ages.

4. Nonfiction, anyone? Fiction is supposed to be easier to discuss than nonfiction, but it would be interesting to see how a truly accomplished piece of literary journalism is handled by the OBOD folks. And there's no shortage of good writers with Colorado ties here, too, including Russell Martin, Harry Maclean and Ted Conover.

5. Take a chance. I'm not sure why the program has bypassed perennial favorite Kent Haruf, but his solid novels are finding plenty of readers without the civic boost. Ditto for Wroblewski. Not pushing folks out of their comfort zone seems to be the top priority of the tastemakers running OBOD -- when, in fact, they should be taking risks and introducing us all to fresh perspectives and forms. Call me crazy, but I would welcome an offbeat selection that teaches us something about the history of our region, such as David Mason's excellent "verse novel" Ludlow or, if it's ever reissued, Fighting the Underworld, Philip Van Cise's account of busting up an organized crime ring in Denver in the 1920s.

Did I leave out any deserving Colorado authors? Of course. Now it's your turn to weigh in.

More from our Books archive: "One Book, One Denver teams up with Borders, snubs Tattered Cover."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast