Brad R. Torgersen

Fear and Loathing at the Awards Table

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As long as I’ve been paying attention to the pros in this business, I’ve been warned against giving too much credence to literature industry awards — of any sort. The systems used to bestow those awards are not perfect, and the reasons why a given voter in an awarding body may elect to show favor on a particular candidate writer or story may have nothing at all to do with the merits of the fiction itself. Both jurists and voters can and do cast their ballots using all sorts of subjective criteria, from whether or not a given writer belongs to the ‘correct’ political party, to how the jurist or voter happens to feel on any particular day, to whether or not the jurist or voter is cordial with the person who is up for an award, or whose work is getting noticed enough to be placed on any number of “short” lists, prior to final elimination. Unless a given award is “blind” — such as with Writers of the Future — it’s almost impossible to tell how or why a given author or a given story wins.

Still, the awards are part of the fabric of the business. From in-genre awards such as the Nebula (voted on by members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) and the Hugo (voted on by the members of the yearly World Science Fiction Convention) up to the elite prizes coveted by the entire fiction community, such as the Pulitzer or the Nobel. Whether we like it or not, we pay attention to awards, and even those cynical of the awarding process tend to be tickled if ever an awarding group or body happens to favor them. Lord knows I got a true kick out of my Writers of the Future award, not to mention my AnLab award — mainly because I feel both of these were fairly given on the merits of the stories themselves. Because in the case of one, it was impossible for the judges to know who I was, and in the case of the other I was so new to the venue that it’s almost impossible for my name to have swayed votes.

Perhaps because we can never really know how or why a given story or a given author wins an award, the awards can also generate controversy. Frequent award-winners are often accused of merely having a sufficient number of friends among jurists or voters to bring in the trophy, while winners who seem to defy expectation or come out of left-field, similarly generate suspicion of “gamesmanship” on the part of jurists or voters.

“How in the world did THAT ever win an award??”

“How in the heck did HE get the prize??”

Familiar refrains. I think we’ve all said more or less the same things, at different times. Much as we often find it hard to believe that a movie we didn’t like, is earning hundreds of millions at the box office. When a thing jags badly against our individual tastes, I think we have an almost unconscious tendency to want to find the “real” reason for that thing’s success. Because we ourselves struggle to appreciate how or why a given thing may be appreciated by others.

Certainly I couldn’t easily grasp why a film such as, say, “Avatar,” went on to become the top-grossing movie in history. Even with the magnificent visuals and special effects. To this day, I still struggle with that one. Though I must admit, as the saying goes, it’s difficult to argue with success.

But people do argue with success, and especially on awards, those arguments can take some unfortunate detours. Often by people — experienced professionals — who really ought to know better than to take their own subjective tastes and peccadilloes, and pass them off as if they are the dividend of purely deductive reasoning. I suspect this comes of the high-IQ demon, because the very-smart have an unfortunate tendency to assume (based on their smartness) that their emotional and intellectual process is somehow ‘elevated’ above that of other people.

Or, as also happens, a person may not in fact be rippingly brilliant, but he or she has expended a great deal of time and energy becoming (in their own estimation) a “subject matter expert” on a given thing, thus they will make pronouncements couched in the vernacular of authority. Literary analysts and critics often fall into this bunch, as the very-experienced reviewer may assume that because (s)he has read and reviewed X number of stories, this automatically gives his/her reviews greater relevance or validity, compared to the average consumer’s viewpoint.

I would like to offer a voice of caution against this kind of intellectual hubris. The main reason being that writing, like music or art, is a thoroughly subjective endeavour. Lately when I’ve been asked by newer writers to take a look at their stories, I’ve had to preface my critiques with many caveats — because I am uncomfortable claiming any degree of authority on what may make a story “good” or “bad.” I don’t think I am qualified to make that sort of claim, and neither is anyone else for that matter.

Which is not to say we can’t each of us — for ourselves — make value judgments about the artistic products that surround us. I certainly don’t place much artistic value on the works of, say, Andres Serrano, and for me it’s perfectly valid to look at something like the infamous “Piss Christ” and declare it crap-o-la. But I am humble enough to realize that this is my value judgment for me. Others may not share it. In fact, any value judgment I make against a piece of art is liable to have just as many (or more) people making positive value judgments in favor of the same item.

The same is true for books and stories, though I have to admit being dragged by the ear to my conclusion that it’s simply not fair for me to call a book, a story, or an author, “crappy,” as if the value judgment were self-evident for all to see.

It took a seasoned pro to pull me aside and say, “Look kid, author X or novel Y may not be to your taste, but they obviously work for somebody. Instead of getting mad about it, stop and think about how or why a given writer or a given book, or series of books, is speaking to an audience that large. There’s something deeper going on, and it’s worth considering. Maybe even respecting — though you personally may not like what author X puts out.”

That stern-but-friendly advice really got me to thinking. Because before that, I’d tended to do what we all do — pick on this or that award-winner or bestseller and wonder (loudly or sarcastically) how a person or product so obviously poor had managed to gain as much traction with audiences and/or critics and/or jurists and voters.

I have made it my personal policy since then to pay very close attention any time I start having a negative reaction to someone else’s success. Usually that’s a train signal for me, to stop and consider more carefully why that reaction is happening — to pull it apart and dig down to the root of the thing. Almost always it’s because I either think the work itself is “substandard” or because I have a personal issue with the person who created it. In both cases, these are 100% subjective, emotional reactions — and I’ve got no business parading these opinions as if they’re anything other than what they are.

Unfortunately, lots of other people have no such filter mechanism. And subjective opinions are asserted as objective facts, sometimes for vain, silly, shabby, or otherwise underhanded reasons. Jealousy can fuel sniping disguised as critique. Bruised egos can infect evaluation. Friends may attack the competitors of friends, or take the stance that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Where awards are concerned this can get especially nasty, since there are a lot of people who simply don’t want “that kind” of writer or “those kinds” of stories to receive any sort of literary accolade. Snobbery is alive and well — especially among the well-educated in the business — and any sort of accolade that is awarded “out of the natural order of things” is liable to generate controversy.

Recently, a friend of mine had his well-deserved award questioned in just such a manner. Because his award was “out of order” with the assumptions and predispositions of a certain few people, it was concocted that he could have only won with the help of a loyal phalanx of friends, voting as a unified block. The problem with this assertion is that it cannot be proven — nobody can read hearts nor minds — and it automatically devalues or impugns the worth of the story itself. In this case, I think the story is quite a good story. Perhaps even the writer’s best? That it won is not a surprise to me, but then again I don’t have the biases against “these kinds” of stories and “that kind” of writer that certain other people appear to possess.

In the end, I have to conclude that, as flawed as awards systems can be, they still arrive at a nominally positive outcome, more often than not. Yes, sometimes, the systems can be gamed. But also, sometimes, the systems work exactly as the spirit of their creation intended: to honor and acknowledge truly exemplary or important accomplishment in the enterprise of literature. Those of us on the receiving end should be thankful and humble — especially for those awards granted directly from the readership — and those still hungering for awards should remember that energy expended on sour grapes is probably better expended on writing new books and new stories. Crying foul or otherwise trying to besmirch the accolades of others not only makes you, the complaining party, look small, it also seldom has any lasting or negative impact on the award-winner.

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