This is a complex subject, but it has been occupying my mind a lot in the last couple of days, so I want to take a stab at it. Every year I read the finalists for a certain literary award before voting; yesterday I read a few finalists in short fiction categories, and the experience left me deeply discouraged. It’s not that they were bad stories. One was nice, one was clever, and one was sweet, but none came anywhere near what I thought of as award-worthy. I wondered how they had got on the ballot. There have been scandals in recent years involving the major science fiction literary awards concerning blocks of voters putting support behind mediocre stories, and I wondered if this was what was happening again. My faith was restored somewhat today when I read another nominee and its brilliance blew me away. Okay, thought I, probably every ballot has less-than-deserving entries – that doesn’t mean they’re going to win. That one terrific story somewhat restored my confidence in the system.
The mediocre nominees I had read previously, though, caused me to call into question (again) our culture’s fascination with awards. It’s partially the fault of the media. Winners are touted far and wide, and even finalists get a sort of partial credit for their resume. The real value of an award is commercial. It makes an author more visible, and as a result causes their work to be disseminated to a wider audience, which in turn makes them more money. Okay, it may also provide an ego-boost, but a writer who has anything worthwhile to say is going to go ahead and say it whether they win any awards or not.
The problem with awards is that often they do not honor the best work. There are all sorts of ways awards are chosen and all sorts of reasons why people select one work and not another. Some awards are chosen by a single individual, some by committee, some by peers or members of a professional organization, and some by popular vote. However, even in the most democratic of circumstances such as popular vote or voting by fellow professionals, situations arise such as the block voting mentioned above.
Motivations for voting for particular works vary as well. I’m sure that many voters, when contemplating works of what they perceive as similar quality, would opt to vote for the efforts of their friends. Sometimes works are favored that address current movements or hot topics, even if the works are lacking in technical quality. These works often do not stand the test of time.
Controversies about awards extend across all artistic disciplines. Consider the heated debates that always accompany the announcement of Academy Award nominees, not to mention the opening of the envelopes and revealing of the winners. Because these awards are so high-profile, there are always endless articles afterwards explaining why some films and performers should or shouldn’t have won. The debate carries on for decades in trivia articles listing the least worthy winners.
I probably wouldn’t have bothered writing about this if it has not been so important to the career goals I set long ago for myself as a writer. I have reached several of those goals concerning professional sales, but one that I have not come close to is the winning of a certain award that I have craved for almost five decades. Yesterday when I was reading those mediocre awards nominees I realized (or rather re-realized) that setting the winning of awards as a personal goal was completely wrong, the reason being that I have no control whatsoever about its accomplishment. What I can do is strive to improve the quality of my writing every day. What I can’t do is cause other people to nominate my stories for awards and then vote for them. That situation is completely outside my hands – and as I have explained above, those outcomes often have nothing to do with the excellence of the work. Goals should be things that I can reach through my own efforts. Therefore I should erase the winning of that certain award from my career goals list. (I still want one, though, but that is a hope or dream rather than a professional goal.)
In closing, let me emphasize that I do not go to the extreme of saying that awards are useless. They often bring worthy artistic works to the public’s attention. I have sometimes perused lists of award winners while looking for what to read next. The point, though, is to not give overmuch attention to the giving and receiving of awards. Some works of literature that were commercial failures and virtually unknown during the authors’ lifetimes went on to be considered classics. Among these are Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience by William Blake, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, the lovely poetry of Emily Dickenson, and the haunting tales of Franz Kafka. A singular story concerns John Kennedy Toole and his novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole committed suicide at the age of thirty-three after unsuccessfully trying to sell his novel to publishers. His mother persisted in marketing the work, and it was published in 1980, eleven years after his death. The following year, 1981, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.