Roundtable: All the Awards (Part 3 of 3)

Russell Letson

I so do not have a dog in this fight (though maybe Terry will free the one barking in the closet). On the other hand, a couple years back my wife and I did win a bag of baked goods at our local Panera. It was only a drawing, and we were almost the only people in the store at the time, but all the same we felt honored, and the bread and muffins were pretty good, too. (Try eating one of those rockets.)

Awards are a nice spectator sport, and as with hockey or football or lacrosse, I think one is better off watching from the stands, where injuries are less likely (though not impossible). And I keep thinking of the Oscars–there comes a point in your career when getting one means you should be putting your affairs in order. Sorry we kept overlooking your work. See you at the funeral.

I enjoy the awards game as much as the next guy, even when I have to nudge him awake during the ceremony, but it’s the longitudinal audience that gives out the big prizes, and by the time those are distributed we’ve all left the hall.

None of which should be taken to mean that I would turn down any prizes that might come my way, though I can’t imagine what they would be for. A bag of muffins would be welcome, or maybe some scones.

Paul Graham Raven

Well, the only award I’ve ever been nominated for was “Most likely to be found dead in a pool of his own vomit before the age of thirty” by my college classmates, and I even failed to live up to that. Though it’s probably the one of my many underachievements that my mother is pleased about… 😉

Understandably, given the calibre and career longevity of the other respondents so far, this has been an interesting insight into how awards function for those who can potentially win them; on the levels mentioned – community strengthening, recognition of excellence and/or consistency and/or longevity – I totally understand the value of awards in the genre fiction community. As a critic and a reader, however, I find that the more I know about them, the less utility they have.

Let me unpack that. Josephine Reader wanders into a dead-tree bookstore (yeah, yeah, I know; think of this as alt-history or slipstream utopianism if it helps) and sees a faced-out book by A. N. Ovelist, the cover of which announces “Winner of the Congratulatory Backslap Award three years running!” Should Josephine then think “oh, this guy/gal must be pretty good” and buy the book?

Let’s all agree that we’d like her to buy the book anyway; even the sale of the bad ones keeps the business afloat, after all. The underlying point is that the good-ness of a book is a moveable feast, that one man’s meat is another’s poison, so on and so forth. I am telling you things you already know. But it’s something that marketers don’t know, or – if they do know it, which I fully suspect to be the case – that they assume the punter doesn’t know. Alongside such straplines as “New York Times bestselling author” or “multi-platinum chart-topping singer”, “three-times Backslap Award winner” is a potentially fallacious appeal to an undefined authority. Lots of people bought the bestseller, ergo it must be good (however many hundred thousand Dan Brown readers can’t be wrong, right?); the people who vote for Award [X] selected/voted/catfought for Book [Y], ergo it must be good. Both statements are true… for certain sets of people.

So, for me at least, awards are a little like reviewers and critics themselves: useful only once one is aware of the tastes and proclivities behind the selection process. Given the preceding conversation about awards, I honestly believe it does no disservice to nominees and winners of Hugos (or any other genre gong) to say that a Hugo Award says that “the set of people with Hugo voting eligibility thought very highly of this”. Having some closeness to that set of people (and the process and discussion around the awards), I can make some assumptions about the quality of that appreciation that someone completely detached from fandom-as-community cannot. As such, there are awards I’m more interested in than others; and, much like some reviewers and critics, there are some awards whose recognition I can safely assume to mean “this book will almost certainly not be My Sort Of Thing”. (Which is not to say that said book is bad in any universal sense; these assumptions apply in my own universe only.)

Now, this is an argument often countered with the response “so get involved with the voting process, make your voice heard, push back against the lack of relevancy to your tastes” (I’m thinking here of Cheryl Morgan’s admirable and tireless efforts to get curmudgeons and complainers like myself involved with the Hugos, for instance), and there’s a logic there that’s hard to deny. But I’m afraid that I still struggle to see the point in doing so, because I value awards so little as a reader; I figure the best way I can reward a writer whose work I admire is to buy their work, and – despite numerous arguments to the contrary – I find the idea of voting for what may be the only work among the nominees I’ve actually read utterly ridiculous. (Yes, I know that’s how most folk vote in awards and elections alike; that knowledge is a contributing factor to my identification as an anarchist, but that’s another discussion for another time. A time with beer, preferably.)

So, yeah; I’m complaining that awards are popularity contests, which is very petulant-teenager-in-flannel-shirt of me (some habits are hard to break, and some become fundamental character flaws). But I recognise that, much as it’s a shame that it is so, life as she is lived is a popularity contest of sorts; being human and using fallacious logic are pretty inextricable, and – as discussed previously – there’s an important social value embedded in popularity contests, especially for long-lived little subcultures like ours. Awards are necessary to a community, then… much as I hope that curmudgeonly refuseniks who decline to get involved with them are necessary, also. 😉

Not so long ago, I mentioned to Cheryl that I wasn’t going to vote for the awards of the esteemed organ around whose virtual table we are currently gathered, because I disagreed with the weighting of votes toward subscribers and away from casual web-only readers and flashmob blocs; in my philosophy, if you’re going to have an open-to-all popularity contest, you might as well make the playing field flat. “It’s not exactly the best way to avoid accusations of elitism, is it?” I said (or something like that, anyway). “All awards are inherently elitist,” Cheryl replied, and she’s very very right.

Which is why I consider it an award of sorts for myself to be allowed to blather on in the company of such esteemed elites as yourselves! 😉

Many congratulations to all recent nominees and winners, too; even if the only measurable value an award can be said to have is the sense of pride and peer-group recognition it instills in its recipient, then surely that is the greatest function of all… especially in such a solitary sport as the inventing of imaginary worlds and people. 🙂

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