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Railing against Consensus Taste: Why We Complain about Literary Awards

Awards season is in full swing: we’ve got the Hugos, the Nebulas, the BSFAs, the Aurealis, the Bram Stokers. It seems that every week a different shortlist gets announced or a different grand prize is given out. And this year, just as in previous years, these awards have become a good excuse for folks (e.g. Christopher Priest, James at Big Dumb Object, Larry at The OF Blog, and plenty more) to wring their hands about competing tastes and the biases inherent in awards’ selection processes. And with this award kvetching as the backdrop, Sherwood Smith over at the Book View Café posted a thought-provoking essay about literary versus commercial writing which got my brain cells ticking.

One of Smith’s key points is that assessments of literary as opposed to commercial merit are ever-changing in line with our tastes. What the “tastemakers” might consider commercial trash when first published, with time might migrate into the “classic” column…and vice versa (consider how critics routinely panned Wodehouse or Doyle). Tastes and standards change with time. That’s pretty obvious. And yet, in a real sense, the awards that we bestow give us a snapshot of where our cultural priorities are in any particular year. And when we grouse about the shortlists and the winners, what we really rail against is the consensus taste that they imply.

Here are the five most common award criticisms I was able to come up with (What are some other ones? Please let me know what I missed!)

Criticism Translation
1 The award played it safe / ignored the cutting edge. The award selection process favored accessibility over innovation/complexity.
2 The award favored elitist “literary” writing over the fun stuff. The award selection process favored innovation/complexity over accessibility.
3 The award is biased in favor of/against [insert noun here]. Either:

  • The award selection process evidenced our society’s continuing discrimination against [noun], or;
  • Not enough books by/about/for [noun] were published/met award criteria.

4 The same people always win the award. The award selection process is inequitable/excludes the interests of [noun].
5 The award is irrelevant for the audience that matters. The award selection process failed to account for the interests of [noun].

Literary vs Commercial : Accessible vs Complex

I see the first two complaints most frequently, often about the exact same award. The reason for that is that they most readily tap into what we as readers consider our preferences. It is the rare reader (and yes, the rare critic) who is able to divorce their assessment of quality from their personal preferences. It’s only natural. And, as Smith points out, we naturally expect everyone else to share our (obviously wise) tastes. When they don’t, it is only natural for us to get defensive…and in some cases, offensive.

But what this unending see-saw really represents is the constant tug-of-war between accessibility and literary complexity. This is particularly relevant for speculative fiction, which by definition estranges the reader from their most accessible experiences. Readers of speculative fiction are, by definition, boundary pushers. Every fantasy or every space opera we read is pushing against the boundaries of the real world, against the literary boundaries of mimesis. But different readers want to push in different directions, and at different rates. This process is the grease that leads reader tastes to evolve, which in turn drives a further evolution of the genre.

A more interesting question, I think, than whether an award skewed too literary/not literary enough is why it skewed the way it did. There is no easy answer for this question, and to even approach an explanation necessitates an awareness of both the genre and the selection process. Whether the Hugo nominees push the envelope or not is less important than what their selection tells us about fandom, about the genre, and about the tastes of readers. Whether the Clarke Award shines a beacon on the future of science fiction does not matter. What matter is what its nominees tell us about our industry and culture today, as filtered through the prism of the jury whose opinions were deemed authoritative enough to select them.

The Thorny Question of Bias in Awards

Bias – positive or negative, and for/against any [noun] – is probably the second most frequent award criticism I see. And it is a more difficult issue, because the identification of bias is inherently associated with the (rightful) condemnation of the discriminators. But the identification of bias is, unfortunately, clouded by two issues that vary from one award to the next: the criteria for consideration, and the award selection process.

Consider the Hugos, which are selected by a ballot of the members of that year’s and the preceding year’s Worldcon. The awards are routinely criticized for favoring male over female writers. And yes, I happen to believe that those criticisms are valid and accurate. And yet, that is a criticism that can only be levied at an aggregate level: if we get into the weeds of any particular category, we get into a discussion of the relative merits of title X by male writer Y as opposed to title Z by female writer Q. That is a discussion that I am happy to have. And yet, taking the award to task for gender bias misdirects our criticism.

Bias in any award slate shows that as a society we still have work to do. The award slate is a snapshot of our cultural values, and if in a particular year the shortlist skews for/against any particular group, it demands an exploration of why it does so. It may do so because the award selection process fell prey to the bias inherent in our society, or because that year’s crop of titles “just worked out that way.” Ultimately, I believe that in most cases it is an unanswerable question and a discussion which will never (and should never) end. Hence its thorniness.

But does that mean we have lived and fought in vain? No. Because that never-ending discussion moves our society forward, shapes our cultural awareness, and shines a light both on the dark corners of our cultural judgment and on the clouded stars who deserve more recognition.

The Nepotism Argument

When people criticize an award as being for the “in crowd,” that really represents an exploration of the process by which that award is given. Every award is a contract which says “The titles which have earned this award were selected in good faith and through due process.” It is that due process which bestows upon an award its legitimacy. In a small community like speculative fiction, it is certainly possible that the same suspects will show up on multiple shortlists every year or two. But for the awards to retain their relevance and legitimacy, they require a process that is both transparent and that clearly enables competition.

In many cases, the gripe that the “same people” win every year is just a gripe. But each time it arises, it demands of us an examination of the process. As a community of readers, and critics, and award selectors it is our fiduciary duty to ensure the legitimacy of our awards. When in extreme cases the justice of that due process is called into question (as it was in last year’s British Fantasy Awards), it may necessitate a re-examination or re-design of the award’s entire process. Any legitimate award must have processes and procedures in place to support this, if for no other reason, than to keep itself honest. And for its own good, that honesty should be periodically called into question.

The Irrelevance Argument: Who really matters?

Like the bias critique, the irrelevance argument is thorny. In actuality it centers around an unstated facet of the award: who is the award’s audience? And does the awarding body identify the same audience as the awards’ critic?

The best example of this that I am familiar with is the Newbery Medal, which every year is awarded to the author of the most distinguished children’s book as selected by a jury of librarians through the auspices of the American Library Association. Someone always complains that the ALA picks books which appeal to adult librarians, irrespective of their appeal to children. But the audience for the Newbery Medal, I suspect, is not the same as for a given book.

In the case of the Newbery Medal, the award’s stated goal is to select the book that the librarians feel is most important for children. As such, the implied audience isn’t the kids themselves. Instead, it is those adult individuals (parents, teachers, and yes, librarians) who can help put such important books into children’s hands. The logic underlying the award is that – left to their own devices – kids will favor highly accessible, entertaining books over more challenging but meaningful ones, and so adults need a useful pictorial medal to draw attention to those which are worthwhile.

Is this logic correct? I don’t know (though, to be fair, I suspect it is). But is this the only way to do it? Is this the best way to do it? Here, I am less certain. But to meaningfully discuss such questions mandates an exploration of an award’s audience as compared to the literature’s audience, and the economic process which takes books from the slushpile and ultimately puts them in reader’s hands. And at the end of the day, I think those are some of the most interesting, relevant, and important discussions we can have about books.

What do you think? I’d love to know whether my way of looking at the criticism of awards makes sense to anyone other than me. What is it about awards that makes them interesting and important to us as readers, as writers, and as critics? Why do they – or why should they – matter? And how can we foster intelligent, meaningful discussion about them?

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