On Awards

"Awards Season" is my least favorite season of the year.  Yes, that means it comes in ahead of the "Holiday Season," which features incessant loops of songs that are charming after one go, but maddening after eleventy-billion.  Awards Season makes me feel more hopeless than Back-to-School Season, which just dredges up memories of every year traipsing through the stores, looking for the specific type of folder required by my history teacher.  If you didn't have the right folder, well, may the deity of your choice have mercy on your soul.

Fundamentally, Awards Season is flawed because there is no one way to, as Neil Gaiman so wonderfully put it, "make good art."

What's good?  What's art?  We could sit in a coffee shop for days and nights on end and debate just those two aspects of the human experience.  There might even be bongo drums and black turtleneck sweaters involved--who knows?  Each person's development shapes her perception of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, meaningful and hollow.

Sometimes I think about humans and how wonderfully, intricately complex we all are.  It's mind-boggling to think that there are so many of us on this planet, and we are none of us exactly the same.  Not even identical twins.  So why is it, then, that we feel a need to declare certain works of art, be they musical, literary, or cinematic, The Best?  Whose best?  What does it mean to be declared "the best"?

As humans, we also crave admiration.  That's normal.  No one likes to be knocked down into the mud and manure, naked, and kicked in the ribs at every pass.  If that sounds appealing to you, I'd suggest some sort of mud-wrestling club or psychotherapy.  But it feels nice to have someone say, "I love that painting you created.  It makes me feel happy," or "The book you wrote touched my soul."  We can interact with other humans--complete strangers!--through our art, and affect them profoundly without even knowing it.  That's why Twitter was invented.

I'm thinking about all of these things because two very big Awards Season events occurred this past week: the American Library Association announced its Youth Media Awards winners (you might know these as the Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and so forth), and the Oscar nominees were announced.  This post is but a drop in the ocean of posts, status updates, and tweets expressing some sort of opinion on one or both of these events.

As for the YMAs, there is this pressure to believe that since a Very Big Organization did so proclaim it, that these "best books" are really the best, and any leftovers aren't worth your time.  Hold up, partner.  I have several friends who served on committees this year, and it is extremely demanding work.  In the end, you're just one person in one group whose responsibility it is to decide which book most deserves a specific honor.  I am sure that these committee members try to be as objective as possible, but when art is involved, I also believe that all objectivity goes straight out the window.  Art is, by its very nature, subjective.  There is no right or wrong art.  Art is.

And so while I am very grateful to the librarians and media specialists who worked their butts off to present the honors to a set of books, I also realize that the YMAs are just one way of looking at books.  If I love a book that didn't win anything (which would be, oh, pretty much every book I've read this year, save Bone Gap), I'm still going to rave about it.  I'm still going to squee about it at work.  I'm still going to booktalk it up, down, and sideways to my teen patrons (and my adult patrons and my coworkers).

Please don't think that I minimize the issue of underrepresentation of female, black, Latin@, LGBTQIA, or any other marginalized group in these awards.  It's really horrific that the Academy decided that not one single person of color merited even the chance to win an Oscar this year.  It's shocking how few female voices we hear in 'critically acclaimed' books.  Girls in realistic fiction?  Ew!  They're nasty, demanding, hormonal harpies.  We can't have that!  Remember what Oscar Wilde said: "The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame."

But what are we supposed to do?  We can keep pushing at these institutions that are older than dirt and full of old, white, privileged people, and try to miraculously convince them to step outside of their narrow world view and see things as they are, in all their messy, colorful, diverse, chaotic glory. There's about as much chance of that happening as, say, the entire Academy deciding to become hermits.

I know that this does not solve the problem of underrepresentation and marginalization, but I would prefer to do away with these awards completely.  Doesn't it make you feel uncomfortable--even a little bit--to have a faceless group of people declare film A to be more worthy of your time than film Z?   Echoes of Animal Farm ring when someone says, "All the candidates were equally worthy, but the award goes to X."  Isn't that a fancy way of saying, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"?

I'm perfectly capable of analyzing books, films, and music, and then choosing my favorites.  And so are you.  I encourage you to read other opinions, to consider different points of view, but in the end, your choice is yours alone.  Your preference is yours alone.  Your favorite is yours, and no one has the right to take that from you.

Read on.  Think.  Enjoy yourself.  It's art.  It's glorious and it's imperfect and it's individual.  I wouldn't want it any other way.


  1. I was on an awards committee last year, the children's section of the Aurealis Awards for SF and fantasy. We read about fifty books and rated them individually with notes before discussing them as a group. It was kind of like Goodreads with votes. It was a very pleasant, co-operative group whose members were willing to withdraw personal favourites if others didn't like them. I read them not only for myself but as a children's librarian - yes, I loved this, but would the kids love it? Is it even written for children? How does it make me feel?

    There were some differences of opinion even on the short list, but in the end, one book stood out for all of us - positively glowed, though there were some wonderful other books on the list. The story, the characters who made us care about them... And I'm pleased to say that it was part of a series the kids love too - well, my students, anyway.

    You're right, of course, we all have the books that make us feel good, and a committee is made up of human beings who have their own feelings. The voted ones can also be problematic. Look what happened with last year's Hugo awards - nasty! On both sides of the quarrel. And each year I disagree with at least some of the choices on the Children's Book Council short list. I know the judges are all involved in children's books, whether as librarians or booksellers, and I know how hard they work, but there are tendencies to choose some authors on a regular basis, and some of those authors' books gather dust on my library shelves, whether promoted or not.

    But in the end, we judge books publicly and other people read our reviews, or why bother having a blog - or Goodreads, for that matter? And Goodreads does influence what people read and buy. It really does - no wonder Amazon bought it out!

    1. I wish it weren't so difficult to get some of the Aurealis winners here in the US--at least with the vendor we use. That's very cool that you got to serve on such a fascinating committee!

      I'm actually on a committee now too, so this piece was mostly my devil's advocate coming out and saying hello.

      The Hugos were dreadful last year, and I cringe to think of what will happen again this year.

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  2. Lat year's children's winner was Shadow Sister in the Dragonkeeper series by Carole Wilkinson. You can't get this in the U.S.? Mind you, the publisher is Walker Books, which is not one of the bigger publishing houses, though not small press.

    The thing about the Aurealis winners is that quite often they're published by small presses and in Australia that means REALLY small press, as in a few hundred copies. So they rarely do go overseas, though you can often get them in ebook, or through Booktopia.

    I believe the loonies who started the whole Hugos mess have finally done what they should have done in the first place and decided to arrange their own set of awards.

    That's not to say there's no blame attached to the other side. Some truly horrible things were said and done by hysterical fans who had never bothered to put in the tine reading and voting till they suddenly realised that the decision might have been taken out if their hands. And I've been put off a certain very popular fantasy writer who sneered quite a lot on his blog at those nominees who said, "We've never heard of these guys" - and who is now using his popularity to persuade his fans that they ought to nominate the artists who illustrated his books for this year's awards. So, both sides. I'm glad it's over.

    1. Our [library] vendor doesn't carry Shadow Sister. Arghhhh. We can get Aussie writers if they're repped by a big conglomerate-type publisher, but otherwise, I'd go through Abe Books. Unfortunately, we can't build our collection via Abe Books. :(

      To be completely honest, I haven't really peeked under the rock of the Hugos this year so far because I was afraid that the lunacy would come boiling back out the other side. It was basically a schoolyard fight with lots of hair pulling and "your mom!"s and all that juvenile stuff.

      Your last point re: popular writer intrigues me.

  3. A very big name writer who has a blog in Livejournal. I won't name him, but believe me, you've heard of him unless you've been under a rock and I doubt that's the case. ;-) What made me angry was his assumption that everybody in the world must have heard of this quarrel that was an American fannish thing.

    I agree about the schoolyard fight and I'd never have heard of it if a magazine which I've been involved with for years hadn't been nominated by the loonies who, I'm pretty sure, can't have known anything about it or they would know we weren't like them. We have a theory they looked up a list of semiprozines and chose a bunch near the front of the alphabet. It is run by a group of fans - everyone gets paid except us. We hadn't heard of this whole business and by the time we did we had already accepted the short listing. And then, as a group, we exchanged hundreds of emails and a lot of arguments before voting on it and something that should have made us proud instead made us feel dirty. I blame both sides of the quarrel. School kids indeed. Don't bother, it's over and hopefully will never happen again.

    I'll email Carole and ask her whether her books are available to US distributors, but Shadow Sister is the fifth of a series of children's books beginning with Dragonkeeper. You may have to get your own copy, perhaps in ebook. I do suggest you start with Dragonkeeper, though the books are set in different eras. The dragons are very long lived, so the baby dragon from the first book is still quite young hundreds of years later, but it leaves room for new human heroes.

    1. Oh as soon as you said Livejournal I knew. Jeebus.

      Yeah, the Puppy rationale for picking slate nominees was really odd, especially for fanzines and the like. I think your explanation is as good as any!

      Thank you so much for the Dragonkeeper recommendation! I cannot get enough of dragon books, so this is going on my to-read tout de suite, and I'll probably order them for myself. My preciousssss. :)

    2. You'll love them! I'll be very surprised if you don't.


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