Now that voting has ended for the Prix Aurora Awards, it seems timely to talk about why awards are important. And why they aren’t quite what they appear to be. For those who don’t know, the Aurora Awards are the Canadian fan-voted award for speculative fiction. They are similar to the Hugo Awards that were recently awarded at WorldCon in San Antonio – though there are fewer award categories. I’ve been nominated as an author eight times and won twice for short fiction. This year I’m nominated as an editor in the category “Related Work,” for the anthology Blood and Water. The prizes will be handed out at Ottawa’s CanCon where I’m Editor Guest of Honour and MC for the awards ceremony.
Awards are lovely. It’s nice to be nominated – even nicer to win. Even better, they’re fun to complain about. My favorite complaints about the Hugos this year were the competing conspiracy ones. According to John Ringo, the best novel award went to John Scalzi because of a liberal and feminist cabal. From the other direction, an anti-female bias robbed Mary Robinette Kowal of a nomination in the novelette category. And, of course, everyone has an opinion as to who should have been nominated and who shouldn’t. There is probably even a list somewhere of who should have won based on literary hindsight.
Of course none of this outrage comes close to the kerfuffle over the win by James Kelman of the Mann Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late. One of the judges threatened to resign if it won – and when it did, she did and subsequently called the book ‘crap.’ Numerous literary mavens declared the end of civilization. Book reviewers either loved it or despised everything associated with it. Kelman gave a spirited defense of his book and happily took the $50,000 prize. I liked the book. Was it the best book in the English language in 1994? Somebody obviously thought so.
Awards are what they are, a combination of popular appeal, recognition of literary merit, deliberate contrariness or pandering on the part of ‘judges’ (whether a committee of 5 or 1500 voting fans – they are all judges). Public personae of prize winners play a role no doubt – whether positive or negative – as does sentiment and anger from the selectors. I do get annoyed at those who think it’s just a popularity contest – a claim, especially when made by those who are eligible to be nominated, that is the grown up equivalent of ‘nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m going to eat some worms.’
Having said that, I’m sure being known, making an effort to be ‘out there,’ presenting yourself as likable or interesting or smart, does play a role in getting nominated. So what? If nobody knows or, worse yet, cares who you are, why would they nominate your work? It is, especially in the 21st century, part of the process. Writers are a brand – marketing is part of what they do.
On the other hand, ‘merit’ is a relative thing. “De gustibus non est disputandum;” “á chaque, son goût;” every language has an expression to say: to each, their own. Still, bad books and stories generally don’t get nominated for significant awards. You must have achieved a high level of ability to even be considered. Occasionally the system can be gamed (there is a perhaps apocryphal story of someone buying enough World Con memberships to get their name on the ballot – though they then finished dead last in voting) but it’s rare, difficult and the rules are soon changed to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And then there is the John Wayne factor, who got an Oscar late in his career, as much, perhaps, because of his longevity as for the role he played. Or Peter O’Toole, who never won despite 8 nominations and was finally given a lifetime achievement award.
Do awards matter? No doubt. How much they matter depends on the award. The Mann Booker, the IMPAC, the Orange, the Pulitzer, the Giller, the Governor General’s Award (in Canada and Australia) all have a nice cash prize attached (from $10,000 to £100,000) which certainly doesn’t hurt. More importantly, perhaps, they lead to a significant increase in books sales both for the winning book but for subsequent books by the winner. Prizes matter to writers but they matter to publishers and book sellers, too. And, clearly, they matter to readers. No wonder people get so snippy about who gets nominated and who wins.
Of course the farther down the pecking order an award goes, the less impact it has financially. I can’t honestly say that winning two Auroras and being nominated for a Sunburst (the juried award for SF in Canada) sold a ton of books. But they did sell a few and they certainly helped raise my credibility and, I might add, the credibility of the publishing house I now own. Perhaps most importantly, the psychological boost an award or even a nomination gives a writer is amazing. It’s a lonely profession and, despite impressions to the contrary, most writers are not brimming over with self-esteem. Having someone tell them that they like their work – or maybe that they like them – is one of the things that keep writers writing.
So I say: congratulations to every nominee, huzzahs to every winner. And to those who think they know better, create your own award or get used to the taste of sour grapes.