Wednesday, May 14, 2008

And the Winner Is --

By Barbara D'Amato

There are a lot of awards given in the diverse world of mystery and crime writing, and getting to be more all the time. The most recent that I’m aware of is given by the Thrillerwriters, a relatively new organization, which is just now trying to come up with a name for their awards.

Crime writing awards fall into two main categories -- the peer-judged and the voted-on award.

The Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar award and the Shamus are two of the judged. For the Edgar, five writers judge the entries in a category, except the Best Novel category, which now uses eight judges, and for good reason. I served on the committee for best novel of 2006, and we received about 550 books. [Yes, five hundred and fifty!] Every entry was read by two judges, cutting down the number we each had to read initially to about a hundred and forty. If any judge recommended a book, it then was read by everybody. It’s a huge job. Also, where do you put more than five hundred books in an apartment? For the Shamus, three judges read in each category. I’ve read for the Shamus a couple of times, and for the Edgar the best first, best play, best short story, best paperback, best screenplay, best true crime, a couple of times each. In fact, the only ones I haven’t done are children’s and young adult. While this may show that I am a patsy, I do like to read, especially when I should be working. And there is something great about getting a one-year slice of what’s being written in a specific field.

How does it really work? Some judges use a five-page rule. If a book hasn’t engaged their attention by then, they sideline it. I tend to go for a fifty-page cutoff, but even so I usually finish the book. Somebody spent a year or more of his life on this. I can at least read it.

But have I learned anything about judging? We all wonder how fair, how accurate, how right the judging is. Is the winner really the best book of the year? Well, yes and no.

Committees I’ve served on have done one of two things. Frequently several of the judges strongly prefer different books. In these cases, it’s often everybody’s second or third choice that wins. The other case involves a book that blows away four of the five judges and is loathed by the fifth judge. It doesn’t even make his top twenty. I think that very unusual books tend to polarize people and quite often that results in one committee member just despising it. That book will win, with one very grumpy committee member left dissatisfied.

But I’ve never seen an incompetently written book win.

And what about the other kind of award? Bouchercon and Malice Domestic are two of several organizations that give out awards based on the votes of attendees at their convention. The typical method is to send a request to all people registered for the convention, asking them to nominate their favorites in several categories--best first, best novel, best short story, best critical/biographical, best children’s, and so on. The five [it’s usually five, but not always] that receive the most mentions go on a list that is sent to attendees well before they arrive for the convention. The hope is that they will have a chance to read most or all of the books. At the convention they are given ballots, they vote, the ballots are collected there, the votes are counted, and the winners announced, usually at a Saturday night banquet.

These are often somewhat disparagingly called popularity contests. But what is wrong with that? The voters are readers, readers who care enough to pay serious money to go to a writing convention.

The talk in the halls about why they voted as they did can leave you wondering, though. What have I heard? Well--

“Okay, this isn’t his best book, but his last one should have won the Edgar, so I’m voting for this one.”

“This isn’t her best book, but I’m voting for her whole body of work.”

“I like the title.”

“He won last year, so I’m not voting for him.”

One of the real drawbacks of the convention ballot is that very few people have read all the books in contention. I rarely vote in certain categories, like children’s and young adult, because I don’t read enough in those fields. For these convention ballots, generally, I’ve decided it’s okay to vote in a category if I’ve read three out of the five nominees. Otherwise I don’t vote.

Could we, meaning the mystery community, improve on these methods of generating awards?


Sara Paretsky said...

Thought-provoking, Barb. the few times I've served as a judge we've always gone with a compromise, never anyone's first pick. I think literary prizes are problematic because so much personal taste is involved. I went today to pick up a book, debut novel just out that's been lavishly reviewed in the Times, the Trib and in blogs. The writing was so stilted and wooden that I couldn't bring it home with me, and yet it spoke to people whose judgment I value. If you look at the Nobel Prizes in literature, so often the writers don't survive their own generation of readers. Who really can tell what makes a greaet novel of any kind?

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, Sara. It's always apples and oranges, isn't it? Some of the more recent groups and awards try to overcome that to some extent by having specific "tickets." Like the Shamus for private eye writing, the Agatha from Malice Domestic for the more traditional mystery, Thrillerwriters awards, and so on. And it's not only types a person may like, it's how you feel at the time you read it. I go through moods when I want a hardboiled and moods when I want a puzzler. How can I be far to every book I judge?