Friday, May 08, 2009

Writing Awards

By Barbara D’Amato

A couple of days ago I got home after attending the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards in New York and then the Malice Domestic Convention’s Agatha Awards in Washington, D.C. The events were fun for attendees, rewarding to the nominees and winners, and in my opinion, good for the mystery/crime writing field.

There are always complaints. The wrong novel won. It’s just a popularity contest. Plenty of wonderful books didn’t make the list. Even “Why do we bother?” or “It’s fixed anyway.”

The Edgars and the Agathas represent two different types of awards. The Edgars, like the Shamus and Thrillerwriters, is a judged award. The Agathas slate, like the Bouchercon’s Anthony, is arrived at by nominations sent in by people who are registered to attend, and then after arriving the attendees vote for the final winner.

Over the years I’ve served on several Edgar Awards committees—the short story a couple of times and chaired it once, the best novel at least twice, best play, best fact crime a couple of times and chaired it once, best several others. The last time I served on the best novel committee, we received 554 books. Okay, I’m easily caught. But one thing I can tell you, and that is, it’s not fixed.

Sean Chercover’s good post “Confessions of an Edgar Judge . . .” got me thinking about the misunderstandings people have about these awards. Most judges are like Sean, earnest and fair. I haven’t run into any like the one Paul Guyot referred to in his comment, who said he knew what was good, so he didn’t need to read the books. People being people, there probably are a few like that, or at least some who don’t give a fair try to books of a type they don’t like. However, people are all we have available to use. One of the big boons of judged awards is that books that haven’t made bestseller lists are often nominated. This gives recognition to writers who get far too little. Check the lists of winners for the last few years and I think you will see that few big bestsellers are actually nominated. I just love it when a writer who has received little attention wins an award and proceeds dazed and delighted to the stage.

The convention-vote awards are criticized for being popularity contests. Well, duh. However, they are popularity contests in the sense that readers have actually enjoyed the books. Here again, the nominees and winners are usually not the big bestsellers, and aren’t the bestseller lists the real Big Popularity Contests? And frequently criticized for being fixed?

There are other awards arrived at somewhat differently, like the Macavity, or the Love Is Murder Lovie. But they all do one thing—give recognition to authors who might otherwise receive none. I don’t agree with the people who wish awards didn’t exist.

If you have suggestions about improving the processes, great. Let’s hear them.


Guyot said...

Great post, BD.

I think - in a way - the judging process is much like the Nielsen Ratings for TV. Everyone simply accepted the Nielsens as being accurate for years because the Nielsen people said they were.

But eventually it was discovered that the ratings were based on 5000 boxes, and (sometimes) another 1500 or so snail-mail forms randomly sent out. This was supposed to give a real indication of what all of America was watching... all 200 million.


No matter how diverse your demographics are, 5000 people cannot be an accurate representation of 200 million. No way.

The Edgars (and other such awards) are the same in the sense that five people are telling the thousands and thousands of mystery readers what was "the best" of that year.


But here's the thing. It's the system that we have, and like our criminal justice system, despite all its flaws, it's all we got. And it could be a lot worse.

I think most authors understand this, and it's probably why they so appreciate winning the readers' choices awards.

Until the number of judges is tripled or more, there is nothing we can do to improve the process.

I think the best thing is for everyone to accept and realize what the awards are and what they are not, and as Sean pointed out, everyone needs to give serious props to the judges who do this. MWA probably couldn't find 15 or 20 people to agree to bust their asses like that if they tried. It is a thankless job.

Corey Wilde said...

Because people, even those of great integrity, are naturally biased about what they like to read, and because crime fiction has several notable subgenres, has consideration been given to awarding 'best novel in subgenre' awards?

Michael Dymmoch said...

I've also judged for the Edgars, and I agree with Guyot--the present system is the best we have. Having five judges for each category, probably insures that no one person will skew the contest too far toward the outrageous.

And Corey, it's a major arm-twist to get five people to agree to serve for each of the categories already in place.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Corey, there have in the past been proposals to add categories to the Edgars. The difficulty, as Michael said, is it's a najor arm-twist to get people willing to put in the time. The Private Eye Writers was established partly to give more attention to PI works. Malice Domestic came about because there was a feeling that traditional mysteries tended not to be given Edgars. The ThrillerWriters is a recent organization that honors thrillers. Of course, as you subdivide, there are fewer books to get through, so maybe it could be done. I don't know of any existing propoals to do it, though.

Guyot said...

The Edgars do a great job. I'm sure ITW does as well.

Look, even when you have the Emmys or Oscars, where hundreds are voting, it's still subjective.

An Edgar is an honor. I'd love to win one some day, or just be nominated. But it won't make me think I'm a genius. Just that five people thought I kicked ass that year.

You might have the 5 most honest, sincere, hardworking folks judging one year. And maybe James Lee Burke writes the greatest novel of his career - but two or three of the judges don't care for that type of "flowery" writing. They like it short and sweet, get to the point, then get to the next point.

So Burke doesn't win, or get nominated. Same holds true if a writer the polar opposite of Burke writes his or her career-defining novel. But that year, two or three of the judges prefer beautiful language and fantastic sentence structure. Oops.

It's all subjective. We don't need to fix it. We just need to keep it in perspective.

And we need to accept that the people who bitch and moan every year about it being fixed or biased are just idiots.

But Parker still didn't deserve that win. :)

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, Guyot. I agree. If we realize it's a flawed process, maybe we won't get so outraged.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

All great points, Barb.

Fiction awards are both necessary and ridiculous. They are necessary because awards get people talking and arguing and thinking about books, which is great. They are as important to publishing as the Oscars are to the film industry. They are ridiculous because the result they seek--the best novel of the year--doesn't exist.

It doesn't matter if there are five people judging or one person or fifty. It wouldn't matter how many sub-genres you divided the awards into. The experience of reading is so varied and so subjective, you might as well hold a contest to decide the best star in the sky.

Most books that win the Edgar or the Agatha or the Thriller (or the Pulitzer or Booker or NBA) are deserving because there's a gauntlet to run before you're even nominated (that was certainly the case with this year's Edgar winner, BLUE HEAVEN, which is terrific) but I think every writer sees each book award for what it is: A lottery. That doesn't mean authors are any less appreciative when they win, but everybody, win or lose, knows the results are essentially arbitrary.

(Also, the best star in the sky is Betelgeuse.)

Guyot said...

I vote for Canopus.

Sara Paretsky said...

A couple of years ago, I met one of the people who'd spent 18 years as a judge for the Nobel Prize in literature. She told me they see a "Nobel effect" in most winners--the prize paralyzes them, in a way, because they're afraid what they do next will reveal that they're not good enough to have deserved the prize. (That's why I turned it down when she offered it to me! Along with the Edgar, the McCavity and the Pulitzer)

Maryann Mercer said...

Thanks for explaining the process.As imperfect as it might be, it still allows writers to be honored for their works and although it looks nice on the jacket, "Edgar Winning Author" isn't usually what draws people to a book. Word of mouth or a good bookseller (or a decent review in the local paper) work just as well. Thanks, Barb :o)

Janet Reid said...

The only thing I object to is use of the term "best." I suggest "outstanding achievement" or something that recognizes the subjective nature of the selection process.

Either that or just require that all winners be drawn from my client list, of course.