Literary Awards Are Not Competitions

The Dragon Award was launched this year at the 2016 DragonCon convention in Atlanta that took place over Labor Day weekend. It will be held every year hereafter.

The award was given out in these categories:

  • Best Science Fiction Novel
  • Best Fantasy Novel
  • Best Young Adult/Middle Grade Novel
  • Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel
  • Best Alternate History Novel
  • Best Apocalyptic Novel
  • Best Horror Novel
  • Best Comic Book
  • Best Graphic Novel
  • Best Science Fiction or Fantasy TV Series
  • Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie
  • Best Science Fiction or Fantasy PC/Console Game
  • Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Mobile Game
  • Best Science Fiction of Fantasy Board Game
  • Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Miniatures/Collectible Card/Role Playing Game

As will be obvious to anyone familiar with the existing major awards in science fiction and fantasy, there are two features of the Dragon Award which are quite different:

First, in the literary categories, no awards are given for short fiction. Only novels are eligible to be nominated.

Second, much greater weight is given to non-literary forms of science fiction and fantasy. Of the fifteen awards presented, only seven of the awards—slightly less than half—are given to traditional literary forms. Two are given out for illustrated stories (comics and graphic novels), two are given out for dramatic presentations (TV series and movies), and four are given out in different gaming categories.

There are a number of reasons for these differences, which I will discuss in this ongoing blog. For the moment, though, I just want to touch on what is perhaps the most basic point to be made:

The Dragon Award was not set up to compete with any of the existing awards. We didn’t launch this new award because we were dissatisfied or disgruntled with the existing awards, such as the Hugo or the Nebula or the World Fantasy Award.

Our attitude stems from a recognition of something that is all too often misunderstood about literary awards. And that is the notion that a literary (or any type of artistic) award in some way or another ratifies a competition. To put it another way, that an award establishes which story or author (or piece of art or artist, or song or singer) “won the competition” in the period of eligibility. According to this notion, what authors and other artists do is in some way analogous to what athletes do when they engage in sports competitions. And, thus, receiving a Hugo or a Nebula or a Dragon or any other award is equivalent to standing on a platform at the Olympics and being handed a gold medal, or being presented with the Stanley Cup.

This notion is wrong, to the point of being perverse. Writers—the same is true for all other artists—are not engaged in a competition in the first place. I will expand on this point as the blog progresses, but for the moment I will leave it at this:

No writer ever sat down to write a story in order to beat another story, or another writer. It’s enough to state the idea to realize how ludicrous it is.

So why do we keep approaching awards as if they did have anything to do with competition? I don’t exempt the Dragon Awards from this tendency, by the way. We, too, in the first year, handed out awards in fifteen categories labeled as “Best of”—which, being blunt, is nonsensical on the face of it. Labeling something the “Best of” novel or short story or movie or comic is akin to handing out awards for “Best Person” or “Best Family” or, for that matter, “Best Spiritual Experience.”

However, when the awards were presented at the ceremony by Bill Fawcett, a Senior Advisor and volunteer, he made it clear that the Dragon Award is really a recognition that one or another work produced during the past period of eligibility was outstanding. And that is the spirit in which I think all literary and artistic awards should be viewed. In the opinion of that group of people—who are always a much smaller subset than the total number of readers, or listeners, or viewers—who nominated and voted on the award, this or that story or dramatic presentation or game was particularly outstanding.

The point which follows from this is that, just as stories are not competing with each other, literary awards don’t compete with each other, either. To be sure, different people can have differing assessments as to which awards better reflect their own tastes and opinions. But that’s not the same thing as a competition—in which the underlying presumption is that there is One True Winner, who enjoys that status because it (or he or she, if the award is handed to a person) is the One Best Story of the Year.

Thinking this way, being blunt about it, is idiotic. You might as well say that in the competition between chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, in the past year vanilla was clearly the Best Flavor. Or that people who like the color blue more than the color green clearly won the Preferred Color Contest last year.

Uh… no, they didn’t. They just prefer the color blue to the color green. That’s all—and that’s it. There is no “right” color, there is no “best” flavor.

Most of the grief people get into when they wrangle over literary and artistic awards stems ultimately from this logical fallacy: they keep trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. They keep trying to turn something that is inherently not competitive into a contest which has clear and objectively definable winners and losers.

So, some people come to the assessment that the Hugo award, or the Nebula award, or the World Fantasy Award, does not reflect their own tastes and opinions when it comes to science fiction and fantasy. So far, so good. Those people have every bit as much right to that assessment as do the people who closely follow the Hugo and Nebula and WFA because they find those awards do reflect, pretty well, their own opinions.

Where the problem arises is when people go that one step farther. Because they confuse literary and artistic awards with prizes handed out to contest winners—the Stanley Cup, for instance—they grow resentful. They feel they’ve been cheated. They think the context is rigged because it doesn’t have the outcome they would prefer.

Their complaint, in essence, is that year after year the recipients of the Hugo (or Nebula or WFA) stepped out of bounds when they caught the touchdown pass, or hit a serve that was called “in” when it was actually “out,” or in one or another way didn’t win according to the rules. And never mind that there aren’t any rules governing what or who wins or loses, because it’s not actually a competition and the terms “win” and “lose” are meaningless anyway. And never mind that the only thing that defines the “winner” of an award—who should properly be called simply the recipient of the award—is that fact that more people in whatever subset group was voting on the award preferred it to any other.

Period. That’s all there is, folks. If you don’t like the recipients of the Hugo award, or any other, the only sensible conclusion to draw is that your own tastes and opinions are at variance with those of the voters. That doesn’t make those voters wrong, and thinking that they are is just silly. You might as well insist to someone who tells you that they like vanilla that they’re wrong because they should like chocolate. Or if their favorite color is blue that they’re wrong and it ought to be red.

As it happens, I am in that subset of people who has come to the assessment that the Hugo, Nebula and WFA do not (or do no longer, in some cases) reflect very well my own tastes and opinions when it comes to science fiction and fantasy. That is not a value judgment on my part. In fact, it’s not a judgment of any kind. It’s simply an observation.

Most years, if anyone asks me who’s been nominated for a Hugo or Nebula award, the answer is: I have no idea. I haven’t paid any attention to those awards since some time in the 1980s—and I never paid any attention to the World Fantasy Award. That’s because the tastes and opinions of the people who vote for those awards have diverged enough from my own that I find they are not (or are no longer) of any use to me as a guide for what I might want to read.

If a friend of mine happens to be nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula, I will pay some attention to the award that year. But I only do it because I wish them well. Whether they win or not will have no effect on my own assessment of how well they write.

I want to emphasize that this is not a criticism of those awards. I pay no attention to most television shows, either. That includes TV shows which my wife dotes on but which, for whatever reason, simply don’t resonate with me. But I don’t tell her that she’s wrong to like those shows.

This is not something that is purely subjective, either. What lies beneath is exactly the same factor that makes literary and artistic awards qualitatively different from athletic awards.

The way athletic awards work is twofold: First, you make a form of human activity as tightly constrained as possible. To use football as the example, you must play on a field that is rectangular and measures three hundred and sixty feet long, including the end zones, and one hundred and sixty feet wide. Etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.—the official rule book of the National Football League is over two hundred pages long. Each and every page of which is designed to constrain the variables involved in the game as much as possible.

Secondly, the whole purpose of these limitations and constraints is to make the activity completely homogenous and therefore directly comparable. Both teams on the field are doing exactly the same thing, with exactly the same goal—which is what makes their activity comparable and allows for the awarding of a prize at the end of the activity, in whatever form winning the contest entails.

None of this is in any way comparable to what happens in literature and the arts. To the contrary, authors and artists are often admired and praised precisely because they break the “rules” and demonstrate alternate ways of displaying their art form.

No two stories have exactly the same goals, which means they simply can’t be directly compared in the way that athletic activity can be. One story might be written in a rather simple writing style because one of its goals is to be accessible to a younger audience. Measuring its literary “worth” in terms of wordplay, therefore, it “scores” pretty low. But if you measure it in terms of how well it engages the interest of teenage readers, it might “score” extremely well.

Which of those two criteria—and there are a multitude of criteria, not just two—should be considered paramount? Well, that depends on each individual reader’s tastes, opinions and purposes. I would particularly stress purposes, by the way, because no two readers approach a given story with exactly the same goal in mind.

For all these reasons, no literary award will or can please everybody. Of course, the outcome of any football game does not please everybody, either—but everybody who watched the game can agree on which team won. You simply can’t do that with stories (or any other form of art) because the whole notion of “winning” is nonsensical to begin with. Winning at what?

That doesn’t mean literary awards are useless, as I will discuss in later essays. It just means that you have to have a clear understanding of what they can and can’t do in the first place. You can bestow an award on a story for being outstanding—a word which simply means “stands out from all others.” Standing out, by its nature, presupposes a certain perspective or viewpoint. Someone else, with a different perspective, will not find that story to stand out very much, if at all.

That is precisely why you wind up with lots of different awards. One or another group of readers wants to emphasize something that other groups of readers don’t find particularly noteworthy or interesting.

So it has always been, so it will always be.

About Eric Flint

Author and Editor
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9 Responses to Literary Awards Are Not Competitions

  1. Agnes E< Doherty says:

    “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed…..”

  2. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 12/12/16 There Are Old Pixels And There Are Scrolled Pixels, But There Are No Old Scrolled Pixels | File 770

  3. John Roth says:

    De gustibus non est disputandum.

  4. Daryl Saal says:

    Reminds me of the discussion regarding Dylan being awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. Not a best of, or competition, simply recognition of excellence.
    I particularly related to the football rules analogy, no rules or restrictions, just outcomes.

  5. Jim Butcher says:

    Moderate propaganda.

  6. David P Stokes says:

    It’s not a competition, but I bet that there are some authors who try to write what they think prize committees will like.

  7. Glenn B says:

    Can you really expect people entering a contest in hopes of winning a cash prize, or even promotional value like a Hugo, to not view it as competition? Winning a prize can be the stepping stone an author needs to move to the next level. University writing programs are filled with authors who want to be published and they don’t seem confused on the competitive nature of awards. Many authors who write on the side would love the promotional value of some of the larger literary awards because it can make it possible for them to move up and write full time. As an artist it might be more comforting to believe that awards are not competitions, but any critical examination would seem to indicate that the finances involved just don’t make that position very practical for the people losing or ignored by the awards.

  8. Michelle K. says:

    So what has happened since last December? Are you well?

    Btw will we see a continuation of the Naval thread?

  9. John Cowan says:

    This is the perspective of the established artist. The perspective of the un-established artist, as Glenn B. says, is quite different: for them, literary awards are competitions for “the oxygen of publicity”. In addition, it is definitely not true that no author sets out to beat another author. There are innumerable stories of someone reading a story and saying to themselves, Hell, I could do better than that. In one such case, the author wrote his story and sent it off to a magazine editor. After a few rounds of revision, it was published in All-Story as Under the Moons of Mars. The author had used the transparent pseudonym “Normal Bean”, miscorrected by the proofreader as “Norman Bean”. And the Barsoom saga was launched.

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