Monday, February 06, 2006

Are Awards Their Own Reward?

All of the arts have awards, and writing has more than its share. The Pulitzer and Nobel Prize are the most well-known, and then the Booker Prize and the National Book Award. Organizations give awards, conferences give awards, and they can be judged by peers or by fans.

There's something exciting about being nominated. It not only reinforces an artist's efforts and intentions, but this type of recognition can lead to more publicity and exposure, increased book sales, and it makes the publisher happy.

But I don't believe it ultimately makes the writer happy.

In the mystery, thriller, and horror genres, there are about a dozen or so highly regarded and sought-after awards. They include the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, Dilly, Gumshoe, Derringer, Raven, Ellery Queen Reader's Choice Award, Stoker, Barry, Thriller, Shamus, Dagger, Nero Wolf, Love is Murder, and others.

I've been nominated for several of these. And I've won a few.

Sometimes you get nominated by your writing peers or fans. Sometimes you get nominated by submitting your stories and books yourself. Sometimes your editors will submit your work.

For a few recent awards, neither my publisher nor I have submitted my work to the judges for consideration. This is at my request.

While I feel honored to get on final ballots, and while I feel very grateful when I win, I've found that my feelings tend to be even more pronounced when I don't get nominated, or if I'm nominated and then I lose.

The highs don't make up for the lows.

It gets even more complicated. At the conference I attended over the weekend, I won an award, and I felt bad about winning. It's not that I don't appreciate it---I'm deeply honored. But I looked at the folks who didn't win and felt terrible for them.

Anyone who knows about my many rejections knows I'm an expert at having my hopes crushed. And I hate to see it happen to other writers almost as much as I hate to have it happen to myself.

The ultimate value of an award remains elusive. Letting a handful of judges with various tastes judge the merit of one's work may say more about the judges than the work. Nepotism and popularity often come into play while voting. Personal opinion plays a large part. And the self-congratulatory and semi-incestuous nature of some awards and awards committees tends to exclude the deserving (if there is such a thing), and embrace the familiar.

Looking at past winners in the above categories reveals two truths. A small percentage of popular authors keep being nominated for awards, and many of them keep winning. These authors are usually bestsellers. But the larger percentage of winners and nominees don't ever achieve bestsellerdom.

And many bestsellers never get nominated for awards, which really makes my wonder.

I don't believe that winning an award is a good indicator of future sales, or even a good indicator that the work is truly the best that genre has to offer.

Art is subjective, and I often read books that I believe are much better than the award-winners, yet were never nominated.

As any psychologist can tell you, allowing your happiness to be dependent on what a group of people dictate is not in your best interest.

What if you win an award one year, then lose the next year? What does that tell you about your work?

What if you get nominated year after year, but never win? Or what if you never get nominated?

The system breeds more stress and disappointment and frustration than it does happiness.

So, if I have a choice in the matter, I don't put my work up for award consideration.

Sour grapes on my part? I don't think so. I'm just trying to protect myself from a situation that I have no control over. I can influence my sales, and that leads directly to money in my pocket. I can't influence the awards I win and lose, and that leads directly to ulcers.

That said, for the 2005 Edgar Awards best novel, I'm pulling for VANISH by Tess Gerritsen. It's about time the Edgar committee realized what the rest of us have known for years---she's one of the best in the biz.