Should Award Winners Also Be Popular?

In the book industry, fall also means it’s awards season. From the Giller to the Booker to the National Book Award, there are a number of high profile awards announced leading up to the Christmas Holidays (and of course the ALA Youth Media Awards in January). A few weeks ago when the Governor General’s Award winners were announced in Canada, I read an article about the awards that was marveling at the fact that for the first time, the shortlisted titles were also on the national bestseller list. What really threw me was the part where they specifically mentioned having a discussion about whether or not they should be giving awards to titles that are also popular. Essentially, the article was suggesting that good writing and popular appeal either are or should be separate, and the book was given the award in spite of being a bestseller. The article went on to state that if popular merit was a consideration for publishing books, War and Peacelikely would never have happened.

If all of this is true, what does it say about the publishing industry and readers as a whole? I’m an avid reader with varied tastes, and when the winners of most of these prizes are announced each year, I can’t find a single title that I actually want to read. I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a place or an audience for the “literary” fiction that is the preference of award juries, nor am I saying that all popular fiction is well-written. There is some horrible schlock out there that makes me scratch my head at how it ever got published and why anybody likes it, but I often find myself asking the same question about the prize-winning books.

Several years ago, Vulture Magazine published an article How to Win a National Book Award, where they highlighted a few patterns that have emerged in award voting. One rule that particularly stood out for me was “Aim for World-Historical Significance”. Critics love to toss around words like “significant” and “important” when justifying why a particular book deserves an award. The book shines a spotlight on the plight of the ____ People in war-torn ____ during the ____ war/crisis/conflict, etc…. It spans generations of the ____family, demonstrating the cultural and geographical changes that have occurred in_____ over 300 years…. Perhaps I’m exaggerating a bit, but this kind of language seems like more of a justification than a sales pitch. To me, deliberately setting out to write something significant and important isn’t the same as writing the story you want to tell, for the audience you want to tell it to. Writing to please an awards jury may win you the prize and the praise of critics, but but why do these kinds of books so rarely seem to win the popular vote as well?

3 Responses to Should Award Winners Also Be Popular?

  1. Peter Taylor Dec 9 2015 at 8:21 am #

    This is interesting, Rachel, and I hope many replies are added here.

    I live in Australia and I am mainly thinking of picture books, early readers and mid-grade.

    We have book awards set up by a wide range of organisations and Government departments. BILBY Awards are ‘Books I Love Best Yearly’ – suggested and voted on by children and administered by our state branch of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. Yes, the mid-grade winners have been predicable, very popular …and with distinctly ‘non-literary’ content. Some other awards are similar in nature and are valuable for encouraging children to read.

    The National Awards chosen by Children’s Book Council judges do need books to have literary merit, and criteria are specific. It’s always good to hear judges discuss the process and why particular books are chosen – rarely a unanimous decision.

    I believe that both kinds of awards are necessary.

    We do write and illustrate to entertain, but also on occasions to expand children’s awareness of how the world works and to challenge, develop imagination, empathy, creative thought and and other benefits …including the literary use of words.

    Young children do not buy their own books – they are bought by grandparents, parents, and by schools and libraries. Relatives are least likely to buy ‘important books’ – but the books are, well …’important’.

    Complex books, like those by Shaun Tan, will be considered/read many times, while others may only be shared as a ‘one off’ experience in a classroom or for any of other possible reasons. And yes, I include in this category one book awarded years ago at Bologna which was so delicately paper engineered that I imagine it would only last one exploration. I did have some qualms about that and at the time considered that perhaps it was largely an award for manufacturing skill – but we do not create or need everything to be fun to read or commercially successful and popular to be a of immense and award-worthy value.

    All best wishes

  2. Elizabeth Torphy Dec 9 2015 at 10:21 am #

    Love your honesty and that someone is saying it! If that is your thing to win an award, then you gave someone the formula. But you are right…write the story you want to tell. I think it kind of snooty to not consider best sellers. Best sellers can, and are written well too! But I am always amazed at what does get published, or why something is on the best seller list. Good writing does not always equal good storytelling. Good storing telling does not always equal publication. Publication does not equal justification. So where does that leave us writers? To keep writing what is our passion and stop judging yourself by book awards, labels, and judgements.

  3. amy koss Dec 9 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    In my experience,reading sometimes hundreds of books, back to back as a judge is not like pleasure reading. The similarities between books is pronounced and anything fresh or unique or important really shines out.

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