Users Guide: Meaning
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Users Guide Introduction
Essays Awards History
Or, 22 Reasons Why Your Favorite Book/Author Didn't Win (and Someone Else Did)
What Awards Mean
It's naive to think that award winners are by definition the "best" of their year... but on the other hand, it's cynical and unrealistic to think that awards are mere popularity contests not worth the attention of true artists.
On the first count, "best" is obviously a misleading term that in its pseudo-objectivity seems inappropriate to apply to creative works. There are no agreed-upon standards for what constitutes the best of any artistic form; indeed, to the extent they can be identified, such standards change over time, often radically. Awards dignify themselves by applying the word to their categories ("best novel"), but in reality most voters simply select their favorites (or make choices based on various other influences); they are not judges with a responsibility to objectively consider all available candidates. Thus awards are an effect more like journalism than the judgment of history. A list of award winning novels is no more a guide to the classic or canonical books of a genre, than the cumulative headlines of a newspaper or TV news show are a guide to the significant events of their era. (Or simply compare the list of Oscar-winning best pictures with any retrospective list of important and/or popular films.)
Despite all that, awards are important, and worth paying attention to, participating in, and taking seriously.
Ultimately, awards serve to reduce a complex, unmanageable world to a simpler, more easily grasped one -- both to current insiders, current casual consumers, and the posterity of newly devoted readers and genre historians.
Like it or not, awards have the effect of eliminating competitors from popular and literary culture. That is, they carry a certain self-fulfilling prophecy: however compromised a particular award victory might seem to observers at the time, after a decade or two the result is taken at face value. The winning works come to stand for their years and their forms, representing the state of their art at that time. Like politics, it may not be a good system, but it's the most effective one in town.