Saturday, August 30, 2008

Congratulations, you didn’t win … again.

After judging a major literary contest, I can tell you fellow authors that your submission is taken seriously and considered earnestly, and that basically each is an audition for a group of very attentive and appreciative readers of good books––your fellow authorish persons. It would be wonderful if every author could win an award, feel appreciated for their literary labors, but when there’s one prize and four hundred or more entries, that’s never going to happen. The fact is that the odds are superly gynormous against just being nominated, much less winning. If you do manage to get nominated for an award you should be monstrously flattered to know that out of the hundreds of books published during the year that a handful of fellow wordsmiths agreed that yours was one of their five favorite performances. I can tell you that we judges didn’t vote for a book because we knew the author, or for something an author wrote earlier that we loved, and that makes the honor of being nominated mean so much more.

I was a judge for the best novel category for a major organization named for a dead writer and devoted to mystery authors, and if you think there’s a more difficult job for an author than judging that contest, I’ve yet to experience it. It often seems that the only people who agree with the judges’ final decision are the nominees. I seemed that the people who were the angriest and most verbal over the lack of female authors nominated, or the fact that certain kinds of books weren’t nominated, and several more complaints I can’t recall at the moment, seemed to be the authors with the books least likely to win. Face it, some authors are just supremely talented and some just are not so much. The novel any individual thinks is the best novel of the year (aside from their own) may or may not get the award, but the one by the the whiniest, most “I feel persecuted” author probably won’t. A “squeakiest wheel” award is a great idea since there’s a big a list of nominees already compiled somewhere.

In the space of a few months we judges received hundreds of submissions, and we spend every waking hour we could beg, borrow, or steal reading submitted novels. Poor us? Well, we did volunteer, and while none of us are sorry we had the experience, most of us will probably tell you we’ll never do it again. The books come in from publishers constantly, and often in something more like an avalanche of FedEx or UPS envelopes or boxes, some containing up to fifteen novels. Typically a judge reads well into each book and makes notes. I read at least twenty-five pages of every book I opened and I used those sticky arrows in colors so I could tell at a glance whether or not I loved the early pages or if I hadn’t become invested in the book by then. The submissions I loved, I read through to the end, unless somewhere past those initial engaging opening pages it began to disappoint me. We all know that a great book will draw in a reader in the first ten pages, then pullus straight through a story, and have an ending that will leave us wishing the book were longer. Some books fall apart early, and some wait until near the end to fall apart. Few books start, run their course, and then finish in such a way as to leave you awed. But when one does, the feeling is that of excitement.

I enjoyed a lot of the books I read. I loved far fewer of them, and I thought far too many were a waste of the time of innocent readers not to mention printer's ink and paper. But of the top twenty entries (and especially the top ten) any could have won the contest and it was a matter of how they were ranked by each of the judges. The top five were on every judge’s list and those lists were compiled without the judges communicating as they made their lists. So it was as fair as fair in this life gets.

That said, I firmly believe that contests that have different kinds of books crammed in the same category (say Best Novel) is unfair from the start. Cozies, private eye mysteries, noir mysteries, romance thrillers, Western mysteries, romantic mysteries, comedy mysteries, thriller-thrillers, police procedurals, kung fu romance thrillers, and murders solved by animals, and investigators who are one-legged chiefs who, due to childhood trauma, speak only in wild-game recipes come in the same boxes. The submissions are a grand cluster-funk hodgepodge of literary shrapnel so how can any reader, or five readers, be expected to pick out a BEST novel and be fair to all of the types of books submitted? When you are opening books you get one with a cat on the cover, then one whose cover shows a man nailed to a fencepost that is on fire. Clearly they are not created to be judged in the same contest. Mystery Genre, and the piles are subgenre warfare. Unfortunately politics will keep changes from being made. That and a shortage of judges, and the tendency to cut out more categories instead of adding a few more. Can't fix that one. One of the judges suggested that in the future and in the name of fairness the submissions might be electronic so the author's names and even the titles could be replaced with numbers to ensure the identities would be unknown to the judges. We'll see.

The plain truth is that judges are human. I’ll never be a cozy or mystery reader by choice, so it is unlikely that I will enjoy a cozy as much as I will a thriller. Thrillers VS cozies aren’t apples VS oranges, but more like grapefruits VS gorillas. (But there are awards out there for best cozies, just as there are for mysteries and for thrillers). MC Beaton (Marion Chesney) should not be in the same contest with Lee Child, both of whom I like as people and respect and admire as authors. Judges do the best they can. We (male and female authors) honestly didn’t care whether a book was written by a man or a woman. One of the judges (a woman author) put it this way: “It’s what’s between the covers, not between the legs.” Some of my favorite authors are females, and I think their books are every bit as well written as any by male authors. Of my favorite authors (those I read by choice) about a third are women. But this time the nominees were all men because in our subjective minds their books were the five best novels. All of them are storytelling masters whose books clearly rose to the tops of all five of the judges' piles.


It would be great to win a prestigious award for just doing what we’re doing anyway. Most of us write for the reader’s entertainment (as well as our own) and in order to make a living doing what we love. Whether or not we win awards has no bearing on our abilities or our or our readers enjoyment and appreciation of what we give them. Most of us work knowing that we probably will not win an Edgar, ITW, or a Barry, and that’s okay. I don’t know any author who writes books with one eye looking toward winning a literary award, but I’ve never known an author to turn one down either.

2 comments:

  1. Great overview and insight, John. This should definately give everyone a solid feeling for what it's like to be an awards judge--fulfilling, frustrating and frightening.

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  2. I see value to both sides of this argument. More awards, means more authors can benefit from the potential bump in sales from books marketed as “award-winning.” On the other hand, if ITW is going to hand out a “Best PBO” in addition to “Best Thriller,” then it probably ought to add even more categories. Someone (Patricia Rosemoor?) noted that “romantic suspense” novels often aren’t considered as good as traditional thrillers, just as PBOs sometimes aren’t considered as good as hardcover novels. So, do we add Best Romantic Suspense? Best Legal Thriller? Best Medical Thriller?

    I think maybe ITW has the right idea, (though it limits my chances of ever winning an award): Best Thriller. Period.

    Mike Sherer
    www.islandlife-thenovel.com

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