Sunday, September 09, 2007

Awards and the Awarding Awarders who Award Them

I was reading through some research papers when I hit this abstract, specifically this line: "The gender effect was greater for writers of popular than award winning fiction.” I dig deeper and realise that in this paper ‘award winning’ is a synonym for ‘literary’—and ‘popular’ is a synonym for all other genres (or as they call it ‘genre’).

It is entirely implicit that literary fiction wins awards and genre fiction does not; that the only awards that exist for fiction are that a book was“recommended by literary reviewer, or was short-listed for or awarded national literary prizes.” The ‘genre’ actually written by the popular writers is never specified and unsupported sweeping assertions are made: “award winning literature is arguably read by, and intended for, readers with a greater level of education than popular fiction …authors are likely to want to portray themselves as highly competent writers ... [and so] may wish to eradicate displays of their gender …” As opposed, of course, to those of us who write for the under-educated, revel in displays of ineptitude and like to wave our vaginas around at every opportunity.

This got me thinking. For the people who wrote, refereed and published this paper all of this was so obviously true as to require no reference or justification. The only awards are literary awards, national awards—and kudos from professional reviewers. And is this what genres like romance are trying to emulate with peer- and industry-judged awards like EPPIES and RITAs?

Awards like the Booker or Katherine Mansfield award (literary awards I am aware of as a Kiwi) have gravitas with readers of literature because this genre is driven by ‘experts’ and readers, although autonomous, are attentive to their opinions. The wider community cares only to the extent the genre is seen as prestigious. Literature is seen as a defining quality of a culture like other high arts. And besides, book editors and professors are literally paid to drive interest in it though classes and published commentaries. The experts give award to writers, readers heed the awards due to their widely acknowledged cultural worth.

Despite being a much larger portion of the market genres like romance and erotica simply do not hold the same position. There is not a widely recognised cultural worth of either genre. Some industry professionals and a large number of other writers effectively give genre awards to each other, but the reader buy-in is not there. The awards are not discussed in general media, or even very extensively in the genre-specific media. I think we need to think about what awards do, for everyone involved.

1) The author has their book picked out as high quality
2) The awarding body has positioned themselves as qualified to make that judgement

Now so long as author and awarding body believe this they are happy with a bit of mutual back slapping. But what about:

3) The readers must believe 2) in order to believe 1) in order to increase sales of an award winning book. IMHO if it costs money to enter an award it should yield money to win one, by this mechanism of reader recognition and belief. This works because people are impressed with literature, with Hollywood, with Nobel Peace prizes and any effective award. Nor is it impossible to do this with other genres as other traditional ‘low brow’ enterprises like Soap Operas and pop music. You just have to break the circle and realise that even when judging is done by experts, the general public is the focus.

It is not necessarily that awards need to be given by public vote, although we could use a MTV music awards of romance as much as a viable Oscar. But readers, romance and otherwise, need to be part of the equation. Writers and publishers are already in bed with each other—time to make it a ménage a trois? The problem is that our ostensibly ‘less educated’ romance readers aren’t going to be sucked into the idea that they need ‘experts’ and pro reviewers to tell them what is good and what is not. So how would you get them to care what happens on the romance red carpet?


Imp said...

You left out the part about: if enough people say it (has value), it must be true.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

Wow. I don't know. I'm too undereducated to understand that post.

Ooops! Sorry. My bitterness is showing again.

It's part of human history to develop and exclude. Once, Shakespeare was considered a hack. There was a time when Jane Austin titles were considered "throw away" books and poo pooed by the literary community.
The RWA was begun out of a desire to bring legitimate recognition for romance writers who were often excluded and berated by other writer's groups.
I'm afraid that titles that have "Winner of the Blada Blada Award" don't attract me anymore than others. In fact, the sticker "Oprah Book Club" will have me putting it back on the shelf.
But what about readers in general?
What DOES make them pick up and buy a book?

veinglory said...

People are plenty cycnical about who wins most awards, but still pay attention. For the Booker betting shops run odds and winners sell more copies. Does everything really think the winner is miles better--no, but they buy ot anyway. Just because it is being talked about?

The more I think about this the more it confuses me.

Bernita said...

With all due respect to the many fine literary novels out there, I'm inclined to view "literary" fiction as just another genre: Snot.