Saturday, November 13, 2004

What's the Point?

With all the controversy over book awards lately one has to ask, what's the point? What's the point of the award? What's the point of all the controversy? Seems that bookish folks are currently up in arms over the short list for the National Book Award for fiction. The nominees on the list are barely known and only one of them, Kate Wilbert, has sold more than 2,000 copies. Laura Miller has an interesting essay about it at the NY Times. The publishing industry looks on awards as a way to generate sales for their books, many readers view awards as a way to winnow down the vast number of books to choose from, and writers look upon awards as a way for writers to recognize and honor the work of other writers. As a result there are a lot of people who end up unhappy. From this reader's perspective it is all rather dumb. I don't look at the award lists to choose what books I am going to read, though sometimes I might read a book that has won an award, it is not my main criteria. When selecting a book I first go by what it's about, does the story sound interesting? Sometimes if the book is generating a buzz, not best seller list buzz, but reader buzz from general folks as well as reviewer and blogger buzz, I will read it. But for the most part I have my own unquantifiable selection process that generally serves me well. If a book I have read gets an award and if I liked it, then I give a silent cheer to the author for being recognized for a job well done. But if a book I have never heard of by an author I have never heard of wins, I don't rush to read the book. And if I ever read the book it isn't usually until sometime later after I have heard more about it or the author. I guess I feel that I don't need awards to validate for me what is a good book. I've read books that have been given awards and thought them dreadful. That's one of the great things about books and reading, and one of the hardest. One reader's "best book ever" is another reader's "worst book ever." And perhaps that is one of the reasons there is always someone with something to say when an award shortlist is announced. So what, then, is the point of having a National Book Award? Is it to recognize books and authors that aren't generally known? Is it to generate more sales for the chosen books? Is it to make the reading public excited about books like the movie going public gets excited about movies when it's Oscar time? Is it a recognition of excellence from one writer to another? Do the folks who run the National Book Awards know? If they don't perhaps that is a place to start. And after that maybe they want to look at who does the picking and judging of the books. Maybe it should be mixed up a little, perhaps a combined panel of writers and readers who are not writers or in the publishing industry. And what is the point of all the controversy and articles and angry press releases? Is it just to generate more attention? Or because controversy sells? Is it because people want something to be done to fix the problems? Or they just like to complain? If nothing is done and we have year after year of controversy and scandal, these big awards are going to rapidly come to be looked upon as a joke by readers and writers alike. If that happens even the winners will be losers.