How Awards Work: A Quick Primer | Whatever – John Scalzi’s Whatever

Because I think it will come in handy for some folks, a quick primer about literary awards (this may or may not have relevance outside the realm of literary awards, but I’m going with what I know, here):

1. If an author/book has won an award, and you are unhappy with that, for whatever reason: Cool, be annoyed all you like. You do you. Have fun with it!

2. The author may disagree with you on that score. So might other people.

3. The author is themselves only rarely personally or directly responsible for their winning the award, or being on their shortlist, aside from having written a work that conforms to the award’s consideration criteria. Literary awards generally happen to authors.

4. The people responsible, for award wins and shortlists, are the people empowered to select both: Sometimes juries, sometimes a wider group of voters, with the qualifying criteria for the latter ranging from award to award. In the realm of science fiction and fantasy, for example, voters for the Hugo have to be members of that year’s Worldcon; voters for the Nebula have to be members of SFWA; and voters of the Locus can be pretty much anyone who decides to cast a vote (although the votes of Locus magazine subscribers, if I recall correctly, are given greater weight).

5. If you want to know the specific reasoning on how a particular book and/or author won an award or got on its shortlist, you probably shouldn’t ask the author — they’re not the one who put it there, they’re just along for the ride. They usually don’t know, aside from a vague “Uhhhh, because people liked it?” For a more complete answer, you should probably ask the people who nominated it for the award, and, in the case of a two-stage (or more) voting process, those who voted for it to win. They can probably tell you better than the author could.

6. Be aware there may be lots of different reasons. Some or all of the reasons you may find reasonable, or not. Bear in mind that what you think about it is probably neither here nor there to the individual voter, as they are likely to use their own judgment and not yours, and if the award has already been given, it’s probably too late anyway.

7. Likewise be aware that different books/authors can be on the same shortlist for wildly different reasons, so long as those reasons fit the basic qualifying criteria. Some shortlists can be comparing apples to apples, apples to oranges, or apples to ice cream. Depending on your own personal preferences, you may agree with what is on the shortlist or what wins, or not. This is not the problem of the voters, however, or the winners (or those on the shortlist).

8. If you want awards to better reflect your own taste, priorities or desires, and it is possible for you to nominate and/or vote on the finalists and winners, then the best way to do that is to vote, and to encourage likeminded people to vote as well. This does not guarantee your choices will win or even be selected for the shortlist (much will depend on other voters as well), but it won’t hurt and may help. In my time in the SF/F field I’ve seen significant shifts in who is on shortlists and who wins because new individuals and groups of voters have come in (and also, importantly, stayed for more than one or two voting cycles). Participation matters.

9. In my experience, which is not entirely trivial in this case, most works/author on a shortlist tend to be within hailing distance of each other in terms of quality. Any one of the works/authors could win, and which one is eventually chosen is very often up to intangibles that are difficult to quantify. The phrase “it’s an honor just to be nominated” is, strangely enough, absolutely true. The winning is often a crapshoot. The measure of quality usually comes in the shortlist.

10. Again, totally within your rights and purview to be annoyed when an author/work you don’t like wins an award. That’s life. It might be useful, however, to ask yourself what other people, motivated enough to nominate an author/work onto a shortlist and then vote for it to win, found to be of quality in that particular work. Yes, possibly everyone who voted for the author/work you dislike champions absolute mediocrity and only you and your compatriots have true critical vision and literary taste. More likely, however (sorry), their reasons are different and more complex than that, even if you don’t agree with them. Very likely their reasons are not necessarily worse than your own reasons (if you voted at all). Try to imagine what they might be — or, again, ask. Nicely.

(Note: All the above assumes the award processes running in a largely unremarkable manner, and not actively being gamed/sabotaged, which has been generally rare enough, and also, when it happens, rectified as quickly as rules allow.)

Are award processes perfect? Ha! No. Are all winners the “best” winners, by whatever criteria you (or anyone else) consider important? Given the fact that there are always complaints, no matter who wins, evidently not. Are you going to be happy if someone you dislike/whose work you dislike wins an award, especially over someone or some work you prefer? Again, no, but again, that’s life and the nature of awards. Literally, you win some and you lose some. And that’s okay.

— JS

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