Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The good, the bad, and the writing contests

Several of my romance-writing pals are up for awards in the big contests this year, but some who should have finalled (according to yours truly) have been passed over.

How important are these awards, really? And what, if anything, do they mean?

Last year my first book won a Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award and a HOLT Medallion. The Romantic Times award is given by the magazine's reviewers and HOLT Medallion winners are determined by panels of published romance novelists, so it was a bit of a thrill to win them both. But while I like to think my book was pretty darn good, I don't think winning either of those awards proves it was the best book of its kind published in 2003.

In fact, the book failed to advance to the final round for Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA Award. The five judges who rated it (all published romance novelists) couldn't even agree on how good (or how bad) my book was. One judge gave me the highest score, a 9, while another gave me a 2. The other three judges gave me an 8, a 7, and a 5.

Obviously, people have differing ideas about what constitutes a good book. And bear in mind that while each RITA entry is judged by five authors in the preliminary round, it is not the same five authors judging each book in a given category. If romance writing were an Olympic sport, this would be akin to an event being scored by multiple sets of judges: The South African author might be judged by Panel 1, the Russian might be judged by Panel 2, and you might be judged by Panel 3. So when the South African wins, does that mean she was better, or might it mean simply that her judges were less demanding than yours?

What happens when a really good book is judged by a panel of meanies? Or when a not-so-good book is judged by a panel of softies? Do you see how a good book could sink while a mediocre book might float up to the final round? Of course, a mediocre book wouldn't win because it could never beat out the better finalists. But the good book that was denied a fair shot at the final round? Too bad.

I'm not saying these contests aren't fair. They're as fair as they can be. How else would you judge something as subjective as the "best" romance novels of the year? And hundreds upon hundreds of books are entered in the big contests, so it's ridiculous to imagine that a single panel of judges could read and rate every book in a given category.

Don't think for a moment that I despise these contests and awards. I brag about my wins all over the home page of my website. But while it's nice to win a contest because that means your book is pretty doggone good, not winning doesn't mean your book stinks. Maybe your book wasn't even entered in the contest. Or maybe the luck of the draw bit you in the backside and you got five PMS-ing judges whose dogs just died and whose ex-husbands are all alpha-male police detectives named Jake, just like the hero in your story. That might account for some of those 2's and 3's, don't you think?*

What I'm saying is that a contest win means only that a book is very good. "Luck" could conceivably get you to the final rounds, but from there your book's going to have to make it on its own merit. But let's not make contest wins a bigger deal than they are; remember, while you and I might believe Pride and Prejudice is the best romance novel ever written, even that is not a truth universally acknowledged.

I very much liked a statement by brand-new Pulitzer winner Marilynne Robinson, who snagged the fiction award for Gilead, a novel about a elderly minister reflecting on his own life and that of his forebears. No stranger to literary awards, Ms. Robinson has taken home a National Book Critics Circle prize for Gilead and the PEN/Hemingway Award for her first novel, Housekeeping. Speaking about the Pulitzer, she said, "It's an award you've heard of your entire life. But I'm aware there are lots of good books, and there is always something accidental when one is singled out."

* I'm going to head some of you off at the pass before you start posting outraged comments telling me that the judges of writing contests are more "professional" than that. In most cases, I would agree. But saying a fair-minded contest judge never screws up is like insisting that a good mother never, ever yells at her children. We all know better than that, don't we?


tristan coulter said...

In my opinion it’s a waste of everyone’s time to participate in contests that judge books, art, music, and the like. The panels are *always* subjective. There’s no way to take something like a book or a CD and judge it objectively. No way. I’ve won a couple of awards for photography and it’s nice for a couple of minutes, but then I quickly realize the reality that if it would have been a different judge, or a different day, I may have not won. I’m just pleased that someone likes my stuff, and for all I care the guy on the street could tell me that he likes it and it would mean the same.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tristan,