Monday, January 19, 2009

I don't know the real value of literary prizes.

The Mystery Writers of America announced its nominations for the 2009 Edgar Awards last Friday. I was very pleased to see several of my friends on the list, but surprised, as always, to see what got left off.

The mystery and thriller world likes its awards. In addition to the Edgars, crime fiction writers can aspire to win the Daggers (awarded by the British Crime Writers Association), the Thrillers, the Agatha, the Anthony, the Barry, the Crimespree, the Dilys, the Hammett, the Macavity, the Shamus, the Theakstons Old Peculier Prize, and ... I'm leaving some out, I'm sure.

I do understand that the point of prizes is to honor good work, and to draw attention to books that might otherwise be overlooked -- for example, to my embarrassment, I have not read any of this year's nominees for the Best First Novel Edgar. (I did try to read one of them, but it was written in the present tense, and I was fed up with present-tense novels. I'll probably try to read it again.) The fact that a book shows up on the Edgar shortlist makes me more likely to read it, and more likely to read the next book that author writes. But I work in the world of crime fiction, and don't know whether people outside that world are aware of any of these prizes.

What I do know is that prizes start arguments, disappoint the people who don't win, and create hard feelings that can last for years. They're also deeply self-serving, existing as much to promote the organization that gives them as to promote the authors they honor. (The British awards -- the Daggers and the Theakstons Old Peculier -- are the only ones that carry any money with them, by the way. For the rest, you just get a plaque or a statue.)

Friends and clients have won these prizes, and on occasion I've been with them when the prizes were announced. That's truly thrilling, and wonderful to see good people recognized for good work. But I honestly don't know what the value of these prizes is, to anyone except the handful of people who win them.

So discuss it. Should we pay attention to these awards, and if so, how much attention? What would we lose by getting rid of all of them?


Kevin Wignall said...

I think it's very easy to dismiss them if you've never been nominated. I thought I was ambivalent about awards but I was delighted when I got my Edgar nomination last year. As long as you don't take it too seriously, as long as you realize the judges are saying "these are five books worthy of consideration" rather than "these were the best books published last year", you can take it as a charming little bit of recognition for your efforts.

In real terms, it probably increased my sales figures marginally, increased name-awareness slightly more, and landed me a Japanese deal.

As long as there are prizes, there will be people who feel aggrieved by the system for awarding them. But if you view them in the right light, they're fun, they cause a brief stir, attract a little publicity, possibly boost sales. If we scrapped all the prizes, there simply wouldn't be any prizes - I'm not sure how that benefits anyone.

Ed Lamb said...

Does the Theakston prize also come with a supply of Old Peculier? 'Cause that's good beer. Might even make me want to try my hand at writing.

AnswerGirl said...

That's probably the right way to look at it, Kevin. It is interesting how the presence or absence of a cash award changes the dynamic, and gets people more worked up about it accordingly -- I remember the uproar over the CWA Daggers a few years ago when they made the decision to limit the Best Novel category to books originally written in English.

Ed, the Theakston's winner gets a cask in addition to the cash, but I don't know whether the cask has beer in it!