It’s an annual rite of spring: The winners of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar awards are announced, and all the whining, crying, and second-guessing begins. Readers and fans alike debate ad nauseum the worthiness of the winners, the sanity of the award judges, and the fairness of the selection process. Some claim the results were just, others insist they were a travesty. Accusations of bias and conspiracy run rampant.
Usually, I’m just as happy as the next guy to take part in the festivities. Exposing as in idiot someone who thinks Book A was more deserving of an Edgar (or Shamus, or Hammett, or L.A. Times Book Prize, or…) than Book B is a kind of fun you just can’t have doing anything else.
But this year, rather than partake in the same, old argument that can never be won — people are gonna love what they love and hate what they hate, no matter how irrational you make them feel about it — I thought I’d ask a simple question instead: What does winning an award like the Edgar for Best Novel really mean?
Obviously, the organization behind the award would like it to mean that the winning book is the most exceptional of its kind written within a 12-month period. A panel of judges qualified to make such a determination have read a representative sampling of all such books published that year and found this one to be better than all the rest.
Okay. So far, so good.
But how do judges define the word “better”?
That subjectivity always plays a hand in the voting process, no matter what writers’ organization or guidelines are involved, should go without saying. And anybody who would either deny this is true, or lose a great deal of sleep over it, isn’t playing with a full deck. Judges are human beings; human beings have their biases. Asking someone to read dozens of books and then choose a mere handful of the best without regard for their own personal tastes is like asking them to judge a beauty contest without taking their own ideas about what beauty is into account. It can’t really be done.
Is that in itself a problem? Generally speaking, I’d say no. An award panel’s biases should only be an issue when they aren’t diverse enough to balance each other out. Put nothing but cozy lovers on a panel, or three thriller fans and one hardboiled one, etc., and you create a rigged game almost certain to give short shrift to a whole slew of worthy books. But mix it up a little, take pains to ensure that an awards committee consists of judges of varied sub-genre stripes, and you’re more than likely going to get a fair outcome. Not every time, mind you, but most of the time.
I’m sure all of this is stuff you already know, and there isn’t much to be gained by my writing, or your reading, a blog post about it. The thing I’m most interested in examining today is, accepting the fact that personal bias is a natural and relatively benign byproduct of the voting process, what kind of book in these popularity contests usually takes home the prize? One that adheres to the time-honored conventions of the genre or sub-genre involved, to the extent that it represents a virtually flawless example of it? Or one in which the quality of the writing (as opposed to plot, character, satisfactory puzzle and denouement, etc.) is so extraordinary, it trumps all, even at the expense of those aforementioned conventions?
My answer: the former.
While I’m sure every judge on every awards committee starts out hoping to find a book that strikes a perfect balance between great writing and a masterful command of those things that make a mystery a mystery, or a thriller a thriller, or — I think such a balance is rare, indeed. So in the absence of it, judges end up weighing one strength over the other to select their winner: superior writing over homage to form, or vice versa. As a result, what an Edgar/Shamus/Hammett/Whatever award actually says about a book is constantly changing. Sometimes it means one thing, and sometimes it means something else.
It’s probably unrealistic to think that this inconsistency is avoidable, but if we were to pretend for a moment that it is, what statement should readers expect an award to make about a book every time it is handed out: That it’s brilliantly written, or that it hits the sweet-spot of the applicable genre?
I’m not sure I know the answer myself. But I think it’s dependent upon how comfortable one is with the idea that, in the end, a private eye novel (for example), if true to the form, is just an entertainment, and anyone who tries to make it something bigger than that is overreaching for no good purpose. Hence, it’s okay for the Shamus to be given to a book that any fan of the P.I. genre would find exceptional, but would do little or nothing to impress someone who ordinarily never reads the stuff.
Personally, I have always felt that sub-standard writing should disqualify a book from winning any “best of the year” award, no matter how entertaining it is. We call what we do “writing,” not “storytelling,” so the “best” of what we do should offer a reader the whole enchilada: great story, involving characters, and above-average writing.
Given the choice between a book that nails the demands of its genre down cold but reads like a first draft, and one that plays loosely with those demands but leaves you wishing to God you could use language that way, I’ll take the latter every time.
And vote that book a winner.