Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Another week, another award show. Cheryl Freedman’s January 13th Mystery Maven post raises some good points about book awards. Today, I add my two cents to the pot.

We have turned into a winner-take-all kind of society. This cultural phenomenon may have started with the Academy Awards but it found fertile ground on Survivor Island and American Idol before spiraling downward into gems such as the Bachelor and Tots and Tiaras. We’ve become fascinated by voting people out of competitions and watching their dreams implode in front of millions of people. Some of the shows are just plain silly, but the nastiness behind some can take your breath away.

So far, writing competitions have kept to the higher ground, but one must ask, can a panel of peers really choose the best book for a given year? Is it fair to even try?

There are a lot of positives to book competitions. Even to be shortlisted can help get an author's name out there and can lead to greater sales. Librarians use the lists to order books. Readers use the lists to try new authors. Contests create buzz – it seems that the best form of publicity is to win a major award. In their purest of intentions, book awards are not meant to denigrate those who lose, but to elevate good writing and to give exposure.

However, not all terrific books ever make it to a shortlist – and this to me, is the unfortunate, irrefutable drawback. Not making the list can shift public perception about a book's quality, and perception is a powerful marketing tool, whether deserved or not. The inescapable element of the judges’ subjectivity and personal bias in forming the order of finish can be downplayed but it can never be eliminated. What one considers a great book might be what someone else can't even get through.

And yet, we all love a good contest.

I have a curious fascination with the psychology that drives us to compete – the need to test ourselves against all others and to risk defeat. Reality shows make a spectacle of this innate drive, putting losers' agony on display for public entertainment. On the positive side, this is not the case with book contests. Just like the writing process, the shortlist selection is done out of view, and while the winner is usually announced during a public event, the work of all the finalists is celebrated.

In the final analysis, awards can be a lovely byproduct for the care and toil an author puts into their writing – but these fleeting moments of public recognition should not be the reason to write just as 'not winning' should ever be a reason to stop. It is important not to give excessive credence to an award's intrinsic value. Tiaras and trophies come and go. Award-winners are celebrated and the world moves on. The real reward rests in the solitary writing process before judgment or comparison. The true prize comes when someone picks up an author's creation and settles in for an evening's read, turns an image over in their mind or stays up past their bedtime because they just couldn't put the book down.

Brenda Chapman is the Ottawa author of the Jennifer Bannon mystery series for young adults. Hiding in Hawk’s Creek, the second novel in the series, was shortlisted by the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians for the 2006 Book of the Year for Children Award.

Brenda has also written several short stories that were published in an anthology (When Boomers Go Bad, RendezVous Crime 2004) and various magazines. In Winter’s Grip is Brenda’s first adult murder mystery. When not writing, Brenda works as a senior communications advisor in the federal government.

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