We’ve been through the Emmys, Grammies, Oscars, and the Hugo finalists have just been announced, and now we’re entering university graduation season, with all the awards bestowed at each university’s ceremony or ceremonies.
Once, back in the dark ages when I was actually in school, pretty much the only award given to students was that of valedictorian. When my wife the professor began teaching at the local university, there were just two faculty awards – one for excellence as an educator and one for excellence as a scholar, creator, or researcher. This past graduation there were thirteen awards for faculty and something like eight major student awards, and likely more than a hundred lesser student awards (although that’s a guess on my part based on the awards given in one of the six university colleges) because I don’t intent to spend days tracking them all down.
Everywhere I look, it seems like there’s been award proliferation. In the realm of speculative fiction alone, there are not only the Hugos and the World Fantasy Awards, but a whole list of regional and national awards, not to mention the Nebula Awards, the Sideways Awards for alternative world SF, the Prometheus Award for Libertarian speculative fiction, the Carl Brandon awards for speculative fiction by or about people of color, the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, the James Tiptree Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and a host of others as well. What I’ve found interesting about all these awards isn’t so much who has won them as who has not.
I’ve also noticed the same “phenomenon” in regard to the faculty awards at my wife’s university. Most of them go to “politically astute” professors or those I’d classify as either one-time flashes or “flavour du jour,” rather than to professors who have created flourishing programs from nothing, received national recognition for achievement or scholarship, or those whose students, while students, have received multiple and continuing awards for their accomplishments. Oh, yes, I forgot “popular” professors, usually easy-grading, cheerleading types who always factor in the awards.
A similar sort of result occurs, from what I’ve seen, in the F&SF field and elsewhere. The bottom line is simple. No matter what anyone says, the vast majority of awards in any field tend to be popularity contests of some sort or reflect favoritism on the part of the judges, if not both. Even juried awards can be prejudiced in one way or another, and having served as a judge on a juried award, I’ve seen that happen as well.
Probably one of the most reliable indications of excellence is when something remains known, respected, and moderately popular well after the time of its creation. That’s certainly not an infallible guide, but it’s a start. As for “current” excellence – for books, anyway – sales figures are about as reliable as awards, and sales figures that endure for decades are definitely more reliable than one-year sales or a burst of awards in a single year. In the end, neither awards nor sales are necessarily an indication of excellence.
Awards are nice to have, but, alas, they never meant as much as most people thought, and with the flurry of awards proliferation, most of them mean even less now… but I certainly wouldn’t turn down a Nobel Prize, not that one is ever going to a U.S. F&SF writer.