Could We Make a Distinction, Please?

Over at Tor.com, a blogger under the nom de plume of “Stubby the Rocket” recently conducted a poll, asking readers to vote on the best fantasy and science fiction novels of the past decade. Fortunately or unfortunately, the readers aren’t.  They’re voting for their favorite books, and, apparently, reading between the lines, they’re even voting for their favorite authors, almost without regard for the comparative excellence or lack thereof of some authors’ works. What is also interesting is that when one internet-popular author made an on-line appeal, his readers immediately flooded the voting thread, and pushed his book to the top.

I have no problem with readers pushing their favorites. I’d love to have my readers push all my books – but I’m not making an appeal, because that isn’t the point of this blog, and besides the voting closed several days ago. The point is, as one commenter on the Tor.com main site observed, that most of the voters aren’t voting for what they believe to be the best, but for their favorites. So why didn’t Tor.com and Stubby the Rocket just ask for the books readers liked the most? Then they could publish, more or less honestly, “Reader Favorites for the Decade.”

As I’ve discussed recently and not-so-recently, there’s a great deal of subjectivity and ignorance involved in determining what comprises a good book, and while I believe that the majority of readers, if pressed, would make a distinction, the poll-takers didn’t emphasize that there’s a difference between “favorite” and “best.” Another weakness with all of these polls, and that includes such awards as the Hugos [the World Science Fiction awards, for those readers not familiar with such], is that a comparatively small number of voters are represented, usually from a distinct sub-set of readers, and are usually self-selecting, which means that they don’t represent the majority of readers.

Years and years ago, Betty Ballantine, one of the great ladies of F&SF publishing, made the observation that there are two kinds of awards in publishing, those awarded by various organizations with varying memberships and agendas and those represented by the sales figures.  A number of years ago, many of those involved with the World Science Fiction convention were truly horrified when the winner of the best novel award went to a Harry Potter book.  Was it the best book of the year, technically?  I doubt it, but it was at least an honest “favorite,” one whose sales figures also declared that it was truly a favorite.

I honestly doubt that there’s any fair or accurate way to determine a “best” book.  So why don’t all the pollsters ask for favorites or books that are best-liked?  That way, at least, we wouldn’t have the charade of popularity being mistaken for excellence or the equally misleading charade of self-selecting groups foisting off their favorites as the “best of the decade” when they really mean the “favorite books of this group for the decade.”  But then, who wants to publish a list of “favorites” when “best books” sounds so much better and more “official” in print?

4 thoughts on “Could We Make a Distinction, Please?”

  1. Richard Hamilton says:

    One could of course have a judging panel composed of literature professors. But that would demonstrate the flip side of “best”, because much of what they’d bless would not be able to pay for itself. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if they would be reasonably
    pleased with an example you mentioned – the “Harry Potter” books – because they achieve their vast readership by being both engaging and by having enough layers that both children and reasonably sophisticated adults will be entertained (and probably a layer or two past what most of even the latter are aware of).

    So you’re right that sales (net sales, given Byzantine nonsense in publishing such as returns) may be the one objective measure.

    _Expect_ “best” to degenerate to “favorite”. I can’t find the quote
    right now, but I’m reasonably sure that CS Lewis said something
    about adjectives degenerating to nothing more than very subjective
    “good” and “bad”.

  2. Sam says:

    I don’t and never have considered myself in a position to label something as the “best” or for that matter even to rate something’s level of technical excellence.

    It’s usually pretty easy to recognise a technically inferior product even from a field you’re not well versed in. However when it comes to degrees of technical excellence unless you’re an expert you can only judge whether or not something appeals to you.

    Whilst reading this blog post I had to wonder if you had ever read the Harry Potter books and if so as a professional writer what you thought of them from a technical viewpoint, did the book that won an award warrant it in your view?

    I didn’t start reading the books until I saw the first movie. I’d heard all the hype and was completely uninterested. I saw the first movie and it took me back to the Enid Blyton books I read as child. I ended up devouring the books and quite enjoyed them although I felt they lost a bit of steam towards the end. I have no idea how well-written the books are from a technical viewpoint but I found the writing didn’t leap out at me as being inferior.

  3. I read the first Harry Potter book and enjoyed it. Personally, I thought the writing was good, but the story-telling excellent. Rowling’s writing is certainly better than more than a few mega-best-selling authors, who shall remain nameless [so don’t ask], and given the ground rules for the Hugos and the fact that it is a popularity award, no matter what anyone says, she certainly deserved a Hugo.

  4. There was a time before I was published when I thought it would be the neatest thing in the world to be a Hugo or Nebula winner. After I become published and the curtain began to be drawn back on how these awards — indeed, how almost all entertainment and arts awards — are given, I lost my enthusiasm.

    Not because I wouldn’t be tickled to get one. I would. But because my knowledge of the process has eroded my esteem for these awards. In fact the only award I’ve ever gotten — for Writers of the Future — is arguably the most robust award in the genre. It is not dependent on popularity, name cachet, cannot be ‘gamed’ via call-outs to fan bases, nor can a writer win the award by being a member of an “in” crowd. It’s blindly judged by five professional authors who grade all entries strictly on construction, story merit, and their own particular tastes.

    Which doesn’t mean Writers of the Future is perfect, it’s not. But it is a more honest award than probably any other major genre awards currently being given.

    If I pursue anything now, it’s sales and reader satisfaction. If I can sell a lot and make money, and make a decent bunch of readers happy in the process, I think I’ve performed my job to expectation. Additional awards may or may not happen. My money is on ‘not’ mainly because of who I am as a writer, and what I like to write. I have gotten some nice fan mail though, which as a new writer has surprised and delighted me.

    Getting mail from a total stranger telling you that your story touched them or inspired them or pleased them in some way… I don’t think you can put a price on that reaction. It’s wonderful.

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