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.

6 thoughts on “Awards”

  1. TOM says:

    Seems to me that the ‘awards’ are granted on the basis of ‘do not hurt the person’s ego’ and not only on the basis of popularity. Because most children realize the falseness of awards I really do not have that much of a problem with them. What I do not get, and you have noted in the past, is that we fire coaches who do not have a winning season but give bonuses to CEO’s who are/were in charge of businesses that fail/ed – bonuses are after all ‘awards’.

  2. invah says:

    Bonuses for CEOs are often given in stock options and are an effort to bypass income tax rates in preference for the taxation rates for capital gains, as well as being able to pass through losses as a deduction to mitigate their tax liability.

    So bonuses are often de facto income, structured in a way to maximum wealth retention.

    That’s not to say there aren’t performance bonuses, and the metrics for those are definitely problematic. And I agree with Tom’s underlying premise of the lack of CEO accountability.

    Two things occur to me regarding this post.

    First, as to excellence, I was reminded of the restructuring of the NY Times best seller list to separate the ratings for children’s books from the rest because of the overwhelming dominance of the Harry Potter series. (Which is interesting, as I certainly wouldn’t classify the last several books in the series as “children’s”…)

    Second, Orson Scott Card, I believe, made an observation something to the effect that a mayor is almost invisible to the populace but very important to those outside the community which I found startlingly true. An award, like a mayorship, might be the result of a popularity contest or political skill, but it is a signifier of prestige and deserved receipt to those outside the community. So much so, in fact, that awards are noted in advertising, histories and biographies, eulogies, resumes and CVs, and other legacies.

    And while I know all of that intellectually, I am still aware that I am impressed by those awards and harbor a perverse desire for that kind of acknowledgment… and I’m not even engaged in activities where awards are a factor, nor am I seeking to be so engaged. This rather indicates to me that award psychology is irresistible and pervasive.

  3. invah says:

    Another reliable indicator of excellence is when discussion consistently focuses on content over delivery of that content.

    When poor or great content is delivered poorly, conversation typically revolves around the flaws in delivery. When great content is delivered excellently, people are drawn into discussion of the content and its themes, drawn into the narrative and story, driven to engage with the subject matter.

    The mechanism of delivery becomes invisible in magnificence: acting and other performance arts, writing, visual arts…

    Poor content delivered excellently can be lauded for its innovation, and generate interest, but the focus is still on the structure for the subject, not the subject matter itself.

  4. Earl Tower says:

    You can see the same time of ‘award creep’ show up in the military. After 25 years in various components of the USAF, I received many awards that seem rather shallow and to serve no other purpose than to have some bright color on my dress uniform. This phenomena is common across all the US armed forces these days.

    I guess it is just a sign of the times.

  5. darcherd says:

    I’m not sure how new a phenomenon ‘award creep’ in the military is. I had heard the expression ‘awarding medals for standing in the chow line’ when I enlisted in the 1970’s and I got the impression then that it dated back to at least WWII. And the nickname for the National Defense Ribbon (awarded to every member of the military during the Vietnam war, and resurrected for those who were in service during the Persian Gulf War) was the “alive in ’65” ribbon.

  6. David Dyer says:

    Question, how many of the school awards are “Somebody’s Award for X”, where the somebody is some sort of endowment that someone wanted to give to the school but didn’t trust that the administration would direct it to the right place? I can remember two awards showing up when I was in high school low these many years ago. Both were memorial awards given by donors named after a well liked teacher who’d died. In those cases, the school couldn’t not give the awards. They had to award them based on the directions of the donor.

    Random note, I really like that CAPTCHA.

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