February 23, 2015

Some thoughts on awards

As you likely know, the Oscars were last night, and with them came the usual furor of speculation and diatribes and statements about What This Means. At the same time, it’s getting to be award season for the literary world as well, the time when the various jurors and industry associations and voting blocs look back on the previous year and try to decide what was best.

Awards are fun, in a way, and create a lot of talk. But as time’s gone by and I’ve seen some people win awards and other people not do so, and even won a few awards myself, the entire awards process puts me in mind of a Taoist fable about a farmer:

Among the people who lived close to the border, there was a man who led a righteous life. Without reason, his horse escaped, and fled into barbarian territory. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said : “What makes you think this is not a good thing?”

Several months later, his horse returned, accompanied by a superb barbarian stallion. Everyone congratulated him. But the old man said: “What makes you think this is cannot be a bad thing?”

The family was richer from a good horse, his son enjoyed riding it. He fell and broke his hip. Everyone pitied him, but the old man said: “What makes you think this is not a good thing!”

One year later, a large party of barbarians entered the border. All the valid men drew their bows and went to battle. From the people living around the border, nine out of ten died. But just because he was lame, the old man and his son were both spared.

There are a lot of philosophical lessons one can learn from this story. The one I think of first and foremost, though, is how so much of life is just snapshots in time, severed from all meaning bestowed upon them by the past or future. If you don’t know the history behind any given moment, and if you don’t know the future awaiting it – and I’m assuming you don’t – you can’t truthfully speak to what it meant.To make a statement about the importance of any particular five minutes of time is a fool’s game.

I think awards function chiefly as a snapshot in time. They’re all the cultural movements and industry forces and political maneuvering of that one moment all swept up and frozen in amber. And just like any other snapshot – be it an ancient artifact or a Polaroid of our parents dressed in bewildering clothing – we so often find ourselves puzzled by past awards.

How many award winners do we look back and puzzle upon, wondering, “What? That thing won?” Or, perhaps worse, we look at a list of award winners and think, “I’ve never heard of any of these.” And if we know a great work of art from 40 years ago, and then look up its history, is it improved or damaged if we discover it did or did not win a certain award?

I wonder – do awards really succeed in bringing recognition? How many works do we think would have been totally forgotten ten or twenty or fifty years out had it not been for this one award they won? (I’m genuinely curious about this – if anyone has specific examples of this, I’d like to hear it.)

I think people confuse awards of any kind with meaning, or a lasting effect: to win an award, we think, is to better increase the odds that this work of art might be appreciated by more people and remembered for a slightly longer duration.

But I’m not sure it works like that. The attitudes and conventions of the human race are far more fickle and unpredictable than we anticipate. And though we might wish otherwise, we can’t control them: there isn’t one decisive action one can make to ensure lasting greatness, no campaign you can wage to be remembered.

An awards program of any kind does not speak for history or for the future. They are indicators of the moment. If you happen to get one, it is excellent for you, much as it is excellent to spot a rare and beautiful bird. But then it will flit away to the next thing, the next person. Yet you’ll always have that moment, that snapshot.

Now, some might say that awards are important, industry-wise. “Award winners make more money,” they say. “Award winners get better jobs later. So awards are important to those people.” In which case, certainly. If you want to think about this through the appropriately mercenary lens, awards are like a big sale or a big contract, something to be fought and negotiated over, with all available cutthroat tactics on the table.

And if we are to do this, we should think about awards much as one would read about two businesses feuding over a deal in the paper: probably very valuable for these two abstract entities, but of little bearing on us.

The potential for great financial gains might be true. But that has little to do with the work itself.

If you would like a work of art to get more recognition – perhaps yours, perhaps someone else’s – there is a very simple and direct way of doing this: you turn to someone you know, and you say, “I loved this. Maybe you will too. Check it out.” All the awards and advertising in the world are desperately trying to tap into that elusive, unpredictable, and frustratingly simple phenomenon that we call “word of mouth”: one human simply turning to another and saying, “I loved this.”

I’d rather have that than nearly any award.