Should Award Winners Also Be Popular?
In the book industry, fall also means it's awards season. From the Giller to the Booker to the National Book Award, there are a number of high profile awards announced leading up to the Christmas Holidays (and of course the ALA Youth Media Awards in January). A few weeks ago when the Governor General's Award winners were announced in Canada, I read an article about the awards that was marveling at the fact that for the first time, the shortlisted titles were also on the national bestseller list. What really threw me was the part where they specifically mentioned having a discussion about whether or not they should be giving awards to titles that are also popular. Essentially, the article was suggesting that good writing and popular appeal either are or should be separate, and the book was given the award in spite of being a bestseller. The article went on to state that if popular merit was a consideration for publishing books, War and Peacelikely would never have happened.
If all of this is true, what does it say about the publishing industry and readers as a whole? I'm an avid reader with varied tastes, and when the winners of most of these prizes are announced each year, I can't find a single title that I actually want to read. I'm not suggesting that there isn't a place or an audience for the "literary" fiction that is the preference of award juries, nor am I saying that all popular fiction is well-written. There is some horrible schlock out there that makes me scratch my head at how it ever got published and why anybody likes it, but I often find myself asking the same question about the prize-winning books.
Several years ago, Vulture Magazine published an article How to Win a National Book Award, where they highlighted a few patterns that have emerged in award voting. One rule that particularly stood out for me was "Aim for World-Historical Significance". Critics love to toss around words like "significant" and "important" when justifying why a particular book deserves an award. The book shines a spotlight on the plight of the ____ People in war-torn ____ during the ____ war/crisis/conflict, etc.... It spans generations of the ____family, demonstrating the cultural and geographical changes that have occurred in_____ over 300 years.... Perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit, but this kind of language seems like more of a justification than a sales pitch. To me, deliberately setting out to write something significant and important isn't the same as writing the story you want to tell, for the audience you want to tell it to. Writing to please an awards jury may win you the prize and the praise of critics, but but why do these kinds of books so rarely seem to win the popular vote as well?