Do Literary Awards Matter?

Everybody Loves a Winner

Photo: El País

When it comes to reading choices, we browse bookstores and libraries, search for recommended reading lists, ask for an opinion from trusted friends or our book club.

The best selling lists are also a good indication. If so many people like a book, it must be good, no?

Similarly, when we are considering buying a book, we look at the cover, the back cover synopsis, the blurbs, and the author. But if the book has a nice shiny sticker on the cover claiming it won or was nominated for a major award, we inspect it closely.

For me, any Hugo or Nebula nomination deserves a read. A Hugo or Nebula winner becomes a must-buy.

Indeed, it is a seal of approval, although for two different reasons. The Nebulas are voted by other writers. Peers nominate and select among their peers who wrote the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story.

The Hugos are nominated and voted by fans. Yes, they are a popularity contest of sort. However, if a particular book or story resonates with fans it is because it speaks to them in a special way and therefore deserving of a closer look.

Granted, sometimes the award goes to an undeserved candidate or a story that does not stand the test of time. Conversely, some overlooked nominee or “loser” novel may end becoming a cultural touchstone. It happens.

Whereas fans and casual readers love a winner, we must ask, do literary awards matter?

The Benefits of Winning an Award

Image: Infobae

No one becomes a writer to win awards. Winning awards is a by-product of being a writer.

Nonetheless, winning a literary award is akin to winning the lottery. No, the money (if there is a cash prize) is not the true incentive.

The validation is. Whether you are being recognized by your peers, your fans, or some institution, the validation from winning a major award matters.

If an author tells you awards do not matter, he or she is lying. If they say it is an honor just to be nominated, they truly mean it.

Besides validation, there are several tangible, non-monetary benefits of winning an award. Here are the main ones:

  • Sales bump. Just like an Oscar nomination makes people watch or rent nominated films, a literary award nomination brings a sales bump. People want to read that book everyone is talking about.
  • Get fans talking. Nothing arises the passions of bookworms like debating (or is that bickering?) about which books deserved an award or who was ignored. Still, fans talking equals free publicity.
  • Awareness. Fans who checked an author and liked what they read will most likely check their other stuff. Also, for an author who struggled to break in for years, an award means recognition for all those years he or she spent in obscurity.
  • Acceptance. Writing can be a solitary affair. Some writers are insecure and deal with depression and impostor syndrome. And the award is a tangible measure of quality telling them “you are not as bad as you think you are”.

And the best part? There are no drawbacks to winning an award. None.

Who Benefits From an Award?

2018 Hugo winners. Photo by Sal Pizarro

With so many awards given annually, who benefits? Is something lost by the prevalence of so many awards ceremonies?

Besides the Hugo and the Nebulas, there are the Edgars, the Locus Poll awards, the Phillip K. Dick awards, the Theodore Sturgeon awards, the James Triptree Jr. awards, the World Fantasy award, and the Lodestar awards just for speculative fiction authors.

There are also the Pulitzer, the Nobel in Literature, the National Book award, the Man Booker, and the Specsavers National Book Awards, the Costa Books awards, and the Barnes and Noble awards.

So many awards to keep track!

When you see the same books shortlisted for the same awards, you suspect it must be special since too many different people vouch for it.

Again, who benefits besides the author, publishers, and fans? Let us have the late Argentian writer and journalist Adolfo Bioy Casares get the last word on literary awards:

“Awards are good for those who do not expect them or seek them and terrible for the character of those who try to achieve them.”

In other words, awards are welcome when they arrive but we should not write specifically to achieve them. We should let the fans and jurors choose them and just keep writing.

Happy writing. Happy reading.

Reader, do you read books because they won or were nominated for an award? Have you ever been disappointed by a book award winner? (I had). Share your experiences.

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March 2023