On The Subject Of Awards

I’ve wanted to be a writer since —

*checks watch*

— since I karate kicked my way out of the dragon cloaca that birthed me. I’m pretty sure I come from a dragon? That’s what my mother told me. MY MOTHER, WHO IS A DRAGON. (Actually, for real, if you see my mother’s feet? You might be inclined to agree. I’m pretty sure that she could scalp a man by gripping it with her foot and just twisting.)

I had a momentary desire to be a cartoonist, but for the most part, it was writer, writer, writer.

Which means I started writing very early. I’m still one of those dips who keeps the “books” he published when he was in elementary school. (The earliest I have is a story about who go to the core of the earth to save it. A story that later became the Delroy Lindo filmic masterpiece, The Core. Okay, maybe not. But seriously, it was kinda the same plot.) I had a piece of software for my Tandy 1000 SX called Print Master (or was it Print Shop?) and I’d make book covers and typeset my own books and they were terrible, though probably no more terrible than some of what you find on Amazon Kindle these days (ba-dum-bum). I continued this habit of writing lots and lots of things through elementary school, high school, and college.

My first published short story was when I was 18. I published — professionally, though for very little actual money — a few times throughout college.

Thing is, all throughout this journey, I encountered awards. They offer writing awards throughout the various school-based strata, and when I say I “encountered” them, I mean to suggest I got close enough to smell them, but never near enough to hold onto one. I met these awards on the road, like you might meet a hobo or a vampire. Purely in passing.

Other people always won the awards.

And for a long time, that bothered me. I was young and I thought, awards are validation. Doubly important at that time because I was struggling to convince my family and the rest of the real world that writing was in fact A Real Thing, not just some artsy-poopsy dalliance. I figured, whoa, hey, if I can win an award, that will be irrefutable proof that I’m supposed to do what I’m supposed to do. It’ll prove it to me and it’ll prove it to everyone else.

I didn’t win any.

I sometimes won runner-up.

The winners were always very literary — sometimes amazing work, sometimes confounding and pretentious. The winners were never genre-based. You didn’t see any fantasy, horror, or sci-fi winning — and those were the things I wrote. I even tried to write a few literary-style stories at one point. Which was a good exercise, in that it let me stretch my muscles and extend my voice and also decide very plainly that, no, I don’t want to write purely literary work.

One of the stories I wrote won runner-up in a college writing award.

Ironically, that after I’d already been published. Published for real. And yet, the publication felt somehow less important than winning the award — validation from peers and academics rather than from the market.

That was, and remains, poopy-cuckoo shitty-pants shenanigans.

Awards are not validation. Awards don’t mean something is good or that other things are bad. Awards are accolades and kudos pinned to the sleeves and lapels of art, but their margins are very narrow, the window is very small. That’s not a failing, it’s not a bug — by their nature you can’t take a MASSIVE BULK of art and give out awards to all of them. You have to winnow. You have to whittle. Sometimes that winnowing and whittling feels right. Sometimes it’s driven by social trends, crowd interest, sales, politics, visibility. Sometimes it’s the result of toxic trends, sometimes it’s the result of overturning those toxic trends. Sometimes its great art that wins awards. Sometimes it’s not. (I will remind you that Forrest Gump is an Oscar-winning picture. THAT’S RIGHT, I JUST BURNED YOU, TOM HANKS. I GOT YOU GOOD.)

I say all this because right now, it’s coming up on awards season. That’s true in TV and film, and it’s also true in books — you’re starting to see a lot of chatter about Stokers, Edgars, Hugos, Nebulas. (That will be the protagonist of my next novel: STOKER EDGAR HUGO NEBULA, THE THIRD. An astronaut dragon-riding detective! It’ll win awards!) The chatter rises, and in that chatter I get a sense of award-oriented anxiety — who will win, who should, will I be nominated, I’ll never be nominated, and so on and so forth.

You need to understand, though:

Awards are not infallible.

The best book will not always win an award.

The best book sometimes won’t ever even be nominated.

Sometimes, it will be nominated, and it will win, and you’ll cheer — at the same time someone else boos that very same decision. The book you love isn’t a book everyone loves. And vice versa.

Awards are subjective, strange, and imperfect.

They’re not the whole elephant; they’re just a blood sample.

And at the same time: awards are awesome. The people who win them? Awesome for them. And deserved. Those who are nominated but lose? Awesome for them, too. And also deserved. Those who are never nominated? Hey, fuck it — awesome for you, because you’re out there writing books and reaching an audience and doing what you fucking love to do. You didn’t win an award? Most people didn’t. A hundred other amazing authors and books and pieces of art failed to win awards. Most failed to even score nominations. You’re in good company.

Awards generate interest, conversation, controversy — they’re bubbles in the boiling pot of water. Not always relevant to your world, not always ideal, but it keeps the whole thing cooking.

So, we should celebrate awards and those who win them.

And, at the same time, we should be able to celebrate not winning them. Because awards? Not the end all be all. They’re one part — an admittedly small part — of the total equation. My advice? Relax. Write the stories you want to write. Try to reach an audience, not an award. Awards are too weird, too unpredictable. You win one? Victory lap. You don’t? Then you still get your victory lap.

Just remember that an award doesn’t validate you.

You were valid when you got here. You already have the cake — an award is just icing.