I apologize for being so late with this. (And not just because I fear the wrath of an angry LDSPublisher.) Between my day job and the last two days at LTUE, I haven’t had a spare second. Then Rob Wells and Daron Fraley forced me to eat sushi with them and carry on long conversations about the future of LDS novels.
I highly recommend LTUE to any Utah writers—especially if you enjoy fantasy and Sci-Fi. Where else can you get a three day conference with tons of awesome authors for $25? Nowhere, I think. I wish I could say the same for eating sushi with Rob and Daron. Daron does embarrassing tricks with fish eggs and Rob flings rice everywhere.
But I am here and excited to discuss what I consider to be a very intriguing controversy. Or maybe controversy isn’t even the right word. Examination? Comparison? I’ll let you decide.
As I mentioned last week, author Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen asked the following question regarding the upcoming Whitney Awards.
In the past, I've created my own rubric . . . but who's to say what I feel are the important elements in a book are the same as those chosen by another author/reader? I absolutely love the Whitneys, and I will continue to support and help with it as much as I can, but I feel its current, unregulated judging process is much too subjective to really MEAN anything more than a popularity contest. But maybe popularity is what we want it to mean?
First of all, let me say that this discussion isn’t unique to LDS literature. Nor is it even limited to literature. There has always been the question of who should decide what is great art and how. Critics? Other artists? The buying public? Obviously a book that sells millions of copies isn’t necessarily a better work than one that sells only a few hundred. But at the same time, is it fair to ignore millions of people who show their appreciation for a movie, movie, or piece of art? That is the very why there are different awards in the movie industry.
In this case though, I don’t think the real question is about sales vs. quality as much as it is about how to judge a book. (Other than by its cover which you’ve already done here.)
When you read a book for enjoyment, you notice the characters, the voice, the plot, and, yes, the writing. What you don’t normally do is break it down and rate it on a scale of one to ten for clarity, character, beginning, grammar, etc. You either think, “I like that,” or, “that didn’t work for me.”
When you enter your work in a contest, you often expect the rubric, Ronda mentions. You know that your book will be judged on certain set criteria. If your plot is great, you may get ten points out of ten on plot. If you don’t understand basic grammar, you may lose ten points.
Which is better for an award like the Whitneys? Let’s start with a wonderful background on how the process works on Annette Lyon’s blog. And a great two part examination of one Whitney judge’s experience judging romance novels by Michele Holmes.
Notice that a book can be nominated for an award by anyone without a monetary stake in the book. (So no spouses or publishers.) Since it only requires five votes to be nominated, any LDS author with five friends and a qualifying book can get on the list.
In order to become a finalist, the book has to make it past a panel of five judges. Here’s where things get a bit tricky though. The five judges are not given a rubric by which they should judge the book. They must read all of the entries, and then they are asked a series of online, one-on-one caparison questions. Do you think book A is more deserving of a Whitney than book B? Do you think book B is more deserving of a Whitney than book G. Etc.
Because the judges are not composed of any one group or publisher, there is no inherent bias. Finalist have come from nationally published titles, self-published titles, and virtually every LDS Publisher. But because the judges are not given a set of standards or guidelines, they must choose the books that they find the most deserving. If they are offended by one aspect or another of the book, it can affect their voting.
This issue was brought up when The Lonely Polygamist was not selected as a finalist despite the fact that it was critically acclaimed by national reviewers. No one knows how and why each of the judges voted the way they did. But some have assumed that the graphic sex and language in the book were a major factor. There was an interesting discussion on the AML blog. Read Josi Kilpack’s response here and the ongoing discussion above and below it. On the other hand, there have been complaints in the past that some books that were voted in as finalists were too violent or graphic, or that subject matter was questionable.
Once the five finalists have been chosen, they are voted on by LDS authors, publishers, book store employees, etc. Again there are no guidelines other than that you must read all of the books in any category to vote in it. It’s up to you to decide which book you think is most deserving.
Is this a popularity contest? And if it is, is that bad? Here are the thoughts of a few LDS authors.
Sure, it's impossible to avoid all subjectivity, but to say that an award is meaningless w/out a rubric is like saying the Oscars mean nothing. Or the Hugos or the Nebula or the Edgar or the Pulitzer any number of other awards, literary and otherwise, that have no rubric for the voting academy.
Granted, no system is perfect, but I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find a better system. The Whitneys take the best elements of several awards programs and combine them into something pretty cool.
The assumption that is built into the voting process is that, while it may be a popularity contest, the people who are voting are all experts (whether they're writers or retailers or publishers). So, while it's completely subjective and up to the whims of the voters, those voters are smart people who know what constitutes a well-written book.
So, yes, it's not perfect, but I think it's pretty darn good.
(On the flip side, I'm kind of horrified by the thought of a non-subjective measuring stick for novels. That kind of reminds me of the opening scene of DEAD POETS SOCIETY, where they are instructed to mathematically graph a poems greatness.) :)
I agree that the Whitney is way above a popularity contest. NY Times Bestselling authors are beat out all of the time. . . . It was really cool that GRAVITY VS THE GIRL won last year--a self published book that was just a gem to read. Also, in 2008, TRAITOR by Sandra Grey won Best Novel. It was her first book! So there was no popularity in that. I don't think any of the Storymakers even knew who she was, but she wrote a dang good story and was recognized for it.
I really, really think the Whitneys are about literary achievement and not necessarily a people's choice award. The books aren't voted by a bunch of raving fans, but professionals in the industry who make books their livelihood, and take it seriously.
. . . if I'm understanding it right, we sort of compare each book in a catagory in basic writing skills. So feasably I might not really enjoy a particular book but find that overall its writing qualities are the best of the five. Is that right? And the areas of writing skills that I use may not necessarily be the same another judge uses but that's okay because the idea is that with the number of judges it should end up being fairly well balanced.
What do you think? As a reader, would you rather know a book got an award because it scored highest in set areas or that more people liked it? As an author how would you like your book to be judged? Would you prefer more of a People’s Choice type award, or the favorite of the critics? And how do you feel about a book that might have incredible writing, but content that would probably offend most Mormons?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and remember there is still one more day of LTUE tomorrow. It’s not to late to come by.
Next week, how LDS authors and readers are using technology to connect with one another. And whether that’s a good or bad thing.