Meryl Streep said recently that “there’s no such thing as the ‘best’ actress” and that “everybody wins” in a year when many great movies provide showcases for talent. Of course, she said this while accepting a best actress award from the Screen Actors Guild, but there is some truth and good sense in the statement. It’s wishful thinking, though, to imagine that creative people can rise above the competitive streak that is an inborn aspect of human nature.
Writers aren’t exempt from the craving to outshine one another. Maybe we’re not as cutthroat about it as movie and TV people, but would most of us trample the bodies of our beloved grandmothers to get to an Edgar Award? You bet. If you win a single award of any kind, you will be labeled forevermore an “award-winning author” – regardless of whether you continue to turn out good books or never produce another that’s halfway readable.
I’m thinking about all this because it’s that time of year again, when Malice Domestic registrants are filling out their Agatha Award nomination ballots and everybody’s looking at the just-released list of Edgar nominees and saying, “Huh?”
The campaigning for an Agatha nomination usually takes the form of e-mails and mystery e-list posts “reminding” everyone that a writer’s book is eligible for a nomination. When the reminder is coming from a personal friend, it’s hard not to feel pressured. Sometimes I think writers expect a nomination simply because they’re friendly with a lot of the people who will do the nominating. But what if you don’t think your friend’s book is one of the five best of the entire year? You don’t have to say so, of course, and no one will see your ballot except the person who counts it. The whole situation is uncomfortable, though -- and unnecessary. If I think a book is terrific, I’m going to remember it. I don’t need to be reminded of its existence.
The Anthony Awards given out at Bouchercon, and many other crime fiction awards, are the result of the same sort of process. Attendance at a conference, or membership in an organization, or even a subscription to a mystery magazine, gives a person the right to make nominations. A lot of factors influence the nominators – friendship, subgenre preferences, biases that have nothing to do with the quality of books (“I don’t like violent books, or books with graphic sex, regardless of how well-written and well-plotted they are”), and, most important, the limits on how much a person can read in one year. If you haven’t read every crime novel published in the last year, how can you choose the best?
That brings us to the Edgars, which are awarded by committees. Every year both writers and fans complain about the nominations. “I’ve never HEARD of most of these books! How can they be the best?” (I hope you see the fatal flaw in that reasoning.) “Why don’t they ever nominate a cozy?” And so on. The refrain is the same, year after year.
I’ve done my share of grousing when a book I loved – for example, Laura Lippman’s wonderful What the Dead Know – is nominated for (and ultimately wins) just about every other award in existence but doesn’t receive an Edgar nomination. I don't always agree with their choices, but I have to respect the simple fact that the Edgar judges do read every eligible book that is published and submitted by publishers for consideration. Each unpaid judge in the novel categories suspends normal life for a year and reads hundreds upon hundreds of books before choosing the five she/he considers best. As I understand it, a period of discussion and perhaps re-reading follows to reconcile disagreements among the members of a particular panel, and ultimately they arrive at a list of finalists. Then they choose the winner in that category. It’s not surprising that this laborious process usually produces nominations for serious books that display outstanding, original writing and in some cases tackle social issues.
Lighter books will have a chance at other awards. A mystery or thriller doesn’t have to be life-changing to be great entertainment. It doesn’t have to pulsate with psychological or social significance that will outlast the ages. Each award has criteria, and the people making nominations have to keep those criteria in mind. You wouldn’t nominate a Karin Slaughter book for an Agatha. That doesn’t mean the Slaughter book is worthless. You can’t expect to see a cooking cozy get an Edgar nomination. That doesn’t mean the cozy isn’t entertaining (with great recipes included). And if your own book receives no nominations, that doesn’t make it a failure. Mystery writers might be happier if no awards were ever given, if we weren’t forced to applaud for authors whose books were deemed “better” than ours. Awards are here to stay, though, and all we can do is try to be realistic and sensible about them.
Would I give up my own Agatha Award? Are you nuts? Will I fill out my Agatha and Anthony ballots this year? Of course. Will I be annoyed if my favorites don’t win? Of course. I’m only human, after all.
In case you’re interested, the book I’d like to see win the Agatha for Best Novel is I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming.
My favorite for the Anthony is Master of the Delta by Thomas H. Cook.
Which books are you rooting for this time around?