November 5, 2016

GoodReads Choice Awards and the Meaning of Prizes

Posted in Pop Culture at 5:58 pm by chavalah

*bells and whistles*

*bells and whistles*

First installment of my #NaNoBlogMo project!

Note: As part of my NaNoWriMo portfolio this year, I’ve decided to write weekly blog posts on Chava’s Footsteps. I’ve had a lot of ideas that I’ve wanted to get to, and this has basically morphed into my opinion pieces blog. Where else can I play cultural critic? 😉 To start with, I’m going to address a voting issue that has nothing to do with the U.S. elections. Definitely willing to pass that topic by! 😛

On November 1st, GoodReads unveiled the first round of their annual choice awards. It’s like the People’s Choice Awards but for books, and it spans a much larger range of material. I got particularly giddy because I’d actually read three of the titles spread across the numerous categories. I love GoodReads, and I’ve been paying close enough attention to the publishing world these past couple of years to at least have a little bit of familiarity with most of the fiction and some of the nonfic titles. But I mostly read backlist, and therefore can feel excluded from the big shindig at the end of the year.

The next day, BookRiot published an article about the lack of diversity in the Mystery & Thriller category, possibly the most popular genre of the modern age, since GR placed that link right after the vaulted literary fiction. This is the sort of opinion piece that opens the floodgates for reactionary “good literature should trump inclusion quotas” set, and those whose first concern is championing POC writers. The columnist, Jamie Canaves, took a cursory look at the guidelines GR put in place to determine the first round of nominees; particularly that the books have to have an average rating of 3.5 or higher, and they had to be published between November 16, 2015 and November 15, 2016. From there, GR staff “analyze statistics” and pick roughly 15 books per category. Voters have the option of writing in a nominee, and the top five books will be added to the semifinal round, regardless of average ratings, but based against GR statistics.

Presumably those “statistics” include the book’s popularity, but the site is rather vague about that. Canaves highlighted five books by POC authors that fit the average and date published criteria, but a commentator pointed out that most of her books have under 1,000 total ratings, and most of the GR choices have over 3,000. But this issue isn’t divorced from the problem of POC representation either—evidence has shown how the publishing industry promotes white authors the most, which of course leads to more people finding their books and adding them to GR.

It’s interesting to note the differences in categories as well. The groupings that I’m most familiar with—literary fiction, debut fiction, historical fiction, memoir and history—all tend to include POC and other minority voices. Different genres have different relationships to the idea of POC inclusion; for a contentious one, see what’s been going on these past few years concerning the science fiction and fantasy-centric Hugo Awards. GoodReads, therefore, is providing a useful look into the multi-faceted state of publishing today.

Despite my geeky infatuation with the GR awards, I’m really not too keen on most prizes in general. Minority voices have long been excluded in general, not because they’re universally worse writers than white men but because of societal bigotry. And for an English major (shame), I have a relatively cynical view about the nature of objectively “quality” literature. Or perhaps it’s because I’m an English major; therefore I’ve been taught to back my opinions with a thesis essay, and that mimicking another person’s arguments, word for word, is called plagiarism. I mean, if you were to poll every tenured English professor in the world, surely we’d find a small cache that believes William Shakespeare, say, is the pinnacle of literary excellence, and another small cache that believes him to be vastly overrated.

Who gets to decide what is “quality” literature in prizes anyway? With the Man Booker and the Nobel Prize in Literature, the decision is left to a very small group of individuals. Their tastes may vary widely from the majority of the involved literary public—like, say, when they nominate Bob Dylan for an award. 😛 Then there’s the populist votes like the GoodReads Choice Awards. With so many thousands of books coming out per year, our choices are already weighted towards whatever publishing chose to promote more heavily. This setup also demotes self-publishing or even small presses. The majority of the books on the ballot were published by the Big Five.

I’ll speed past the fact that the only books in contention are U.S. published, despite the fact that the GoodReads community is a global one, and move into user-generated problems. Even in accepting the ballot as it is, the voting is in no way fair. In a perfect world, of course, each voter would have at least read every book in the categories that interest them, but I presume that this is relatively rare. I voted in two categories—science fiction and YA fantasy and SF—and in each, I’d only read the book for which I cast my proverbial ballot. *hangs head* Other voters don’t read the books at all. I’ve seen YouTube videos where people go through category by category and pick a book based on their affiliation for a title or cover. Or, to bring it back to publishing, they vote for books that have been in the media.

At the end of the day, we all get different things out of awards, rather than something universally definitive. Like Canaves, I want to see a diversity in the selection, if for no other reason than to get recommendations that will provide me with a variety of different stories. I’m particularly interested in Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (debut authors) and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (historical fiction).

I also like the opportunity to make my voice heard, in however a biased way. I spend all year adding books to my GoodReads profile, editing records for accuracy and writing my reviews. /librarian pride/ I voted for The Last One by Alexandra Oliva and A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir because I enjoyed and wanted to promote them. I decided against voting for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in fantasy, because it’s lessened in my estimation since I first read it, and I like to be honest when casting my ballot for books I can get behind. Besides, as arguably the most popular book of the year worldwide, we all know that it’s gonna win anyway. 😛

So cast your votes, if you’re a member of the GR community and prizes don’t drive you crazy. The opening rounds close TOMORROW, so get on it! Semifinal rounds run between November 8 and 15, then the final round goes until the 27th. But I hope, with this and other literature awards, that you ultimately use them to pick up new books and continue to expand your mind. Happy reading!


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