Should We Pay Attention to Literary Awards?

Over the weekend, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America announced the winner of this year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. This pleases me greatly, as it was my predicted winner, as well my favorite of the nominees. And for once, I have an inarguable right to my opinion, since I actually read and reviewed all the nominated works. This months-long experiment, while fun, was also a little bit like eating an entire chocolate cake: by the time you’re done, the last thing you want is more cake. But it got me thinking about the value of literary awards: what do they really mean for us as readers? Are those “winner of” stickers on the cover really worth paying attention to?

This is the first time I’ve ever purposefully read an entire awards shortlist all in one go, and it was harder than it sounds. Generally I read whatever strikes my fancy in the moment, and limiting my choices was tough. We all remember assigned reading from high school—that way lies anguish and gnashing of teeth (at 16, I was pretty sure reading Heart of Darkness was more harrowing than taking a raft down the Congo River). Plowing through six books in a short timeframe meant I just had to keep going.

There’s also the fact that when we declare an award the arbiter of taste, we’re removing ourselves from the equation a little bit. I can say with some certainty that left to my own devices, I never would have read more than half of the Nebula nominees, whether because the premise didn’t interest me or because I didn’t like one of the author’s previous books. I was operating on faith: “they” had declared these among the best books of the year, and it was up to me to figure out why.

In the end? I’d say it was worth it—I enjoyed the majority of what I read, and found merit even in the couple that probably weren’t really for me. The eventual winner wound up being one of my favorite books of the year, and—confession time—it was the one I was most dreading at the outset, due to my incorrect assumption that it would be dense and difficult.

So while I don’t necessarily suggest you start reading everything that’s up for a literary award, I do think awards are good for one thing, at least: opening us up to books we might never have considered otherwise. No, we won’t love them all, but we might also find our new favorite author.

I’m off to read another Kim Stanley Robinson book. Hold the cake.