Thursday, January 13, 2022

Awardability from James W. Ziskin

Awards for crime fiction from year to year ride a line between subjective merit and a popularity contest — agree or disagree? And what is your personal philosophy on awards — their impact on readers (and you, if you've won any) and on subsequent award years?

I approach this week’s topic with equal measures of eagerness and trepidation. Let me explain.

In recent years, the annual round of crime fiction awards has been an exciting and gratifying time for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to see my novels and short stories shortlisted for several prestigious awards, including the Edgar (twice), the Anthony (six times), the Barry (twice), the Lefty (six times), the Macavity (four times), and the Sue Grafton Memorial (once). Even better, through some dumb luck, I somehow took home four of those twenty-one awards. 

Now I realize the previous paragraph might come off as bragging but, in all honesty, I feel humbled and tremendously lucky. Yes, it’s natural to be proud of nominations and awards, but I’m also acutely aware that so many deserving books and stories have been overlooked in the process. Look, it’s impossible for readers and juries to read everything, so how can a book be crowned “best” of the year? I’m conflicted because, let me tell you, it’s an amazing honor when your book actually wins. But did I truly deserve it? Over so many great books? Certainly not. Yet I am honored and grateful and proud just the same.

Because of my mixed feelings on this issue, each year I compile a list on this site of several books that I truly enjoyed. I call it “Some Really Great Books I Read This Year.” It’s not a “Best of” list, because I don’t read enough to make such a proclamation. (And who cares what I think are the best books anyway?) Furthermore, I purposely omit works by bestselling authors because they don’t need my praise to sell another book or two. Even though I admire and appreciate those writers and their books. Instead, I hope to promote some talented authors who might not have the same fame or commercial success as the “big names.”

As to whether awards are based on merit or simply a popularity contest, I can’t say it better than Terry did earlier this week. (Please read her post from Tuesday.) A few of the awards—the Edgar, Barry, and Macavity—are decided in whole or in part by committees or juries. I don’t believe the popularity of the author is the deciding criterion for those awards. For the Anthony and Lefty, does popularity play a part? I simply can’t buy into the argument that a book wins because the author is the life of the party. I’ve lost too many times to wonderfully written books for me to believe that. And I hope that when I actually was fortunate enough to win, others didn’t grumble that it was because I’m a good guy. I’d like to think my books had more to do with it than my social skills or—even worse—my hair.

On the subject of “popularity contests,” I feel compelled to tell the story of my first nomination ever. It was Bouchercon 2015 (Raleigh), and my second book, No Stone Unturned, was a finalist for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. I was absolutely glowing from the honor of being nominated, feeling on top of the world. Then a friend introduced me to a man and let him know I was a finalist for an Anthony. The guy wasted no time in killing my joy. He stood there and poo-pooed the honor, informing me that the Anthony Awards were nothing more than a “popularity contest.” Thanks, pal. You couldn’t have just said “That’s nice” instead? By the way, our own Catriona McPherson took home the prize that year, and deservedly so. I’ll never forget what she told me before the awards. She squared up, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I’m rooting for you, Jim. Thirty-three percent. The other sixty-seven percent, I’m rooting for myself.”

And that’s perhaps the point of my post today. Yes, it’s okay to root for yourself, to want to win, to relish the acknowledgment awards bring. And to crow a little bit if you’re lucky enough to be recognized. As I mentioned above, so many great books are left out every year. So I worry about sounding arrogant or insensitive to the brilliant writers who did not get the accolades this time. Still, I wouldn’t trade the thrill of being nominated—and even winning a few times—for anything. I’ve been truly surprised, thankful, and humbled that readers felt my books and stories were worthy of any accolade.




Barb Goffman said...

As someone who has read your books, Jim, I can tell you that your nominations are all due to your ... hair! Just kidding! You write really relatable books that make readers keep wanting to turn the page. That's why you get nominated, and deservedly so.

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, Barb. That’s a wonderful compliment coming from you! You’ve been nominated for and won more awards than just about anybody. And you’ve deserved them all!


Leslie Karst said...

Agreed. I've voted for you many times, Jim. And only partly because of your giant whiskey flask.

Leslie Karst said...

BTW, I just used "flask" as my first Wordle attempt today in your honor, Jim. Not gonna say how that worked out...

Lori Rader-Day said...

I will need to know who the jerk who said Anthonys don't matter was, as I collect Assholes like trading cards. But I don't trade them. I keep them. Forever.