Friday, January 12, 2007

Awards & contests are about judges, not writers

Like a lot of writers with a long career, I've won a few writing awards. Unfortunately, I won them before I had the experience of being a judge in same. Once I had been a judge, I embraced a very, very different attitude about awards than the one held previous to this experience.

I used to think writing awards had something to do with writing. In fact, they have little to do with writing. They have to do with judges, which is a different matter. Experienced writers come to learn this, I think. Beginning writers don't have a clue -- especially if they are so lucky as to win an award or contest. They don't realize they should get little more credit for this than if they'd won a door prize. After all, it feels better to think "I'm hot shit!" than to think "I'm lucky!" I certainly thought so when I won awards as a young writer. But in fact awards and contests are a crap shoot, and either you're lucky or you're not -- and luck, in this case, means pairing your work against the right, or sympathetic, judge. This is the luck of the draw, and I can prove it with specific examples from my experience as a judge.

A writing award is the collision of a judge's taste and a particular work. This was brought home to me a little over a year ago when I was one of three judges for a number of lucrative awards given to playwrights and screenwriters. Three judges -- myself, a woman in Texas and a guy in LA -- were given over 70 scripts from which to nominate seven for these awards. So each of us listed the seven from the seventy that we'd give the award to.

We did not agree on a single script!

Think about that. We three judges nominated 21 different writers because no two judges agreed on even one of them for the award!

So if any one of us had been the judge alone, a completely different group of writers would have won the award. Think about what this really means. It means it's a crap shoot.

So what did we do? We played politics, all of this over a long fascinating conference call hosted by the sponsoring organization. We all ranked the 14 candidates from the other judges, and from this tally we were able to begin building a list of consensus. Everyone got their first choice in, two of us our second choice.

But this process of compromise and consensus only emphasizes what different judgments we had made individually -- which is what happens in every writing contest in existence. It's either a political decision of compromise and consensus by a committee or it is an expression of individual taste. Writers who enter this process, whichever it is, and do not "win" are not losers so much as victims. A different judge, a different committee, might well select them.

To be sure, many works entered into competitions are terrible. The writer doesn't know any better. The writer must learn to know better. The writer must learn to be one's toughest critic, and you do this with high standards, a strong critical faculty honed by much and careful reading, and an understanding of the difference between ego and perseverance, between being blind to your faults and hanging in with faith in your strengths. Above all, don't take contests personally, as many beginning writers do. Do not take contests personally even when you win. As a young writer, I believed too much in good press and early success I received, which only made the transition more difficult when the pendulum of taste and fate swung the other way. If you looked at my career in terms of awards and commercial success, one would conclude I was better twenty years ago than I am now. This is total nonsense. Yes, as traditionally defined, I might have been more "successful" then, but by my own terms, applying my own standards, I'm a far better writer today than then and have written better work to prove it. It's nice to be recognized, of course. But it's better to look yourself in the mirror and know what you are doing and why -- and if fewer folks respond to it than before, then so be it.

Look at the career path of actors. An actor at fifty is less talented than at twenty? Ridiculous. But there are fewer parts available, so the career seems to go down. This has nothing to do with acting or the actor and everything to do with the politics of culture.

A writer without much talent but an overdose of ego will use all of the above as a rationalization for lack of recognition when, in fact, the work probably deserves lack of recognition. This can't be helped. It is essential, to avoid this trap, to develop high standards and a strong critical faculty, especially with your own work. Know what your territory is, in what tradition you are working in, and contribute to it, holding up your own work against the giants in this family. All I have to do is read this play by Albee or another by Durrenmatt to know how much my own work falls short -- but at the same time, I also realize how close my own work has come to the mountain top, and this is no small achievement.

In the "Myth of Sisyphus" Camus tells us that the struggle itself is its own justification. So what if the rock falls to the bottom and we have to push it up again? The struggle itself is the human reward.

I would love to win another award so in my acceptance speech I can remind folks that what just happened actually had little to do with me or my work. When you say it otherwise, it sounds like sour grapes. It's like the denial double-bind when the denial of an innocent man is taken as evidence of guilt. But if I ever win another award, it will be received with my post-judge speech, not my pre-judge (and naive) speech. It will have to be crafted so I'm not accused of being mean spirited or spoiling the party, but I think it's an important point to make, particularly to young, talented writers who did not win. Whether or not I get to do this remains to be seen.

No comments: