Awards on Steroids

Meet the new generation of 'winners.'

By Steve Burgess 22 May 2007 |

Steve Burgess writes regularly on pop culture and film for The Tyee. This column will almost certainly be an award-winner.

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Does this mean she's good?

The 2007 Leo Awards suffered a computer glitch recently. An erroneous list of nominees was posted briefly on the Leo website, then retracted. Alleged nominees who had already begun celebrating and receiving congratulations from friends were then informed that their mistakenly announced Leo nominations were evaporating like last night's champagne bubbles.

Ooh, that's embarrassing. Like a misidentified corpse at the morgue or an accidental swap at the maternity ward, it's the sort of mistake that cannot be corrected without pain, hard feelings and bitterness.

Still, the reaction of at least one faux nominee was instructive. Director Dan West was announced as a nominee for the short film The Visitor, a nomination that proved to be in error. Quoted in the Vancouver Sun, West said, "A nomination is a nomination." West said that the falsely announced nominees should keep their nominations, with the other, intended nominees simply added to the list.

Is this what we've come to? Are people so desperate for official jury recognition that they will cling to nominations generated by computer error?

Awards are the reward?

Apparently so. And it's not even surprising. The proliferation of awards ceremonies, frequently mocked, actually reflects a near-bottomless demand, at least from the potential recipients. Everybody wants awards.

And nearly everybody gets them. A couple of years ago I did a story about a plastic surgeon's convention. Later I was informed that I was a finalist for an award handed out by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. One year at the Aboriginal Achievement Awards, a guy was honoured for negotiating a land claim, which you'd think would be its own reward. Not anymore.

For years the Juno Awards had a category called Best-Selling Record. Crass? Maybe, but it was also the only honest awards category out there. Unless you're comparing bottom lines, there is no legitimate way to rank artistic or professional accomplishment. Which doesn't stop anybody. The emotional need for recognition trumps the intellectual realization that such rankings are silly.

Awards are truth

Plus -- and this could be what motivated Mr. West -- there is the undeniable utility of such honours. To be a good writer, performer or treaty negotiator is a fine thing. But for the instant reaction, the light that goes on in your interlocutor's eyes, there is no substitute for that magic hyphenated phrase, "award-winning." My awards go at the top of my biography and resume. They're the quickest, easiest things I can point to. No need to plow through the crap I've cranked out -- it won awards. It's legit. Describe yourself as a star and your skeptical audience will have only your word for it. Describe yourself (or better yet, be described) as an award winner, and it's official. You won. You da man!

It's best not to think too much about just how you won. I've occupied every seat at the awards banquet: winner, also-ran and imperious judge. The winner knows that finally, his or her work has been understood. The loser suspects it's all a farce. The judge knows it.

Take the writing competition that I judged recently. The experience was a reminder of just how random the process can be, even with dedication and good intentions from all involved. Organizers provide guidelines, but the truth is we all have our own idea of what is important and what is good. Decisions are unavoidably arbitrary. And then there's human fallibility. There's a raft of stuff to go through, and judges are not being paid. Sloppiness happens. After consulting with a fellow judge, I realized to my horror that I had completely misplaced one of the contending stories. Once reconsidered, it became a finalist. Oopsie.

'Piss your pants'

While grading the entries, I was determined not to fall into the sob story trap. But it's almost impossible to avoid. Certain kinds of stories win awards -- stories of hardship, pain, addiction, grief, triumph over adversity. Personal tragedy raises the stakes. You can really only write about it once, and it begs for recognition. Are these stories always the best written? Nope. But you figure, hey -- this guy lost his leg in a gruesome thresher accident and then went on to become a champion dogsled racer. He deserves an award. The excellent writer who turns in inspired, well-crafted work on a consistent basis will have to wait. Or buy a thresher.

Excellent craftsmanship does not call attention to itself. Bad strategy, awards-wise. One year I wrote a story about my own struggle with alcoholism. I was not just an alcoholic, I confessed, but an incontinent one. I won! I won! Piss your pants, nominees -- it gets you points every time.

One year I judged the humour category at the National Magazine Awards. My choice for the gold medal did not even make the list of finalists. The winner was a story that, to me, hardly qualified as humour. In that writing contest I adjudicated recently, none of my fellow judges agreed on the winning story. Once again, my first place story did not make the list of finalists. It's not uncommon for three different stories to be selected as best by three different judges, with the eventual winner being one that nobody thought best.

That's the way these things must work. The real problem is how much weight the resulting prizes are given. By me, certainly. Even though I've seen how the sausage is made, even though I know the arbitrary and faintly ridiculous nature of the whole enterprise, I care. I want to win.

And that's why I must reveal to you now that, as I've been writing this story, I have gone through several pairs of Depends. Please don't let that influence your vote. I want to be judged on merit.  [Tyee]

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