Monday, December 03, 2007

The Value of The Critical Commentary

It has been five days since I announced the nominees for the Spinetingler Awards and already 100 email votes have been received, their selections recorded in all the categories they selected, and we’re well on our way to exceeding the 200+ received in the first round of the recommending process. In fact, with 27 days left to cast votes, I expect hundreds more emails to come.

And it’s been interesting, in the same way the first round was interesting.

Since some people vote in only one category, some vote in four or five, and some vote in all, it’s easy to lose count of the literal number of votes. However, in the first round, I did start keeping track of one statistic because I knew this could come back to haunt me later: The gender factor.

47.7% of the emails received round one were clearly from women.
26% were clearly from men.
8% were either from a couple or from an unspecified gender. “Chris”, “Taylor”, “Mittens”. (I remember when I did conference registration, years ago, and people would send in a form with the name Chris and not check their gender. Bastards.)

Anyway, what’s the point of the above? 86.8% of the votes cast in the novel categories were for men. The majority of voters were women…and the majority of votes were for works written by men.

My conclusions?

The information is too limited to have a clue what it means. It could just be as simple as the fact that the books that left the biggest impact were written by men, end of story.

It could also be that the readers online prefer a certain style of book. I certainly don’t see a lot of cozy nominations, while several of the titles fall under the noir/hardboiled classification. Even most of the editors nominated – Dave, Charles, Stacia, Alison – primarily focus on darker works.

I knew that the first time around, we’d have some kinks to work through, and the reason that the gender stat became the one I tracked was because I saw it as the one with the most serious potential backlash.

In the wake of all the criticisms about the Edgar Awards I really didn’t want to get bogged down in controversy. The truth is, I can be as critical and judgmental as the next person. However, there reaches a point where criticism isn’t helpful. If it doesn’t prompt action, it’s limited in its usefulness. And at some point, any collective starts to look ridiculous if it’s continuously pointing fingers at itself.

For example, some of the emails have come with votes and commentary, which ranges from amusing to awww-inspiring to laughable. Someone didn’t like the selections in the Best Cover category. Well, this was done primarily off popular vote. What’s the point in saying that, that all the voters were idiots? It means little to me, as I went with popular vote and used editorial input to break ties. In the end, I couldn’t settle the tie for the short story category, so it got 8 nominees.

Is any award process flawless? No. Don’t kid yourself. There is always room for improvement. I’ve judged public speaking competitions, I’ve judged educational contests, I’ve judged performances (music and dance) and I’ve judged writing. I haven’t seen one example of a process that, under scrutiny, couldn’t be improved. (Let's not even talk figure skating...)

That said, some commentary is dismissible. When decisions are primarily made by popular vote, if you have strong feelings, vote. Ask your friends to vote. Threaten your family until they vote. And then let the chips fall where they may. There are books nominated I haven’t even read myself (honestly, being such a slow reader, it’s a good year for me if I’ve read 40+ books) and I’ve since ordered them on Amazon because I now need to read them. Fortunately, I knew ten days before I announced the shortlist who would be nominated in those categories. The next two months have a lot of reading for me. Fortunately, the other judge reads much faster than I do…

But there does come a point where we risk tearing ourselves apart over constant nitpicking. Face it: there is no central registry where all publishers around the world log in what stock photos they’ve used for a cover and when and with what distribution, so there’s no way for people to know if they’re duplicating sometimes. Okay, when a publisher duplicates themselves there’s real commentary to be made, but outside of that, it’s going to happen. Sometimes, editors need ammunition to fight for the investment of special cover art, or for certain authors whose sales might be borderline, etc. The reason for doing this was to hold up the people who are getting our attention because they’re doing a damn good job, and to hope that it motivates others to ask what they’re doing right, and why it’s having an impact.

If we want to maintain a strong genre, producing the best books across the board year to year, sometimes we have to let people have their say about what’s working. There’s a time for saying what isn’t working too, but if the criticism of the industry is incessant, it loses it’s impact, becomes white noise people just tune out... like bsp.

You don’t like some of our nominees? Cool, fair enough. I’m considering everything said to me in terms of process and what it will mean for next year. I am keeping an open mind.

But personally, I think those covers rock… And although I’ve only met one of the editors nominated, I have nothing but respect for all of them, well-established in our genre and people who’ve made significant contributions to producing the best crime fiction out there.

All in all, there isn’t a single nominee I’m not proud to have held up as someone deserving of recognition. All I can say is, it isn't easy, as the short story nominating process taught me already.


Graham Powell said...

This doesn't speak directly to the gender divide, but I think books that are lighter in tone tend to lose out on awards. Darker, more "serious" books (and movies, etc.) tend to garner nominations and wins, even if they are ultimately superficial.

So, IF women writers tend towards lighter material, then this could explain some of the disparity in the awards. But I don't have any data to say whether that's true or not.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I completely agree with you. I think we see this born out with everything from Oscars to "literary" prizes to genre fiction.

And I do think women write across a wider spectrum of the genre, with more cozies and borderline romantic suspense than men.

Something I didn't keep track of was nominations by gender that were eliminated from consideration. The one thing you really learn is that people can't/won't follow the guidelines when nominating or voting. There were people who sent multiple emails voting in the first round, and I didn't count them, and there were people who nominated books that weren't published within the timeframe, and I specifically remember a number of those that were for female authors.

Steve Allan said...

For the record, I'm a dude.

Sandra Ruttan said...

(Scurries off to change the statistics...)

Josephine Damian said...

Well, since 70% of all books are read by women, it makes sense to get more women voters.

I also find there's lots more women in the blogosphere, sharing thoughts, opinions, and stuff in general - using words to communicate whereas men tend to use action.

I also read that in the US, women who write extremely dark and violent novels are not as well received as they are in Europe; seems here in America the attitude is that it's ok for the guys to write the hard-boiled stuff, but not the gals.

As a gal who writes hard-boiled, I already know I have an uphill battle ahead of me.

Voting? I'm waiting till school is over when I'll have the time to look over the entries, especially the short story category.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I love hardboiled/noir, and I do think that explains why I tend to read more male authors. My own stuff leans in that direction in terms of tone as well.

No rush, voting is open until December 30. I've now received 215 emails.

Jack Ruttan said...

Mittens? Obviously a guy.

I wrote a review of a group art show, and didn't check the gender of an artist named "Fern." Woe to me!