The Academy Awards caused quite a stir some months ago when they announced their intention to start a new category for « popular » movies – that is, movies that make money as opposed to the arty, little-seen stuff that the Academy has been favouring in recent years. Objections came furiously from all sides and corners, arguing that the move cheapened what little credibility the Oscars still had left and pointing out that popularity doesn’t necessarily equate artistry. Never one to court controversy when no profit is to be gained out of it, the Academy promptly canned the contentious award.
The duality-dichotomy between commercial success and artistic worth is nothing new. « Serious » artists were already raging against the « fluff » beloved by the masses back in the nineteenth century. Things worsened with the advent of modernism when it became clear that the aforementioned masses were neither prepared or willing to follow the arts in the new directions they were taking, and instead stuck to artists and movements that the moderns deemed to be outdated, facile or worse, « commercial ». Since doing a U-turn was out of the question, the moderns proclaimed that true art couldn’t be popular and reciprocally. This line of thinking still informs most « serious » criticism and awards, including now the previously quietly middlebrow Oscars.
Proper popular fiction was long immune to this, because it was, well, popular and thus couldn’t afford to rub its readers/clients the wrong way. Things are changing however because the readership changes too, from fans looking for a « crackin’ good read » to sophisticates asking for « more » than « mere puzzles ». Nothing reflects this evolution better than a glance at the main genre awards. Both the Hugo and Nebula Awards have taken a stark elitist or at least anti-populist turn over the last decade, a move angrily received in some quarters. The CWA’s Dagger Awards, early pionneers of the trend in the mystery field with head-scratching winners such as Motherless Brooklyn or The Athenian Murders, have softened their stance somewhat and added a few more categories to their roster to make sure that more popular writers and genres are not bypassed. The French increasingly ill-named Grand Prix de Littérature Policière* on the other hand has chosen to go all the way and give the finger year after year to the lay reader. As to the Edgars, well, they seem for now to hesitate between a soft populism (their sudden and to me inexplicable outburst of love for Stephen King, who won two statuettes in a row) and an « edgier » stance a la early-noughties CWA.
This is not to say that genre awards used to be popularity contests before they caught the respectability bug. The list of otherwise extremely popular and big-selling writers who never took a statuette home is a long one, including many an author whose influence was a lasting or decisive one. First because it is true, if not always true, that not everything that sells is good – I for one am perfectly fine with James Patterson being snubbed each year by the major crime fiction awards. Second because being successful is not the best way to make friends, especially among your colleagues – and they’re the ones voting in the end. Third and final because most awards are influenced by critics and critics always favor innovation over formula, irrespective of commercial success. All of this conspires to keep the Big Names out of the shortlists.
Also awards don’t just discriminate against (some) successful writers, they discriminate against successful genres too. The Academy’s antipathy towards comedies is well known and documented and certainly the most famous example. Sci-fi awards even before they got « woke » never had much sympathy for heroic fantasy or hard science – and traditional mysteries, thrillers and P.I. stories have had such a hard time with the Edgars over the years despite or because of their longstanding popularity that they had to start their own awards to get some recognition.
So awards going to comparatively lesser-known writers and books is not something new; what is new on the other hand is it becoming a fixture rather than a feature, and jurors consciously and deliberately turning their backs on the tastes of the general public. It can work to an extent when said general public is not expected to be consulted – no one cares what John Doe thinks of the latest Turner Prize winners -but becomes problematic when it comes to art forms or genres that were once designed for its enjoyment. No one likes to have their toys taken away from them, and the vox populi has the ways and above all the money to make itself loudly heard when it finally gets angry.
* Message à mes lecteurs francophones: l’envie me chatouille de plus en plus de me « payer » cette singerie qu’est devenue le GPLP mais j’hésite d’une part parce que je ne suis pas certain de pouvoir rester dans les limites de la critique polie et ensuite parce que je crains que cela n’intéresse personne. Qu’en pensez-vous?