Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why I Don't Like the Term "Best"

For years now I've avoided the term "best" in my end of the year lists. I simply felt it was presumptuous of me to use that label given that I can't even read all the books I'm sent, let alone all the books that are published. And if you can't read them all, surely you can't determine a "best," right?

Well, I was viewing a video the other day about an award and I was rubbed the wrong way when one of the people on the video said the books were the "best" because they were determined to be by the authors' peers. And I started thinking more about the use of the term...and I started noticing it more and more: "the best books out this week," "the best books of summer," "such and such award's best book of the year," etc. And I've decided I absolutely dislike the use of the term in something as subjective as the arts.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy for people who earn deserved recognition for their work through awards, but I think we should come up with a better way to present it.

When we think of the best field goal kicker in football there are definitive stats that support the label. Have you ever watched competitive ice skating on television? The commentators will say, "well they can't award him a perfect score because they have to deducted at least x points for that error." There's a standard/a rubric that has to be upheld. The best stocks in an investment portfolio have a monetary gain that supports their label. But those things don't exist with book awards (and don't even get me started on movie awards).

Awards can fall into all kinds of voting categories: peers, fans, bloggers, book sellers, industry professionals, etc. Why is one of those categories any better and worthy of declaring a "best" than the others? Sure your peers can evaluate you in ONE way...but you know, I've been in a jury pool room where there are supposed to be a group of my peers, and quite frankly, I don't know how well they'd all evaluate chewing gum. When I was a teacher, my peers were definitely not all created equal. They were human and susceptible to prejudice and bias as much as the next guy. Which is not to say fans are better or worse. I've seen what some people write on Amazon reviews. I think you get my point.

In book awards there is no rubric to determining a "winner." And sometimes ALL the books can't be considered because they have to first be submitted, add to that sometimes obscure rules prevent legitimate books from being submitted even if they tried to be submitted. And if you took the same group of books and presented them in four consecutive years, you have a distinct possibility of coming up with four different "bests" because each year you'll have a different committee or population of people voting. How can that be the "best" then? Isn't it actually the "favorite"?

Maybe some people will just feel this is semantics, but to me, there's a connotation that goes with "best." To me, best is a definitive, objective term. And book awards are far from definitive and most definitely subjective. Couldn't we just have the Agatha Novel Award, the Edgar First Novel Award, the Anthony YA Award? I like the way the booksellers have the Dilys Award. It's a mystery novel that's voted as the one booksellers most like handselling. There's no "best" attached to it. There doesn't need to be.

In the whole scheme of things this is pretty unimportant, and personally I can view all awards as "favorites" (even if I do refuse to watch the Oscars or music awards because they've just become popularity contests). But my concerns go more to the overall impression the term "best" imposes. I think time is the true determination of "best" in the arts. What lasts. Will the "bests" be the books that do that?


Joe Barone May 21, 2013 at 9:51 AM  

You have a good point about the term "best."

EK May 21, 2013 at 9:49 PM  

I'm with you, Jen. About the only year-end round-ups I read any more are the "Year in Reading" posts on The Millions--writers, reviewers, bloggers, post comments on the books they read that year that meant the most to them, regardless of when they were published. I've read it for several years now and it led me to books I've loved (and hated) and inspired me to keep a reading journal so I could look back on my year. Also, there's a post in The Millions (yesterday, I think) about the hype around George Saunders's 10th of December raising unreasonable expectations. A book doesn't have to be the best to be very good or very entertaining, or very whatever. (And by the way, the audiobook of 10th of December is really good--Saunders reads it, and you really get the voice of the various narrators in the short stories that make up the collection).

Joe Barone May 22, 2013 at 8:25 AM  

As I thought about what you wrote yesterday (this post), it made me think about why I am skeptical of awards. Many (not all) of my favorite books don't win awards, at least major awards. Instead of awards (even the prominent ones), I probably prefer simple favorite lists which tell enough about the books that I can figure out whether I want to read them. Maybe, to me, awards have too much "best" in them.

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