Literary Bests

Ursula K. Le Guin -- Photo by Marian Wood Kolischby Ursula K. Le Guin

The Award System. A while ago I was invited to choose, from a list of winners of a certain literary prize, “the three best works of American fiction of the last sixty years.” The three works that got the most votes from the invited voters would be announced as the three Best American Novels since 1950.

I’ve judged literary competitions or juried literary prizes pretty often. Every time I did it the responsibility seemed heavier, and so did my conscience. At first, this simple choice from a list seemed like it might be fun to do. But I found I couldn’t do it at all. The list was strong in well-known names and had some fine books on it, but it wasn’t the best sixty American novels since 1950. It was just a list of award winners, some excellent, many mediocre.

I wrote the director of the event explaining my inability to participate, and got back a kind and unreproachful letter. It was both reassuring and troubling to find that he understood my feelings. He asked, off the record, if I ignored the prescribed list of prize winners and picked any three American novels as my choice of the best of the last sixty years, could I do that?

I had to think hard, and I had to say no.

I found that I don’t believe there are three “best” works of American (or any) fiction of the last sixty years. Or ten “best.” Or a hundred. Several hundred? That’s more like it.

There are a whole lot of good writers and good novels. Yes, OK, there’s even more mediocre and bad fiction. So what?

Some good novels are outstandingly good. And I have my favorites, sure. All of us do. That means that they’re my best, or your best, but “the best”?

Maybe within one narrow genre, or a few years, a general agreement on the favorites might show up: but within a few years the results would probably be quite different.

Not long ago, in a vast poll of British novel-readers, The Lord of the Rings came out on top. I was delighted — the vote was such a lovely smack in the eye for trendy snobs and ignorant pedants. But I didn’t believe for a moment that it meant The Lord of the Rings was the best English novel ever written. That would be incredibly naïve.

Yet it is what the award system, the “best” system, asks us to believe.

Voting is the dangerous but essential tool of democracy. In art, voting is dangerous without being essential. Often it’s not even appropriate. In art, even given a carefully selected jury of peers, there’s no way to guarantee that a vote reflects informed, unprejudiced judgment not influenced by fashion, faction, or mere personal quirk. Anybody who’s juried an award, or just argued about a book, knows that.

Novels and stories that a whole lot of readers, plus honest and serious teachers and critics, have continued to hold in esteem for over six decades are surely beginning to deserve the status of “excellent” or even that slippery and over-used adjective “great”. But there are so many different kinds of fiction, so many standards by which to judge a novel, so many ways in which one work may excel another — Whose judgment is so widely and deeply and disinterestedly informed that they can presume to say which handful of them are “the best”?

And when you’ve said it, what have you gained?

And what have you lost?

To say Don Quixote is the best Spanish novel is another way to say it’s the greatest Spanish novel. And when you’ve said it either way, where has it got you? Better to ask, as a good scholar, critic, teacher, asks: why and how is Don Quixote excellent? Why can every Spaniard quote from it? Why is it read and loved after 500 years? Those are real questions, useful questions, that can help lead a reader into and through the book.

Scholars, critics, and teachers who know how to ask and answer these questions are capable of making serious choices, of establishing a canon of literature. The danger they run in doing so is that they and others almost invariably believe their choice to be complete and immutable.

All canons of art are overly restrictive. And all of them are out of date before they are declared.

Used with great caution and suspicion, a literary canon, a list-of-the-best, may have some use in guiding and informing inexperienced readers, but I think probably it’s far more useful as a target of intelligent argument and dissent.

Literary awards are useless for guiding and informing and don’t even make good targets. In declaring a book as “the best,” a literary award serves that book. It does not serve literature. On the contrary, it does literature a considerable disservice.

Awards serve above all to supply commercial booksellers with a readymade commodity and lazy-minded readers, teachers, and librarians with a readymade choice. They needn’t pay attention to the books that didn’t win the prize, they needn’t exercise their own critical faculties, they don’t have to think, they can just order the prize book and believe they’re reading what’s “important.”


The Idea of The Best. There really may be a best mouse trap or salad spinner, at least till a better one’s invented or the technology is improved. And certain inventions are more important than others. But what would be the sense or use in saying something or other is “the best” technological invention of the last year, or decade, or century? It’s a nice parlor game, but it has almost no intellectual or practical value.

Similarly, in art you might be able to pick one work as the best from a set of similar works of the same general period in the same genre. But, applied to a huge set, such as all the American novels of sixty years — or even one year — “the best” is a meaningless concept. You cannot usefully compare the excellence of oranges, eggplants, knives, hats, French poodles, and dreams.

The idea of “the best” is most comfortable in the sphere of measurable competitive activities — sports. Elsewhere it enforces a competitive attitude that is profoundly out of place.

Once, on a literary jury for a local award, I said I wished we could give the award to the whole excellent shortlist. A couple of the other jurors liked the idea, but one, a librarian, oddly enough, fought it tooth and nail: “Nobody would care if five or six people won,” she said. “Nobody gives a damn unless it’s a horserace. I certainly wouldn’t.”

She got her way, and we chose our one winner. But I left depressed and discouraged. Seabiscuit or Secretariat ran faster than the other horses, they won. A jury didn’t pick them out as “the best.” When you have a jury, it’s not a horserace. It’s a choice. And it may very well be quite arbitrary.

Awards are supposed to spur competitive excellence. But despite the theories of (almost universally male) critics and psychologists, the practice of art is not inherently a competitive activity. It can be made into one, of course. Male or cultural competitiveness often makes it into one. But I do not believe and see no evidence to prove that the passion to do something you have a gift for doing is originally driven by the need to excel or even to show off. Most people who have a gift work extremely hard at it, if they are able to, because the work is intensely, immediately, and reliably rewarding. You have to make a living, but art is very seldom a practical way of doing so. Most artists are in it for the satisfaction of knowing they’re doing, literally, the best thing they can do. In that sense of doing one’s best, and only in that sense, “the best” means something in art. To consider art as a competition to be “the best” is to miss the point.


The Use of Literary Awards. I’m not saying literary awards should be done away with, or that they have no use at all — only that we shouldn’t take them as meaningful literary judgments.

There have been literary competitions ever since ancient Greece, and though they tend like all competitions to select the predictable, to favor work by men over work by women, and to become ingrown or corrupt, still they serve as spurs to artists who want or need spurring to do their best.

Competitions and awards arouse interest in the audience, even if it’s the kind of interest appropriate to a horse race — witness the hysteria of betting on some of the “big” literary awards — which brings much-needed money to artists and those who support or invest in their work. This is a service principally to the business of art, but also to its vitality in the culture.

And to an author, early in a career, an award can be a true and needed validation — a beautiful reward, like the Boss sings about. The first literary prizes I won, the Nebula and the Hugo, were beautiful rewards to me. They gave me strength by justifying both my trust in my readers and my trust in myself as a writer. They come from the science fiction community: one is awarded by writers, the other by readers. They are of value almost solely within that community. They are ignored or actively despised by those who institute themselves the guardians of capital-L Literature.


Waste, Injustice, Ungenerosity. When it comes to capital-Literature, the prizes I’ve juried, awarded, or been awarded have left me increasingly uneasy about the arbitrariness and injustice of the choice and the arbitrary need to pick a single winner. Particularly with the “major” national prizes, the pleasure of award and recognition, given or received, is damaged and diminished by knowledge of how the system plays into the prejudice and exclusivism of a literary establishment or coterie, and the advertising machinery of the bookselling business. Praise becomes fame becomes commodification and so on round.

The “majorness” of the “major” awards is itself almost entirely arbitrary and factitious. Why has everybody heard of “the PEN/Faulkner,” while the other PEN awards go unknown and unnoticed? Are the jurors of one PEN prize somehow of ineffably higher calibre than the jurors of the others?

At least we know who they are. The jurors who pick the MacArthur “Genius” Awards are so ineffable, or so anxious about their corruptibility, or so afraid of the vengeance of disappointed non-geniuses, that they accept permanent anonymity. I think this is wrong. In fact I think it’s despicable. Anonymous judgment is a slap in the face of responsibility.

Then there is the waste factor. Of course a good book deserves recognition, but the one-winner-takes-all award ensures that the also-rans — all the good books on the shortlist — are pretty much dumped — forgotten. To name one winner is to create a whole slew of losers. Why? What good is that?

Survival of the fittest, sure, but you can overdo it. Would you shoot every horse in the race but the winner? “Best” book all too often comes to mean “only” book – of the month, the year, the decade…

How mean, how ungenerous we are! I wish that, instead of picking one and dumping all the rest, we celebrated our writers continually and in droves.

I wish we gave literary prizes freely, the way they used to give prizes at the Pet Show at Codornices Park in Berkeley when I was a kid. Every kid in the neighborhood brought their pet, and every pet got a prize, an ad hoc, unique prize: for Soulfulness — for Loud Meowing — for Unusual Spot Placement — for Being the Only Skink…. There was no Best of Breed (in those days there were many mongrels and few breeds), and certainly no Best of Show.

I‘d have some trust and interest in literary prizes like that. For Soulfulness — for Sitting Up and Begging Nicely — for Passion Well Expressed – for Excellent Use of Semi-Colons — for Being the Only Novel About Elderly Female Entomologists in Love….

You think literature would suffer, if prizes were given so freely? You think sharing praise diminishes its worth? You think good books are written in order to win huge advances and one-a-year prizes? Maybe so. I think not. I think the desire to excel in competition, whether for prizes or for money, is likely to produce a mediocre and predictable novel on a trendy topic in a mode recognised as “safe” by the sales department of a large commercial publisher.

I think good novels are written by writers who want to write this novel, their novel, which is like no other. And which is therefore unpredictable, unsafe, and unlikely to win a prize. Given time and chance and a little publicity, of course, it may keep winning readers for years and years to come. But most corporation-owned publishers could care less for the years to come. Bottom line this month is all that matters.


Book Groups as the Opposite of Awards. I don’t mean Oprah or commercial ventures, I mean the kind of reading group organised by private people among their friends and acquaintances, that have become common in the last twenty years or so. These groups often consist of modest people who don’t trust their own taste and therefore accept too meekly the publicised judgment of PR departments and award-givers. The book club that always picks the newest best seller or Big Prize winner for next month isn’t doing much for literature, although the cookies or the wine and cheese may be terrific.

But a lot of book-club members have been reading all their lives. Reading people tend to be a bit balky, independent, resistant to being told what they ought to read, inclined to go off and discover it for themselves. There are a lot of book groups doing quite serious independent reading and discussion. I wonder if they aren’t doing more to preserve and celebrate literature than all the national awards and lists of Bests.

And how about all the Internet sites and blogs that discuss books read? Some of them are awfully naïve — some of them are awesomely knowledgeable.

There are various ways to sneak around the fences and monuments erected by the Guardians of Literature and the Awarders of Awards in order to get to where we can find out and talk about what’s actually going on in literature. Maybe readers of this blog can suggest some other sneaky routes.


Out Here coverUrsula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. One of her recent books is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.

She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.



Literary Bests — 28 Comments

  1. Yes–a thousand times yes! I’ve always believed you can’t quantify artistic quality–if something is powerful and moving to a thousand people, that’s no less meaningful than if it’s powerful and moving to a million people. To say otherwise is to say that speaking to your soul means less if you are part of a minority.

    To tack on to your mention of the Hugo award, though, I’ve begun, in recent years, to read all of the year’s Hugo nominees in the fiction categories, and I know I’m far from unique in that regard. So for those of us who do that, it really is like the entire shortlist is honored, because all these good works get brought to my attention. (And in many cases I’ll end up with a wonderful experience of reading from one of the works that did *not* take home the rocket, so I’m enriched.)

  2. I have to echo Joe’s “yes” and add a resounding “huzzah”! I’d love for these lists to become (if needed at all) lists of memorable works.

    One of the favorite interview questions at my day job is “what’s your favorite movie?” – I mean, how does one answer that? It’s an impossible question. I love hundreds and hundreds of movies (or books, or whatever) in so many different ways and for a variety of reasons. I can easily list those that were memorable or re-watchable, but “favorite”? It’s like asking which of your children is the best.

    From a writer’s standpoint, I hate seeing lists of “bests” and realizing that my work didn’t make the cut on X list, but did on Y list. It’s just another way to make me paranoid. ::g::

  3. This is 42 different kinds of awesome, probably more.

    The hell with awards, let’s go write something!

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  7. When it comes to the Tiptree, I’m keeping track of which of the stories/novels I’ve read. Whether they were winners, short list, honor list, or long list.

    I think there’s value in ‘niche’ awards. And in having more than one award. There’s more than one award for glbtqia sf/f for example, and it helps you find good/interesting books to check all those lists.

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  9. I love this article not just as writer, but as a dance teacher. Dance competitions have become increasingly prevalent in the dance world – and a major source of income for dance studios (one studio near me brags that its parents spend upwards of $5,000 a year on costumes).

    But I’ve always felt extremely uncomfortable with the idea of judging dance, not just the merits of the choreography, but the costumes, the make-up, the music selection, because to me dance is supposed to be Art. The way writing is Art. And to put its merits to the vote of a jury – with trophies, and prizes – encourages, to me, the wrong view of art. As if we’re trying to validate our art form by assigning some sort of external value and judgement to it.

    I absolutely believe that artists can (and should) make money off their work, but I also believe that encouraging them to strive for certain awards or monetary prizes can influences= their art in unhealthy ways – the same way that a dance coach picks red lipstick and sequins because Judge A is known to favor it.

    I will definitely be saving the link to this article for use in my next discussion on why I don’t support dance competitions (so thank you!)
    – D

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  11. I love the multiple award notion – what better way to find the unique aspect of each book than ask its reviewers to sum it up in such an award-line. It would be a wonderfully quirky addition to something like GoodReads, if you allowed the reviewers to nominate and vote on the award to give to the book – instant tagline (provided you banned award names that went against the spirit of the exercise such as ‘best book EVER!!!”, of course).

  12. I read all these posts with increasing relief, an opening of heart, lessening of tension in neck and back, and growing gratitude. Thank you, Mme Le Guin, for this generous and good hearted lift of mind and spirit at the start of the year. Thank you.

  13. “(…) they may have glory of man. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.” 🙂

    But then think about a poor reader who wants to spend his quality time reading a book. How can he optimize price to value ratio if you remove all these awards? And without optimization, will the growth and progress curve rise constantly as it definitely should?

  14. K-k, your question seems to be rooted in the assumption that there is such a thing as a definitive best book. A poor reader who wants to spend his or her quality time reading a book should choose the most intriguing book from several very good choices.

    LeGuin’s point isn’t, I believe, that we shouldn’t honor any books (or artists or performances). Rather, she seems to be saying that all the books on the shortlist are generally of very high quality, one is not, in fact, empirically better than the others, and so it does your poor reader a disservice to claim that one is.

    Just my take on it.

  15. @ Joe Iriarte

    Sorry for the confusion – I thought I was quite openly ironic (or perhaps even sarcastic). I will write a bit longer explanation in several days to avoid derailing the discussion. Briefly speaking, I find the “award business issue” tightly related to the problem of the growth obsession discussed by UKL in her “Clinging Desperately to a Metaphor” post (19 September 2011).

  16. ::thwaps head::

    Oh! Yeah, looking back now, I can see that you were being tongue-in-cheek. I guess that’s what I get for skimming from work; now I feel like a dolt. :-\

  17. @ Joe Iriarte

    I think you are excused. Unfortunately, there are quite many people who think exactly the way I wrote (which is a misfortune for the world we live in, but also for them). Also, as a visitor to English language I might have abused hospitality of its native speakers by using irony – people who need to correct multiple errors in my text before they are able to understand it cannot be expected to efficiently separate my linguistic mistakes from my possible mental shortcomings. 😉

  18. Back to the main topic – have a look at:
    – so much for awards…

    What I find perhaps even more interesting than the main story is the tone of posts commenting the article. Apparently, there are many people who love Tolkien’s story but hate his writings! I wonder how much this phenomenon is related to the success of Peter Jackson’s movie, and how much of it derives from an on-going change of the role literature plays in modern life.

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