A funny thing happened on my way to lifelong obscurity. I accidentally won a book award.
The award didn’t quite fall out of the sky and land on my head. After all, I had put the best I had to give, day after day, for many years, into the book’s drafts. Then I’d sent it to the most exacting readers I knew, and put the absolute best I had to give into revising it. Tales from Rugosa Coven was worthy. I had just stopped expecting anyone who didn’t already know me to notice.
And that was all right. I had other projects in process, and I when I sat down to work at them, I put the best I had to give into them, too. It’s joyful work. Universe willing, I’ll get to do it for the rest of my life.
Well, someone noticed. When the Mythopoeic Society shortlisted me for their award, it was such good news I was sure it had to be an error. The award may not be widely known in mainstream literary circles, but in the world of fantasy literature, it’s a big deal. I traveled to Mythcon to meet my unexpected readers, who were excited to see me. People who’d never met me had actually read my book and wanted to talk about it. I’m not being facetious when I say it was an utterly disorienting experience. The strength of the rest of the shortlist was such that, every time I sat down to write acceptance remarks just in case I won, I found myself drafting congratulatory emails and rehearsing what I’d say to my hotel roommate, a fellow nominee. If she hadn’t insisted that I must at least prepare a few notes, I have no idea what I’d have said at the podium when my hosts put the Aslan in my hand.
Even now, a month later, it’s hard to believe it really happened. Now I know what trophies are for. They’re how dark horse candidates who win things confirm for themselves that it wasn’t all a dream.
The Mythopoeic Fantasy Award may be the turning point that makes a real career possible for me. Several of the people I met at Mythcon who’d read my book for the Mythopoeic Society’s award committee expressed that hope. Tell me there will be more books! What are you working on now? Theoretically, awards can open doors, lift manuscripts out of vast slush piles into smaller piles of something nicer, attract a wider audience. The readers for this juried award recognized my improbable book from a small and improbable press, choosing it over works by far more established authors, maybe in part because an award might make a difference for me that it could no longer make for people who already hit the bestseller lists reliably.
That’s the way of thinking about the award that I try to focus on, because awards can be dangerous to writers.
To put it in terms that suit an award for a work in the spirit of the Inklings (a writing group whose best known members were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis), a literary honor can be the healing cordial Father Christmas bestows on Lucy when Aslan brings Christmas back to Narnia, or it can be the One Ring that drives Gollum into the Cracks of Doom.
What makes a book award valuable to the author who wins it? Depends on the author, depends on the award, depends on the day.
For me, this award means I can keep making my writing a priority not just for myself, but for how my entire family budgets time and resources. When my husband and I work out how many of my potential writing hours I’m going to sell to SAT tutoring students, we’re agreed that now I’ll be teaching less than I have in years. For the first time, my name might actually be worth something — I’d better act on that possibility soon, before the date-stamp on the award starts looking stale to the publishing industry. And what if that actually works?
Tom Doyle likens getting a publishing deal with a big-time imprint to winning a pie-eating contest whose prize is more pie. What’s the reward for all that work you just did? An obligation to work more and faster. Whether that’s a joy or a disappointment depends on how you feel about the actual doing of the work.
And that brings us to the Studies Have Shown section of our essay.
Once upon a time, a research psychologist named Edward Deci set out to test common assumptions about motivation. Did rewarding humans for a specific behavior really make them more motivated to engage in it? And what would happen to their motivation if the rewards stopped coming? If people were already a little bit motivated to engage in the behavior, would rewards really motivate them that much more?
In educational circles, these questions are crucial. So many processes require sticking with a cognitive task that might at first be frustrating, or that not all students find equally appealing. When the motivating gets tough, we offer rewards.
Stickers! Jelly beans! Prizes! Fifty points to Gryffindor!
And somehow, we hope, our students will become lifelong learners, continuing to do what we rewarded them for in their youth. You can see the same general pattern in efforts to motivate employees in many kinds of workplaces, with the same long-term results in adults as you see in children.
Nobody is likely to manage such a study specifically on professional writers of fiction — can you picture the members of SFWA allowing anyone to randomly assign them to a writing process? — but I’m pretty sure the overall patterns would be the same as the ones Deci found. If Deci’s name were as well known as B.F. Skinner’s, we’d be living in a very different world.
Since Skinner’s theory of behaviorism came into common parlance, methods he developed for use on rats and pigeons have been applied pervasively to humans, with no real research backing up the assumption that humans get motivated to do cognitively or socially complex things the same way rats and pigeons get motivated to do simple ones.
In his famous 1971 study, Deci started with kids who showed a baseline interest in solving puzzles — all the kids started with an intrinsic motivation to do the activity — and divided them randomly into groups. The experimental group got rewards for solving the puzzles, and the control group got none. As the study progressed, the experimental group’s rewards eventually stopped coming, and the control group continued without rewards.
One might have expected the group receiving rewards to engage in the puzzle activity more while receiving rewards, and to continue to engage more and/or more skillfully than the control group did after the rewards stopped. After all, we tend to assume that adding extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation gets us a larger overall quantity of motivation, right? As it turns out, that’s not how humans tick.
After getting rewarded, the kids who’d been given an extrinsic reward to do something they used to choose freely lost interest in doing it at all. The kids who had not been rewarded remained intrinsically motivated.
Deci’s takeaway was this: When people are told that the point of an activity is to get a reward, the value that might have been placed on the activity shifts, and whatever the reward is, the reward becomes disproportionately valued. The activity loses value, sometimes completely.
The studies reproducing this effect and trying to find its edges have been going on since 1971. With the least intrinsically interesting tasks — potty training, for instance — using rewards does no harm. However, with many behaviors that one might want a student, an employee, or oneself to tackle as a self-starter over a lifetime, reliance on rewards backfires. It’s counterintuitive, but the whole point of the scientific method is to show us where our intuition leads us wrong.
When rewards are unexpected rather than transactional, or when things that might be framed as rewards are framed instead as the chore that makes the intrinsically interesting activity possible, rewards don’t seem to do much harm (though they also don’t seem to increase motivation). However, when awards are given in a transactional, behavioristic way for activities like reading — activities that are important over a lifetime, and that can be drained of their joy by bad experiences — rewards can be catastrophic. The constant concern over “reluctant readers” in our national conversation about literacy offers an endless array of cases in point. Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, discusses a Pizza Hut program that gives rewards of free pizza to children who read lots of books. The adults would be more likely to get the result they want, Kohn quips, if they gave the kids free books for eating pizza.
So when I think about awards generally and the award I’ve won in particular, I get all wary in my metacognition.
The act of writing is my joy, and I don’t want anything, not even the trappings and tools of success, to take that away from me.
Knowing I have built a story well is my satisfaction. I don’t want anything, not even praise when I’ve succeeded, to take that away from me.
The kind readers who conferred the Aslan on my book sought to encourage me. When I wonder if my caution makes me sound ungrateful — or worse, might make me actually be ungrateful — I remember that what those readers hope for is more books like the ones they love. If my craftsmanship or productivity diminishes, that would make it harder to do what they encouraged me to keep doing.
To return, with unabashed geekery, to my One Ring analogy, Tolkien scholars more than anyone else would understand my wariness of a way of thinking about awards that we have seen in some quarters this year: The award is mine, my precious. Thief! We will takes the precious, we will!
In other quarters this year, we’ve seen passionate readers who advocate for the books they love, books that exemplify a tradition that’s out of fashion (and that some of those passionate advocates even see as deliberately shut out by conspiracies). Though various people in the Sad Puppies faction have said a great many things I disagree with, it has sometimes occurred to me that my own career would be very different if I had readers as fanatically devoted to my work as the Sad Puppies are to the authors they favor. When I’ve tried to imagine from the inside what drives the authors in the Puppy factions — as I might work to imagine any character who makes choices I wouldn’t — and I’ve wondered whether a fan base that fanatical or a career that much bigger than my own would change my thinking about awards, these are the words that have come to my mind:
You would give me the One Award from a desire to do good, but through me it would do great evil.
You would give me the Hugo freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!
(Mostly, all would despair of my ever finishing a long epic series, because a transactional view of awards would damage my determination to put butt-in-seat time into bringing the books to completion. Oh, and damage my will to craft the last volumes as carefully as the first. Our examples of which authors we love and despair of may differ — I actually consider the most obvious suspect innocent on this charge — but most readers of series fantasy can think of at least one.)
Speaking only for myself, the risk of developing a sense of entitlement to any award scares me, because it might lead me into things far worse than writer’s block: sloppy writing, pandering, willful hackery. I didn’t devote thirty-five years to honing my craft so I could end up there.
Authors are subject to human nature. Yes, I’ve had moments of luminous gratitude (often in public, thank goodness) and moments of puerile vindication (mostly in the privacy of my own head, thank goodness). At times I’ve imagined that I deserved the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award because I’d waited long enough and it was my turn for something good to happen. (As if the same could not be said for hundreds of other struggling writers.)
Maybe I had waited long enough and busted my ass for my craftsmanship enough to be worthy of the award, but that’s not the same thing as an entitlement. And ultimately, if I had to choose between being entitled and being worthy, I’d choose worthy.
Awards and entitlements fade. Nobody gives a damn about the poetry of Robert Southey. He’s a sad footnote to Coleridge, who, for all his troubles, was the worthy poet of those two friends. Southey grew up to be the crown’s Poet Laureate and never wanted for comforts again. He also never wrote a line worth memorizing again. But you remember, whether you’d say you care for poetry or not, how Coleridge took you to Xanadu, where Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decreed, where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.
I have loved knowing that my book connected with a body of readers that only slightly overlapped with the subculture its characters come from. The Mythopoeic Society celebrates works in the tradition of a group of fantasy writers who were inspired particularly by their Christianity. The members of the Society charged with making the award selections saw the humanity, dignity, and struggles of my characters (mostly Neo-Pagans) in the unlikeliest of all possible fantasy landscapes (New Jersey, usually regarded as the Mordor of the Eastern Seaboard, which surprised me by becoming the book’s Beloved Land). As a result, the award is informative feedback that tells me something I didn’t know for sure before.
What I did know is that this book connected for Pagan readers, who rarely get to see themselves represented realistically in fiction. Oh, they get to see themselves used as projections of the wish-fulfillment or anxiety of others, or used as a note of exoticism to spice up books that are about something else. But it’s rare for Pagans to find fiction that mirrors them back in a way they recognize as truthful. When I read what Junot Diaz says about being part of an unrepresented or misrepresented community, I thought, Yes, that’s part of my inspiration, too!
You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? … And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.
Most of the early readers of Tales from Rugosa Coven loved that it reflected them and their community back to them as human. As for the storytelling pleasure we all take in monstrous things, well, that’s what the ghosts, cryptozoological beasties, Atlanteans, and general weirdness in the New Jerseyan mode are for.
What I didn’t know until Mythcon was that the book could speak as deeply to people outside the characters’ social world. As powerful as the need for a cultural mirror can be, I had written a book that still had oomph entirely apart from it. I had hoped to do that, but until I had a critical mass of more diverse readers, I couldn’t be sure.
If I had any doubts about the degree to which I had accomplished that goal, the award cleared them up. It’s information with immediate practical application. There are plenty of other writerly superpowers I don’t yet have — my inner heckler is yelling, Brevity! — and now I can turn more of my attention to developing them.
Writing is what my old Tai Chi teacher would call a forever game. No, let me capitalize that. Capitalization for emphasis is one of the prerogatives of a fantasy writer, after all. It’s a Forever Game. No matter how long I live, no matter how many books I write, there will still be a better to strive for.
If winning an award ostensibly on the merits can be informative, winning one as a result of slate voting looks from here like it probably can’t be.
This year there’s been a lot of discussion of what counts as slate voting, and a lot of argument about who, if anyone, truly benefits from it. To oversimplify in the interest of brevity — Nice try! shouts my inner heckler — both Puppies factions argue that awards slates have been around, at least in the nomination phase of the Hugos, for years. Most people who’ve had something to say about it who don’t identify with the Puppies make a sharp distinction between a recommended reading list and a list presented as a way to control what can appear on the awards ballot. (I did say it was an oversimplification. This area of contention has been covered elsewhere by many writers on all sides of the controversy. Anybody who wants to encapsulate the slate issue differently or post links to places where it’s discussed at greater length is cordially invited to my comment thread.)
From where I sit, the big problem for a writer who’s nominated as a result of a political slate is threefold. Such a nomination or award gives no informative feedback about craftsmanship to the writer, and it cannot vouch for the writer’s individual craftsmanship to others. Without those benefits, there’s no upside important enough to balance the risk of demotivation.
Suppose hypothetically that I write a novella — that’s the form I’ve had the most luck at selling — and it’s nominated for Best Novella on a political slate along with four (or however many will game the rules) other novellas by writers who are in general sympathy with my political views. Suppose further that this list of novellas is part of a nominating slate that includes a game-the-system number of works in the categories of Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Fanzine, etc. Even if I win, what information would that give me about how I’m doing as an artist?
Suppose that on the basis of having won that hypothetical award, I set out to pitch my next project to a publisher or agent, or to publicize my next project directly to readers. If everybody who cares about the kind of book I’ve written knows that I won that award on the basis of my political views or social connections rather than the quality of my artistry, the award does me almost no good.
From the perspective of a buyer of books, an unabashedly political award is not enough to justify a financial outlay for a work of fiction. My informed guess is that agents and acquiring editors would be on the same page with me here. It’s easy to find people who agree with me about politics, but I’m not going to pay them nine dollars a pop, or even two dollars a pop, for expressing that agreement. And if I were wagering my livelihood or my employer’s bottom line on someone else’s writing, that writer’s political views are certainly not enough to justify the gamble. A work of fiction had better have something rare to bring to the table. Anybody can write a cautionary tale with a moral-of-the-story. But what can this book do that no other book does?
The whole point of a slate is that it’s not about that question. It’s about this book being in the same basket with a bunch of other books by other people.
Even an award that was intended and designed to recognize political expression would lose its usefulness if it were gamed by slates. That sound you hear is my mental gears grinding while I try to come up with a political award I might actually be a contender for. Most Pragmatic Feminist of the Year: Second Runner-Up/Dr. Collegiality? Most Idiosyncratic Progressive? That one might be a lifetime achievement award. Okay, suppose I won the award for Most Idiosyncratic Progressive after a coordinated campaign to shut out certain of my fellow progressive eccentrics and ensure that only progressives who were odd in approximately the same way I am reached the shortlist. I would come out of the experience with no basis for believing that my lifetime of achievement in leaning quirkily leftward really was worthy of that recognition.
In Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn describes taking his toddler to a playground and seeing other parents’ well-intended but counterproductive efforts to motivate their children. What does it tell a two-year-old when a parent pushes him or her on a swing and calls out an encouraging, “Good swinging!” If the swinging is the result of the parents’ pushes and the pull of gravity, what use is that praise to the child? The total disconnect between the child’s effort — or lack of effort — and the feedback is both misleading and demotivating. And if the child were to run up to some adult and demand admiration on the basis of his or her good swinging, how impressive would that be?
As the Hugo controversy has unfolded, many authors have declared that they are so opposed to award slates that they would decline any nomination or award if they knew it to be the result of a slate. Please, they’ve said, even if you love and support my work, don’t honor it that way.
And some who supported the Puppies’ tactics have accused those authors of being disingenuous at best, hypocritical at worst. Just wait, the rejoinder has gone, next year when you all resort to countering slates with slates, you’ll be lining up with hands outstretched for tainted awards, just like you mocked us for doing, just like we suspected you were doing in secret all along.
I can’t speak for any of those other authors, but I hope at this point I’ve convinced you that I mean it when I say a slate nomination is worse than none. For goodness sake, a straight-up old-fashioned clean nomination is hazardous enough!
You might ask why I don’t go further than those other authors, then, and urge my readers not to nominate me for anything at all. It would be a fair question to ask. For that matter, you might ask why I want to get paid for my writing in the first place — what could be more transactional than that?
If I can make a little money at writing, I can afford to keep doing it. The whole getting paid part — not that I have a minimum wage’s worth of firsthand experience here — is one of those chores I need to get done if I am to keep my day job from expanding into all my writing time.
If I win the occasional award, I might be able to continue making enough money to continue writing. That is, assuming enough money ever starts coming in. The world has not beaten a path to my door as a result of this award — that may be a thing that used to happen before the publishing industry went into free-fall, but I don’t think it happens anymore. If I want the work I love to be the work I do, I have to hustle for it. Anything that makes the hustle easier is much appreciated.
Appreciated with the desperate gratitude Lucy Pevensie felt when the sleigh-bells turned out to be not the White Witch come for her after all, but Father Christmas with a sack of life-saving gifts. In this bottle, there is a cordial made of the juice of the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun. If you or any of your friends are hurt, a few drops will restore them. That’s what a good story can do for us — restore us when we hurt. Receiving such a story-gift when it’s most needed can drive a person to become a writer. I think that’s how most of us got into this line of work.
Lucy’s cordial is a gift given her in trust that she will give it to others. That’s the spirit I hold onto when I’m in danger of having my head turned by my one little accolade. That’s the spirit in which it was given. And what I wish for every writer faced with an award is that it be offered to them in that spirit, too.
Sarah Avery won the 2015 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for her novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven. The Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic anthology she coedited with David Sklar includes stories by James Enge, Elizabeth Bear, and Darrell Schweitzer. Her own short stories have appeared Jim Baen’s Universe, Fantasy Scroll Magazine, and the last print issue of Black Gate. This October she will launch a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish a novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” with illustrations by Kate Baylay. Sarah’s an escaped academic who survived earning a Ph.D. in English literature, and an ambivalently entrepreneurial private tutor. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com and follow her on Twitter.