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.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 And all of them are out of date before they are declared.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.
I'm not sure it's as much of a winner take all system as Le Guin says, but she knows the field better than I do.
Three things that point in the direction of people not needing as much competition as we've got. One of my friends was in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, and when he was trying to explain Americans, he said we'd turn anything into a competition. I've heard that traditional Japanese bonsai doesn't include awards. The trees are just displayed for people to look at. I've also heard that read medieval tourneys didn't have an overall winner. It was just a chance to watch various sorts of fighting.
I'm also reminded of a bit from Russ' How to Suppress Women's Writing to the effect that when you hear the word good, you should ask "Good for who? Good for what?". The same should apply to "best".
Link thanks to sartorias.
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