Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Polling the Public for a National Book Award

For the first time, the prestigious National Book Award will be chosen by more than just a five-member judging panel. Anyone can vote.

According to the AP wire, The National Book Foundation has opened its polls to the public, letting readers all over the country vote. But only for one special category: The Best of the National Book Awards Fiction. As part of the NBA's 60th anniversary celebration, this special category has been created to honor one of six past NBA winners, chosen by a NBF panel:

The Stories of John Cheever

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Personally, I haven't read any of these. Maybe that makes me a bad former Lit. major, but I haven't. So, I, for one, do not plan to participate. But even if I had a strong opinion on the matter, I'm not sure I'd want to take part.

Contests of this kind peeve me a little bit, with voters having no restriction in number of votes (Ok, you caught me, I just voted to see if it would let me vote twice--it does), and with voters being able to see the current standings, and therefore, push their favorite up in the polls by voting again and again. Something like this happened recently to a family member of mine, with his band being a finalist in a very important, nationwide competition that would ensure them a spot playing at a concert with some very, very big names. Winning such a contest would have launched their career, something they absolutely deserve to have happen. However, the contest was run so poorly, e-mail addresses not verified, etc. that some of the other bands in the running were having fans vote 100+ times each, swaying the scales unfairly. As a result, the competition no longer really represented the best band, but instead just the band who could cheat the most.

Contests like the NBA have panels of judges for a reason. They have a criteria they follow and are (hopefully) made up of a variety of different people with different tastes and outlooks, to get a well-rounded and fair judging scale. I think this is especially important when the stakes are as high as they were for the aforementioned band and for the NBA, which dotes prestige and $10,000 on its winners (though I can't say what the award is for this special category, since I frankly, don't know).

So, while I like the concept of the public having a say, I can't help but think these contests aren't really fair--or accurate--and maybe they really are better left to the professionals.

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