‘Tis the Season to Be Bitter

Well, MEFA results are trickling in to authors with the final list of winners forthcoming. Celebration already pervades, both of individual results and of the accomplishments of the MEFA staff in another smooth-going and fun season. Fun for most, that is. Because for every cheer and every lifted glass of virtual champagne, there is an inevitable iota of bitterness from those who feel neglected and/or overlooked. Some will speak of it but many more, I suspect, will put on a smile and swallow their hurt. Nonetheless, there it is.

My ambivalence toward awards has been discussed before. Clearly, I have come to terms with my own participation in the MEFAs since I have participated as an author, reviewer, nominator, and volunteer at various times in the past four seasons. But my ambivalence remains. How so? For me, nomination in the MEFAs is the award. A nominator has the chance to choose her or his twenty favorite stories for the year and chose one of mine; that is really high praise to me. The reviews only sweeten the deal. By the time the actual winners are announced, my emotion towards it is largely one of curiosity. In the end, though, no matter how well they’re matched in categorization, I don’t believe that you can judge one work of art against another. That my story about Maedhros was somehow deemed better than her story about Elrond but not quite as good as his novella about Gil-galad really doesn’t say a whole lot. It may well be that the majority of readers did agree with that arrangement but it may well be that the next batch of readers will disagree completely, to say nothing of the myriad factors that influence votes and have nothing to do with the readers’ actual preference for one story over another. (Like I have time to read one of the three and pick the shortest or the one about Elrond because I like him more than the other two characters.)

I don’t say this to diminish the satisfaction or pride of this year’s (or any year’s) winners. The meaning I attach to the awards is mine alone and surely not the only–much less correct–way to look at things. It comes back to that ambivalence: The fact that some people will inevitably walk away from the whole experience with a decreased sense of enjoyment in this community, a lessened view of their work, or a diminishment in desire to be involved in future events (not just the MEFAs). And while I know that is not the intention or even necessarily the dominant experience, it exists, and it makes me wonder, not for the first time, what role awards should have in art.

I don’t write this because I have answers. I have been wrestling with this question since my first exposure to the MEFAs came through a fandom friend who, despite several nominations, did not receive a single award and was hurt by that. And seeing similar experiences every year after. I have been wrestling with this question since deciding to participate as an author and reviewer, then a nominator, then a volunteer. I think I might be even further now than I was then from finding an answer, if such an answer can even exist. Part of me thinks that those who end up bitter just have the wrong outlook. Part of me thinks that works of art should never be pitted against each other; that that misses the point. Part of me thinks that the collateral benefits of recognizing our favorite stories each year and creating an easy means to find new authors make the enterprise, in itself, worthwhile. Then part of me replies that we don’t need awards to do that.

I can only congratulate again those who were nominated this year, thank those who wrote reviews and administrated the awards, and remain ambivalent.

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13 Responses to “‘Tis the Season to Be Bitter”

  1. Just a note about this page, half of it is blank white and I just wondered why?

  2. Marta says:

    This was a really interesting (and mature) way to approach awards. I think more people would do well to adopt it. Actually, I have been very reluctant to post my own results, at least in part because I don’t want to make anyone else feel bad. I had many, many stories that didn’t place at all, but I also had enough stories compete that if I posted the whole long list, someone who only had 2-3 pieces competing and didn’t win anything may feel a bit put off by it.

    I have a hard time with the whole concepts of awards as well (funny, given my position), and I think I am starting to realize why. By their nature they are a rather selfish institution. Especially the “culmination,” the unveiling of the awards: the natural impulse is to see how I did. I don’t really see any way around that. So I help out with the MEFAs because I think they’re a good tool to generate exposure and reviews, but I still have a love-hate relationship to awards in generals, as well as any specific award there might be.

    I would take issue with your statement that the first place story is “better” than the second-place, etc. That has never been my personal interpretation of rankings. If I win a subcategory, all it means is that my story attracted more and longer reviews than others in some fairly arbitrary set of stories. (Arbitrary in the sense that they happened to compete in the same year, have the same category choices select, and that category choice was divided up so they fell together.)

    And what does it mean that my story attracted more and longer reviews? Well, it means some people likes it. Which (assuming those people have good taste), could mean the story was good. Could, mind you; often, the best stories leave me speechless. But let’s say that my story getting the most points means its good. That doesn’t mean it’s better, or even that a lower-scoring story is not good. Even if real aesthetic judgments are possible, so we can say one story is better than another, in practice it’s so complicated I don’t think you’re ever going to find true, or at least authoritative, judgments made by self-selected judges with no real expertise beyond their personal preferences.

    So we come back to the idea that the MEFAs (at least in my opinion) are really a recommendation-generating machine. Even the results are that. The “results” are a group’s collective ranking: they say that a fair proportion of our members found these stories enjoyable enough to want to recommend them by writing a review for them. That’s not a bad thing. But it really doesn’t mean that the “losing” stories are bad.

  3. Rhapsody says:

    I do understand the ambivalent feeling. To me the awards feel good when people are all geared up to review and leaving those to make the author’s day, but for years I dread the days that the results become known. And no, even if you did not place (or did not get nominated), it means that your story is less than those who did place or got nominated, but try to explain that to a friend who just wants to share this feeling in full. I just would like to see everyone happy and appreciated *sighs*, so I will continue to review at archives.

  4. Dawn says:

    Tristan: Do you mean the whitespace to the right? I mentioned this the other day about how I need to center the content on this page (the content area being, off the top of my head, 760 pixels wide and most people’s monitors much bigger than that); I didn’t know how to do it before but do now, so I just need to sit down and tinker with the CSS. In my spare time–LOL!

    Marta: Thank you for replying to this post; my chief misgiving in posting it was that I did not want you and the other MEFA volunteers to feel that I was diminishing your efforts and the positive things that the awards do for the fandom. Because, in the end (as my choice each year to participate shows), I think that the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. And I think you all do such an awesome job! :)

    I totally agree with you on the positives and the reasons why you participate despite your ambivalence; those reasons sound a whole lot like my own. :) From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, the award itself is necessary to reward and motivate the reviewers as well as the authors, to make them feel as though they are contributing to something positive for an author whose work they like. If people were motivated to “reward” authors with reviews alone, the archives would have a lot more reviews! :)

    When I speak of rankings, I agree with you that there are too many variables in any awards program, whether MEFAs or Oscars, for that award to generate a meaningful ranking or judgment of artistic work. I could write an essay just on the different variables that influence how people rate/review stories. However, I think that an award–especially those that offer consecutive placements–gives that impression of ranking or judgment of creative works, and people certainly interpret it that way else there would not be so much hullabaloo over what story gets what placement. I don’t see nearly the attention given to nominations and reviews (for me, the awards) as I do to the results. Nor do I think that reviewers would give the amount of detailed thought to reviewing that they do if they did not feel that their efforts contributed to some meaningful end result. I can say from my own reviewing experience that there are stories where I might ramble on a point on a review on an archive but bite my tongue because I don’t want to give that piece so many points. Or where a story is one of those so-good-I’m-speechless kinds but I’m struggling to say something because I think that the story deserves 10 points.

    I share your view of the MEFAs as primarily a means to discover stories and authors I might otherwise have overlooked and for my own work to find a broader audience. I think our healthy outlooks come from that. What I question is how many people participate and have that view (or find that to be the award’s primary purpose) and how their perception of the award’s purpose changes their reaction to the results.

    Rhapsody: Yes!–and thank you for bringing up nominations because I tend to focus on “the nomination as the award” but that does not, in fact, mean that stories or authors who don’t get nominated are inferior to those that do. I have stories that have not been nominated that I consider better representations of my writing than stories that have been nominated and even placed. In fact, most of my stories that have won First Place are not stories that I consider my best work.

    I must confess, too, that the few and–it sometimes seems dwindling–number of people who review at archives can sort of frustrate me when I look at how many reviews the same stories get as part of an award. I noted to Marta that I think that one of–if not the–most important functions of the award itself is to motivate and reward the reviewers, most of whom have had opportunity to leave “10-point reviews” on an archive and didn’t.

  5. Michelle says:

    I tend to feel either ambivalent or awkward pretty much around all fanfic awards. It is always, at least to a certain point, a popularity contest. It’s the nature of the thing that widely known authors will get nominated and reviewed (voted on) more. I generally don’t place any big hopes in awards and nominations *shrugs*.

  6. Dawn says:

    So we’re all rather ambivalent so far! I have to say that I find that surprising … I bite my tongue a lot about my own ambivalence because I feel rather like an outlier and don’t want to diminish anyone else’s achievement. That and I was called a hypocrite the first year that I decided to compete … ouch! :)

    Even if people don’t set out to nominate/review only their friends, you are right that human nature means that those who are “household names” will probably get nominated and reviewed more. For example, I’m a fairly well-known author in the Silm fandom. Someone who wants to try reading Silmfic and decides to give it a go at the MEFAs but wants a story she thinks will be worth her while will see my name and think, “Oh, I’ve heard of her! She must be good!” which is not necessarily the case. Everyone else in the subcat might have a story she would like more than mine, but it’s less likely she’ll learn that if she doesn’t recognize their names or branch out after reading (and voting for) me.

    Last year, I nominated stories and did a whole lot of reviewing … read everything set in the First Age or earlier. I limit myself to one nomination per person so that I’m forced to look outside my usual social circles. And I balance my reviews too so that whenever I review someone I know, I review (say) three people I don’t. Then again, I refused to review an author one year because of her despicable attitude toward young and inexperienced writers, so that goes to show that the author–not the story–often influences even those who have the best intentions.

  7. Ithilwen says:

    I think most people share your ambivalence; if it’s less with the MEFAs than with other fanfic awards, it’s because the MEFAs can potentially reward all the participating authors, whether they win or not, with reviews. Still, I’m sure some people are hurt when they own much-loved story isn’t nominated, and others if they get few (or worse, no) reviews. So the whole thing is definitely a double-edged sword. But what in life isn’t?

  8. pandemonium_213 says:

    At the risk of something of a drive-by post, I’ll note that I — someone who comes from a metrics-driven environment — strongly agree that judging the subjective like art, creative, writing and the like is difficult. However, I’m also seeing ambivalence about competition,

    So let me throw this out for consideration: many women are uncomfortable with competition. I have observed this in my professional career (having had to learn to “compete like a man”) but this is not merely anecdotal. Check out this article from the Wharton School of Business:

    Do Women Shy Away from Competition, Even When They Can Win?.

    Granted, there are many women who do well with competition, but I wonder if some of this ambivalence comes from the discomfort many women do have with competing? And let’s face it, most participants in MEFA are women.

    Back in the day, I used to run and row. I often ran (well, jogged) in road races. I always finished near the back of the pack without a chance of winning or placing in the race or even in my age division (well that happened once, but it was a fluke). Yet I still ran in these races because it challenged me, and I enjoyed participating in the event with all the other runners. I never ever begrudged those who won awards for their efforts. Rowing was the same. And yes, you’d see disappointed competitors, but these men — and women — dusted themselves off and kept training for whatever their reasons were. The measurements that judge the outcome of a road race or a rowing regatta are certainly better defined than a competition like MEFA, but there are still similarities.

    I have less discomfort with competition than some and believe me, more often than not, I have picked myself up, dusted myself off and asked why I am “competing” and whether I want to continue to do so. I always arrive at this answer: competition is not just about “winning and placing.” It’s about challenging yourself. In fact, that — to me — is the major component.

    Anyway, just to add some fuel to the ambivalent fire… ;^)

  9. Dawn says:

    Ithilwen: I think you’re right–the MEFAs definitely have benefits beyond placement that encourage participation. Also, the fact that it does require some effort to vote for one’s friends makes it a much fairer competition than a contest where one checks a ticky-box and need not even read the story. As for angst over reviews (or lack thereof), that occurs on archives too. I’ve seen (and I’m sure you have too) quite a bit of hand-wringing over leaving work up on archives where one has gotten no reviews or only a few. I’m sure that’s compounded once the competition element is added.

    Pandemonium: This is a really interesting point–and thanks for the link! I think you’re right about competition, and I would add that, in my experience, women writers tend to be even more worried about poor/lack of feedback. It was always quite interesting, in my writing classes, to see the confidence with which the men approached their craft compared with the women. I remember in my Creative Fiction class feeling rather intimidated by a particular guy who looked, acted, and spoke the part of the brilliant artist. Then when it came time to workshop his story, I found that he was actually quite average as a writer. In my Creative Nonfiction class, there was another guy who put off the same vibe … only he failed to impress me because I’d rejected a whole stack of pornographic short stories that he’d written (and bad, bad porn–I mean like passion-expressed-by-holding-down-the-oooooooo-key bad!) for the university literary magazine two years prior. But, nonetheless, this guy could talk the talk. I thought of this when, in the article, it was suggested that the body language of the male participants expressed a level of confidence that did not match their abilities and might have put off female participants who were, in fact, much better at the task.

    To the contrary, I’ve met loads of women writers who were quivering masses of tender feelings just waiting to be wounded. Hell, I was one, once upon a time. These women are usually talented but their lack of confidence in their abilities means that they don’t tend to try for things like having their work published. The other week, looking over the “Woohoo List” of Critters members whose work had been accepted for publication that week, I noticed that, overwhelmingly, they were men. When I was still critiquing stories, I read plenty of work by women on that workshop … usually the best work was by women. But they don’t seem to be making the Woohoo List.

    I share your attitude in looking at/considering why I am competing and–cliche as it may sound–“competing against myself” rather than constantly having to measure up to others. Last year, I was prouder of reviewing 120 stories than I was of how my stories placed. I read my old work sometimes because it’s otherwise hard to see progress in my writing. When I think, “Oh my, that’s awful!” I know I’m on the right track. :)

  10. pandemonium_213 says:

    Your observations of the concerns of women writers and how the men in your class presented themselves with more confidence are enlightening. That confident male behavior can be seen in the scientific arena, too. A lot of my male colleagues in discovery research were undeniably bright but they also “talked the talk” if you know what I mean.

    On the WooHoo List — did you see this?

    The key to literary success? Be a man — or write like one.

  11. Dawn says:

    (Pandemonium, I’m sorry your comments keep getting kicked into moderation. The last WP upgrade stopped catching URLs if they were part of HTML coding, so I was getting an influx of spam comments and so changed the settings to send any comment with HTML links to moderation. I think there is a new version of WP out; I hope they have squashed that annoying bug!)

    Anyway, back to the topic at hand. I have to thank you again for the link … I had not seen that article, and it is certainly enlightening and confirms my suspicions.

    This line in particular jumped out at me: “[O]ne of the questions on the blind survey was about the characters ‘likability,’and the exact same female character, same lines, same pagination, when written by a man was exceeding likable, when written by a woman was deemed extremely unlikable.” This reminded me of one of our other favorite topics on the HL: female OFCs (or female canon characters, for that matter), and how they are perceived. Although I had never thought of the gender of the writer as influencing that.

    Regarding writerly confidence, the funny thing is that I would have much rather worked with “quivering masses of tender feelings just waiting to be wounded” than the chest-thumpers who believed themselves the next incarnation of Hemingway. Most of the worst writers I worked with were also the most confident. The best writers rarely stopped questioning their work and whether it could be better.

  12. Roisin says:

    Once again, I’m late t the party. But I have a good excuse this time! 😉

    This was my first year ever being a part of the MEFAs and my only real regret is being unable to spend as much time with reviews as I would like, but RL can be that way.

    I have mixed feelings on the whole competition thing to be honest. I work in an enormously competitive field, so I admit outside of work I can be a big wimp wen it comes to competition with something I do for fun. Thing is, I don’t really see the MEFAs as a competition so much as an oppourtunity to recognize stories and authors. It’s like a way to say thank you to others for writing a story that touched them in some way. I could be a pie eyed idealist here, but that’s how I view the MEFAs.

    I know for me, and I can only really speak for me, it was a huge honor to simply be nominated. I was shocked to place at all, maybe in a large part because I wasn’t going for wins, but mainly to put my feelers out there and see what this MEFAs thing was all about. I’m no doubt pleased, and honored, I won.

    I guess my best advice would be for folks to take things like competitions in the fandom with a grain of salt. But the again, there’s a lot of things in the fandom I would reccomend be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t think the focus should be so much on winning, but merely having fun interacting with others, finding new stories and authors, enjoying the reviews, ect.

    I know as an author, or even an artist, it’s had not to get worked up about one’s work. We’re all attached to our work emotionally in some way. I know for damn sure I am. I’m always second guessing myself and my work, wondering how it could be better, ect. And often as a newer kid on the block, I often feel intimidated by those who have been around for years. A huge event like MEFAs can be enormously daunting. Nut on the other hand, an event like MEFAs can also be beneficial to newer authors like me because it’s exposure. It’s enormously hard for a new writer to break into a well established fandom, and I think things like challenges and competitions like MEFAs can help. As silly as it might sound, just being able to be exposed to new readers is a reward in itself, especially for someone like me who is not only a newer author, but writes in a highly niche area of the fandom (Numenorean centered fic).

    Of course winning feels great. I think everyone can agree on that. It does serve as affirmation in a way. But with big events like this, it’s hard to predict “who” will win and with what stories. It’s hard for one to not get their hopes up, but I can see how hopes can easily be dashed in something like this.

    Thn again, it’s hard to judge creative work. I know in my field it’s done on a daily basis and a lot of that is based on what is “in” and popular at the moment. But I’m not really sure how much relevance the fashion industry has to fan fiction. Writing is much harder to judge. I mean, for example, one of my very good friends and I both have stories concerning isildur meeting Aragorn in the afterlife. Hers is first person POV while mine’s done from the POV of isildur’s wife. While it’s basically the same subject, they’re two totally different stories. You can’t really say tha one is the better than the other, it’s just what the reader prefers. The readers who prefer her version may not prefer mine so much and vice versa. Some might like mine better because it’s from the POV of an OFC, while others might dislike it for that same reason. It’s like trying to predict the weather really. One doesn’t know if it’s going to sprinkle or pour buckets. Will it snow or dump ice? I know for me, what I believed was some of my strongest work lays gathering cobwebs on various archives while something I slapped together in 5 minutes garnered a bunch of reviews. It’s hard knowing

    In the end one has to be happy with what they write I think, which is so so much easier said than done. I think we all long for feedback to some degree even if we love what we wrote.

    I know for me personally, I do feel a level of empathy for those who didn’t win or weren’t nominated for MEFAs. I know how it is to yearn for feedback. It can be hard when one is eager to share something and the story just didn’t mesh as well with readers as the author may have hoped. But that doesn’t mean the story has any less merit or worth either. I know in my industry some of the most beautiful clothing designs never make it to final line adoptions, much less the sales floor at stores. But that doesn’t mean they were any less beautiful. There’s so many variables that go into what makes it to production. I think fan fic is the sam way. You never know what will speak to the readers and what won’t.

    Anyways, I’m ramling a bunch. But those are my thoughts for what they’re worth. :-)

  13. Dawn says:

    Roisin, I think you and I basically have the same view of MEFAs and awards in general. :) I also tend to think of it less as a chance to “win” something than as a chance to find new authors, find new readers, get feedback on my work, honor the writers who have most reached me that year, and sometimes be so honored myself by being nominated. It’s like I said in the post that, by the time results come around, my strongest emotion is usually curiosity, sort of like when I used to RP, I would be curious about how dice would land. The result has a bearing on me, of course, but I don’t believe that the results are a commentary on my abilities as an author anymore than a dice roll is a commentary on my ability as an RP player. (Well, they do say more than that, but my point is that a lot of things other than my skill as a writer control how I place in an award.)

    I also find that the work that I love best doesn’t tend to place well, if at all. I don’t have many sentimental, fluffy stories, but those that I do have, when nominated, inevitably do well. Most of my work is dark and rather serious. My favorite pieces don’t do well. Another Man’s Cage is probably the most popular thing I’ve ever written, and it got an Honorable Mention when it ran. By the Light of Roses is probably my own favorite (of my own work only, of course), and it took Third Place this year. Last year, the two of my nominated stories that I liked the best–“Rekindling” and “Stars of the Lesser”–I don’t think either placed. So, in short, I don’t take MEFA results to reflect my own opinions of my work or even those of the people who generally read my stories, which removes some of the stressing over results too, I suppose.

    I think your comments on the fashion industry really are relevant, especially the bit about what’s “in” this year because there are trends in fandom too and I certainly think that they influence how awards fall as well. When I joined this community, stories that depicted Feanor sympathetically were hard to come by. Most of what I was reading took for granted the view that he was unapologetically prideful and deserved his fall because of his own flaws, period, end of story. That has certainly changed, and now stories that take that original view–that he was solely responsible for his fall–are more likely to be read skeptically. One of my proudest wins at the MEFAs wasn’t even for my story but for a story that I nominated last year, when Elfscribe’s “Wind and Fire” took First Place. It was not only a slash story but a rather unconventional pairing–Feanor and Manwe–but, my goodness, it is a gorgeously written story. It deserved to be recognized. Until that point, there was often much discussion centering on the poor placement of slash stories compared to gen or het stories and that win–along with Oshun’s First Place in Longer Works for her Maedhros/Fingon novella–gave hope to some of us that that was changing. Indeed, BtLoR’s placement does the same since I don’t imagine that a slash novella about Erestor and Feanor would have stood a chance a few years ago, no matter how well written it was.

    I call it the Walt Whitman Effect. Walt Whitman is my favorite poet, bar none. If I wasn’t already married to a large, hairy man and WW wasn’t already more than one hundred years dead (always an impediment), then I would marry him. Leaves of Grass makes me laugh and cry out loud; it makes my senses soar in a way that most poetry does not. Yet when he first published Leaves of Grass in the mid-19th century, it was a flop. People hated it and thought that he was rather disgusting and scandalous to boot. Of course, our opinion has changed considerably since then, and it is hard to imagine a world where Leaves of Grass wasn’t perceived as the work of art that it is.

    I see the Walt Whitman Effect in fandom too. Topics, genres, styles that are viewed with skepticism (or outright loathing, in the case of slash) are getting more appreciation now, and the best works of each are on a more even keel competition-wise with stories that would have blown them out of the water a few years ago simply because people were reluctant or outright unwilling to give them an honest read. And, really, that’s another advantage to the MEFAs: It is not judged by a panel of judges but by us, so we can choose what competes and what does well, and if a whole bunch of people willing to overthrow the Walt Whitman Effect decide to give a fair reading to everything, then you see a better representation of a variety of fiction.

    Anyway, back to my original point, it kind of does relate to the changing styles of fashion, although fandom trends are certainly more populist. It’s encouraging, though, that even one or two people who write a subject well can change the perception of it. (I see that happening now with the Second Age, with writers like you and Pandemonium doing excellent work with an age that most people did not read and making it more popular as a result.) I believe that the best of works of art will not only break new ground but make people think differently, sometimes inspiring negative emotions as a result, so the work that doesn’t place or doesn’t even get nominated may be viewed as a classic another five years from now.

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