by Kent Oswald
Book honors aplenty litter the calendar. A person or group decides a collection of words are best in a designated class and thus an honor is issued. All well and good, but do the prizes promote superior writing or just encourage sales? Has a Pulitzer, Christy, Hugo, Nobel or any other literary award spurred an author to create a better novel than he or she would have otherwise? Has a publisher ever said let’s do less (copy) editing since this work definitely will (or won’t) be honored? Has an agent ever contracted a writer simply to score a few banquet tickets?
In this age of More Fine (enough) Artist factories, academia creates gobs of “good” writing, but it is also true that we still read much too much that lays leaden across the quality divide. The literary “carrot” of being recognized as a noteworthy novel(ist) doesn’t necessarily inspire greater efforts in all, but perhaps a “stick” to cast eternal darkening on bad writing could encourage a bit more care? Might not the aspiring or already crowd-approved prosaist do another lightly-once-over edit or a publisher/editor/copyeditor/proofreader spend a few focused minutes more if eternal digital ignominy threatened?
Such is the current hypothesis behind the work-in-progress, Novelmas (pronounced noh vel-muhz). The holding-place name recognizes the piffles of character and plot surrounding one-dimensional bookworm Velma Dinkley of the inscrutably ever-popular Scooby-Doo franchise, which traces its ancestral line to Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series of kids-and-dog-solving-mysteries books for young audiences. Perhaps if the idea gains traction, these dishonors will come to be called The Jinkies!, after Velma’s catchphrase, just as “The Oscars” nickname bestowed upon the not-too-holy grails of the annual awards ceremony of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A counter to those movie honors serves as role model for these Novelmas. The Razzie Awards have grown from a living room rant to (according to the authority of E! Online) the foremost authority on all things that suck on the big screen. While some critiques bemoaning these “golden raspberries” do little more than set in amber what is but the popular opinion of a moment in time, they do cast shame upon projects that desperately needed more care, craft in formulation and final editing to rid them of their excesses. The awarding organization is loose, mostly volunteer and comes together via the internet where industry pros and interested others pay a fee to join, discuss, nominate, vote and belittle deserving projects.
So far, the Razzies have avoided the stigma of self-belittlement owing to infights and internal, political battles, as has recently, and unfortunately, befallen the Hugos.
Indeed, how to avoid “political outcomes” should be a theme in the creation of the nominating and voting mechanisms of any sort of literary award. Besides, it isn’t as if there aren’t plenty of places to talk trash. Sites like Goodreads and online bookstore reviews offer spaces for readers to preview potential reads or discuss how a writer destroyed reading for them forever. Nor is there a shortage similarly themed lists, whether it is on bad books, the worst novel ever, the worst novelist ever, worst opening lines, random collections of awful reviews of canon classics, or the sum of the wisdom of crowds where Twilight comes out on top in a crimes against readers list over lesser sinners Mein Kampf, Justin Bieber: First Step 2 Forever, and both The Bible and Qur’an. Unfortunately, those sites have not acquired the juice to wash away potty-worthy prose, which is why we need to bring at least one more weapon in the battle.
All authors have access to the same words, but better writers do a superior job cutting away the ones that don’t work in service to readers.
To be fair, a work eligible for judging would need some sort of floor of adequate exposure—no unsold act of vanity, which will still leave plenty of opportunity for the lettered stillborn of an entertainment or business celebrity. The next hurdle for creating Novelmas standards is the consensual adoption of the constitution for awful writing. An initial concern in this matter is that taste is a fickle muse, a roller coaster of acceptance perhaps exemplified best through the career of Herman Melville who went from bestselling status to death in obscurity to (years later) a genius of a rediscovered masterpiece that sold a paltry 3,000 copies during his lifetime. Rather than try to create all-time absolutes, it might be more prudent to leave the definition to the moving target of temporal sentiment. The Novelmas can recognize the best thinking on the worst writing of that year without worry or pretense that history must uphold the judgment.
To draw from a recent bestseller list, it is possible (albeit unlikely) that if there were awards this year they might skewer Harper Lee’s agent for turning in the first draft of her client’s master manuscript; or that (much more likely) James Patterson or Danielle Steel could be brought up on charges for writing what they do like they do. Targets further down the popularity list will also be encouraged because ultimately “bad writing” has to be subjective: this is demonstrated in books that do not touch a reader, a slight given by something professionally critiqued and masterful, like the works of David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen (who could win a lifetime Jinkie for his antagonistic mastery), as given by offering significantly more popular than praised, such as the hyper-commercial works of Jodi Picoult or Barbara Taylor Bradford.
As for actual categories, award ceremonies must surely end by proclaiming The Worst Novel, recognizing the most off-putting combination of prose, plotting, characterization and theme. Most of the dishonors leading up this big moment might change from year to year, but a few suggestions to start the conversation include Least Engaging Female (Male) Protagonist; Most One-Dimensional Supporting Character; and Most Ungodly Deus ex Machina Twisted Plot. A place might even be found for some version of lifetime achievement award to a noteworthy such as Dan Brown or Nicholas Sparks, perhaps celebrating a tireless commitment to formula.
Whatever details evolve, the idea is now (hopefully) set in motion. Admittedly, it is launched with concern of shining a catalyzing spotlight on a hot mess and morphing it into a cult classic, as has been done with the 1995 Razzie Worst, Showgirls. Also, it is important that the point—somewhat hypocritically noted as authors are called out above—is not to embarrass or bully writers, just to lowlight the writing itself. All authors have access to the same words, but better writers do a superior job cutting away the ones that don’t work in service to readers. Hopefully, the Novelmas will help all writers hone their blades. So, while the Novelmas may gain Razzie-esque celebrity for calling out the results of errant author-ity, the more serious purpose is to promote better writing by showing, not just telling, what others should avoid.