August 23, 2006KR Blog

The Problem With the Quills

Nominees for the Quills awards have been announced. Sort of like a People’s Choice Awards for books, the idea is that the public at large can vote for whatever book they feel ought to win in categories divided up largely by genre. Apparently publishers are complaining that the awards generated little interest among folks at large and, unlike the Booker, has no effect on sales. Perhaps this is because the awards are still new and haven’t gotten up any steam yet. Or perhaps it’s because the creaters of the Quills have misjudged their target audience; that is to say, your target audience can’t be everyone.

As we’re reminded again and again in the press, the number of readers is shrinking, and the number of “serious” readers (whatever a serious reader may be) is even smaller. Although I think the notion behind the Quills is noble–allowing regular folks rather than critics to participate in awarding authors–I think it may be misguided. There are a few reasons for this.

First of all, the public already votes to reward authors. They just happen to use their wallets rather than ballots. In this sense, Stephen King and John Grogan, among others, have already won. This is why the Booker attracts intense interest–because it’s a way of introducing books that got great reviews but not a lot of attention to the reading public. The books the Quills have nominated are mostly books everyone is already familiar with. Yawn.

Second, the Quills alienate serious readers–be they serious readers of literature-with-a-capital-l, romance, sci-fi or something else–by being too broad and making strange decisions with regards to their categories. Only in the Quills could Marley and Me go up against The Year of Magical Thinking and a biography of Harper Lee. Why? Well, memoirs, autobiography and biography are the same thing, right? Sure–never mind that biography requires considerably more research and attention. Just like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror are all the same thing. Don’t worry, though–cooking merits its own category (which is where Julia Child’s memoir is placed, weirdly). So do audiobooks–why, I don’t know. As far as I’m aware, audiobooks are different from regular books only insofar as someone is reading them aloud. And while I understand perhaps awarding the reader of an audiobook if it’s masterfully done, awarding the author makes zero sense to me.

Which brings me to the third and largest problem. No one, it seems, has thought the Quills through–what its goal, aside from engaging the public, might be. And while engaging the public in reading is an admirable goal, wtihout some other angle, it’s mighty hard to achieve. And “the public” is a mighty large and mighty general group–and with special interest groups alienated by the randomness of the categories, it’s no wonder it’s hard to capture anyone’s attention.

What I would do, were I in charge of the Quills, would be the following:

1. Organize the categories so that they make sense, splitting up categories like “memoir/biography,” “sci-fi/fantasy/horror,” and “history/current events/politics.” I would then ditch categories like “audiobook,” and “health/self-improvement” and any other category that didn’t have a built-in, somewhat obsessive audience.

2. Select the books by something other than committee. Or perhaps by a smaller committee. A much smaller committee. “6,000 invited booksellers and librarians” are far too many, and probably contribute to the nomation lists’ schizophrenia. If I had a committee, I’d make sure they all had to sit at a table together and defend their choices–and keep them all stuck together until they were sick of each other enough to come to a decision.

3. Shorten the overwhelming list of nominees for Book of the Year–it’s almost impossible to vote for because there are too many choices, and I’m not sure what the criteria are. Do I vote for the book I liked best? Do I vote for the book that surprised me most? Do I vote for the book with the most literary merit? Do I vote for the book I think future generations ought to read? As it stands now, I have no idea.

4. Because the literary world loves controversy, I would make sure to snub some very important author in at least one category (probably the much-shortened Book of the Year), thus guaranteeing publicity.

The most important thing I would keep in mind, however, is that there are narrow pockets of intense interest when it comes to reading. I would do as much as I could to engage those narrow pockets in each category and hope for the best. To adapt Lincoln’s aphorism, you can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Perhaps the Quills would draw a larger audience if the people in charge kept that in mind.