Awards: What Are They Good For?

This morning on Twitter, during a chat prompted by this Ursula Le Guin critique of awards, I said:

Tom Pollock

@tomhpollockTom Pollock
.@pornokitsch @ClarkeAward@thefingersofgod FWIW My view is that awards are useful as the start of a conversation, not the end of one.
Which I take to be true, as far as it goes, but I think it might be useful to unpack it a bit.
There are two related claims here, one which is fairly uncontroversial and one which might raise more eyebrows.
The first claim is just this: When you hand out a literary award that has sufficient cultural traction that anyone gives a crap, people will talk. Some people will agree with your choice of winner, many won’t, some may well call you a jackass but during the ensuing argument, most of them will give at least some reason why. This leads to discussion of the merits and qualities of books (or any other kind of art) which I take to be a good thing, for at least 5 reasons:
1) It’s fun.
2) It leads us to articulate the reasons we love a certain story, which can lead us to a better understanding of the things we value in stories in general.
3) In some circumstances it can lead to examination of the politics of a genre or literary establishment (as with the question of the number of women on the Clarke shortlist)
4) Through hearing other people advocate for books we haven’t read we can find new books to love.
5) It’s fun.
However, all of the above are merits of conversation about books. The value of the award is as a tinderbox to spark that conversation. The question remains, are awards good at this? Or would we better off finding some other way to stimulate debate?
My intuition is that awards are very good at sparking debate
They are good at it, and this is the second, more controversial claim, because they are, fundamentally absurd.
Books aren’t compiled to any universal design aspiration, there aren’t any objective criteria to judge stories by (that’s why some awards, like the Kitschies, specify their own), and yet we persist in saying that The City and The City, say or Midnight’s Children, or heaven help us The Finkler Question is the best book of the year in this or that category.
These claims are so porous, arguable, and so valiantly hubristic, that readers up and down the land put aside their macaroni, WIP, husband, or whatever it was they happened to be doing and leap into the saddle of their social media accounts crying:
Finkler? Rubbish! What about… and by the way, not to harp on about this, why are all the shortlistees white 40 year old men from Hampstead (again)?”
I’m not at all sure that Le Guin’s proposed cornucopia of more narrowly conceived awards would garner the same level of involvement from the community. You might as well say that dormice are the pinnacle of the animal kingdom as claim that so-and-so is the best book of all time, and yet that’s exactly what the beeb did with LOTR, and for about a month everyone had an opinion. The more ludicrously sweeping the claim made by an award, the more people it will sweep into the row about how and why it’s wrong. Which, as I’ve tried to show, is a good thing.
P.S. The infinitely witty and wonderful Adam Roberts has a post on awards that’s much more insightful than this one:

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