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Awards, Reviews, And Other Things That Don't Matter
By Scott Nicholson

Let's face it: for a writer, getting a good review is better than getting a bad review, and winning an award is better than losing. Let's get that clear right off the bat. Anybody who has any sense of patriotism, pride, or passion knows this. A pat on the head is better than a boot in the rear.

But, really and truly, winning isn't everything in writing. Because you never win. You always lose to that nasty bugger named Time, who swoops down and sink his claws into you before your life's work is done, no matter how many manuscripts you pile up. So the trick in dealing with awards is the same as the one used to deal with the ticking clock: you keep on keeping on.

The review is a funny animal. In reading reviews of magazine short stories, I find that fully half or more stories are skewered by the critic. So if half the stories getting accepted should not have been published, not everyone is on the same page, meaning the editors who choose the stories, readers who plunk down their nickel, and critics who dissect the work all can't agree on what constitutes a good story.

Certainly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I received a fairly harsh review for the first story I ever sold, and I was a bit stunned at first. Then I realized that the critic didn't know that the story was my first, that I was fully aware of its flaws, but was offered $500 for publication rights and had racked up 105 rejection slips to that point and was desperately in need of a boost. The critic didn't know anything about the story behind the story, and rightfully so, since a good critic is blind to all but the invisible bar that each piece of fiction must leap or else be left on its backside in fallen agony.

So I read the review, my cheeks got warm for three seconds, and then I actually laughed aloud, and the warmth of anger in my chest subsided into a glow of joy. The worst had happened, and the worst had absolutely no affect on my daily writing life. Defeat turned into victory. The criticism was outside of everything that mattered to me, which is the story currently on the screen or meandering through the crippled alleys of my brain. Two days later, I tried to think of the reviewer's name, because I wanted to make sure not to send that person a copy of my forthcoming collection. I couldn't remember the name. The critic's boot-heel left no lasting mark.

Truth be told, I'd like to think that a stellar review would have had the same effect: three seconds of pleasure, then consigned to the dusty shelves of memory. My wife says that I don't revel in my triumphs enough, that I too quickly shed the joy of selling a story. But I'm always too obsessed with the current project or, just as likely, the project shortly down the road. That is where my emotional stability feeds, at least in my "writing life."

The same goes for awards. It's nice to be a Writer of the Future and be eligible for a bunch of money and a sharp spire of lucite. It's a joy to be among the company of a great, upcoming class of writers. But what writer wants to be only a writer of the future? I want to be a writer of the present, and then, when Time takes me, a writer of the past.

There's a formula for winning most awards, because those awards are basically popularity contests. Writers select works by other writers. Peer approval is always A Good Thing, but it can be tempting to spend too much time networking, partnershipping, shamelessly self-promoting, conventioning, and grandstanding to get any work done. Not that good work doesn't win; it almost always does.

The greatest honor to me would be winning one of those few awards that are actually selected by readers. Those are the people that breathe life into work. A moldered trophy and an elegant parchment sealed in a tomb of posterity do nothing to advance a single mind, promote a single idea, or give one person insight into the world or a brief escape from the rigors of life. Publishing checks are wonderful, but they don't amortize the debts of the heart. That's why, in the editor-critic-reader triumvirate, I would rather kiss the feet of the reader.

No critics, judges, or scathing editors need haul me to the dungeons. I can't be broken on the wheel of literary acceptance. I break myself every day, in those grasping moments when I realize how far I have yet to go, how many pages are left unwritten, how many stories that God and the collective unconscious have commissioned me to tell. And then there's the telling. That's the thing that matters.

--Copyright 1999 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission.

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