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Bewildering Stories

Choices and Bests

by David Redd

Interesting article on literary judgement from Bertil Falk, who is always well worth reading, as are your own comments on such matters. Thank you both for sharing your thoughts. I am not a fan of literary awards in general, but do recognise that some celebrate quality, promote useful publicity and discussion, and — particularly in reviews of shortlisted items — have helped make me aware of the existence of some good books. So I’ve come to regard them as a good thing. However, “best” and “of lasting worth” aren’t identical.

“Best” in any art form may be difficult to recognise at the time. In the Oscars, there was no best-of-year award for what many call the best film of all time, Citizen Kane. That’s a critics’ view. Paying audiences now might well vote for Star Wars or its like. Citizen Kane, I think from memory, lost out to How Green Was My Valley, which was a Hollywood take on a Welsh coal-mining culture that no longer exists. People nowadays even in Wales cannot really judge the film’s long-term worth.

In books, critical and commercial judgements were initially unanimous that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were failures. In science fiction, Will F. Jenkins’ short story “A Logic Named Joe” had to wait half a century for its extrapolation of a fully computer-connected society to be appreciated.

Conversely, a classic SF short story such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s once-innovative ”A Martian Odyssey” now seems almost unreadable to someone reared on more accomplished writing. Critical judgements should always include a consideration of context and timing.

Gerald Kersh, I understand, won a 1957 Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for his short story “The Secret of the Bottle.” Perhaps previous good work of his had made him a writer to watch?

I suspect that an occasional “Best of” award may be virtually a consolation prize because of a general feeling that someone had lost out last time. This is my thought about Kingsley Amis and his Booker Prize (UK best novel of the year) for The Old Devils; his previous novel, the remarkably thorough misogynistic rant Stanley and the Women, was not one which politically-correct judges could endorse.

As for your having Choices with no overall “winner”: in the context of your set of writers and readers, I think Bewildering Stories gets it right.

Thanks again.

Best wishes to all at Bewildering Stories,


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Copyright © 2011 by David Redd

Thank you for your kind remarks and perceptive observations, David ! I quite agree with you about the value of public discussion, whether it’s in the context of an on-line forum or a literary prize of some sort. In fact, that is what Bewildering Stories is all about.

Every year, the CBC holds a series of “Canada Reads” discussions. “Short-listed” books are defended, each in turn, by five knowledgeable representatives. In “reality TV” style, one title is voted out of the competition every week.

I don’t think I’ve ever read any of the winners, let alone the runners-up, but I do learn that all the choices are very worthwhile, each for reasons of its own. What fascinates me is less the books than the discussion itself. Hearing the different points of view is radio at its best.

In 1941, How Green Was My Valley did win the Oscar for best picture. Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, among others, were runners-up, and they are remembered today as an artistic triumph and a solid old favourite, respectively.

How Green Was My Valley has not aged well at all. Its social consciousness made it a sentimental choice at the time, but its weak thematic coherence incurs the historical judgment of “nice try.”

I wonder how the future will treat Slumdog Millionaire (best picture, 2008) and Wall-E (best animation, same year). Awards normally go by preference to stories about real people or at least to ones that feature believable characters. In both film and literature, that’s a valid criterion, but it means that animations are at an inherent disadvantage for the overall “best picture” title.

However, I’ll wager that Wall-E is the one that will stand the test of time. It has so many artistic and literary strengths that it amply repays viewers’ seeing it more than twice.


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