The Measure of Excellence
Over at Luna Park, David Backer wrote an open letter to the the online literary community where he says:
I had an idea recently that I want to ask you about. What do you think of having a quantitative award for literature on the Internet? The award would be given to particular stories/poems/pieces that get the most page-views.
The prize could have a website too that would rank stories in real time to see what people are reading. It would be a breathing comparative analytic constantly updating publicly like the schedule board in a train station.
It’s popular to say literary awards don’t matter. It’s the writing that matters and the pleasure or satisfaction we derive from writing that matters. If we’re nominated for an award, we say it is just an honor to be nominated. When we lose, we say it was just an honor to be nominated. If we’re not nominated we say awards don’t matter, we don’t care, it’s the writing that matters, we’re happy for those writers who were nominated.
Excellence in literature is highly subjective. There are people who genuinely believe Tom Clancy’s writing is excellent while others look to the writing of Jonathan Franzen or Joan Didion or [insert the writer you believe is excellent here] for excellence. Whenever literary awards are granted, the announcements generate a great deal of conversation with lots of neck snapping, speculation, criticism, derision, sometimes agreement and of course, then we create our own lists of winners, the writers we believe are most worthy. When The New Yorker released their 20 writers under 40 list, for example, there was vigorous discussion in many quarters. There were new lists of writers over 40, or under 1, or under 40 or overrated or underrated. We all want to measure excellence, both in ourselves and in others.
Since 2004, StorySouth has sponsored the Million Writers Award. Editors and readers nominate their favorite writers. and then a panel of readers creates a long list and then a short list and then the top 10 are voted on by the general public. There’s a decent monetary prize associated with the award and great online writing over 1,000 words long gets recognized. Of all the online literary contests, the Million Writers Award is a nice blend of democracy and vetting. (Full disclosure: I’ve received nominations for this award and was on the short list last year.*)
The Best of the Web anthology, published annually by Dzanc Books, also tries to identify excellent writing online. Editors can nominate up to three works from their magazines and then the process gets a bit murky but each year the anthology highlights excellent writing. Fancy print journals may have Best American Short Stories, but for those of us who publish online, we have Best of the Web. Call. Response.
There are other awards for recognizing excellent literature online–the Micro Award, Sundress’s Best of the Net, and of course online magazines can nominate writers for the Pushcart Prize though that often seems like a futile gesture. There’s even a t-shirt. We do all of this so we can establish our legitimacy, so we can say that our writing, rendered in pixels, is as good, as worthy, as the writing rendered in ink.
Technical communication is a relatively new field in the academy and a great deal of the scholarly work in technical communication over the past twenty years has been defensive in tone, with technical communication scholars trying to assert the legitimacy of the field within the Humanities, English, and Composition Studies. Entire anthologies like Power & Legitimacy Volumes I and II, are devoted to the topic. Writers who publish online assume that same defensive posture where we try to say that we can be excellent, that our writing can matter even though online literature is a relatively new field one that is, perhaps, impermanent. As such, I understand David Backer’s inclination to suggest that a quantitative award for online literature is a good idea. The measure of excellence is highly subjective. Perhaps using quantitative measures, counting how often a story is read, is a more effective way of being able to say, definitively that one story, above all others, is the best.
At the same time, it is very easy to game such a system. Page views don’t mean a story is being read. A page view is simply a request to load a given web page. It doesn’t convey whether or not someone has read the content on that page or what they thought about what they read. A quantitative approach based on page views would quickly become a matter of the survival of the electronic fittest–he or she with the most friends willing to click and refresh and spread the word wins. Would that be an accurate measure of excellence? Would that be as Backer suggests, an “online alternative to to the Pushcart”? Is popularity a measure of excellence?
*I was robbed! The best writer won! It was an honor just to be nominated!