One of the Throng
by Joan Cannon
Having recently been the recipient of one of those doubtful and suspect awards offered by largely unknown publishers or 'literary' organizations, I've begun to think about the implications of such an honor.
If someone wins one of the top places in a contest that's well known with recognized authorities or critics as judges, there's reason for a moment of pride and some gratification.
The contest I entered (which required an entry fee) turned up in an Internet search. I checked it out in the usual places looking for evidence of fraud and finally submitted my book for consideration. I forgot about it completely until I received a notification about taking a third place.
Every other winner on the list was published by a vanity press or self-published. I wondered whether I should even have bothered, and whether there could be any possible use I could make of this. I thought I should notify my own publisher, a small independent whom I didn't pay to print the book. Her response was, "Now you can say you're an award-winning author." I realized how much more I valued an honorable mention received from Writer's Digest.
How did we get to this state of affairs regarding awards? Every month there is a series of special award programs on television. The entertainment industry is so busy handing out awards to its members that even dedicated viewers are failing to tune in. Witness the recent Emmy night set aside for a reality show category.
Nowadays, if a tot just attends kindergarten, he or she arrives home daily with a gold star, or its equivalent. If there's been a really signal advancement, how can the child or its parents know? There is soon nothing special about the star.
There are prizes of one sort or another offered for just showing up — at races, contests and social events. It seems as if society is devaluing achievement in favor of effort and, too often, for minor exertions.
It isn't fun to be a contestant if you can't win something, I guess, but competition needs to exist as an inducement to try to excel. If no one loses, if no one fails, where's the glory or fulfillment for the one who actually is best or first? Few are ever able to achieve the top, after all — anywhere.
When I realized that cum laude would be all I would be capable of, I had to consider whether I hadn't really tried hard enough. No matter how many $10 or $20 entrance fees I was willing to pony up, I wasn't about to win the $1000 prize and publication.
And still, having worked and reworked, written and revised until I have trouble remembering how I originally started, I keep plodding along, all the while worrying about how dangerous our collective acceptance of ever-lower standards really is. Even as I wonder on what basis the winner has prevailed and what attracted the judges to a style for which I am unable to perceive outstanding merit, I keep sticking my metaphorical neck out.
How did I get to this from a discussion of meaningless awards? Because I fear those treats offered for undemanding performance are symptomatic of the psychology that dictates that everyone is a person of value (all well and good) and that self-respect is a necessary part of happiness (also true enough).
With respect to the differences among individuals with regard to physical gifts, artistic talents and mental endowments there are always some who will stand out, a few that will be unable to find a place even as high as the median, and a large majority that constitute what is ordinary.
I think we need to remind ourselves of the reality that we are "created equal" before the law, but not inherently, and we must learn to accept that. The famous Edison quotation that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration tells it like it is. That means there's hope, hope for the unexpected excellence that we will all benefit from.
Just don't let's pretend there's merit where it doesn't really exist, and devalue the really fine by pretending that less than the best is better than it really is. Give prizes that mean something to those who deserve the recognition, but don't pretend that the undeserving need to be given some kind of compensation for just being part of the throng.
.Joan L. Cannon likes to use her middle initial because so few of her maiden namesakes are left anywhere (Huguenot LaPrades). She's a retired teacher, retail manager, and part-time handy-person for the selectmen of her Connecticut town, library trustee, and aspiring writer.