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Sociality, “Struggle” and Pleasure in the Discussion of Award Controversies

“There is an economy of cultural goods, but it has a specific logic.” – Pierre Bourdieu

Last week I wrote about the recent controversy stirred up by Christopher Priest’s critique of the Clarke Awards. Using ideas modified from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu I examined some of the responses to that critique and discussed them as a form of “struggle,” a contentious dialogue over the generation and reproduction of prestige and symbolic capital within the field. I knew when I made that argument that it was reductive of both the implied intentions of the participants as expressed in their discourse and of the interpretation of the controversy, and several commenters noted that John Scalzi and other respondents might not be saying exactly what I asserted. To an extent, I agree; there is more to these discussions than I was able to elucidate. I do think, however, that these responses have ritualized elements that reinforce or take for granted certain ideas about awards like the Clarke, mixed in with other expressions, including pleasurable ones. Sociality, “struggle,” and pleasure are all present in these discussions, and if we want to understand the gradations of struggle, contention, etc., within the field, all of these need to be addressed.

Unfortunately, most social and cultural theories cannot easily perform such a multivalent task. Social theory is difficult to apply to the practice and power of literature, in part because so much of what literature does takes place inside our heads, whether we are reading, writing, editing, or thinking about it. Social theory also tends to be functional and/or deconstructive in its invocations about what we are doing with literature, and with art in general; it seeks to reframe or reinterpret social action and cultural practice and thus alter our understanding of how our lives work. Its application is also tricky because, as humans, we’re all social theorists (as well as cultural theorists and political strategists, but those are considerations for another time); we all spend our days figuring out frameworks and field parameters, assessing relationships, ascribing meanings to actions, critiquing ours and others’ practices, weighing outcomes and agendas.

As a few commenters on last week’s column noted, Scalzi’s response is not an explicit defense of the awards, and I agree. There is a mixture of witty repartee, critique, and reproduction in his post, which makes the overt point that individual tastes and agendas are often at the core of one’s response to awards like the Clarke. What I found interesting, and what seems to crop up often in such responses, is that there are ritualized discursive strategies in them. They are not codified ritual actions in the classic sense; they are not the vows spoken at a marriage ceremony or a Freemason initiation.  They are reactive responses that often invoke stereotyped elements and maintain, or at least do not question, the prestige and meaning of the award. The ritual and the social power of the awards is taken-for-granted and critiques of the awards (in most but not all cases) are engaged in ways that implicitly insulate the awards as rituals (and some of their effects) from being altered by criticism.

But this is not all that happens in discussions about awards. One of the problems with Bourdieu’s idea of struggle within the field, as complex and dense as it is, is that it has remarkably little subtlety. Struggles are generally tactics employed to create or reify dominance in one’s social position and the prestige and other values of the productions one invests in. The economic language he employs also frames the theory in a transactional mode. Employing terms like “capital” and “goods” emphasizes the traffic in types of value and an embedded functionality. But awards are used in discourse for other purposes too.

Awards are generators of sociality, both laterally and hierarchically. Awards draw participants of a field into discussion, and frequently draw outsiders’ attention to the field  as well; they become a focus of social discourse. In the SF Signal Mind Meld on awards, the social aspects of the awards came strongly to the fore. As Heather Massey put it “You can’t beat the value of generating a conversation about books. Awards are one creative way to get readers talking about them.” Most of the respondents brought up this aspect of awards: how they focus attention to certain books and on the field itself. And awards can draw attention, and social interest, to people and works. But the way that they are selected shapes the spotlight profoundly.

Most awards in fantastika are decided in multiple rounds with exclusive rules for selection and voting rights that determine finalists and winners.  A given award’s selection process bestows a measure of authority and authenticity on it based on the social connections and prestige of the selectors, either through a jury’s expert opinion or the sheer numbers of a mass vote taken from a particular group, from members of a professional organizations like SFWA (Nebula), paying members of Worldcon (Hugo), or readers of Locus magazine (Locus awards). Those hierarchies concentrate social capital through the awards process to bestow on the winners (generally as prestige, but sometimes with material rewards too), and to a lesser extent on the nominees.  Awards recipients are seen as reflections of the field’s artistic and professional accomplishments of the year and the people and works that are granted the awards become part of the historical narrative of the field (Jo Walton raised this point in the Mind Meld, about “historical memory”). But it is a very specific, and increasingly shortened, memory. As more stories are written, more venues appear, and the field of production itself grows and changes, so to should the awards. And yet, most of them conform to the same traditional rituals of selection and presentation as when they were created.

Those shifts in the field include changing readership, higher visibility of some subgenres, and increased availability of stories. And possibly shifts in the types and intensity of pleasure that readers get from fantastic fiction. One of the elements of literature that Bourdieu did not engage with deeply was the issue of pleasure. For Bourdieu, pleasure was a tactic; the bourgeoisie, for example, tended to favor a “pure” form of aesthetic pleasure that erased the sensual effects of pleasure. Several interpreters of his work have pointed out how under-developed his notion of pleasure was in his theory, and that shows in both the economic language he used and in the ideas of struggle and dominance that structure his social theory. To really get at the power of literature, and how the field is shaped and reproduced by “struggle” we also have to look at the creation and effects of pleasure.

When Christopher Priest launched his polemic, he was focused on literary aspects other than the generation of pleasure. John Scalzi’s response was based on the assumption that reactions to awards are based mostly on individual taste, and thus on standards of pleasure. We often think of pleasure as a highly individual experience, but in doing so we often miss two facts: that pleasure is socially conditioned, and that our notions of pleasure are often tightly defined. Pleasure is a subjective occurrence, one that can be intensive and ambivalent, perhaps at the same time.  This makes it difficult to codify and theorize, which I think is why Bourdieu tended to sideline it or try to integrate it into a more functional formulation, another sort of currency in the contentions of the artistic field. But, as I think my discussion the last few weeks has shown (rather unintentionally), if we don’t consider the multiple angles of perception and experience that we each use in engaging literature, we can lose both the richness of our subject and some explanatory power. I still think that Bourdieu’s ideas have utility for thinking about how literature works as a social phenomenon and how the field functions as a social web of relationships, creative endeavors, and contestations. In the tangle of sociality, contention, and pleasure within that field we do strive to gain prestige, social capitol, and cultural knowledge. The trick is to not reduce it all to one process or a single goal.

This means, to me, that awards are more charged and problematic as elements of the field. Like Heather Massey, I think it would be more enjoyable and useful (and, personally, healthier for the field) to recognize a wider array of books. When I go into a bookstore, I make a beeline for the SF/Fantasy section. Often I find at the head of one of the shelving units a listing of one or more of the awards given out in the field. The list is of one work per year (always novels, never stories). When I started working at the bookstore I manage now, I noticed that there was a listing of the Nebula awards in a frame. I asked the owner if I could change that to the shortlist, and maybe have more than one award up, but his reply was “That’s all people want to know: who won.” This is not how some (or perhaps many) people feel within the field, but this is one way that awards constrain, rather than represent, the field of fantastika. To better represent and reflect the pleasures of the literature as well as the significance of some works, we need to be less dismissive and more contemplative about controversies, about how and why they emerge, and how we respond to them and what they are trying to tell us.

4 Comments on Sociality, “Struggle” and Pleasure in the Discussion of Award Controversies

  1. Awards are indeed a charged element of the field. And just who and what an award is for is not always clear.

    Maybe its good that awards are such muddy messes that draw discussion, because they help generate interest in the field.

    Personally, I like to know the nominees as well as the winners. I’ve discovered a sheaf of writers from non-winning Nebula nominees.

    • That’s a good observation about awards: they are often put forth as representative of “the field” or some sort of standard, but there is a lack of clarity about who they are for (besides the recipients, obviously). That murkiness makes them adaptable to a number of purposes, I think, from formal prestige and historical inclusion to community coherence and stratification. They can create interest in the literature, but from what I’ve seen so far they serve the participants in the field much more than they draw new people into it.

      I’d love to see an award that has a shortlist of a dozen and narrows that to five or six finalists who share the top honor equally.

  2. I don’t follow the step from individual taste to pleasure. It is perfectly possible to recognize the brilliance of a book, while not liking it. Or having a book that is absolutely enjoyable, but not suited to the award under consideration.

    Personal taste, in what is important, what aspects and aims of an award, what qualities are important in a book, are so much more complicated than ‘pleasure’. Of course no-one seems to be able to agree what any specific award is actually for, but that is the joy of the discussions.

    But I agree that shortlists or honor lists as the Tiptree award so conveniently names them, are more important than simply the winners.

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