“Grade Inflation”—the Widespread Awards and Exalting of Effort—are Ruining Writing and Writers


I am hereby and for an undetermined length of time giving low credence to most book reviews, awards, contests and other honors conferred upon books/authors.

Why? I know some of the awardees’ writing. Many are undeserving of any accolades.

“Grade Inflation”—the widespread awards and the exalting of effort—are ruining writing and writers.

inflated A
image from http://www.wrkcapital.com

Why does anyone reward mediocrity and worse? How many “open mikes” have you attended in which EVERYONE, no matter how badly they perform or how horribly they read aloud or recite poetry, gets wild applause or even a standing ovation? Does the audience believe that everyone deserves the same response regardless of the quality of their presentation?

I do not.

How does it help any author/artist grow when no one is honest with them about the areas they need to improve and all they hear are overly exuberant praises? Neither are we helping authors or keeping faith with readers when so many provide undeserved 5-star “reviews” for shoddy writing. We are helping our writers and performers when we honestly and with specificity critique their work.

We are not doing our children any favors to give everyone who participates a “winner” ribbon, unless everyone understands that showing up and participation are what get awarded. However, I contend that, for professionals, the industry should not be labeling greatness on effort alone.

Grading on effort makes greatness lose all significance and confuses us all. When everyone “wins,” no one does. For evaluations and competitions to matter, the creation being evaluated of any top-ranking writer or other artist must be excellent by objective standards to have earned that award.

When all are given “A”s, or 5 Stars, or First Place, the rankings become meaningless. Participants can’t begin to discern their actual place among their peers or the value of their work in the world when reviewers and judges do not provide accurate, meaningful, thoughtful critiques and feedback, in the form of awards to the deserving.

participation trophy
image from http://cutemonster.com

At the end of a sports event, such as a foot race or team game, the winners and losers are indisputable. Those that swim are racing each other and the clock, which are immutably obvious regarding who swam the fastest for that race and for all recorded events of that type.

Art assessments should not merely be based on the creator’s intention or your affection for the creator.

Exceptions: if the artist is a child or disabled in some way, then that participation alone is sufficient to earn an award. Obstacles that participant has already overcome just to be involved in that competition or performance do deserve to be honored. THOSE types of contests, in which “everyone wins,” I wholeheartedly honor, e.g., the Special Olympics.

BTW: I strongly believe in and promote cooperative games, the postponement of competition, and an “everybody wins” concept for most activities for children and youth. I wish more youth sports and other harshly competitive games would be permanently removed from options so that everyone could play, learn and grow without that pressure.

This post is not to remove those cooperative and noncompetitive games or friendly, networking-type of awards passed around for fun and support. We all need encouragement.

However, when the competition is on a supposedly “level playing field” (more or less: let’s not get into gender, socio-economic class, age, racial and ethnic biases that unfairly prejudice judging and preclude fairness; that’s another subject), I strenuously object to fairly set competitors’ receiving awards, praises, great reviews or any other merit when the subject of the assessment is insufficiently unscrutinized.

I know some awards are merely a matter of “taste” or “current trends,” and that what anyone “likes” is always subjective.

Fine. Let those competitions be labeled clearly as having someone’s personal preferences, not accepted standards of excellence, as the main criteria for winning.

I’m talking about competitions that adults, professionals, and mostly, writers enter that supposedly have criteria that winners have to meet or exceed, in which the “best” is supposed to be honored the most. I wish that all of these competitions would be judged by obvious and agreed-upon standards of excellence and not determine winners based on effort, affection or popularity, or worse, payment of entry fees.

Also, I’m not talking about what people “like.” I’m asking for awards based on what is excellent, as objectively measured as possible.

Maybe it’s easier to talk about what is NOT excellent. I believe these components, below, are not purely subjective measures and therefore can be evaluated fairly and “blindly.”

FYI: For professional writers, grammar matters. Spelling counts. Syntax is significant. Context is not everything.

grammar shit
image from http://the-modern-housewife.blogspot.com

Here are my “what not to award” components for all types of fiction, whatever length.

[NOTE: I do not believe these need any explanations, but comment here or wherever you see this or email me if you are not sure what I mean, below.]

  • Poorly plotted stories
  • Superficially drawn or insufficiently motivated characters
  • Illogical, incomplete or inconsistent world-building
  • Triteness in storyline, characterization or setting
  • Not credible settings and/or situations
  • Poorly edited, insufficiently copyedited, badly spelled and/or incorrectly written sentences, paragraphs, entire works
  • Repetitious language, situations, characters and plots across one or more works by the same author
  • Sexism, racism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism and other oppressive biases as expressed through one’s characters and plots/situations

The next time I hear a writer “won” an award, I hope s/he deserved it. I really do.

In case you need a reminder of what quality is and how deserving some authors are…

Ursula--Le-Guin-and-Neil--010
Ursula K. Le Guin and Neil Gaiman at the National Book Awards, 2014, in New York.
image from http://www.theguardian.com Photograph: Robin Marchant/Getty

P.S. I find Gaiman unreadable (personal preference) and adore Le Guin, but I recognize the similar greatness in their writing.

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