Growing up, I had more than my share of prizes. Book awards for school work, ribbons and medals for running and other sports, scholarships – they all came my way not once but many times, and having developed a bit of an inferiority complex due to an early speech impediment, as a boy I was more than glad to accept them. Yet by the time I graduated from high school, I had developed a dislike of prizes, and resolved to think twice about accepting any. It’s a dislike that has only grown over the years.
Part of the reason I object to prizes is that they can become a motivation in themselves. As an inwardly-directed person, I am convinced that a person ought to do things because they are right, or contain their own sources of satisfaction.
By contrast, if you do something to win a prize, then you are abandoning your responsibility to judge your actions. If winning is your motivation, then you can easily end up doing anything that is necessary, regardless of the ethics or morality of the situation. You end up acting to please those who are giving out the prize, abandoning your personal integrity for something much less important.
Another reason is that, while most prizes are supposed to be based on merit, very few of them are. I first realized this fact in Grade Three, when I did not win the book prize for my class – not because I didn’t deserve it, the teacher explained to my mother, but because I had won in the previous two years and I would be a good sport about giving someone else a chance.
The teacher was right. Even back then I had too many ideas about being a good sport to let my jealousy show. But I did think that such rationalizations made the whole idea of competition meaningless, and I never thought quite so fondly of that teacher as I had before.
Having seen a prize devalued so obviously once, I had no problems noticing when the same thing happened again and again. For instance, I remember my bemusement when writers started lobbying their fellow members of the Science Fiction Writers of America for the Nebula Award, a prize given for excellence in writing. Similarly, a few years ago, I saw the most promising student in an art program was passed over because the teachers disliked them.
If the rules are broken, I keep thinking in such circumstances, then the prize itself is devalued. And what makes the situation worse is that the rules inevitably are broken. A prize may start out being for excellence, and stay that way for a year or two, but, sooner or later, decisions are made on the basis of who is the most popular, or the most well-known. Or maybe the recipient is chosen to make a political point, or to avoid giving the prize to someone else. No matter what the reason, once an award is given for any reason other than merit, it ceases to have worth.
Still another reason for my attitude is the fact that, for parts of life that really matter, the idea of competition is meaningless. I first understood this simple fact. when my correspondent Avram Davidson, the great American fantasist, won the World Fantasy Award for LifeTime Achievement, and I wrote to him, “I understand that congratulations are in order.”
In his next letter, Avram shot back, typing in his usual haphazard way, “Congratulations are NOT in order. I told them that if nominated I would not stand, and if elected I would not serve. I would have thought I made my position pretty clear, typos and all.”
The next time we met, Avram explained that, having achieved a certain literary reputation, he felt that competition was meaningless. He could not hope to write a Fritz Leiber story, or a Theodore Sturgeon story, and neither of them could ever hope to write an Avram Davidson story. True, a particular editor might have to choose between one of them for reasons of budget or available space, but such decisions had little to do with the quality of whatever works happened to be involved.
It was undignified, Avram concluded, for writers who had reached the height of their craft to go grubbing for marks of recognition. So he did not attend the ceremony, and, when the convention team wanted to send him the bust of H. P. Lovecraft (a writer he despised) that went with the award, he grew strangely forgetful about his mailing address. Eventually, the bust did arrive in his mailbox, but he buried it somewhere inconvenient among the books and papers that made up his apartment.
Listening to Avram was enough to silence any lingering doubts. The logic was irrefutable, and the position more classy than I can easily explain. Aspiring to be, if not a peer, then at least an accepted colleague of people like Avram, how could I take any weaker a position? Besides, I was already favoring a similar outlook, so the adjustment wasn’t exactly difficult.
I now believe that the only legitimate reason for a prize is to help someone who needs and deserves the help – preferably by giving them money, but, at the very least by giving their reputation a boost. But to position myself to win a prize, or to accept one would make me despicable to myself, and I would rather be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning that court a brief popularity with other people.
I know – nobody’s offering me one. But ask me if I care. I would rather have the satisfaction of knowing I did the best job I could in the circumstances than win the most grandiose prize imaginable, regardless of whether anyone ever knows what I have done or not.