There’s No Such Thing as A Fair Literary Award

Harry Sykes
Jan 21, 2020 · 4 min read

It’s that time of year again. The speculative fiction community is gearing up to bestow its most coveted awards — the Nebulas and the Hugos. In addition to the two heavyweights, dozens of other lesser-known but equally important literary prizes such as the Philip K. Dick will be drawing up lists for the best speculative fiction works in the preceding year. Most of these awards are just now finishing the process of selecting their shortlists of nominees.

As is inevitable in our post-shame era, like a modern-day winter solstice ceremony, as a dog returneth to its own vomit, as a gerbil eats its own young, as a fly descends upon shit, as the sun rises and the sun sets, the pitiable vanguards of fragile white masculinity have gone forth unto Twitter and Reddit and Facebook to declare the awards bankrupt for their failure to prop up white male writers who obviously deserve the awards more than women, people of color, and other minorities.

Stack of books
Stack of books
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The conclusion that the nominees are inferior writers follows naturally from their gender, skin color, and sexual orientation. No further evidence need be provided. QED. The argument that the dominance of minorities in the shortlists demonstrates a demographic bias that can only be explained by tokenism and pity is an argument that bitter misogynists inexplicably never seem to apply to the years when the prizes were similarly weighted toward white males exclusively, despite the fact that women generally read more than men and write at a similar or higher rate.

However, what I find most amusing about their bitter rantings is the assumption that awards are ever fairly given. Implicit to toxic male worldview is the idea that the world is a meritocracy that (once) fairly evaluated white males to be objectively better. Their battle cry is that awards should be given based on talent while being [sic] blind to identity.

Once you get to a high enough level, there are simply no objective means of discerning between qualified and highly skilled professionals. There are, however, many subjective ways of distinguishing between them.

It’s the Astronaut Problem. There are only 38 astronauts in the entire United States. Yet, in 2017, 18,300 people wanted to be astronauts.

No. That’s not correct. Many more people wanted to be astronauts. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. You probably wanted to be an astronaut also at one point. But you and I weren’t passionate enough to move beyond preliminary ambition. Eighteen thousand three hundred people wanted to be astronauts badly enough to actually apply to astronaut school and commit to their dream.

Yet NASA currently has only 38 astronauts. Are those 38 astronauts categorically and empirically the best out of all 18,300 applicants? Not only are they probably not, but the question is meaningless. Once you start getting that selective, any criteria you choose for your selection process will still leave you with a shitload of qualified people. And since you still only need 38, any choice you make beyond that point is going to be arbitrary.

Let’s put it this way. Even if NASA could weed all the candidates down by 95% using legitimate criteria, they’d still have 915 applicants, and they aren’t going to replace every astronaut in one year. They’re probably only going to take on 2–3 new astronauts, tops, in any given year. Not everyone can go into space.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

So, of the 915 undeniably qualified applicants, they’re still going to end up randomly throwing darts at a board full of faces or picking someone based on criteria that are nowhere near objective. This is the truth behind our idealized image of meritocracy. Once you get to a high enough level, there are simply no objective means of discerning between qualified and highly skilled professionals. There are, however, many subjective ways of distinguishing between them.

So, if they decide that one of those arbitrary criteria is that they’d like for a black kid to see at least one face that looks like them in an astronaut outfit, boo fucking hoo about it being affirmative action or not fair. Absolutely none of those 915 qualified applicants were ever going to be chosen for reasons that were entirely fair. It was always going to come down to knowing someone, the selection board liking you for highly personal reasons or sheer politics.

Literary awards operate in the same manner. There are way too many authors and books cranked out each year for any of them to be the “best novel of the year.” It’s ridiculous to think that any award is ever going to be objective or that there is even an objective standard for deciding that. Awards aren’t about truth. They’re about recognition. For many many years, that recognition went almost exclusively to white men, regardless of how talented their female colleagues were. The modern-day obsession with awards being fair is just a stalking horse used to attack recognition for the achievements of women and minorities.

Age of Awareness

Medium’s largest publication dedicated to education reform

Sign up for Age of Awareness - Rethinking the ways we learn

By Age of Awareness

Sign up to receive updates on our publication and podcast Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Harry Sykes

Written by

I write about things I’m interested in, which include Ancient History, Religion, Books, Movies, and Culture.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Harry Sykes

Written by

I write about things I’m interested in, which include Ancient History, Religion, Books, Movies, and Culture.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store