– by Josh Schlossberg
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “social proof” in the writing world. Especially after my novella MALINAE won Horror Authors Guild “Novella of the Year,” and the anthology I edited for Denver Horror Collective, THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR, just qualified for the Bram Stoker Awards preliminary ballot.
For those who don’t know the term, social proof is when someone gains acceptability after getting the nod from an established person or entity. Like, when you invite a friend of a friend to your party, no questions asked. Because if your friend—someone you know and trust—vouches for this person, chances are they won’t steal your stuff or puke on the floor.
Indeed, social proof is a safe and less time-consuming way of figuring out who to let into your sphere than sussing out a bunch of strangers on your own.
The writing world, including that of horror fiction, makes heavy use of social proof, either through past publication, reviews, word of mouth, or the gold standard, awards. Indeed, many people’s reading lists consist entirely of award winners and nominees.
And there are certainly worse ways to find your next read, as it’s rare that an award-nominated book has terrible writing, an unengaging plot, or idiotic characters. Indeed, some of my favorite books have been up for or won awards.
As have a few of the ones I’ve written. I’m not saying this to brag (believe me, I’ve lost far more awards than I’ve won), but to demonstrate that what I’m about to say isn’t coming from a place of sour grapes.
Because here’s the thing. I used to read a lot of the books I’ve been told are “the best of the best.” But over the years, I’ve found that, with a few exceptions, most of those books don’t really get my juices flowing that much. It’s not that I’ve ever hated them, it’s just that I’ve rarely loved them.
Not only haven’t many of my favorite reads from my favorite authors won awards, they haven’t even come close. Why? Because art is subjective. The idea of a “best book” is something I take as seriously as a “best color.”
Which is why, for my reading tastes, I tend not to pay much attention to those lists. Though I’ll be the first to admit how much of a pain in the ass it is to comb through all the uncurated new releases, read the blurbs, and then decide for myself if I want to give a book a try. Then again, I discovered my favorite living horror author on the shelf of a used bookstore.
The point of this piece isn’t to shit on awards. I understand their purpose, appreciate the hard work of those who vote in or judge the contests, and am grateful for any I’m considered for, past, present, and future.
But, to speak as an award-winner (but primarily loser) to the authors out there who have yet to be recognized: Never, ever, ever let awards determine the value of your work. If you, yourself, think it’s great, it probably is. And if you figure it could use some work, it most likely could. As I see it, your job as an author is to, first, create art that resonates with you. Second, to connect with readers who appreciate what you have to offer. The last thing you should be trying to do is appeal to everyone.
Think of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” Pretty much every rock fan will agree it’s a pretty solid song. The iconic three-chord anthem to getting it on clocks in at three and a half minutes and sports unforgettable lyrics like, “She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean, she was the best damn woman that I ever seen.” Which is why, if you walk into your local dive bar right now, it’s definitely playing. A really good song that just so happens not to be among my favorites.
Another song that came out around that time is “Stargazer” by Rainbow. This eight-and-a-half minute hard rock ballad about a wizard from outer space features a two minute Arabian electric guitar solo, and bizarre turns of phrase like, “We build a tower of stone with our flesh and bone.” Personally, I think it’s one of the best songs ever, yet I have never once heard it on the radio. Not once.
Again, to be crystal clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with “You Shook Me All Night Long.” It’s a damn fine song, and I’d probably appreciate it more if it wasn’t played forty-six times a day on every classic rock station in the country.
But the question authors might want to ask themselves is, What kind of writer are you? A “You Shook Me All Night Long” or a “Stargazer”?