Setting A Standard – At What Cost?

Do book awards still set a quality standard, or are they being too driven by sales goals? 
Do movie awards still set a quality standard, or are they being too driven by sales goals?
Do fashion awards still set a quality standard, or are they being too driven by sales goals? 
Do any awards still set a quality standard, or are they being too driven by sales goals?

Have we lost sight of the intentions behind establishing awards that call out the best of something? Why are awards established in the first place? Presumably to enable a system whereby we can somehow recognize a level of excellence and honor something above something else that then can set a higher standard. But,why? Why are we driven to find the best of something--particularly when it comes to an expression of artistry and creativity, such as a book or a movie or a painting or fashion—and why are we so willing to allow someone else, or a group of others, to dictate what’s best to begin with? Can we not determine for ourselves what we feel is best for ourselves as readers, thinkers, viewers?  Of course we can. However, when the success of a business or a corporation or an industry is at stake, then a system of best and not best kicks in with intentions and goals that are not purely quality-driven, but sales-driven. When an industry establishes awards that are meant to set standards of quality of some kind, I think it’s terribly important to study and recognize the intentions behind such awards; to evaluate how intentions behind an award may have shifted over time; and to assess whether an award still serves the purpose it was originally intended to serve.

Some people might argue that without systems in place to call out a best of something, we’re saying not only that everything’s equal but that there’s no need to strive for something better, higher, deeper, richer, more complex, and so on. Perhaps. But I see it in a different way—without calling out a best of something, perhaps we’re allowing ourselves to choose for ourselves what we feel is best—best for ourselves, for our own entertainment, for our own enrichment, for our own purposes. This presumes, however, a system whereby the level of sales of something has absolutely no place in the determination of what’s best. When a corporation or an industry that stands to gain by the designation of “best” on one of their products, that’s when the purity of the methods for how to determine what’s best can become polluted.

I have been of a mind for a long while that  as a society we've become too reliant on awards to set a certain standard--particularly awards for creative artistry. When the intentions behind the awards are purely sales and not quality, awards don't set a standard. Or, I should say, they begin to set a different standard. Is it the wrong standard? Only if the intentions behind the awards are not being honestly expressed. But looking at the vast--and I mean, vast--numbers of new awards that have popped up across many different industries in the last couple of years, there's no question in my mind the establishment of most of these awards is being driven not by any desire to set new standards of excellence or quality, but is being driven primarily, if not solely, by the need for discoverability; ergo, sales.  What better way to tip the scales towards more sales than to slap a gold or silver "AWARD" sticker on something?

In no way do I want to take away from the intentions and purposes of certain awards that are still clearly quality-driven, that are meant to set a standard of excellence for others (inside and outside that particular industry) to hold up as examples of best; that are evaluated and selected by a qualified panel of respected and unbiased experts; and that can't be easily marred by popularity, celebrity, financials, sales, or other factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the content itself. However, this purity of purpose, if you will, is awfully hard to maintain in our current society when every business in every industry is struggling to prove their product is best--and to sell more of it than anyone else. 

This all can certainly lead us to a discussion of artistry and what "success" can, should, and does mean to the artist, as well as a discussion of achievement as a form of stimulation to push us to excel. I will leave these to future posts. 


Nourishing Ourselves with Story Nourishes the World

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." -- James Baldwin

I call this blog "our stories, ourselves" because I hold that we and our stories are really one and the same. My story is your story, and yours is mine. We are intrinsically connected. I've also held for a long while, and most particularly in the last several years as we wend our way through our highly digitized landscape, that the very best way to instill a sense of connectedness and a sense of empathy in children is to give them books to read. By giving children stories to read, we give children safe passage into other peoples' lives, other peoples' minds, other peoples' feelings, and other peoples' experiences. It seems to me once we've done that, we've done something utterly invaluable--we've established some of the necessary and critical groundwork for our children to become engaged, caring, connected inhabitants of the world. 

A Scientific American article from 2010, "What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic" (read it here), talks about the fact that studies have been done that prove empathy levels have been declining over the last thirty years. One theory as to why this might be so is that an increase in social isolation coincides with the drop in empathy. I'm no scientist, but I subscribe to this theory wholeheartedly as I see more and more people moving away from human interaction for the sake of digitized "friendship" and "connection"--and it worries me a great deal in terms of what's happening to us as a society.

So it brings me great relief and joy--not to mention a happy moment of "I knew it!"--to read an article in this week's Pacific Standard, "Your Brain on Story: Why Narratives Win Our Hearts and Minds," (read it here) which discusses scientifically proven direct links between the experience of story and a rise in empathy levels. Just look at this:
"Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate School, found that reading simple, humanistic stories changes what is in our blood streams. Taking blood samples of subjects before and after reading a story about a father and his terminally ill son, Zak found their blood levels contained an increase in cortisol and also oxytocin after reading the story.  Called the human bonding or empathy chemical, oxytocin is also released by breastfeeding mothers."
I've said it before and I'll say it again: We writers, poets, storytellers, illustrators, and artists of any kind have not only the vision to create and share the stories needed to nourish our children and, by extension, our society, but we have the absolute obligation to do so. If we don't, who else will? We have no time to lose.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC