23 January 2007

Time for Some Serious Awards

Here's the American Library Association's complete list of winners of its 2007 Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, Sibert, King, etc. awards, announced yesterday.

Yesterday I posted about the Newbery shortlist's Seriousness, but I don't actually disagree with the judges' choices. All the winning and honored books of this year that I've read are indeed excellent (with one exception, and that doesn't reflect on the area of the honor). I suspect the list above offers a good guide to fine children's literature of 2006.

But it also offers more evidence of this rule in life:

Big Awards Make People Very Serious.
Readers and critics who love humor, parody, alternate worlds, and reading simply for pleasure become much more Serious when it comes time to give the biggest and most prestigious awards in their fields.

For the Newbery Medal for children's literature, that means contemporary and historical fiction about Overcoming Hardships, societal or familial, almost always prevail over humor, adventure, and fantasy or science fiction. Stories that bring us into Other Cultures also have an edge, as long as those cultures are real. Of course, there are exceptions, like 2004's Tale of Desperaux, but the pattern holds up generally over several decades of winners. It's just the way our culture tends to think.

This isn't confined to the Newberys, of course. It's probably even more pronounced in the awards for other artistic fields, such as the Oscars (nominations announced today). How many people still think that The English Patient was a better movie in 1996 than Fargo or Jerry Maguire, two other nominees that year? Heck, for effective filmmaking it's hard to top that year's box-office champ, Independence Day; any movie that can make you accept alien invaders and Bill Pullman as President has succeeded in suspending your disbelief.

But The English Patient was Serious historical fiction, based on a literary novel and performed by British and French actors. How much more classy can ya get? The others movies I mentioned were--how shall I say this?--enjoyable. It took an three-year worldwide box-office rampage for the fantasy saga The Lord of the Rings to win a Best Picture Oscar--and then only when it was clear the quality wouldn't sag.

The same attitudes also affect acting awards. The best acting performance(s) of 1996 came from Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, and he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar then. He was a comic actor in a broadly comic movie, but what made that story work was the humanity Murphy gave to its central character, Sherman, even through all the makeup.

This year Murphy appears to have a good shot to win a Best Supporting Actor award because he's given a Serious performance in Dreamgirls. As with Red Buttons and Robin Williams, Academy voters might honor a respected comic in the supporting category rather than as a lead.


fusenumber8 said...

True 'nuff. Comedy is sometimes seen as far less of a serious endeavor, a fact that I like to point out whenever awards come around. But you can't deny that the Newbery winners all contained varying degrees of humor in them. The winner isn't laugh-out-loud slap-your-sides funny, but it definitely has its moments. Ditto Rules, Hattie, and Penny. None of the books were lacking in it. What does that say then?

J. L. Bell said...

Compared to the winners of adult literary awards, these and most other honored children's books are complete laff riots. The same holds for YA novels as long as sarcasm counts as humor.

But then children's books in general have to offer more humor than adult lit. The readership won't sit still for complete Seriosity. So we have to adjust the scale a bit.

Measured against the total field of children's stories, I think the top awards still go to Serious books. On the other hand, children's lit is refreshingly willing to give top honors to authors who are clearly out for laughs, such as Sachar, Fleischman, or Hiassen. (But aren't their award-winners usually among their most Serious books?)

Nancy said...

This is so true! And a really thoughtful post to boot.

And as you've suggested it's not just humor that's marginalized. Anything "pop" -- humor, horror, action is far more likely to get pegged down compared to serious film or lit-chra-chah.

J. L. Bell said...

Last night I saw an ad for Eddie Murphy's next movie Norbit. And I'm no longer so sure that this is his Oscar year.

Showing range is good; Marisa Tomei did that in the season when she unexpectedly won an Oscar, as she deserved.

But Norbit looks like it will remind Oscar voters of what Murphy has done too often lately: frantic stunt comedies. Here's hoping this one's funny.