I have long understood that I am not a competitive person. Not in the sense of besting others, striving to be better than, more than, ahead of. Somewhere along the way over the last 60 + years, what might have become a competitive drive morphed into something, to my mind, more benign. Self-betterment is not, in my opinion, competitive in the way most people apprehend the term.
That said, I like awards. I have favorites. It seems important to acknowledge quality, impact, set goals, and shine a spotlight on that which is most laudable (for the moment) in order to validate the work done. Recognition is meaningful.
So we went to the World Fantasy Convention last weekend to see friends and I found myself hoping for a win for my friend Nicola Griffith. Her novel, Spear, was up for a best novel award. I was there when it went to someone else.
Now, I’ve been through a similar experience. I was shortlisted long ago for the Philip K. Dick Award for Compass Reach. We spent the money, went to Seattle, attended the ceremony…and I didn’t win. It was a peculiar sensation, sitting there muffled in disappointment which I knew to be, in some broader context, pointless. Because really, Best is such a fickle, arbitrary thing. But it was recognition. And I very much wanted that.
Nicola has no shortage of recognition. She is amazing, she has just published a new novel that is receiving immense praise. In terms of any kind of competition, she’s doing well. I think I was more disappointed on her behalf than she was. Maybe not. It is true that the “just to be nominated” thing matters.
But it made me think about my own career and where I am. The whole weekend turned out to be a moment of reassessment. Not for the first time, I questioned what it was I was doing. I’ve reached a point of wondering if it’s worth the effort.
I do this from time to time. Partly, it’s impostor syndrome. But it’s also a consequence of trying to maintain a reasonable perspective. The way I look at it, I had a window, say between 1995 and 2005. Ten years in which to establish myself. All the possibilities were there. I was selling short stories fairly regularly, in 2000 I started publishing novels. And by 2005, the upward trajectory failed and I had missed the chance to get a major publishing contract and so the long slide into Also Ran status. A variety of factors, most of which were not in mt control, created this situation, and I was brought face to face with some of them last weekend. I’ve spent the last 18 years trying to come to terms with this while also writing with the intent of reversing the trend. I have a new novel out, in a new genre. I’ve continued publishing short fiction.
I wonder occasionally if my lack of a competitive drive has hurt me. Possibly. It was always the work that mattered. All the rest, as my dad used to say, was how one kept score.
Colleagues of a certain age acknowledged my presence. That felt good. But there’s a new generation on stage now and for all I know, none of them ever heard of me. I realized by the end of the weekend that I do not go to these things anymore for professional reasons, but to see friends, of whom I have more than a few, of those very good friends.
Except for that (I have been invited to and attended only one convention as Guest of Honor), I have no reason to attend anymore. (Yes, lightning may strike and next year everything will turn around, but that need for perspective prevents me from hoping, certainly from expecting.)
It was the conversations that made it worthwhile. More than worthwhile. I connected with a couple of new people, spent time in the bar, caught up with old acquaintances. That felt marvelous. That, it seems, is what matters more to me. An award or two would be nice, but it’s the afterparty stuff, sitting in a corner with a few folks laughing and drinking and eating and being in the moment. And for that, I am grateful. Lucky, in fact.