I’m gonna be honest from the beginning: It’s probably unreasonable how excited I get about these awards. I get really excited. Enough to structure my entire month around the rounds of voting, and write a preposterously long blog post when I’m disappointed in the outcome.
I always feel like it’s unfair to vote if I’ve only read one book in the category, because that doesn’t mean I think it’s the best one, it’s just the only one I’ve read. So I read 25 books in November (my average for the rest of the year is 13 per month), 17 of which were nominees. Every time they posted a new round, I looked to see which I could find and read quickly enough. I didn’t bother with categories in which I hadn’t read any of the nominees, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up. So everything I’m about to say refers only to categories I voted in: fiction, fantasy, humor, nonfiction, science & technology, picture books, and graphic novels. But the point is, I was invested.
I know even before I say it how snooty this sounds, but I feel like the theme for the winners is mainstream. Not the funniest, or the most meaningful, or the most skillful, but the most recognizable. The big names, the heavy-hitters, the ones you almost feel people voted for just because they know the cover or the author’s name. Go Set a Watchman. Neil Gaiman. Mindy Kaling. Aziz Ansari. Saga. Sea World. The Day the Crayons… In each of their respective categories, the winners are the names that are most easily recognizable. (The exception is The Day the Crayons Came Home, because Dr. Seuss is obviously a more well-known name, but Dr. Seuss is not trendy or new and the crayons are still popular from when the first book came out.)
And maybe it’s silly of me to be bothered by this, because with a reader’s choice contest, isn’t that kind of what it comes down to? But this year, not a single book I voted for won, and having been so excited about them (both the books and the awards), I just feel really let down. There were some truly fantastic books among the nominations, and some of the books that beat them were just meh. It isn’t just that the ones I loved didn’t win; it’s that in several of the cases, I feel like the winners shouldn’t have.
I think the best example is nonfiction. I read four of the books that were nominated, and started a fifth but realized I would never get through it in time. There’s a lot of insight in The Unspeakable, and I loved H is for Hawk so much that I was really sad I couldn’t vote for it; it’s beautifully written, unique in concept, and deep in meaning. Modern Romance was fun and interesting in the mildest of ways, but let’s be honest, not really about anything important. The moment I picked up Between the World and Me, there was almost no chance I’d be able to vote for anything else. It’s topical, it’s incredibly important, and it’s so short that it doesn’t require much effort even if you have trouble connecting with the style. I knew it probably wouldn’t win, especially once I saw that HONY Stories was an option. But the fact that HONY didn’t win just makes it all the more surprising to me that Modern Romance did. Yes, it’s Aziz Ansari, and I love him too, and it’s kind of interesting to read about dating trends and how drastically technology has changed things in the last twenty years, but just . . . the best nonfiction of 2015?? Really? Haven’t we all read a dozen articles over the last few years that said most of the same things we read in the book?
Graphic novels are where I was hit particularly hard, which is weird because I actually love Saga. But I have intense feelings about my favorites of this year, Rat Queens in particular, which was my landslide first choice. When it was disqualified, I was at least a tiny bit comforted that I could now vote for Nimona. It was terrible that I couldn’t also vote for The Wicked + The Divine, Thor: Goddess of Thunder, Ms. Marvel, Lumberjanes, March, Squirrel Girl, and the Kate Beaton I still haven’t gotten a chance to read, but know I will love, because Kate Beaton is brilliant. So, yeah, I do love Saga, but I’m also really bummed that it won.
Fiction was irritating because I should have realized that Go Set a Watchman was guaranteed to win, and I totally didn’t need to rush to finish three novels in one week.
The category for picture books annoyed me because come on, the second crayon book was fine, but it was really the novelty of the premise that made the first one so great, and there were many other nominees more deserving this time around. Interstellar Cinderella is a clever, well-illustrated, well-written feminist version of the fairy tale. The Princess and the Pony is weird and fun and about warriors indulging their cuddly sides. Sidewalk Flowers is subtle and gorgeously illustrated. This is Sadie is essentially a depiction of how to be the most awesome little kid. Last Stop on Market Street is sweet but not saccharine, with a lovely and thoughtful message. A Fine Dessert is a pleasant surprise if you, like me, don’t think a picture book about dessert could possibly be interesting or historical or touching (it is all of those things). Elephant and Piggie are Elephant and Piggie. These are all books I would have liked to vote for. But the crayon sequel wins, by a lot.
Mindy Kaling’s book won the humor category, and while I liked it, that’s really the most I could say about it. Furiously Happy, on the other hand, and You’re Never Weird on the Internet are both funny and share really meaningful, personal stories that also happen to be part of an important cultural conversation about mental illness. I really connected with them, and although I know not everyone will, I do think there’s more to their books than there was to Why Not Me?
The good news is that, having spent the entire day writing an explanation of why I thought other books deserved to win, I’m feeling a lot less upset about it now. If you’re looking for bad news, I suppose it’s that I spent an entire day writing this explanation. But today was just that kind of day, and really, I think all I wanted was for people to know why the books I loved this year were so worthy of winning. The awards are fun, but they’re not the point anyway, so who cares if they get all fucked up.