15 December 2003

Rivalries and Competitions

Recently, Annhell made mention of a certain Asian Blog Awards where he was nominated. The good writer was not impressed by the competition itself, or by the very personal attacks between some of the Singaporean nominees.

Perhaps we Singaporeans do have some unique national trait that enable those few to behave very badly in their blogs, but then again, I believe some sniping is inescapable in literary contests. Unlike other contests or competitions where talent or accomplishment can be gauged objectively on say, the Guiness Book of Records or its TV show ("Biggest Eater", "Most Pierced", "Fastest X"), the literary is entirely a field of strategic positioning, or as some might more pointedly put it, strategic posturing. Hence, it does make sense for any interested literary participant or observer to stake out their own position, to articulate their view on what makes a good blog, play, poem, film, novel, etc...

Ten centuries ago, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon were the leading diarists, poets, and novelists of their time (and I believe they still count in the all-time top 5 of Asian writers), in the Japanese court. Yet, from the diary of Murasaki, we find her writing:

"Sei Shonagon has the most extraordinary air of self-satisfaction. Yet, if we stop to examine those Chinese writings of hers that she so pretentiously scatters about the place, we find that they are full of imperfections..."

What Sei Shonagon would've said in response is not known to historians, but we might have a clear idea. Literary critics and historians dub Shonagon as "the witty diarist": frank, sarcastic, witty, and young. In other words, someone who would get away with her sharp comments, as long as they were tastefully done.

In comparison, Murasaki would've been the dignified "Elder Stateswoman". Widowed at 30, she enters the Japanese court at a ripe old age, schooled in Chinese and writing more like a sensitive scholar. One must wonder if the "dull people" in Sei Shonagon's diary entry of "Things I hate in people" might've been a dig at her rival...

Such sniping... even 10 centuries ago! And they didn't even have a competition or award for diary-writing. Then, as with the modern "invention" of the blog, the great Japanese diarists never wrote for themselves, but for a public audience, who waited impatiently for a new entry in anyone's diary.

Then, as now, literary competitions were an exercise in posturing and poseurship for their contestants and nominees, and perhaps much more significantly so for the organiser. The ability to confer "greatness" is greater than the gift itself, and organisers and judges are not unaware of this fact, when they set up or adjudicate at awards... even when that ability is mostly dependant on the social illusion on the part of a number of people, who by their participation, comments, and other behaviour, give "credibility" to the organiser, the judges, and the competition itself.

It is here that I disagree with Annhell on what makes a credible competition: it doesn't matter whether the awards are handed out by a panel of judges, or by a "democratic" vote from the public. There is zero credibility in literary competitions; it all boils down to posturing again. A panel of judges will make annoint a contestant that best represents the political negotiation of their literary agendas and positions on what is "suitably literary", and which judges are the more influential. Pure audience voting will boil down to how well-connected the nominees are to their voters, and how well they marshall these people. Hence, the best blogger might not even be in the XYZ polls, if his/her readers don't tend to read the site where that poll is from. In addition, how the categories for prizes/awards are constituted will also signal clearly the agendas and biases of the organiser.

In real life, it's pretty easy to find horrendous and comic examples of all that. The Asian TV Awards, for example, consists of 140 entries from 15 countries in Asia. Now, how many countries are there in Asia? How many entries did each TV station enter in this competition? (Which is a really sneaky way of asking how few stations dominated the entire "competition").

The Singapore A Cappella Awards decided to go for the online voting system, starting from 2 years ago. As I recall, in 2001, a certain group won the Audience Favourite Award without appearing for any performance on the public showcase dates at Suntec.

For the Asia Star Search award... the organisers must really hope that audiences don't not get too deep into questioning why "ASIA" is represented solely by Singapore, Hongkong, China, and Taiwan. Or, for some other Asian awards, why the first few categories are always from these few countries, then some other technical categories, and then followed by a few other Asian countries, as if they are an afterthought. Or why "Miss UNIVERSE" doesn't have any extraterrestrial contestants.

I don't believe in any credibility of competitions. But a literary competition I'd give two hoots about would rather have

1. Consistent and coherent, meaningful poseurship and strategic posturing from judges, organisers and participants.
2. Not too much of inbreeding, such that the winner is the one with more friends, or a blog circle that marshalls voting from members.

As thebeastz has pointed out, it is unlikely that the Asian Blog Awards would be repeated next year. For the sake of serious bloggers everywhere, I hope that it will never be repeated in its current state/concept.

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