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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why We Love Lists and Awards

My cursor hovered over a link to "the best IPAs in each state." I wondered--did they get Oregon right? But, in that moment of indecision, I asked myself another question: why do you care what some random site thinks? On a Saturday morning a few weeks back, live tweets from Denver started announcing winners at the GABF. I spent an hour looking at my phone as the results dribbled in, again, transfixed by the results. As consumers of online media, these moments happen all the time.

Why do we care?

There's a totally functional purpose for awards and best-of lists--they help us navigate worlds populated by too many attractions. Whether it's beers or books or 80s alt rock albums, there's just not enough time to consume everything. We've all found ourselves Googling for best-of lists to help us winnow choices. Awards serve a similar purpose in helping us find the creme of any given crop. Looking for a novel on Kindle; why not scan recent Hugo award winners for guidance? But this function is a mere downstream benefit of awards and best-of lists. They actually function at a much deeper level--the desire to bring authority to the subjective.

A perfect example of this dynamic is playing out in the kerfuffle over Bob Dylan's recent Nobel for literature. The Nobel has cultivated the reputation as being the most authoritative judge of merit. The Nobel is by far the most prestigious award on the planet, and serves, for winners, as a crowning confirmation of greatness. The basis for that authority is rarely challenged (except by non-winners), but Dylan, in refusing to even acknowledge that he's won, has illuminated the grubby, largely subjective nature of the whole thing.
On Saturday, an academy member called Mr. Dylan “impolite and arrogant.”  “One can say that it is impolite and arrogant,” the member, Per Wastberg, a writer, told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, according to a translation by The Associated Press.
Of course, the Academy is not a purely neutral algorithm of aesthetics; it is comprised of humans with idiosyncratic opinions. Their authority comes in part from the universal agreement of their authority--and not least by the acknowledgement of the winner. Wastberg erred by demonstrating that there's a quid pro quo at play: we call you the best, you say we are uniquely qualified to make that judgment. Dylan, in refusing even to comment, challenges the sandy foundation on which Nobel rests. (Sartre declined the award, but announced his rejection. In doing so, he affirmed the import of the award.)

The thing is, we know this, and yet we still have this bizarre urge to find "the best." It appears when our finger hovers above the link to a listicle, of our urge to fight over the meaning and approriateness of Dylan's Nobel. We may often disagree with a particular award or list, but we seem never to disagree with the idea of the award or list. The problem arises when our own personal preferences come in conflict with the authority of the list or award. Weirdly, we rarely think, "this idea of 'the best' is stupid"; instead, we think, "that award/list is wrong." Why can we not just abandon our urge to quantify the subjective?

Whatever the reason, we can't. And so year after year, listicle after listicle, we continue to debate these things, forever thinking that somehow, someway, there's got to be a satisfying (read: quantifiable) answer to it. Humans are such funny creatures.

(Incidentally, I considered titling this post "Eleven reasons we love lists (you won't believe #4!)" but I spared you that. You're welcome.)


  1. This makes me recall Bill's great rant on the evils of the listicle

  2. Here's a link. I still hate listicles.

  3. I realize it's silly to be fans of particular beers or breweries the way we're fans of sports teams, but that's a reason why I click on beer list articles -- I want to see my "teams" do well! In this case, it's less about finding the best than supporting one's favorites.