Artsy-fartsy awards are often derided by their critics as out-of-touch with the mass of humanity, and therefore inconsequential. “If you don’t nominate super-best-selling writer X, then there is obviously something wrong with you, and you’re relegating yourself to irrelevance,” they say. In response, the snooty art people will point to the current super-popular but low-quality phenomenon, most recently 50 Shades of Grey, and warn that following the mob leads into a slide to that Gomorrah.
I’m mostly side with the fancy-pants guys, but I have to say – popularity is a type of quality in its own right. Because humans are social creatures, and if something is popular than it can be used as a social hub. There is a lot to be said in favor of something that entertains and is accessible to a large enough swath of the population that people can talk about it freely. It gives us something in common, and any common bonds we can forge with others in a society as divided and socially-isolated as ours is a major asset. You may think that Muslim lady in her hijab looks weird and off-putting, but as soon as you realize that you both love Game of Thrones and get to fanboy/girling over the latest episode, you suddenly feel a lot closer to her. And now her culture isn’t so alien after all – she’s another human, like you, and she also thinks Jorah is tedious and can we just kill him off already?
Reading is very isolating activity. You can’t really do it with other people. The best you can do is find other people who’ve also read what you have, and talk with them about it. This is why I’m in a book club. I like to talk about what I love with others. But due to how much time it takes to read a book, and how many books are published every year, it is extremely unlikely you’ll find anyone who’s read the same books as you, unless they are extremely popular. (or you pre-coordinated, via a club) Connecting with people-in-general via written fiction is very hard.
So I get annoyed when people say “the book was better.” You know how many people I could talk about the Song of Ice and Fire books with, IRL? Maybe a dozen hardcore fantasy readers. You know how many I can talk with, now that it’s a hugely popular HBO series? ALMOST EVERYONE. Any time something greatly broadens the audience that a work gets, it is improving that work along the “popularity” axis, even if it reduces it in other ways. Very often the overall value is improved even if the artistic value is diminished.
Honestly, my dream is to some day be involved in producing something that spins off uncounted transformative works. Cosplay, music videos, fanfiction, fanart, whatever. That is engagement with other people. That is what really matters. So sure, maybe 50 Shades of Grey is meh-quality moderately-popular fanfiction that was marketed heavily, and doesn’t “deserve” to be as popular as it is. But it IS popular, and that is valuable by itself. Don’t denigrate it.
(of course, don’t give it literary awards either. Those aren’t meant to judge that particular type of quality, we have best-seller lists for that)