And the winner is…

Having been fortunate enough to have both of my books shortlisted for awards, I’d have to say that I’m generally in favour of them. Sales aside, it’s nice to know that people thought well enough of your work to want to mark it as worthy in some way. It’s not only gratifying, it gives a new writer or editor confidence that they’re moving in the right general direction. Now the problem (or *one* problem, there are doubtless many) with the SF and Fantasy field is that it is chock full of awards for this, that and the next thing, and the methods used to determine the most worthy of the nominated works varies wildly. And this of course leads to discussion, controversy and dubiety about the relative value of each of them.

This of course is the nature of awards. No award will ever please everyone, and that’s as true of the Nobel Prize For Literature and the Man Booker as it is for any of the genre awards, but there’s been a deal of (angsty) discussion about awards this year, so clearly people aren’t content to settle on the fact that when it comes down to it an award is just a Goddam Popularity Contest. Clearly we want them to mean something.

If I had to express a preference, I’d say I’m generally more in favour of the juried awards – like the Clarke and the World Fantasy – than publicly voted ones like the Hugos. It’s not that I value the opinion of someone appointed to a jury any more than I do that of my peers, but with a jury they do make an effort to read widely across the material that has been published that year. No normal person without that obligation can hope to do that, so the publicly voted awards are limited by the relative conservatism employed in the reading choices of the voters. And doesn’t that then skew the voting in the direction of authors who are already popular?

Take this year’s BFS nomination list for Collection – not because it’s personal to me, but because it’s a good example (honest). The shortlist is very strong indeed and features writers I admire in different ways. I’ve been enjoying Joel Lane and Mike O’Driscoll since I first got into the small press in the early 90s, and Kim Newman even earlier than that when I first read Interzone, but the Newman and the Lane are both published by (very fine!) American independents (seriously check out the catalogues of Monkeybrain (bringing us the next Hal Duncan novella) and NightShade (who deserve medals galore for publishing Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen books)), and O’Driscoll’s Unbecoming and my The Ephemera are both published by the equally excellent Elastic Press. But can any of those really be expected to compete with the global appeal of Gaiman? Now, I’ve not read all of the other contenders, and I’m not even going to set one toe down the path of mental cruelty that is being objective about my own work – and I’m prepared to be surprised by the result, the BFS membership are a widely read lot after all – but it really *would* be a surprise if they’ve all gone to the trouble of amazoning off for the other books. If it doesn’t in the end come down to just being a popularity contest.

This isn’t me being bitter about my lot (It’s not FAIR! Why, oh why did I have to get shorlisted against Gaiman!!!! (and Newman, and Lane, and O’Driscoll – although personally I can’t believe Jeffrey Ford’s Empire Of Ice Cream didn’t make it too, so it could have been even tougher!). This is me leading up to something, honest.

So my complaint, generally, if I really have one, is that when it comes down to a public show of hands, the public involved could try a bit harder, get more involved, read outside of their comfort zones just a little. But say you’re Joe Blogs and you decide that to vote with a nod towards conscience in the Hugos this year you’re going to read two more novels than you normally would, but have absolutely no idea which two to choose. How do you decide?

Well, a good way is to find a recommendation site. There have over the years been a few out there that invite people to recommend books and stories that they enjoy throughout the year, and one of the best featured on Cheryl Morgan’s late and lamented Emerald City review site. Well, Cheryl clearly believes that that was a worthwhile exercise, because now she’s back with a new venture called Science Fiction Awards Watch. I believe this will quickly become the place to go to post your award recommendations and catch up on hot books you missed.

Hopefully all of the awards will benefit from more connected, more informed voters. But the real advantage is that it gives those of us who look at the great, teetering, daunting mass of reading material that is published every month a chance of not missing the gems that might otherwise pass us by.

5 thoughts on “And the winner is…

  1. Another important factor is this: people are always complaining that not enough fans are voting in these public awards, and of course one of the reasons is simply that newly purchased books go into an ever growing reading pile… and, yes, inevitably by the time they get around to said books, a year or two later, the awards have come and gone.

    I mean, seriously, how often do any of us read a book straight away when we buy it, let alone read it within the first year before the award-voting is due?

    So, yeah, in that respect Neil I agree with you in regards to awards judged by a jury. Plus, in the public awards, I wonder just how many fans, say, have actually gotten around to reading Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things yet, but have nevertheless just voted for it anyway because they like his previous stuff. A popularity contest indeed –

    – at least with the likes of the small presses you know their books are on there precisely because people have read them!

  2. I think that’s a good point, Paul. Certainly it’s taking me long enough to get through my backlog. Fantasycon approaches, and I’ve read very little of what I bought at last year’s!

    So, perhaps another advantage of a site like SF Awards Watch is that it allows people to prioritise their reading somewhat.

    I don’t know though – however you slice it there’s still no way anyone can read everything.

  3. Re: “- at least with the likes of the small presses you know their books are on there precisely because people have read them!”

    Actually, small presses have the advantage over the commercials when it comes to the likes of the BFS Awards, precisely because the *recommendation* phase (in the case of the BFS awards, certainly) is also open to public contribution. Which means that the cannier and hungrier small presses will have taken the opportunity to long-list *everything* on their list for the year in question – something that the commercial presses rarely seem to be at pains to do.

    Of course, enough members of the BFS / attendees at Fantasycon have to be bothered enough to then register their votes in order for said title to reach the short-list, so it’s still a definite mark of achievement (not trying to take anything at all away from the indies here) but I’d have to raise a skeptical eye-brow at the idea that everyone who votes only votes for books they’ve actually, definitley *read*…

  4. “but I’d have to raise a skeptical eye-brow at the idea that everyone who votes only votes for books they’ve actually, definitley *read*…”

    Which brings us down to “it’s just a goddam popularity contest” again, doesn’t it?

    I’ve always been a bit confused about the BFS award longlist. Maybe it’s just a nomenclature thing though. Perhaps they should make a clearer definition between Recommendations (which should be an aide memoire for people wanting to know what was eligible from the past year) and Nominations (which is those from the prior list that have received the most votes)? In other words it’s not two rounds of voting – it’s a recommendation process followed by a voting process.

    I dunno, it all seems to work out relatively sensibly in the end though, doesn’t it?

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