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On the problem of literary awards

Sunday, July 26th, 2009 | Posted by Theo

I was quite interested in James Enge’s previous post on the recent discourse about the Hugo Awards List involving Adam Roberts and John Scalzi. It’s a matter of particular interest to me because I have thrice been a member of SFWA Nebula Award juries, am on friendly terms with a few award winners, and happen to have had the occasional online encounter with John Scalzi myself. Who, I must say, handles his budding institution status within SF rather better than most of us would.

That being said, my sympathies on this particular matter tend to lie with Mr. Roberts, although I think it is worth pointing out that this is really not a matter of Roberts v Scalzi and it is doubtful that there is any serious possibility of improving the situation. Adam Roberts is writing about the way he believes things should be, whereas Scalzi is simply accepting the way things are. Now, I could not, and would not, blame John Scalzi in the least for appreciating the present status quo; he would have to be either insane or a rapaciously greedy fame-whore to not enjoy what has clearly worked out rather well for him. Very much to his credit, Scalzi clearly understands and is appreciative of the way in which the stars have aligned and permitted him to become a best-selling, award-winning, leading figure in science fiction today. While I disagree with him on many, many issues, I have nothing but admiration for the cheerful comportment with which he has handled not only his success, but his popularity. It is nowhere nearly as easy as he makes it look.

Nevertheless, Adam Roberts is entirely correct to raise questions about the current state of the genre’s literary quality. It is also not difficult to observe that the same names keep appearing again and again on various awards lists regardless of the quality of the specific book attached to those names. I was a relatively early and enthusiastic fan of Charles Stross, for example, but I don’t believe any of my fellow Stross fans will argue that all of his publications reliably reach the level of his best work. And yet, I can safely predict that his next SF book – if we count the Merchant Prince series as fantasy – will be on the short list for one or more of the SF/F genre’s awards. (I am still OUTRAGED that neither “Lobsters” nor Accelerando won Hugo or Nebula awards for the years they were eligible.) Unfortunately, this tendency to honor the established and the familiar rather than the best appears to be the case regardless of whether the voting is performed by the WorldCon members or the SFWA professionals. Indeed, the former may even do a better job! A few years ago, when some of the earlier issues of Black Gate were published, I tried very hard to argue on behalf of a pair of excellent short stories by a new author discovered by John O’Neill. I remain dubious that anyone ever so much as even glanced at them. It is perhaps worth pointing out that there is no Hugo award that is more ridiculous than the Nebula Award for best novel given to the entirely forgettable novel written by one of its more popular members who was elected president of the organization around the same time. Nor has it escaped my attention that over the last ten years, certain writers have had every single book they have published nominated by the same small group of familiar names. One of the genuinely useful things a Nebula jury could do is go through the Nebula short list and REMOVE books, novellas, and short stories that simply do not merit a place on the voting list.

I suspect that the practical choice we face is between awards democratically awarded by the public to the most familiar writers and awards incestuously awarded as popularity prizes among the professional writing community. Given the utter absurdity of some of the more recent Nobel prizes, particularly those for Peace and Economics, I think there is a defensible argument to be made in favor of the democratic approach as it is probably the least corrupt process even if it does not, and never will, allow for the proper acknowledgment of the genre’s genuine best. Besides, these things work out over time, as there are no shortage of classics that did not win awards that are still being read and appreciated today, and award-winners that would be completely forgotten if they did not hold an unmerited place in an awards list.

It’s somewhat of a category error to write fiction in pursuit of awards anyhow. Most awards, regardless of the field, are primarily indicators of popularity, not merit. If you simply want attention, then Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian have demonstrated the easiest and most effective way to go about obtaining it. I suppose I’ve probably got as much theoretical scope for complaint as any other writer active in the field; my most recent book, Summa Elvetica, may very well be one of the most structurally creative novels ever published in the fantasy genre. (On the other hand, the quality of the writing really doesn’t do it justice.) But, and here’s the relevant point, it has never been reviewed by a single genre reviewer, in part because it a) deals with religious themes, and b) is written by a political radical whose ideology is viewed with distaste by the average SFWA member. I’m not complaining, mostly because I don’t think my work merits the status of best in class anyhow, but also because I find it very difficult to care what those who give awards to soap operas in space think. Where I have a problem with this, though, is that I am very well aware that a much better writer in a similar situation will find his work similarly ignored.

Is there a solution? I don’t know. I don’t actually think so. But, it’s still a mistake to ignore the views of those, like Adam Roberts, who are naive enough to believe that the science fiction and fantasy field can do better.

6 Comments »

  1. It’s like deja vu all over again. Sigh.

    Look. In the world of fantastic literature, there are three awards that matter: the Hugo, the Nebula and the Philip K. Dick. There are a plethora of other awards as well, such as the Rhysling Award for best science fiction poetry, the Sturgeon Award for best short story, and the Lambda Award for best lesbian SF novel, but unless you only buy books by lesbians for lesbians, who cares? The awards that count are the Triple Crown: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Dick.

    The Hugo is a fan award, given out each year by the voting membership of the World Science Fiction Convention. This con, which takes place each Labor Day weekend, is held in a different city every year and draws some 3,000 to 5,000 hardcore sci-fi fans from around the world. The Hugos are actually a battery of awards, not unlike the Oscars, in categories ranging from best novel and best professional short story to best amateur artwork and best fan newsletter, but the one that everyone cares about is the award for Best Novel, as this is a strong indicator of fan popularity and good predictor of commercial success.

    In theory.

    In practice, the problems with the Hugo are four-fold: first off, it *is* a fan award, and according to a publisher who would prefer not to be named, only about 15-percent of WorldCon attendees actually buy and read new books on a regular basis. The rest are there primarily to celebrate some form of alternative lifestyle, be it by wearing a Klingon forehead, playing some role-playing game for 72 hours straight, or drinking themselves into a stupor with a bunch of overweight Radical Libertarian Greens from Philadelphia.

    The second problem with the Hugo is that the nomination process begins in January and the voting takes place by mail sometime in July, so that at best, only about a third of the convention members actually bother to vote. Even by being generous and assuming that the same 15-percent who actually buy and read books also self-select to become voters, this means the Hugo represents the considered opinions of about 1,000 to 1,650 people, of whom at best 450 to 750 have actually *read* one or more of the books up for the award.

    The third problem with the Hugo is somewhat vexing but not critical: every third or fourth year the World Convention is held outside of the U.S., which means that in those years, the awards typically go to books you can’t buy by writers you’ve never heard of.

    It’s the fourth problem with the Hugo that’s the killer: THERE ARE NO AUDITING PROCEDURES. You can buy as many convention memberships — and therefore cast as many Hugo votes — as your budget and sense of whimsy allows. That little quirk in the rules was discovered some years ago and things just haven’t been the same since.

    Helpful Hint: If you plan to attend to a WorldCon, skip the winner’s party and go straight to the Hugo *losers* party. There will be a lot more people there, a lot more booze, and all the way around, it will be a lot more fun.

    Comment by brb - July 26, 2009 4:20 pm

  2. …continued…

    The Nebula is a peer award, given out by the voting membership of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Like the Hugo, there are actually a battery of awards in different categories, but unlike the Hugo, the balloting procedures are rigorously audited and the people who nominate the entries and vote on the awards are all professionally-published science-fiction and fantasy writers. The awards banquet is held in mid-April of each year, in a different city every year, and I’m told that it’s a deadly tedious affair, but beyond that I can’t honestly comment on it. Because you see, despite being a 20-year SFWA member, including two terms on the SFWA Board of Directors as the guy who wrote the checks to pay for the whole thing, I never actually went to a Nebula Banquet.

    Socially, the Nebula Banquet is an affair for the winning writers, their agents, their domestic partners, and maybe the editor who bought the book, if it’s convenient.

    Technically, the Nebula winners are determined by a methodology too complex to bother explaining here, primarily because the SFWA membership insists on “reforming” the rules every two years in an effort to make them “fair.” Professionally, no real working writer has the time to actually read everything that’s nominated in any given year, so only about a third of SFWA’s 1,200 or so active members actually bother to vote. Demographically, this voting population skews towards young writers who are just starting out and have just barely qualified as professional members of the organization, with the result being that Nebula awards tend to go to the young writers who have done the best job of schmoozing and motivating their member-friends, and the vote is heavily influenced by whose publisher is giving away the best free goodies this year. Occasionally the members will cough up a surprise and award a Nebula to an old, established, and well-liked elder statesperson of the genre, but SFWA has a special category — the Nebula Grand Master Award — which is normally reserved for the members who did good work a few decades ago but who are now expected to qualify for Estate membership before writing any more good books.

    Helpful Hint: If you become a member of SFWA and find yourself nominated for a Nebula, pressure your publisher to send out free copies well in advance of the *preliminary* ballot deadline. This primary ballot, not the final ballot, is the cut that really matters.

    Comment by brb - July 26, 2009 4:23 pm

  3. Finally we come to the Philip K. Dick Award, or PKD as it’s commonly called. The PKD is a critic’s award, decided each year by a secret jury of literary luminaries whose names are not revealed until after the award is announced. The book that wins the PKD is supposed to represent the highest standards of literary excellence that the genre can aspire to attain — which of course means that if you don’t also win a Hugo or a Nebula, or better yet hit the Triple Crown like Neuromancer, the PKD is a both a badge of supreme critical success and a one-way ticket to career obscurity. It is worth noting that Phil Dick himself spent most of his entire career on the edge of poverty, with most of his books going out of print almost as soon as they were released, and only achieved worldwide fame, fortune, and megabuck Hollywood movie deals after he was, inconveniently, dead.

    As for me: while I was nominated for the Nebula many times, ultimately, I got the Dick.

    Comment by brb - July 26, 2009 4:26 pm

  4. Theo:

    That was an excellent summary for the difficulties faced by awards. Sadly the same cannot be said for brb’s comments, which are full of factual errors. For example:

    – Hugo voting has been available online for many years.

    – Worldcon does travel about the world, but every year the majority of voters are American. Here are some examples of winners from overseas Worldcons that are allegedly “books you can’t buy by writers you’ve never heard of”: The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (Aussiecon One, 1975); Neuromancer, William Gibson (Aussiecon Two, 1985); Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card (Conspiracy, 1987); Hyperion, Dan Simmons (ConFiction, 1990); Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Intersection, 1995); To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis (Aussiecon Three, 1999); Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (Interaction, 2005); Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge (Nippon 2007).

    – It has always been the case that Hugo voting is open to anyone who buys a Worldcon membership. This has not been “discovered” recently. Furthermore the Hugo rules state that voters must be individual human beings. If a Hugo Administrator believes that memberships are being purchased on behalf of people who don’t exist he is perfectly entitled to investigate. In addition the Worldcon membership list and (anonymized) voting data are always published. The Hugos are one of the most transparent awards around.

    – There is no such thing as a “winner’s party” at Worldcon (also the “Hugo Losers’ Party” is supposedly by invitation only, at least early in the evening – by the time they let anyone in the food and drink has mostly gone).

    – The jury for next year’s PKD Award was announced in February of this year, more and a year before the awards are due to be announced. The jurors are Daniel Abraham, Eileen Gunn, Karen Hellekson, Elaine Isaak, Marc Laidlaw, and I reported them here: http://www.sfawardswatch.com/?p=1596. As I recall, announcing the jury in advance has been standard practice for some time.

    – The PKD has never claimed to pick the best example of SF literature because it deliberately restricts itself to books published in paperback.

    Comment by CherylMorgan - July 27, 2009 7:22 am

  5. Thanks for the corrections. I’m glad to learn they’ve improved the Hugo’s transparency; the way they used to handle it was a joke. I’m unsurprised to learn they’ve changed the way the PKD jury is managed; that whole “secrecy” thing seemed self-defeating. I’m mildly disappointed to learn they’ve downgraded its level of pretension. Sigh.

    I expect they’ve also changed the way the Nebula is decided at least six times in the years since I last cared about these awards. That’s all SFWA seems to do: in even years argue over the membership rules and in odd years argue over the Nebula rules. Of course, no amount of bitter penny-ante battles over rules changes the fact that the readership is shrinking and the market for print SF is dying.

    Comment by brb - July 27, 2009 11:17 pm

  6. Hey Theo,

    Great piece. Sorry I’m getting to it a little late.

    I wanted to thank you for your efforts on behalf of “a pair of excellent short stories by a new author discovered by John O’Neill” while you were on the Nebula jury. A year or two prior, some folks on the jury lobbied to put Todd McAulty’s “The Haunting of Cold Harbour” on the ballot – but dropped it when they contacted me for a word count and found out it was a novelette, not a novella.

    We’ve been close a few times, but Judith Berman finally sealed the deal by getting on the ballot with “Awakening.” Next stop: a win!

    – John

    Comment by John ONeill - July 31, 2009 11:52 am


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