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.