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About Awards

It’s the awards season (honestly, I hadn’t noticed), so it is also, and inevitably, the season for debates about awards. By which I don’t mean the standard ‘how did he win?’ ‘she was robbed!’ sort of debate. More the perennial philosophical puzzle that the very existence of awards always seems to arouse (in this iteration I’ve been most struck by the threepart discussion at Locus).

Now as far as awards go I’ve got a rather peculiar perspective. Not unique, I think, but certainly not common. So I thought I might share my own musings on the topic …Hmm, that perspective? Well, I administered the Hugo Awards in 1987; I helped to set-up the Arthur C. Clarke Award, was a judge for its first two years, and would later administer the award for 11 years; I administered the BSFA Awards one year; I have been on the juries for the Pioneer Award, the Clareson Award, the James Tiptree Jr Award and, for the last three years, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. I have won a juried award (the Clareson) and a popular vote award (the BSFA non-fiction award), and I have been been shortlisted for (and lost) a handful of other awards including a BSFA short fiction award, three BSFA non-fiction awards, and Hugo, a Locus and a BFS award. That’s not bragging, that’s just laying out credentials. In short, I’ve been pretty intimately involved with science fiction awards as administrator, juror, loser and winner, for over 20 years.

And at the end of all that, I remain convinced, as I always have been, that awards are a good thing. It’s just the question of what exactly is good about them that is a problem.

So what I want to do is lay out some of the ‘goods’ that have been proclaimed for awards, and see how they stand up. (Incidentally, all, or most, of the examples I give here will relate to science fiction awards because that is the world I know, but I suspect that they apply to most other awards as well.)

Let us start outside the whole paraphernalia of awards. Way back when I was first discovering sf, long before I ever thought I might have anything to do with awards, let alone win one, I would assiduously seek out books that had Hugo or Nebula Award Winner on the cover. Now, I’ll be honest, I think that the Huge and Nebulous had more cachet back then. I look back over the award winners up to the mid- to late-70s and far more of them appear to stand as classics of the field than the winners since that time. But that could be elitism on my part, or (more likely, I hope) familiarity.

The wide-eyed young reader that I was did not know science fiction, and I was engaged in discovering the genre as avidly and as quickly as possible, and awards were one way for me to do that. I assumed that the award was an indication of quality. But the more you read in any area, the more you begin to develop your own notions of quality and so question received opinion. So the more award winners I read, the more comparisons I was able to bring to bear upon my reading, the more likely it was that I would say of certain books: ‘I don’t think that’s very good at all’. The moment you start doing that, of course, then any notion that awards represent some absolute standard of quality dies.

But if awards don’t represent quality, what on earth are they about? Well, ‘quality’ in this sense is both a relative and a variable term. In other words, it will mean different things to different people and at different times. So, to the naive and uninformed reader that I was, the award winners really did represent quality; they served as a measure of the genre for me until I had the wherewithal to develop my own measures of quality. As I grow older, more widely-read, more familiar with the genre as a whole, more cynical if you like, then there are inevitably going to be fewer things that work for me in the same way that they did when the genre was all new. And that applies to the current crop of award books, and also to that older crop that were my introduction to the genre (could I go back and re-read The Gods Themselves or Rite of Passage with a straight face? I don’t know, but I’m not about to find out).

However familiar we become with the subject of the award, therefore, we should never forget that new reader for whom the award acts as a guide and introduction. Awards are not about quality, but they are about building our own individual notions of quality.

Several related ‘goods’ refer back to this first point. One is from one aspect of the awards business I have not experienced, the perspective of the publisher. From their point of view I suspect that the primary function of an award is advertising. Well, it worked for me as a young buyer, and I’m sure it still works today for a lot of people. Not all, of course: those of us who have come to recognise that an award is not about quality are unlikely to be swayed by whether or not the book has won an award. (Although, saying that, we might well be persuaded to buy a book because it has been shortlisted for an award – my wife and I have just done exactly that – but that is an aspect of the award business I’ll come to later.) Nevertheless, the only thing more likely to be plastered across the cover of a book than ‘Award Winner’ is a laudatory quote from another big name author. The fact that a work has won an award must tell us something about the book, and must play a part in the purchasing decision. And if that makes awards sound like a commercial issue, so be it. Awards have to speak to several different constituencies, publishers, authors, readers, etc, and if the award loses any one of those constituencies it will fail. So part of the strength of an award depends on how well it works commercially.

But those multiple, and often contradictory, constituencies, point to one of the problems of awards for the administrator. We all genuinely believe we are doing it for the good of the genre. But what is the good of the genre when there are so many different constituencies pulling on you in different ways? Do you make it big and brassy or small and select? If you need sponsorship to survive, where do you look for that sponsorship in a way that won’t conflict with your award or your constituency? There is one French literary award that is sponsored by the three main French publishers, and the award is effectively shared between the three, turn and turn about. Does that benefit the award? Does it benefit French literature? There are awards with specific, one might say political, remits: the Orange prize for women writers, the Carl Brandon award for writers of colour, the Tiptree award for writing about gender issues. The Tiptree award, I know, has a high reputation for the literary quality of its winners, but what happens when the political and the literary come up against each other? That was an issue that was on my mind throughout the year I was on the Tiptree jury, and I never reached a satisfactory conclusion.

But however much you might believe in the good of the award (it is, after all, why you are doing it), when you are organising or administering an award the thing that is more important is the sheer survival of the award. If there is money involved (a prize, expenses for the jury) then you have to ensure the supply of that money; if there is a jury, then you need to ensure that publishers submit books; if there is a popular vote, then you need to get those votes in. When you are worrying about all those things on a day to day basis, then the good of the award is just something you have to assume without ever questioning it. Even though working to secure those things that will keep the award alive might end up changing your conception of the award. I’ve dealt with all of these issues, they have given me more than enough sleepless nights over the years, and if I had to pause and ask myself what the award was for in the middle of all that, then I’d probably have given up on the spot. For the administrator, therefore, I suspect that the good of the award is unquestioned, but possibly non-existent.

From the point of view of the jury or the voter, I think the good of the award takes on an entirely different aspect. Philosophically, I suspect they (we) have made the decision about the good of awards in general already, and the issue at hand is now the good of this award in particular. Which book am I going to argue for? Which work am I going to put my cross beside? And behind that ‘which’ lies a whole minefield of issues that are rarely faced in detail and probably never in their entirety. Because in deciding ‘which’, we all make a decision about what the award is for, why are we giving the award, what characteristics best suit the winner, how do we decide between conflicting qualities? In practice these always come down to specific decision about specific works. There is a shortlist that I may or may not have had a hand in choosing, but now the issue is simply (simply?) that of choosing the one work that most nearly matches my conception of what the award is about.

My idea of the good of an award, when I am taking part in the award process, is therefore my idea of what makes a good work of science fiction (within whatever parameters may be in operation for the particular award at that particular moment, where those parameters might be a matter of word length, date of publication, place of publication, gender of author, genre of work, or whatever). When I am choosing a winner, I am choosing on the basis of my definition of quality. That does not mean that the award is a recognition of quality (see my comments above), but that individual notions of quality go into the selection of the winner. Depending how those individual notions might cohere or disagree with each other we get the eventual popular or controversial winner.

The thought processes that go into those individual notions of quality (or, rather, those individual choices of what should be the winner, because it is possible that no-one else will agree that my decision in any way represents what they would call quality) may be very complex, may even involve weighing of options that I can barely articulate. X is better written than Y, but the characterisation in Y is far stronger than in X, which quality do I value more? Or the thought processes may be quite simple: I like book A, author B is a mate of mine, I’ve only read one work on the list so I’ll vote for that, I haven’t read book C by author D but author D’s last book was great so I’ll vote for C. However the decision is arrived at, the actual decision represents the participant’s idea of quality, and through that the participant’s idea of the good of the award.

In other words, I think that when you are a judge or a voter in an award process, you see the good of the award as being a chance to express your opinion of what science fiction (or crime fiction, or film, or bakery, or whatever) should be about. Whenever I have been a juror for a literary award, or whenever I have chaired award juries, I have been involved in long and complex arguments about the merits of one book over another. It is patently evident that no two jurors have ever shared an opinion about what constitutes quality, but it is equally evident that each juror is convinced that the award should result in some recognition of quality. When I disagree with the decision of award juries, which I do frequently, I think it is futile to ever believe that you can arrive at a work that stands for quality within the genre; when I am part of the process, however, I think it is inescapable that you aim for precisely that.

Since the workings of a jury or the actions of a voting mass so often arrive at a decision contrary to what we, as individuals, can agree with, we have to ask the question: is this assumption of quality within the process of an award actually a good of the award? And the answer, perhaps, is no. At least, the more times we disagree with the result, the more likely we are to dismiss or devalue the award, that is not doing good for the award or for anything else. Yet scrupulous integrity in following the rules you have laid down, even if that consistently results in unpopular decisions, will also work to the good of the award. (The popular perception that the voting for the Locus award is unfairly counted, with magazine subscribers counting for twice anyone else’s vote, undermines the perceived worth of the award, and may in time seriously damage it.) So there is a dichotomy here: I like the result but don’t trust the way it was reached; I don’t like the result but trust the award’s procedures. Which will result in most good for the award, and therefore contribute most towards the good the award aims to achieve? (Of course, ideally we are looking for a situation in which I like the result and trust the procedure, but that is actually considerably rarer than you might think.)

Of course, every single time we, as individuals, find ourselves disagreeing with an award, whether it is the result of a popular vote or the decision of a jury, it undermines our sense of the value of the award, and our sense of the value of awards in general. Yet no award can produce a universally popular winner ever, let alone every single time. So for every award, disenchantment is set to increase like entropy. And the more disenchantment there is, the less good the award is doing either for itself or for the genre. Perhaps this means that every award has a natural lifecycle. This is something upon which I have reached no decision; but it is notable how few awards have been allowed to die. There is always some popular sentiment for keeping them going, which must mean something though I’m not entirely sure what.

One of the ways of dissipating the disenchantment of unpopular winners is to spread the load, make them part of a spectrum of work being celebrated. For eleven years, when I presented the Arthur C. Clarke Award, I would say at some point in my speech that being on the shortlist was what counted. There can be only one winner (okay, sometimes there is a tie, but that’s uncommon), but any shortlisted title is similarly worthy of respect. I always believed that, I still do, in some ways I think the shortlist is more important than the winner, though I have to say that belief was somewhat dented a few minutes ago when I looked at the Hugo and Nebula shortlists on Wikipedia and realised how few of the non-winners in the early years of the awards actually meant anything to me. There are titles there that I would swear I had never heard of in my life before, yet they presumably came within a few votes of actually being the winner. And that was at a time when the winners seemed to me to be in many ways definitive of what science fiction was all about: was it actually winning that made them canonical? To be fair, you then move ahead a few years and see things like Rite of Passage beating Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Gravity’s Rainbow losing to Rendezvous with Rama, and your faith in the shortlist over the winner does tend to be restored.

One of the most persistent arguments in favour of awards is that they provoke debate. Now I’m going to take it as a matter of faith that debate about the current state of the genre, or of literature in general, is in and of itself a good thing; so if awards provoke debate then that is a good that they do. Now one of the things I have noticed is that it is not the winner that provokes debate (other than of the ‘we wuz robbed’, ‘yah boo sucks’, variety), but the shortlist. Shortlists give us an opportunity to argue over the correctness of omitting or including certain works, and to argue further how we might rate them, pre-guessing the judges or the voters. Such arguments, though they may not always be addressed as such, are in truth arguments about how the genre stands now, what we should regard as its qualities and ambitions, in other words they are about how we shape our own opinions about the genre.

If it is the shortlist rather than the winner that provokes debate, then maybe we should dispense with the final stage. Wouldn’t it be more egalitarian to just have a shortlist and no winner? Isn’t the selection of a winner itself a divisive and, in the end, futile task? Many who comment on awards say that choosing a winner is like comparing apples and oranges, or some even more disparate coupling. (Actually, in my experience, it is nothing like that; choosing a winner usually involves seeking out what unites rather than divides the works under consideration.) There are many arguments in favour of ditching the winner, there’s only one argument against it: it’s a stupid idea.

There is always a process of selection going on. If you ditch the winner, all you would do is move the criticism of the selection process back to the selection of the shortlist. Moreover, it is the fact that you are in the process of moving from a defined group to a single winner that stimulates and shapes the discussion. You need that concluding award or you wouldn’t have the rest of the debate.

The last person in this complex web of relationships that is the award process is the author (or editor, or artist, or whatever function is being awarded). In some ways, the person receiving an award is the least important part of the whole process. They have already produced the work in question, the award does not change what they have done, the only thing they have to do is receive congratulations or commiserations as the case may be. As someone said in the Locus discussion: once you’ve won an award, you’ve still got to go home, clean up after the cat, prepare a meal, and sort out the latest problem in the current work. Though as someone else replied, you’ve first got to win an award before you reach that perception.

The thing is that actually receiving the award is the very last part of the whole process. An award may do the author good in terms of future sales, or advertising, or even give them just a little more clout when it comes to negotiating the next contract. If it comes early in a career, or at some other crucial point, it can be very valuable indeed. But its good in this respect is after the event.

In another respect, I can testify, being shortlisted for an award is either neutral or even bad. When I was shortlisted for the Hugo Award I was pretty damned sure that I would not win (I had calculated in my own mind who would win, and indeed he did), so I got to sit through a fairly long ceremony and look posh for a while, and none of it really meant anything. In that respect the award did nothing. On other occasions, it has not been so benign. Most recently, when I thought I had a chance of winning the BSFA award, the prospect set off such a turmoil within me that it contributed (though only in a small way) to the writer’s block I’d been suffering. Now the fact that it clearly meant so much to me must mean that there is something desirable about an award; but at the same time, the negative effects are not something to be wished on any writer.

But again, that is not really germane to the issue of what is good about an award. I don’t think whether someone shortlisted for an award, or even someone who wins it, experiences dread or indifference or elation actually tells us anything about the good or otherwise of an award. Well, okay, it tells us that an award is desirable, which presumably indicates that the nominee believes it is a good; but that doesn’t point to why it might be desirable.

Actually, I think that again, for the writer, any good in the award comes in that gap between the announcement of the shortlist and the presentation. Because that is when attention is focussed upon the work, regardless of goes on to win or lose. Once the winner is announced the name goes into the record books, and the winner experiences a certain and highly satisfactory period of people saying ‘Congratulations’, but discussion of the work stops pretty quickly.

So again, in the short term, I’m not so sure how much of a good an award may be for a writer (though on balance I suspect it is more good than bad). In the long term is another matter. A few years ago, at an SFRA Conference in Lawrence, Kansas, I took part in a panel discussion about awards at which it was suggested that awards provide a sort of rolling canon. I am always dubious about the idea of a canon, and I would hesitate to consider award winners alone as forming the canon (though, as you might tell from what I’ve said so far, I’d be more comfortable if we included shortlists in that), but there is something in that. A canon not in the sense of defining the genre, but as a representation of what the jurors and voters of the day considered closest to what the genre of the day was about.

And that is why I tend, in the end, to think of awards as a good thing. Because in the short term they give us an opportunity, an excuse, to debate, or at least to think about, how we see the genre today. And because in the long term they provide a sort of sounding board of how the genre was perceived during the course of its history. If, along the way, they provide kudos for some, disappointment for others, work for a few, a chance to make a contribution for others, a marketing opportunity and an excuse for a celebration, that is all probably quite positive, but it is also, I think, beside the point.

2 thoughts on “About Awards

  1. Looks like you’re out of your block, Paul! I’m looking forward to reading (and rereading) this (after I get back from the gym).

    Again, congrats on your recent awards success.

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