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Issue #131 - July 2006

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Picking Awards out of the Air

By Debbie Notkin

Here are some famous awards:

The Hugo Award has been around for 53 years. Itís a popular award voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society. In practice, however, only around 20% of those eligible to do so bother to vote. In some of the less popular categories (e.g. Best Fan Artist), only a few hundred votes may be cast.

The Nebula Award has been around for 41 years. Itís given by popular vote of the Science Fiction Writers of America, with jury participation in determining the nominees.

The World Fantasy Award (presenting the ugliest statuette imaginable) is 31 years old. Itís a juried award, with the jury members picked by the committee that oversees the convention. Nominees are chosen in part by popular vote of the convention membership.

This article is (mostly) not about these awards.

This year, Geoff Rymanís Air, or Have Not Have, didnít win the Hugo, or the Nebula. As a science fiction novel, it wasnít eligible for the World Fantasy Award. However, it won the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award, and the Sunburst Award.

Are you lost yet?

Basically, this means that the book was recognized by the gender-exploration award jury, a British award jury, a group of British fans, and an award jury choosing the best speculative book written by a Canadian. (Ryman is Canadian living in England.)

Thereís also a World Horror Award. And two different John Campbell Awards. And the Prometheus Award. And the Philip K. Dick Award. And the Susan C. Petrey scholarship. And the Carl Brandon Award. And the Sei-un Award. (Did I leave out your favorite award? Iím sorry, and at the same time that proves my point.)

What purpose do all these awards serve? Does Geoff Ryman benefit from winning four fairly small awards? Would he do better to win one Hugo than all of the awards he did win? Does it matter?

Well, first of all, he got cash for three of those awards (every one except the BSFA), while neither the Hugo nor the Nebula would put a penny into his pocket directly. Some authors negotiate an "award escalator," into their contracts. This means that the publisher pays the author a new advance on receipt of a major award. Hugos and Nebulas are probably the only awards that result in more sales: itís difficult to imagine a publisher negotiating a "$1000 extra from us if you win the John Campbell Award" clause, though the ways of publishers can be hard to fathom.

Second, it always feels good to win an award, just as it always feels fairly bad to lose one. So Ryman got four jolts of "feel-good," whereas a Hugo would only give him one. (Although, as was especially clear when Neil Gaiman looked at his phallic rocketship in 2002 with amazement and said, "Fuck! I won a Hugo!" the Hugo feel-good jolt is worth a lot.)

Third, of course, all awards are publicity of some sort, and they say all publicity is good publicity (weíll get to that in a minute). The more well-known and well-respected an award is, the more itís likely to cause Jane Bookbuyer to change her mind when she sees the "award winner" text on the book cover. Or at least thatís the theory.

And that leads to the point of this essay. Itís easy to talk about what awards are good for. Itís also easy, though I havenít been bothering, to talk about what awards are bad for. More interesting (to me at least) and more complex is what place awards have in the web of obligation, communication, and interaction of this complex and elusive concatenation of individuals, groups, and special interests we so jauntily describe as "a community."

By definition, any award (new, old, juried, popular) takes on a responsibility for choosing wisely. "Best" is a qualitative standard. Popular awards at least have an uncomplicated way of defining best: itís the one that most voters chose, and the criteria for voters are usually a pretty simple bright-line test of one kind or another. What voters read and how carefully they read it varies from individual to individual over hundreds or thousands of people. And if the resulting winners arenít to your taste, the only thing you can blame the awards administrators for is their choice of voters.

A juried award has a more complex web of obligations. The biggest responsibility the award administrators take is choosing good jurors. That in and of itself can be a can of worms: writers? academics? fans? How many of each? What kinds of diversity matter? Who will finish the job they started, and who will say yes and then vanish off the face of the earth? How much should the administrators look over the juryís shoulders?

Then thereís the responsibility of choosing among the best possible range of works: How do jurors get recommendations? How far afield should they look? Is it their job to go searching in related and nearby fields? What if they disagree with the criteria used by previous juries? Either the jurors or the award administrators will have to decide what "qualifies" and what doesnít. Is a graphic novel a novel? Does a piece of fiction have to be published, or can it be distributed on the internet or for free on paper? What makes a work science fiction? Or not? If the award has a topic, what makes a work fit that topic?

Award administrators lose sleep over these questions.

Bear in mind that jurors are invariably unpaid and, by the nature of how volunteerism works, they are almost always overcommitted. Award administrators are also generally unpaid and overcommitted (this is probably not true for some of the major entertainment awards like the Oscars, but itís certainly true of every literary award I know). As a result, good intentions about breadth of reading donít always translate into right action; jurors flake out and others are left trying to decide knotty questions with too small a group for good breadth; administrators make hasty decisions; life happens.

If an award is prestigious or successful, or has a significant following, jurors also tend to feel that they are under pressure: they need to choose the right book, the one that will make the audience breathe a sigh of relief for another good year. This can lead to juries rejecting an excellent book because one juror thinks itís just not good enough. Or getting hooked on one book, because they can all agree about it and that makes them feel comfortable, while passing over others about which some jurors are more enthusiastic while others are dubious or unhappy. If the award is topical, such as the Carl Brandon Kindred Award for books about race and ethnicity, how much does excellent writing really matter, if the subject matter is on target? And can the jury agree about what constitutes excellent writing? Can the "best" book that engages with race be distinguished from the "best-written" book that engages with race?

Jurors lose sleep over these questions.

Once an award is announced, the Monday-morning quarterbacking begins. Everyone who cares about the award (could be three people in a cabin somewhere or thousands spread around the globe) has their own ideas about what "should" win and why. Some of the books they think should win were considered and discarded, for any of a huge variety of reasons. Others never came to the attention of the jury. Some critics have more global concerns: the award isnít fulfilling its mission; it isnít attending to X subgroup that it should be watching; it is attending to X subgroup but itís not doing it well, and itís doing the subgroup harm. And so on.

The great thing about being a critic is that you donít lose sleep. The other great thing is that the critics are an enormous factor in keeping awards alive, and responsive.

Which rather takes us full circle. It matters that Air won four awards, because that means that four constituencies will get to evaluate the book against their own sense of the award they care about. Theyíll read it, which is an Unqualifiedly Good Thing. Theyíll probably read other books which were nominated, or short-listed, or came to their attention in other ways. Theyíll talk about what they read with each other and ó because our field is so delightfully small and approachable ó they may well talk about their opinions with award administrators, jurors, and other interested parties.

And to my mind, thatís the most important thing: awards keep the air (No pun intended) circulating. Their functions for authors and readers outside the field are important, and the thing I care most about is that they keep us talking to each other. They keep us awake.

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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