[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
One of the hallmarks of genre is the way we distinguish books by means of awards. So we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
I think awards are valuable in two different ways. In the present tense, they can draw attention to books and writers that deserve more attention — as when China Mountain Zhang was nominated for the Hugo. The Philip K. Dick award manages to find something I like and hadn’t noticed pretty much every year. This is good for readers who pay attention to them, and it can be good for a writer’s career — if they get award notice a publisher might decide to stick with them even though they don’t have great sales.
Secondly, they’re valuable as part of the historical memory of the genre — the awards of a year give a kind of snapshot of what people at the time thought was good. They judgements of awards are not always the judgements of posterity — I certainly saw that when I did my Tor.com “Revisiting the Hugos” series and looked at every year from 1953 until 2000. But they remain interesting. And what’s interesting to me isn’t ever the winner, it’s the shortlist. One book is one datapoint, a shortlist is a spread. The question I asked was not “did the best book win” so much as “do those five books give a good picture of where the genre was in that year”.
As a publicist, when a client comes to me with awards to their name, it makes my job easier. It’s a nice thing to put in the press kit, and it opens a lot of doors when trying to get coverage and reviews. When my clients win awards, it makes me happy because I know I’ve done my part of the job well, and am representing something that has merit.
In my opinion, awards serve as a sort of spotlight. Extraordinary works are often missed, and maybe sometimes what wins the award isn’t what everyone thought was the best. But if a timeline of award winners were to be made, it would show the skeleton of a vibrant, diverse genre.
More than anything else, however, I think they are important because the day the Nebulas, or the Hugos, or the WFC nominations are announced, social media goes crazy with congratulations, speculation, debate and glee.
And if all they are good for is intense discussion, then that makes them very, very worth it.
You can’t beat the value of generating a conversation about books. Awards are one creative way to get readers talking about them.
While I appreciate what the current awards are doing for both readers and authors of noteworthy titles, I must admit that they don’t really serve my individual needs. As a fan of science fiction romance, chances are pretty much nil that awards like the Hugo will recognize works in that subgenre. When the idea of a “best” book in science fiction pretty much excludes—for various reasons, not all of them nefarious—a whole set of books I enjoy, the value decreases significantly for me personally.
This issue was brought home for me recently upon reading Literary Bests by Ursula K. LeGuin. In her post at Book View Cafe, she discusses the pros and cons of award systems. She also questions the meaning of “best”:
“Literary awards are useless for guiding and informing and don’t even make good targets. In declaring a book as “the best,” a literary award serves that book. It does not serve literature. On the contrary, it does literature a considerable disservice.”
She proposed a different kind of award, one whose purpose was to connect a wide variety of books with readers:
“I wish that, instead of picking one and dumping all the rest, we celebrated our writers continually and in droves. I wish we gave literary prizes freely, the way they used to give prizes at the Pet Show at Codornices Park in Berkeley when I was a kid. Every kid in the neighborhood brought their pet, and every pet got a prize, an ad hoc, unique prize: for Soulfulness — for Loud Meowing — for Unusual Spot Placement — for Being the Only Skink…. There was no Best of Breed (in those days there were many mongrels and few breeds), and certainly no Best of Show.” I‘d have some trust and interest in literary prizes like that.”
When I read the above paragraph, a light bulb went off. I know it’s not realistic to expect awards, especially the major ones, to recognize the worthy reads in science fiction romance on a regular basis. Therefore, if sci-fi romance fans want recognition for the books they enjoy, we might as well generate it ourselves.
With that in mind, I contacted my fellow sci-fi romance blogger, Laurie A. Green of Spacefreighters Lounge, and proposed that we create a multi-book award event for this subgenre. Laurie and I have had conversations about awards before, but the concept of creating a “best” award for just one book seemed antithetical to our ongoing efforts to celebrate the value of all the great science fiction romance books we knew existed. Ms. LeGuin’s inspiration was the spark we needed to offer readers a type of award that would serve their needs, i.e., discover books that best matched their interests. And if it helps authors sell a few more books, well, that’s good, too.
Thus, the “SFR Galaxy Awards” was born. Currently, we have a sparkly icon as well as our judges, a group of fab readers and bloggers. Our goal is to launch the event in January, 2013, in order to recognize the standout sci-fi romance books of 2012.
The theme of the SFR Galaxy Awards is inclusiveness. Instead of giving one award to a single book, this event will recognize the worth of multiple books (upwards of 30) and/or the standout elements in them. The basic philosophy behind our approach is to help connect readers with books.
So when it comes to the value of awards to science fiction/fantasy and the science fiction and fantasy community, the more the merrier, I say. An award is an award no matter how small
Regular listeners over at the Galactic Suburbia podcast will know that we’re huge fans and followers of the science fiction and fantasy awards. Awards can highlight or introduce you to a work you might otherwise have missed, direct your future reading, particularly if the award is to celebrate an aspect of your interests or tastes, or shoot a debut writer to stardom and riches (maybe). I enjoy reading widely in the year, mostly of short fiction, and then comparing my own personal best of the year lists to those of various awards. It’s a great way to get perspective on both the awards voting (or judging) demographic as well as figuring out which awards tend to lean towards the fiction you enjoy.
Awards can be a talking point and generate discussion. The absence of a work or works from awards lists can be more the highlight than the winners and shortlists themselves. In the last few years questions of gender and race biases have arisen from long term trends in awards outcomes. There have been some really great initiatives resulting from such discussions as well as a push to encourage more people to get involved in awards.
As a publisher, awards recognition is a great way to help promote work you’ve published to a greater audience. It can also serve as feedback on what you’re doing. At the same time, sitting on judging panels is also a great way to learn that many, many great works miss shortlists all the time and that awards are just one filter through which to find the great work you would enjoy reading.
As someone asked to make nominations for the Hugos and Nebulas, I was overwhelmed and baffled. Given the amount of time I have to read, I haven’t had the opportunity to evaluate even a quarter of the novels published in 2011. I can choose from the limited number of novels that I have read, but there are still dozens and dozens of works that have slipped by me for whatever reason. So I feel like an inadequate judge of what should be nominated and what shouldn’t be nominated.
Of course, the value of any award lies with the nominators and the criteria they use to assess their nominations. The criteria can be as diverse as the human race and I’m not sure what to make of it at times.
I’ve read several blogs where people have nominated A Dance with Dragons, but when I looked at the reviews, I saw the same people who nominated the novel spent more time pointing out the novel’s flaws in their reviews. I saw another reviewer who pointblank said in the review that he didn’t understand all of a certain China Miéville novel, but the reviewer included that book in their personal “Best of 2011” list. The only question that pops into my mind is: how can you nominate a story for an award or mention if you didn’t like it or understand the premise?
Then again, those bloggers are operating under the same time constraints as I am and are nominating based on the novels they have read. So these contradictions don’t devalue an award for me. Maybe that makes me as erratic as some of the bloggers, but I think any award is recognition of an outstanding achievement. As long as the awards committee is consistent in nominating and voting for well-written novels, the awards have value, especially to the author receiving it.
Winning an award, especially a John W. Campbell Award that is chosen by a small group, would be a dream come true for me. However, not winning an award isn’t going to change how I perceive myself as a writer anymore than reviews will sway me in one way or another. Perspective is everything and more so in any awards system.
I’m of so many minds as to this answer! On the one hand, stories, books and poems nominated for awards are given wider exposure. Hard work and craft and wit and beauty are rewarded by recognition. This is great! We want to be seen. We want to be chosen and set apart. On the other hand, hunger for this recognition can sometimes feel like a sickness. It tends to overshadow some of the joys of creation and community — at least for me. Often a writer up for a reward is in a pool of her peers, sometimes her dearest friends. Emotions can run hot and high during nominations and ceremonies. There will be a pang when you don’t win. Sometimes a crushing oppression, resentment, self-doubt. And then, if you do win, there’s a strange, shameful feeling of guilt sort of overlaying the joy. But all of these conflicting gut-reactions pass by pretty quickly. In my experience, the loud sincerity of a community celebrating its winner, whoever it may be, soon crowds out the harsher aspects of competition. Are awards important to me? I won’t lie. I guess they are; but sometimes I wish they weren’t.
In “The Hunt” (a story in The Sandman series by (multi awarded) Neil Gaiman) a young werewolf falls in love with an image of a young princess. He goes into a tremendous trouble and even manages to get help by the Sandman to find her. All this only to understand that he cannot be with the young girl of his dreams. They belong in worlds too different to be compatible. He finds out that “some wishes are better left unfulfilled” that some dreams will never turn into reality.
The young werewolf and the Dream King are not alone to possess the wisdom of how to handle dreams. Every writer, artist, every creative mind learns, at some stage, how difficult it is to bring a dream into life; shaping it into a story or artwork and then transmit it to other people so that they can also dream. At moments this process can be like hell, at other moments it is like heaven. In spite of all the difficulties attached to it and even though sometimes it is more like a curse than a gift, no artist would probably trade this special faculty to dream and transmit dreams –be it for gold or for eternal youth. Genuine creativity is a kind of an award bestowed upon the artist by forces far beyond human potential and no human award can compete with such a divine one.
It is, however, in the human nature to compensate beauty, to praise it, to recognize it. There is no harm in it; on the contrary, pay homage to beauty is one of the most positive aspects of human nature. In a sense, this is the reason why awards are created. And this is probably a good thing.
Now, as regards the writer or any artist (in the broad sense of the term – the creative mind in any field of art), the acknowledgment of his/her work is the best compensation for the efforts he/she has put in transmitting a dream; acclamation is the best way to thank the writer for the trouble associated with the magnificent and dreadful creative process.
Bringing dreams into life is not the only difficulty a writer has to face. Loneliness is often associated with writing: making up stuff is an individual activity and it cuts you off the real world. Also a creative mind is often considered as a marginal, a twisted whimsical individual by society. If you tell people that you are a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist, they will stare at you with awe and respect. Tell people you write books (especially fantasy or comics or SF) and in the best case you will have a polite reaction just to comfort you that you are not considered as a lunatic or some freak coming out of a Lovecraft story or a tentacled alien from a remote, unknown planet. Unfortunately, even in Western civilized societies with a tradition in literature, writing (or being an artist) is not held into the highest consideration. Not unless you are rich or famous and even then some people will look upon you with contempt and wonder why you are not working in an office or you don’t have a decent job like all other people. Giving an award to a writer might be a way to make up to him/her for the unfair lack of social consideration which weights as heavily on the shoulders of the writer as the Earth globe weighted on the shoulders of Atlas, the legendary Giant in Greek mythology.
I used to think that talent is a magnificent award and one should be proud to possess it. As regards human compensation, succeeding to bring a dream into life and make people dream, having people love your work should be the best rewards for a writer and ought to be sufficient to satisfy any creative mind. I was reluctant about the value of literary awards; I had seen prestigious awards going to people who did not deserve them or wonderful writers not being rewarded by literary awards. This made me skeptical regarding the value of those awards. Then I met Cheryl Morgan and I reconsidered my point of view.
Cheryl Morgan (and other people –I will mention a few of them in a while) are involved with awards in the genuine and sincere hope to bring improvements in the field of fantasy and SF. Their aim is to promote new books, encourage new writers, innovate the genre. At a moment where SF is through a crisis losing more and more readers, it is unfortunate to see that some of the publishers of big magazines keep a conservative attitude that only worsens the situation. On the contrary, the publishers of Irish magazine Albedo One were putting efforts and energy in publishing foreign SF writers (the translation was taken in charge by the people of the magazine, no help was offered to them). The publishers of Albedo One created their own award, the Aeon award. Every writer participating in the contest had a chance to win the Aeon. The award was won by Greek SF writer Mihalis Manolios a few years back. The publishers of Albedo One hoped to innovate the genre by publishing foreign writers with different styles in their magazine. They were encouraged in this excellent initiative by Cheryl Morgan, who was also trying to create an award for a translated foreign writer. One other positive adaptation was the creation of a Hugo Award for graphic novels. I am sorry to say that comic writers are not always respected by the literary people writing fantasy or SF, who think that comics are “childish” and not so serious. This despise is unacceptable and unfair: at this moment, comics are maybe the most successful medium, especially among young readers. Also comics now include stories which could hold a place in “serious” literature more than some of the modern SF or fantasy novels. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore’s Watchmen (or V for Vedetta or From Hell), Mike Carey’s Lucifer or his exceptional new comic series The Unwritten can be considered as high literature. Why ignoring or despising those wonderful comics (and many others?)
Creating a Hugo Award for comics is an excellent initiative. I will also stress the fact that Cheryl Morgan, the publishers of Albedo One and other people trying to improve the awards are putting a lot of time and energy in their projects only out of a passion similar to the one of a great creative mind to make people dream. Those people only have at heart the improvement of the field (especially SF that really needs dynamic minds right now) and, in their way, they are dreamers who wish the best for literary fantasy and SF. When it comes to such people being involved with awards, I believe that one can have the greatest respect for them.
Unfortunately, not everybody is a passionate dreamer when it comes to awards. And I believe that this is not the fault of the awards or the institutions that created them. This is just a feature of human nature: you take everything – money, books, food,…- and you can take out the best of it… or the worse! So, you have some writers who become addicts to awards; having an award becomes more important than dreaming, writing, creating. Those people get awards and turn into literary snobs despising anything different or new. Narrow mind is the worse thing that can happen to any field of art. There is the unfortunate example of a publisher; he created a wonderful original magazine. He was not afraid to publish new writers; he dared publishing styles of stories that other magazine editors would not even consider reading. As soon as the magazine had success (especially in young people, who are not really interested in SF magazines), instead of keeping up with the bold attitude he had at the beginning, the publisher became more conservative, more concerned with winning awards than getting more readers. The magazine had a prestigious award. Then it stopped coming out. It had failed in the most important thing: satisfying the readers and keeping them.
To conclude, I believe that awards are a good thing provided they are considered in a correct way and given their right place. They are good means to promote books, to innovate the field. If correctly adapted, they could even be an excellent way to renew SF and encourage new writers to produce original stuff. Awards don’t have to be an absolute criteria to know if a book is good or not; awards should not be an excuse for arrogant attitudes, incite narrow minded attitudes or create “high” literary circles non accessible to common people. We must never forget that the best art is nothing without the support of the people so making art (in the broad sense, thus including literature) inaccessible is a terrible error which can only be negative for the kind of art it is supposed to promote.
As regards the writers, it is fine to be happy to receive an award. Become enslaved to getting an award is silly and unacceptable for a creative mind. I believe, for instance, that Neil Gaiman would have written the story I mention in the beginning of the article – with or without awards. In the case of awards, writers should remember the wonderful verses of Kipling in IF:
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same….”
A writer should not be enslaved to awards. S/he ought not to be disappointed at the point to question his/her value as a creator if s/he does not receive an award (this is not a joke; I actually saw a wonderful writer questioning the worth of his work and being utterly disappointed because he had not received the award for which he had been nominated!!! Yes, it did happen!)
The correct attitude to being rewarded by an award includes a dose of humor. One example is the reaction of Roberto Quaglia and Ian Watson when they were awarded with the BSFA Award for a story out of their Beloved collection. Please bear in mind that Roberto Quaglia is the first Italian ever to win a British award. Or this wonderful attitude of Neil Gaiman after he has won the award for his script for Doctor Who.
Then you take care of your sore throat and you move on to the next story.
More seriously, I tend to the cold-eyed and practical when it comes to assessing value, and on a brutal numbers-to-the-wall basis, awards don’t mean anything. They don’t – contrary to hopes – create a bestseller. Having “award-winner” on your cover might get a few more copies on the shelf, and a few more copies into readers’ hands, but I’ve yet to see a single award, even the Hugo – significantly push a career that wasn’t already trending upward, and many writers who never won awards have gone on to have successful – and profitable careers.
[back in my editorial days, we used to joke that NOT winning a particular award was a better indicator of long-term success than winning it]
And yet…value isn’t just a financial call, and awards aren’t about sales. Awards are a way for the community – be it the community of readers or of peers, juried or popular vote – to say “we saw what you did there. We liked it. We’re impressed.”
When I was an editor at Penguin, being able to say that such-and-such a book had been nominated for or won this-or-that award was often the highlight of a meeting, the chance to get someone who hadn’t been paying attention before to take special notice of that book, remember that writer’s name. An award can convince someone on a sales force to give a book another sell. An award, blazed on the cover, can – maybe – convince a genre-savvy reader to pick up a book, and start a word-of-mouth chain. So in that regard, to the field itself, reputable awards are valuable because they can float a talent who might otherwise have gone under.
So there’s that. But there’s another reason why I think that awards are valuable – to the field, and to writers themselves. And not only the awards, but the nominations as well.
This career is a hard haul, and a lot of it’s spent too much inside our own heads, listening to the doubts. A nomination can keep a writer going in the darker hours, when the news isn’t good, or there’s no news at all, or we’re wondering “why the hell am I doing this, again?” The day I got the call that FLESH AND FIRE had been nominated for a Nebula was a red-letter day, absolutely. I don’t think there’s a single person who’s ever gotten a nomination (or won an award) who doesn’t admit that they spent the rest of the day (the week) in a gleeful haze, and still pull it out every now and again, a reminder that yes, someone said “I saw what you did there. Well done.”
As such, in that incalculable way, I think that awards are invaluable.
Before I started writing science fiction, I had only the vaguest sense of what awards were relevant to the community. The words “Hugo,” “Nebula,” and “Tiptree” were just bolded fonts on book covers. They indicated to me, the prospective buyer, that some curatorial body — whether a panel of experts or a diffuse group of voracious readers — believed in the book, and thought it was worth my time and money. They were little more than advertisements.
Now, of course, I know different. There’s an Aurora and a Stoker at my place, but they’re not mine. There’s a Hugo on my friend’s dining table. There’s a World Fantasy Award on my editor’s desk. Those awards aren’t mere advertisements, they’re milestones on a career-long journey. They signify a contribution made to a watchful, close-knit community. They’re an acknowledgement that without this story, our dreams would be diminished.
But beyond idealism, there’s a possible financial benefit to winning awards. At least, I thought so. For a while there, I guessed that winning a major award meant your next advance might increase. To check that assumption before I wrote this piece, I asked Brett Savory, co-editor of ChiZine Publications. “No,” he told me. “Not unless winning the award increased your sales. Then your advances would increase. Otherwise, there’s no relationship. You earn advances with sales, not with awards.”
So. Now you know.
Awards are also a political thing. Nobody likes to see an asshole win anything. And for the most part, you’ll notice that major award-winners are kind, polite, professional people who answer emails, remember your name, and don’t trample on the opinions of others during panels or online discussions. They’re not trolls. Occasionally you’ll see the clever psychopath who can campaign for an award and win it without having produced anything of much quality, but those people are outliers, and their work still tends to be outshined by that of others.
The real problem is lazy voting. If awards are milestones in a career, it’s important that they not appear so often as to become mere cobblestones. David Hartwell’s request to no longer be nominated following his 2009 Hugo win was as much a challenge to the electorate to broaden their horizons as anything else. Those limited horizons have other consequences. They explain, partially, why women and minorities are frequently under-represented in some nomination lists. The intrepid spirit that defines so many of our favourite characters can abandon us when we see a stranger’s name on a book’s cover. We all love to retreat into the comforting folds of a beloved writer’s imagination, and we all love supporting the writers who can give us that experience in exchange for our time and money. And come award season, it’s easy to forget that it’s the work we should champion, and not the person who did it.
That said, I’d still love to have a piece of my writing nominated for a major award. I’m a chronic perfectionist and recovering overachiever, so I can’t help it. Likewise, I can’t think of any writer or editor I know who wouldn’t love a nomination. We all need milestones to chart our progress, sometimes. Recognition of any kind is all too fleeting, in this life. We spend plenty of time racking up achievements and badges and points of all sorts in games and performance reviews and credit card rebates, but not enough time simply turning to one another and saying: “Hey. That was great, what you did. Nobody else could have done that better. Thank you.” That’s the difference between an award and a reward. It’s easy to mistake one for the other, but very important not to. Most of us think that winning an award will be a rewarding experience, perhaps even as rewarding as having written the damn thing. Never having won such an award, I’m not sure if it’s really true. I hope to someday find out.
How do we determine the value of the awards that we confer? We can look at factors such as the organization conferring the awards, the longevity of the award, and how the award is administered or awarded. Ultimately, though, much like our system of currency, we have to collectively believe that awards have value for them to be valuable.
Of course, worthiness is in the eye of the reader. Juried awards, such as the Sidewise, the Carl Brandon awards, the Tiptree, or the World Fantasy Awards often select very different works than those awards determined by popular vote, partially because they works that are more likely to appeal to particular sub-sets of the SF/F community of readers, and partially because jury processes often rely upon consensus, which can be difficult to come by.
Popular vote SF/F awards are limited by their voting bases. Hugo Awards voters must be WorldCon attending or supporting members to vote; Nebula Awards are determined by active SFWA members only; Locus Awards are by popular vote over the web, but the votes of Locus subscribers count double. Thus, these popular votes may only represent the will of a particular subset of popular voters: those who understand that they are eligible to participate in the voting.
Of course, awards affect different members of our community differently. Award-winning works may remain on bookstore shelves, or prominent on the web, for longer periods of time, leading to greater recognition — and possibly more sales — for authors. Libraries building collections often prioritize purchasing award winners, particularly when resources are scarce. Publishers may be more willing to take risks on writers who have won awards than those who have not. For writers, editors, artists and other professionals, awards can open doors to new projects, new ideas, and new opportunities. For fans who win awards, the recognition of their own community’s appreciation is made tangible. For readers, awards are often a jumping-off point for SF/F; what better way to find great SF/F works or writers they aren’t familiar with yet than to begin with those that have won awards?
In all of these cases, though, awards still solidify a zeitgeist, or provide a snapshot of what is valued in a creative community at a certain time, particularly in those cases when juried and popular awards are selecting similar works. Thus, even when we may debate within our own community whether an award got it “right” or “wrong,” in the long view, there is value in documenting what our community values at a given point in the historical timeline.
For me, awards have provided new opportunities to connect, both personally and professionally, with SF/F professionals, readers, and works alike. Chicks Dig Time Lords is discovered by new readers every day because it won the Hugo. The award has created other professional opportunities, too, such as invitations to write and edit in several venues.
I doubt I’m alone in discovering works that I love by checking out awards lists. I’m also deeply proud of the work of the 2011 Tiptree Award jury; we recognized a brilliant small press book, Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire that could easily have been overlooked in a popular vote process.
I should start by noting that I have four Hugos, so of course science fiction awards are important to me. Winning one was an incredible honor. Winning four starts to get hard to process. All I can do is continue to thank the kind people who think I am worthy of this.
I should add, however, that I am old enough to remember the days when “Hugo Award Winner” was proudly stamped on the cover of every book that could claim the honor. That’s because back then most science fiction came from small, specialist publishers who understood and cared about their particular audience. These days, though the authors are still overjoyed when they win, the bigger publishers barely notice.
As an example of that, consider the 2010 Best Novel winners. If you look at the Amazon page for Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl you will see that Night Shade, a specialist small press, is trumpeting the book’s Hugo and Nebula wins loudly. Recent editions of the book also have the awards mentioned prominently on the front cover. Contrast that with the page for the other joint winner, The City and The City>. There’s no mention of the Hugo win at all. That’s the US edition from Random House. China Mièville’s UK publisher, Pan Macmillan, mentions his Clarke Award and British Fantasy Award wins, but not the Hugo, which I guess tells you a lot about the insularity of the UK market, and about the fine work that Tom Hunter, in particular, has done to promote the Clarke to the UK industry.
So awards matter, but to some extent they matter much more if you have grown up in an environment where those awards are valued.
The main thing that awards do, however, is get people talking about books. That’s also what interests me most about them. As a critic, I like to encourage people to read good books. Often those books come from little known authors, from small presses, and so on. One of the reasons that Random House may not care too much about The City and The City winning a Hugo is that is doesn’t make much difference to them. The sales bump from winning a Hugo isn’t big enough for them to notice. A Hugo win is probably of far more value to a small company like Night Shade. For that reason I’m delighted to see Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (Night Shade) and Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique (Prime) on the Nebula ballot this year. They are both fine books from hard working small presses who need the publicity that award nominations can bring.
Equally awards help focus attention on areas of the community that don’t get much attention. Some of my favorite awards are the Tiptree Award, the Carl Brandon Awards, and the SF&F Translation Awards. All of these awards encourage people to broaden their reading horizons, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a very good thing.