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Are Book Awards Useless?

At Futurismic, Adam Roberts accuses Science Fiction book awards of being rubbish, arguing that only the distance of time can indicate the best:

But awards lists and best-ofs are rubbish […] The problem is timescale.

It is a convention, no less foolish for being deeply rooted, that the proper prominence from which to pause, look back and make value judgments, is at the end of the year in question. This is wrongheaded in a number of reasons. One has to do with the brittleness of snap-judgments (why else do you think they’re called snap?). Take those fans and [awards-panelists] of the 1960s and 1970s who really really thought that the crucial figures of the genre were the often-garlanded Spider Robinson or Mack Reynolds rather than the rarely noticed Philip K Dick. They weren’t corrupt; they just spoke too soon.

He also indicates that you cannot indicate the “best” unless you have comprehensively read all books. Furthermore, to read many books in succession is to dilute the effect of all of them:

When enough novels are read in a short enough time, they all blur into one another. A universal greyness covers all, and only very strong flavors become discernable-very pungently bad writing, very striking originality, or more often very flashy style or content, no matter how specious. I’m not telepathic, and can’t claim to read the minds of last year’s Clarke judges, but I’d wager a quark to a boson that this is why two jangly but not really very good novels (Raw Shark Tales, Red Men) made the 2008 Clarke shortlist when a number of much more accomplished and notable fictions (let’s say Brasyl and Yiddish Policeman’s Union) did not.

Meanwhile, James at Big Dumb Object responds and takes issue with some of Adam’s statement:

I think that the value of these awards and shortlists is vastly underrated by the Science Fictionarati, who seem to never stop moaning about them. To someone who is a casual fan of Science Fiction or even, shock horror, not even a fan, it provides a good starting point. A casual fan can look at the BSFA Award or the Clarke Award and see not only what fans but also what an exhaustive jury process suggest.

Personally, I have a hit-and-miss experiences reading award-winning fiction. I think it basically boils down, like many things, to personal taste. Declaring a “best” is, by it’s very nature, a subjective exercise. I likes James’ comment about a winners list being a list of suggestions. There are flaws with any system of voting and ultimately you have to take what you can get from it. In this case, it’s a suggested reading list.

What do you think?

  • Are sf/f/h book awards completely useless?
  • Do you find any value in them?
  • Are they accurate indicators of…anything?
  • Are you tired of this topic resurfacing yet again?
About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

13 Comments on Are Book Awards Useless?

  1. I find all awards useless no matter whether they are for best SF novel or most improved bowler. They serve no purpose other than to create for certain people a mutual masturbation society of sniffing elitism, where voters and committee members can stand around and feel especially proud of themselves when Yiddish Policeman beats out [insert exploding spaceship covered book here]. Is such and such the “best” novel of the year? Best to whom? It’s all meaningless to me.

  2. The awards are great for the authors. For the reader, not so much. I suspect anyone who reads regularly, SF or not, takes awards with a grain of salt, if they are even aware of them. But for the authors it means notice and increased sales. I know for a fact that library collection development people look at award winners as well as nominees when making purchasing decisions. Surely that is a good thing. For me personally, they don’t have much meaning when choosing what to read.

    Some of the criticism has always seemed a little dishonest to me, though. If you think the awards are useless, what difference does it make that so and so novel didn’t get one?

  3. weyland yutani // January 29, 2009 at 7:08 am //

    Well, it’s nice to know that there is a concensus for any book regarding its quality.  When enough people like a book, it at least merits attention and offers a short-hand to discovering the book and the author.    Let’s face it, for most of the reading public, they need a nudge offered by people that aren’t affiliated with the book or its success.

    We may not always agree on the nominated and winning books, but it is sometimes fun to debate these things.   That debate offers up a lot of useful information as well.

    Lastly, any new reader to genre fiction needs to start somewhere.  There are just too many books out there begging for attention.   Its definitely best that those new readers start with something that at least has a bit of quality insurance before their personal interests lead them down a shelf.  

  4. Good points, all.


    See also: Ian Sales, whic thinks award shortlists aren’t rubbish, they’re dishonest.

  5. I guess I’ve always seen awards as a mixed bag.  I agree they are somewhat dishonest as Ian suggests and I’ve certainly seen certain awards – especially the Hugo – as nothing but rubbish in the past.  But at the same time, I’ve also seen them as kind of a populist barometer of what people are enjoying in the short run.  Sure there is a herd mentality at times, but I don’t mind knowing what the herd thinks even if I don’t agree with it.  The same is true with juried awards – I don’t mind knowing what the group in the smoke-filled room thinks, but I’m not going to live my life by it.

    I think Adam is being a little unfair – the awards have always been about just the year in which they are given and not an attempt to define masterworks of a generation (the hyperbole is mine.)  Knowing that the population in the 70’s loved Sypder Robinson is interesting to me, even if they did miss out on some other great authors.

    But honestly, go back and look at much-maligned (by me) Hugo award for best novel.  There aren’t a lot of unworthy choices in the 70’s and 80’s – instead I see of list of books I have great respect for.

  6. An aside: I find it very confusing when publishers put “Winner of the Huge/Nebula/Something Award,” they never seem to make it clear whether the specific book won the award or just the author.

    • Are sf/f/h book awards completely useless?
    • Do you find any value in them?
    • Are they accurate indicators of…anything?
    • Are you tired of this topic resurfacing yet again?

    Are sf/f/h book awards completely useless?

    No, they have some merit. But time is the great reviewer, 10-20 years down the road is the book still considered worthy of the award? Has it become canon?

    Do you find any value?

    Yes, but not as much as top 100 lists online, they have been extremely useful in helping me find further reading.

    Are they accurate indicators of…anything?

    Yes how much the “Science Fictionarati” love the author.

    Are you tired of this topic resurfacing yet again?

    Yes & No. There should be better topics to discus, but I understand the cyclical nature of discussions.

  7. I’m quite surprised by how many people hate awards. Wow, did you all have a bad experience with an award or something?

  8. Obviously, in the end, it all boils down to your personal taste.  Even a recommendation from someone you normally agree with can turn out to be a book/movie/tv show you hate despite the fact that you agree with the person 99% of the time.

    However, awards do provide something of a barometer, and I would guess that librarians unfamiliar with genre publications but nonetheless tasked with ordering such books for their libraries may use the Hugos, Nebulas etc. as a useful list from which to order.

    It would not surprise me to learn that books that won the Nebula or Hugo stayed in print longer than genre books that did not (which would certainly be useful to the author).

    And not all awards are “popularity contests,” which seems to be a big objection to the Hugos.  There are awards that are juried.  There are also awards where the judging is blind (stories are given to the judges stripped of the author’s name and where it was published) – The WSFA Small Press Award is an example of this.

  9. I personally found the award lists really useful when I was transitioning from young adult books to adult books.  I loved all of the children’s science fiction and fantasy but had nowhere to start when I had grown out of them (more, when I was too embarrassed to sneak over to the children’s section of the library anymore).  I got a list of the Hugo Awards (which is more useful if you also get the other nominees with it), and a few other award lists, and just looked for books that the author or title sounded familiar and went from there.  Years later, I’ve finished a large number of those books, and it introduced me to some of my new favorite authors.  I don’t agree with the awards every year by any means, but I think it can help people who aren’t familiar with the genre find a way to get their feet wet.

  10. “…the often garlanded…Mack Reynolds”? Reynolds received exactly one Hugo nomination and two Nebula nominations, and never won either award. Of course, it’s easier to win an argument if you get to make up your own facts.

    Straighten up your act, Adam!

  11. Yeah,  his critical skills were lacking in his younger days if he didn’t recognise Gibson as important along with a whole bunch of 12 year olds. 😉

  12. I weigh in on the side of the awards.  Often, I disagree with the winner but then among the nominees is a real gem that I haven’t read and should have. Unfortunately, there are also poor ones, that I plow through,  but  I would have never sampled LITTLE BIG by John Crowley, or WHITE QUEEN by Gwyneth Jones, or THE CHILD GARDEN by Geoff Ryman and therefore added these authors to my “must read” list.  No, the right ones don’t always win.  And yes, many excellent novels are forgotten in the excitement of the “new” but I put it to Mr. Adams that by using all the lists  – HUGO, NEBULA, LOCUS, ARTHUR C. CLARKE, BSFA, JOHN CAMPBELL MEMORIAL and others as a reading resource – I get a really broad range of works and authors.  I read a lot that I find poor (such as SALT by Adam Roberts – nominated for the  Arthur C. Clarke Award) but then they nominate GRADISIL by the same author and find myself entranced by a brilliant work.  They are  a helpful guide for all to find good books.  (I first read Ursula K. LeGuin because of all those hugos and nebulas and now I have had the distinct pleasure of completely devouring LAVINIA whether it is nominated for something or not.)

  13. FYI…Here is Mike Glyer’s more detailed response at File 770.

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