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MIND MELD: Genre Awards: What are They Good for Anyway?

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Q: Genre Awards: What are they good for anyway?

It seems there are more and more awards every year, from the early days of the Hugo and Nebula Awards to multiple awards nowadays, and controversies surrounding many of them. For you as a genre reader/writer and part of the community, what purpose do genre awards serve, either as a specific award or awards in general?

Karen Burnham
Karen Burnham is vocationally an electromagnetics engineer and avocationally a science fiction reviewer and critic. She writes for venues such as Locus Magazine, Strange Horizons, and our own SFSignal.com. She is a vice president of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and has written a book on the work of hard sf author Greg Egan. She currently lives in Maryland with her husband and two children. She tweets @SpiralGalaxy.

We genre folks love our awards! We’ve got a lot of them for a lot of different purposes. Some of the best known ones have been analyzed and hashed and rehashed into a bubbling stew of opinions, but then there are some that are less well known that have their own virtues. Consider the Crawford award. Established by Andre Norton and named after publisher and editor William L. Crawford, this is a juried award presented to an author for their first book of fantasy, whether that’s a short story collection or a novel. Over the years it’s been presented to folks such as Charles de Lint, Greer Gilman, Susan Palwick, Jonathan Lethem, Kij Johnson, Joe Hill, Daryl Gregory, Karen Lord, and a number of other people who we’re glad have stuck around and written more. I once had the opportunity to do a podcast with recent winners Chris Barzak, Jedediah Berry, and Genevieve Valentine), and they all expressed just how much it meant to them to be recognized so early in their careers. It’s great that the Hugos exist to (ideally) reward some of the best the field has to offer, but (usually) it takes years to build a career and public profile to the point where enough of the Hugo community knows about you to vote for you. Awards like the Crawford and the Not-A-Hugo Campbell award for New Writers, as well as the Writers of the Future program, can offer much-needed validation to authors who are relatively new, who might need that extra bit of encouragement after looking at stacks of rejection letters and paltry per-word pay rates. When we give an award to a person or a piece of work, we’re saying “Yes, this! Please write more awesome stuff like this!” And I’m proud to be part of some awards that have encouraged great artists to produce more great art. [Full disclosure: I’m on the Crawford Award jury, and a board member of the organization, the IAFA, that administers the award each year.]

Gavin Pugh
Gavin Pugh aka Gav Reads is a Welshman who tweets a lot about books. Follow him @gavreads and say hello.

I’ve got two recent Masterwork releases on my desk right now, one is The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin and the other is The Forgotten Beast of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip. The former has ‘Winner of the Hugo Award’ on its cover and the latter has ‘Winner of the World Fantasy Award for best novel,’ so Gollancz thinks it helps with reasoning process when considering buying an older book. Commercially, it helps stores to set up displays of shortlists and gathers books together on a table or in a section and online you often seen awards part of a website’s categories. So it has a function in marketing a book (novel/collection/anthology etc.) to an audience.

I do think seeing a mention of an award, either winning or being shortlisted/nominated, does bring an interest to a work. It’s especially helpful when you’re looking outside your comfort zone and seeing what work others think are ‘worthy’ of recognition helps narrow down your choices. It’s easy to stick to authors you know you’ll like so shortlists can give me a quality shopping list of things I may have missed, this is especially true for the shorter fiction categories as I need all the help I can get not to miss interesting works there. My own bias when looking at awards is looking at fiction, but things like Life Achievement awards are nice for those who get them as often they are for their work as a whole, which is hard to recognise with the focus of most genre awards.

Are all awards created equally? No, that’s why there are so many of them. Each has a focus, which when done well, makes their announcements exciting and something I notice. I like seeing the various announcements as each brings a different conversation. For example The Kitschies reward the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic; Arthur C. Clarke Award searches for the best Science Fiction novel of the year; Shirley Jackson Award for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic; The Ditmar Awards for Australian SF; and The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science-fiction novel of the year. These awards show a range of fiction and interests within the genre. They all have their own personalities and are guaranteed to spark curiosity in their selections.

Awards can also be used to shape personal challenges around. I love watching Jared of Pornokitsch battle the Gemmell Awards. I don’t agree with the selection process as the awards themselves are a popularity contest but the analyse they generate makes them a fun thing. Awards inspire conversions which are sometimes unhelpful but I could listen to Jonathan and Gary from The Coode Street Podcast discuss them for endless hours.

I do think that some in the community take some awards way too seriously, so the idea of the award itself dominates rather than considering the works themselves, which can sometimes be unhealthy but mostly they provide a wonderful showcase of the range of speculative fiction, which we can safely recommend to those who don’t follow the genre with the same level of interest as we do.

Kristi Charish
Kristi Charish is a biologist, urban fantasy author, and the Canadian cohosting half at Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing. Her debut novel, Owl and the Japanese Circus (Simon and Schuster), can be found where books and ebook are sold. Follow her @kristicharish and http://www.kristicharish.com.

All right, so I’ve been trying to decide how to answer this one all week. In all honesty, here’s what I came up with:

Awards mean about as much to me as a cool sounding description, snappy cover, or a particularly catching quote by an author and/or critic I admire (and to be honest the author/critic probably gets the most mileage- I mean, if Neil Gaiman says it’s good…). Maybe they catch my attention while I’m browsing the local bookstore or Amazon Kindle, or cause me to pause and spend a bit longer looking at the back cover or first page, but at the end of the day the awards tagline boils down to a marketing tool.

…I’m not giving a lot of awards a lot of prestige credit here, am I? Maybe I’ve become cynical too fast in my budding writing career, but the marketing tool is how awards resonate with me.

At their core, awards are a way for a group of people – whether it be an awards committee or entire voting community – to let the community at large know that group A thought book B was the best one that came out last year. Now, if you are particularly fond of the awards group doing the recommending (or the recommendations they’ve made before), then that may mean a whole whack to you as a reader and potential book buyer. It might even decide the next five or ten books you’ll be buying. But does it actually mean those books are better or that you’ll somehow enjoy them more? Not if a number of my all-time favorite reads have anything to say about it.

This idea of attributing a ‘best of’ or ‘highest quality’ label to a medium that at its core is an entertainment art sometimes worries me. I’ve picked up many a Hugo, Nebula, or Aurora award-winning novel over the years and been glad and enriched for it (I’ve also picked up ones that I could have done without, but such is the risk of consuming a subjective art). I can more often than not see why the winners have won and entertained many. And then there are the books that haven’t caught the attention of an awards group, ones I love and read often. The fact they haven’t won an award doesn’t make the joy of reading them and sharing them with my friends any less fulfilling. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or, in this case, the readers putting down their money. It also doesn’t make the book any less valuable or worthy of readers’ attention.

And what about the author? What does an award mean for them? That a group of readers read your book and thought it was the best one out there. For any writer on the planet that is an amazing feeling on par with the moment the very first complete stranger writes you to say they read and liked your book. It’s an awesomeness and level of recognition your mom, cat, or significant other can’t provide.

…and it also means you still have to write another book.

Bradley P. Beaulieu
Bradley P. Beaulieu is the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed epic fantasy series, The Lays of Anuskaya. Along with fellow author Gregory A. Wilson, Brad runs the highly successful science fiction and fantasy podcast, Speculate!, which can be found at www.speculatesf.com. His next book, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, will be released in September from DAW Books in North America and Gollancz in the UK. He can be found on Twitter @bbeaulieu.

This is a huge topic and hard to unpack in a single post. But let me start by saying that with everything that’s been going on with the Hugos, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that awards, at their most basic level, are about celebration. Celebration of the genre. Celebration the books we love. Celebration of new voices, and not-so-new voices. It’s a way to recognize accomplishment. A way to shout to the speculative fiction world, and hopefully beyond, that this thing, this new piece of fiction, is something worth reading (or listening to, or viewing, as the case may be).

Have awards become more diversified (some might say fractured)? Yes, but what’s wrong with that? It’s just a reflection of the diversification and fracturing of our fiction. I won’t go so far as to say the golden age of science fiction was monolithic—it was a wonderful time filled with books that pushed the existing boundaries in new and exciting directions—but it’s hard to argue it wasn’t more monolithic then than it is now. As fiction bifurcates into increasingly specialized niches—creating, in essence, entirely new sub-genres—it’s natural to see a desire welling up to highlight the best examples of that fictional style.

Just look at the Gemmels. They’re an award very specific to traditional fantasy and its modern offshoots: high and low and everything in between. Is this an award that comes close to representing fantasy as a whole, much less speculative fiction? Not by a long shot. But so what? Lovers of fantasy enjoy and participate in those awards, and to me, that’s enough. Plenty of other awards can be viewed in a similar way. It’s a perfectly wonderful thing: before, during, and after the award process, it gets us thinking about fiction, talking about it, sharing it. How can we not applaud that?

That isn’t to say there aren’t problems. Awards have been tarnished in the past, they’re being tarnished now, and they will be in the future. And it certainly seems reasonable to think that the very community the awards helped to foster also helped to create the insular environment that contributed to the backlash we’re seeing in the Hugos now. But let’s not lose sight of the good our awards have done.

Anyone catch Paolo Bacigalupi’s release of The Water Knife this past week? Anyone think he would have reached the audience he did with his debut and leveraged that into the amazing deal with Knopf without The Windup Girl winning its trifecta of awards (the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Campbell)? This is to take nothing away from Paolo’s brilliant, gritty style; he deserved every dollar of that new deal. But it’s also true that awards can contribute (sometimes greatly) to that ever-elusive “buzz” we’re all hoping to create.

It’s true that only a few awards have the ability to create noticeable outreach, even when added together, but awards also inspire. They make us strive to be better. They push our fiction to achieve what others have achieved. And as time goes on, they act as topographical guideposts, a snapshot of our collective mindset as we look back over the territory charted by the books and the authors who won and were nominated for those awards.

It can be easy for us to dismiss the value of awards, particularly when they’re viewed as having become too specialized, or when the curtain is pulled back to reveal an imperfect, game-able process. But neither of those things delegitimizes the awards themselves. In the former case, the award has meaning within the community that strives to honor the fiction they love, even if those outside the group refuse to recognize it. And in the latter, it simply means that the nomination and voting process should be revisited and if necessary revised. If choosing to believe in awards and the basic good nature of those who nominate and vote means that I’m a wide-eyed optimist, then that’s a label I’m willing to live with.

I’m saddened by the tactics that were chosen by the various Puppy campaigns to game the Hugos, but I’m confident the award will live on, and I’m hopeful that in the end the voting base for the award will be broadened. After all, as long as everyone is given a fair shake, how can giving a voice to more fans be a bad thing?

Linda Nagata
Linda Nagata is a Hawaii writer, best known for her high-tech science fiction. Her newest novel, The Red, is a near-future military thriller available June 30 from Saga Press. Find her online at MythicIsland.com, or on Twitter @LindaNagata.

I think there are two main purposes to an award: (1) to bring attention to specific books and authors, and by so doing (2) to shape the genre.

All readers want to see more books of the sort they love, whatever that sort may be. For many readers of SFF, that means finding a book that is new and different and exciting enough that it delivers the same sort of mind kick we experienced when we first started reading the genre—and when we find that book, naturally we want to see it do well. What better way to encourage more amazing books to follow? But the field is vast and diverse, and what amazes some leaves others cold. I suspect the proliferation of awards is a reflection of this—and I think it’s fine.

Different awards promote different books for different reasons. As an author, I can say that we’re happy for any attention we can get. Awards also operate in very different ways. For most awards, books need buzz to be a contender, and the buzz has to happen in a timely manner. If there’s no spontaneous street team pushing a title, it could slip past unnoticed. This is where a juried award can make a difference, because the judges read across a wide spectrum, and can consider books that might have been missed by the popular awards, which benefits us all by highlighting a variety of good fiction.

You’ll sometimes hear that awards don’t matter, and it’s true that many books sell well without ever being nominated for anything, and many authors have lucrative careers with no awards on the shelf. But for many of us, especially for those of us not already well known, winning a major award—or even being nominated—can breathe life into a career. This is not theory. In 2013, for various reasons, I decided to self-publish my novel The Red: First Light. It did okay in the market to start, but reader interest spiked after it was nominated for the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Memorial awards—and it’s now due to be republished, along with two sequels, by Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press. There’s no doubt in my mind that the award nominations helped that to happen.

So if you find a book that works for you, encourage others to read it, nominate it for an appropriate award if you feel it’s worthy, and vote if you can. That’s a positive, productive way of growing the genre.

About Rob H. Bedford (62 Articles)
Rob H. Bedford writes The Completeist Column and curates Mind Melds here at SF Signal. Elsewhere, he is the Lead Book reviewer for SFFWorld, where he is also a Moderator in their discussion forums. In addition to over a decade’s worth of reviews at SFFWorld, his reviews and articles have also appeared at Tor.com and in the San Francisco/Sacramento Book.

2 Comments on MIND MELD: Genre Awards: What are They Good for Anyway?

  1. David Greybeard // June 3, 2015 at 5:58 am //

    Awards also help us remember books as time marches on. Books published in 2015 that were not nominated for any awards and did not win any awards might more quickly be forgotten. Forty years into the future which books will be remembered? Not a lot. A few will. And those lists of award winners will bring to mind books of the past.

  2. Just to be clear. Having found the awards that speak to your own tastes, arguably for the serious book reader it is the short list that is perused (which by definition will include the eventual winner) and the winner is just something of passing interest.

    You can see if this applies to you. Go back through the Hugos and see what was on the shortlist compared to what won. You may well be surprised.
    http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/

    It is also interesting to see how the beginning-of-year best of (past) year website recommendations on various websites tie in with eventual shortlists (and winners) later in the year. (Our team seems to have something of a knack for this at concatenation.org.)

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