A new year is upon us, which means in the happy lands of SF the first prize shortlists are peeking over the lip of their nests. Here’s the BSFA shortlist; Clarke, Nebula, Hugo and Phil Dick are all in the offing, sifting through 2008’s output to boil it down to a list of the best of the best.
Award shortlists are all rubbish.
Let me explain what I mean.
My problem is not per se. SF awards have an important role to play in SF culture, as do end of year best-of lists, and those useful collections with titles such as ‘Years Best SF’ and ‘Years Best Fantasy.’ This has to do with the dissemination of the best the genre has to offer as widely as possible around the community of people interested in SF.
Apart from titles written by celebrities, most books get sold by word-of-mouth recommendation. Award shortlists and best-of itineraries are the formalized equivalents of this. We act upon word-of-mouth recommendations when we trust the person making them. In the case of Awards shortlists and bests-ofs this means trusting fandom–because, in various ways, it is fandom that selects these titles. An increasing number of SFF awards are now fan-nominated and fan-led; but even the juried awards (which personally I prefer, as less prone to the strong currents that are always sweeping a small number of in-vogue titles into the net) assemble their juries together out of fans. Why, after all, would a non-fan want to sit on a SF award panel?
The point I’m making is this: I am not suggesting that awards shortlists and best-ofs are rubbish because the people who compile them are shoddy, or biased, or motivated by hidden agenda. By and large, award panel judges people take their job seriously, work thoughtfully and-generally-do their best. That is not where the problem lies.
Of course nobody is pretending infallibility; but neither is the process particularly corrupt. It is not the case, for example, that publishers or other special interests are able (or, I think, would even want) to influence who gets on awards shortlists. Unlike–say–the Olympic Committee deciding who gets to host the games, nobody on SFF panels receives lavish and euphemistically monikered ‘gifts’ to influence the decisions that get made. Fans, by and large, care about their genre; they want to celebrate the best of it, and to pass the word around. It is in no fannish interest to represent bad SFF as the best of the genre, because that would in turn suggest the genre is bad. Some fans have no taste, of course; that’s true in every field of human aesthetic endeavour. But the wisdom of crowds means that these aberrations, these purple-and-brown wallpaper people, these ‘Jonathan Ross is a well-dressed man, isn’t he’ types, get evened out by the larger mood of the community.
But awards lists and best-ofs are rubbish, for all that. 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-panellists 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. In the 1980s we went crazy for Julian May and John Varley and Vonda Mcintyre; but the truly significant figures from that decade turned out to be Alan Moore and Octavia Butler and William Gibson. SF academics who championed Jack Womack and Rachel Pollack 90s were right that they are interesting writers, but wrong that they’d prove the most enduring figures of 90s SF. (Does it seem right, in retrospect, that Iain M Banks never won a novel Hugo or a Clarke award?)
Indeed, awards themselves are sometimes motivated by a sense of this very belatedness: Green Mars wins the Hugo that, really, should have gone to Red Mars, a much better novel. Awards, conscious that they overlooked Important Figure’s masterwork a few years back (hindsight being 20:20) sometimes scrabble to make amends by giving the prize to Important Figure’s recent makeweight cash-in. That’s human. I’d guess Ben Bova’s Titan won the 2007 Campbell not because it was the best novel on the shortlist–‘best’ comes nowhere near describing it; indeed it hardly deserves even ‘novel’–but because Bova himself is widely known and widely liked as a human and as a heart-in-the-right-place member of the SF community.
But there’s something even more corrosive at work. The particular requirement of awards-that the judges read a whole heap of novels-is, more than anything, the things that makes awards screwy. Properly to claim ‘X is the year’s best SF novel’ one would have to try and read the complete fictional output of one year in one year. Anybody who has tried this-even tried a shrunken, within-reason version of it (not thousands of novels; simply the 80 or 100 that are realistically award contenders)-will tell you it is more than a chore. It is a chore, but it is more. It is a distorting and hallucinatory experience.
If you take a simple, comprehensible word (‘chore’, say) and repeat it over and over again to yourself (‘chore’, ‘chore’, ‘chore’) you soon reach a state (‘chore’, ‘chore’, ‘chore’, ‘chore’, ‘chore’) where the word ceases to signify. It becomes a weird, meaning-smear, an incantation. It’s an uncanny little game to play with one word, but with a complete novel it is fatally corrosive of critical judgment. Read one novel, and you can say whether and why you think it is good or bad. Read a hundred novels in two months and it becomes hard to say which bit of the book is for reading and which for chewing feverishly with your teeth.
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. This is an index not of the judges’ stupidity but rather of the effect of reading Brasyl after reading 50 mediocre novels in short order. Or not necessarily even mediocre novels. Perhaps 50 moderate, competent fictions. You read 100 books rapidly, one after the other-you do it in good faith, you make notes as you go on, you try and keep hold of the larger purpose. But then you sit down at the end of the process you discover your mind has become the Marabar Caves.
Imagine yourself in that situation: what do you do? Let’s say you can’t avoid your commitment to coming up with a shortlist by a set deadline. Let’s say you have many other demands upon your time. Let’s say, to be specific, that you’re a 1998 Booker judge. Quoth you (as it might be): ‘well it seemed to me that McEwan’s Amsterdam was precisely as middling-mediocre as the other 100 novels I have just read. But McEwan has a major reputation! His novel must be good, or he wouldn’t have accrued such literary celebrity. I’d better put that on my wishlist. At least nobody will ridicule me for my judgment as they might do if I list an unknown.’ Two people do this. Thus does a weak novel get on the shortlist.
And once a title is on a shortlist all bets are off. Shortlists are bizarro-itineraries, where horsetrading and judge’s personal crotchets and the urge to sort it out in time for lunch tangle with the pure business of aesthetic judgment. And when the dust settles and you discover that you’ve actually gone and awarded the Booker to a novel as fundamentally slight and underpowered as Amsterdam you can at least console yourself with the thought: well, this makes up for last year when Enduring Love didn’t win the prize.
Novels are not designed to be consumed in bulk. Most of us, having spent hard-earned money on a novel, take as much time as we need to read it. Like any pleasure we want to savour it, and so we should: the best novels respond well to that mode of engagement. I’m not quite arguing that being too well-read vitiates your critical judgment; although I’m saying something not entirely removed from that paradoxical statement. I’m saying the problem is being too well-read in too short a space of time. Novels need to be taken in at an appropriate pace, not swallowed whole. They need to be read in a proper intellectual and aesthetic context. Nobody but Rain Man reads 100 novels all of the same sort one after the other. Real readers mix different styles and modes, different genres, fiction and non-fiction, novels and magazines, short stories and biographies. Like any environment, novel-reading needs diversity.
This, then, is the environment out of which a proper assessment as to best novel of any given year will be reached. It can’t happen instantly. So why do we pretend it can?
My question is: what is the advantage, precisely, in rushing to judgment in the early months of 2009 about 2008’s titles? Wouldn’t it make sense to let the dust settle, let people more generally catch up with their reading, let the reputation of the respective titles find their levels?
Too few people have read too few of the many titles to even be in a position to pretend they can say what’s best in that year. But in fact–and this is the clincher–if they attempted to remedy that situation by reading a sufficiency of titles it would in fact makes matters even worse.
The answer? We should, at a pinch, be compiling a best of 1998; or (better) a best-of 1988. Like the man said about the impact of the French Revolution: maybe it really is too early to say.