SF Awards – rubbish.

The Adam Roberts Project

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.

29 thoughts on “SF Awards – rubbish.”

  1. Excellent work Adam and welcome on board.

    Personally I feel that awards are only worth bothering about in so far as they raise awareness about interesting books. Unfortunately though, a lot of the time awards are simply popularity contests or attempts to bestow honours on authors whose better works passed fandom by. At that point, awards stop being useful and become smug exercises in self-indulgence; an opportunity for authors to feel admired and for fans to delude themselves into thinking that they’re something other than consumers.

    So yes, I’d agree with you that they’re rubbish 🙂

  2. (Does it seem right, in retrospect, that Iain M Banks never won a novel Hugo or a Clarke award?)

    Poor old Banks. I agree that he probably isn’t going to write anything good again but he isn’t dead yet. Fingers crossed for his Blood On The Tracks.

    And poor old McEwan. Amsterdam is the only real dud in his catalogue but because of its ludicrous Booker win it is always going to be brought up as the exemplar of retrospective awards justice.

  3. The 1998 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist:

    The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (Black Swan)
    Days, James Lovegrove (Phoenix)
    The Family Tree, Sheri S. Tepper (HarperCollins Voyager)
    Glimmering, Elizabeth Hand (HarperCollins Voyager)
    Nymphomation, Jeff Noon (Doubleday)
    Titan, Stephen Baxter (HarperCollins Voyager)

    Of the three I’ve read there are two stinkers and one mediocre novel. Unaccountably, however, the passage of ten years has not made people realise that The Sparrow is a bag of shit. If anything it has cemented its reputation as a modern classic. (See here, for example.)

  4. Good essay.

    Adam: have you read “The Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb?

    One of Taleb’s many pet topics is how the ultimate arbiter of quality in literature is time – and as such the classics of the Ancient Greeks are the bizniz (he argues).

    Another of Taleb’s pet topics (he’s that kind if guy) is the information bias: how exposure to lots of information doesn’t necessarily improve your ability to make decisions, and in fact can have a detrimental effect on decision making.

    And you’re right, both these factors are definitely applicable to end-of-year best-of lists.

    Anyway it’s a good argument for having an SF lit award that is given out 10 years after publication.

  5. My first thought is that I don’t see any problems with having first drafts of history, as long as everyone remembers that’s what they are. Sometimes, after all, they even get it right; people may have been mad for McIntyre and May in the eighties, but I hardly think it’s fair to say that Gibson was ignored, given the number of awards bestowed on Neuromancer. (Would Jeff Noon be as known in the sf community if Vurt hadn’t won the Clarke?) Adam, would it be fair to characterise you as feeling that, too often, people don’t remember?

    My second thought is that while more retrospective analysis of what was really the best of a given year would be both valuable and interesting, it’s also surprisingly hard to do. Where does one go to get a list of science fiction novels published in 1988? Wikipedia has a category, but it’s for all genres of fiction, and includes a grand total of 217 novels. There’s probably a “notable novels” list in the Dozois for that year, but that’s an exercise in selection already. About the only way I can think of is if you happen to have access for a complete run of Locus, and can spend the time going through the “books received” listings. And then there’s the question of what’s in print, or even what’s available in libraries …

  6. The question that springs to my mind is not “how do we get it right?” as it is “why do we bother?”

    After Worldcon we were all pulling together lists of the 20 most influential SF novels and I was reminded during that period of those terrible clip shows that Channel 4 used to put out. I’m not sure that coming to realise that Excession should have been on the Hugo shortlist in ’98 (or was it ’97?) is much more intellectually worth-while than looking back and wondering what women were thinking when they all started wearing puffball skirts and leg-warmers.

    The Sparrow made it onto quite a few “best of 20” lists during the summer but Martin thinks it’s a bag of shit. And? I’m not sure that there’s a way of making anything of that pair of judgments.

  7. Sorry for posting this twice, too many typos the first time. In my defence, I’m not well:

    When do we draw the line and decide that an acceptable amount of time has now past and it is possible to make a judgment. If two months is not enough, is two years? Or two decades? How about a couple of centuries?

    Of course the lists of “best” books of 2009 would look significantly different drawn up from these different perspectives. They’d be drawn up by different people, with different backgrounds, interested in different things. But why assume that one perspective is intrinsically better than the others?

    The book that wins any year’s BSFA, Clarke, Hugo or, for that matter, Man Booker reflects the majority judgment of specific groups of people at the specific time of their choosing. But then so do the choices made at any other point in the timeline – it’s just different people, different times.

    True the hypothetical groups of people who sit down 20 or 200 years from now might have the opportunity to make their judgment against a broader background – they might get to read more of the books that were printed in this year (although, actually, they probably won’t, what with having to make decisions about all the other years before and after too, having to find the books [how many 2009 sf published books will be available in 2029 or 2209] and having to keep up with the books published in their own year so they can vote in the 2029 and 2209 BSFA Awards) and they will probably have more insight into the overall contribution of various authors and the subsequent weight and influence of their work. But what they can’t have is the sense of making the immediate choice about what is important to them right now in the instant of the books’ publishing.

    Perhaps awards shortlists aren’t much use at predicting what’d going to make it into “canon” but if nothing else they provide an interesting insight into what their nominating groups care about right here, right now.

    (PS I quite liked The Sparrow)

  8. “The Sparrow is a bag of shit.”

    The thing that hacks me off about The Sparrow is that it beat my novel A Son Of The Rock to the BSFA award for that year.
    At the time I put it down to people trying to reach out beyond the genre in the continual search for literary credibility. (Catholics in space? Must</strong) be worthy.)

  9. “Well, to be fair, A Son Of The Rock is pretty bad too.”
    Opinions differ.
    Foundation called it “a jewel in the substrate of popular fiction” and there’s also “A pretty damn fine debut novel. I recommend this to anyone who has even a passing interest in Science Fiction” at http://bookmole.vox.com/

  10. Interesting comments. I’m afraid I can only respond in haste: kids to put to bed and so on.

    1. I dislike The Sparrow really very much; I think it is a bad novel in several ways.

    2. I don’t think we can avoid (or abdicate responsibility for) judgment; it’s about separating the good books that you really ought to read from the ones you don’t want to waste time and money on. You shouldn’t read to pass the time, or to paint pretty mental pictures inside your head, or to learn things, or to be able to boast that you’ve read something, or because your teacher told you to: you should read the live. Reading is important, and celebrating reading (and, as Johnathan M says, raising awareness about interesting books) is important too. A lot of SF culture is built around awards; the highlight of Eastercon will be discovering that Anathem has whichever shortlisted title has won the BSFA award; the great and the good and even the beautiful of the UK SF scene will turn out to see the Arthur C Clarke winner announced … it’s a good bash, that one. We haven’t reached the stage of some literary cultures: in France, so I understand, there’s a large tranche of the popultion who read the Prix Goncourt winner, and that’s the one book they read in a year. That’s not a good thing. But awards are important: I’m not suggesting we jetison them.

    3. “Adam, would it be fair to characterise you as feeling that, too often, people don’t remember?” Well in the longer run what we’re talking about is the way canons form. My point is that there’s merit in keeping these debates alive; the alternative, in the longer durĂ©e, is to fall into calcified, habitual thinking. One of the projects of academic English studies over the last quarter century, has been precisely to revist the consensus on earlier literatures, and its been one of the healthier manifestations of academic endeavour I think. For example: it was taken for granted that the novel was invented by a bunch of men in the eighteenth-century, because that was the received wisdom, and that shaped people’s reading … people read and taught Defoe, Richardson, Fielding and that was thought to cover it; and because that was what was taught and read it embedded itself culturally that that’s what there was to read. Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel put the cat among the pigeons: there were, she argued, with evidence, one hundred good female novelists working before Jane Austen and they’d been forgetten by a largely male critical consensus. What would be good, to shift to SF, is for that not to become the case.

    So, to stick to the examples in this thread, for it not just to become received wisdom that The Sparrow is a modern classic just because it won an award: why not have a look at the other titles on that list. I’d say Titan, Days and the Jeff Noon title are all better. We could have a conversation why.

    Hmm. Not so hasty as I should have been … teethbrushtime now.

  11. Point 2, line 5: ‘you should read the live’ should be ‘you should read to live‘.

    You know what Futurismic needs for its comments threads? A preview option … grumble grumble.

  12. Cyril Connolly once wrote that his challenge was, “…how to write a book that lasts ten years.” Books generally stay in print longer today than then, but it raises an interesting question: Why should we think future readers will have any better idea of the value of what’s being printed today than we do now, given that lots of it will go out of print?

    Dick is used as an example. But the possibility of survivorship bias is very strong (since someone has raised Taleb). That is, how many of Dick’s contemporaries were just as good, but went into obscurity anyway?

    To say future readers (even if they’re ourselves) will have different tastes than we do now — well, of course. But at that point it’s all just a question of taste over merit anyway, and where’s the harm?

    Reading the above thread, it seems there’s a verb being conjugated here: “My work has merit; your work has taste; her work is a bag of shit.” Or a variant of George W. Bush’s appeal to history: “Future readers will value my work more than you callous idiots do now!”

  13. There are occasional 50 year retro Hugos now.
    Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein won the Reto Hugo novel award at The Millennium Philcon in 2001.

  14. I use award lists to enlarge my reading. I don’t vote but eventually I read everything nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus (only the top five) and John W. Campbell Memorial. I am still reading some of these lists but it gives me new works to read that have been forgotten today. Without nominations I would not have read THE WHITE QUEEN by Gwyneth Jones, LITTLE BIG by John Crowley, or THE CHILD GARDEN by Geoff Ryman. You read a lot of dogs by doing this but a lot of gems, as well. For example, I read SALT by Adam Roberts because it was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke Award and really hated it. Then I read GRADISIL because of being nominated for the same award and was totaly entranced by it. (By the way I really like THE SPARROW and Vonda McIntyre and John Varley – as well as Octava Butler and Wlliam Gibson) Oh, one thing – Mack Reynolds won no awards and I think was only nominated twice. William Gibson and Octavia Butler have won many different awards so the awards worked according to your criterion in those years. Even maligned Philip K. Dick won a Hugo and was nomnated for the Hugo 3 times and the Nebula six. Of course he nver did win a Nebula which just makes it clear that the list is more important than the winners. I read Ursula K. LeGun because of all those Hugos and Nebulas in the sixtes and seventies and if I hadn’t sampled her because of that then I would never have been able to read LAVINIA. Whether or not it gets nominated for anything – (and it undoubtaby should)the award lists are worth it for me because they lead me to favorite authors as well as individual brillant works.

  15. Bob is an example of the system working the way it is supposed to work.

    Oh, one thing – Mack Reynolds won no awards and I think was only nominated twice. William Gibson and Octavia Butler have won many different awards so the awards worked according to your criterion in those years.

    I stand corrected. It may be that my sense that the writers thought brilliant one year on are not the same ones thought brilliant 25-years on is truthy, rather than true.

  16. I’d prefer a panel to select rather than public vote. Exit, Pursued by a Bee was pipped to #1 spot (adjudication still proceeding) by Dave Freer and Eric Flint’s Slow Train To Arcturus in the Preditors & Editors readers poll this month. Dave tells me Exit never stood a chance because his book’s publishers has such a huge networked fanbase – Baen’s Universe – that they’d always be able to drum up another pile of last minute votes.

    The whole topic of awards reminds me of another award. Paul Theroux told Julian Barnes how, as a Booker judge in 1979, he had been doing his preliminary reading while travelling through Patagonia by train, and would skim out into the pampas books he considered not even worth discussing. On his arrival in the UK Paul found that Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore was shortlisted and that it was one now being eaten by Aberdeen Angus. Offshore won.


  17. It seems strange to complain about the Baen’s Universe network of fans skewing an award, since it seems that the problem wasn’t that they mustered all their fans to vote, but that you couldn’t muster as many. You are assuming the panel would have come to a different result 🙂

    Also I love The Sparrow, you bunch of wrongheads.

  18. I put a more extensive (or maybe just more verbose) response on my blog at http://jeremykminton.blogspot.com/2009/01/sf-awards-long-views-or-short.html but the truncated version goes like this:

    Leaving aside the fact that Gibson’s Neuromancer picked up the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Dick, suggesting that the award process can get it right at least some of the time, I take issue with the notion that the long view is necessarily any better than the short one.

    For fifty years after his death in 1750 J S Bach was regarded as old-fashioned, difficult, better as a performer than a composer. The Nineteenth Century was well advanced before his reputation had reached the preeminent position it enjoys today. Are assessments of a work made two hundred years after a work’s first publication inherently any “better” than those made twenty years after?

    Aesthetic or cultural judgments at a given moment are always a combination of the merits of the thing being judged and the mood and values prevalent at the time. Unless we seriously want to argue that our collective judgment will be better in twenty years time than it is today then there is very little merit in not making some kind of assessment in the heat of immediate experience.

    If the passing of years even suggests that the books were not that great, that judgment which was passed upon them was naĂŻve, flaky or just plan wrong then does it matter all that much? Those stories which endure and resonate down the years will have their own reward bestowed on them by that very longevity. What this year’s awards provide is a sense of what is important now, that these are the things which capture the heart or resonate in the soul of readers now. That seems to me to be at least as worthy of reward and recognition as the (still capricious, still contentious) evaluation of “what mattered” twenty years after the event.

  19. Very well thought out article, as ever, Adam, and it’s stimulated an excellent debate with compelling arguments on all sides.

    Personally, I think awards do serve a purpose, although it might not be the one they purport to. Yes, historical perspective may produce a different result, but so what? An award provides a record of (a person’s / group os people’s) opinion at the time. Fallible, certainly, inadequately informed, probably, but still a barometer of existant opinion.

    I generally value shortlists as much as I do the actual winners. All right, thoughts on the worthiness of a given winner may change with time, but I defy anyone to find a shortlist which doesn’t contain genuine quality in it somewhere…

    At the very least, awards and their shortlists provide plenty of scope for healthy debate!

    Oh, and, for the record, while I had a few issues with the sequel, I thought The Sparrow was a tremendous book!

  20. Liz says: It seems strange to complain about the Baen’s Universe network of fans skewing an award, since it seems that the problem wasn’t that they mustered all their fans to vote, but that you couldn’t muster as many. You are assuming the panel would have come to a different result.”
    I wasn’t assuming anything. Nor was I complaining. In fact because the poll ran a cumulative score updated hourly people were telling me Exit was #1 several times during the final few days of polling. I’m chuffed Exit, Pursued by a Bee came #2 out of 160+. Having said that it says little about the quality of our oeuvre and more about rallying votes – even one more vote. Trying to be objective public voting is a bizarre way to choose ‘best works’, but it is great fun!

  21. I didn’t dislike The Sparrow, but didn’t think it was that great a work.

    “Gibson’s Neuromancer picked up the Nebula, the Hugo, and the Dick, suggesting that the award process can get it right at least some of the time”

    I know lots of folk found Gibson fresh and amazing but I simply couldn’t trust him as a writer because of that first sentence, “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
    What, pray, is the colour of television?
    The image which I suspect Gibson intended is definitely not what the sentence conjures for me, which is white noise rather than a greyish blandness. And “television” is an industry, not an object.
    Consider the absolutely equivalent sentence, “The sky was the colour of battleship, painted for action.” How much sense does that make?
    Too much striving for effect and, unfortunately, failing.

  22. Dear Sir,

    I am the PR of the newly estabilished Romanian Science-Fiction and Fantasy Society.
    I would like to post in our web some translated parts from your essay. Please be so kind and give us approvals for doing so. Thank you very much for your kindly answer.

    Best regards,

    Sorin Camner

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