The OF Blog: Awards, Schwards: Should We Even Care?

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Awards, Schwards: Should We Even Care?

Sorry for the delay, but I've had to work a lot of overtime. C'est la vie.

The Hugos have come and gone. The Nebulas are a fading memory. While we still have the World Fantasy Award, the major award season is drawing to a close. What do we make of the results?

Judging by the commentaries I've seen at OF and elsewhere, it seems as though the Hugos were a mixture of the ho-hum and the outraged. The usual suspects won, which in turn sparked the usual comments of "Oh, she/he always wins! I wish they'd pick another sometime!" or "Who the hell are these guys?" Sour grapes? Maybe, but I suspect there's more to the story than what we're seeing at first glance.

The Hugos, Nebulas, and World Fantasy Awards are decided in three distinct fashions. The Hugos by fan votes of those at the WorldCon or those who pay a fee (I believe it's around $40) to vote, the Nebulas by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the World Fantasy Awards by a panel of judges appointed months in advance to read through a nominated list of contenders. Yet while these methods on the surface should guarantee that different voices and approaches should be heard, this is often not the case.

Let's start with the Hugos. Needless to say, the way the voting is established is going to exclude Joe Schmo from the process. You have to be an active fan, willing to pay the big bucks to travel to the various WorldCons (this year's was held in Boston) or to pay a hefty $40 to mail in your vote. These people are not your typical spec fic fan. From what I can tell, there's much more of a bias toward science fiction and away from fantasy. If I remember correctly, there even was a debate once as to whether or not fantasy should even be considered at all. So there's already a sizable percentage of yearly work that's almost certainly going to be excluded. Also, and this is just an educated guess on my part, but many of the ones who attended this year's convention have been regulars at other conventions, especially those within the United States. This leads to a rather stable body of voters, many of whom might have developed certain attachments to certain authors or styles of work. Not familar with Lois Bujold's work that much (other than a few excerpts I read for two of her stories that were up for past Nebulas - both of which left me distinctly unimpressed), but from what I've heard from others, it seems as though she won as much on her Name as on the story of the book (Paladin of Souls). The same might be said for Neil Gaiman's latest winner, even though I am much more familiar with his work and have liked most of his stories.

The Nebulas present a different challenge. Authors are being asked to nominate and vote for other authors. While some might presume that it'd take an author to know an author, apparently the process is not as clear-cut as that. Sometimes, the author voters are only familiar with only a few authors and they might nominate as much out of a sense of loyalty (or out of hopes that they too will be nominated later as a reward, although this is probably too conspiracy theory-like to consider seriously) as out of high regard for the story at hand. Like the Hugos, the Nebula voting pool numbers in the low hundreds, from which a top novel, novella, novellette, and short story (among other awards) are chosen.

The World Fantasy Awards are decided by a panel of judges (authors and/or respected critics within the industry), who must meet and vote among themselves which book is to be deemed most worthy of first prize. The problem with this method is that often the judges have different standards of excellence and often must compromise with the others in order to develop a final ranking of books.

So each of these systems have their shortcomings, many of which stem from the paucity of voters as much as from other factors. What can be done, if these are the natures of the award beasts? On the surface, probably not much. Maybe awards given by magazines such as Locus should be given equal consideration, seeing as there's a larger number of voters (in the thousands, I believe) and the voting pool extends beyond the subscribers to the magazine to those who visit the online site and cast a vote there within the deadline. Maybe there should be new categories for the Hugos and Nebulas, such as Best Fantasy Novel and Best Science Fiction Novel, although the case can and will be made that defining which is which might be an exercise in futility.

But until someone reinvents the wheel and develops a new system, the readers are often left wondering what's the fuss.


Jacob said...

Awards for anything are usually a take them or leave them sort of venture. As a reader, I definitely take note if a book has received one of the three major awards, Hugo, Nebula or World Fantasy, or one of the others that show up on books occasionally, Philip K. Dick, Arthur Clarke, Brom Stoker, Lovecraft, Locus, etc. That isn't my exclusive process to finding new books, but if a book wins say both the Hugo and the Nebula, I often chance a read.

I'm often much more interested in seeing the works that are nominated over the final winner. It's always interested to see what a group of people will nominate as what they see the best new material has been. However, more than ever, it seems that we tend to get a lot of the "same old thing" especially in the novel categories. A lot of the shorter fiction that is being nominated still packs a lot of interest and creativity.

The bottom line is that as a writer I'd still love to win one of those awards for my own sense of accomplishment. If readers want to take something away from the process, it's best to take it for what it is... a contest with a limited scope with a smallish number of actual voters.

I'm sure that there are plenty of ways to reinvent or revitalize the major genre awards. Though it would be debatable what the actual good of that would be. Do you want your MTV award, your Golden Globe or that Oscar?

Anonymous said...

Ah, the award question. I've posted a lot about this at OF in my time, and I have very distinct opinions on this subject. I've certainly argued many times with people who think awards are just BS.

I think to figure out what an award means, you have to analyze who the hell is giving the awards. If something wins the Hugo, then it probably has a lot of fan appeal. If something wins the Nebula, it has a lot of appeal among the other professionals. World Fantasy...with the critics?

Basically they all suggest quality, but I agree it's best to be wary of who is voting for these things. Personally as a writer I would be thrilled to have won or even be nominated for an award.

Winning an award is not a bad thing. The thing is personal opinions and tastes. Certainly you see that at OF all the time. I even saw it at Clarion. I got in a debate with a few people about the short story "winner" and nominations at the Nebula. If you know anything about my tastes I wanted Harlan to win. And I even read the Karen Fowler story. It wasn't a terrible story, but it wasn't the most amazing thing I ever read, but everyone there were Fowler "nuts"!

Awards have meaning, but a reader must also realize that sometimes an award-winner is not going to be to their tastes. I've read plenty of Ellison anthologies where the award-winners are good, but often I like some of his regular old not nominated for anything stories rather than the ones nominated for awards. Though some of his awarded stories are quite amazing too.

You have to take for what it's worth. Something, but not EVERYTHING!

roland00 said...

The things about these rewards is that I know very little people that read a book just because it received the Hugo/Nebula/World Fantasy/etc award for that year. I based my choices usually through recommendations, have I heard anything about this author, the back cover summary, and what sub-genre of fiction it is (I usually switch sub-genres after reading a series, keeps reading more interesting and varied). Receiving a Hugo or Nebula award does not matter to me, because I know if it is a really GOOD book I probably have heard about the author by know.

The purpose of these awards is to say who is the BEST author of the year, and no matter what you do in this situation the process would be flawed. Their is no best work of literature just like their is no best author. For example Dan Simmons received a Hugo for Hyperion, but authors like Martin and Erikson have not for their works (even though they have been nominated multiple times). Does this mean Simmons is the superior author or writes the more fulfilling novel? Of Course Not!!!

Also the appearance of good literature appears in cycles. For example we had very little good Fantasy in the eighties and early nineties, only to have an explosion of works and authors today. The opposite can be said of science fiction. Does this mean an author who receives a Hugo during a literary “low point year” is a better author when compared to the person who placed second in a literary “high point year?”

In the end the winner of one o these awards receives a nice little ego boost, a sense of appreciation, and an award to put on his writing desk.

Quick Question Dylanfanatic, how is receiving a Hugo any different than winning the “WOT:OF Who is the Better Author Quick Poll”, besides the greater prestige and fame that accompanies a quick poll? The same problems are inherent in both systems.

Cheryl said...

Thanks for an interesting post. As a long-time student of the Hugos, and now a winner of one, I know only too well how deserving people and works can miss out on awards. All of my co-nominees produce fine work, but some of them have been bridesmaids for years whereas I won on my second nomination. Other people have spent years just missing the final ballot, which must be even more frustrating.

Your points on the differences between awards are well put. You may be interested in the article I wrote for The Internet Review of Science Fiction, which covers the same sort of ground.

Now for a few quick comments on your post.

After every Worldcon someone, somewhere, always complains about how the Hugos are supposed to be only for SF. This is not true. The rules say very clearly that they are for both fantasy and SF. Three out of the last four Best Novel winners have been fantasy books. The other winner was Robert Sawyer who, in today's Toronto Globe & Mail, can be seen complaining about how SF is dying and everyone is reading fantasy instead.

The $40 fee you mention is not soley for voting in the Hugos. It is effectively a membership in the World Science Fiction Society (the organization under whose auspices Worldcons are held and Hugos are awarded). In addition to Hugo voting rights it also bestows the right to vote on the location of a future Worldcon and, more importantly from the money point of view, entitles you to a bunch of publications, including the Worldcon souvenir book. Someone buying the membership just to vote in the Hugos may not want those things, but at the moment the rules say that they come as a package and the fee barely covers the cost.

On the other hand, you are quite right that Hugo voters are a select bunch. What confuses me is that so few WSFS members bother to exercise their right to vote. Typically Worldcons have around 5,000 members, but only around 1,000 participate in the Hugo voting.

And yes, you are right, it tends to be mostly the same people who vote every year.

And one quick comment on the comments. George Martin may have not won Best Novel, but he has several Hugos for his short fiction. Steve Erikson has been hampered by the fact that he has not had US publication in the US before now. WSFS is aware that most of the voters are American, even when Worldcon is held overseas. Because of this the Society has been extending Hugo eligibility to include first US publication on a trial basis. This means that Gardens of the Moon is eligible for a Hugo next year on the basis of the new Tor edition.

Lsrry said...

Hello Cheryl and congratulations on winning a Hugo for your work at Emerald City!

Thanks for pointing out that IROSF article - I have a subscription, but somehow I managed to forget to read the latest issue. That will be corrected very shortly.

Interesting piece on Sawyer. Haven't decided how much of it I can accept just yet, but it's certainly something worth debating. I think I'll make a post about it later today.

Thanks for the clarification on the WSFS membership issue. I should have checked further into it before writing, needless to say. Interesting bit about Erikson's eligibility, as I didn't know the criteria had been changed.

mapthis said...

In my opinion, the title should read:


I just don't agree with dropping one of the syllables. Hehe.

As for the actual content...nominating committees, voters, and even the awards themselves, have their own angle/affiliation/preference/axe-to-grind, so you can't put TOO much stock in them. It's nice when a work gets recognized, but when you have the big three (as I want to refer to them right now) give out their top awards to different winners, then I just lump them together into a Recommended Reading List.

No one award has more clout in my mind than any others. In the end, I read something that sounds interesting to me, not something that someone else (or group of elses) tells me is good.

Cheryl said...

A brief word of warning about extended eligibility. The rule about first US publication is currently being voted on annually by WSFS. Thus far it has always passed. Next year it may not. I try to make sure that the Emerald City Hugo Recommendation List always has the current rules.

Anonymous said...

While I know a fair number of folks who feel that Hugo awards are crap because "they are a popularity contest," and voted entirely by fans unlike the Nebulas which are "a professional award" I do not think this is entirely the case. As I understand it, all program participants must by worldcon memberships. since many program participants are professional authors and SFWA members, at least a chunk of the SFWA membership is in fact voting on the Hugos, at least in theory. Also, arguably the Nebulas are also a popularity contest, just with a different pool of voters.

I do think the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards do have significance in at least one respect. Several librarian friends have told me that their fellow librarians use the awards as a guideline on what to purchase for their libraries. Which in turn has an impact on sales and availability of the books to people who might not otherwise read them. --cathy

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