The OF Blog: What if there were a major SF/F award chosen by reviewers/critics?

Monday, April 09, 2012

What if there were a major SF/F award chosen by reviewers/critics?

I have to admit that so far this year, the 2012 SF/F/H awards/shortlists have been very underwhelming.  I have read most, if not all, of the Hugo, Nebula, Dick, Tiptree, BSFA, and Clarke shortlists/winners and very few of the shortlisted titles rated much beyond a shrug and a "meh."  The plots were mostly predictable, the themes often were retreads, the characterizations were occasionally trite and sometimes dreadful, and when viewed as a whole, these titles seem to be more the celebration of mediocrity and the satisfying of certain interest groups' (fans, judges, peers) desire for a "happy medium" than an honoring of extraordinary, challenging fictions.

In a discussion on Twitter early Sunday morning my time, there was an interesting talk about these awards in which Maureen Kinkaid Speller, her husband Paul Kincaid, Charles Tan, and myself talked about our reactions to the awards.  Charles said something to me that I've been thinking about for much of the past day.  He observed that there is a distinction to be made between "critical" works and "pop" works and that for those such as myself who do not self-identify as "fans" (nor have judged nor been a writing peer), these nominees are not likely going to appeal to the likes of those such as myself.  It is a fair point, as I found myself thinking, "Why isn't Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox or Colson Whitehead's Zone One getting any consideration on these shortlists?  What about the translation of Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar's Kafka's Leopards?  How have Gonçalo M. Tavares' works, particularly last year's translation of Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, been ignored?  Why isn't Jesse Ball's Curfew or Blake Butler's There is No Year considered for what they do with prose constructions?"  These questions in turn could be applied to others reading other sets of works that either touch upon or delve deeply into various speculative traditions, ranging from weird fiction to interstitial works to new meldings of various genres.  Who are the champions of these works who do not meet a "happy medium" but instead may polarize readers who are not receptive to them yet to others may be a godsend?

I reflected on the various awards whose shortlists I have read since last summer.  One series of awards, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, caught my attention because the membership was derived of those who reviewed book for periodicals, presumably including the major online outlets in addition to print editions.  While I did not always agree with their selections for who won the awards, I did find myself marveling over how varied and yet excellent the works were on the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry categories.  That left me pondering what would be produced if there were a SF/F analogue, where those who are established reviewers (say those who freelance and have received monetary payment for their reviews) were to gather as an e-body and cast ballots for 3-5 works that they felt would be most deserving of recognition.  I suspect there would certainly be a different sort of shortlist, one that wouldn't necessarily be comprised from "core genre" publications, with likely finalists whose works would not be as inclined to harken back to earlier pulp/genre traditions.

Could such an award be created?  Perhaps, but it certainly would take a lot of time, money, and organizational meetings to realize such a project.  But as a hypothetical to which the current existing awards could be compared, I suspect if such an entity were ever to be created, it would differ from both fan/organization-based awards such as the BSFA or Hugos and panel-based awards such as the Clarke or World Fantasy (the Nebulas of course are different from both) in that there wouldn't be the need to settle for a consensus/majority pick for a panel award nor would there necessarily be the most visible appearing, as is usually the case with fan/organization awards.  Something different might be produced as a result (leaving space for ideals falling far short of reading/reviewing realities) that might generate a different sort of debate over what constitutes "the best" in SF/F publishing.  This might not be such a bad thing after all, n'est ce pas?


Charles said...

Hi Larry,

You can theoretically host such an award, and I do think that the shortlist will be different from the others competition, but there's also be no guarantee to you'd be satisfied with the shortlist they'd come up with.

I mean it begs the question, who is qualified to vote? Your qualifications for them will determine a certain bias (all awards have a particular bias, so this isn't necessarily a negative thing; the Tiptree for example focuses on gender, Nebula for writers, etc.) and there comes to a point where you ask: do you include dissenting voices (people whose aesthetics don't necessarily match up to yours) or keep them out?

What I think you're looking for is something more along the lines of a juried award, where those who get to vote have a certain qualification and value certain aesthetics, and again, the question crops up: do you choose a focused group (say, one that is all pro-science fiction, or all from the US for example), or a diverse one (let's say one is pro-SF, one is pro-magic realism, one is pro-interstitial, etc.)? And regardless of which jury you choose, there is the decision that arises from the group. Sometimes, you get the cream of the crop. Sometimes, you get one that pleases everyone but amazes no one. And that's the same problem here; you'll never eliminate the possiblity that the shortlist will be disappointing to someone, year after year.

And to clarify on juried awards, their methodologies vary. Some vote. Some debate. Methodologies vary, some are disclosed and sometime aren't.

Luis F Silva said...

I've always felt the Nebula to be the award to take up such challenge, being a judgement from a writer's own peers and therefore (presumably) focused on rewarding excelence, literary technique and not letting market influence their decision. Sadly, reality has said otherwise... it seems that even writers are not wholly exempt from getting a bit "star crushed" on some titles.

Larry Nolen said...


I highly doubt there would ever be a truly "ideal" award shortlist that could satisfy 90%+ of those viewing it, but I think if such a critics-oriented awards system could be created, that it would fail in a different, if not necessarily in a "fail better" fashion.

If such a hypothetical body were created, I would posit that it would be best to draw that from leading critics in various genre fields, preferably from those who have been paid for their works (as much as blogs as his have a place, I could not imagine the likes of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist fitting in well with say a John Clute). If there were some sort of "balance" between various subgenres in terms of who does the reviewing (a virtually all-white, all-male voting body would not be ideal, for example) and say a body of 30-75 people nominating five books, from which a shortlist of 5-6 books would be drawn for a second round of voting, such an award likely could produce something more varied than the established awards.

(Near) perfect? Of course not, but it would provide something different. The US-based National Book Critics Circle Award, whose structure and shortlists are what sparked this idea, produced a pretty strong and varied set of shortlists this year (I've read over 50% of the works from all six categories). There is no overlap with the UK/Commonwealth-based juried Man Booker finalists and only a little with the US-based juried National Book Awards. This created a wider range of authors/titles to be considered. When one goes in knowing that due to publicity and "mass appeal" works such as Michael Cisco's The Great Lover will never receive serious consideration since it doesn't meet "common denominator" criteria, having an award where those who are ideally more aware of the field might create something different.

But this is not all that much alike a juried award. There would be no "negotiations" that would take place, as the voting rounds would be separate from public (and hopefully private) debate. The voting pool would be larger, allowing for more variety without being too large and risking semi-permanent voting "blocs," as some charge the Nebulas and Hugos as having. Again, there is always of course the risk of having MOR, but I suspect it would be a very different sort than the MORs usually produced by the likes of fandom awards such as the Hugo.


I think the ideal of the Nebula is a good one, but I think peer awards are often fraught with certain issues that make them problematic. While I am not arguing that a critics-based award would be any more perfect, I would suggest that it would provide something that would be between a juried award and a fandom vote that would perhaps give greater recognition to excellent works (including those which are translations) that might otherwise be praised only by a few, apparently well-read readers/critics.

Luis F Silva said...

I really hope your idea comes true. An award such as that one might help shake things up and point certain readers (who, at present, are away from the genre due to the pervasiveness of derivative, conservative works) to the potencial SF&F has always had as a literary tool for showing unique aspects of the human condition. It'd face some challenges to become accepted by the fans (oh, we, SF dwellers, how much we like our mocking of the literati!) but I guess, with time, its waves would definitely rock the boat :)

Larry Nolen said...

It'd be difficult to get the infrastructure set up, as I would imagine for it to garner attention, there might need to be a decent-sized cash prize ($5-10K), similar to what the NBCC and National Book Awards award each year to the winners. But if ever such a thing could be set up, I could see the wider speculative fiction scene, not just those sometimes labeled these days as "core genre," being showcased, which would be a benefit of such a thing.

But first, I'll have to play the lottery if I were ever to help fund such an award, nice as such would be to have in existence.

Luis F Silva said...

Ah, yes, of course you're right. The ol' "if you finance it, they'll come". A sizable cash prize would do wonders to make the award respectable :) Good thinking. Well, count me in for non-finantial support, whatever it may be (not a lottery winner yet over this side of the pond - and regarding my country's economy, we're all going down the drain, if you believe the news...)

Larry Nolen said...

Yeah, I'm an idealist at heart, but life-experienced enough to be pragmatic about this. Money certainly would lie at the heart of getting things founded (paying for a locale/convention space, materials cost, prize money, etc.), but it is nice to dream instead of just complaining? Yeah, I've been following from afar some of the financial issues in Portugal (and the other PIGS) and you'd think instead of it being worrisome that the world would be ending tomorrow for capitalists all around the globe.

Anonymous said...

Have you read Zone One? It suffers from the same issues that Supersad True Love Story or Atwood's recent SF does -- the backstory and mechanism(s) for the fantasy/science fictional elements don't make any sense; in this case the epidimiological spread of the zombie plague is nonsensical. That and he changes his own rules at the end of the story -- which also hampered the ending of The Intuitionist. Lack of rigor can and should disqualify you from a science fiction award.

Larry Nolen said...

I have indeed read it and what I liked most about it was the use of concrete metaphors to explore the commodification of human life and attributes. Considering that "rigor" is quite the term to use when it comes to most "accepted" SF, it is hard to say much more than I found the mechanics of the story held up very well and that he did more to explore the various interpretations of "zombie" than I tend to find in most core genre zombie fiction.

Ellen Datlow said...

I loved both ZONE ONE and THE INTUITIONIST and would very possibly have voted for them if they were up for sf awards.

Ellestra said...

I remember, long time ago, you argued that the awards, especially Hugo, should allow massive internet voting. I said they will become popularity contest and be prone to ballot stuffing. Then the Legends were created and exactly that happened.

There is no way of award awarding that will produce results you like (or me, or Christopher Priest). Whether it is just one person or a internet crowd there results will never satisfy everyone and, usually, don't really satisfy anyone.

People have different tastes and what is masterpiece for one is a dreary and unreadable for other. What is great read for many will make you write a disappointment Hugo post.

There is no perfect award awarding method. One awarded by critics will have the same problem as all the existing ones - it will just showcase taste of different group of people and generate more complains. You should just stop caring. I did. We are old enough to know what we like without any crutches.

Anonymous said...

Some data points: There is No Year has 16 Amazon reviews. Mr. Fox has 15 . The Curfew, 11. Learning to Pray has 1. Kafka's Leopards has 0. It's a little harsh to expect juries to be familiar with books that may have sold in the double digits of copies in the US.

Zone One has much higher sales, but has relatively poor Amazon ratings and poor Goodreads ratings. Going back to what I view as its basic flaws:

1) How does a disease that is spread by biting simultaneously appear across the entire world on a single day?
2) How can a society produce advanced armor cloth technology through sophisticated manufacturing techniques yet have difficulty producing basic crops in fertile areas of the country?
3) How can zombies with no particular abilities beyond your average unarmed person routinely overcome soldiers with futuristic body armor, machine guns, and plentiful ammo?
4) After being told that there is a certain class of zombies that doesn't attack, all of a sudden one starts attacking near the end of the book... (Akin to the late "revelation" in The Intuitionist that Intuitionism doesn't work, after we've seen it working...) This is more the author being unreliable than implausible; either way it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.

I haven't read the Hugo-nominated "Mira Grant" zombie book -- not a genre that interests me, but I was hoping Whitehead would do it well -- so it might be just as problematic, of course.

Larry Nolen said...


First off, I think you missed the entire point of me referencing those books, which dealt with books that often fly under the radars of those who vote in fan-based things. It would be akin to voters trying to select the best movies of the past 100 years and selecting works like Avatar over Metropolis or Intolerance because they had not gone beyond basic publicity to explore other works. Citing Amazon reviews/Goodreads pretty much goes to reinforce that point, even taking out the opinions that some (like myself) have of the poor, often puerile qualities of those commentaries.

As for Zone One, let's see:

1) I seem to recall there being a longer gestation period.

2) In a war-wracked economy, things are narrowed down, especially when manpower is depleted. A partial analogue would be the rations of World War II, where advanced weaponry was produced while millions were malnourished or starved in great swaths of Europe.

3) Numbers, movement, inability to feel pain, etc. Nothing that does not appear in a great many other works, so what's your particular complaint about Zone One in this regard?

4) I disagree. There was something else under the story.

Sounds like you were more interested in the zombie as Other element; I was intrigued by zombie as Us approach.


That's pretty much what I was noting, toward the end at least, that there is no "perfect" list, but rather that such a hypothetical award would likely produce something different that might appeal to a different population than those who are relatively unaware of what's available (average fans) or who are constrained by what they are tabbed to select from and who have to have a consensus for winners, some shortlisted titles, etc. (judges). As for the first part, I still have no problem with this, as I'm not talking about the Hugos beyond my disinterest in this year's shortlist for novel.


They certainly are memorable books, aren't they? :D I also liked his Colossus of New York, but that didn't have any SFnal elements to it.

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