In almost every artistic field, there are awards for excellence and achievement, and the F&SF world is no exception. While it isn’t as well known a field to many people, it’s not exactly small, either. In 2014, the number of F&SF original novels published by the big five and known and established small presses was around 1,000, and the self-published F&SF novels likely exceeded that several-fold.
Supposedly, the Hugo is the most “prestigious award” in fantasy and science fiction [at least, it’s billed that way], and who wins the Hugo in various categories [short story, novella, novel, best editor, best artist, etc., for work published for the first time in the previous year] is determined annually by vote. To vote, one must be a member of the current World Science Fiction Convention, or as I recall, the previous WorldCon or the forthcoming WorldCon. In short, it’s a popularity contest generally voted on by insiders, although anyone can become one of those insiders by paying for a full WorldCon membership or a less expensive, supporting [non-attending] membership. Over the last twenty years, WorldCon membership numbers have generally fluctuated in the three to six thousand range, with the exception of last year’s WorldCon in London, which had over ten thousand attending and supporting memberships.
Theoretically, voters are supposed to nominate those works which display excellence, since the works are for “the best” in each category. The problem, as I’ve discussed in other areas and blogs, rests on what each voter/reader feels is “best.” In more cases than not, I suspect, “best” refers to those books enjoyed and liked the most, not necessarily the best, but what institution offering a “prestigious” award would want to admit that it’s really a “readers” favorite? I’ve so often disagreed with the nominees that I might as well not have voted in almost every case. As a side note, I might add that the folks at RT [otherwise known as Romantic Times] label their awards as “Reviewers’ Choice Awards,” which strikes me as a bit more honest. [I mention this because they actually do give awards to F&SF books].
The other “major” set of awards in the field are the World Fantasy Awards. While members of the World Fantasy Convention can nominate works, the majority of nominees – and the winners – are determined by a panel of five judges who are professionals in the fantasy publishing field. Each judge serves for one time in his or her life for one year, and as the saying goes, in the interest of full disclosure, I was a judge almost twenty years ago. It was a brutal year, and I read parts of more than three hundred novels and all of more than fifty. We did the best we could, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we likely missed or overlooked works that could easily have been nominated and possibly won with other judges in other years.
Having seen both processes at work, I’d say that neither is anywhere close to perfect, but I do feel that the World Fantasy awards do come close to presenting a slate of good to excellent books, while the Hugos are far more of a hype and popularity contest, where the works of authors with expansive social media, egos to match, ebullient public personae, and enthusiastic, if not rabid, fan bases tend to be nominated and win in greater measure than the quality of their work might otherwise merit, at least in my anything but humble opinion.
But then, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the wisdom of crowds, especially where a certain level of intelligence and perception is required, as well as a wider vocabulary, which is also why I don’t care much for the majority of “popular” music these days.