A Proliferation of Awards

Several weeks ago, when I was at the Gulf Coast Fan Fest, one of the other authors at the Bard’s Tower booth learned that his debut novel [Empire of Silence, Christopher Ruocchio] had been shortlisted for the best debut fantasy novel of the year by Booknest Fantasy Awards.

Now, I’ve been a published F&SF author for 45 years, and I’d never heard of the Booknest awards. As a matter of fact, in recent years, there have been a number of awards I’d never heard of until I saw a news story or online mention of the award. And I began to wonder if I had just gotten out of touch. So I did a little research.

When I was first published, the only F&SF awards I ever heard about were the Hugo Awards, and that wasn’t surprising, because my research showed that in 1973, the only awards were the Hugos, the World Fantasy Awards, and the Nebulas. The Hugos were the oldest and were first presented in 1953 at the eleventh World Science Fiction Convention at Philadelphia, and the awards are determined by the votes of the members of the World Science Fiction Convention. The first World Fantasy awards were presented at the first World Fantasy Convention in 1975, and are determined by a jury of five professional writers or editors. The Nebula awards are determined by the votes of the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America [SFWA], and were awarded for the first time in 1966, a year after SFWA was founded.

After that, more awards were created, slowly at first, and then, in the last twenty years, scores of them have sprung up, so that there are now more than a hundred different regional, national, and international F&SF awards. There now seem to be awards for every sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy, and each one endeavors to be unique in some fashion.

Now, I know many of these awards came about because various groups felt that the F&SF literature that represented them, either ethnically, geographically, or by genre or subgenre, was not being recognized. Early on, David Hartwell and others essentially created the World Fantasy Convention and awards because he felt that fantasy was largely ignored by the Hugos. Likewise, it appears that SFWA created the Nebulas to reflect a more professional outlook, rather than the “popularity” basis of the Hugos, since all SFWA members are published authors. Initially, those three categories of awards seemed largely sufficient… until the 1980s, when the proliferation began, a process that appears to have continued to increase ever since.

Is this proliferation of awards really recognizing the unrecognized, or could it be an outgrowth of the idea that every child involved in a competitive sports activity should have a trophy, and now that those children are grown, those who are writers should each have an award?

Some have contended that winning an award results in more publicity and more sales for the authors, but the studies that have been done, at least according to Tom Doherty, indicate that the only award that seems to have an effect on sales is the Hugo. In all fairness, those studies don’t include the DragonCon awards, which are only two years old, and are presented at a convention that draws 80,000, about eight times the size of the World Science Fiction Convention, which is the largest of the “conventional” F&SF conventions.

More to the point, however, for all the concern about various aspects of F&SF being ignored and/or marginalized… does every aspect of the field really need its own trophies?

And how much do all these awards enhance the field?

5 thoughts on “A Proliferation of Awards”

  1. M. Kilian says:

    Unfortunately it’s creeping into all walks of life where merit was previously the foci, even if the means of determining merit has been a topic of dispute.

    There is this assumption in the culture of this modern age (of the West) in which people are assumed to be perfect as they are, that everyone who is born has no need to grow and children should be rewarded simply for existing.

    When I was growing up I thought that the point of an award was to present accolade and reward for outstanding success in a field, making someone into a living example of what to strive for.

    I thought it was by this means which idols or role models were created, by presenting the best parts of civilisation. Giving us a tangible example of something to work towards, to emulate, to compare with.

    Instead, we have the diluted impact of public acknowledgement that has come with the proliferation in many fields, and which has at least in my opinion, not enhanced or improved anything, instead detracting from the practice altogether.

    Even if I see a sticker on a book that reads something like “New York Time’s bestseller!”, if anything it lessens my initial reaction to it.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Many awards are given by more or less self-selected groups (members of WSFC, SFWA, etc). As such, for better or worse, they’re representative of the majority of the eligible and participating members, not of all readers of the genre.

    The worse is that some of merit might be excluded. The better is that a self-selected group is probably likely to be more widely read within the genre, more interested, more experienced, etc. Perhaps also more opinionated or polarized.

  3. John Prigent says:

    My own inclinatin is to assume that any book that has won a ‘Major Award’ is probablynot worth even looking at. I’d rather rely upon reviews by genuine readers than on the opinions of ‘experts’.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      The only caution there is that if awards are debased to the point of meaninglessness, then something awarded should neither be favored _nor_ disfavored merely for having received one. Publishers and publicists _will_ almost certainly mention awards; they’re doing their job, you can’t really fault them for that.

  4. You raise good points about proliferation of awards. I think it’s reasonable for sub-groups of people to create new awards that match their interests, but it would be surprising if those new awards were of equal interest to other groups. So, for instance, I could imagine Pittsburgh readers voting on an award for books with a Pittsburgh connection, which would be of limited interest to other readers.

    In a few cases, such as the Goodreads Choice awards, I expect the award might even lead to some additional sales. And I think some specialized awards–such as the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award–have gained respect.

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