Awards Season

Last week was the World Fantasy Convention, which I attended, as I usually do, and I couldn’t help but reflect on book awards. No matter what anyone says, book awards are essentially popularity contests. The award may reflect the popularity of books among a large number of readers, as in the case of Goodreads awards, or the popularity among a small number of judges, as with the Pulitzer Prize, or by some combination, as in the case of the World Fantasy Awards. Now… judges of more prestigious awards may protest mightily, and cite various criteria, but the bottom line is whether they like it… and that’s popularity.

Sometimes a book wins awards, and after all the furor, it vanishes, like Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer. And sometimes a book that’s ignored by every critic and award giver hangs on… and is eventually recognized… like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was seen as mere light reading and critically panned for almost a century.

And sometimes, the controversies aren’t about the books, but the awards.

For the last two years, the Nobel Prize for Literature has also been plagued with scandal. In 2018, a series of sexual assault charges against the author husband of one of the Literature Committee members resulted in such disruption that no prize was awarded in 2018. Then, this year the 2019 Prize was awarded to Peter Handke, an Austrian writer and firebrand “infamous for his Serbian nationalist sympathies.” In 1996 Handke published two essays that blamed the media for presenting Serbs as the “evil” party in the Yugoslav Wars and Muslims “as the usual good guy,” despite the fact that Serb forces killed an estimated 100,000 Croatian civilians and Bosnian Muslims. Handke even spoke at the funeral of Serbia’s President Slobodan Milošević (Nickname: “Butcher of the Balkans”), who had died before his trial for genocide and war crimes was completed.

F&SF has had its own “award” dramas. The World Fantasy Convention had for years presented its annual awards in the form of a bust of H.P. Lovecraft, a noted U.S. fantasy author who died in 1937. With the rise of a more diverse community of fantasy writers who became increasingly vocal about an award depicting a writer known not only for horrifying fantasy, but for stridently racist and xenophobic views, in 2015, the WFC announced it would replace the “Lovecraft” award statuette with another trophy, and in 2017 a “fantasy tree” award was adopted. Now, there’s a controversy about the John W. Campbell Award (for best new writer) given at the World Science Fiction because of Campbell’s anti-Semitic and misogynistic views.

In the meantime, the awards go on, and sometimes great books are often ignored, and sometimes fair but wildly popular books win awards… and, in the end, the fact that a book won an award, or didn’t, is lost, and the book has to stand or fall on its own.

9 thoughts on “Awards Season”

  1. Tim says:

    Looking back to previous awards you have attended, roughly what proportion of winning novels would you estimate have stood the test of time and are still read today?

    1. I took a quick look at the finalists and winners of the Hugo [World Science Fiction Convention] and the World Fantasy Awards for the past thirty years. From what I know and still see, very few of the winners are being read widely after ten years, let alone twenty. In the case of the World Fantasy Awards, the same seems to be true — again, that’s my opinion only — and it also seems to me that more of the non-winning WFC finalists will be read than the winners [even on a percentage basis, given that there are 4 nominees for every winner].

  2. Tom says:

    … judges of more prestigious awards may protest mightily, and cite various criteria, but the bottom line is whether they like it… and that’s popularity…

    What is the purpose of an ‘award’? Googling such a question brings up business reasons for ‘awards’ to employees. One has to go to each ‘award’ in turn to find the criteria which are said to determine the person receiving the specific award. If the purpose of an award for a novel in a specific genre is met; then, can we really second guess the judges that they judged the work as popular (within the group of people who judged it) as the main reason for offering the award to the writer?

    Perhaps, if the judges are the ones to offer the contestants novels for judging by the panel on which they serve. Perhaps, if the criteria are virtue based rather than quality based.

    If two works meet specific criteria equally well then there is no doubt that the judges who like one of the writer’s works are going to add that very human popularity factor into their voting decision. If the criteria are selected by the judges sitting on the judging panel then of-course the ‘award’ is very likely to be ‘popularity’ based.

  3. I think it’s very hard to eliminate bias in awards. Even if one attempts not to be biased, one’s opinion of an author or their past body of work is likely to have an effect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be as unbiased as we can.

    When I vote for awards like the Nebula or Hugo, I read at least the start of all the finalist works in the category for which I’m voting. With short stories, I read the whole story. With novels, because of pressure of time, I may read only the first chapter before deciding I would be very unlikely to vote for it.

    I also make recommendations to the SFWA recommended reading list. Popularity probably plays a huge part at this preliminary recommending/nominating phase, because inevitably I’m more likely to read a book by an author I’ve liked in the past or to read a story from a magazine that I’ve liked.

    It’s also tricky to decide how to weigh the worth of a work — how straightforwardly enjoyable it is, how literary it is, how imaginative, whether it’s conveying an important idea, etc.

    1. Tom says:

      I feel I must be miss reading you.

      We cannot avoid bias and enjoyableness is certainly a personal aspect of any work as we have noted in previous blog discussions.

      But, are there no criteria with associated specifics for weighting the ‘literary’, ‘imaginative’, concept/idea, etc. aspects of a work in a genre which a panelist is supposed to use in assessing a work?

      1. For me, the difficulty is deciding the priority to give to different aspects of a work. When voting for the Nebulas how much priority should I give to the concept/idea, versus the prose quality of a book, versus how much fun it is, versus how much I cared about the characters, etc.? They are all factors, but how do I balance them? For the Nebulas, for me the book must have a clear SF/F element. Beyond that, it gets murkier.

  4. John Prigent says:

    My prime criteria for picking up a book are ‘did it win an award?’ and ‘has it been praised by the literati?’, If either is a ‘yes’ I toss it aside as not worth wasting money to buy or time to read. I rely on word of mouth (or web) from people whom I know to have similar tastes. So LEM is on my ‘buy sight unseen’ list while Nebula, World Fantasy etc awards mean automatic rejection unless someone I trust says they’re actually worthwhile.

  5. Daze says:

    Even if you trust a critic or recommender, there can be nuance. For more than 25 years, ‘Margaret and David’ were Australia’s go-to film critics. Our rule was: if M&D gave it 3.5 to 4.5 stars, book a ticket. If they gave it 5 stars, wait for someone else to tell whether it was a miserabilist slice-of-life where every character was so unlikeable that you did’t care what happened to them.

  6. David says:

    There’s recently been discussion around the Tiptree award.

    https://tiptree.org/2019/09/alice-sheldon-and-the-name-of-the-tiptree-award

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