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January 28, 2009

SF Awards Not Rubbish (Again)

Adam Roberts has an article on Futurismic accusing Science Fiction book awards as being rubbish. He presents a rather rambling, well ranting, list of arguments, that as you can probably gather I disagree with.

For a start his initial assumption is that reader voted awards are trying to figure out the best book of the year. Adam's argument is that you can't tell what is best until a significant period of time has passed and you're looking back at the period. Whereas actually reader voted awards are figuring out the most popular book that year that the most people liked. It's a two dimensional equation:

Quality : readers will vote for the book that they enjoyed the most.
Exposure : A book needs to have been read by a large number of people. (Where "large" depends on the award.)

So clearly a great book that wasn't read that year, for whatever reason won't win. But that's the way it goes. I don't necessarily agree that it affects the voting the year after, well it wouldn't affect me anyway. So reader voted awards perfectly match their mission statement, it's just that most people simplify this statement so that it appears to not be working.

Jury judged awards have a different purpose, but again I'd argue that it's not really to find the best book. it's really to find five great books that the jury think deserve to be read. The Clarke Award never fails to do this, generating discussion and finding books worth reading. The short list is more important in a juried award than the winner.

I'd also query the idea that we can easily look back ten years ago and figure out which book is best. We can maybe figure out which books have been the most popular, but lesser good books presumably would be lost in the noise. It's the same problem, just moved back ten years.

Finally I think that the value of these awards and shortlists is vastly underrated by the Science Fictionarati, who seem to never stop moaning about them. To someone who is a casual fan of Science Fiction or even, shock horror, not even a fan, it provides a good starting point. A casual fan can look at the BSFA Award or the Clarke Award and see not only what fans but also what an exhaustive jury process suggest. It's surely the best recommendation process we have?


the best book is by its very nature subjective. The purpose of the awards is to reward great books and authors and, like you said, provide guidance as to what books are worth reading in a given genre. duh

According to the Hugo Awards' own web site, the winner for best novel of 2008 was Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. That's right: it says best novel. So if the Hugo is a popularity contest then it's a dishonest one.

I also take issue with your assertion that the winning novel is "the most popular book". Popular among those members of the worldcon who actually bothered to vote, yes. Among fandom? Among readers of sf? Among commentators on the genre?

Back in the day when winning an award was used to market a book, it might have meant something. Now it's just a form of masturbation.

Voter apathy is no argument against validity of the awards.

And regardless of what the purpose of the awards are to those giving them (whether it be an altruistic desire to show the world the most appealing books in a given year or a bit of back slapping between publishers or writers) they do serve a purpose for the public, as James said. I do precisely the same as James, using the Clarke award shortlist as my reading list for the coming year. In that it serves its purpose admirably, as I've yet to be disappointed by a book that was nominated.

The Clarke is a juried award, and an entirely different argument to "popular vote" awards such as the BSFA or Hugo.

But then, part of Adam's argument is that the process of picking best novel for juried awards is also flawed. The workload is too high and there's not even room any real judgement to be made.

I'm not denying that award shortlists can provide some interesting reading and even - in some cases - give a reasonably accurate indication of the state of the genre. But. To say that the winner of an award is the best novel of a year? We all know that's not true, so why do we continue to pretend? It doesn't even mean anything in marketing terms anymore...

I hear there's a nomination for Stephen Colbert's Alpha Squad 7: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure.