The Non-Fiction Category

There has been some comment on the BSFA’s decision to provide a recommended reading list of non-fiction, rather than a single award; I thought I’d round it up here, and highlight a couple of points that haven’t yet been made. I am not, in any sense, speaking as The Voice Of The BSFA in this matter. I do welcome letters to Vector on this or related issues.

To recap: this year, BSFA members were asked to nominate any written non-fiction work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2006. Based on these nominations, a recommended reading list of five items was compiled and published. This is different to what happened in previous years. The non-fiction category was first introduced in 2001 as an award voted on by the membership, in the same way as all the other categories. It was suspended for 2004; for 2005, a different approach was piloted, in which nominations were invited as normal, and then a judging panel (of which, in the interests of full disclosure, I was a member) selected a winner and a companion recommended reading list.

Paul Kincaid has said that this was a thoroughly excellent arrangement of which he approved: this is not a consensus opinion. Criticisms of the system for the 2005 award include that it (or at least the way it was implemented) implied that BSFA members at large were not competent to judge a non-fiction award; and, from the other end of the spectrum, that recruiting sufficiently knowledgeable judges on an ongoing basis would be difficult if not impossible.

More generally, any non-fiction award faces the problems outlined by Graham Sleight in a comment on my shortlists post:

I think there are a number of problems built into it as it has stood for the last couple of years, and can’t easily see how they could be resolved. Firstly, it tends to privilege book-length over essay-length (and essay-length over review-length) stuff. Given that this is, historically, a field, where a disproportionate amount of critical work gets done in reviews, how are you going to reward that. (Example: I think David Langford is terribly undervalued as a reviewer – as opposed to a fan writer – and I can’t see anything in the non-fic award set-up that would unpick that.) Second, I think comparing stuff written within the protocols of academic writing and the world at large is not exactly apples and oranges but certainly very difficult. And thirdly, as I understand it, the non-fic award currently (and has always?) excluded stuff published in Vector and Matrix, which is a pretty big gap – Gary Wolfe’s piece in the Storying Lives issue, for instance, is one of the best I’ve read anywhere in the last year.

Graham is right that material published in BSFA magazines has always been ineligible for the non-fiction award, on the grounds that the BSFA should not be giving awards to itself. One suggested alternative to the current situation is to have an award only for BSFA-published material. Graham’s own suggestion is to have an award administered by a body other than the BSFA. (Martin McGrath suggests the sort of inter-organisation approach that the Clarke uses.)

Adam Roberts suggests that:

it’s a bit silly offering a ‘recommended reading list’ of SF criticism, rather than deciding (via bsfa vote, or if it’s thought that too few members are interested enough in crit to have read the stuff, by a panel of experts as was done last year) on a title. I assume the intention is to spread the honour around, but I don’t think it works that way: a ‘recommended reading list’ sounds like something your college professor hands to you, and insists that your read whether you want it or not; it seems, paradoxically, dispraising rather than praising the works themselves. An award makes sense in that it picks one title that deserves closer attention, or merits celebration. Otherwise the award becomes like a primary school sport’s day where everybody is given kojak-lollies just for turning up. My ha’pennorth would be: if the bsfa (I mean members, or committee-on-behalf-of-members) isn’t interested enough in Sf criticism to decide an award it should stop offering one: put out an award for TV, cinema, graphic novel instead perhaps. Don’t get me wrong: I think this would be a great shame, and that SF criticism is very poorly represented in the awards culture. But that would seem to me more honest.

Tony Keen raises one objection to the no-award route:

I think my problem with the Non-Fiction Non-Award is the message that it sends out about criticism, that in the BSFA’s opinion writing about sf really isn’t that important, and doesn’t warrant a proper award. Now, of course, actual original sf creation is always going to be more important than the secondary activity of writing about that creation. But nevertheless, good criticism is important, and I feel that part of the mission of the BSFA is promoting good criticism – that is, after all, why Vector exists in its current form. Now, one can say that the recommended reading list does promote non-fiction, and I suppose it does for someone who has time to read all five. But what of someone who doesn’t? One of the functions of the best novel award is the BSFA as a group saying, “if you’re only going to read one novel this year, we think it should be this”. Now the Association is not going to do this for non-fiction. Given, as Adam rightly observes, criticism is not overly supplied with awards, for the BSFA to pull back in this fashion seems to me to be a retrograde step.

I think I’m right in saying that, excluding graduate or society-specific awards, the only awards for non-fiction are the Pioneer Award for the best critical essay-length work of the year, and the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contribution to sf scholarship. There is also the Clareson Award for “outstanding service activities”, which can include sf criticism, and, in principle (although rarely in practice), the Hugo for Best Related Book.

Edward James raises another objection:

I feel really guilty about not going to BSFA meetings, or, if I go, not making my voice heard. But as someone who produces, occasionally, sf non-fiction and does NOT produce science fiction itself, I feel excluded from the organisation which I first joined 43 years ago… You don’t know why the BSFA abandoned the non-fiction award. OK: two questions — can we find out why they abandoned it, and can we restore it? The BSFA, after all, is only the totality of its members… and probably more of its members write ABOUT sf than actually write sf, so one would think that a majority of the membership did favour a non-fiction award

So, these are the questions: is a non-fiction award something the BSFA should continue to have? Is it practical? And if so, what form should it take? None of which are easy to answer. On the upside, at least one of the people on this year’s list is happy with the current arrangement:

And the nicest thing? There’s not going to be an individual winner. They’re calling it the BSFA’s non-fiction recommended reading list. And the BSFA membership won’t be voting on it. Frankly, I find that much less stressful. No getting your hopes up for a win. And looking at that shortlist, I had buckley’s. Julie’s Tiptree bio is not only the best book on that list, it’s the best book about science fiction in a very very long while.

45 thoughts on “The Non-Fiction Category

  1. My problem with Graham’s argument is that whilst all voting systems are imperfect, that isn’t a reason for getting rid of them. Yes, the non-fiction award will always favour books over articles and reviews. The Recommended Reading list, 100% books, doesn’t address that, and the problem can’t be got round without either splitting the award, or removing any input from the membership. Yes, it’s difficult to compare the academic and non-academic. And yes, it’s a pain that BSFA-published material is excluded, but propriety rather demands such a clause.

    None of these seem to me to be arguments for not having an award. Similar problems exist with the other categories. It’s much easier for a 300-page Jon Courtenay Grimwood novel to get nominated than an 800-page Thomas Pynchon one, for reasons that are nothing to do with which is the better work. When the final voting comes round, those short stories avaialble online have an inbuilt advantage over the others that has nothing to do with their actual quality. And how easy is it really to compare the work of, say, Iain Banks and Christopher Priest?

    I may be misreading him, but Graham’s argument seems to boil down to it being better that no non-fiction be recognized with an award than that the wrong piece of non-fiction be so recognized. I reject that argument, not least because few would dream of employing it in reference to the other categories. And the same, I’m afraid, goes for what Justin Larbelestier says. I appreciate that being on a shortlist, and not knowing whether you’ll actually win, can be a stressful experience. But if that’s to be a consideration, then all the awards should be replaced by recommended reading lists.

  2. Thanks, Niall, you’ve pretty much covered everything there. It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think there is a good solution to this. The previous popularly nominated and voted awards were rethought to a panel-judged award because the voting numbers were low and decreasing yearly. Unfortunately, a panel-based approach also had its own problems, a couple of which are described by Niall, but others in terms of the difficulty of the BSFA administering it in that way, so I wanted to restore the BSFA involvement in the selection of the list and come out with a “least worst” option. With the comments attracted, I may have failed.

    Unfortunately, I think I am going to have to agree with one of Adam’s comments, and I don’t think we’ll be able to run a Non-Fiction category next year. I think this will be a great shame, but I think perhaps a better option will be, as Martin suggests in a comment to Niall’s previous post, to collaborate with other organisations to create a better, more sustainable, award for Non-Fiction.

    Everything else said, though, I am very pleased indeed with the non-fiction list; I think it’s an excellent list of works, and I am very proud to be able to recommend all of them.

  3. Let’s start with a declaration of interest: I have now been ‘recommended’ in the BSFA Non-Fiction Award category twice in succession, once for an essay, once for a book I edited. I am flattered and honoured.

    And I also know that I would not win if an award were given this year, because the Tiptree biography is indeed and by a long chalk the best work.

    But I still think there should be an award. It is important, because other than the SFRA awards (which tend to be academic awards) and the Hugo Best Related Book (which is a catch-all for anything not actually fiction and rarely even shortlists anything remotely like criticism) there is NO award for sf criticism. And that is a deeply regretable situation.

    I agree with Adam that simply issuing a reading list is more like setting an exam than honouring good work. And it also sidesteps the very thing that any award is theoretically supposed to do, which is name the best.

    There is indeed a problem in comparing a review with a collection of essays with a biography with an encyclopedia and so on – though there are comparable problems with every award there is. How about making two awards – short form and long form? That way you wouldn’t actually be comparing a book with an essay. But we do come down to the basic issue that the fact of the award is more important than anything, so if you don’t want to split it, we still need the award itself.

    I wasn’t aware that pieces that have appeared in BSFA magazines are ineligible. Didn’t the cover of a BSFA magazine once win the Best Artwork prize? I guess this is because, as a popular vote award, the voters would be expected to be far more familiar with what’s in Vector and so give those pieces an unfair advantage in the voting (much the same way that Interzone stories dominated the short fiction category for so long). But isn’t that the price you pay with a popular vote award?

  4. Tony, I don’t think you’re misreading me *much* :)

    I may be misreading him, but Graham’s argument seems to boil down to it being better that no non-fiction be recognized with an award than that the wrong piece of non-fiction be so recognized.

    My argument boils down to: 1) Particularly with something as emotive as awards often get to be, you need to ensure that the playing field is as level as possible in how the rules are couched. 2) It’s almost impossible, for the reasons I stated in my comment, *which are specific to non-fiction and not the other categories* to have a level playing-field. 3) Therefore, any notion of “bestness” is going to be flawed from the start for non-fic. At the very least, any award which has a constraint on its level-playing-field-ness should declare that upfront. I agree with Tony that deciding what’s best out of, eg, Priest and Harrison is difficult; but we do at least have some commonly agreed tools for doing that. And one is, contra Paul, at least comparing the same kind of entity.

    Without wanting to appropriate what Justine Larbalestier wrote *too much*, it does seem to me that her comment exemplifies what’s good about a recommended list approach. (And yes, the term could be changed to sound less…paternalist, I guess.) A non-BSFA-run award may solve a lot of this, as I said before. One last thought: another way to deal with all these issues may be to reward a body of work in non-fic over a year rather than an individual work.

  5. Paul,

    I ‘m not sure if an old artwork award was given for a cover of Vector; beyond 1995, the piece of art itself isn’t listed on the past awards page, and that was way before my time. However, I do believe that in the past, there may not have been a restriction on items published by the BSFA.

    The current eligibility criteria, however, clearly state that anything published by the BSFA is not eligible for an award, in any category. (This does not preclude items published by members of the BSFA, or even the committee, provided it isn’t actually the BSFA publishing it.)

    The reason for this is simple; I do not want the BSFA Awards to be seen as the BSFA giving awards to itself in public.

  6. In case this place is more appropiate than the other comments:

    The exclusion of the materials published by BSFA came about, as I recall, from the year that the cover of Omegatropic won best artwork and Omegatropic won best book. There was muttering, in some quarters, that nepotism or home team advantage came into play – which both risked bringing the award into disrepute and hurt the feelings of some of those involved in producing the material.

    I was only ever short listed for one of the Pocket Essentials, the same year as Omegatropic, but my instinct since then would have been to decline the nomination whilst I was directly involved in the BSFA. In most competitions, employees of the company running it are forbidden from entering.

    On a jury award. We’re dealing with a small pond here. I’m in two of the shortlisted books, and am credited for one of those. My guess is that the two books have about half a dozen contributors in common. Adam and I are working on two books (along with two other editors) with overlapping contributors, some of whom are active reviewers, and/or the sort of person you’d think to ask to be a judge for a nonfiction award. A lot of us are mates or hang out or at least have a grudging respect for each other. I can’t think of a mechanism for the BSFA (or the Science Fiction Foundation, which my gut suggests would be a more natural home) to come up with informed judges who would not be open to idiotic charges of nepotism.

    It perhaps also looks odd to have two different means of judging the awards.

    But a membership award is difficult, because cover prices of non-fiction can be prohibitive. Some academic journals are prohibitively expensive (although perhaps a password protected PDF might be made available), and much academic press more so. Greenwood Press volumes start at £50, are probably more expensive. Even with a hardback sf novel at twenty quid, it’s reasonable to assume a sufficient sized readership to get an informed popular decision over five novels. Enough people automatically buy the shortlisted novels of the major awards. The Cambridge Companion was reasonably priced, the Blackwells Companion is £85. I wouldn’t have bought a copy of it new, despite some really good stuff in it (and the attack on me).

    I would hope that anyone who reads Vector would automatically buy any book published by the BSFA, by the SFF, by the Serendip Foundation, or Beccon – indeed it would be neat if they bought Liverpool University Press titles too, but sometimes, well, let’s not enter that world of pain.

    It would be great to have a nonfiction award (and a proper one, not one which goes to books of cover art), but I can’t see a respectable way of judging it. As with many things it needs to be seen to be above reproach as well as being above reproach.

  7. A comment by Colin Harris carried over from the lj feed:

    I feel quite strongly that we should have a non-fiction award and that we shouldn’t abandon it just because there are some difficulties in trying to be fair to everyone.

    I say this as someone who’s been involved in some related discussions on Hugo categories at WSFS Business Meetings in recent years. Broadly speaking, the discussions I’m thinking of go as follows.

    1 – there is some discussion over a category definition – triggered either by interest in a new category or by an attempt to clean up an existing one.

    2 – concerns begin to arise (often triggered by hypothetical cases) about every possible wording change – people can always think of an exception case that won’t be favoured. (Example from 2006 business meeting – the best artist award talks about work “published in the preceding year” – how does this relate to 3-d work that isn’t “published”?).

    3 – the language proposed for the award to clarify what is / is not eligible gets more and more tortuous.

    4 – someone argues that if we can’t be fair to everyone, then we shouldn’t have the award.

    5 – someone from the silent majority speaks up to the effect that a common sense definition which works 90% of the time and usually gets the right answer, and enables an area of the field to be honoured, is far better than solving the problem by recognising nothing in that area. This view carries the day…

    I am very much in favour of (5) and have stood up and argued this case (successfully) in the past. There is a lot of good non-fiction out there. The BSFA members should be given a chance to recognise it. An appropriate definition would give a good answer most of the time.

  8. Andrew – I must admit that your response has resulted in my experiencing a degree of psychic pain like a million Clutes screeming “Haecceity!” and then being silenced for ever. So you’ll apologise if I sound tetchy in this.

    What you’re essentially saying is that in order to be “the kind of person you’d want on a jury” you have to be a dead-tree biographer or critic. However, if you are a dead-tree biographer or critic then you’re likely to feature in the kind of books the jury is likely to be evaluating and therefore you’re NOT “the kind of person you’d want on a jury”.

    The problem is that you’re suggesting that credibility is dependent on levels of overlap which, if demanded in academia would make peer-review, let alone PhD vivas completely impossible.

    There are people who can intelligently comment upon and evaluate SF biographies and criticism other than published dead-tree critics.

    Setting aside the critics who only function online as well as actual SF authors there are critics and academics who either look at genre in other mediums or are fans of genre but don’t engage with it as part of their day jobs.

    Given that the Hugos are voted for by common all garden SF fans and command a good deal of respect, I think you’re setting the bar for the notional BSFA non-fiction award absurdly high. What you’re saying really is as absurd as “you can’t judge a book of science fiction until you’ve written one yourself” and we all know how self-serving those kinds of remarks tend to be.

  9. Jonathan,

    For a panel-judged BSFA non-fiction award, the judges would have to come from the BSFA. Being able to reliably gather a panel that is both willing to judge, feels confident to judge, and will be respected to judge the award is, I think, a harder task than you’re making out, much as Andrew said.

    The BSFA *is* a relatively small pond, and being asked to judge the entirety of SF non-fiction is a hard task that many people would not be willing to do – myself included. The proportion of the membership that would be willing to do the job are probably already fairly active and well-known, and are likely to fulfill the other two criteria – but they are also quite likely to either be eligible for the award themselves, or judging the Clarke! This isn’t because only those who write the stuff are good enough to judge, but because those who are willing to judge are likely to already be involved in the critical scene.

    The solution to this problem is potentially to include judges from outside the BSFA. I think the Clarke model, for example, is a good one, although I do believe getting people to commit to reading all non-fiction in a year might be harder than getting them to commit to reading all fiction in a year – especially as getting the stuff free to the panel might be a harder sell than for the Clarke, at which point the panel is ALSO being expected to BUY everything.

    Comparing to the Hugos isn’t useful, as that’s NOT a panel-judged award. A voted non-fiction award obviously is more comparable, but that has other problems, primarily the declining voting figures. A panel-judged award was not decided upon because anyone felt that the award generally ought not to be a popular vote, but because it was becoming harder to get people voting.

    I do think the ideal solution is to form an inter-organisational award for non-fiction; I don’t think it really works in the BSFA Awards model.

  10. I think you’re right that the way ahead is a non-BSFA special jury. You could even call it “The BSFA special jury prize for non-fiction”. BSFA appoint judges, judges choose winner.

    Alternatively you could just pick the judges and then make them honorary members for a year thereby satisfying the judging criteria AND reaching out to good people in the wider SF community that aren’t members of the BSFA.

    Beyond that, I’d be astonished if you really did know every member of the BSFA who was knowledgeable about criticism. Short of googling every new member or only granting membership upon succesful completion of a written exam there’s no way you can know all the members of the BSFA who could judge a series of works of criticism.

    The group you know are the group of people that you know from cons and BSFA meetings and so on that you know to be knowledgeable about criticism and SF and such. It’s hardly an equal opportunity layout is it? it’s more like MI6 in the 1950’s. How about having an open call for judges? put an ad in vector asking for people who are knowledgeable about criticism and that are willing to judge.

    My point about the Hugos is that authenticity and credibility can come from any number of sources. You don’t need higher standards than a PhD viva board.

  11. In response to Colin’s comment: this sounds an entirely plausible narrative for what happens to the Hugo catgories. But I’d argue that the case here is different. Firstly, the Hugo categories are subject to a high-profile process of, let’s say, testing and refinement both formally (through the Business Meeting) and informally (through chatter, blogospheric and otherwise.) The Hugo categories we have now are an emergent phenomenon of decades of scrutiny and debate: this is not the case with the BSFA non-fic award. Secondly, we are in the position now where novel-length and short-short-story-length pieces of non-fiction get considered in the same category of the BSFA Awards. If that was the case with the fiction Hugos, there would be an outcry, and rightly so.

  12. Before I put in my ha’penny worth, I’ll openly confess to being a definite n00b here – not just to sf criticism and the judgement of its worth but to organised fandom in general (and the BSFA in particular).

    That said, here’s my pitch – I hope you’ll forgive me for getting all ‘glassy-eyed and web2.0’ about this. But the way I see it from the discussion here is that all the awards or recommendations are meant to be generated by the interested portion of the general corpus of the BSFA, not necessarily just the critics and SMOFs and so on.

    If that assumption is correct (and if it’s wrong, I’d greatly appreciate someone shining a light for the baffled n00b), then how about this; get some smart coder to knock together a more advanced website for the BSFA, one with membership logins. Then, for situations like this non-fiction award/list malarkey, have some sort of Digg-like system where a member can submit an item (on-line or otherwise, doesn’t really matter as long as it’s plain what is being referred to) to the pool of nominations. Then other members can look through the list, chase up stuff they haven’t read (or perhaps haven’t even heard of) that looks interesting, and give them a thumbs-up or thumbs down vote. Multiple categories (or sub-categories) could be supported: book-length, essay-length, review, blog, opinion piece, humour and so on. Each member can nominate a theoretically unlimited number of books or articles, but can only vote on each article once. Hey presto – rhizomatic consensus engineering.

    OK, so the obvious flaw is that not all members are wired yet (indeed, I infer from previous conversations that a great percentage may not be), but I can’t see that situation remaining the same for more than a few years. Maybe a long-term idea to mull over? Or maybe I just spend far too much time in front of a computer when I should be reading or writing …

    In all seriousness, though, as a real newcomer to the field, I think it would be a shame for the category to disappear entirely – I’ve been meaning to ask a few people for suggestions on good starter-volumes of sf crit so that I can get a feel for it, and knowing that there has been some debate about this in previous years leads me to believe I’ll get no shortage of valuable answers. Whether or not there should be a ‘single winner’ award or not, however, is not something I feel able to comment upon with any sense of grounding or history, and hence I will leave that debate to those who know the lay of the land far better than I.

  13. Graham comments “Secondly, we are in the position now where novel-length and short-short-story-length pieces of non-fiction get considered in the same category of the BSFA Awards. If that was the case with the fiction Hugos, there would be an outcry, and rightly so.”

    True, but in other respects the Hugo case *is* analogous. The Best Related Book category is defined as “Any work whose subject is related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time in book form during the previous calendar year, and which is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text.”

    So although the words “book form” appear, the category spreads widely from critical works to collections of columns to autobiographies and in many cases art books – diversity in every form except length. And there is (almost) no outcry about the problems of comparing these very different items because the consensus is that the category we have is the best available compromise.

    Nevertheless, I agree that there are differences, so rather than go down a rat-hole here I’d rather go back to a more fundamental point. And that is that juried awards and member-voted awards both have their merits. Neither is inherently better than the other in any absolute sense – but you get something different depending on which option you pick. It seems to me that what we have here is a sense of schizophrenia, where there’s an implication that the general membership can safely honour fiction works but not non-fiction. And I don’t subscribe to that presumption. It’s inherent in any publicly voted award that you may not get the answer you “want”, but that’s what vox populi is all about. What is more, the BSFA membership is in my experience better informed than the average group of fans. If we’re saying that the group isn’t worthy, then I agree fully with Jonathan M and those who say that we’re setting the bar absurdly high. And certainly I think that’s the wrong message to send to a membership which is smaller than we’d like – unless we want it to become smaller still and even more inward looking.

  14. Jonathan,

    I’m not claiming to know all the people who are knowledgeable about criticism, personally, I don’t even know all the people who go to cons and meetings. What I’m saying is that I suspect that the people that are willing to come forward to judge an award, with all the public scrutiny and time commitments that entails, are already the people that… come forward to do stuff, with all the scrutiny and time commitments that entails. Personally, I think that anyone that would be willing to come forward and do that would likely be perfectly able to do it, but I don’t hear anyone actually volunteering, and the people who have done it have specifically said they don’t want to do it again, because it isn’t a fun or rewarding task.


    It’s not a matter that the group isn’t worthy, it’s a matter that the group isn’t voting. As much as various interested parties here would like to think otherwise, the BSFA and Eastercon memberships are not as interested as many would hope.

  15. Ian,

    If the problem seriously is lack of jurors then I bet if Niall were to put something in an edition of Vector he’d get a response. I joined the BSFA at the end of the summer and A) I wouldn’t know who to talk to in order to become a judge and B) I, like most British people, would probably struggle to write an email or a letter to the relevant person demanding to be made a judge. So throwing one’s arms up in the air and saying that nobody’s interested is clearly nothing more than lazy pessimism.

    Besides which, the Hugos have had a very credible non-fiction award that didn’t just go to artbooks and it was selected on the basis of a popular mandate. So I’d argue that for this category to go from reading list to award would only require allowing people the right to vote.

    Having said that, I think there’s another current going on here. The Hugos do it so painlessly that it amazes me that people are resisting the idea so strenuously. So I think that this is deflection.

    I think the real issue is that critics want an award for best criticism and don’t think that the proles can be trusted.

  16. This has become a very interesting and (I hope) useful discussion, so thanks to everyone for their comments; if I’m not saying much it’s largely because other people keep saying what I’d say first and better, and partly because I don’t actually know which side of the fence I’m on. I agree with Tony that one of the things the BSFA should do is promote good writing about sf, and that an award would support this goal; I agree with Graham that it’s going to be extremely hard to design an award, whether judged or voted, that isn’t unacceptably biased in one direction or the other. (I quite like the idea of an award for a body of work published in a year, but I can’t help thinking you’d see the same five names on the ballot every year. Although having said that, I imagine that in a hypothetical award for 2006 work along those lines, Julie Phillips would still win.)

    Anyway, all that aside, I just wanted to briefly address this:

    I bet if Niall were to put something in an edition of Vector he’d get a response.

    It probably wouldn’t hurt to try, but historically, I believe this sort of thing has had a lower success rate than you might hope. (Which, sadly, also makes me a bit sceptical about Paul’s Digg plan.) I mean, I’ve been faithfully plugging this blog every issue, but there don’t seem to be lots of new people dropping by; and so far I’ve had a grand total of zero people express interest in taking over as Production Editor when Tony steps down. Of course, that’s a much less glamorous job than being an award judge… :)

  17. Johnathan M

    I suspect you’re violently agreeing with me. I wrote:

    * Adam and I are working on two books
    * (along with two other editors) with
    * overlapping contributors, some of whom
    * are active reviewers, and/or the sort of
    * person you’d think to ask to be a judge
    * for a nonfiction award. A lot of us are
    * mates or hang out or at least have a
    * grudging respect for each other.

    All I meant here is that *some* of these (let’s call them the usual
    suspects) are the sort of people I could imagine on a jury for
    a non-fiction award within the sf field. I’ve not given you their names,
    their place in the universe or even what these two books are. Some of the contributors are fans, some of them are critics, some of them are in other fields, some of them are authors, some of them are academics, some of them write online as well as on paper. Some of them are most or all of
    the above.

    And I could imagine (big of me I know!) people on the jury who weren’t
    part of the usual suspects.

    A lot of these people are likely to produce work online, on paper,
    in convention programme books, maybe even on toilet walls, which
    would be eligible for a nonfiction award. They would then I assume
    have to recuse themselves from being judges *or* accepting a nomination.

    (In the Clarke Award, authors either serve during a year they do not
    have a book out or do not let the book be shortlisted. Or at least this
    is what has happened so far.)

    I know that reviews editors from various journals had enough
    problems finding suitable for reviewing some of the BSFA, SFF,
    Cambridge, Blackwells volumes, because the obvious names
    were either in the volumes (or potentially annoyed because they
    weren’t …). Maybe that’s a failure of their imagination or their
    address books.

    Thinking about it, I do trust pretty well all of what we might call
    the usual suspects to be able to rise above the rivalries and
    conflicts of interest that might arise from these particular people
    being from a small pond. (There are people who are not part of
    this pond, obviously.)

    Actually I trust that those people who voted for Omegatropic and its
    cover art in the BSFA awards weren’t an organised block vote so we
    could give ourselves a prize. It didn’t stop some numbskulls from
    muttering ‘fix’.

    (We could of course just tell them to take a running jump.)

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been on a jury judging nonfiction, which had
    the advantage of a pretty tight set of criteria for entry (and was based
    on submissions rather than trying to read the four specialist paper-based academic journals, all the BSFA magazines, all the online blogs, zines
    and websites, all the conference proceedings, all the monographs,
    all the fanzines, all the anthologies, not to mention all the non-specialist
    venues which now cover the genre). It was still tougher than reading
    all the novels for the Clarkes.

    It would be great to have a nonfiction award on this (East) side
    of the Atlantic, but I’m smarter at seeing the problems with it
    than the solutions. I wish I could see the glass as half full.

  18. Jonathan,

    I think the real issue is that critics want an award for best criticism and don’t think that the proles can be trusted.

    As the current Awards Administrator, I can promise you this is not my position.

    I know that the people who did the panel-judged award last year found it a hard job. Andrew, in the comment above, confirms this to be the case, and gives, frankly, far more information than I would have been able to about how hard it appears to be to get a panel together. I don’t think a viable panel-based option can be forthcoming from the BSFA alone. Unfortunately, I don’t think a popularly voted award is viable with the current BSFA/Eastercon voting model.


    Actually I trust that those people who voted for Omegatropic and its
    cover art in the BSFA awards weren’t an organised block vote so we
    could give ourselves a prize. It didn’t stop some numbskulls from
    muttering ‘fix’.

    True, but in my opinion the award has to appear to be above reproach at least as much as, if not more than, to actually *be* above reproach.

  19. Oh, and Andrew, I unfortunately hear more bitching (or at least my faulty memory seems to recall more) about the Hugo for Best Related Book than about any other category, so even there it’s far from a perfect solution for all people, and the Hugos have a much larger population to draw from.

  20. This is an interesting and useful thread, I think. A couple more things occur to me.

    One function of the bsfa awards is the reward the best in sf in a given year; but another function is to give bsfa members a focus for thinking, writing (in blogs, and elsewhere), chatting amongst themselves about last year’s sf, not only what were the best things in the genre for that year, but what ‘best’ means in terms of SF. This last thing is extremely healthy and important. One of the greatest strengths of SF (over against other genres; crime, say; Westerns; Romances) is that most of the fans care very greatly about the genre, get involved in it, sacrifice enormous amounts of time and energy in it.

    Now the fact of the matter is that, whilst most bsfa members I know read a great deal of sf fiction, long and short, most don’t read a lot of book-length or academic criticism. This is not because they’re uninterested in the critical debates of the genre; it’s because academic books cost ridiculous sums of money (the hardback of my Palgrave history retailed at £55, for the love of bejiminy); and because most members have limited time and would rather spend that time on primary than secondary texts. But this really isn’t the same thing as being uninterested in criticism. It does, however, mean that few bsfa members are in the position to make a properly informed voting judgment on a list like the ‘recommended list’ on the bsfa website.

    This is by way of seconding Edward J.’s point quoted in Niall’s post. I’m a bsfa member, and a critic of sf, but I’m also an academic; so, as a critic, I tend to keep up with the published stuff (because if I can’t afford it, or just don’t fancy affording it, I can always order it for my university library). I’m a little atypical, in the organisation, for that reason. But a high proportion of bsfa members, though not academics, are critics, and most of them are interested in and engaged by critical discourse as it relates to the genre: they blog, they review, they publish in fanzines and e-zines and elsewhere. A non-fiction award would be worthwhile not only in rewarding the best work, but in making those members feel included.

    To do this I think it would need to be rejigged: for example, a published criticism award and an online criticism award. The former, despite all the problems (and there are real problems) associated with it might have to be, as last year, an announcement that a panel of experts has declared etc etc. [If the bsfa had simply announced that the Tiptree biography was to receive the non-fiction award this year I can’t think of a single person who would demur, or who would complain that an injustice had occurred]; the latter could be the opportunity for some of the really really excellent blog and website (and publically-available-online journal articles etc) writing to have the spotlight shone upon it; and linkage and the fact that such things are bound to be reasonably short, would give members the chance to read every nominee and give a properly informed voice to their feelings about the best of it.

  21. Adam,

    That’s all good sense. I don’t have any problem with my work being judged by the “proles”, contra Jonathan M some way upthread. But I think there’s an unexamined notion doing the heavy lifting in your post – if an award were to be juried, what constitutes “properly informed”? Do you simply mean people who’ve had access to the books in ways that ordinary readers haven’t? Or people who have sufficient knowledge to peer-review/critique the work in question? That is, are you seeking jurors who are operating – in terms of their experience/scholarship etc – at the same level as those writing the submitted books? My own view is that for a juried award – with the connotation of authority it carries – you probably have to; but that limits your pool of potential jurors so radically that it creates other problems.

    Your published vs online award division would solve some things, I suggest, but still doesn’t get round the fundamental problem of book-length vs review-length non-fic. The danger is that “published” criticism will wind up being synonymous with a-bunch-of-work-between-covers; to take one other example that I forgot earlier, how is it possible that the British sf community has not garlanded Nick Lowe with the laurels he deserves for his 20+-year stint of film reviewing in IZ? Easy – he hasn’t published a book, and so gets ignored in this sort of conversation.

  22. Graham,

    The nebulous concept of being “properly informed” is what makes me slightly uncomfortable in all of this. If you set the bar as highly as Andrew seemed to in his first post (though his second post clarifies that position to a more inclusive one) then there’s a real whiff of snobbery to that requirement. Hence the “proles” comment.

    You’re also right that the delineation between short vs. long form criticism as well as online vs. dead tree publication makes a huge difference.

    At the moment, as someone who is only starting to move from “reviewer” to “critic”, there’s a real sense that there are a series of increasingly refined tiers above me with the upper limits leading to publication in dead tree format.

    Any award would have to choose where it drew the line and therefore what it said about the nature of criticism. Many of the more established critics seem to be quite pro-status quo in this, which is fairly understandable. But I think that being more inclusive would probably do some good in not only making criticism feel accessible rather than some obscure and rarified quasi-academic pursuit and that might encourage some of us lower-tier critics and even encourage some consumers of SF to become critics as well.

    So I would be in favour of an award that was democratic and didn’t make any distinction between online or paper publication. Being more inclusive might also mean that the address books of people looking to compile future critical anthologies might get a little bit thicker.

    So what I am saying is that aside from just rewarding the best criticism, depending upon how the award was constructed you could also use it to help energise the SF fanbase a bit. That is also a consideration.

  23. I think we are starting to get a consensus that we need an award. We may actually need several awards, but in general there seems to be agreement that an award for non-fiction is a good thing.

    (Nobody has yet made the obvious statement that an award which does not actually present an award is either ludicrous or a dereliction of duty – so I will.)

    The disagreement is all about detail: one category or many? Popular vote or jury or some sort of combination of the two? How constitute the jury? etc etc. (And can someone please explain to me why we should consider there is a difference between online and print reviewing? I write both and it makes not one jot of difference to how I write, the arguments I construct, the views I present.) There is clearly some need to work out how the award should be constituted. But just because we don’t yet have a system which satisfies everyone (does any award?) is no reason to flounce around and say therefore we shouldn’t have an award.

    An award is not just a jolly for the winner. Awards work in many ways to reward the best, to encourage the good, to promote good work to those who might not encounter it, to serve as a standard bearer, to include (and there are a number of people, both here and those I have been in communication with privately, who have said that as people who primarily or exclusively write non-fiction they feel excluded by the BSFA). All of these things are part of the original and ongoing remit of the BSFA, so it seems like a natural organisation to run a non-fiction award. More than that, it seems to me that if the BSFA chose to abandon the non-fiction award it would be turning its back on a large part of what it is supposed to be doing.

  24. Instead of spending a lot of time and effort analysing a new way for the award to work, why not just do the easiest thing?

    Why not just reinstate the non-fiction as a vote? Everyone who then cared about (or had time to read) the shortlist could then vote. If it’s a few people so what? Presumably anyone picked to be on a BSFA jury would vote anyway?

    80/20 and all that.

  25. Nial, re:

    “I’ve been faithfully plugging this blog every issue, but there don’t seem to be lots of new people dropping by; and so far I’ve had a grand total of zero people express interest in taking over as Production Editor when Tony steps down. Of course, that’s a much less glamorous job than being an award judge… :)”

    Firstly, Production Editor sounds like a very time consuming job? How about explaining what the job involves in Vector? A proper job advert maybe?

    Secondly, measuring traffic on this blog: are you looking at hits ob the feed as well as direct pages hits? Personally I read everything via a feed reader these days, and use Feedburner for my personal feed monitoring service. Also traffic takes time to build up, a few links here and there, leads to a few more and so on…. (don’t get disheartened!)

  26. This is a sidebar again, but in response to James’ comment:

    Production Editor — that’s probably the way to go, you’re right (here as well as in the magazine). The thinking was initially just to see if we could flush any interested parties out of the undergrowth.

    Traffic — the WordPress feed monitor doesn’t seem to be very reliable, but I do look at it. I’m actually quite happy with the overall traffic level in terms of page views and so forth, just slightly disappointed that there are so few people I don’t already know posting comments.

  27. My very very last comment on this:

    just slightly disappointed that there are so few people I don’t already know posting comments.

    It’s a shame, also, that we haven’t had more people who are not non-fic writers themselves posting in this thread. We’ve been doing a lot of presuming what people in general want, with precious little data.

  28. It’s a shame, also, that we haven’t had more people who are not non-fic writers themselves posting in this thread.

    Do they exist though?

    Or rather, there are plenty of people who read ficiton without wanting to produce it but are there people who read non-fiction (beyond reviews) who have no interest in producing it? How many people who buy – for example – The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology do so from the position of general reader? I suspect not many.

  29. *puts hand in the air* I’m not a non-fic writer. Admittedly, I probably wouldn’t be posting in this thread if I weren’t the Awards Administrator, and therefore had a specific interest, but it’s worth bearing in mind that my personal opinions are from this position.

  30. Graham I disagree when you say ‘That is, are you seeking jurors who are operating – in terms of their experience/scholarship etc – at the same level as those writing the submitted books? My own view is that for a juried award – with the connotation of authority it carries – you probably have to’

    By that argument all the Clarke Award judges would have to be novelists of quality to be potential shortlistees, which certainly excludes me.

    I would say a juror ought to have some experience but if a piece of criticism fails to impress an ‘average’ reader (whatever that might be decided to mean) then, frankly, it isn’t good enough for an award.

  31. Graham,

    One of the reasons I stepped down from editing Vector was because I realised that, basically, I’m not a non-fiction writer or editor. I’m an sf reader and fan. As a reader and fan, I haven’t commented in this thread so far, because the intricacies of a non-fiction award don’t really matter to me that much. All the issues of legitimacy (is it being judged by people who are qualified to judge/voted for by people who are qualified to vote/voted by enough people) that are being discussed are issues that affect whether or not a BSFA non-fiction award would be an award worth winning. Whether or not it’s worth winning is only meaningful to people who potentially stand to win it.

    As a reader I don’t really care if an award goes to the ‘right’ or ‘best’ piece of work. I don’t think awards are ever able to really do that anyway, as everyone’s opinion on what is right or best will be different and something will always get overlooked. The only reason I, as a reader, am interested in awards, is as a general guide for what to read next. The works that get nominated/win awards don’t have to be the best, for me, they just have to be good enough to be worth taking a look at.

    I don’t think awards are much good at recognising the best work in the field. I don’t think they’re particularly valuable or a guide to status. I only find them useful as a broad (and understandably incomplete) picture of the field at a particular moment in time. You seem to be concerned with using awards for the purposes of recognition and status. That’s something that may matter to the people competing for the award but it doesn’t matter to me as a reader.

  32. I don’t write any non-fiction. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I do read Vector and Foundation and other odds and ends (I’ve read the Tiptree bio), and I’m quite happy with a recommended reading list. Since there seems to be interest from the members in nominating books this year, I don’t see why we can’t just stick with a member-nominated and member-voted award for what bits of non-fiction the members enjoyed most in the year, and include books, essays, online posts and everything else in with it. If there were a juried award created with potential jurors being those who are properly equipped to judge the scholarly merit of the non-fiction they review then I would have no problem with that, but I like the BSFA awards being something for the proles of the BSFA to vote on.

  33. Geneva,

    Before you stepped down as Vector editor, you did of course publish my piece saying that I found myself minding about awards a lot less than most people I knew in the field. I’m involved in some, I want to see them done well, but everything I say sits in that larger context. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m less concerned than most if the non-fic award vanishes. I would rather see it done not at all than in a way which didn’t command legitimacy, and which didn’t provide a manifestly equal basis for all kinds of non-fic to compete. I have certainly come to the conclusion over the last year that whatever validation I may get in my career as a non-fic writer, I shouldn’t expect it to come from awards; which is fine, and there are other kinds of validation. This is the reason – and god knows it’s a controversial view round here – that I think this year’s solution of a recommended list rather than an award is quite an elegant one. It recognises the diversity (and incomparability) of different works, it doesn’t place the authors/editors under the pressure of expectation that an award generates (as Justine L said), and it short-circuits the whole question of “Who is able to make a properly informed decision?” – while still showing that the BSFA recognises the importance of this area.

  34. Graham

    the voted on non-fiction award commanded a fair bit of legitimacy until the BSFA committee publicly declared otherwise and abandoned it. That we now have to work out how to “restore” such legitimacy is precisely due to this action in the first place. If the same action had been taken for the Art award–which until effort was put in, had become “Interzone cover of the year”, there would have been a similar outcry.

    I am aware the BSFA “consulted” but what they never actually did was to put the decision to a vote of the membership at the AGM.

  35. It’s a small but possibly not unimportant point: the major reference sources in the field, such as the SF Encyclopedia, only give award winners. So in most places people are likely to consult in future the 2007 BSFA Non-Fiction Award will either be given as ‘No Award’, or will have disappeared from the public record altogether.

  36. Thanks once again to all for the discussion. My thinking now is to edit this comment thread into a discussion which can be published in Vector later this year, along with a request for further feedback from the wider membership. I sounded Ian out about this on Saturday; if anyone thinks it’s a terrible idea, speak now (or when I email for permission to use your remarks, I guess).

  37. Well, I think it’s an excellent idea Niall.

    Not only does it give a nice insight into the workings and thinkings behind a notable SF award (which would make it interesting in and of itself) it also raises awareness about non-fiction, the need for people to step forward and get involved in the scene and the fact that there actually IS an online critical community.

    You want to be careful though… this does smell a bit like politics, with the editor of the BSFA’s critical journal appearing to put pressure on the award bods for change.

    Kudos though, would make for a fab article.

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