From Last Night

Your discussion points for the day, drawn from discussions at last night’s BSFA meeting, on the subject of Awards:

  • Does the sf field have too many awards, or do they all serve valid audiences? Which awards would you get rid of?
  • Is a shortlist more valuable than a final award, as a guide to what to read? At what point does a “recommended reading list” get too unwieldy?
  • Should an award recognise what seems most vital now, or what seems most likely to last? Is there a difference between the two?
  • In theory, juried awards take a longer/more contextualised view; does this mean they have a better chance of getting it “right”?
  • Juried awards — allegedly — tend to favour compromise candidates. But is that a bad thing? If a book is the second-favourite book of the year of five different people, isn’t that in itself a strong recommendation?

The other notable part of the evening, for me, was receiving a small pile of old back-issues of Vector, dating from the early eighties, courtesy of Mark Plummer. Back then, the magazine was A5 and had a cover price of 75p. I was particularly excited to discover a copy of Vector 98:

This is the Vector of the month of my birth. It contains articles by Chris Evans and Simon Ounsley; book reviews by Paul Kincaid, David Langford, Roz Kaveney and others; and a transcript of a Novacon Guest of Honour speech by Chris Priest, on what’s wrong with science fiction:

The only thing wrong with science fiction is the “science fiction” label, and all the misbegotten attitudes that have arisen around it. We are all aware of the close-minded attitudes from people outside the sf world who have not read the stuff … we know that their dislike of science fiction is based on ignorance and prejudice. My point is that there are similar attitudes within the field, just as ignorant, just as prejudices, yet they are mostly invisible to us because they appear to be on our side. These internal ignorant attitudes will eventually destroy the freedoms fo creative writers, unless they are exposed for what they are.

Science fiction writers are blessed with many valuable things. They have an active, intelligent and open-minded readership. They have a successful commercial framework within which to work. The “science fiction” label conceals a multitude of sins, but it also provides a liberal framework within which to write. New writers are still being actively encouraged. There is room for the experimental story, for the avant-garde, for the work you can’t easily pin a label on. All this is valuable, and, as far as I know, unique in modern publishing. I say to the remarkable men and women who are my colleagues: write up to the level of your audience. Make life difficult for them. Give them autonomous, demanding novels. Stimulate them and entertain them. Don’t listen to the Loser del Ray-Guns of the world, don’t settle for the imaginatively second-hand, for the easy sequel to your first success. You’re not writing for beer-money, you’re writing for minds. Put your language first; language is the test of reality, the medium of ideas.

EDIT: And I’ve got to quote this section from the same speech, on sf critics:

Then there are the critics, who divide into camps of such extremism that neither side knows where the other lot are.

Doctor Johnson once said: “Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” So it is … but whether we like it or not, sf needs responsible criticism.

Writing is an art, and criticism is the natural companion to art. It defines and shapes it, it interprets it, it sets standards, it provides an overview of what individual writers are doing, it provides a context of intelligent debate. Original work can survive withuot it, and can of course be appreciated without it, but responsible criticism enhances art.

Science fiction critics are usually one of two sorts. There are those who have discovered that sf is literature, and have promptly gone barmy. These are the academics, who come to science fiction from the comfortable security of a chair at a university. There are a few good academic critics, but most of the criticism I have seen from academics has been pompous and narcissistic, apparently written with no love of literature, just a desire to impress.

The other lot are the crowd-pleases, the likes of Loser del Ray-Gun and Creepy-Crawly Crusoe, who shy away from criticism and call themselves “reviewers”. They claim to know what the common reader enjoys, and from this position of arrogance and ignorance parade their subjective opinions with all the certainty of the closed mind.

Neither kind of critic is worth a damn. They say nothing to the writer or the reader, and neither is able to join a larger debate.

Of course, there are a few exceptions. There are some perceptive critics in fandom, who are not showing off, who are not trying to agree with anybody and who write with honesty and insight. And the British magazine Foundation has a well-earned reputation for clear, unpretentious criticism. But this simply isn’t enough to form a body of critical work. There should be a sufficient amount of sf criticism that there is disagreement amongst informed critics, that there is a continuity of debate.

27 thoughts on “From Last Night

  1. That Vector is pretty much as old as me too. It is slightly depressing that over a quarter of a century later you could easily republish Priest’s words as new. Or at least I find myself saying exactly the same things.

    Historical context: Who is Loser del Ray-Gun?

  2. It is slightly depressing that over a quarter of a century later you could easily republish Priest’s words as new.

    The first quote still has the ring of familiarity to it, yeah. I think the criticism situation has improved a lot (but then, I would).

    Historical context: Who is Loser del Ray-Gun?

    I’m not sure. The only additional context is this:

    “If you have the misfortune to read Analog you will have been exposed to the so-called wisdom of certain reviewers, whom I am tempted to call Loser del Ray-Gun and Creepy-Crawly Crusoe. These men, both of whom are said to have written science fiction, are leading spokesmen for the anti-literature school.”

    I was sort of assuming Loser del Ray-Gun has to be Lester del Rey, but I didn’t know he reviewed for Analog. I have no idea who Creepy-Crawly Crusoe might be. Both names are (for now, at least) googlewhacks.

  3. The awards I tend to pay attention to as a guide to reading are: the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Jnr. Award, and the Carl Brandon Society Award. The former because titles that get shortlisted/win are likely to be of reasonably high quality and generally inhabit a variedly interesting position in genre space, the latter two because they have the capacity to bring to my attention works and writers who I, and the rest of the genre, may have unjustly overlooked.

    The awards I pay attention to, but don’t treat as a guide to reading, are the BSFA fiction awards and the Hugo fiction awards. I find these tend to provide a reasonable snapshot of where those within the genre think the genre is at, but I don’t necessarily want to actually read the shortlisted/winning works. They work as a barometer for telling what genre-insiders think the genre is doing, so in that respect they’re culturally/sociologically interesting, but I’m not always interested in treating them as a reading list.

    Interestingly, the awards I get my reading recommendations from are juried awards, the awards I get my ‘insiders snap-shot of the genre’ from are voted awards. Not sure what that means, if anything.

  4. Juried awards ‘allegedly’ take a compromise view. Probably true at times, and why not.

    There was ayear when 4 out of 5 judges picked the same book as first choice, the 5th made it second choice. Damn near unanimous, but because it was an unexpected decision the panel were accused by many of a compromise choice. You can’t win this argument so I ignore it.

  5. Bloody hell — that was nearly 30 years ago! Was I still around back then?

    Lester del Rey has gone to the great remainder shop in the sky; I believe Spider Robinson is still with us.

    I don’t agree any more with what I said about Foundation.

    Chris

  6. The first quote still has the ring of familiarity to it, yeah. I think the criticism situation has improved a lot (but then, I would).

    Yes, I was thinking of the first quote.

    I assume that’s an allusion to Lester del Rey.

    This makes sense. Like Niall I wasn’t really aware of him as a critic rather than editor.

  7. Chris, would you care to expand on your views re Foundation? (Interest declared, for those who don’t know: I’m incoming editor from the end of this year, and have had some input into recent issues too.)

  8. I tend to read the stuff on the Clarke and BSFA lists. Usually I’ve read or already have on my reading pile the stuff in the BSFA list – which I guess suggests I may be a fairly typical BSFA reader in terms of my taste – in the last few years the Clarke’s, god bless them, have directed me towards books I probably wouldn’t normally have read (Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart) which I appreciate even when I don’t like the particular book.

    The Hugos rarely impinge on my consciousness, I don’t read much US science fiction, but I may have picked up both The Chronoliths and Spin at least in part because they got shortlisted although I couldn’t honestly separate the effect of the award nomination from the reviews I’d read elsewhere.

    An appearance in the Prometheus Award shortlist usually makes me feel a little guilty about owning the book, and probably puts me off buying any book that I don’t already own or isn’t by an author I normally read. The only other award that I tend to notice are the Sidewises – because I’m partial to a bit of alternate history.

  9. Chris: thanks for dropping by. I wouldn’t dream of holding you to any of the opinions expressed in that speech! But I thought it was still very interesting, if at times depressing in its relevance this long after it was composed.

    Martin:

    Usually I’ve read or already have on my reading pile the stuff in the BSFA list

    I was about to say exactly the same thing.

    I really wish there was a broad-spectrum US-based award that I trusted as much as the Clarke, but there isn’t. The Dick is limited to paperbacks, the tastes of Hugo voters are frequently a mystery to me, the Nebula is in theory broad-spectrum but in practice as narrow as the Hugos, and the Campbell is a joke.

  10. the Campbell is a joke

    Is that the Campbell Award for Best New Writer you’re referring to, or the John W Campbell Memorial Award? (Further question: does the latter still exist, or am I betraying my age dreadfully here?)

  11. The Memorial Award. Last year’s finalists included, among others, The Summer Isles by Ian R Macleod, Learning the World by Ken Macleod, Transcendent by Stephen Baxter, Accelerando by Charles Stross, Counting Heads by David Marusek, and Spin by Robert Charles Wilson … and the award went to Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer. The year before, Air lost to Market Forces by Richard Morgan.

  12. Niall: “I really wish there was a broad-spectrum US-based award that I trusted as much as the Clarke…”

    Good to hear that one of the Clarke judges trusts the Clarkes. It’d be a rum situation otherwise.

    You mean the Campbell is a joke not in its list of finalists but its tendency to select not the best book from that list?

  13. Well, if it wasn’t an award I trusted, I wouldn’t have wanted to be part of it, would I? :)

    I know that saying award decisions are “wrong” is, on one level, pointless and absurd, and I should just say that the Campbell rarely matches my taste … but come on! Part of the problem, I think, is that the jury doesn’t change, or at least doesn’t change regularly.

  14. the award went to Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer. The year before, Air lost to Market Forces by Richard Morgan.

    I don’t think it is fait to lump these two things into the same category. Air probably should have one but the Mindscan decision is a travesty.

  15. “Trust” when it comes to juried awards is intermittent. Some juries are useless and some make good decisions. To say one has consistent faith in a juried award is not, in my opinion, a considered opinion.

    However, I’d still take any juried award, or half-juried award, over a people’s choice award because I think there’s much more opportunity for manipulation with awards voted on solely by industry professionals or readers. Some of it is overt, but most of it not overt–who has the biggest internet presence or most material online. This sways voters who may not see other material or have the patience to seek it out.

    What is depressing is seeing individuals defend their particular turf rather than look at the overall picture–in assigning relevant to awards, in assigning relevance to authors.

    In the real world, hardly anyone, for example, knows about the BFSA. A larger percentage know about the Arthur C. Clarke, but not by much.

    Jeff

  16. “Trust” when it comes to juried awards is intermittent. Some juries are useless and some make good decisions. To say one has consistent faith in a juried award is not, in my opinion, a considered opinion.

    I don’t see why that should be — there’s still an administrative body that oversees the award from year to year, and selects the judges. Saying I have faith in an award is not the same thing as saying I expect to agree with every winner chosen.

    In the real world, hardly anyone, for example, knows about the BFSA. A larger percentage know about the Arthur C. Clarke, but not by much.

    I’m sure this is generally true, especially if by “real world” you mean “North America”. That said, I’ve seen Clarke displays in Waterstone’s et al from time to time, albeit with nothing like the frequency you’d get for something like the Orange Prize or the Booker. And I remember having a conversation with one of my colleagues last year. He asked me why I was reading what I was reading; I said, “oh, I’m a judge for an award at the moment”; he said, “oh, the Clarke Award”? I suspect I’m paraphrasing, but not by much — the point is he’d heard of the award and knew the sort of books it was for. And he wasn’t even a big reader, much less a big genre reader.

  17. Jeff: ‘Real’ World? This is the real world. It’s all real, just a small portion of it. Talk of ‘real world’ sounds like the dismissive literary establishment view of genre to me.

    Niall: I asked my local Waterstone’s why they didn’t display the Clarke winner one year. It was because they shelved that book (Jonathan Strange) in general fiction. Why couldn’t they display it in both areas? The blank look I received says it all about some areas of mass-market bookselling.

  18. All awards and ways of assigning awards have their pecadilloes and favourites.

    The Nebulas have shortlisted Jack McDevitt seven times in ten years, the BSFA have shortlisted Jon Courtenay Grimwood seven years in a row. The first fact I find utterly bewildering, the second a mild irritation. But then I can read most JCG novels without wanting to stab my eyes out with a pencil (sorry McDevitt fans) and admired the energy in his early books, although I confess the latest Grimwood lies lost, unfinished and unloved somewhere in my house.

    But then I also find the presence of anything by McMaster Bujold on a shortlist extraordinary – eight Hugo novel shortlists and four wins in twenty years seems barely credible (to me) when I’ve never managed more than two chapters of any of those books. What do I know?

    All the awards have their own character. Finding an award you “trust” is about finding an award with a character that matches your own taste. The Clarkes have their favourites. Christopher Priest (three out of his last three novels shortlisted – the Clarke judges didn’t count media tie-in eXistenZ so neither will I) and Neal Stephenson (five from six) clearly suit the Clarkes, who ever is on the panel.

    I don’t mind either these authors being nominated frequently because I admire certain qualities about both.

    I have no doubt there’s a large group of SF readers for whom Nebula shortlists are a reliable pointer to books they’ll enjoy and that there are a group of readers who used to rely on the Hugo nominations who will have found the churning of authors caused by the recent influx of european/british voters via Interaction as an unpleasant disturbance to their normal way of life – in the same way that a sudden influx of US or Russian or Japanese members probably quickly transform the BSFA shortlist into something I didn’t recognise.

  19. But then I also find the presence of anything by McMaster Bujold on a shortlist extraordinary – eight Hugo novel shortlists and four wins in twenty years seems barely credible (to me) when I’ve never managed more than two chapters of any of those books. What do I know?

    Well, Bujold has evolved from a merely good writer to a very good to excellent writer who writes mainstream science fiction, where the emphasis lies on plot and story rather than exotic science or uncomfortable politics: tailor made for the Hugo voters…

    Now personally I don’t pay much attention to any award as a guide to what’s worthwhile reading; I get my recommendations from friends and Usenet/blogs.

  20. Don’t forget, a big part of awards is also about which publishers actual remember or bother to submit their books for the awards in the first place. Most juried awards require publishers to nominate their own books. If an award isn’t on the publisher’s radar or a publicist is swamped that month, the book may never get submitted. Then later we say “how could they have overlooked such a wonderful book?” and assign political significance to the oversight, when in truth the book was never up for the award in the first place.

    The World Fantasy Award would seem to be a happy mix of both a popular vote and a juried award, but I wish they had a second jury to select the winners after the nomination process was complete.

  21. Martin W:

    Now personally I don’t pay much attention to any award as a guide to what’s worthwhile reading; I get my recommendations from friends and Usenet/blogs.

    Zing! Ditto for me, but from reviews by reviewers whose tastes I have begun to understand.

    Which brings us back to Mr. Priest’s speech (last paragraph of the second quoted chunk), which encapsulates rather neatly what I’ve been trying to say for some time about what I try to do with reviews when I write them. There is a place for academic criticism (one that I could not, and have no wish to, usurp) and a place for cheerleading (non-fan genre readers), but there is a big landscape in between where I’m trying to light a little campfire that people might want to sit by for a while.

    I think this will be one of the things I mention on *the panel*, Niall… ;)

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