No Sneer Here

Andrew Wheeler said:

SF Awards Watch has the full list of [BSFA Awards] nominees; all we need now is the American version of Niall Harrison to come into the comment thread and sneer at it.

For the record, my reaction to the Nebula preliminary ballot wasn’t intended to be a sneer, though I suppose I can’t really fault Andrew for getting that impression. It was, rather, a scream of frustration and disappointment.

I realise that I care more about literary awards than the average sf reader, never mind the average person on the street, but I do care. There are two general categories of awards I find useful: those awards that identify books I’m likely to be interested in (or am interested in an am pleased to see recognised), and those awards that represent the tastes of groups of readers I’m interested in. Awards in the first group tend to be juried — the Clarke, the Tiptree, the World Fantasy Awards. Awards in the second group tend (not entirely by definition) to be popular vote awards — the Hugo, the BSFA Awards.

The Nebula Awards, by all rights, should be in both groups. I’m an avid reader of sf, so I respect sf writers and am interested in what they, as practitioners, consider to be good sf; and the early Nebula winners are a pretty good list of essential science fiction. And yet, increasingly, they’re not in either group, to the point where my only response is bafflement. Readers who prefer Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage to Geoff Ryman’s Air and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell — readers who prefer Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas — are not readers I have much in common with. It’s not even that the shortlists are horrible; it’s just that the winners seem to be the mediocre (yes, in my opinion) choices. Hence, frustration.

But enough of this looking back! Tomorrow, the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2008.

P.S. In the same post, Andrew comments on the nomination of Alice in Sunderland, and Saxon commented here. I haven’t read it yet, but I’d be interested in other thoughts.

P.P.S. Following my thoughts on cover art, a couple of interesting comments from Tom Abba:

. If the likes of Atwood, Palahniuk, McCarthy and Winterston do any long term good, it might be to persuade publishers to revisit what counts as ‘SF artwork’. Fantasy publishers, for example, could do a lot worse than commission Sam Taylor-Wood, Matthew Barney, Chris Anthony or even Stefan Sagmeister rather than relying on the ‘richly painted dragon’ motif that’s been done to death.

P.P.P.S. For those who didn’t see the comment on the main shortlist announcement post, there’s now a livejournal community for the discussion of nonfiction about sf and fantasy (which is of relevance to the Hugo Best Related Book category as well as the BSFA Awards).

25 thoughts on “No Sneer Here

  1. Alice in Sunderland is a great nomination precisely because it’s a genuine surprise. The result of a completely unprompted decision by members of the BSFA to say “yes… this comic deserves to be judged as a novel”.

    It’s a surprise nomination that makes you go “Hmmmm… fascinating” rather than “are they smoking crack over there?” (viz nebulae passim).

  2. Well… okay, leaving aside the “can comics be judged as literature” debate (to which the answer is undoubtedly yes), I think my issue with nominating Alice in Sunderland is that not only is it not science fiction (and I think calling it fantasy is kind of a stretch), I’m not even sure it qualifies as a ‘novel’. It’s a gorgeous, brilliantly structured and playful piece of non fiction that uses fictional devices– but there are massive swathes of it that are the comics equivalent of a lecture, or a documentary. It’s a journey through history and comic book storytelling, but it’s not a fictional narrative in the same way that Talbot’s The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is a fictional narrative. It’s lovely that so many people liked it enough to nominate it- I just really don’t understand why it’s there, especially in a list that’s nominally supposed to be Science Fiction.

  3. 1) Is there an American version of Niall Harrison?

    2) The Nebulas are a popular vote award with an unusually parochial voting population. I think it would probably be fair to describe it as representing, on the whole, the taste of an uninteresting group of readers.

  4. David:

    1) Yes. In an underground bunker in an undisclosed location.

    2) In that case, why do we as a community attach so much legitimacy to them? Is it just the historical thing of them having been good back about 20 years ago? (And their occasional contemporary getting-it-right, in a Shakespeare/monkeys kind of way?) I find it hard to believe that inertia is such a long-lasting explanation.

  5. Graham,

    We (for certain meanings of “we”) attach legitimacy to the Nebulas because they’re awarded by the Science Fiction Writers of America – which because it has the word “Writers” means it automatically gets a boost in legitimacy. As Niall said, the awards SHOULD be excellent, awarded to excellent writing and excellent stories by people who really ought to know what they’re talking about.

  6. Saxon —

    but there are massive swathes of it that are the comics equivalent of a lecture, or a documentary

    First, I do agree with Jonathan; it’s a really interesting nomination, and it’s bumped the book up my TBR stack for sure. I guess the question is whether it’s a story that uses factual illustrations (like Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart) or a factual account that has fictional digressions (an example is on the tip of my tongue). Actually, either way, I haven’t actually seen anyone say it’s fantasy — about fantasy, sure, but that’s not the same thing.

    Graham —

    In an underground bunker in an undisclosed location.

    This scares me more than mere words can convey.

  7. Is there an American version of Niall Harrison?

    Surely, much like the Highlander, there can only be one? This imposter must be fought to the death!

  8. They say you can find anything on the internet. If that’s true then some fan fiction community has just published a story in which the British and American Nialls meet up and have sex… with each other… and Doctor Phlox from Enterprise.

  9. The problem with the nomination for Alice in Sunderland is that it’s completely arbitrary. Whereas voters supposedly will have a read a fair selection of novels and short fiction before turning in their ballot, I find it unlikely that, in consideration of a fiction award, they comprehensively read through all of the other graphic novels worth the effort. Otherwise, Flight 4 and The Arrival would also be on there. If they want to vote for graphic novels, create a graphic novel category. In terms of taxonomy, it makes no sense at all to have a single graphic novel in a novel category. It in no guise means that graphic novels are in any way inferior to novels–just that they’re different by definition. The combination of graphics and text is a different art form.

    Moles–you’re on drugs.


  10. Hang on, hang on. Jonathan’s up there slashing me with Doctor Phlox, and Moles is the one on drugs?

    Back to the award: I don’t think most people have comprehensively read through all of the prose novels worth the effort, either. That’s not how popular vote awards work — they rely on lots of people having read a few things. Having said which, if we get a few years with graphic works consistently making the ballot, then I agree there’d be a case for introducing a separate category.

  11. Whereas voters supposedly will have a read a fair selection of novels and short fiction before turning in their ballot,

    Ho ho ho.

  12. …the word “Writers” means it automatically gets a boost in legitimacy. As Niall said, the awards SHOULD be excellent, awarded to excellent writing and excellent stories by people who really ought to know what they’re talking about.

    But if we believe Sturgeon’s Law, then something approaching 90% of these people have already shown that they are either unable or unwilling to judge excellence in their own work. Granted it’s not quite the same, but why would anyone expect them to be capable of judging excellence in the work of others?

  13. Sturgeon’s law is not actually a natural law, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be relevant here. The assumption is either that writers are “better” (whatever you want to mean by that) at evaluating fiction than the average reader, or that they look for different things than the average reader — and that as a result an award voted by writers should produce interesting winners. Put another way, even if only 10% of the general population are any good at evaluating fiction, the probability that an SFWA members is in that 10% should be greater than chance.

  14. I may have said this before, but I’d like to see a moratorium on the invocation of Sturgeon’s Law in this kind of debate, because it’s the rhetorical equivalent of the neutron bomb: it destroys the evidence and leaves only the assertions standing.

  15. Yes, this is why I took pains to qualify my statement (“if we believe,” “not quite the same”). I tend to use Sturgeon as a shorthand for a general feeling that there is a lot of fiction that is mediocre if not truly bad out there, whatever the actual (impossible and pointless to determine) percentage may be. But yes, you’re probably right that it’s better not to invoke it at all — noted!

    What I’m honestly wondering at though is the source of the assumption that writers (en mass) are better at evaluating fiction, and that assumption’s legitimacy — in general and in this specific case.

    In general, it’s one of those ideas that has intuitive resonance, but I’m having a hard time figuring out why it would be true.

    The other factor, in this specific case, is that membership in the SFWA requires publication in markets with large circulation, which will thus tend to mean that SFWA member authors are those with work that editors feel appeals to the “average reader.” Getting novels published by Small Beer, Aio or Prime, short stories in LCRW, EV, (up until recently) Clarkesworld, etc., will not get you into the SFWA. I wonder how much this invalidates the idea that the member writers will have different tastes than the “average reader” and thus produce better, more interesting winners?

  16. Slight sidebar: I don’t really want to bring the concept of “better” into this too strongly, it’s just that I couldn’t find a better word. I don’t really think that if two books are both on the Hugo ballot and the Nebula ballot, and one wins the Hugo and the other the Nebula, that the Nebula winner is “better”. I do think that it might be possible to identify characteristics of Hugo and Nebula winners, and that a given reader’s taste might match one award more closely than the other.

    To address your main point, though:

    In general, it’s one of those ideas that has intuitive resonance, but I’m having a hard time figuring out why it would be true.

    Well, I believe it simply because I think anyone who spends a lot of time putting words together into sentences is likely to increase their sensitivity to how other people put words together into sentences. I know for a fact that the writing and revising I do in my day job and as a reviewer has done that for me, and I see no reason why the same wouldn’t be true for someone who writes fiction. I also think it’s not so much about writers en mass as writers on average — that it’s perfectly possible for a writer to be lousy at judging fiction and a non-writer to be excellent.

    However, you’re right, it could just be so ingrained into book culture that we accept it as true without thinking about it enough. (Because writers are so often asked to be reviewers, for instance, or because the first serious critics of sf were also writers.)

    That’s an interesting point about markets, but I’m not sure how much of an effect it would have. I don’t think a writer’s taste in books necessarily correlates well with the sort of books they write; in fact I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

  17. But it’s not just being lousy at judging fiction is it? people with no taste tend to go by whatever’s popular and gleefully swallow hype. Harry Potter winning a Hugo was an example of being lousy at judging fiction.

    The Nebulas are a different kind of lousy. They’re not lousy in that they have no taste, they clearly have very definite tastes it’s just that those tastes bear no relation to sales, advertising intensity OR critical acclaim.

    The problem isn’t that they’re bad at tracking quality. The problem is that they’re tracking something else.

  18. Niall:

    I disagree re the graphic novel situation (with the understanding that my disagreement isn’t based on dissing Alice in Sunderland–it’s a great, great graphic novel). If what you’re saying is that the people voting for the British Fantasy Award are conducting their reading in as haphazard a manner as they have obviously conducted their graphic novel reading/voting…then why would anyone even want to be up for the award? You have a situation then that is as potentially as bad as the Nebulas, only in the opposite direction, don’t you? But you obviously don’t believe that–you support the BFA quite strongly, I believe. (Although evidence toward your point: *you* put forward the Kelly Link story from Tin House, but you hadn’t read any other stories in the antho/magazine. Certainly finding other quality stories in TH doesn’t push the Link out of your recommended list, but it indicates an anecdotal, non-systematic approach that undermines your legitimacy as a voter. I.e., I see that decision and I think “This guy hasn’t done the best job of trying to be fair or complete.” Or possibly you simply have what would be a dangerous predisposition to assume the Link is the strongest piece in TH and you don’t need to investigate further. Niall to Jeff: “I was just too busy, you idiot.”)

    That said, I find it hard to believe that BFA voters *have* voted as haphazardly on the fiction.

    I also don’t believe it makes logical sense that a graphic novel category should be dependent on a graphic novel being nominated in the novel category a few years running. The odds of that happening are remote even though anyone who reads graphic novels knows there’s more than enough good genre/fantastical material every year to justify a graphic novel category in every single major genre award. Not to be difficult, but it’s an interesting issue all the around.

    As for the Nebulas, the Hugos, and any other award–whether writer or non-writer, an award is only so good as its administration. Which is to say, the extent to which its rules protect against abuse. People are inherently subjective. Which is to say, it’s always a crap shoot, in part because the field is so small that it is unlikely you can find a writer who doesn’t have some personal relationship to what is being judged. Readers, perhaps less so, but also perhaps less hooked in to what’s out there (which is why the World Fantasy Award works well as a partially judged, partially voted on award, with the judges holding the final power but the attendees being able to get two on the ballot in every category.) It becomes slightly less of a crap shoot if the rules work well, are logical, and strive to assess work in some objective way. Assuming, of course, that the administrators don’t use the rules to enforce their own agendas–something that happens more often than people might think, behind the scenes. As I’ve said before, having been on award juries, I’ll never again misjudge people’s capacity for both wisdom and stupidity, sometimes within the same brain…


  19. The British Fantasy Association are the other lot :-)

    Jeff, the answer as to why anyone should want to be up for the award has two answers.

    Firstly, because even if the voting is haphazard, it’s an award voted for by the fans that are members of the BSFA. This is the value of democracy… it gives an elected winner a legitimacy not gained by being appointed or having your name picked out of a hat at random. In terms of who gets to run the country… this is an important kind of legitimacy. In the case of an SF award, I’d say it has no importance whatsoever. YMMV.

    Secondly, because the BSFA has, in the past, tended to choose quite decent short-lists and winners. This is where the Nebula falls down… its judgement has been terrible in the past so now if you win you either have to go “cool… other writers like me!” or “great… people with terrible taste think I’m a good writer”. Winning a BSFA award is a good thing because it puts you in the same league as other past winners. The award has some prestige by virtue of having shown good taste in the past. Of course, this is liable to change.

  20. Speaking as one who has read that entire issue of Tin House (and one other entire issue of Tin House this year!) I can say that in my opinion, “Light” is definitely the best story in the issue. But — it’s a very strong issue over all, with excellent stories by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Shelley Jackson, and Gina Zucker, to name three.

    “Light” was also the only story to appear online, making it lot easier for people in the UK (and plenty of people in the US, too) to read — I think that’s sufficient explanation for it being read more widely.

    I would argue that the Nebulas have often chosen stories in the past few years in a way consistent with “bad taste” being the reason, by the way. And the problem with the Harry Potter win is one easy to understand in an award with a very broad voting base — it was the one novel EVERYONE had read (pretty much) — so it gained votes (including seconds and thirds and such) that just weren’t available to some of the other books.


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