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Awards fail

It’s not been an especially good year for genre awards. The Hugo results were announced in August to a wave of apathy. The Hugo for Best Novel went to Connie Willis’ Blackout / All Clear, a book which seems to possess only a handful of fans but a much larger number who consider it to be far from the author’s best work. In the UK, the book’s reception has been not very positive at all, with numerous research howlers publicised and accusations of it turning the Blitz into “theme park history”. But then it’s always been accepted that the Hugo is voted upon by a small group, which is both aging and has traditional tastes – including a number of long-held “favourite” authors. The main complaint against the Hugo is that for an award which claims to present the “best” of the genre in any one year, it rarely picks a book which speaks as such to either genre critics or genre readers. Whatever authority the Hugos once possessed has long since gone; they are no longer arbiters of the genre’s taste.

If that wasn’t bad enough, controversy hit the British Fantasy Awards presented on 2 October this year. Like the Hugos, the BFA is based on the votes of a small pool of voters – members of the British Fantasy Society, and (recently) attendees of Fantasycon – and so also cannot claim to represent the tastes of the majority of genre readers or critics. However, the very smallness of the voter pool (much smaller than that of the Hugo), and the use of first-past-the-post as a voting system, has meant that cliques tend to dominate the BFA results. And so one did this year, resulting in a winner unpopular with the other voters. (There are other issues with this year’s results, but they’re not relevant to the point I’m trying to make.)

Both awards are chosen by skewed samples of the general genre reading population. The BFA has traditionally been pro-small press – and actually has a Best Small Press Award – though the Best Novel is typically awarded to a book from a large imprint. And, despite the name, it’s usually horror novels which win; even though, as with the Hugo, the award is open to fantasy/horror and science fiction works. As a result, it’s often hard to understand the purpose of either award.

Which is not to say that I think they should be abolished. Or, as Damien Walter has suggested, the BSFA Award (the nearest the UK has to the Hugo) and BFA should be merged into a single British genre super-award. There’s no guarantee any such super-award would not encounter the same problems as either individual award. And, to be fair, the BSFA Award has been, mostly, a relatively accurate indication of what is “best” in UK sf in any one year – perhaps because its voting pool includes many of the country’s influential genre critics and commentators. But, more importantly, the two awards almost always throw up two entirely different shortlists and pick different winners, and a single award would lose that variety. For one thing, despite their names both awards are open to science fiction and fantasy but tend to pick winners matching the genre of their name.

(Yes, there are those who vote in both. Like many, I’m a member of both the BSFA and the BFS, and I attend both the Eastercon and Fantasycon. I don’t however, generally vote for the BFA as it doesn’t map onto my choice of reading.)

So, if popular vote awards are not arbiters of either quality or taste, then what are they? Not the most popular book in the genre, as that would be the one with the most sales. And it’s an unusual year when the critics and commentators agree the winner is the best book of the year. To some extent, the awards are a reward for services to genre, recognition of the contributions of the winner. More than that, they’re a reward for engagement with the genre. Of course, in most cases, “genre” means the members of the voting pool. Awards, as they say, don’t go books but to people. The BFA was won by Sam Stone because she campaigned for her book to win. The Hugo went to Connie Willis because she’s recognised as a skilled writer and a nice person by the Hugo voters. In other words, the work cannot speak for itself, and no work wins a popular vote award on merit. A super-award is as prone to these problems just as much as the existing genre-fandom-specific awards are. A super-award will solve nothing, but may well throw the flaws of popular vote awards into starker relief.

And where will that leave us?

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