It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Lies, Damn Lies and… SF Awards


Adam Roberts has posted an interesting article on Futurismic on the blog-baiting subject of “Award shortlists are all rubbish”. Big Dumb Object has responded here.

Myself, I don’t think awards shortlists are rubbish. I just think they’re dishonest. The Hugo Award, the BSFA Award, the Clarke Award, the Nebula Award… are all given to the “best” novel, etc.


But that’s not true. The voted awards are given to the shortlisted book which has the most votes. The most popular book, in other words. The juried awards are given to the book which the jury – no doubt after much argument and compromise – feels is the best of their shortlist. The same is true of the shortlists themselves. The process itself simply isn’t capable of picking the best book of the year.

If every reader of science fiction and fantasy voted for the Hugo Award, the winner would always be the latest Harry Potter book. Because so many more people read JK Rowling than Michael Chabon (whose The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – which is actually very good – won the Hugo for 2008). But then, of course, they’d have to call it the Hugo Award for Most Popular Novel.

It could be argued that shortlists provide a good reading list, a snapshot of the “state of the genre”, if you will. For juried awards such as the Clarke, that’s possibly true. Although given the Clarke’s predilection for picking non-sf novels for its shortlist, you’re not going to get much idea from it of what’s happening in the genre in any given year.

As far as I can determine, the only conceivable purpose for the various awards which are handed out is… to celebrate the genre. It’s a reminder to the general public that science fiction and fantasy still exist as a separate, functioning ecology; that there are writers, readers, artists and commentators working in the genre; that there are people who feel strongly enough about the genre to do the whole award shenanigans.

So let’s drop the word “best” from all the awards. Let’s call it the Hugo Award for Novel, the BSFA Award for Novel, and so on. Remove all references to any kind of value judgment. Let’s stop pretending the winners are better books than every other genre book published during the same year. The same for short stories, magazines, writers, editors, artists, etc.

Let’s be honest.

Let’s focus on what the awards really are: annual celebrations of the genre.


9 thoughts on “Lies, Damn Lies and… SF Awards

  1. Yeah, I think we’re agreeing, mostly. 🙂

  2. A few years ago, someone introduced a motion before the WSFS Business Meeting to strike out "Best" and insert "Most Popular" in all of the Hugo Award category names.The motion was killed in seconds by an Objection to Consideration — a procedural motion that says, more or less, that if >2/3 of the people in the meeting don't even want to discuss the matter, they can kill it without debate. And they did. As I recall, nearly everyone in the room except the person introducing the motion voted to immediately kill the proposal. She was surprised. I was not.From the point of view of the individual voter, the works in question are the “best” to him or her. The Hugo Awards simply aggregate those views, and say, “The aggregate opinion of the members of the World Science Fiction Society who voted is that these works are the best of the year.”There is no such thing as one, objective, “best” work, because there’s no such thing as an objective standard for what is “best.” Everything has to be viewed in context. The Hugo Awards are for whatever WSFS members considered best, the Nebulas whatever SFWA members considered best, and so forth. They’re not dishonest, unless you think they’re claiming that there’s an objective standard.By your argument, all awards of any sort that are essentially judging subjective quality are dishonest. Try telling the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences that they shouldn't put "best" in the names of the Oscar(R) categories, while you're at it.

  3. There is no such thing as one, objective, “best” work, because there’s no such thing as an objective standard for what is “best.”True. But when every voter uses different criteria to determine what they think is best (e.g., such-and-such just bought me a drink at bar), then it renders the use of the word a nonsense.And yes, I don’t think the Oscar is given to the “best” film either, so they’re obviously misusing the word.

  4. But when every voter uses different criteria to determine what they think is best…, then it renders the use of the word a nonsense.Not really. Yes, it would if it were just a single person making the decision, but when you have lots of people making their own decisions and aggregating them, it tends to even out the individual odd cases. No author can buy every potential Hugo voter a drink.Democracy is messy and has loose ends. And trying to get awards to drop the word “best” from their titles is quixotic.

  5. No author can buy every potential Hugo voter a drink.Didn’t someone recently work out the cost of buying a Hugo?I suppose what I mostly object to is the perception that the winning novel truly is the best the genre has to offer for that year, and that people will make snap judgements on genre books based on that winning novel.

  6. Didn’t someone recently work out the cost of buying a Hugo?Yes, they did. And I’ve done panels on the subject (usually as part of a larger subject of “horror stories of awards administration”) at conventions. But IMO nobody is actually going to do it, or at least to have any degree of success at doing so. There are practical reasons for this that I can elaborate upon if you wish. Besides, you can’t keep such things secret — the signs of “vote buying” are too obvious — and the backlash would have the opposite of its desired effect, I think.

  7. Besides, you can’t keep such things secret…Such as the author’s bar bill…

  8. I pay not the slightest attention to awards–popularity contests, one and all. Frankly, the aesthetic standards of those voting for major SF/horror or fantasy prizes (whether they be fans or juries) are always suspect. Do I give a damn what a bunch of genre geeks–writers OR fans–think is the “best” novel? Not by a long shot. Few genre fans or scribblers are as widely read as they should be or familiar with avant-garde or experimental/innovative prose. The fans don’t get it and the writers are threatened by anyone who pushes the envelope farther than they do. Does this make for the selection of outstanding works? Only by accident and very, VERY rarely…

  9. I think a celebration is a good way to look at awards. I nominate my favourite stories, not necessarily expecting the to win because they’re mostly fom the small press, hence less readers and less chance of nomination.Still, I’d think any award was great if I won one. :o)

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