So the 2011 Awards season is almost over. ‘Hello adam,’ commented the almost-certainly-not-a-spambot “goals” yesterday: ‘some words about the booker prize?’ What was it Hamlet said? Words, words, words. There's no shortage of them. In sooth, to switch plays, I know not why I am so unmoved by the Man Booker this year. Most years I read the entire shortlist. This year – not a one. Couldn’t muster the interest. I suppose I will read Barnes’s winning title, Sense of an N-Dubz, at some point. At the moment, having sat in one of those comfy chairs in a bookshop for half an hour browsing a copy, I can say: it looks slight, not merely in terms of length: well-written but essayistic. Maybe it is the single best novel published this year. Maybe not. More likely, I think, is that this award represents recognition for Barnes’s whole career, a sort of long service medal. The Booker has form for this: nobody would nowadays place 1998’s Amsterdam amongst McEwan’s best or even better books; it certainly wasn’t the best novel published in 1998. Similarly, by all accounts (and by ‘by all accounts’ I mean: according to something I read when I used to teach a course on the prize, but which I can’t locate at the moment) the judges were upfront that giving the prize to 2000’s The Blind Assassin, one of Margaret Atwood’s stodgier books, had more to do with her larger reputation than the novel itself. And giving last year’s prize to Howard Jacobson for the actively bad The Finkler Question (the worst book on that year’s shortlist, never mind questions of larger merit) was surely motivated by a sense of: ‘it’s about time we gave some formal recognition to Jacobson’ than anything else. It may look, from inside the judges’ eyrie, a safer bet: at least nobody can deny that Barnes and Atwood are writers of stature. In those years when the prize tries to live by the good-wine-needs-no-bush mantra it as often as not goes embarrassingly wrong, rewarding lightweight, mediocre novels by newcomers like The White Tiger or Vernon God Little (this latter surely the most meager work of fiction ever to win a major prize). Still, it’s a letdown when weak novels win prizes, whatever the reason.
I'm more interested, personally, in SFF award-dom; which, this year, has been all a-kerfuffle. The 2011 British Fantasy Award collapsed in ignominy and recrimination, and is now being painstakingly rebuilt from the ground up. In another part of the forest, the 2011 Hugo went to two Connie Willis books that (taken together or separately) were, or are, not especially good. This wasn’t a catastrophic award—like the year the Campbell went to Ben Bova’s execrable Titan (again, I presume, for reasons of long service to SF: it would be more than sane mind could cope with the thought that the prize was awarded for the merits of the novel itself). Having just read the Willis (I was sent it to review) I'd say it’s certainly not actively bad, in that way; but it is flabby and ill-disciplined, a bit tedious and a bit self-indulgent. And, really, it isn't the best non-realist novel in the world.
I’ll come back to the Hugos in a minute, but I want to pause for a moment to say something about prizes more generally. The on-going British Fantasy Society kerfuffling is largely centred on reforming the voting protocols. It’s clear why that's so, and it’s a commendable thing; but it’s not, I think, at the heart of what went wrong. Similarly, when people criticize the Hugo awards, they are sometimes accused of criticizing the people who voted for the Hugo awards—the logic seems clear, there, but it’s misleading. Really, that's not the point. Then again, when an award-winning novel is greeted with anything other than unanimous rapture, the canard is brought out of its canard sheath and waved about: taste is subjective. If I say that Ben Bova’s Titan is a bad book and somebody else thinks it was the best novel published in 2007, then perhaps our dissonant opinions represent a Lyotardian differend that can never be reconciled. Live and let live. Bollocks to that.
Now, aesthetic judgment is not an exact science, and sometimes the toss can genuinely be argued. But here’s the elephant in the room: the most contentious decisions, award-wise, are usually the ones where the wrong book is given the prize. As to what the ‘right’ book is, in any given situation: well, there will be a number of possibles. But too often the book that is chosen is not one of these.
This very rarely (if at all) happens, I think, for reasons of corruption or delinquency, certainly in SFF, where fans really do care about their genre. But it does happen nonetheless, and for a number of reasons. Fandom tends to distort distinterested objective judgment: when an author of whom one is a fan puts out a sub-par book, the fact that one is a fan of that author can lead one to an inflated assessment of the book’s merits. Tribal allegiance makes this worse, bedded-in by the mild siege mentality that is (we can be honest) precisely one of the appeals of being a genre fan—for when the ‘mainstream literary culture’ flies over us like the Luftwaffe, we inside the urbs of Truefandom can generate a really excellent Blitz spirit, as many a jolly con attests.
Let me put it another way. Giving a prize to a novel is, in effect, trying to second-guess posterity. If I say ‘this book is great’ I may be talking about my idiosyncratic taste. If I say 'Dune is a classic of postwar American SF' I'm not. Indeed, if we look at the result of the 1966 Hugo -- joint winners Frank Herbert's Dune and Roger Zelazny's ...And Call Me Conrad, it is no disparagement of Zelazny (a very interesting writer, who has written several enduring novels) to say: one of those books has been endorsed by posterity in a way that the other hasn't. And this is the nub of my point: what matters about an award is not how it arrives at its decision. What matters is the extent to which its decision is posterity-proof.
And actually, I'd say SFF has proven itself pretty sound when judged by that criterion. We might, I suppose, look back and think ‘well, broadly speaking I’d say Phil Dick (say) should probably have won more awards, and Robert J Sawyer (say) fewer’, but scrolling down the lists of Hugo, Nebula and Clarke winners from the last century—far enough ago for us to begin to get a sense of how posterity is settling with respect to the books’ longer term reputations—is to encounter a list of, mostly, actual classics.
Two further things occur to me. One is that, as far as making one’s decision posterity proof goes, you’re generally better selecting a book by a newbie—because then the people making the decision, not having the reputation of the author to fall back on, are more likely to be guided by the actual merit of the book. China Miéville was a relative unknown ten years ago; yet his 2001 Clarke Award for Perdido Street Station was clearly the right call; and now we'd all agree it's a modern genre classic. It’s far too early to say whether posterity will endorse Lauren Beukes’ 2011 Clarke award—though I’d say there’s a good chance—but I’d much rather see the judges going with a newer writer on the merits of the novel than give the prize to one of the genre old guard on the grounds that ‘it’s about time so-and-so won a prize'. The other thing that occurs to me is this: I wonder if popular votes, rather than juried awards, actually have a slightly better posterity-convergence than juried awards. It’s hard to demonstrate this, statistically; although the wisdom of crowds—assuming one believes in such a thing—might lead one to expect it. In the 80s the Clarke went to books like George Turner’s The Sea and the Summer and Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire--good books, both, but, really, without the staying power in terms of long-term reputation of some of the BSFA Best Novel awards from the same decade (I’m thinking of Aldiss’s Helliconia books, Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer or Holdstock’s Mythago Wood). Still, this is starting to get mushily subjective, so I’ll come back to my main point. Which is this: really, and in the longer term, ‘the process by which you arrive at your decision’ matters much less than whether or not you pick the right novel. The path by which the BFS arrived at their best novel award this year was dodgy, and that’s regrettable; but a bigger deal is putting the weight of fandom behind the idea that Demon Dance is the best non-realist novel published this year. One need not think it a bad novel to say: it’s not that.
When I was a whippersnapper, snapping my whippers and hoovering up SF, a Hugo award for best novel or best short story really did work as a bellwether. It meant I would seek out the text in question and read it. But it's been a long time since the prize has influenced my reading like that. For some years after that I was barely even aware of the shortlists and winners. Then, in 2009 I read a sizeable portion of the Hugo shortlists. I did this because I was booked to appear on a panel about the prize, at Swecon in, er, Sweden, and wanted to be minimally prepared for the discussion. I was underwhelmed by what I read, largely speaking. Indeed, I blogged the lowness of my general whelm; a post to which some people added comments deploring what I said, and some others added comments of the 'very useful info and great post, I like it so much because it's a unique article and easy to remember for me' type. Sadly for me, the latter comments were generally from such knowledgeable and dedicated SF fans as 'penisenlargement4men' and 'Freearcadegames'. Still; who’s to say that, after the robot revolution, those won't be the blog-commentators that really count? Anyway, John Scalzi, whose followers number in the millions, responded to my post. He was classy enough to refrain from slagging me off personally (despite the fact I called his Hugo-shortlisted novel 'mediocre'), although he did don the Jeremiah mantle to assure me that criticising those fans who voted for the Hugo was biting the hand that fed me and would result in the short-order death of my career as a writer of SF. Something that has, of course, subsequently come to pass. There's more than a difference in writerly temperament at work here, I think; however much (and with what undeniable success) Scalzi has filtered his genuine wit and charm through a Mr Rogers 'I want to be your friend' idiom; and however much I have sacrificed my dignity and sales to the idol of being Johnny Rotten at the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, jeering at the crowd 'you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?' We all have our crazy Fitzcarraldo-type dreams, after all; and nobody is going to deny that Scalzi is a much more successful writer than I am. Indeed, after I posted that 'Hugos 2009' piece several people emailed me saying in effect 'you realise, don't you, that by posting that you've completely scuppered your chances of ever winning a Hugo yourself?' These messages surprised me very much: for this thought had literally never occurred to me -- not because I assumed Hugo voters would have saint-like powers of forgiveness, or that I have ever forgotten the truth of Auden's lines about those to whom evil is done and what they do in return. But for a more fundamental reason: because it had never occurred to me that I ever could have won a Hugo. I can go further, actually, and state without fear of contradiction: I never was going to win a Hugo. Posting negative thoughts about the prize made no difference to that. I could have posted a whole string of positive blog essays, I could have praised both Hugos winners and Hugo-voters to that place in the skies where the air goes indigo, and it would have made absolutely no difference to my chances of winning a Hugo. There are many reasons for this; and many writers (some of them far better than I) of whom it is true. Certainly I have a very low US profile; I am not (those two quantities that tip the balance in the voters' minds) well-known and well-liked amongst typical Worldcon attendees. I suppose it was a little naive assuming that this, which seemed so obvious to me, would also be obvious to people reading my post. Some accused me of being motivated by sour grapes. I can promise you; my Hugo grapes are entirely free of sour. I no more fret about my chances of winning a Hugo than I fret about my chances of winning a 2012 Olympic gold medal in the womens’ shot-put.
Anyway, this year there was a lot of reaction to the Hugo announcement (Strange Horizons links to a few of these here). Some people were happy, and rather more were disappointed. My sense of it is that, broadly speaking, this year’s winners are not of a very high standard. That may strike you as a terribly condescending thing to say. John Scalzi thinks it is -- or rather, thinks that suchlike sentiments, generally speaking, are:
Post-Hugo Kvetching: Meh. There’s always post-Hugo kvetching, for the same reason there’s pre-Hugo kvetching, which is, people like to kvetch, and/or they have a hard time internalizing that their own tastes are not in fact an objective standard of quality. I do think there’s a core of commenters whose problem internalizing that other people have other tastes is overlaid with a more-than-mild contempt for fandom, i.e., “Oh, fandom. You’ve shown again why you can’t be trusted to pick awards, you smelly, chunky people of common tastes, you.” Fandom does what fandom does with folks like that: it ignores them, which I think is generally the correct response to such wholly unwarranted condescension. But if people want to gripe, however they want to gripe, it’s their call. Point is, yes, people are bitching about the Hugo results. When do they not?When do they not? I didn't, last year. Actually I thought last year's Hugo results were pretty good, the tied best novel award to Mièville and Bacigalupi in particular (and I said so, in The Guardian; a venue with a rather larger readership than my blog). But that didn't register, and I'm not surprised. Negative criticism touches us in ways positive doesn't. Nevertheless, to Scalzi's two reasons for kvetching about the Hugos, 'people like to kvetch' and 'people have a hard time internalizing that their own tastes are not in fact an objective standard of quality', we are, I think, entitled to add a third: people kvetch when the books and stories winning a prize that describes them as the best in the world aren't very good. Putting such a case is neither unwarranted (on the contrary: the health of the genre depends upon it); nor is it condescending. Aesthetic criticism includes grounds for judgment that go beyond 'I like this, you like that, there's nothing more that can be said'. Damien Walter challenged Scalzi on the 'condescending' line, in a post which seems to me worth reading, not least for a comment by Jonathan McAlmont (you probably know him best from his performing days as part of 'McAlmont and Butler') which is, I think, very well put:
SF Fandom is an affinity group and many of its institutions were created at a time when the realities of technology, culture and geography meant that if you wanted to talk to people about written SF then you went to places like Worldcon and if you wanted to write SF you joined the SFWA. Because of this, the Hugo and Nebula awards carry a good deal of cachet.My gust isn't quite as dis as that. But it seems to me that there are a couple of structural pitfalls where awards are concerned. One is the move from 'eligible titles' to shortlist to winner. It's probably a necessary thing, that; it spreads the recognition around a little, and more importantly it breaks the difficult task of 'picking one novel from hundreds' into more manageable chunks. But it contains its own difficulties: for once the shortlist is decided we stop thinking 'I'm choosing the best book published this year' and start thinking 'I'm choosing the best book out of these six titles'. With that comes a relaxation, which in turn makes it easier to justify to oneself the elision that results in Julian Barnes winning the fucking Man Booker prize for a fine-brush bone-china elegant squib of a novelette -- because, I suppose, it's easier to say to oneself 'Barnes deserves it; maybe the other shortlisted titles are better, but they have at least the satisfaction of having been shortlisted so no great injustice is perpetrated by overlooking them' and 'all six shortlisted titles are great books, so there's no harm in going for any one rather than any other' and so on. You forget, in other words, that telling the world 'The Sense of an Ending is the best book published this year' is also, tacitly, telling Alan Hollinghurst, or China Miéville, or whomsoever 'comparatively speaking your book sucks'. And if you're going to do that, you'd better be sure you have a good case. My gut: both The Strangers Child and Embassytown will still be current in ten years time (who can say whether The Sense of an Annoying "Ding!" will? When I've read it, I'll report back).
Fast forward forty years and we live in a world where it is easy to talk to other people with an interest in SF: All you need to do is set up a twitter account or a blog and away you go. Because talking about SF no longer requires these big centralising institutions, the field has fragmented into dozens of more-or-less interconnected tribes. Many of whom have never been to a Worldcon.
Despite the fundamental structure of the field having changed, the concentrations of social capital in the older sections of the fan community mean that venerable awards like the Hugos and the Nebulas still carry a good deal of cachet. Cachet completely disconnected from their capacity to represent a more and more disjointed and multicultural field.
The sound that Scalzi is hearing is the tiny groan emitted by every science fiction fan who looks at the Hugos and sees no connection to their experience of either the genre or the field.
When challenged on the increasing self-marginalisation of the Hugos, defenders (such as Scalzi) speak of bitterness, condescension and jealousy but the truth is far simpler: The Hugos have made no effect to keep up with changes in the field and so they are becoming increasingly irrelevant with every passing year.
The tragedy of this is that the Hugos are a social institution created before many of us were born. They were nurtured by a generation of fans and passed along to those who came after them as an act of trust. Great institutions are never owned by the generation that controls them, they are simply held in trust. By failing to update the awards, retreating behind bureaucratic barriers and shouting down anyone who complains, the current generation have done their best to destroy something that should have been held in trust for the fans of tomorrow.
I am neither condescending nor disappointed. I am disgusted.
So, what am I saying? I'm saying that award judges, or voters, need to believe, or at least to suspend their disbelief, that it is meaningful to talk of the best book of the year -- to think not that you are making purely subjective and arbitrary decisions but on the contrary are engaged in a worthwhile and a possible attempt to get the drop on posterity. It can be done. And that's quite enough of the auld kvetching from me for now, I think.