This is the time of year when SF news services are deluged with reports of winners of various awards. Magazines, clubs and associations around the world are vying with each other to promote science fiction (and presumably themselves) by presenting prizes to the "best" in the field. But as readers, and often as potential voters in these awards, what good does all of this frenetic activity do for us? Does it tell us anything about the books that we may want to read, or is the whole process some sort of incestuous backslapping festival in which writers are rewarded for their standing in the industry or for how hard they campaign? Do we get useful results, or do we just get politics? More interestingly, can we tell from how an award is conducted whether it will produce a useful result? There are, after all, many different awards around, and they are all run in subtly different ways. Perhaps an analysis of these different approaches can shed some light on the process.
To start with, we should question the purpose of awards. There are, after all, a lot of them. Do we need them all? If we are honest we should all admit that we would all like to have an award that goes to the books we like. Obviously the end result of that would be for everyone to have their own set of awards. If you want to do that, then start a review magazine and do a "best of the year" article every January. Lots of people do that, including me. An award, however, should mean something more. The Hugo Award, for example, is for the best work published anywhere in the world in the English language. If the results are genuinely representative of this intent then that seems like a fine thing to have. Similarly, the Nebula is for the best works published in the US, and there are similar awards for the UK, Australia, Canada and other countries. Again, that seems entirely reasonable.
Immediately, however, we discover a difference in practice. The Nebula, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Awards are open to any book published in the country in question (the US for the Nebula, the UK for the other two). The nationality of the author is irrelevant. Indeed the Nebula has been won by British and Canadian writers, and the Clarke by Americans, Canadians and even a writer from India. In contrast, the awards given out in Canada (the Sunburst and Auroras) and in Australia (the Aurealis Awards and Ditmars) are open only to Canadian and Australian nationals respectively. (The Ditmars used to have an international component, but it was stopped back in the 1980s.) Where the book is published is irrelevant. This is opposite of the way that the Americans and British do things.
At first sight this might seem rather parochial of the Canadians and Australians. But at the same time you can see why they do it. Britain and the US both have healthy, robust local SF industries that publish a lot of locally-born writers. In contrast the markets in Canada and Australia are often dominated by imported books. Canada sees roughly the same books that the US does, and many fine Canadian writers get their big break in the US. In Australia the major publishers try to champion local talent, but are also required by their foreign owners to take a lot of overseas-sourced product. Some Australian writers feel that they need to make their names in the much larger US market before they can be taken seriously back home. Therefore, if the Canadian and Australian awards had the same rules as the British and American ones, they would probably produce the same results—they would be dominated by British and American writers. It makes little sense for Canada and Australia to have separate awards unless they restrict entry to local talent. And because that talent is so often published only overseas, the country of publication has to be ignored.
You will have noticed also that Britain, Canada and Australia each have two awards, whereas the US only has one. (Actually, the US has several. More on some of them later.) But the reason the other countries have two each is that there are two subtly different types of award. The Clarke, Sunburst and Aurealis awards are all decided by a panel of judges. The BSFA awards, Auroras and Ditmars are all voted on by fans. One set of awards is decided by a small group of supposed experts, the other by popular vote. Having two different approaches can be quite useful. We might expect that the judged awards would favor works of greater literary merit and the popular awards would favor works that are more fun to read. It doesn't always work like that, but having the two sets of results to compare and contrast certainly gives us journalists plenty to talk about.
The Nebulas are a strange mixture, halfway between an expert jury and a popular vote. They are voted awards, but you can only vote if you are a full member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and to get that honor you have to be a published SF writer. The Nebulas are therefore voted on by a group of people whom one might reasonably expect to be experts. However, it is also the case that the Nebulas are being voted on by the members of a relatively small club, most of whom are also eligible for the awards. That, inevitably, creates a few political issues. Stories campaigning for the Nebulas by SFWA members are legion. In addition, many SF writers that I know say that they either don't have the time to read their colleagues' work, or that they deliberately avoid doing so lest they inadvertently pick up on someone else's idea and use it. While SF writers might be very good judges of SF books, if they don't read many of them that limits their ability to make informed decisions.
Another American award is the Philip K. Dick Award, which is given to the best US-published novel that is originally made available only as a paperback. This is an interesting idea, because it helps highlight new and up-coming authors. Big-name writers almost always see their books published in hardback first. The Philip K. Dick Award is aimed at giving the little guy a chance at glory. It is also a good award for small presses, because many of them, particularly those that use Print-on-Demand technology, publish only in paperback.
Unfortunately, being an award defined in terms of publishing habits, the Philip K. Dick Award is also vulnerable to publishing fashions. For the reader it used to be a good guide to works that could be picked up cheaply in mass-market editions. But these days large numbers of books are first published in more expensive trade paperback formats. Most small presses use this format for preference. As a result, the usefulness of the award as a guide to good cheap books has diminished. In addition, even small presses are now starting to produce hardback editions, either because they are aiming at a collectors' market, or simply because they are higher-margin. Small Beer Press, which has been very successful in the Philip K. Dick Award, is now printing new releases in both trade paperback and hardback formats simultaneously.
Another award that tries to highlight new and up-coming writers is the Crawford Award, given by the International Association for Fantastic in the Arts to the best "new fantasy writer." The definition of "new" here is rather flexible. What exactly does it mean to be a "new fantasy writer"? To a certain extent, the award judges are allowed to make judgment calls. The award is often reported as being for a "first novel," but the judges don't agree. For example, Jeff Vandermeer's Veniss Underground was deemed ineligible as Vandermeer had a long and successful career as a writer of fantasy short stories behind him. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni won for Mistress of Spices despite having a successful career writing non-fantasy novels. And in two years the award went to the author of a trilogy after the publication of the final book in the series, the argument being that the trilogy was a single work and the author could not be judged until it was completed. These are all very understandable rulings that might have been impossible if the award rules were drawn too tightly.
Many fans, some of whom tend to be rather literal-minded, will find this flexibility troubling. They would prefer a simple and precise definition such as "first novel." But even simple-seeming definitions can be problematic. Consider, for example, the case of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This is supposedly open to writers in their first two years of professional publication. But what exactly does "professional" mean in this context? When does a writer's clock start? Does selling a story to a college magazine for $5 count? What about selling a story to a fiction web site for $10? What if you got paid professional rates (e.g. rates that would qualify you for SFWA membership) but the sale was to a small press magazine in Australia with a circulation of 250? What we as readers presumably want the award to feature is all of the writers who have recently come to the public notice, but while the author whose first sale is a blockbuster novel is easily categorized, one who has been active in the short fiction market for years may find that she has blown her chances of a Campbell nomination long before she ever dreamed she'd become famous.
There is an interesting additional complication with the Campbell. Recent precedent has been that "professional" brought with it a requirement for a print run of at least 10,000 copies. That means a big name publisher or one of the major fiction magazines. Small press publications, and stories in magazines such as Interzone, did not count. Consequently K.J. Bishop, who won the Crawford Award with The Etched City, appeared ineligible for the Campbell because the 2003 publication of her novel was through the small press, Prime Books. Bishop was doubtless looking forward to being eligible next year thanks to Pan Macmillan taking up her book in the UK. However, if "professional" had been defined without that print run requirement Bishop may have been ineligible for an entirely different reason—short fiction sales to small press magazines in her native Australia. As you can see, Campbell eligibility is a minefield for the young author to negotiate.
I noted above that the Crawford Award allows a lot of flexibility in definition. Where flexibility really becomes an issue is in the case of awards that have multiple categories, such as the Hugos, Nebulas and the Locus Poll. We also find ourselves asking questions about the transparency of the process, and in some cases these two requirements may conflict.
By the way, talking of transparency, I have yet to meet anyone who claims to understand how the eligibility criteria for the Nebulas work. Certainly the rules, as written, are a masterpiece of tortuous and confusing legalese. I suppose that someone at SFWA must know what it all means. As I understand it, the intention of the rules was to give a second chance to works that were published towards the end of the eligibility period. The argument is that late publication gives less time for the work to be read, and so militates against it being nominated. But if the result of trying to solve this problem is a set of rules that hardly anyone can understand, you have to ask whether you haven't just replaced one problem with another. Meanwhile, back with multiple categories...
Multi-award categories generally divide works of fiction between categories based on word length. Conveniently, the Hugos, Nebulas and Locus Poll all use the same dividing lines for their fiction awards. That is good for us readers, because it helps us know what the terms mean. Less helpfully, the World Fantasy Awards only have two categories for short fiction (short story and novella) whereas the other three all add a third (novelette) between those two in length. So a work that wins a Hugo as a novelette might win a World Fantasy Award as a short story or novella, depending on whether it is at the lower or upper end of the word length range. Very confusing. Still, at least with the World Fantasy Award we know what the categories mean (the dividing line is at 10,000 words). The International Horror Guild Awards also have two short fiction categories (helpfully called Long Form and Short Form), but in defining the categories their web site currently says, "This category is in transition; please provide word count." Does that mean that they are changing the dividing line year by year, or do they just make things up as they go along?
Furthermore, precise word count boundaries cannot always be relied upon. Although the Hugos share the same boundaries as the Nebulas and Locus Poll, there is actually a certain amount of flexibility between categories. The Hugo administrators for a particular year are at liberty to move works between categories if they are within 20% of the required word count. The primary intention of this is to resolve situations where public perception is at odds with precise word counts. A potential example of this is the case of Neil Gaiman's novella, Coraline. This was published as a book and sold widely in shops, giving it a huge advantage in a popular vote poll over other novellas that are published only in magazines. Many people argued that Coraline should have competed in the Hugos as a novel, and had it been a bit longer it may well have done. However, it was so far short of the 40,000 word requirement that even the quite flexible Hugo rules prevented it from being moved. Another example, also a work by Gaiman, is the story "A Study in Emerald." The Locus Poll has classed it as a novella, and the Hugos as a short story. The Locus Poll does not generally relocate works the way that the Hugos do, so either the administrators of the two sets of awards have disagreed on word count, or this year's Hugo administrators have elected to relocate the work to the short story category. Presumably, they did so because most voters who nominated the work felt that it belonged in the short story category.
In the above discussion I have presented administrator flexibility as a means of making sure that the awards reflect public sentiment. But unfortunately it can also be used to make value judgments that reflect the administrators' personal prejudices. Poor Neil Gaiman, who seems to have a habit of creating controversial works, is once again at the center of the debate. His book, Sandman: The Dream Hunters, contains a number of beautiful color plates by Japanese artist, Yoshitaka Amano. Because of this, the administrators of the Hugo Awards in 2000 elected to place the work in the Best Related Book category. Graphic novels have traditionally been treated in this way, but Dream Hunters was not created in the style of a comic. In a comic the words and pictures very deliberately intertwine to create a dramatic effect. Dream Hunters is a plain text story with a bunch of color plates added. And yet the work was categorized as if it were a graphic novel, or an art book. Why this happened I don't know. One possible explanation is that at the time Gaiman was known primarily as a comics writer. The 2000 Hugo administrators may have assumed that a work listing Gaiman and an artist as co-creators was a graphic novel without bothering to look at it.
Mention of Best Related Book brings us on to the question of works that are hard to categorize. In the Hugos, Best Related Book acts as a catchall for works that cannot be easily fitted into any other category. It can contain works of criticism, art books, science books, graphic novels and biographies. This year it also contains the highly unusual Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases, a book that pretends to be a collection of medical essays, but all of whose entries are made up by well-known authors. Having such a catchall category is quite useful, although the mix of nominees makes it very hard to judge. Personally, I prefer it to the Locus Poll's current policy of having a category called "Non-Fiction/Art." In previous years these two categories were separate, and I fail to understand why they should not have remained so, unless perhaps by doing so Locus is somehow making room for graphic novels which straddle both categories.
Another reason for the change could be that the Locus staff felt that they had too many award categories. One of the most frequent complaints directed at the Hugos is that the award ceremony is too long because there are too many categories. Other frequent complaints are that the Hugos should have categories for Best Collection, Best Anthology, Best Web Site, Best Music and Best Artwork (to name but a few). The members of the World Science Fiction Society (who are jointly responsible for the Hugo rules through their annual Business Meeting held at Worldcon) have tended to hold the view that there are quite enough categories as it is, and that anyone who wants to add a new one is going to have to make a very good case indeed. In general WSFS members tend to look for the following:
- Will adding the new award add significantly to the prestige of the Hugos?
- Is the type of work that the award is designed for easily identifiable? and
- Will competition for the award be sufficiently broad and deep?
All of these requirements bear further examination. In the case of prestige, the recent debate over splitting the Best Dramatic Presentation award centered on the fact that media SF is much more popular these days than when the Hugos began. Newspaper reporters covering the Hugos are often more interested in knowing what was the winning movie than what was the winning novel. Having a category that is effectively Best TV Episode as well would, it was argued, create more interest in the Hugos, both from voters and from the media.
Ease of identification is an issue that has bedeviled calls for a Best Web Site Hugo. Critics of the proposal have complained that web sites are continuously changing so it is impossible to know what you are voting for (though they conveniently forget that the same charge could be leveled at stage plays, which have long been eligible for Best Dramatic Presentation). They also ask whether independently edited "sub-sites" such as Ellen Datlow's Sci-Fiction are eligible in their own right, or only as part of the parent site (in this case scifi.com). When ConJosé, the 2002 Worldcon, tried out a Best Web Site Hugo, the administrators took the view that if sufficient voters nominated a sub-site then it was eligible in its own right -- a ruling that neatly side-stepped the need to write a precise eligibility definition.
The level of competition is always important in a popular-vote award such as the Hugos. Many people claim that several of the existing award categories should be pruned, either because too few people vote in them, or because the same people get nominated all of the time. Breadth of competition refers to the need for there to be a reasonably large pool of high quality potential nominees. Given the dominance in the market of the big fiction magazines: Asimov's, Analog, F&SF and more recently Sci-Fiction, it is hard to see how the stranglehold that their editors have on the Best Professional Editor category can be broken. Of course it is also possible to argue that a category is too broad. The enormous variation in taste of voters in the Short Story category makes it something of a lottery as to whether a work will get nominated or not. In 2002 a mere 8 votes covered positions 5 (a successful nominee) to 15 (way out of it) in the Short Story nomination list.
Depth of competition refers to the number of voters prepared to participate in a category. Many people complain that too few people vote in the fan categories of the Hugos and that those categories should be scrapped. In some cases it seems almost as if you can get a nomination if you just manage to persuade all of your family and close friends to vote for you. But the fan categories are more successful than Best Artwork, which has been tried but was dropped because of lack of interest. Clearly there are vast numbers of high quality pieces of science fiction and fantasy art published each year, in book and magazine covers if nothing else. But the voters seemed to think that either they hadn't seen enough of it, or could not remember what they had seen, and consequently hardly anyone nominated works.
I have gone on for quite a while now, and covered a wide range of different aspects of awards. There are many other areas that I could have covered, and more data that I could have provided in support of my arguments. What about that old argument about whether fantasy works should be eligible for the Hugos? Do regional awards such as those restricted to writers from the Southeastern or Northwestern corners of the US have any value? What about reader polls or academic awards? But I don't want to lose your interest. What I want to do is persuade you that awards are much more complicated than they first look, and that pleasing the majority of people is hard enough, let alone trying to please everyone. Next time you read a set of award results, I would be really pleased if you then asked yourself how those awards were judged, and how the rules of the awards might have influenced the results. It might make a big difference to how you view the results.
(The author wishes to thank John Clute, Jonathan Strahan, Kevin Standlee and Gary K. Wolfe for their assistance in preparing this article.)