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Poking at Awards: Objective Criteria

JenningsLast week, I put forward the idea that literary awards (especially in genre) all follow the same formulaic structure:

The [superlative adjective] [genre parameter] [format parameter] book of the [geographically and chronologically bounded] year.

I then moved oh-so-smoothly into a discussion of the first two 'variables' (adjective, genre), which I had bundled together as the "subjective" criteria. My conclusions were that:

  1. There may be a further case to made in favour of tighter criteria - that narrowing the focus of an award doesn't lead to 'worse' books
  2. Discussion around subjective criteria, even if it is critical, still, ultimately, fulfils the mission of awards, as it is discussion about books 

What happens when we look at the second half of the formula, and the "objective" criteria?

Let's dive in...

[format parameter]

A variable that's more noticeable now than it has been in the past, due to the rise of ebook publishing. And yet, despite the rise of digital books - and digital-only books - most awards still insist that submissions come as physical books. Why is this?

Again, a few theories:

  1. It is provides a de facto barrier to self-published authors, most of which are digital-only, can't submit. In fact, you could even argue that by refusing ebooks, you're almost exclusively harming self-published authors: very few books from traditional publishers are ebook only.*
  2. It provides a de jure barrier to self-published authors. Awards fear the "shit volcano". Lowering the barrier to entry will entice a flood of inferior, largely self-published, submissions.**
  3. Physical copies are a perk for the judges. Judges or juried awards work extremely hard and very often for no pay. A stack of free THINGS is a valuable, and well-earned, reward. A lot of digital files might not feel as substantial.
  4. A judge might not have an e-reader.
  5. Or not like using an e-reader.
  6. DRM-related concerns (almost exclusively the territory of large publishers)

PeterBy declaring "physical submissions only", an award puts the onus on the publisher - technically any author can print out a copy and send it, right? Yet only one of those concerns (6) is a factor under the publisher's control. By clinging to physical-only submissions, awards turn a blind eye to the the reality of an increasingly-digital industry. 

The Clarke Award, The Kitschies and Spectrum now allow for digital submissions, and I would be surprised if other awards did not at least include that as an option in the immediate future. Spectrum is, perhaps, the most interesting. If an art award says there's no difference between print and screen, any qualitative 'viewing experience' argument - point 5, above - is pretty much out the window. (It is also worth noting that this year, the first of digital submissions, has coincided with the most diverse list of finalists in the award's history.) 

On the other end of the spectrum (no pun intended), Philip K. Dick Award makes the format - paperback original - the central part of its ethos... and again, like the Tiptree, despite the specificity of its restriction, the shortlist is often one of the "objective" "best" of the year.

Popular awards are ahead of this particular curve, with prizes like the Hugo Awards (within the limits of the category formats - see below), Goodreads, BFS and BSFA all taking a laissez-faire approach to whether or not voters put forward physical or digital publications. Since the judges (the voting public/membership) are expected to source their own copies, publication format is largely irrelevant. It has, in fact, become more of a chronological argument - if a book was digital and is now print, when was it first published? (See below.)

Meanwhile, format is arguably the Hugo Awards' "unique selling point" - they feature over a dozen prize categories, all with the same qualitative and genre criteria, and with the distinguishing variable being format: the "best [fanzine/semi-prozine/fancast/novel/fiction-of-under-n-wordcount/etc]". Despite the 3,000+ words of rules and a well-established administrative process, the Hugo still continues to generate conversation (or questions) about its format requirements. What distinguishes a fan publication from a professional or a semi-professional one? Why is the entire Wheel of Time series a "novel"?

This is a perpetual discussion machine. The conversation generated, however, is about qualifications, not quality; the award, not the books.

[geographically and chronologically bounded]

Awards are for the "whateverest" of a year, but when is the year? Most go with the calendar year, but there are exceptions. This is now inextricably linked to geography. For an award to have a global focus, it has to acknowledge that books are published in different locations at different times. For example, the Hugo Awards try to offset their traditionally American fanbase and encourage international submissions by allowing for additional time for books first published outside the US.

Even regionally-defined awards have their quirks, as differing definitions of what it means to be "published" in a region have led to the same book being eligible at different times. See, for example, Kameron Hurley's God's War, which won the Kitschies in 2011 and is currently a finalist for the BSFA in 2013.

The growing trend for hybrid publishing also makes things tricky. Is a book like Wool eligible when first self-published or later physically-published (or republished)? This is only important for a very subset of authors, but it is an important one. Take, for example, Anthony Ryan's immensely popular Blood Song - which would be a strong contender for the DGLA Morningstar award, except that it was digitally published in a previous year, and not submitted at the time. Popular self-published books become traditionally published because, well, they are immensely popular. It follows that they are - or should be - contenders for popular awards. But - when?

It is, like the discussions of format, very easy to get bogged down in qualifications and not quality. 

ChapmanTrying to distinguish the difference between objective and subjective criteria loosely connects with last year's discussion around intrinsic and instrumental values to books. Objective criteria are a means of examining a book's intrinsic values: when it was published, where it was published, what it is as an object. Subjective criteria look at the instrumental value of a book: what is the impact it has on the reader, and why? 

This means that conversations around objective criteria are internally-facing. They are discussions of the award and its processes. These discussions aren't without merit - awards should be progressive institutions, always critical, transparent and open to change. But the only beneficiary of these discussions is the award: discussing the submission requirements of The Kitschies may be useful to The Kitschies, but not to a reader. Similarly, discussing whether or not The Wheel of Time is eligible as a novel is not a discussion of what qualities The Wheel of Time has as a text. This may be a conversation about the Hugos, but not one about the work of Robert Jordan. 

It is worth noting that no award has the stated goal of "creating conversations about itself". But objective criteria can do just that: they filter conversations into 'right/wrong' answers about formats and processes, rather than open-ended discussion about the qualities of the text.

JoubertObjective criteria are hygiene factors. They are filters by which awards determine eligibility, but that should never be mistaken for quality. The danger comes when they are taken for granted (e.g. don't adapt to changes in the industry) or steal the show (e.g. dominate the conversation). There needs to be a middle ground in which they are assessed, reviewed, updated and, ultimately, kept out out of the spotlight.

Meandering through subjective and objective criteria has been, hopefully, quite thorough - but what about the criteria that don't appear in the 'formula'? Next up, the invisible criteria. 

*It also filters out small presses, many of whom can't afford (or produce) the books required. To submit to the World Fantasy Awards, for example, requires sending six copies of books to locations in both the US and the UK. For a small press (say, I dunno, Jurassic) to submit a single title costs over £60 ($100) in shipping. For that, I could've bought two of the judges Kobo readers. And that's not counting the cost to print those books or the opportunity cost (e.g. every copy that goes to a judge is a copy that won't be going to a buyer or reviewer - I am trading the known value of a purchase or a review for the possibility of an award). Even without charging for submissions, 'physical only' awards throw up a lot of barriers to small players. 

**The "shit volcano" theory, as it applies to awards, is based on, as far as I can tell, no evidence. In a way, it is almost amusing arrogant: like a private member's club opening the gates only to realise that the peasantry are having a great time at the pub down the street. Using The Kitschies as evidence - despite accepting digital-only submissions and not charging any sort of submission fee, the prize has never been overwhelmed by self-published submissions. Nor, from judging experience, have the self-published submissions been of disproprotionately low quality. Neither volcano nor shit.