Poking at Awards: Who are awards for?

Parking the criteria discussion for a moment, here's a question that comes up time and time again: 

Who are awards for?1

If this sounds silly, well, it isn't. Like any campaign or movement, it is impossible to communicate successfully, or measure that success, without knowing who your audience is.

I'm going to hold off on the idea of what awards want to do for now (hint: next post). Instead, let's make a list - who are all the possible audiences for awards?

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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...

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Poking at Awards: "Literary Authors Slumming in Genre"

Last week, Juliet McKenna wrote this (rather stunning) post that set the (most) recent genre sexism disaster in the context of the industry, and spelling out why the 'shoutback' matters. A brilliant piece, and I couldn't agree more. The impact of this post, encouraging people to highlight female fantasy authors, has spilled across the genre-related interwebs and out into the mainstream media (the Guardian, amongst others). Great stuff.*

Ms. McKenna's post also had a small - non-gender-related - addendum that I thought was worth exploring in more detail. That is:

I did see one correlation in my Clarke reading, mind you. Where authors came ‘genre-slumming’, trying their hand at SF&F, there was definitely a higher incidence of tedious books trying to tickle the fancy of the mythical mouth-breathing SF fan only interested in sex and violence. 

Previously, Ms. McKenna cites her experience as a Clarke judge - "200 SF books over 2012-2013 as a Clarke Award judge" - as evidence that there was:

absolutely no correlation between the age and gender of the author and the presence of outdated or offensive ideas

The combination of these two statements is a little shocking: are literary authors turning their hands to genre more likely to write sexist, tedious, reactive - "bad" - books? The accusation that literary authors "slum" in genre isn't a new one, in fact, it is a statement I've made myself on more than one occasion in the past. So, with this as the prompt, I've decided to look into the hypothesis that "literary authors write 'bad' genre fiction".

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Poking at Awards: Subjective Criteria

Be warned, this is a long, multi-part ramble about genre fiction's literary awards.

The underlying premise to this is that all genre awards follow the same basic model in how they choose to express their core purpose:

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

Yet despite this simple formula, literary awards can still spawn a thousand approaches and ten thousand conversations.

To help the discussion, let's split the criteria into two parts:

  • Subjective - the [superlative adjective] and the [genre parameter]. These are means of appraising the qualitative content of the book's content. These are defined or interpreted by the judges (juried awards) and voters (popular awards).
  • Objective - [physical format] and [geographic and chronological bounded]. These are not related to the book's text or content and are defined by the award's rules and administration.

But what do these criteria actually mean?

And, more importantly, how do they impact discussion around an award and the books that it recognises?

Let's parse us some variables!

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Voting and Volunteering

Four ways to have your say in genre things. Please read carefully, if you've gone or are going to a convention, you may be qualified without even knowing it!

This Machine Culls FascistsVoting for the BSFA Awards is here. It is open to any member of the organisation or anyone going to EasterCon. All online votes must be received by the 25th. If you're at EasterCon, you can vote until noon on the 31st, but wouldn't you rather get it done ahead of time?

BFS voting is open as well. For this, you need to either be a member of the BFS or have attended FantasyCon last year. (2012. It was in Brighton. If you don't remember it, you probably weren't there.) You can vote online here; the ballot closes on 31 March.

Want to be on a panel at next year's WorldCon? The first step is to say so. This form is the "Hey! I'm over here and I know everything there is to know about [My Little Pony/Doctor Who/Proper Use of the Subjunctive/African CyberPunk]". WorldCon won't call you unless it knows your number. WorldCon is shy. 

If you're going to World Fantasy in Brighton this October, you can vote in the World Fantasy Awards. The ballot for this is here. Voting closes 31 May 2013, so prepare yourself for a flood of "I'm eligible!" tweets later this spring.

This was a public service announcement.