April 3, 2013

Some thoughts about awards

hugologoI still consider myself a literary award newbie. This is weird to say after 4 years of doing this, but it’s true, mostly because there are so many awards, each with their own cultures, each saying something different about some aspect of the genre. It’s tough to know them all.

The biggest award in SFF is, with little debate, the Hugo Awards, the nominations for which just got announced this past week. When I first got started being a writer, I knew very little about the Hugos, beyond that Ender’s Game had won it (because it had a big shiny silver star saying so on the cover of the copy I stole from my brother – it also had one for the Nebula, another big award I knew very little about when I first started writing).

The Hugo, like any award, has its own very distinct culture, and also like any award, every time the nominations come out, there’s a flurry of discussion over what does it mean? As if the nominations are an alien language, and we are trying to figure out their message.

However, I’m not sure this is necessary, because there are only about three different kinds of industry awards, and each kind tends to articulate and message three very different things.

Every industry award, when you get right down to it, is a statement of What Is Best of that industry. What makes each award different is which body is deciding What Is Best, and there are really only three possibilities:

  1. The industry itself
  2. The users of that industry
  3. A small group of elites, preferably independent of the industry

oscars photoIn the case of #1, this is the industry itself deciding what is best about itself. The best example would be the Oscars, given by the Academy, IE, the movers and shakers in Hollywood:in this case, these are not only the established elites, these are the manufacturers of the product being judged.

Naturally, there’s a danger of conflict of interest, and this is usually the criticism leveled against Hollywood by those disenchanted by the Oscars: that they do not decide What Is Best as much as advertise the movie industry, and say things about the movie industry that the industry itself wants everyone to hear.

I suppose if there’s any SFF award that falls into the #1 category, it’d be the Nebulas, but it’d really be any award given by a professional association of writers that gives its dues-paying membership the right to nominate. I doubt if any SFF award receives as much criticism as the Oscars (I am not hugely knowledgeable about this sort of insider gossip), but if the manufacturers of a product decide – on a large scale, mind – which product manufactured Is Best, then the award they give is automatically a category 1.

Overall, the real issue of a category 1 award is not self-promotion (that’s usually pretty transparent, and tends to eat itself or balance itself out), but messaging with an agenda: the award could be a statement about the industry rather than a statement about what is awarded. For example, if the Automobile Manufacturer’s Association flew in the face of the push for sustainability, and nominated all cars with exorbitant gas consumption, that would not be so much a legitimate recognition of What Is Best as much as a “fuck you” to the sustainability movement. (I hear complaints in sports that the Coaches’ AP poll does a lot of this – making a broad statement with votes.) In literature, I expect it’s very easy to do something like this, to make a cultural statement of What Is Best rather than a specific creation being Best.

Hugo awardsFor category 2, the users of the industry, what they are deciding is what is most liked out of what is most used. If an industry product is not well-used, it almost certainly will not be nominated. This is more or less what the Hugo is, though there’s a filter in that you have to pay a fee in order to get to nominate and vote. This changes the culture of an award – it’s either people who really like what they’re nominating, or they’re regular convention-goers – but it doesn’t change its nature.

Ideally, the voters of the Hugo encompass all three groups – industry, users, and critics – but it’s pretty clear that it’s the users who are determining the majority of the nominations and votes. (Of course, in our abstract field, one could be all three things – more on that later.)

As the Hugos follow this award model, this means that they’re less like the Oscars than they are any other popular pop culture vote. I initially would say the touchstone reference would be American Idol, but that’s not the case because there it’s a large group of unknowns being judged. For the Hugos, it’s usually a small group of either fairly successful or astronomically successful authors being judged, simply because this award model decides, as I said, what is most liked out of what is most used.

The immediate thing that comes to mind are the various Choice Awards out there – Viewers Choice Awards, People’s Choice Awards, Teen Choice Awards, etc, things that take a set of highly visible entertainers and artists (sometimes through an online nomination process) and essentially poll the audience. This is similar to what the Hugo does, though, as I said, the Hugos apply a financial filter that affects the voting bloc.

man booker prizeCategory 3 is probably everyone’s least favorite process, because it limits the participation to the greatest extent. This would be a jury of (ideally) independent, objective, established critics who look at a broad range of submissions and decide What Is Best based on their own personal inclinations and discussions.

This is the Wild Card process, the one where you put the power in the hands of a few and they could very possibly go hog wild with it. (Or, like the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2012, not award anything at all, as a way of saying everything sucks.) These people could be susceptible to industry insiderism – as critics, they doubtlessly know producers inside the industry that they are judging. They could even be industry producers themselves, judging other industry producers. However, they would be judging their colleagues as an individual, rather than a system of colleagues judging itself, which means they’re easier to check.

But it’s possible to enforce objectivism in creative ways. In architecture awards, it’s common for the jury to consist of architects originating far, far away from the area they’re judging: if it’s a California competition, the jury could be from Germany, China, etc. This means they probably have very little ties to California, so there would be no conflict of interest.

However, since these awards ideally pay no attention to popularity, their selections are often criticized for being too obscure, too random, or too strange: because the critics have a barrier between themselves and the industry, they are not forced to yield to any of the industry’s expectations. Indeed, critics are often admired for being explorers of their field, and finding things that people did not know about: but since awards are often entertainment-oriented (either by profession, or because the handing out of the awards is pretty damn entertaining), people want to see the things they know get recognized.

The real question about category 3 is – who decides who gets to sit on the jury, and why? Who decides the criteria of the award? And that’s when you have to start the What Is Best question all over again.

So which system of deciding What Is Best is actually, well, best?

That depends on what you want to see. Do you want to examine the whole of the industry, including the obscurities, and look for singular artistic accomplishment along a specific criteria? If so, then your odds of accomplishing that are:

Category 1: kind of high

Category 2: very low

Category 3: very high

Do you want your awards to have high participation, to be a lot of fun, to generate a lot of talk, and create a list that is, in essence, What’s Hot? In that case, your odds of accomplishing that are:

Category 1: kind of high

Category 2: very high

Category 3: very low

Do you want to further your industry, to change people’s minds about your field, to advertise what you’re doing and grow your business? If so, your odds of accomplishing that are:

Category 1: very high

Category 2: kind of high

Category 3: very low

Of course, in literature, there’s not only the conflict of interest, there’s the ease of occupation: as workers in an abstract medium, it’s really easy to be a producer, a critic, and user of an industry. I write, read, and critique all the time. So it’s even harder for literature, where the occupational differences are less clear – though I do think the overall function of the models will remain the same.

How do I feel personally about the Hugos?

I feel about the Hugos about the same as I would about an automobile association award, or an architecture award: I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with me. I usually find that I only read any of the nominees about one out of the every three years, just because of my reading inclinations. (I haven’t read any of the nominees this year, or even the ones people wanted to see nominated.) And probably because my reading inclinations affect my writing inclinations, I don’t think my stuff is particularly Hugo-worthy material. The Hugos have broad, unspoken criteria – again, there’s the culture-thing – for what they’re looking for, and my stuff is just not that thing.

And that’s okay – I’m not upset over that any more than the fact that I didn’t get nominated for an Orange Prize: I’m just not writing that stuff. (Also I’m a dude, so.) I don’t have any plans to write specifically Hugo stuff, either – I like to think that, even though I’m now “in the industry,” I’m still writing the books I’d like to have written when I was first starting out, completely ignorant of everything.

(And as a note, I’m aware – to a very great and personal extent – than neither an award nomination nor an award win is a great guarantee of sales. However, if you’re nominated for a Hugo, I do find it hard to imagine that this could happen without a fairly successful sales rate – most people do not vote for things they do not know, and the way one knows a book is by reading it. If your book is there, it’s essentially one of the more successful five SFF books of the year – something a lot of authors would dream of getting.)

But it’s always fun to talk about two pet themes of mine: determining the nature of big systems, and systems of determining What Is Best.