Couple of interesting award-related things happened up at Eastercon over the weekend. The first was that The Heroes is on the shortlist for the David Gemmell Legend Award this year. The cover is also shortlisted in the cover art section – congratulations to Dave Senior and Didier Graffet who already won the award for Best Served Cold and I think have done just as good a job this time.
The second interesting thing was that I watched a panel called, ‘A Clarke for Fantasy’. For those of you unaware the Clarke is a British award for the best sci-fi book of the year. It considers the full range of the genre, from chunky space-opera to hard sf of ideas to literary fiction with a scientific twist and frequently causes interesting arguments over definition or quality of one kind or another. It’s decided by a jury of writers, professionals and critics selected afresh every year. There’s some effort afoot to do something similar for fantasy, and this panel attempted to take a stab at how that might work by assembling a shortlist of six books from the full breadth of fantasy published this year (From The Heroes to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) and giving a panel of five an hour in front of an audience to argue out a winner. Judges were given the option to nominate books for exclusion then, if others objected, which they frequently did, to champion ones they thought should remain, a series of tough votes eventually narrowed the field down to four, then two, and finally to a (by no means uncontested) winner. Which was, incidentally, The Heroes, imagine that. The prize money? £0. But it was a fascinating process to watch.
The jurors were highly critical, which is to say they started from the viewpoint that these were a worthwhile shortlist and then were tough in their analysis. There was little gushing. There was at least as much discussion of weaknesses as strengths. Above all there was a wide-ranging and rigorous effort to compare. Which were more ambitious in their goals? Which were more successful in achieving them? Which were original? Which were better in terms of characterisation, prose, evocation of setting? Which were tight and which meandered? At least three books (including The Heroes) were challenged by various jurors on whether they really constituted fantasy. There was no clear consensus, there was sometimes quite impassioned argument on behalf of one book or another which sometimes swayed a juror one way or the other. The Heroes was the favourite of only one judge, and that very narrowly, but was the least favourite of none, and won in the end through relatively broad support and a sequence of 3 against 2 votes.
It was the rigour, analysis, and application of the same standards to all, that put me more than ever in favour of this type of method for judging an award, as opposed to an academy or public vote. Individual juries will always have their wrinkles, and I’m sure there will always be issues that can be taken with any result, but at least they’ve all read the books on the shortlist, considered them, compared them, argued over them, and made an informed group decision as to which one is the best, however they choose to define it.
I’m a big believer in the Gemmell award, I like that there should be something specifically for the heroic/epic, and it’s entirely fitting that it should commemorate David Gemmell, an important and much-loved champion of that form. I think the organisers have done great things at a very difficult task in getting something going, I certainly don’t mean to criticise them. But I’m getting increasingly worried about the voting process, which is purely by internet poll. Or in fact by two – one to establish a shortlist, another to decide the winner.
I feel that with the Gemmell there’s a statement of – ‘here’s an important and popular slice of our genre that isn’t taken particularly seriously, and it deserves to be taken seriously, discussed and examined because it’s not just popular it’s also good’ – a statement with which I would largely agree – but then in the selection process, ‘goodness’ by any definition is entirely ignored in favour of popularity. In fact not even popularity (since if it was based purely on popularity, GRRM, selling 40,000 books a week, would be the clear winner this year, and surprisingly he hasn’t even made the shortlist) but on which book or writer has the most committed fanbase and the degree to which they become mobilised to vote. There is no discussion or examination, necessarily. It seems deeply unlikely most voters will have read much of the extended longlist, or even the whole shortlist. It seems perfectly possible many voters will only have read the book they vote for. There’s the risk it becomes a campaigning contest in which even committed readers of epic fantasy, let alone more general readers, aren’t particularly interested.
I’ve said several times that I liked the original concept for the Gemmell Award – a public vote to produce a shortlist of five – followed by a jury to pick a winner from those five. It seemed to give a good mixture of popular input and critical comparison. I’m now feeling that more than ever. I can see that a jury is a tough thing to organise every year. But for the world fantasy award, for example, a juror might need to read literally hundreds of books. For the Gemmell as originally conceived only 5. Maybe 10 if you wanted to jury a newcomer’s award as well. That doesn’t seem unmanageable. And I think that system would produce an award that was taken more seriously and stimulated a great deal more debate than is currently the case.
And I will, of course, link you to the relevant page when the shortlists go up, so that you can, without consideration or criticism, VOTE FOR ME.