Awards, Panels, Public Votes

Posted on April 11th, 2012 in news, opinion

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.

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  1. I applaud the decision to judge the Clarke award in the manner you described, at least it is open and honest and reasoned. All the better that you won, of course.

    Must feel a bit strange to see other people critically debating the finer points of your work, did they actually know you were in the audience?

  2. I’ve waxed lyrical about the Gemmell Award myself recently, but only to decry Black Library’s clearly cynical attempts to hijack it for their own venal gain. Once again they’ve only submitted one book (Blood of Anaerion) when they had four, possibly five, that would have been eligible this year. The other major publishers have, where they could, put forward at least half-a-dozen novels, reducing the odds that one of their books would hit the shortlist. BL also has a good 30,000 followers on Facebook to whome they’ve been screaming ‘vote for me’, many of whom will vote for all things Warhammer even if they’ve never read the book (in the year Heldenhammer won the award there were only a total of 15,500 votes cast in the entire competition). I think the original concept of free vote for the long list, then jury for the shortlist is the only way to go, otherwise it’s going to become a bit of a joke competition. Hopefully they’ll have sorted it by the time I’ve got my own dog in this particular race :)

  3. Congratulations Joe.

    I think The Heros is probably your best book. Great pacing, engaging characters, and ect.

    With the way you do the things you’re doing – books not spaced every seven years apart, having a web presense, and you’re general attitude towards your fans and work – you really deserve kudos.

  4. Well said A-drain. Totally agree!

  5. Michael,
    Just to make clear – I didn’t win the Clarke award. It’s for sci-fi. What I won was a greatly truncated imitation of the Clarke award process applied to a shortlist of six diverse fantasy titles from this year. So not an actual award at all. But I think an award for fantasy along Clarke lines would be a good thing. Especially if I won, of course.

    Fordy,
    Well, I don’t know that you can really blame Black Library for taking a tactical angle and mobilising their fanbase. Warhammer’s a slightly odd one in the sense that fans tend to be of the franchise as a whole rather than a specific author, and if you set up an internet poll is there anything particularly cynical or underhand about getting people to vote in it? Certainly I don’t see any way of preventing it from happening. The fact that Martin didn’t mention the award to fans and failed to get on the shortlist despite publishing way the most successful fantasy of the year seems to imply that the vast majority of voters are indeed coming directly from links by interested parties. Most authors have mentioned it on blogs and so on, I know I have, anyway. I know I’d feel a bit weird about making a really concerted effort to get votes, but I’ve got a few facebook followers myself, and where do you draw the line between a reasonably subtle mention and out-and-out campaigning? It seems to me down to the organisers to make sure they’ve got a selection process that can be taken seriously. The unfortunate thing to my mind is that all the discussion of the shortlist I’ve seen is people moaning about the voting, which doesn’t help any of the books get taken more seriously even within the genre, let alone outside it.

  6. Fair point. I’ve not got a problem with authors canvassing for votes. I haven’t even got a problem with the ‘popular’ books being short-listed due to a massive following. I have got problem with publishers using the award for their own gain. What if Gollancz had decided to give themselves a better chance of having a winner and only entered your novel, and overlooked the other 17 authors they’ve entered this year? BL appear to be using the same principle, but they get away with it. Warhammer is a brand, and I think it’s wrong BL should canvas for people to vote for that brand rather than a particular novel. If I was William King, I think it might also take the shine off winning, to know I hadn’t won the award through my novel’s merit but through my publisher’s huge fan base.

  7. Well, Joe, you certainly deserve recognition and awards. No one can match you in terms of incorporating strong character voices, and with the Heroes you gave us great entertainment, lashings of humour, and even a fair bit of thought provoking stuff.

    Just remember, head and toes – don’t let it all go to the former, and please stay on the latter.

    WP.

  8. I also agree with A-Drain that The Heroes is your best work, Joe. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about your books, they just keep on getting better.

  9. I would have liked the Gammel Awards to have a public (or popular) vote for the nomination list, but the actual award choosing/voting ought to be done the Clarke way.

    Wish I could have watched that Clarke Fantasy award panel at work, that sounds like a very interesting and educational experience.

    I must admit I’ve used the Gammel nomination list to check out authors I haven’t yet read. To me that is a lot more interesting than who actually ends up winning the award

  10. Congratulations Joe. Although it was only a hypothetical award, it was still well-deserved, and you’re analysis of the award process is astute and fair. In a way it would be more satisfying – and certainly more meaningful – to win acclaim through the kind of critical process involved in some kind of ‘Clarke for Fantasy’ award rather than just by a popular vote. It would also be interesting to read a verdict from the judges for such an award.

  11. I think the key thing on awards is a robust and transparent process. I like the idea of involving the view of the reading public and then a shortlist being assessed by an independent panel of appropriate credibility.

    There will always be promoted voting, whether is is through ignorance (I saw the film/tv series so I will vote for a book I have never read) or association (likes on facebook) or through a strong fan following so there needs to be something that provides sufficient diligence based on reading the bloody things!
    I think the Gemmell awards are a great way of recognising an aspect of the genre and a much loved and talented author – very fitting indeed. But they need to evolve a little to ensure the way winners are selected is also fitting.

  12. Gonna vote for your book, ‘ cause it was awesome. No need to read the others as well, no way to change my mind. Hurray for puplic votes! ;) I would prefer the way you all said before, with public vote just for the big list and so on. But who cares, clou is that Joe is #1 of the result ;)

  13. Aw, I’m gutted I missed that panel. I think transparency in the decision-making process would be a good thing for *all* awards.

    By the way, it was nice to not quite meet you at EasterCon. Also, I can attest to the fact that Joe does, in fact, seem to be spending most of the time haunting, as he says, the bar. ;)

  14. If you have a juried vote it implys that you value these specific persons votes because they read all the books, but what if these people are genre snobs or science fiction geeks etc… etc.. What I’m trying to say is most people on juries aren’t the ones you wold go out and want to have a chat about books over a beer so why value there opinon over the general mob?

  15. Hammer,
    How do you know whether the people on juries aren’t the ones you would want to chat about books over a beer with? The exact composition of the jury is always going to be a subject for debate, but if you’re only asking them to read five books you could select pretty widely. An author or two, a critic or two, a blogger or two, a well-informed fan or two, maybe a publishing professional of one kind or another. You select a jury on the basis that they know a fair amount about the genre in one way or another, then you ask them to read and COMPARE THE BOOKS ON THE SHORTLIST. They argue amongst themselves and come to a consensus.

    What exactly is a ‘genre snob’ anyway? Surely only someone who values one set of qualities in a book over another. One of the really interesting and refreshing things about the Not the Clarke panel was seeing serious critics, historians, writers applying the same rigour and standards to epic fantasy that they did to literary fantasy, without any sense of condescension. If we’re saying that epic fantasy is as good as anything else, we need to be unafraid of seeing it assessed in the same terms. We need to be inviting people to take it seriously, rather than just complaining that it never is and taking our ball home.

  16. I hate how often fantasy, epic fantasy, dark fantasy, and swords and sorcery is seen as irrelevant on the larger scale of literary genres. Meanwhile, people heighten science fiction because of it’s more “realistic”, philosophical aspects while trying to treat fantasy as if it’s a children’s field of study not meant for intellectual dialect. I think it has something to do with the theological components moreso attached to fantasy than science fiction. Some will see SF as progressive, something to look forward to in terms of enlightening society, whereas others see fantasy as an outdated approach to viewing things. All I end up seeing in the SF category is idealism personified…

  17. “What exactly is a ‘genre snob’ anyway?”

    One of the things I like about fantasy is that I don’t find too much snobbery. Some of the “literary science fiction writers” seem to be only talking to one another, not selling many books and perhaps not caring because they only want to the other members of their small snobbish club.

    In my view it’s great to write thought provoking books that comment on culture and morality and such, but to me it’s more important to write entertaining and emotionally engaging characters. With the latter I find fantasy more reliable than sci-fi, whether or not that has anything to do with the fact that fantasy doesn’t as yet have a clark award …?

    WP

  18. Joe,

    The type of panel of voters you describe does sound reasonably diverse and interesting. Although the academics I’ve met usually have a narrow point of view relating to their focus. I don’t think this diversity is the norm for small panel type votes. It’s not often you get people judging a book in a fantasy setting that don’t have limited preconceived notions, on this side of the pond anyway. At the Sci-fi and Fantasy conventions over hear you generally get a group of debaters so incredibly bias, quirky and in many cases troglodyte it’s hard to put a value on their opinons.

  19. Just to say I was at that panel and bought The Heroes on the strength of what I heard there.

  20. I sold one!

    Incidentally, I think this does indicate another significant advantage – discussion and comparison of books on a shortlist actually encourages people to look at books they might not otherwise consider. An sf/f award that actually helped sell some books – now THAT would be something…

  21. Joe, that’s a good analysis, and let’s hope the fantasy Clarkes (or whatever they come to call them (1)) just keep gathering momentum.

    (1) Not the Abercrombies.

  22. I think you mean we sold one.

  23. Adrian,
    You’re right, Abercrombie has too many syllables for a major award. The Joes?

    Niall,
    Technically, they. You just held the books up. And you only had five of the six. And The Heroes was without its cover. So, overall a fascinating exercise, but as far as the management went, TOTAL DISGRACE.

    Now where’s that prize money?

  24. I see some cover art for A Red Country on Amazon’s UK page! Is that official?

  25. Any type of award that negates the “unconditional fan” factor would be good for me – and only allowing people who have read all the books to contribute is genius too.

    Now, if only we could make understanding the campaign issues a prerequisite for political votes…

  26. I voted for the Heroes for the David Gemmel prize. Having been a huge fan of Gemmell for pretty much my entire life I found it easy to find similarities between Gemmell’s work and yours, especially in the way I had grown so attached to a lot of the characters by the end of the book. I haven’t read a book that did this for me in a long time, maybe since I first read ‘Echoes of a great song’ by the great man himself.

    Thanks
    Patrick

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