Awards Catch-Up

Posted by Niall Harrison

1. Announced today: the winner of the William L Crawford Award for first fantasy book is Genevieve Valentine, for Mechanique. Shortlisted were Erin Morgenstern for The Night Circus, Tea Obreht for The Tiger's Wife, Stina Leicht for Of Blood and Honey, and Ransom Riggs for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Many congratulations to Genevieve and to the shortlisted writers; I had the honour of contributing to the selection process, and I think it's a good result.

2. Announced yesterday: the BSFA Award shortlists, which gives us the following selection for Best Novel:

Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith (Newcon Press)
Embassytown by China Mieville (Macmillan)
The Islanders by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)

Which, if not the most surprising selection of nominees looks like a good strong list. Three established authors from major genre imprints; two earlier-career writers from small presses. Two authors (Mieville and Tidhar) racking up their second UK award nomination, following the Kitschies (and surely they're very likely candidates for the Clarke list). Two returning BSFA winners, in Mieville and Priest, which sets up an interesting head-to-head: I'm inclined to think Priest is still the favourite, given the voting population, but it might be close.

In some ways, though, the categories I'm most interested in this year are the short fiction and non-fiction. The former because I think it's a good, varied list, and because it contains three stories I nominated: Nina Alla's "The Silver Wind" [pdf], which even isolated from its context is a very fine, unsettling story; Kameron Hurley's "Afterbirth" [pdf], which is a rewarding new angle on the world of her novels; and China Mieville's "Covehithe", which is built around one of those original and compelling images that Mieville does so well.

And the non-fiction category is always both interesting and frustrating. This year the contenders are a 5,000 word review-essay, a curated blog, a group blog, a collection of academic essays, a book accompanying a museum exhibition (the British Library's Out of This World, which was excellent and fully deserves the separate special commendation the BSFA is giving it), and the incomplete third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It's not that any of the nominees are undeserving (although I'd prefer to see the Encyclopedia up next year, I think), it's just that that they seem to be deserving in three or four different categories, and they're lumped into one. I understand why the category is this way: the aim is to be inclusive and eclectic, and this shortlist certainly succeeds in that. But a large part of me wishes the BSFA would choose a narrower field for this award -- my preference would be essay-length work, since that seems to me to chime with the BSFA's mission and activities best, but an award for best book, or best related book-length work (so that a year of blog would count), would do just as well. Something to make comparing one nominee to another a little less ludicrous, is all I'm asking. (Admittedly any year with the Encyclopedia in it is going to be a little bit lopsided.)

Anyway. Congratulations to all the nominees in all categories. There's a writeup of the awards in The Guardian, and Martin McGrath offers his thoughts on the shortlists here.


           

Comments (6)


I'm basically not in favour of narrowing the selection criteria for the BSFA non-fic award as a single award, as it ends up either being unfair on really good books, or on really good essay, depending on where you set the boundaries. And it seems to me unlikely that any time soon we will get two non-fic awards, one short-form and one long. So I continue to agree that the BSFA Non-fic award has the worst possible criteria it could have, except for all the other criteria that have been proposed.


I don't buy that. Limiting its field to science fiction does not mean the Clarke is unfair to fantasy (it means there's room for a juried fantasy award, but that's a different issue). There is no rule that says that every type of work must have an award to represent it. On the other hand, the award as presently constituted is de facto unfair to essays and reviews, since they're rarely going to beat a book length work (and reviews are ineligible when reprinted in book collections); this year's inclusion of the Encyclopedia is just an extreme example of that. A more narrowly specified award would make participation feel more meaningful to me.


I lean both ways. I can certainly see Niall's point that there is something a bit odd about comparing such disperate things. An essay prize with the shortlist available to all members to vote on is a pleasingly clean alternative.

But I would worry about the level of nominations this would get. There is something to Tony's description of the award as having "worst possible criteria it could have, except for all the other criteria that have been proposed". It was only a couple of years ago it was in real trouble and this messy compromise has got it back on its feet.

I think for the essay prize to work you would need to have a jury of committed readers to come up with a shortlist that the membership could then vote on.

You could even retain a Best Related Book type category based on open nominations.


I'm enough of an optimist to think that if the criteria were more specific people would have an easier time looking for things that meet them. And I'm inclined to think essays are more viable than books -- people read very few books of sf non fiction each year on average, and many of them are edited collections of essays that could be nominated individually anyway. But you're right that it would be a risk. The other option, I guess, is to turn it into an award for a body of work in a year by an individual -- like the best editor and best fan writ hugos -- but I'm less keen on that, since the rest of the BSFA awards are for works.


I don't agree that the Clarke Award analogy is valid. The Clarke has always excluded fantasy (officially - we can have the Mieville argument later), whereas the BSFA Non-Fiction Award has, in its ten year on-off existence, always admitted both book-length and essay-length works, so changing the criteria would be disqualifying a category of work that had previously been eligible.

The other flaw with the Clarke analogy is that fantasy novels have plenty of other opportunities to get recognition; this is not the case for non-fiction. Indeed, if one is arguing that part of the purpose of an award is to bring good works to people's attention, then the Non-Fic Award should have as wide a remit as possible.

Nor do I agree that the Award as it stands is biased towards book-length material. If anything, it's the other way around - essays and blog posts are shorter and therefore easier to read in the period between the shortlist appearing and voting closing, and, if online, often easier and cheaper to access. In the three years since the Award got back on its feet, it's only gone to a book-length work once, which supports this view (this is also the case for the original 2002-2004 incarnation of the award).

I do agree that changing the criteria is a risk. In fact, I think it's a huge risk, and one not worth taking. Niall's optimism is, I feel, ill-founded. However one changes the criteria, it is placing a bar in the way of people nominating works they want to nominate. Niall thinks that people will go away and nominate other works that are eligible. I think that people will actually get frustrated with the whole process, and not nominate at all, and not come back next year either. I think the previous history of the Award bears this out. In its original incarnation, only authored works were eligible, so that edited collections were excluded, though the essays contained within could be put forward (a criterion which would, of course, have excluded the SFE). This was a far less restrictive than anything Niall is proposing, yet after three years the Award had collapsed under the weight of membership indifference, at least partly, so I gather, because people didn't want to nominate individual essays from collections - they wanted to nominate the collections.

The current open criteria for the Non-Fic Award is the most successful set of rules yet come up with for it. I cannot see that restricting the criteria will be more successful. Yes, it regularly throws up something of an apples and oranges shortlist (but so can other Awards - remember Alice in Sunderland and "Vishnu at the Cat Circus"). But I honestly believe that the choice here is not between an Award that is flawed and messy and one which is better directed and more logical, but between a flawed Award that will survive and a more logical one that will soon disappear. And I'm for having an Award.


If the only choice here is between having a bad award and no award, then put me down for no award.

That said, to your points: you're right that it would be changing the criteria, but they've already been changed once; I'm sure people can cope. So far as fantasy goes, it's clearly under-served in the UK in awards terms. Theoretically fantasy novels can get nominated for the BSFA award, but don't because sf does; theoretically they can get nominated for the BFS award, but don't because horror does (it remains to be seen whether splitting that award in two will work); and the Gemmell is only open to works that fit a narrow definition of fantasy. That leaves great swathes of stuff with no home. Personally, I'd like it to have a home, but it's not entitled to it.

I also read the recent history of the award differently to you; I'd say that last year is the only time it's genuinely gone to an essay-length piece. The other years -- 2003, 2004, 2010 -- the awards were clearly proxies for book-length works. (20-plus years of an uncollected book-length work in the case of the 2010 award, but still.) This may be evidence that the award should be a straight up Best Related Book category, but it's not evidence that essays aren't disadvantaged.


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