I’ve spent most of the week stewing on thoughts of award shortlists, or more precisely on thoughts of reactions to award shortlists. While I wasn’t writing them down because I was busy elsewhere, Jonathan McCalmont and Paul Kincaid seized the day and both wrote fascinating posts about sf awards (Jonathan here and Paul here), and the Hugos in particular. Initially, I felt their posts would make mine redundant but, on reflection, I think there’s room for this post as well, particularly as I believe I’m coming at the topic from a slightly different angle.
I first properly paid attention to the Booker Prize in 1984, the year that J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun was shortlisted, and Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac won. Indeed I paid attention because Empire of the Sunwas shortlisted. Insofar as I can now reconstruct what my younger self thought about it, it was probably something along the lines of myself as a rather earnest sf fan, a bit fed up with people being rude about science fiction, believing that Ballard’s being shortlisted in some way demonstrated the worth of sf because he was after all ‘one of us’.
Without actually reading Empire of the Sun, I was already fairly sure that the Ballard was the best novel (probably basing my opinion on book reviews I’d read and on discussions on tv and radio). I recall being incredibly disappointed that Ballard hadn’t won, as indeed were many people I knew at the time. There was a sense somehow that we, along with Ballard, had been rejected; that Empire of the Sun, although not science fiction, was considered somehow tainted because of Ballard’s connection to the genre, and therefore not good enough.
Some years later, by this time having read both the Ballard and the Brookner, I was now genuinely baffled that Hotel du Lac had won because, to my mind, it was and remains a pallid little book, limp and uninteresting, in terms of technique and subject matter, whereas the Ballard was clearly the better-written book and far more interesting as well.
In fact, only as recently as last year, when letters between Richard J Cobb, chair of the Booker judges, and friends including Hugh Trevor-Roper were published, was it revealed that Ballard was almost certainly robbed, and effectively so were several other people. Keith Jeffery reviewed My Dear Hugh: Letters from Richard Cobb to Hugh Trevor-Roper and others edited by Tim Heald and, among other things, made this observation about Cobb’s handing of the Booker Prize: ‘he claimed to have done “a little NEGATIVE good” by keeping Martin Amis and Angela Carter off the shortlist, “and manoeuvred so that Ballard did not get the prize”.’
On the one hand, this confirms that instinctive sense I had then, and when I read the Brookner, that something was critically wrong with the award that year. On the other hand, viewed at this distance, I find myself less surprised than I might have been in, say, 1990, had I learned then that Cobb had been machinating, not because it appears to have been the kind of thing that Cobb did, but because I understand now that judges, juries, chairs of awards, often have hidden agendas, sometimes so hidden that they don’t even realise themselves that they have them. The only thing that is unusual here is that Cobb boasted openly about his actions to close friends. I’ve not see the letters so have no idea what his grounds were for keeping Amis and Carter off the shortlist, any more than I know why he manoeuvred to avoid the award going to Ballard, though that he did so clearly indicates that some of the judges that year thought Ballard should get it. Having said that, the great tragedy here is the fate of Flaubert’s Parrot which many think should have been the novel for which Barnes won the Booker rather than The Sense of an Ending in 2011.
But let’s unpick this situation a little further and think not about Richard Cobb’s actions, despicable as they may now seem, but about my response, then and now. What we can see from my response then is that it exhibited a considerable amount of emotional investment in the award because J.G. Ballard was an sf writer, ‘one of us’. Had I known then, as I know now, that Ballard saw himself as having long since moved on from sf, I might well have thought rather differently. I might not have actually been that interested in the Booker at the time, although I would probably have read both novels later and still been somewhat surprised that the Brookner won.
Going back to Ballard, I suspect I’d have been upset had someone told me then that he did not see himself as an sf writer, and hadn’t done for a long time, and I might well have regarded it as a betrayal – because, of course, I also had a heavy emotional investment in sf, and would have found it difficult then to imagine why anyone might abandon it, not least because, to my eye at least, Ballard was still writing things that looked science-fictional. And Empire of the Sun did seem science-fictional to me in terms of the alienating effects of Jim’s experiences, still does. I suppose I might even have been pleased that he’d lost, a suitable punishment for losing one’s faith, but I suspect that I would have rather he had won anyway, so that people paid attention to the novel.
Because, of course, what I was most upset about was the perceived snub to us, the ‘science fiction’ community, and to me as a science-fiction reader. While I was not then aware of the artistic struggle to place sf firmly in the literary mainstream I was only too aware that many people thought that sf and fantasy were rubbish, childish, whatever. At that stage I couldn’t adequately articulate why this was not the case but I could and already did annoy people by pointing out elements of the fantastic where they surfaced in realist writing. I’d clearly already identified the idea of a science-fictional or fantastic sensibility in apparently realist writing although I couldn’t yet put it in quite those terms. Empire of the Sun winning the Booker would have given me more ammunition for the argument with (as, indeed would Flaubert’s Parrot, had it won, though from entirely the other standpoint) but Hotel du Lac’s victory crushed that hope – and yes, I probably did take it that personally. So even as I discovered the Booker, I was already disillusioned by it. I followed it religiously for a number of years, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still follow it after a fashion, but I lost my sense of personal investment in it almost in the process of discovering it. Nowadays, I view it cynically, waiting to see which novel possessing clearly fantastical elements is proclaimed as ‘literary’ or ‘mainstream’ because it is too well-written to be sf or fantasy. Clearly, I still haven’t quite got over my original disappointment.
However, the Booker doesn’t interest me in the way it once did. I don’t have a personal stake in it at all, not even when there is something that is clearly fantastical in the running. It is little more than a snapshot of what a particular group of people think about a particular group of books that they were sent to read during a particular year. They probably do a conscientious job of looking at them all and doubtless give careful consideration to what goes on the longlist and the shortlist. And I know that in the same way as I know that it is a snapshot of people’s tastes, drawn from a particular pool of books, and also a marketing exercise. What I write about the longlisted or shortlisted books makes no difference whatsoever except insofar as if I rave about a particular book, maybe two or three readers of this blog, whose tastes tend to chime with mine, might decide to give it a whirl.
It is easy enough to disengage oneself from the Booker because it is so remote. For a few years when I was young I had a kind of investment in it because I felt that familiarity with the shortlist would make me look cultured in the eyes of some but as time has gone on, I have realised that there is more to being knowledgeable about literature than having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Booker nominees, winners and their novels.
This theoretically should hold true even for awards closer to home, such as the Hugos, the Nebulas, the Tiptree, the Clarke Award, the BSFA Awards and the Kitschies, especially the juried ones, where most of us have no actual input. And yet, as we saw last year with the Clarke Award shortlist, the furore surrounding it was extraordinary, probably way out of proportion to the award’s actual significance in the wider literary world. It seemed like everyone I knew had an opinion … and expressed it forcefully.
What seemed to be at stake was that ‘we’, a shadowy innumerable group of sf readers, or stakeholders if you like, felt that the judges, the people we saw as representing us, had somehow let us down by being less ‘expert’ than we perhaps felt they should have been. Although we had no involvement in their becoming judges (this is the prerogative of the committees of those organisations who nominate judges) we nonetheless saw them as embodying our tastes and shaping the award we saw as representative of our tastes in sf, and in this instance failing us by not including the novels we felt they should. This is clearly nonsensical when viewed dispassionately, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we tend to view the juried award as a more accurate barometer of what is good, significant, award-worthy, whatever, than the popular award. Until, of course, it doesn’t yield the kind of result we think it should, at which point it somehow becomes flawed.
And yet, what else can it be but flawed, albeit often in small, almost invisible ways? Because, as with an award like the Booker, judges have their prejudices and biases, ones they may not even be aware of. In fact, I’m prepared to argue that to some extent at least this is actually a necessary part of the process. Without disagreement it is difficult to reach agreement. The Clarke Award has the same non-voting jury chair from year to year, lending a greater neutrality to the business of facilitating discussion among the judges, but even so it must be up to the judges to make the decision as to what they are going to look for in a worthy Clarke Award winner, and that must inevitably vary each year as the membership of the jury changes.
In which case, I must ask what it achieves to become as exercised as so many of ‘us’ did over the shortlist last year if we cannot actually do anything about it? It is a question that troubles me because I cannot find a sensible answer to it. Indeed, I’m not sure there is one. On the one side, such an intense level of debate demonstrates that the Clarke Award is an important part of the intellectual landscape of sf, and that it is seen as a significant index of what is happening in the field in the UK. However, on the other, are we so emotionally engaged that we are unable to step back and reflect more soberly on what the shortlist is saying?
Having said that, I tried to do this with the Shortlist Project last year; in the process I realised that I also had certain expectations of the award and the shortlisting process. They weren’t necessarily unreasonable but it became clear to me that I needed to question my own assumptions about the award. At the end of the project, I still felt the shortlist was almost wilfully aberrant in its inclusions and exclusions but at the same time I did at least feel I’d tested my own perception of the award, and that it wasn’t quite what I’d thought it was.
In fact, I think the Clarke Award is probably as transparent as it can be, given its particular structure. Publishing the full list of submissions demonstrates clearly what the jury had available to it to work with, which eliminates certain criticisms. If they haven’t already thought about it, I think providing a formal mechanism for people to draw attention to the novels the jury might have missed when calling in submissions would be a useful thing, if this is not already under consideration. The Tiptree Award does this and it strikes me as a useful way to enable ‘us’ to engage productively with the Clarke Award, satisfying us that the Award did know about this title or that, and removing a certain element of post-shortlist argument that invariably seems to surface.
For my own part, I have been thinking about how to engage with the shortlist, given that by the time it is announced, it is pretty much futile to spend too much time asking why X or Y was left off when really, the only question that can be asked is ‘why were these books shortlisted?’ Sometimes, the answer, as in the case of the infamous Tepper novel, must remain ‘I have no idea why’ but at least extends to the jury the courtesy of supposing they must have had a good reason even if it remains opaque to the outside observer.
This year the response to the shortlist has been more muted, whether because we are all still taken aback by last year or because the shortlist doesn’t seem to have set people on fire, I am not sure. There are seemingly obvious omissions – Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass is not included, and nor is M John Harrison’s Empty Spaces, both of which would have seemed to be shoo-ins. However, again I am reserving judgement until I have read the entire shortlist.
But if I can only address the Clarke Award as a done deal, wondering why they did that, the Hugos are a whole different kettle of fish. My emotional investment in the Hugos probably died in 1995, the year that David Gerrold’s ‘The Martian Boy’ won the Best Novelette category. If you were in the Glasgow YMCA the morning after the ceremony and saw a young woman kneeling on the floor of the foyer, banging her head against the floor, that was me, in despair, and none too particular who knew about it.
Having looked back at the shortlist I cannot for the life of me think now what it was I wanted to win, though probably Le Guin’s ‘The Matter of Seggri’ but I do know I thought Gerrold’s story was not only cloyingly sentimental, it was cynically eliciting a particular response from his audience when it was well known that he had himself adopted a boy and the story was based in part on their relationship. I suspected that this was in turn why the story won the Hugo. We’re almost all of us suckers for a happy ever after. However, whereas I accepted that the Booker had some fierce politics going on under the surface, I suppose I still hoped that the Hugo voting was based mostly on literary merit. And clearly it wasn’t. After that, while I didn’t exactly ignore the Hugos, I found myself less and less certain what they were for. I’d tended to regard them as representing a benchmark for good sf writing but by this time I felt I could no longer rely on them to serve that purpose and I wasn’t sure where to go next with them. Mostly, I ignored them.
Given that I now find myself as part of a loose online community that regularly discusses sf, including topics such as the Hugo awards, I’ve found myself thinking about them again. The arguments go back and forth about the point of the Hugos, especially whether they’re a popular vote for the author rather than a recognition of a story’s intrinsic merit. It is probably impossible to provide empirical data to show that, for the novel at least, it is an author-driven rather than text-driven award, but my sense is that this seems to be so, not least because the same authors so often seem to appear on the shortlists.
Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont both discuss the nature of the Hugo voting constituency as well as the structure of the awards themselves, not to mention the problems of trying to change them, so I shan’t bother recapitulating that yet again. Instead, I want to think again from the point of the emotional investment and how, rather than looking at the shortlists and thinking ‘jesus christ’, I can usefully engage with the Hugos as a stakeholder of some sort. Again, Jonathan McCalmont outlines some possibilities, the most important of which is actually nominating. I can’t deny the sense of what he is saying and I’m as guilty as the next person in this respect. I’ve not bought a supporting membership in recent years because, bluntly, however important I might now consider the Hugos to be, a supporting membership is a luxury I haven’t been able to afford, not as a self-funding postgraduate student with a small debt mountain to my name (though I hope this may change in the next year or so).
On the other hand, I also have the impression that Hugo nominators are drawing on a very limited set of resources for their nominations (except perhaps in the short story category this year, which is just bizarre) which is why the same names seem to resurface so much, especially in the novel. Last year I noticed one or two people flagging up interesting things that ought to be nominated for Hugos, though less so this year (although I have been rather distracted these last few months so many have missed it this year).
On the other hand most activity of this sort seems to be people drawing attention to the eligibility of their own work, again as Jonathan noted, rather than to that of other people. It seems to me that one thing I can at least do is to flag up material I come across, not just before the nomination process closes, but all through the year, to keep the issue firmly in people’s minds. If there is to be a genuine investment in making the Hugos ‘our’ awards, the way so many people seem to think they should be then this also needs to be part of the process. It may not achieve immediate results, and it’s certainly not enough on its own but it might help to push the argument beyond the usual expressions of horror at this time of year. And frankly, that would be welcome.