What if there were a major SF/F award chosen by reviewers/critics?

April 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have to admit that so far this year, the 2012 SF/F/H awards/shortlists have been very underwhelming.  I have read most, if not all, of the Hugo, Nebula, Dick, Tiptree, BSFA, and Clarke shortlists/winners and very few of the shortlisted titles rated much beyond a shrug and a “meh.”  The plots were mostly predictable, the themes often were retreads, the characterizations were occasionally trite and sometimes dreadful, and when viewed as a whole, these titles seem to be more the celebration of mediocrity and the satisfying of certain interest groups’ (fans, judges, peers) desire for a “happy medium” than an honoring of extraordinary, challenging fictions.

In a discussion on Twitter early Sunday morning my time, there was an interesting talk about these awards in which Maureen Kinkaid Speller, her husband Paul Kincaid, Charles Tan, and myself talked about our reactions to the awards.  Charles said something to me that I’ve been thinking about for much of the past day.  He observed that there is a distinction to be made between “critical” works and “pop” works and that for those such as myself who do not self-identify as “fans” (nor have judged nor been a writing peer), these nominees are not likely going to appeal to the likes of those such as myself.  It is a fair point, as I found myself thinking, “Why isn’t Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox or Colson Whitehead’s Zone One getting any consideration on these shortlists?  What about the translation of Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar’s Kafka’s Leopards?  How have Gonçalo M. Tavares’ works, particularly last year’s translation of Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, been ignored?  Why isn’t Jesse Ball’s Curfew or Blake Butler’s There is No Year considered for what they do with prose constructions?”  These questions in turn could be applied to others reading other sets of works that either touch upon or delve deeply into various speculative traditions, ranging from weird fiction to interstitial works to new meldings of various genres.  Who are the champions of these works who do not meet a “happy medium” but instead may polarize readers who are not receptive to them yet to others may be a godsend?

I reflected on the various awards whose shortlists I have read since last summer.  One series of awards, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, caught my attention because the membership was derived of those who reviewed book for periodicals, presumably including the major online outlets in addition to print editions.  While I did not always agree with their selections for who won the awards, I did find myself marveling over how varied and yet excellent the works were on the fiction, non-fiction, and poetry categories.  That left me pondering what would be produced if there were a SF/F analogue, where those who are established reviewers (say those who freelance and have received monetary payment for their reviews) were to gather as an e-body and cast ballots for 3-5 works that they felt would be most deserving of recognition.  I suspect there would certainly be a different sort of shortlist, one that wouldn’t necessarily be comprised from “core genre” publications, with likely finalists whose works would not be as inclined to harken back to earlier pulp/genre traditions.

Could such an award be created?  Perhaps, but it certainly would take a lot of time, money, and organizational meetings to realize such a project.  But as a hypothetical to which the current existing awards could be compared, I suspect if such an entity were ever to be created, it would differ from both fan/organization-based awards such as the BSFA or Hugos and panel-based awards such as the Clarke or World Fantasy (the Nebulas of course are different from both) in that there wouldn’t be the need to settle for a consensus/majority pick for a panel award nor would there necessarily be the most visible appearing, as is usually the case with fan/organization awards.  Something different might be produced as a result (leaving space for ideals falling far short of reading/reviewing realities) that might generate a different sort of debate over what constitutes “the best” in SF/F publishing.  This might not be such a bad thing after all, n’est ce pas?

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