Awards Mudwrestling

There have been plenty of tributes to Steve Jobs today, but I particularly like this article by Juan Cole about the multicultural background of Steve Jobs. Lots of stuff I didn’t know, but then I never extensively followed his life.

Filipino blogger and writer Charles Tan has a great essay about how publishing and bookselling favours the West, particularly the US/UK, and how access to books, whether print or digital, is a lot more difficult in many non-western countries. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the challenges facing international writers and readers.

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Cue the backlash from critics, particularly in the US and UK, that they have never heard of Tranströmer, that this means he is an unworthy winner and that the price should have gone to Philip Roth/Bob Dylan/insert other favoured Anglo-American writer here. Indeed, we already have evidence of a backlash from none other than Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s foremost literary critic, who declared that he has never heard of Tranströmer. Unsurprisingly, Marcel Reich-Ranicki favours Philip Roth.

What always gets me how many international critics seem to view “I have never heard of this writer” as evidence of “He or she is an unworthy winner”. Now I had never heard of Tomas Tranströmer either, until I read his name mentioned as a favourite for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature a few days ago. However, when I have not heard of a Nobel Prize winning author, I generally view that as a failure of my education regarding writers from this or that country not as proof that the winner is unworthy. Indeed, I would never consider a winner unworthy, unless I have actually read his or her books. Not that some of the criticisms aren’t valid, e.g. the Nobel Prize for Literature really is too eurocentric and particularly ignores African and Asian writers. But these critics would scream (and have screamed) just as loudly, if an African or Asian writer won, because what they really want is Philip Roth or Bob Dylan.

Finally, those people who want Philip Roth or Bob Dylan to win should maybe shut up instead of screaming every single year that the current winner is unworthy. Honestly, if I were a member of the Swedish Academy, I wouldn’t award the prize to Philip Roth either, simply because the annual screeching is so annoying.

But a potential controversy about the Nobel Prize for Literature is nothing compared the the current controversy about the British Fantasy Awards.

A few days ago, I made a slightly snarky remark that the British Fantasy Awards should maybe be renamed the British horror awards, considering that almost all winners have been from the horror genre.

Now, however, it seems that the British Fantasy Awards should be renamed the British controversy awards, because the awards have been at the center of a controversy kicked off by Stephen Jones who has issues with the fact that several awards went to the small press Telos, whose publisher David Howe also happens to be the coordinator of the awards. What is more, horror writer Sam Stone who won the awards for best novel and best short story happens to be the life partner of David Howe, which is another potential conflict of interest. Now Sam Stone has announced that she is giving the award back. Cheryl Morgan weighs in here and here. Meanwhile, Damien G. Walter calls for an unified speculative fiction award in the UK, because “amateur writers and publishers” are apparently ruining the exiting awards. Though I wonder why a publisher like Telos who has been around for seven or eight years at least would still qualify as amateur in his eyes. I don’t want to imagine what happens when a self-published book ever wins any genre award. The Guardian has a round-up of the whole controversy.

Now I don’t know any of the people involved, though Sam Stone’s reaction strikes me as far classier than Stephen Jones’. I have heard of Telos, mainly in connection with publishing media tie-ins. As far as I know, it’s a well-respected small press. However, considering that the SFF community isn’t all that big, potential conflicts of interest inevitably occur, when people sit on the committee for an award that they themselves, their friends or lovers are up for. This isn’t the first time this has happened (I seem to recall that there was some controversy about Cheryl Morgan winning a Hugo award as best fan writer, while sitting on the Worldcon committee) and it won’t be the last. As for small presses being allegedly overrepresented, if you look e.g. at the shortlists for the World Fantasy Award or the Nebula or Hugo awards, small publishers like Subterranean or Night Shade Books are frequently overrepresented compared to their size. Doesn’t mean that they are not deserving nominees. And frankly, I wonder whether the reaction would have been similar if the overrepresented small press was not a publisher associated with media tie-ins.

In short, a lot of people seem to have an axe to grind here and the backlash against certain winners does not necessarily say anything about the quality of the books, never mind that taste is subjective anyway. Finally, I can’t help but wonder whether the backlash against Sam Stone in particular, whose novel is not even published by Telos, is not more due to the fact that she is a woman – the first to win the award for best novel since Tanith Lee’s win 30 years ago – and a woman who writes about vampires besides. After all, the dismissive attitudes of the SFF community towards urban fantasy and paranormal romance – subgenres dominated by women, many of whom write about vampires – is well known.

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7 Responses to Awards Mudwrestling

  1. Pingback: Paranormal Romance @ BlackBerry Wallpaper

  2. Hi Cora,

    As my ears are burning I thought I should pop by and clarify your recollection. The use of the term “the Worldcon committee” is a bit misleading because it suggests that there is a single authority that has control over all Worldcons. That’s not the case. Each year’s Worldcon committee is independent, and responsible only to the Business Meeting of the World Science Fiction Society. In addition, each Worldcon committee appoints a small group of people to a Hugo Awards Administration Committee, and those are the only people who have any say in the administration of the awards.

    The reason this happens is that Worldcons, like most conventions, are volunteer, community-based organizations. You have to wall off responsibility for the awards so that you can allow everyone else to get on with contributing the event without people raising suggestions of impropriety.

    What happened in my case was that a small group of people in a barely quorate and little-known committee decided to invent a new rule deeming that work I had done (mostly anonymously) on things like building the Hugo Award website and helping run the logo design contest somehow gave me an unfair advantage in winning Hugos. The intention seems to have been to stop me doing that work, and to cast doubt on the validity of the Hugo wins by myself and Clarkesworld. The Business Meeting, quite rightly, told them that they had no right to make such rulings, and in a separate vote decided that doing such work while being a potential nominee was not improper.

    As for the BFS, I do think it is rather strange that Dave Howe, who administered the awards, gets to keep the one he won, but Sam Stone, who is implicated only because she’s his partner, has to give one of hers back. I should also point out that the vote counting was independently audited, so there should be no suggestion of ballot fraud.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the clarification, Cheryl.

      I had a faint memory that your fan writer Hugo win caused some controversy at the time, because of your involvement with Worldcon, but I didn’t remember the details. I must have missed the controversy around the Clarkesworld win – and honestly, who could disagree with that one? For the record, I think that both your fan writer Hugo and the Hugo for Clarkesworld were well deserved.

      As for the BFS, I find it a bit strange as well that Sam Stone was singled out for criticism and had to give one of her awards back, whereas the Telos books that won as well as David Howe keep their awards. In fact, this makes me suspect that the beef of these critics is more with Sam Stone than with the potential conflict of interest.

      • All of my Hugo wins have been contested in some way. The Best Fanzine for Emerald City on the grounds that it was not the right sort of fanzine, and the other three are all covered by the more recent controversy.

        Ostensibly the Clarkesworld wins were challenged on the grounds that I was on their masthead, but as several of those involved were also people who wanted to kill the semiprozine category I suspect other motives.

        • Cora says:

          I must have missed the Emerald City uproar. Why was it the wrong sort of fanzine? Because it was electronic?

          I didn’t follow the attempts to kill the semiprozine category too closely, but wasn’t one of the arguments that Locus always wins in that category anyway? Hence, one would think that those who want to get rid of the semiprozine category would be happy to see someone else win for a change.

  3. Jodie says:

    Someone pointed out the lack of ladies on this list to me the other day. I don’t know what the staff make up of Telos is, but with Sam Stone giving back her award this is a list entirely without female winners right?

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