Monday 14 December 2020

The Award For Best Award

By our count, there are currently somewhat in excess of 50 different awards given out regularly every year
What makes people pay attention to
the Hugo Awards? History, process,
& focus. (Photo by Olav Rokne)

for science fiction and fantasy fiction, and another 60 or so defunct awards that were at some point handed out annually. These range from broad-based awards intended to showcase popular works, to regional and national awards, to awards for narrow niches in the genre, to those dedicated to advancing a specific ideology within genre fiction.

There are in fact enough award systems to warrant the effort of analysis to help decide which awards are worth paying attention to. Of course, dichotomous and divisive “success or failure” judgments are less useful than comparing how they’re organized and speculating about what might contribute to a robust and respected award. Examining the growing pains of recently created awards and thinking about why several smaller awards have managed to establish long-term relevance can also be helpful.

In our opinion, there are several major factors that can contribute to an awards system being perceived as having legitimacy: a track record of recognizing works that are broadly accepted as having enduring value; a consistent democratic and transparent process with accountability checks; and having a differentiated mandate that serves some segment of fandom.

The Weight of History

While subjecting awards to a ranking is, well, subjective, Hugo-winning fan writer Mike Glyer made a valiant effort to crowdsource a ranking of the top genre awards last year (though two of the awards listed have since changed their names). This gave fans a way to weigh in on which awards they felt were the most prestigious.

With slight variations, Glyer’s list falls roughly into chronological order by the date of these awards being established. The Hugos are at the top of the list, and that's probably in part because they are old, and have had the time to build a community and recognize more works that people love. In contrast, the Arthur C. Clarke Award jury never had an opportunity to hand out a trophy to the novel Dune.

Over time repetition becomes tradition, and tradition accrues the patina of respectability. However, reading fanzines and Worldcon publications from when the Hugos began in the mid-1950s, one gets a sense that the award did not engender much respect until later — many convention reports of the day limit coverage of the awards to statements such as “Some people won some awards.” In 1955, fan Wallace Weber describes the awards as the “low point of the convention.”

The Power of Process

The lack of respect shown to the Hugos during their early years may have to do with the inconsistent and ad hoc process by which the award was organized. Although always based on a public vote, the rules by which that vote took place varied from year to year, the categories on the ballot seemed to change randomly, and even the eligibility dates were wildly inconsistent.

Although it would be unfair to hold Hugo Awards of the 1950s to the same standards of process as modern awards, examining their stumbles, and how the process has evolved can be instructive.

The much-lamented presentation of the 1955 Hugo for best novel to Mark Clifton and Frank Reily’s
They'd Rather Be Right (AKA
The Forever Machine) would be
unlikely to win under modern
Hugo Awards balloting.
(Image via Wikipedia) 

They’d Rather Be Right actually points to the problems posed by a poorly engineered awards process. At that time, Hugo votes were cast via a write-in ballot and one-stage system. Thus, it was relatively easy for the award to go to a book that was loved by a small-but-enthusiastic group of fans, and to ignore the mainstream opinion. 

The creation of the WSFS constitution in 1963, and the subsequent gradual refinement of a relatively transparent awards voting system that balances participatory engagement with accountability has led to the Hugo process becoming one of the most robust. Although there have been a handful of attempts to subvert the award (such as the 1989 ballot-stuffing incident), these have been largely unsuccessful, which speaks to the quality of the process, and the dedication of WSFS business meeting participants.

Similarly, other recognizable awards have well-defined and robust procedures for selecting winners. The Nebulas, the Locus Award, the Clarke Award, the BSFA Award, are all open and consistent in their process; which engenders trust in the system among those paying attention.

There is a long tradition of inconsistent and ad-hoc processes in awards that have since faded from memory. It will be interesting to see if current attempts to launch new major awards will learn from or be plagued by these same errors of process. In particular, strong communication and clear focus are critical to establishing a long-running award.

Specific Focus

One of the reasons for the Hugo Awards’ survival through several years in which the process was irregular, and the award-winners were inconsistent, may have been that they had a specific mandate that was un-served by other contemporaneous literary awards: they were at the time the only game in town when it came to science fiction awards. Newer awards do not have that luxury; unless they are in some
It seems unlikely that a work 
like The Unincorporated Man
would gain much attention 
from mainstream awards. 
But the Prometheus Award
appeals to a specific niche. 
(Image via Amazon)

way different from the Hugos and Nebulas, they will likely continue to be compared unfavorably to the more established awards.

Perhaps proving the point, several awards have succeeded in part by finding their niche. For more than four decades, the Libertarian Futurist Society has recognized achievement in science fiction (and occasionally fantasy) that conforms to their worldview with the Prometheus Award. Similarly, the Otherwise Award (formerly known as the Tiptree) has an almost three-decade history of recognizing works of science fiction that explore an understanding of gender.

These may be narrow, and socio-political, categories, but the fact that the organizers and juries are up-front about their purpose helps them build a community willing to ensure sustainability.

The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall is an excellent book, but appealed to too niche an audience to get Hugo or Nebula consideration. By recognizing The Carhullan Army, the Otherwise Award fulfilled a purpose by helping the book find new audiences.

When starting a new award for science fiction or fantasy, members of the general fannish public will always wonder “why should I pay attention to this award, rather than to the more established awards?” Having a clear mandate helps answer this existential question.

Doing it well

An example of a new award that seems to have been set up for long-term success can be found in the IGNYTE Award. The award was founded in 2020 by editors of FIYAH Magazine to “celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscapes of science fiction, fantasy.” Between this statement and FIYAH Magazine’s mission to promote works by BIPOC creators, the award has a relatively clear mandate (and one that has historically been underserved by existing awards).

Additionally, the award founders provided a clear description of the selection process: a 15-person jury to create a short-list, followed by public voting. Given that this award has been around for less than a year, it’s impossible to say whether that process will be robust and consistent, but they have clearly put thought into the process, and how it will fulfill the award’s mandate.


All awards systems have their structural biases, and the collective biases of the people making the selections. This is unavoidable and obvious in all areas of creative output.

Awards systems are by their very nature political; it is an expression of power dynamics to elevate one work over another, even when those deciding what gets elevated are doing so in good faith. It is therefore important to recognize the difference between suggesting that an award “got it wrong” with a selection, and suggesting that the entire awards system is invalid.

It is easy to find several examples through the years of reactionary awards systems that were created in protest of the decision made by more prominent awards. When they’re created with integrity and honesty about the political motivations, more new awards can add a lot of value to the evolving conversation about genre works.

But when the creators of an award offer little more than a vague declaration that the mainstream awards “are broken,” one has to question the motivation.

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