The value of science fiction awards

It’s Worldcon weekend, which means that the Hugo award winners have been announced – congratulations to all who picked one up, and commiserations to those who did not. I’m going to take this opportunity, however, to ask a topical question – do awards like the Hugos really mean anything, from the point of view of the average reader?

Obviously, winning a Hugo (or a Nebula, or a Tiptree) is massively important to an author, artist or editor. It’s that highest of accolades – the acclaim and admiration of your peers, of those who understand the trials and tribulations of your craft, who appreciate your work in the context of the other work done in the field, and who treat the genre with the seriousness that any professional treats their profession.

Furthermore, an award brings increased profile, the chance of continuing career longevity thanks to acclaim and increased visibility – and (probably most importantly) a completely justifiable and well deserved ego-boost; a tangible recognition that all those years of work have been vindicated as not only worthwhile but exemplary, and a justification for carrying on in what is quite probably one of the hardest and loneliest career paths there is in the world.

And this is as it should be.

But what about Johnny Public? To make myself absolutely clear here, I’m not talking about people with serious (or even irreverent) fannish involvement in the genre. I’m talking about the vast silent majority of genre readers who buy the books and read them, but who don’t buy magazines or small-press titles, don’t attend cons, and don’t read obscure genre-related websites such as this one. Are industry awards of any consequence to them whatsoever? If not, should they be?

Until comparatively recently, I *was* Johnny Public. I chose my books the same way everyone else chooses them – I went to the library or bookstore, grabbed the ones that caught my eye, scanned the blurb, and took my chances. In my dark years of wilful stupidity (and corresponding poverty) my choices were restricted to what was available in second-hand shops or the bookshelves of friends, but the same process still applied. I went for the ones that either looked like “my sort of thing” (an admittedly nebulous concept), or that had a blurb that sounded like a story I’d enjoy reading. The recommendations of fellow readers had a large part to play as well.

I was not “on the scene”. I wasn’t following the new writers coming up through the ranks of the magazines and small presses. I wasn’t reading reviews of new novels or anthologies. I wasn’t scouting ahead in any way whatsoever. I’d see things like “three times Hugo Award nominee” or “winner of the Nebula Award for short fiction” on some of the books I picked up and took home, but by no means all. And they were almost never a guiding factor in swaying my choice of whether to read the book or not.

Granted, this may not be everyone’s experience. Maybe, as consumers, some people are more influenced by such things. Personally, I think I was inoculated against it by years of subscribing to musical subcultures – any serious teenage rock fan knows that public acclaim (e.g. the music charts) is no guarantee of quality, and certainly has no bearing on whether or not you will like the piece of work in question – for me, in fact, something making it into the charts was taken as a label of instant naff-ness, and woe betide an act I’d previously loved suddenly making it into the top twenty. Sell-outs!

Obviously, my attitudes to music have mellowed somewhat over the years (though not completely, by all means). But the deeper I get into the genre fiction world, the more attention I pay to awards. In many ways, it’s a requirement – I’m a reviewer now, I have to know what’s happening in the scene, who the movers and shakers are, who are the lofty figures that the hungry new writers seek to emulate and be inspired by. Industry awards in science fiction, much like their equivalents in subgenres of music, are important barometers for someone intimately involved with the scene in question.

But they still don’t influence my choice of reading material a great deal (when a personal choice is available to me, that is) – certainly nowhere near as much as the recommendation and acclaim of other readers whose opinions I trust. For example, I made a point of reading (and indeed reviewing) Geoff Ryman’s Air after it swept up an armful of awards, but not because of those awards; because of the glowing praise heaped upon it by everyone I spoke to about it.

One could argue that these are one and the same thing – after all, most awards are voted for by readers. But they are voted on by readers who are deeply involved in the scene, not people who “just like to read science fiction” The “votes” of those people can be seen in the Amazon sales rankings and bestseller lists, and there is rarely a concurrence between the two – at least not until after the increased publicity that an award win produces has time to filter out.

Furthermore, personal taste may not always concur with industry acclaim or public popularity. I read and reviewed M. M. Buckner’s War Surf for Interzone, and found it to be an interesting idea that was somewhat held back by a very slow start to the story and a lead character whom it was impossible to really care about. My opinion obviously had no effect at all on the jurors of the Philip K. Dick award which Buckner earned for the book. Was my review wrong? I don’t think so; I called it how I saw it, and I like to think I was objective and fair in doing so. Were the jurors wrong? Of course not, for exactly the same reasons.

I am in no way trying to claim that awards like the Hugos are valueless – they most certainly are not. What I am trying to say is that, as indicators of whether a book is going to be enjoyed by a potential buyer or not, they are virtually useless. They may well have an influence on the buying habits of the serious fan reader, but such a fan is already going to have some idea of the landscape upon which the monoliths of awards are raised – and it’s a damned busy landscape, too.

But to Joe Public, browsing the shelves at Ottakar’s, the only effect an award win will have is increasing the likelihood of him actually spotting that author’s work on the shelves. He probably won’t know (or care) why that book made it into the face-on stock list – and unless there’s some fairly serious signage promoting the book’s recent award-based acclaim, he’s not even going to notice the “Hugo Award winner” line until he’s already decided to pick the book up and read the blurb. How much of an effect it will have on the buyer (who, as a part of a derided-by-the-mainstream subculture, is aware that consensus acclaim has little bearing on whether or not he will like something) is debatable – I personally would argue “very little”.

So, am I trumpeting for some egalitarian dismantling of the awards systems? Of course not. A little competition is good for artists in the same way as it is for athletes, and awards provide nodes for the calendar events of fandom to accrete around (not to mention something to debate about over ale-fuelled con afternoons).

But I think it’s important to realise that a geek in a bookshop, with a rumpled tenner from a fortnight’s paper-rounds, is still going to grab the book that looks good, or has a hooky blurb, or has been recommended him by a friend (or ties in with his favourite TV series). An award may mean that the book in question has a greater chance of being in the line-up of choices, but little else. The true meaning of awards is only apparent inside the industry to which they relate; to the world outside, they’re just a bunch of geeks and writers patting each others’ backs.

But what does the world outside know, eh? 😉

5 thoughts on “The value of science fiction awards”

  1. I agree…My own reading experiences with award-winning sf books are hit-and-miss. In no way are they in perfect alignment with my tastes. Since I tend to read a larger number of sf books than the average consumer, If I only read award-winners – and for the sake of argument, let’s only consider Hugos and Nebulas – I would soon run out of stuff to read. So, for me, award-wins are nice, but have little affect reading choices.

    I would think Joe Consumer is a bit different, though. He’s the guy looking for guidance on what to read. He reads maybe 6 – 10 books a year and doesn’t want to waste time on the dregs. He will use the “Award-Winner” marketing blurb as a beacon to “the good stuff” and then (probably) judge the rest of the field on it: “This is the best they have to offer?”

    Then there are those who make it their goal to read all the award-winners. That’s not a bad reading project. It’s more appealing to me (who has not read all the award-winners) way more than watching all the Academy Award-winning movies – which makes no comparative sense, I know. Maybe that’s the sf fanboy in me coming to the fore.

    So, award wins do matter to the reader, methinks, depending on who that reader is.

  2. After being published by Macmillan I took more notice of awards and started buying books on the award shortlists. I found the experience disappointing and now rather regard those lists, along with the criticisms of many self-styled SF academics, as a guide to what I should avoid. It seems the label ‘literature

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