The Pressures for Diversity

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In the last blog, I mentioned how the pressure for diversity might influence literary awards. I had a couple of interesting experiences related to the awards cycle this year. First of all, I mentioned the exceptionally high level of diversity among the 2017 Nebula Awards finalists to a friend, and she said “Well, a committee did that.” It’s definitely a cynical viewpoint—she’s suggesting that the list of finalist is manipulated to produce the kind of diversity expected. It also suggests that the public at large is growing more skeptical of the awards results—you have to admit there are a lot of pressures on awards organizations these days to produce a diverse slate. The other experience is related to this.

A small SFF organization I’m a member of made an effort this year to exclude awards nominations they felt had drifted too far outside the speculative fiction genre. There was a challenge related to one exclusion, followed by a squabble about whether the organization was truly recognizing diversity. This was followed by a private discussion where management tried to decide how to proceed. The consensus was that once a diversity challenge has been raised, then the work has to be accepted; plus, the organization is likely to look bad if it doesn’t win. The entry went on to win the award.

I just happened to be lurking in the background and caught this particular discussion, but it’s a real eye-opener about what may actually go on in the awards process. I can’t complain about this particular winner. It was at least marginally speculative fiction, and it was well-written and deserving. However, I’m left with the question of whether it won because of its quality, or because the organization was pressured into 1) accepting it and 2) promoting it to win because of the complaints about diversity.

This is just one example of what can affect an award. What other kinds of pressures exist out there? Commercialism? Powerful publishers? Pleasing the public? And another question–does this kind of pressure for diversity also affect publishing?

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Review of Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

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One good thing about the cross-over between Nebula and Hugo finalists is that it cuts down on the amount of reading I have to do to review all the candidates. I’ve already finished all the other Hugo contenders in the novella category, so this will close it out. The listed publisher for Bujold’s novel is Spectrum Literary Agency. (Penric’s Demon says this same thing. I gather she self-published.)

Four years after the events of Penric’s Demon, Penric has been hastily educated and is living in the palace of the Princess-Archdivine. He has come to terms with his demon Desdemona and is respectably installed as a divine of the Bastard’s Order. However, his scholarly work is interrupted by the arrival of a Locator of the Father’s Order who is trying to capture a shaman charged with murder. Because magic is involved, the Archdivine assigns Penric to accompany the Locator. Once they get close to their quarry in the mountains, they find all is not as it seemed, and Penric needs all of his skills and talent to deal with the situation.

This novella has many of the same good points that Penric’s prior adventure had. It’s apparently young adult and is a smooth, easy read, well-plotted, with good characterization, good imagery, etc. etc. etc. Bujold is a professional, after all. The story is an entertaining tale, but this one didn’t grip me quite the way Penric’s Demon did. It reads more like a straightforward supernatural mystery, and lacks the depth that Penric’s symbolic marriage to Desdemona gave the first installment. It doesn’t develop quite the same drama, either.

Three and a half stars.

Why Are Literary Awards so Popular?

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A recent article by Deborah Cohen cites James English The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. According to English, the number of literary awards has more than doubled in the UK since 1988 and tripled in the US since 1976. Not all these are for SFF, of course. Some of them are big competitions for national recognition and some are only small prizes for local authors. Still, there’s been that explosion. So why are awards so popular?

The answer appears to be economics, which is the answer to a lot of questions about human behavior, i.e. there’s money tied up in the awards process. First of all, many of the prizes charge an entry fee, which means it’s a money-making proposition for the organization offering the award. The Newbery is free. The Pulitzer charges $50. But other smaller contests often have higher fees. The Florida Authors and Publishers Association, for example, charges $75 for members and $85 for non-members to enter their contest. These small organizations tend to cater to independent publishers and authors who hope to gain some of the advantages a literary award can offer, meaning you can add “prize-winning author” to your bio.

The second way money enters the equation is that the more prestigious awards generally give a big boost to the winner’s sales. There are press releases and a big awards ceremony and a sticker that goes on the books so book stores can set up displays. This means it’s important for an award to become prestigious so it can influence sales, and important for big publishers to control the prestigious awards, if at all possible. There are pressures, and corruption may creep in. For example, recently published diaries of a former French literary judge apparently allege that the French publishing houses illegally influence the major awards. Accordingly, the three biggest publishing houses always win the biggest prizes for their authors.

Because of the prestige and sales that well-known awards can provide, there are other pressures, as well. Readers might recall that the lack of recognition for popular literature is one of the Sad/Rabid Puppy complaints. Underrepresented groups of authors lobby for recognition, and diversity in particular has recently become a point of contention. An interesting question: Does more diversity in the awards lead to more diversity in the publishing industry?

2017 Nebula Winners

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I’m running way behind on my commentary, so I’m sure everyone has seen the Nebula results by now. If any readers have somehow missed them, here they are:

BEST NOVEL
All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
BEST NOVELLA
Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
BEST NOVELETTE
“The Long Fall Up,” William Ledbetter (F&SF)
BEST SHORT STORY
“Seasons of Glass and Iron,” Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)

A quick review of news articles on the winners shows mention of the high diversity in the nominations this year. This comes through in the results, too. It’s good to see a hard SF story represented—Ledbetter’s “The Long Fall Up.” These are all deserving, and many congrats to the winners!

Review of This Census-Taker by China Miéville

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I’ve been shoveling out from under a pile of work, and still assembling thoughts on the Nebula selections. Meanwhile, here’s a review of one of the Hugo Finalist (next on my agenda). This novella was recommended by Vox Day, and got an extra shove into the finalist position from the Rabid Puppies. It was published by Del Rey/Picador.

A man looks back on his childhood. The boy lives with his mother and father in a hillside home far above the town. The family is isolated, and the boy plays by himself. His mother tends a garden, and his father makes keys with magical properties for various clients. The boy begins to realize that his father kills things, and eventually thinks he has killed his mother. He flees to the town and is taken in by orphans. The town authorities investigate his story, but find no proof. There is a letter, apparently written by his mother, that says she is leaving. Trapped, the boy turns to a passing census taker for help.

This is not terribly gripping, but it is eerie and atmospheric, very artistic in effect. The story is pretty much all suggestion. There are events—the village people and the orphan children are definitely real—but we get this filtered through the narrator’s memories of childhood. In some cases the man is uncertain what really happened, which makes the reader start to wonder if he is a reliable narrator. In a few cases there are weird images that persist for a while, that may or may not be explained. I gather this is called “The New Weird.” I also gather that Miéville is known for his odd ideas, just dropped in passing. Watch for the census taker’s gun in this case. I’m not sure whether to take it as a symbol in the story or not. A comment on statistical methods, maybe?

Best read if you enjoy the author’s style. It gets a little extra for being artistic. Four stars.

Review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

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This novel is a 2016 Nebula finalist published by Solaris. The 2016 Nebula Reading List is down, but the Waybackmachine suggests this one had 7 recommendations, and like Everfair, came from behind. The novel is also a Hugo finalist.

Kel Cheris is an infantry captain who is surprised to recognize heresy in a battle with the Eels. She disgraces herself by altering formation equations to match the heresies and finds this brings her to the attention of Kel Command. Calendrical rot threatens the hexarchate, and because of her mathematical and leadership abilities, she will be part of a force launched against the Fortress of Scattered Needles, center of the rot. When asked to choose a weapon, she chooses the dead traitor-general, Shuos Jedao. Attached to his ghost, she goes into battle against the heretics and finds all is not as she has been told.

Cons: Lee doesn’t cut the reader a lot of slack here. This is complex, and I ended up having to go back to read some of the set up again once I knew who the important characters were. It’s a space opera, of course, and fairly violent. Millions of people die. Because of the mass slaughter, I learned early on not to get really attached to any of these characters.

Pros: Lee doesn’t cut the reader a lot of slack here. I love complex stuff. There’s a philosophical question underneath all this, as the hexarchate seems based on consensual reality. The story is beautifully plotted, with a long, slow set up as the main characters play cat-and-mouse games with one another over a span of centuries. Besides having a strong plot, a strong action line and a twist ending, this also has excellent characterization and imagery. The descriptions of exotic effects and even quiet moments when the wind blows and the light shimmers are very well done. It’s not without humor, either. Lee makes even minor characters live with a snippet of internal dialog, and then kills them off in imaginative ways. I think I’m going to have to read the sequel, and maybe the related Tor.com novella, too.

Four and a half stars.

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