What does “important” mean for lit awards?

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In his 2016 article for the Daily Beast, Tom Leclair indicates he thinks literary awards should be for works that are “the most ambitious and important nominee—a major work, wide-ranging in subject, ingenious in form, and profound in its treatment of…history.” This is an interesting philosophy, as it says nothing about the quality of the writing or the writer’s skill in putting the novel together. Additionally, Leclair suggests that popularity, or even likability, should not be important for choosing a winner.

This, of course, is a philosophy for judging great literature. Examples from the 20th century might include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Lord of the Flies and The Color Purple. These are all profound works, and everyone pretty much agrees on their landmark status. The question is, should this kind of philosophy apply to judging genre works, too?

Genre works like romance, mystery, science fiction and fantasy are splinters from mainstream literature that originally formed to tell entertaining stories—as popular fiction, in other words, without any ambition to become fine literature. Of course, some genre fiction was bound to become landmark works. The Lord of the Rings, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 come to mind.

Novels like this don’t come along every year, but you never know when one will break through into landmark status in a mainstream literary sense. So, do the SFWA professionals look for these “important” works for the Nebula Award?

Leclair goes on in his article to suggest we’re really better off not knowing what goes on behind the scenes of a literary prize. We’re assuming the SFWA members take their responsibility for the Nebula seriously, read all the works on the ballot (or at least critical reviews), and avoid voting on things like name recognition, friendship or reputation of the publisher.

What about this year’s winners make them important for the SFF genre?

Review of “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Clarkesworld Magazine in April 2016.

Aliens have arrived. The people of Earth can tell because pearly domes have appeared out of nowhere. The domes sit there for a while, and then open to release translators, apparently abducted children, who assure the authorities that the aliens don’t want anything. Avery is a driver who gets a call from her boss asking if she will drive an alien and his translator from D.C. to St. Louis on a converted tour bus. She takes the job and picks the two of them up. There’s no rush, so she takes the scenic route, stopping here and there and getting to know Lionel, the translator. He’s strange, as is his connection with the alien. When the alien turns out to be dying, they make a stop at a cemetery outside St. Louis.

On the pro side, this story is really science fiction, as it wouldn’t work if the alien wasn’t there. Plus, it’s thoughtful and absorbing. This is a real alien, not some anthropomorphic creature that’s sort of like humans, and its alien quality leaves Avery investigating the very nature of consciousness. The story moves smoothly through the Eastern US, trailing men in black, and ends with an interesting twist.

On the con side, the characters don’t quite ring true. We meet Avery’s brother at the beginning, but he doesn’t give me the impression of Avery that her bio later reveals. For that matter, Avery as revealed by her thoughts and actions doesn’t match the bio. Gilman’s effort for an emotional outpouring at the end doesn’t quite ring true for me, and I don’t see any motivation for Avery’s final decision. This is also a bit low on description—I ended up without much idea of what Avery looks like, for example, or the layout of the bus. Regardless of these drawbacks, I like this one because of the central question about consciousness.

Four and a half stars.

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?

Has the Hugo Turned into an Affirmative Action Award?

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Another point that came up during the recent discussion at File 770 was how the Hugo Award winners are now regarded. There was commentary on this well before the 2016 awards cycle. For example, various bloggers have noted that the awards are increasingly dominated by women and minorities. In 2015 Brad Torgersen posted his  view of this trend, which is that the Hugos are being used as an “affirmative action award”. For anyone vague on what that means, affirmative action is defined as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination.” The fact that anyone sees it this way is another suggestion (see previous blog) that the award voting has become politically motivated. Of course, any reasonable exchange on the idea is impossible. As one poster at File 770 noted, it is “inherently racist” to discuss the results in this way.

This is not to suggest that the winning works are not deserving. The makeup of the SFF community has clearly changed over the more than a century that SFF has been recognized as a genre. This means that readers’ tastes have changed, as well. I tend to lean progressive, and I love the interesting and creative elements that diverse authors bring to the genre. I reviewed all the winners this year and pointed out deserving elements well before the awards were given (as well as undeserving ones). However, the political squabble tends to obscure the positives. For an idea of how the response to this year’s awards went, check this exchange on Twitter.

Because of the virulence of the politics, no one these days can be sure whether they’ve won a Hugo Award based on the quality of the works or because of the politics. It looks to be a damaging experience. The Twitter exchange is another example of Internet bullying of someone who had little to do with allocation of the awards. Regardless of the Hugo committee’s efforts, you have to admit the Puppies are now right about a taint in the awards system.

Note: Mike Glyer has asked me to note that discussions that take place at File 770 don’t necessarily represent his personal views.

A little background on gatekeepers

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I went in search of background on editors as gatekeepers in the science fiction and fantasy field and came up with an interesting text. This is Inside Science Fiction (2006) by SF writer, editor and SFWA Grand Master James E. Gunn. Gunn started writing science fiction in 1949, so he’s seen quite a bit of water flow under the bridge.

Anyhow, Gunn has a chapter in his book titled “Gatekeepers.” He reviews the history of pulp SF magazines, mentioning Hugo Gernsback, Anthony Boucher, H.L. Gold and John W. Campbell as early gatekeeping editors who shaped the definition and direction of science fiction by what they accepted. According to Gunn, SF magazines flowered until about the mid-1950s when they started to die back a bit, impacted by the pressure of novels. This declining trajectory was jolted in 1964 when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine. Moorcock, Gunn thinks, was the “last gatekeeper” for SFF magazines because he threw the doors open wide. This let in a lot of what would have been unacceptable just a few years before, such as anti-heroes, and eventually, New Wave science fiction.

So who are the gatekeepers now? Gunn thinks competition in the marketplace means that individual magazine editors have very little influence on the overall direction of SFF. One reason for this is the sheer volume of material that’s being published, and another is the huge popularity of novels. In the mid-1950s, the advent of the science fiction novel meant that book publishers took over the major role of shaping SFF. However, Jeff Bezos came along in 2009 and shattered that structure with the launch of Amazon’s publishing business.

The huge impact of free and easy self-publishing on the marketplace means there’s a certain amount of chaos out there. You can see from the published figures that submissions for some magazines run into the thousands every month. This means that slush-pile readers are the main gatekeepers for the major publications. Anything they think is interesting gets passed along to the next level, until it’s ultimately added to the body of published work—or not. Noted writers might circumvent this stumbling block by going direct to the top level, but most writers can’t do that.

Nick Cole’s story shows that novel editors still feel very secure in their long-running role as gatekeepers for what’s acceptable and what’s transgressive in the genre. To the list of current gatekeepers, I think you also have to add the nebulous groups the Puppies are accusing of influence on the major awards. Otherwise, why is there such a huge contrast between the Nebula and Dragon Award finalists?

Hm.

Worldviews and gatekeepers

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A couple of blogs ago, I reviewed Cecily Kane’s article in Fireside Magazine and asked if the publication rate for black authors was really evidence of racism in SFF publication. Whatever the answer, the immediate result of Kane’s article seems to have been that African American Nebula/Hugo Award finalist N.K. Jemisin was suddenly inundated by solicitations for stories.

Jemisin went on to provide an interview for Kane that’s linked to the Fireside article. Jemisin suggests that submissions from black writers to SFF publication might actually be lower than expected because there is a strong self-publishing market for black authors. This grew up in the 1990s when traditional publishers were slow to accept black interest fiction. Now, black writers have to make a choice about whether to submit to a traditional market or self-publish, and many decide to go the direct route and not wait through the slush pile for a rejection slip.

Jemisin also comments on the market forces that constrain black writers to write for mainstream interests. She notes she was 30 years old before she felt confident about writing black characters into her fiction. Because POC try to suit the market, she says, bias becomes self-perpetrating.

In an associated article, Justina Ireland addresses the question of quality as an excuse from publishers. “I’d love to acquire more authors from [marginalized group],” she quotes, “but the stories I get just aren’t of a very good quality!” She then notes that quality often has to do with taste and bias. Anyone who’s been following the recent Puppy activism can probably relate to that.

Jemisin’s interview and associated comments on Twitter also attracted attention from the Puppy camp. “…the Sad Puppies are the bad ones here, but I note that NK Jemsin’s complaint is the same one: GATE KEEPERS,” says the Phantom Soapbox.

What does the idea have to do with story length?

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Are some ideas worth a full-length novel and some not? Are some best for a flash fiction piece and some for a fully developed short story? What does it take to flesh out an idea and make it worthy of an 800 page novel?

It’s clear that “What if the moon blew up?” is a popular question right now. I’ve seen it in several places in the last couple of years. One was last year’s short story “Goodnight Stars” by Annie Bellet, who withdrew it from the 2015 list of Hugo finalists. This is also the question that generated this year’s hard SF blowout Seveneves. It also appears this will become an issue in N.K Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series that The Fifth Season kicked off. It’s a popular idea because it’s a weighty, catastrophic event that opens up a lot of scenarios. You can expand it to different lengths without much trouble, from short-short to an 800 page novel.

Regardless of whether you’ve come up with a weighty, catastrophic idea, though, you have to have the skill to keep the narrative of your story running and interesting enough that the reader will 1) keep reading and 2) enjoy the book enough to buy your next one. Clearly, this gets harder as the story gets longer. The author has to be able to manage the complexity of different characters and their subplots, besides the issues of world-building and technical accuracy, plus keeping a finger on the pacing and how the story develops. Readability is important for customer satisfaction, so the end result needs to be understandable and entertaining. It would also help if people like at least some of your characters.

Is there a most comfortable length for a book? Patricia Briggs, I notice, cuts her best-seller urban fantasy books off at about 350 pages. This is quite a bit shorter than what I’ve been reading for the awards, and it feels like a comfortable length. Normally Briggs had plenty of space to use on the characters and their relationships. It allows for plot development, along with whatever subplots she might have going on. However, it doesn’t require a huge idea and doesn’t drag the story out to the point where she’s having a hard time sustaining it; for example, having to add filler material, or where she’s losing control of the interactions, pacing and theme. I can read a book like that in a couple of evenings. It feels good.

Quality vs. Quantity

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On 9/13 Lorraine Wilke published an essay on The Huffington Post about quantity vs. quality in independent publishing called “Dear Self-Published Author: Do NOT Write Four Books a Year.” The title pretty much summarizes what she has to say.

There are folks out there who recommend to independent authors that the best way to make money through your writing is to be prolific. The reason for this is that independent authors don’t have the publicity and distribution network big publishers have. You have to write enough to establish a definite brand for yourself and to keep afloat in the flood of content that’s now available at Amazon, for example. This rate sacrifices some in quality, of course, especially on the editing and revision side, but if you look at benefit vs. costs, you can find a balance that suits your fans while costing you the least in time and money. This business plan works for some authors, but Wilke is complaining about the decline in quality this causes.

This is an interesting article, falling as it does on the heels of the Hugo kerfluffle. Quality is one of the issues discussed there, as the Sad/Rabid Puppies have been complaining about the Hugo’s becoming literary awards and leaving behind the average writer who is only aiming at satisfying his or her fans and making a living at it. There’s been something of a firestorm in the comments section of Wilke’s essay, too, as various independent authors have checked in with their opinions. One writer notes she publishes 10 novels a year. This kind of productivity isn’t really anything new. Stephen King, for example, is known for being a very fast writer. Pulp mystery writer Mickey Spillane could reportedly write a novel in two days. Both these writers had editors to clean up after them, of course, which is where the current difference lies.

I have to say I’m with Wilke to a point. I’m not expecting to read a Pulitzer Prize winner every time out, but I do appreciate it when authors spend some time or money on getting their manuscripts edited. All books have an error or two, but I’m unfortunately a little OCD about grammar. Where are my meds?

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