Congrats to the 2019 World Fantasy Award Winners!

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Here’s something I meant to post a while back. I left a space for it and then didn’t get it posted. Since I’m running so far behind on it, I guess I should add some commentary to make reading it worthwhile.

First, the tie here in short fiction is interesting. This is a juried award, and there are 5 judges, which is supposed to mean there won’t be a tie. I read elsewhere that this was a unique situation, but actually there was a tie last year, too, in the Best Novel category. That means the results are a clue about how the judges come to a decision. It suggests that rather than blind ballot, the judges discuss the finalists and come to a consensus decision on who should be the winners. Not that this matters a whole lot, but it does offer some insight into their awards process. The end result ends up being fairly diverse, which suggests the judges took this into consideration.

Next, I don’t see much intersection between this award and the Dragons, even though the Dragons have 5 possibilities for a fantasy win. Presumably this is because the finalists in the Dragon’s didn’t submit to the (strongly literary) World Fantasy Award for consideration. I would have expected Little Darlings by Melanie Golding, for example, to compete well in the WFA.

Last, I’m glad to see Polk’s novel win a major award this year. Although her novel is low key and a fantasy romance, it still addressed some important social issues. I enjoyed her writing style, and I’ll try to get the sequel in the queue for a review when it’s released in February.

Interestingly, Barnes & Noble did a roundup of major awards (minus the Dragons) and pronounced The Calculating Stars: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor) the big winner this year with three awards, and Martha Wells and P. Djèlí Clark in a tie for second place with two awards each for Artificial Condition (Tor) and “The Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” (Fireside Magazine). That means science fiction did somewhat better than fantasy this year in these particular awards.

Anyhow, for anyone who hasn’t seen the list, here are the WFA winners:

Best Novel: Witchmark by C.L. Polk (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Novella: “The Privilege of the Happy Ending“ by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 8/18)

Best Short Fiction (tie): “Ten Deals with the Indigo Snake” by Mel Kassel (Lightspeed 10/18) and “Like a River Loves the Sky” by Emma Törzs (Uncanny 3-4/18)

Best Anthology: Worlds Seen in Passing, by Irene Gallo, ed. (Tor.com Publishing)

Best Collection: The Tangled Lands by Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias S. Buckell (Saga)

Best Artist: Rovina Cai

Special Award – Professional: Huw Lewis-Jones for The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands (University of Chicago Press)

Special Award – Non-Professional: Scott H. Andrews, for Beneath Ceaseless Skies

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?

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