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A Comparison of Two Complaints: The Hugo Awards vs The Clarke Awards

With the announcement of the Clarke Award shortlist closely following that of this year’s Hugo nominees, award kvetching season is well underway. For a great round-up of the discussions on both awards, I recommend Cora Buhlert’s posts here and here. In the comments to my post last week (where I wondered about the Hugo Awards’ purpose and audience) I claimed that a juried award (such as the Clarke Award) is likely to:

…give rise to a different kind of debate than that which the Hugos gives us every year. There would be less debating the process and more debating the judgment. Debate wouldn’t be lesser – if anything, I suspect it would be even more strident and vocal…But the focus of the debate would be more on the merits of one work over another, helping to push the genre in new directions.

The Clarke Award is the kind of juried award that we were discussing. And this year’s Clarke shortlist is certainly sparking some controversy. Considering my essay last week, I think it would be interesting to compare the controversy elicited by the Clarke and compare it to that of the Hugos.

The Many Layers of the Hugo Awards Controversy

As always, the Hugo Awards Controversy is like an onion (or possibly a parfait) with many layers. Some of the objections relate to the merits of the nominated works (why this book and not that book?). Some relate to a perception of systemic bias (why books by these groups, rather than books by those groups?). Others focus on the systems and processes which produce the nominees (why this procedural rule, and not that rule?). Underlying all of these questions is a question which I see repeated time and again in these discussions (and which I personally think is most important for the Hugos going forward, as I intimated last week): what community does the Hugo Awards truly represent, speak to, and serve?

As I’ve said before, I think that such questions and discussion are both unavoidable and healthy for the field. What I find striking about the Hugo Award controversy is the degree to which it focuses on systems and procedures. When we claim that the “Hugos are broken” we are indicting both the system that governs it and the fan culture which produces and maintains that system. Whether one agrees with that indictment or not, it is the system which has been indicted – not the works eligible, voted upon, or nominated.

Where the Hugo discussion has gone beyond the systems/procedures, it has turned its attention to the culture which administers and awards the Hugo Awards (particularly note the discussion by Renay at Lady Business here and Jonathan McCalmont here). And here, I think, is where the discussion becomes most contentious.

The contention here centers around the different participants’ often unstated assumptions about the Hugo Awards’ purpose (see my essay last week, and Paul Kincaid’s essay from Sunday), and about the population represented by the Hugo Awards. The disagreement between “online fandom” and “traditional fandom,” as evidenced in the comments to Jonathan McCalmont’s post, is illuminating.

How does this controversy differ from that surrounding this year’s Clarke Awards?

The Men’s Only Clarke Award Shortlist

First, the important context: the Clarke Awards are a juried award with a remit to select the best British science fiction novel in a given year from submissions received from genre imprints. This year’s five-person jury was composed of four women and one man, and had to select the shortlist from 82 eligible submissions. This year’s controversy stems from the fact that the Clarke Award shortlist features six novels written by men and precisely zero written by women.

What I find particularly interesting about the controversy surrounding this year’s Clarke Award shortlist is that opprobrium is clearly not focused on the administrative system which produced the shortlist. Instead, the grousing can generally be grouped into three broad categories: the first focuses on the merits of shortlisted works (why this work and not that work?), the second focuses on the publishing system which produced the longlist (why were only 20% of the books submitted by publishers written by women?), and the third focuses on the arguments underlying the jury’s selection (by what criteria was the shortlist selected?).

The fact that UK speculative fiction publishing seems to discriminate against women authors is notable, and worthy of discussion. The “controversy” that arises from this year’s Clarke Award does well to shed light on this fact, and to hopefully encourage publishers, authors, booksellers, and readers to change that (consider this comment from Farah Mendlesohn on the role of booksellers in this process, and this post from Martin Lewis about Clarke Award statistics). The Clarke Award also raises troubling questions for speculative fiction publishing across the pond (or quite frankly anywhere) in terms of our own (often troubled) relationship with gender. Any introspection that results from such controversy is valuable in that it fosters greater inclusion in the field while simultaneously presenting the field as mature and introspective.

The debates sparked by the Clarke Award are entirely different in both tone and content from those surrounding the Hugo Awards. For one, there seems to be both less defensiveness on the part of award stakeholders and less frustration on the part of the complainers. For another, the discussion is devoid of procedural or representational concerns. The concerns of this debate are: the criteria by which works get judged, the definition of the field, and the biases inherent in that underlying field.

What the Difference in Debates Suggests

For one, I think it bears out my prediction from last week (quoted above). The Clarke Award focuses attention on the field in a way that the Hugo Awards do not. The Hugo Awards focus our attention on the cultural and procedural intricacies of fandom. To be clear, I do not advocate replacing the Hugo Award with a juried award (that would be both impossible and I believe impractical). Both have their place, and both are valuable.

However, if the goal of either the Hugo or the Clarke is to select the “most worthy” titles from the field and to communicate their worth to stakeholders inside and outside of that field, then I think the Hugo Award falls short. As I discussed last week, the Hugo Awards seem to have become largely irrelevant outside of a very narrow group of stakeholders. The Clarke Award – by contrast – evokes the envy of Man Booker Prize judges.

Both awards are problematic, and both awards generate controversy. This is as it should be. But if we love speculative fiction, where would we rather that controversy were focused? On award procedures, representativeness, and factionalism? Or on the merits, substance, and sociocultural context of the work itself? What conclusions might an outsider peeking in at these debates draw about our field? Would they want to join the conversation? Would they perceive speculative fiction as mature, welcoming, and culturally relevant?

That outsider perspective matters. It is tempting for us to hole up in our fandom bunker and make the claim that those who wish to join the conversation are welcome to do so. That is a defensive, passive position that demands an acceptance of pre-existing power structures, in-group language (fen? GAFIATING?), long-standing relationship dynamics, and procedural inertia. It has nothing of outreach to it.

If we want the field to grow, if we want new voices, new perspectives, and new buyers readers fans, then we must speak to those outside groups. We must woo booksellers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, creators, and readers. Awards are a tool (one of many) for doing this, and traditional awards like the Hugos are exceptionally well-positioned through their longevity and standing in the field to do this job well.

But is that what the Hugo Awards are for? A comparison of the stated goals of both the Hugo Awards and the Clarke Award are telling in this regards (emphasis mine):

The Clarke Award

The Award was originally established by a generous grant from Sir Arthur C. Clarke with the aim of promoting science fiction

The Clarke Award web site.
The Hugo Awards
(no stated goal or mission) The Hugo Award web site, in particular:

If the goal of the Hugo Awards is to celebrate and promote the field, then let us try and move the discussion forward by engaging in a discussion of how best to do so. Parliamentary procedures and governance structures are an important part of this discussion, but perforce the time to discuss their role comes after a consensus has been reached on shared goals. If we can’t agree on where to go, how are we to figure out the route to get there?

The Clarke Awards – for all of their controversy – at the least have a clearly articulated mission that is unquestioned by those within and without the community. The Hugo Awards don’t even have that. If the goal of the Hugo Awards isn’t to celebrate and promote the field, then please let us stop pretending to ourselves that it is. By maintaining the pretense, we do current fans, the artists, and future fans a disservice.

Most significantly, we likely consign the Awards to cultural irrelevance.

REVIEW: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre by Tzvetan Todorov

Title: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Author: Tzvetan Todorov
Pub Date: 1970 (French)
1975 (English)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A relevant exploration of a narrow sub-genre within fantasy, applicable beyond its borders.

Happy New Year! Now that the formalities are out of the way, I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you what I did between Christmas and New Year’s: In addition to remodeling our library, and turning our dining room into a library annex, I also spent the week slowly and carefully reading Tzvetan Todorov’s classic book of genre criticism, appropriately titled The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Of course, I’d read about Todorov many times before. I’d even read a couple essays he’d written (I particularly recommend his typology of detective fiction). But I figured that it was best to see for myself what he had to say. And though in the end I was very satisfied, this book really defied my expectations.

The book’s title is misleading. From the adjective-cum-noun “Fantastic” it is a short leap to the modern genre of “fantasy” – and so when I first bought the book, I expected to find a master critic expressing his own Unified Theory of Fantasy, like a Northrup Frye or a Wayne Booth for the speculative genre (for two excellent analyses more in this vein, I recommend Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy). Instead, Todorov uses a much narrower interpretation of fantasy, placing it on a spectrum between stories where ostensibly supernatural events are explained through rational means (which he calls the “uncanny”) and stories where supernatural events are shown to actually be supernatural (which he calls the “marvelous”).

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

To put it another way, Todorov’s uncanny stories are Scooby Doo episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are ostensibly beyond mortal ken (ghosts, monsters, strange worlds, etc.). But by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences are explained away in a naturalistic and rational fashion, thus erasing the supernatural from the story. It’s like Old Man Withers being unmasked by the gang. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Todorov’s “marvelous” stories are Buffy episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are beyond mortal ken, but by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences can only be explained by an acceptance of their supernatural reality. Todorov’s “fantastic” genre, however, is the Twilight Zone: neither the characters nor the reader is ever really certain whether the supernatural events are to be accepted.

This is a much narrower definition of “the fantastic” than “fantasy” would imply. It excludes almost all secondary world fantasy, and almost all science fiction. Even most wainscot fantasies would fall into Todorov’s “marvelous” camp. Which is a shame, because anything beyond his narrowly defined borders gets brushed off as beyond the scope of his analysis.

The first half of The Fantastic is an interesting, if dry, exercise in critical philosophy and semantic hair-splitting. He defines what he means by the fantastic, and provides a definite set of criteria for use in its identification. Given my (incorrect) expectations, the book initially frustrated me. I wanted to gleam sweeping insights with applicability across a broad swathe of fantasy titles and sub-genres. Todorov’s painstakingly detailed definition of “hesitation” or what I would call ambiguity: the uncertainty felt by the character and the reader as to their implied frame of reference for experiencing the story. According to Todorov, if a story has no ambiguity, then by definition it falls outside the bounds of his fantastic. Now, I love ambiguous stories. But most fantasy, and most science fiction, eschews the degree of ambiguity described by Todorov. Let’s face it: there are few Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever or There Are Doors out there.

Yet once Todorov establishes his definitions, he begins to dissect his ambiguous stories in much more painstaking detail, parsing their themes and structures. And here, The Fantastic becomes a treasure trove of insight. The conclusions Todorov draws regarding the fantastic are not, in fact, particularly interesting. They may be thought provoking, but they have limited applicability beyond his caged genre, and furthermore I suspect his reliance on the psychoanalytic school of criticism ignores too many other factors. Yet the techniques that Todorov applies, independent of the genre against which they are applied, are quite impressive.

In a very real sense, Todorov draws the treasure map to a very narrow sub-genre. But by doing so, he shows us how to draw such maps for any other genre in existence. I wish that Todorov had taken the trouble to do the same for both his uncanny and marvelous genres. But the process of structural analysis that he applied to his ambiguous stories can just as readily be applied to secondary world fantasy, portal/quest fantasies, wainscot fantasies, liminal fantasies, intrusion fantasies, and all the rest. And that is why this book remains significant: on the one hand, it adds to our critical toolkit, and by using much-analyzed “classic” texts of the Gothic age, it helps to bring the tools of genre criticism into the “respectable” light of academia.

In that sense, later critics like Farah Mendlesohn or Brian Attebery both benefited from Todorov’s work. On the one hand, they apply to a broader body of work the universal techniques that Todorov pioneered. And on the other hand, they benefit from the fact that Todorov dragged ghosts and demons into the light of critical respectability.

All in all, this is a book on criticism well worth reading. But not for its conclusions: more for its methods.

Negotiating the Borders of Intimacy and Imagination: Romance and Fantasy

Last week, I came across Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Big Love Sci-Fi series of blog posts (part 1, part 2, and part 3). I had been thinking about how romance, sexual tension, and emotional intimacy is built and maintained in books, and so her suggestion that romance in fiction is actually a negotiation of the borders of intimacy particularly struck me. As I thought about it some more, I realized that in some ways the romance genre and fantasy are analogous. If romance derives its power from the borders of intimacy, then fantasy builds its sense of wonder from negotiating the borders of imagination.

Borders of Intimacy: A Framework for Thinking about Romance

Romance may well be the oldest genre in existence. Since before the written word, stories and myths were full of love, sex, and betrayal. And why not? It’s fun! It grabs our attention, focuses our minds, and gets our hearts racing. What’s not to like? Artists have known for millenia that sex sells, but the methods by which it’s portrayed are culturally dependent.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice manages romantic/sexual tension very differently from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Guilty Pleasures. 19th century readers had different standards of intimacy: the kind of hot-and-heavy sex scenes we take for granted today would have been off limits back then. Even more graphic 17th century romances like Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess; or, the Fatal Enquiry (which was called pornographic when first published) lack the overtly-described throbbing body parts of today’s sex scenes. Despite the changing standards of intimacy, romances from Ovid to Danielle Steele engage us by bringing characters to an emotional precipice, and then having them finally plunge over it.

The Facets of Intimacy in Romance

An overly-simplistic view of romance says that it’s just sex. But Jacqueline is exactly right when she says that a sex scene lacking emotional depth is just boring. In western culture, the physical act of sex has always been used as a proxy for other intimacies:

Aspects of Intimacy

Aspects of Intimacy

Marriage (which traditionally precedes sex) represents a type of familial intimacy: one person’s family opens up and accepts a new member, or two families join. Probably the best example of this is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Of course, the two families alike in dignity reject that intimacy. But nonetheless, the underlying tension of that love story rests on Romeo and Juliet trying – and failing – to negotiate that familial intimacy. Here, death plays the role that sex often does: it represents the culmination and climax of their negotiation.

A different type of intimacy is the philosophical or worldview model that Austen nailed so perfectly: both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility deal with the protagonists adjusting how they perceive other characters. This is a philosophical intimacy, where the climax is the moment of acceptance rather than the moment of marriage (let alone sex). For Austen, sex – of course preceded by marriage – is in fact the denouement, never shown but instead implied by her heroes’ betrothal.

Spiritual intimacy between characters can likewise be negotiated. Unfortunately, I had some difficulty thinking of romances that deal with this facet of intimacy, but ultimately I think Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is probably the most succinct example. Dagny Taggart’s relationships with Hank Rearden, Francisco D’Anconia, and John Galt all oscillate around her most fundamental spiritual values. While Rand might well have spit nails to see those values described as spiritual, there is no change in Dagny’s philosophy over the course of her relationships. Instead, the climax of these relationships is her finding her idealized counterpart, the impossible superman who personifies her ideals. If we were to swap Rand’s Objectivism for any religion, the relationships would still function the same way (though the plot’s MacGuffins would not).

The Borders of Imagination and the Fantasy Spectrum

If the core of romance is characters negotiating the borders of their intimacy, then I suspect the core of fantasy might be negotiating the borders of the reader’s imagination. Love titillates us because it speaks to something deep within our hearts, touching on our innermost desires, exciting us with the promise of fulfillment. But intimacy doesn’t lurk alone in the deep, dark corners of our soul. It shares those caverns with our imagination.

A romance hinges on the borders of intimacy between the story’s characters. Typically, that intimacy is indelibly linked to the story’s plot. For example, the plot of Romeo and Juliet would fall to pieces without the Capulets and the Montagues. But fantasy’s relationship with imagination tends to be slightly more removed from the story’s plot, and it does not need to rely so heavily on proxies the way intimacy often does.

The Borders of Imagination

The Borders of Imagination

Fantasies make us look at reality sideways, utilizing evocative imagery, secondary worlds, strange creatures, and magical powers to broaden our understanding of our own reality. Superficially, elves, monsters, and wizards are cool plotting devices that let us tell entertaining stories. Who doesn’t like magic and monsters? But beneath that surface level, they give us a new lens through which we can see an oblique picture of the world.

Imagination operates on a spectrum that describes a relationship between the story’s characters, the reader, and their environment. At one extreme we have our world, in all its mundane glory. It is at this end that we find mainstream literary fiction, where the world operates according to the real-life rules that govern our everyday existence. The range of plot options or the focus of characterization at this end of the spectrum is nearly limitless: we can deal with a plot-driven mystery, or a character-driven rumination. The focus can be narrow, internal, psychological or just as easily societal, philosophical, or spiritual.

At the other extreme we have a secondary world, where anything goes. A secondary world does not even need to have human characters – consider Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland. Immersive fantasies – which force the reader to suspend disbelief and to accept the prima facie rules that govern the secondary world – operate at this level. Just as with mainstream literary texts, their range of plotting options and focuses is nearly limitless. However, unlike mainstream literary fiction, immersive fantasies have the ability to use different rules of existence and their accompanying imagery to cast a different light on aspects of our reality.

Portals and the Broad World Perspective

If we start in our real world, then we can gain access to the rich imaginative vocabulary of the secondary world. But to do that, we have to take our characters from our world and bring them to the secondary world, typically through the use of a portal of some kind. In her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn conflates the portal fantasy with the quest fantasy, and while this works at the level of plot, it does little to explain how portal fantasies interact with the reader’s imagination. That’s because we can have an immersive quest fantasy that takes place in a completely secondary world (think Tolkien, Brooks, etc.), but the thematic, plot, and character focus tends to be different if we start in our world.

The moment our characters go through the portal, everything in their new reality is contrasted to our world. Whether it is in Stephen R. Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by starting the story in mundane reality we establish the reader’s (and characters’) initial state. Whatever imagery follows can then be related back to our real life, and can be interpreted as a thematic symbol. From a plotting standpoint, the secondary world is often thinned and ultimately by the climax of the book, comes back to some sort of eucatastrophe that leads to its restoration.

Intrusions and Narrow Focus

Intrusion fantasies – where the secondary world inserts itself into our reality – are the mirror image of portal fantasies. Consider Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, or China Miéville’s King Rat. Here, the secondary world is dark, dangerous, and forbidding as a general rule. Its intrusion into our own world tends to be frightening, disorienting, and leaves our heroes struggling to find their own place in the world.

Just as in the portal fantasies, the fantastical elements can be interpreted as thematic symbols. But the mood tends to be darker, and the focus of the story narrower. While portal fantasies tend to focus on the world at large and build towards eucatastrophe, intrusion fantasies focus on the narrower, private world of the principle protagonists. Rather than building towards a climactic eucatastrophe, they instead build towards a moment of personal climax/realization/rejection.

Liminal Fantasies: Philosophical by Design

Liminal fantasies either dance on the border between two worlds (like John Crowley’s Little, Big) or ambiguously hint at the existence of a secondary world (Graham Joyce’s How to Make Friends with Demons). In these cases, fantastical imagery is often used allegorically and the reader’s position relative to the events of the text is always ambiguous. Reading these books, we wonder if we are – in fact – operating within a fantastical reality? Or are we instead merely using allegory to highlight and comment upon philosophical, emotional, and spiritual considerations?

Understandably, the focus for such liminal fantasies is always narrow, focusing on the values of the protagonist. Their emotional climax typically lies not in picking a side: choosing our “real” world or the secondary world. Instead, it rests in becoming comfortable with that middle ground between the two. Acceptance on an emotional, philosophical or spiritual level, as opposed to the more conflict-oriented eucatastrophe or resolution.

Symbols, Imagination, Plot, and Emotion

While fantasy makes it possible to use a rich palette of imagery, fantasy is not merely symbolic: sometimes, a talking tree is just a talking tree. Plot is just as important as the underlying themes of a story, and images are used not just to represent values and thoughts in the real world. They can just as easily be used to evoke certain emotions, to raise tension and the like. What specific imagery we utilize should tie into our goals for a particular scene, whether those goals are emotional, thematic, or both.

And of course, part of the fun is when we combine aspects of romance (negotiating the borders of intimacy) with aspects of the fantastic (negotiating the borders of imagination). Fantasy and romance are genres that can contain multitudes, after all.

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