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):
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.