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British Fantasy Awards

I am fascinated by elections, particularly elections with very small numbers of voters, which are often great illustrations of politics if rather poor examples of democracy (see my pieces on the January 2005 by-election for the House of Lords, and the election of the Permanent Commission of Eastern Rumelia in 1879).

So I have been grimly fascinated by the kerfuffle around this year's British Fantasy Awards (variously the British Fantasy Society Awards or BFS Awards) which were announced last weekend. My eye was caught in a moment of insomnia early in the week by Steve Jones' rant about the ceremony, a very mean-spirited piece in an almost unreadable combination of microscopic white font on a black background, which nonetheless describes some significant procedural failings; notably, as Cheryl Morgan pithily puts it, "the person who counted the final ballot was also the winner of one award, the publisher of two other winners, and the partner of the winner of two more."

Sam Stone, whose Demon Dance had won the August Derleth Award for Best Novel at the ceremony, returned the award, and the controversy got covered by the Guardian (see also comment by Tom Hunter). Meanwhile:
  • D.F. Lewis describes the awards kerfuffle as "an accident waiting to happen".
  • Amanda Rutter asks, "Haven't the British Fantasy Society Awards always been a bit odd?"
  • Further comment from Cheryl Morgan here and here, also Mike Glyer, and Neil Davis;
  • and David Howe, the administrator of the awards who published two winners and is the partner of Sam Stone, nonetheless has posted a defence.
Though fascinated by the human drama, I don't know much about any of these people, and had heard of none of the shortlisted books and only one (Graham Joyce) of the shortlisted authors. I thought it would be interesting to check up on external views of the books by those who had read them. To my dismay, LibraryThing failed me: only the Graham Joyce and Andrew Nevill books had enough ratings and reviews to draw any serious conclusion, and no LibraryThing users at all have recorded owning Demon Dance. Goodreads, however, seems to have more horror readers among its membership, and I can give you the following figures (ranked by average rating):

Demon Dance, by Sam Stone: 7 ratings on Goodreads, average 4.57 (which includes a five-star review from the author, so should really be 4.5 not counting her)
Pretty Little Dead Things, by Gary McMahon: 41 ratings on Goodreads, average 3.61
The Silent Land, by Graham Joyce, 588 ratings on Goodreads, average 3.60
Apartment 16, by Adam Nevill: 200 ratings on Goodreads, average 3.06
The Leaping, by Tom Fletcher: 28 ratings on Goodreads, average 3.04

It's pretty clear that Joyce's book has been rated by more than twice as many as the other four combined, and Nevill's is similarly ahead of the other three; and that Stone's fans among Goodreads users are very few in number but very enthusiastic. If the BFA voting had been representative of Goodreads users (not that there is any good reason why it should be) Joyce would have won by a long way. 

Domination of an awards system by a particular corner of a genre is not at all unusual. Asimov's has won a majority of the short fiction Hugos in the last few years (six of the last seven awards for Best Short Story). As Tom Hunter points out in the Guardian, Ian McDonald's last three novels all won the BSFA Award. But as far as I know, the Asimov's editorial team are not involved with administering the Hugos, and Ian McDonald is not known to be dating Donna Scott. It was an error of judgement, at the very least, for Howe to put himself and Stone in the position where one of them solicited and counted the votes and the other won two of the awards, and Howe's defence essentially asks him to take his own word of honour that he conducted the process correctly, and doesn't really include much of what we were taught at Catholic school to call "firm purpose of amendment". I appreciate very well the problems of finding willing volunteers from a small pool of people, but there are limits to how far one can sympathise with this excuse. 

I should state that I have read and enjoyed two of Howe's own books about Doctor Who; on the other hand I have occasionally sensed a slightly amateurish air about Telos, the publishing house which he co-owns, which is sometimes charming and sometimes (as in this case) damaging. What has happened this year is that the British Fantasy Awards now look like the favourite choices of Telos readers - not always Telos books, of course, but not exactly the nationwide breadth of voter base that seems to be claimed in appropriating the word 'British' in the title, or to let the rest of us take the results particularly seriously.

Edited to add, next day: Howe has resigned as BFS chairman.

Comments

( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
paratti
Oct. 8th, 2011 11:52 am (UTC)
I haven't commented previously about this as the experience of having Steven James Walker take chunks of my and other people's LJ reviews to pad out his Torchwood book without asking permission, having the basic good manners to even tell people he'd done it and then playing the victim when called on it on LJ and at Outpost Gallifrey and having the victims silenced by moderators published by Telos left a particularly foul taste in my mouth about anything Telos related.
nwhyte
Oct. 8th, 2011 12:52 pm (UTC)
Yes, that was one of the cases I was thinking of in my second last sentence; I wrote about it at the time too.
parrot_knight
Oct. 8th, 2011 01:06 pm (UTC)
The attitude betrayed was that the Telos writers assume their status in 'old' Doctor Who fandom carries over into other spheres where they are not known. Of course, it isn't. I once defended them over the Torchwood incident, but don't now.
lonemagpie
Oct. 8th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
Some of us in fact go to those other spheres to *get away* from DW fandom's perception!

(As well as to just, you know, do other stuff we're interested in doing...)
parrot_knight
Oct. 8th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC)
Oh, absolutely! I'm not imposing a blanket prescription...
lonemagpie
Oct. 8th, 2011 02:54 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised to hear about the Torchwood thing though - not least because, when doing an entry about the reception of something, I find that the overall bias of pro reviews and Rotten Tomatoes scores etc are generally more for the record than "what the fans posted on a message board"
parrot_knight
Oct. 8th, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC)
I think that SJW was looking for a modern equivalent to the fanzine writing of yore, and a lot of critical reviews which have paid close attention turn up in the blogosphere, including LiveJournal. However, SJW didn't understand the etiquette particular to LJ - and I found the extracts from blog entries overlong as well, especially given that the original authors were not contacted at any point before publication.
swisstone
Oct. 9th, 2011 10:04 am (UTC)
I didn't mind so much about the breach of LJ-etiquette - the fact is that despite LJ users acting as if they are within a closed community, when they post openly, they have made these statements to the world, and can be quoted.

My objection, and the reason no project I'm involved in will ever be hawked around Telos, is the massive and multiple breaches of copyright, both of LJ posts and of newspaper reviews, may of which were quoted in toto. Basically, that's against the law, and Telos are lucky not to have been sued into the ground.
parrot_knight
Oct. 9th, 2011 10:16 am (UTC)
Yes. The thing which led me to sympathise with the people Telos were quoting was the size of the quotations. The etiquette issue is one of diplomacy; the rest, of nonchalant disregard for the law.
lonemagpie
Oct. 8th, 2011 02:24 pm (UTC)
As someone who's been published by a couple of small presses (including Telos) as well as larger presses like Simon & Schuster, my problem with Jones' rant is his referring to the small presses as not "professional" - does this mean my old Beautiful Monsters is just a fanzine? Cos, y'know, it came out in shops, and it's properly printed and bound, and I got paid for it, and everything.... just like the books I've written for Virgin, the BBC, S&S, etc...
parrot_knight
Oct. 8th, 2011 02:36 pm (UTC)
The occasional Telos book has won an award in areas where the publishers couldn't be said to have an extraordinary hand, too.
lonemagpie
Oct. 8th, 2011 02:48 pm (UTC)
I think, TBH, it's just a symptom of the BFS membership and voter-base shrinking. Though, TBH, if I was in DJH's position, I'd have asked someone else to take over running the awards, just in case my mere part in those proceedings caused *exactly* this sort of grumblings.

But that's probably cos I'm more paranoid than he is!
strantzas
Oct. 8th, 2011 03:16 pm (UTC)
I believe Jones's use of "professional" refers to a classification, rather than his subjective view of its merit. Similar to the idea that a book is not a "mass market paperback" if it doesn't conform to the physical dimensions of the industry's definition of a mass market paperback, and has nothing to do with whether said paperback book was released into the mass market.

In that sense, had Beautiful Monsters been issued by Virgin or S&S without a single change, he would have called it "professional".

That's my take, at any rate, based on my limited conversations with Mr Jones.
lonemagpie
Oct. 8th, 2011 03:29 pm (UTC)
The classification would still be wrong, though. I think really he was using the phrase as a dig at the publisher, without thinking through how how the designation reflects on basically everybody who's written for that publisher (which would include the likes of Kim Newman, for example)
swisstone
Oct. 9th, 2011 10:09 am (UTC)
I rather got that impression about the use of "professional" too. Nicholas is right, Jones' piece is mean-spirited, and uses all sort of insinuation to build up an idea in the readers' minds that wrongdoing has taken place, despite carefully saying that he's not alleging that at all.
drplokta
Oct. 8th, 2011 02:48 pm (UTC)
It seems worth mentioning that the Hugo awards have rules specifically to avoid this conflict of interest. No member of the administering Worldcon's committee can be nominated for a Hugo, unless the convention irrevocably delegates all authority for the Hugos to a Hugo subcommittee, in which case only members of the subcommittee are ineligible (in practice, this is what always happens). Their partners are eligible though, and I guess if a Hugo subcommittee member ran a publishing house then the books that they publish would be eligible, since the nomination would be for the author and not for the publisher.
swisstone
Oct. 9th, 2011 10:15 am (UTC)
It couldn't happen in the BSFA either - the Administrator is specifically excluded from receiving the award, and under the BSFA rules, Howe would not have been able to receive the award for Best Publisher. The rules don't specifically exclude books published by the awards administrator or written by the admin's partner (and I think there would be a problem with the latter clause). But I think the BSFA would take care to ensure that the Administrator wouldn't be a person for whom such a conflict of interest might arise. Certainly, I'm confident that, had the BSFA lost their Awards Administrator, Ian Whates would not have put himself forward as the person to take to role on, and the rest of us in the committee would not have let him if he had.
strangedave
Oct. 10th, 2011 11:01 am (UTC)
This used to be the system for the Australian Ditmar awards as well. We've since changed it so the awards are administered by a small floating committee that includes a representative from the con committee (and future and previous con committees) as well as a few volunteers. I have chaired that committee for the last few years (and all members are ineligible for receiving awards directly, though we allow recusal from a specific award for indirect connections).

Although the con committee have only a fairly limited link to the committee that administers the awards, that hasn't stopped people from making accusation of impropriety when con committees have won - we had a superficially similar situation in Australian fandom this year, in which people connected with the convention chair and her small press did very well in the Ditmars, but the situation differed in that she was genuinely and provably unconnected with the administration of the awards process. It does happen that, with a small and restricted voter pool, people well known within that pool can do very well - which is a good reason why the process needs to be clearly seen to be fair when it does.
girfan
Oct. 8th, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC)
I don't know what to think. I attended the last Fantasycon, talked with both Stephen Jones (because I've met him before and think he is a good guy) and David Howe (by accident-he talked to me Saturday evening about what I thought of the weekend and of the past Fantasycons I attended) and wasn't at the awards ceremony (we headed home that morning).


I did vote via a link on an e-mail I got from Fantasycon organisers and didn't think it was hard to do so, but it's possible a lot of people thought the e-mail was just about the event or about books available, etc. I confess I hadn't even heard of some of the nominees, but that could be due to me not being hip to the new releases. Plus, I don't get to read as many books as I'd like to anyways.


I did say to Mr. Howe that I thought a move to Corby was odd and preferred Brighton (and why I preferred Brighton over Nottingham). And, Stephen Jones did mention that the conflict between the 2013 Fantasycon and the 2013 World Fantasycon was going to be "interesting".

pingback_bot
Oct. 8th, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC)
BFS – Still Rumbling
User cherylmmorgan referenced to your post from BFS – Still Rumbling saying: [...] there. Quite a few people on Twitter today have pointed to this post [...]
bookzombie
Oct. 8th, 2011 06:38 pm (UTC)
As an ex-awards administrator (BSFA awards in the late 90s/early 00s) I'm both saddened and slightly amused by the kerfuffle. I haven't read a great deal of the commentary on this (I started reading Jones' piece but I just couldn't read the font) but there seems to be two issues:

1. The legitimacy of Jones' complaint about the domination of small press books. I'll only say that when I was doing the BSFAs we used to have exactly the opposite complaints. i.e. too mainstream, not enough love for the small presses.

2. The link between winners and administrators. Was never really an issue for me, not being a writer-type, though I would note that I never voted for the BSFAs when I was running them precisely to avoid any potential perceptions of bias. Some of my colleagues on the committee at the time said that they thought I was being a bit silly, but given recent controversy I'm even more glad that I did...
tevriel
Oct. 9th, 2011 05:36 am (UTC)
Here via James Nicoll:

Part of the problem, it seems immediately to me, is that there is no reason whatsoever why the votes should be tallied by someone drawn from a "small pool". It shouldn't be difficult to find someone willing to do it who is unattached to anyone involved, since tallying votes doesn't require any knowledge of the books and stories being voted upon.

If, somehow, the entire population of Britain can supply no-one both competent and willing to tally a few votes on a volunteer basis, then offer a fifty quid fee to get it done. And/or invite interested parties to be scrutineers.

If you want your awards to mean anything or do anything, the voting process must not only be above-board, but must be seen to be honest.

In some situations, honesty means nothing unless it's witnessed.
pingback_bot
Oct. 9th, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC)
Why Should I Care About the British Fantasy Awards?
User slovobooks referenced to your post from Why Should I Care About the British Fantasy Awards? saying: [...] the majority of which has been collected, and commented on, in Nicholas Whyte’s excellent post here [...]
pingback_bot
Oct. 11th, 2011 08:17 am (UTC)
The British Fantasy Society - Stramash or Stooshie?
User jemck referenced to your post from The British Fantasy Society - Stramash or Stooshie? saying: [...] ed folk with no axe to grind and a good deal of pertinent, relevant experience. Nicholas Whyte [...]
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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