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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.


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.
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.
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.

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