I wasn’t able to make it to FantasyCon this year, which is a bit of a shame as the weather was superb and the convention was in Brighton. All of the reaction I have seen on Twitter was very complimentary, until last night, when people started posting links to this. Oh dear, another awards train wreck.
Yes, that would be Steve Jones, a man of whom it could be said that he has opinions and is not afraid to voice them. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end — most notably Steve was one of the people least happy with the 2009 World Fantasy Convention. He has “previous” when it comes to slagging off convention committees and the like.
On the other hand, he’s also a very successful and hugely respected editor whose word carries a lot of weight. The fact that it is him casting aspersions on the results of the British Fantasy Awards means that a lot of people will take the issue very seriously. And, of course, it didn’t take me long on Twitter to find someone saying that the BFAs were just like the Hugos, then. *sigh* But given some of this goings on at the Business Meeting this year, who can blame people for thinking that?
Obviously I wasn’t at the award ceremony so I can’t offer much comment one way or the other on what actually went on. The BFS apparently has the whole thing up on YouTube, so if you are interested you can judge for yourselves.
What I can say is that Maura McHugh mentioned the poor quality of the sound while she was tweeting the results live. Also the MC, Sarah Pinborough, tweeted, “All I can say about those awards was it was the longest two hours of my life..shameful.” And if your main hired talent is upset at what went on then you have definitely got something wrong.
What interests me, however, is the process. I want people to have faith in awards, and clearly Steve doesn’t have much faith in what happened here. What could have been done better?
The BFAs are fan-voted awards. I can no longer find the award rules on the BFS site, but I believe that they are open to members of the BFS, and members of the current and previous FantasyCon. The total potential electorate is probably under 1,000, and I’d guess that the number of people actually voting is maybe 200, possibly a lot less. That compares to 2,100 people voting in this year’s Hugos.
Membership of the BFS currently costs £35, which is comparable to the $50 a supporting membership of Worldcon costs. You don’t get anything like the Voter Packet, but the BFS does publish various books that members get for free.
As you can see from the ballot form, the BFAs use first-past-the-post voting on the final ballot rather than the preferential balloting that the Hugos use. This means (as Kevin is fond of pointing out) that the winner in each category (assuming 5 nominees) could have had the support of only about 21% of the voters. People often complain that the system the Hugos uses means that a genuinely daring and different work will never win, because the system always favors works with mass appeal. This is true, but the system also makes it hard for any one special interest group to force a win against the will of the majority. The smaller the group of voters, the more likely it is that a small group of friends can come to dominate the results.
Of course you can reduce the likelihood of this by encouraging more people to participate and vote. Steve seems to think that the BFS didn’t do this very well. Personally I don’t have a huge problem with outlawing voting by paper mail. Of those 2,100 who voted in the Hugos, only 14 voted by paper mail. Possibly the BFS is different. Maybe voting electronically is something that only the “coastal elites” do. I suspect not. What I will say, however, is that catering for those 14 people was not a great deal of work for the Hugo Administrators, and their willingness to do that is good for the public image of the awards. Little differences like that can be important.
As to giving people time and notification, all I can say is that I managed to find out when I needed to vote. I recognize that I’m rather more connected to online buzz than many people.
Steve is unimpressed with the media awards (for film, TV and graphic novel) which he says, “were reintroduced in 2009 in a pathetic attempt to make the awards seem more ‘prestigious'”. I don’t know what was actually said when this decision was made, but as far as I’m concerned such categories are also there to make the awards seem more relevant to younger people, and the wider fan community. They are therefore a means of increasing participation. I appreciate that the winners probably won’t attend the award ceremony, but complaining about that sounds suspiciously like complaining that the winners are “not one of us”. If you want people to respect the award results it is important that they don’t always go to people who attend the convention.
I should note also that Ian Culbard’s graphic novel version of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is a very fine work that I voted for both in the BFAs and the Hugos. Its win was one of the highlights of the awards as far as I’m concerned.
The most telling part of Steve’s commentary is this:
Without any proof, I’m not accusing anybody of doing anything underhand. But there is certainly a strong case for the BFS Chairman to have removed himself from the entire process once it became apparent how many of his own titles and those of his partner were on the initial nomination list. This shows a serious lack of judgement by someone in such an important position.
I don’t know who was responsible for administering the awards, but if Dave Howe was involved that certainly doesn’t look good. With the Hugos there is a very firm rule that those responsible for administering the awards cannot be eligible for them. It is important that that should be true, and also important that the distinction be made clear because otherwise everyone involved with the convention falls under suspicion.
It is things like this that led me to resign from the Board of the Translation Awards. If I’m going to be busily searching out translated books and promoting them, someone is bound to get suspicious if works I like do well. Of course we have a separate jury, and the Board has no control over their deliberations, but I know what the Internet is like.
For fan-voted awards to be respected these days I think that they need the following:
- The rules should be posted publicly on the organization’s website
- It should be made easy for eligible people to vote
- Those responsible for administering the awards should be clearly identified and ineligible to receive awards
Personally I’d also like to see numbers. People are always complaining about how few people vote in the Hugos, but I doubt that any set of national awards comes close unless voting is open to everyone. If you publish numbers, that puts pressure on to increase participation. It also helps the public know which awards are liable to be hijacked by a small clique.
It may well be that the BFS can clarify some of these issues, and I hope they do. If they can’t, or won’t, it will reflect badly, not only on them, but also on all other fan-voted awards.
For further details (and numbers) see my follow-up post here.