On Award Shortlists

Listening to the Coode Street podcast this morning reminded me of something I wanted to say about award shortlists.

People seem to have a strange habit of assuming that every book on a shortlist is a favorite of most of the people who nominated. Gary and Jonathan are by no means alone in this, it tends to happen every time a shortlist comes out, and other people have said similar things about this year’s Nebulas. In this particular case, one of the works people are scratching their heads over is the Jack McDevitt book, Echo. Similar puzzlement is often expressed over the regular appearance of Robert Sawyer on the Hugo ballot. Can it be that the same people who loved The Windup Girl and The City and The City are also big Sawyer fans?

Well no, and I think Jonathan was moving towards explaining this during the podcast. The way to think of an award shortlist is that it is representative of a number of different allegiances.

In fact politics is a good way to think about this. Suppose the UK had a proportional representation system that elected five members to much larger constituencies than we have now. You might end up with 2 Tories, 2 Labour and 1 LibDem. But no one would assume from this that a typical voter in that constituency liked all 5 candidates. The same is true of an award shortlist where voting is by a large group of people (juried awards don’t necessarily work in quite they same way).

What we can conclude is that within SFWA is there is a group of voters who very much like the sort of book that McDevitt produces, and will always vote for his latest novel. Pretty much the same sort of people, I suspect, vote for Sawyer in the Hugos. The system is designed to produce this sort of result. Indeed, I’m mildly surprised that the Hugos don’t see an epic fantasy book nominated each year, for every similar reasons. Maybe that’s because GRRM doesn’t write them fast enough.

The final ballot, where people are focused on only 5 books, rather than on the entire field, will produce a very different result. People will start reading outside of their comfort zone, looking at books they might never have bought otherwise. That’s where you find out which books really do have wide support, especially if the awards use a PR system like the Hugo final ballot.

By the way, the Nebulas are given for books published in the USA. As I have noted before, lots of British authors are published over there. I know that some of them are SFWA members. This year’s Nebula ballot has some commendable diversity, but aside from a Doctor Who episode and a Terry Pratchett novel I can’t see any British nominees. But I haven’t seen anyone complaining that the Nebulas are anti-British.

7 thoughts on “On Award Shortlists

  1. To be fair, it’s difficult to complain about the Science Fiction Writers of AMERICA being overly provincial. It’s kind of there on the tin 😉

    1. That’s exactly my point. You expect awards to display nationalist bias. When they do you approve of it, when they try not to you complain even if they partially succeed in not doing so. And that’s because you want people to have contempt for awards. Which is of course is your right, but makes all the complaining deeply hypocritical.

  2. Indeed, I’m mildly surprised that the Hugos don’t see an epic fantasy book nominated each year, for every similar reasons. Maybe that’s because GRRM doesn’t write them fast enough.

    Erikson and Sanderson produce massive fantasy tomes like clockwork without as far as I recall – and I am not checking so bad me – ever getting a Hugo nod. Sanderson’s books might be a bad fit for the Hugos but in retrospect I am a little surprised about Erikson’s lack of rockets/tiny pins.

    Maybe GRRM still has an SF constituency from his Thousand Worlds days?

  3. Ah, had not considered that.

    I am even now preparing a face-palm of belated epiphany: “Parris”?

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