Thanks to Gary and Jonathan, and their special guest Paul Kincaid, for another fascinating podcast. This week they discussed Paul’s LA Review of Books essay, “The Widening Gyre”, and his concern that the SF field is in a state of exhaustion.
Like Paul, I prefer books that provide a great deal of mental stimulation. However, I don’t share his distress, possibly because I have lower expectations. I’m well aware of the fact that my literary tastes are elitist and not shared by the majority of readers. I don’t expect commercially-focused publishers to always cater to my tastes, though I’m pleasantly surprised when they do.
Paul’s particular beef is with Best of the Year anthologies, a type of book that I have very little interest in (sorry Jonathan). That’s because I recognize them for what they are: a commercial operation intended to encourage readers to pay for collections of short fiction. The idea that one editor’s picks, constrained by commercial necessity, will ever accurately represent the “best” of the year is frankly silly. The best we can hope for is that such a book will provide a reasonable snapshot of the state of the field.
Of course some people will then complain that such books should not be called “Best”, and in a world free of marketing imperatives they would not. However, complaining about this is a bit like complaining that the contestants in a TV talent show appear to have been picked because of their eccentric personalities or their desperate desire for fame, not their actual mastery of their craft. And it will get you about as far.
I’m therefore perfectly happy to acknowledge that no “best of the year” anthology actually contains the best stories of the year. I only raise my eyebrows when people complain that a “year’s best” book is bad because it contains the “wrong” stories, and if it had included a different set of stories it would indeed deserve to be called the best of the year. That’s totally missing the point.
The boys also got to talking about awards, and appear to have forgotten that the romance community is far worse at slapping itself on the back than we are (though quite possibly it does it for the same reasons). I’m not a big fan of proliferation of awards, and certainly not of the idea of adding new awards because you think that the existing ones are “wrong”. Where I like to see new awards is where they can draw attention to works that might otherwise be ignored. I’m fond of awards like the Tiptree, the Carl Brandons and the Translation Awards.
It should be noted, however, that not all awards are the same. Each one has its own method of deciding on a winner, and its own eligibility rules. I find the different results produced by these different methodologies to be fascinating.
I’m happy to agree with Jonathan and Paul that the primary benefit of awards is to provide an excuse to talk about books. I’m delighted when my friends win with good books, and try not to become despondent or angry when I don’t like the results. I also try to ignore the seemingly endless accusations that particular awards are “broken” or “fixed”. Such things seem to be an inevitable part of the process. The one thing that really confuses me is when people complain that the Hugos produce winners that are really poor quality, and then go on to say that the results would be much better if far more people voted. Oh dear me no.
Like Paul, Jonathan and Gary, I would love to see more really good books and stories. How we get them is another matter. We are in the middle of a pretty nasty recession right now, so I don’t expect the major publishers to have much appetite for risk taking. But I will continue to check out what the more adventurous small presses are producing, and if I spot anything I like I’ll bring it to your attention. I will not expect all of you to share my tastes.