Coode Street: Best / Not Best

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.

11 thoughts on “Coode Street: Best / Not Best

    1. That’s not really what I meant by avoiding risks. Accepting unagented submissions can be a money-saving strategy if you think you can sort through the slush pile for less than it costs to pay writers the higher advances that a good agent will negotiate. What I meant by avoiding risks was choosing to publish books that they think have mass appeal rather than the sort of book that Paul, Gary, Jonathan or I might prefer.

  1. The paragraph ending “Oh dear me, no” set off a whole train of thought which came to a sudden, screeching halt when it occurred to me you were probably being ironic. I must get my irony detector fixed.

    1. Well, I need to unpack that thought a bit more. You’ve always favored increasing Hugo voting participation. The thing I came late to recognizing is that your point in this paragraph is the implicit self-contradiction of the argument when it comes out of the mouths (blogs, whatever) of people who feel the existing voters pick lousy winners, something that deserves your comment.

    2. I think you are getting there. I have indeed always favored increasing the number of voters. It would be easy to assume that’s because I think that more voters would result in more winners I approve of, but that would be a mistake. The Hugos are a fan voted award. They can’t be expected to pick the a sort of winners that literary critics like.

      So why do I want more voters? Because more participation will mean more interest in and respect for the awards.

      Am I correct in thinking that you favor restricting voting to people who actually attend Worldcon?

  2. Not literally attending. I favor defining the Hugo as an award voted by the community of people with enough interest in the Worldcon become supporting or attending members. I’ve never felt we’d keep that by (hypothetically) changing the rules to charge a minimal amount to anyone who wants to vote.

    And yet it’s not about keeping a small voting pool. Imagine if the 10-15,000 different people who have been members of the Worldcon in the past half-dozen years kept their hand in every year? I think we agree, the more the merrier, even if we don’t always agree how to attract them.

    1. In which case I think we are pretty much in agreement. Having those 10-15,000 buying a Supporting Membership each year (and picking up 2,000+ more from every new city we visit) is exactly what I’m aiming for. How do we get them? By a combination of lowering the Supporting Membership price (but NOT to zero) and by providing more value for that money.

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