SFF in Conversation is a monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, we continue our ongoing series “SFF in Conversation” with a guest post from Jared Shurin. Publisher at Jurassic London and co-editor of Pornokitsch, Jared often talks about awards – this post is part of an ongoing series well worth a read: Poking at Awards.
Stop trying to make ‘prestigious’ happen.
Hi, I’m the famous blogger Jared. You’ll have heard of me.
So that sounded weird, right? And I can’t blame you for being a bit turned off right now – I know I would be. We’ve all (probably) had the awkward social occasion where someone introduced themselves as “the famous so-and-so” or “the well-known person” or “the popular whatever” that sort of thing. (No? Well, maybe that’s just me. And, in fairness, it was at a con. But it was exactly as excruciating as you might expect.)
The problem is with statements like that is that they’re not only bragging, but they’re doing so in a really assumptive way. I’m also telling you what you should think of me. And, by using an adjective like famous, popular, well-known… I’m putting you on the back foot. I’m saying that everyone else knows me. Either you’ve already heard of me (in which case, why am I telling you this?!)… or you haven’t heard of me (in which case, one of us is already wrong). And, either way? I sound like a complete dick.
So… why do awards do it?
Let’s look at a few of the culprits, shall we?
•The Hugo Awards: “science fiction’s most prestigious awards”
•Arthur C Clarke Award: “most prestigious award for Science Fiction in Britain”
•David Gemmell Legend Awards: “prestigious prizes given to the very best in fantasy”
•Crime Writers’ Association Daggers: “synonymous with quality… these prestigious awards”
•Chesley: “internationally acclaimed as the most prestigious awards in the field of fantastic arts”
•Waterstones Children’s Book Prize: “one of the most valuable and prestigious children’s book awards”
It might be time for a thesaurus.
Prestige – like fame and popularity – just isn’t something you can give to yourself. It is a quality that comes from others’ view of you. This is the equivalent of repeatedly calling yourself the most popular kid in school, in the hope that everyone else starts believing it.
There are other awards who would also like to tell us what we think about them:
•Goodreads Choice: “major”
•John W Campbell: “major”
•Writers of the Future: “the most well-known”
•Bookseller Industry Awards: “the high point of the year”
•Man Booker Prize: “the world’s most important literary award” (Which is partially true… as long as you see the world as entirely English-speaking and have a lot of faith in that guy from Downton Abbey.)
In all these cases, I haven’t taken these statements from press release emails or the like (I’m a little more forgiving of self-aggrandising language when speaking directly to journalists) – these are all statements made by the awards, on their reader-facing websites, about themselves.
(And, in fairness, there are also many, many awards that don’t go out of their way to tell us how important they are – the Nebulas, BSFA, BFS, Romantic Times, Guardian Children’s Prize, The Kitschies, Tiptree and Shirley Jackson among them.)
You would find a person who introduces him or herself as ‘famous’ to be off-putting; an award doing the same sounds just as defensive. To convince me that you’re prestigious, don’t just repeat the word until it loses all meaning – go do something prestigious.
The Man Booker Award spends tens of thousands of pounds every year (given by the short- and long-listed publishers) to ensure that its books become best-sellers. That’s a cheeky mechanism, but that’s a real reason why the Booker is an ‘important’ award. The DGLA hosts a genuinely glamourous ceremony at a beautiful venue – and with mandatory formal dress! – that’s acting prestigious, and means far more than just bandying the word around online.
For that matter, as of today, I am marginally more famous. Not because I said so in my obnoxious opening line, but because my blog post is appearing here. I’m not saying I’m prestigious (well, not seriously, at least) – I’m showing up at a prestigious place and trying to act like I belong. That’ll do more for my reputation than simply adding the word to my Twitter bio.
An award referring to itself as ‘prestigious’ (or ‘important, ‘major, ‘well-known’, etc) is more than an issue with semantics – or etiquette. I think it actually reflects on the nature – often contradictory – of awards themselves:
Awards are fundamentally generous. Awards are genuinely awesome. Seriously. They exist to make recommendations, to be selfless, to celebrate others. They’re stages, platforms, sinister puppet-masters… choose your metaphor, but whatever it is, an award exists to push books into the spotlight. Which is why awards boasting about themselves is disconcerting: an award exists to give prestige, not claim it. Does a prestigious award give more prestige to its winner? Almost certainly. But an award’s primary purpose isn’t to promote itself.
But awards are institutions, too. With rules and traditions and rich histories and in-fighting and out-fighting and reputations and politics and and and and… I suspect it gets very easy for awards to lose touch with their original purpose, especially as they become older and more complex. Their role becomes more about self-perpetuation, and what starts as a means to an end can simply become the end. Most awards have some means of governance to ensure that they’re focused on their original mission. But even with that, it would be very easy for them to confuse what’s best for the award and what’s best for the books.
It isn’t that I don’t like awards (I do!) or resent their fame (I don’t!), it is a matter of keeping things in perspective. Awards – no matter how prestigious they are, aren’t or desperately want to be – are meant to be a celebration of books, not themselves.
Jared Shurin is co-editor and co-founder of Pornokitsch, a blog focused on geek culture – books, movies, games, comics, television, and everything in between. Jared also founded The Kitschies, the annual award for intelligent, progressive and entertaining fiction containing speculative or fantastic elements. In addition he is the main editor (and publisher) at Jurassic London.
BookgazingFebruary 16, 2015 at 10:31 am
‘Awards – no matter how prestigious they are, aren’t or desperately want to be – are meant to be a celebration of books, not themselves.’
Totally agree. However, awards do need to get themselves noticed and known in order to celebrate and promote books so a certain amount of self-aggrandizement may now be part of their original mission. Plus, there are so many awards around (and so many very visible books sport award nominations or wins) that awards need to differentiate themselves and make sure everyone knows they’re the award we should all be listening to so we’ll go out and buy the books they’re recommending. But maybe some awards are becoming a bit obnoxious in their approach to getting themselves noticed as you say.
I’d say your post highlight that many awards haven’t worked out how to differentiate themselves well (all using the same not very enlightening descriptor is poor) and maybe that some are quite poor at engaging with readers in a genuine way. Those are very much the two main problems affecting the wider world of marketing as competition becomes ever greater and organisations scramble to assign themselves multiple ‘value’ USPs (most prestigious, greatest etc.) to bolster their one physical USP (only award for UK flash fiction short stories written by 18 year olds etc.). Assigning yourself value USPs instead of walking the walk and manifesting these USP words as actions is cheaper and quicker, but as you’ve spotted less genuine and it’ll be interesting to see whether award marketers start to notice that too and turn their strategies in more creative directions.
Steve davidsonFebruary 17, 2015 at 4:35 am
I disagree at least insofar as the Hugo Awards are concerned.
Within traditional SF fandom – which includes both fans and professional authors, artists, editors, The Hugo Awards ARE considered to be the ultimate recognition of achievement within the field. They began life as the Science fiction Achievement Awards.
It is the first such award, it is a coveted award and those who are given it are considered to have prestige – by the community that awards it, as well as the larger community – otherwise, there’d be no need or desire on the part of publishers to publish new editions featuring the status of Hugo Award Winner (or for that matter, Nominee).
Yes, the website devoted to the award uses the word Prestigious in its introduction, but quite frankly, I’ve never heard a Hugo award rocket say anything, much less proclaim its noteriety. I HAVE heard and read many, many winners and nominees make statements regarding their wins that strongly suggest that they consider it important, life-changing, and…prestigious.
JaredFebruary 17, 2015 at 4:50 am
In fairness, none of the other trophies talk either.
JaredFebruary 17, 2015 at 5:10 am
Yes! Absolutely! And thank you for saying what I was trying to say more succinctly as well 🙂
I think there are two issues, both of which you pick up on perfectly. 1) Differentiation. If all awards are prestigious, then none are. And 2) the line where promoting books turns into self-aggrandisement for its own sake. It is interesting to compare the latter with, say, the work of not-for-profits, where they have to balance brand-building and awareness with actually achieving their mission (and calculate return on investment accordingly).
I think physical USPs are an interesting area. I mean, to take, say, the prestigious, life-changing Hugo Awards. It some some really interesting points of differentiation: it is one of the few awards to say, celebrate unpaid amateurs. Or let self-published and traditionally published titles compete on a level footing. Or recognise works of certain, very specific lengths. All of those are interesting and (mostly) unique – a bit like your flash fiction example. Whereas being a ‘prestigious award for science fiction’ isn’t.
That said, we’d also need some way to highlight other USPs, else you could never have an award for more popular formats (like novel). The “oldest” SF award, as Steve says (above)? “selected by readers” (I guess lots do that)? “selected by a vote of some of the world’s most devoted SF readers”? That’s not unique, I suppose, but certainly paints the award positively and in an appealing. All true? And all more meaningful than, say, the banal-spiral of being the most famous award for being famous.