I was just reading this interesting takedown of the shortlists for the 2009 Hugo awards. Apparently, most of the books on the list aren’t very good. I only know two of the nominees for best novel, and one of them, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, was actually read to my wife and I by the author himself. Anyway, Adam Roberts complains that the Hugo shortlists, nominated and voted by members and attendees of the World Science Fiction Convention, are not very good, and that the repeated lapses in taste are hurting his industry:
every time you vote a mediocre book onto a shortlist that exists to celebrate the very best in our genre you devalue not only the award but the genre too. Please don’t devalue my genre, fandom. I love my genre. Don’t vote mediocre books onto the Hugo novel shortlist; vote good books; and excellent books. There’s plenty of them about, you know.
Roberts here reveals himself as basically clueless about formal voting theory. He’s ignoring the law of large numbers: disparate readers will tend to read only a few books in common, and these will be popular. They will probably also be mediocre since they appeal to a plurality of tastes, or at best the product of authors with previous commercial success.
Of course, Roberts does have good taste, and so the other issue here is that his anti-populism sits poorly with the fandom he addresses. He doesn’t want to give people what they want, but rather what they need. Unfortunately, the challenging books he wants us to read don’t have mass appeal, while marginalized-but-amazing books take a while to filter into the consciousness of voters through word-of-mouth: they may spell commercial success, but that’ll take longer than an awards cycle and so they won’t be showcased.
All of which traces back to generic concerns about democracy as a formal preference sorting system rather than a substantive system for producing justice or enhancing the good. No voting system is going to produce the best candidates if it draws preferences from voters who are literally ignorant, whether it be of a genre of fiction or the laws that govern them. And why not? Why must we be subject to great experiments in the genre that fail at execution, or ‘best policies’ that only the few, whose prejudices are legion, can recognize as best? I’d like a spoonful of sugar with my medicine, please, and I generally prefer legitimate procedures to philosopher-kings.
So Roberts’ claim that fans are ignorant is true, but as an author, he himself is partly to blame. Science fiction fans don’t have time to read everything that publishers produce any longer. There’s too much cruft, and we all grew up and got jobs. These days, I read maybe six new speculative fiction books a year. I have a lot of satisfying non-fiction and non-genre fiction vying for my time, but my roots are in sci-fi and I really do want to read more of it. The market’s just too crowded for a casual reader to be discriminating. These shortlists and awards could be playing a major role in boosting the industry if they were more reliable, but they sure do seem to be hit-or-miss… mostly miss.
As it is, I get better results with my method: once a month or so I like to stalk the sci-fi/fantasy shelves at the big B&N, head cocked so as to read all the titles sideways. That means that I’m basically filtering the texts for authors I recognize, titles that pop, and good spine design (fonts, colors, textures, etc.) Then I do what you’re not supposed to do… I judge the book by its cover: the art and the précis on the back. I don’t even crack the book, usually: if it passes those tests I buy it.
Obviously, this is a pretty unscientific system: it skews towards established authors and books noted for mainstream appeal, because those are the authors whose publishers splurge on frills designed to grab casual folks like me. Sometimes, I get stuck on a challenging or long book. For instance, I’m chewing on Parker’s The Company right now: the writing and the feel for characters, especially women, is better than most in the genre, as is the author’s obvious fluency with the canon of island republic utopias, even though the ending that’s being foreshadowed is too tragic for my tastes. So I read a chapter a night, savoring and dreading simultaneously. On the other hand, I read Anathem in three days during my honeymoon in Costa Rica.
What science fiction needs is a culture of reviewers who all look up to (but occasionally quibble with) one or two recognized authorities. These folks shouldn’t be authors themselves, but they should read nearly everything the genre produces each year so that they can recommend books we’re likely to miss and argue with each other about which books were really better. To a certain extent, the awards system can serve as a flashpoint around which such reviews and recommendations take place. But it’s the reviewer system that needs work. What I’d really like is a discriminating review site. Not a hype site like io9, with dozens of posts a day, or an author’s blog where there are clear biases and lots of back-and-forth: what I’d like to see is maybe one good article a week, with must-read recommendations about once a month. I want science fiction to have a Siskel and Ebert.
Because the industry sees itself as a fringe or marginal one, it can’t accept this kind of aesthetic authority. Many authors don’t see much value in reviewers, especially reviewers who criticize without also producing their own work. Since so many speculative stories still depend on ‘hooks’ and ‘twists,’ a reviewer’s spoilers would in some cases hamper the reader’s enjoyment. Yet that’s a problem with any immature genre, and it’s about time for the industry to get it sorted.
The biggest objection is that empowering reviewers by granting them the aesthetic authority to judge good from bad (rather than accusing them of being shortsighted or too mainstream, as the genre does now) means that critical dismissals will destroy careers and ruin lives. Our hypothetical Siskel and Ebert will pan a few good books with all the bad ones, and those authors will feel that injustice has been done. That’s why we need a culture of non-authortative reviewers to keep them honest. From the perspective of individual authors, many of whom are just squeaking by, that seems like an unacceptable risk.
Yet twelve good recommendations a year would double my sci-fi consumption, and it seems silly to complain that these new purchases will be channeled away from mediocre art. Without trustworthy recommendations, I won’t buy that many books. As the industry changes to meet the demands of the shrinking economy, it seems like rewinning the trust and affection of casual, non-WorldCon-attending readers should be more of a priority. Win our trust and our wallets will follow.