The Science Fiction Industry Needs Reviewers, Not Awards

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.

13 thoughts on “The Science Fiction Industry Needs Reviewers, Not Awards”

  1. Now that makes sense! Well reasoned and sensible writing, explaining how to improve things, rather than just carping about how everyone else has bad taste.

    Although not quite the same thing, I would encourage people who see works they think should be nominated for a Hugo tell other people about those recommendations on one of the various places for such recommendations, some of which are linked from the Hugo Awards web site.

  2. Sharon:

    If you mean the Hugo Awards Marketing Committee, which manages the Hugo Awards web site, they've seen it. (I'm the chairman of the HAMC.)

    But the actual administration of each year's Hugo Awards — distribution of ballots, verification of eligibility, counting the votes, running the ceremony, making the trophies, etc. — is done by each year's Worldcon committee, so there's a new batch of people "in charge of the Hugo Awards" every year.

    The Hugo Awards Marketing Committee has been doing what it can to improve the visibility of one of SF's most notable honors, and the creation of the official web site a few years back was an early step on that path. This year at Anticipation, we will unveil the winner of the Hugo Awards Logo Design Contest. (The Hugo Award has never had an official logo, suitable for book cover imprinting and such.)

    Making changes to the technical rules of the Hugo Awards — categories, eligibility, etc. — is a straightforward if time-consuming process that requires the vote of the members at two consecutive Worldcons. This year, for instance, there will be a vote on whether to make the Best Graphic Story category being trialed this year a permanent Hugo Award category.

    Making changes to the culture… well, that's a bit more difficult, and a slow process at that, one that can't be done with technical rules or committee actions. It's a "changing the hearts and minds" kind of thing.

  3. Not so fast, Kevin. Ultimately, the thing holding back the cultural shift I'm describing is the lack of authoritative reviews.

    In order to be treated as authoritative, our reviewer needs to have a voracious appetite for speculative fiction, raw writing talent, and a combination of great taste and populism… a highbrow but not an elitist, both a fan and a contrarian. She can't pan crowdpleasers just because they have general appeal, but she has to seek out unknown or undervalued works and showcase them alongside the familiar and popular. She has to love the industry enough to be the best booster of its virtues and the most avid detractor of its shortcomings.

    I don't know any candidates, but then… I'm not the chairman of the Hugo Awards Marketing Committee. Websites and logos are definitely helpful: they're mark the industry's maturity and professionalism. But I can't imagine a better marketing coup than finding and crowning the critic-that-saved-Sci-Fi.

  4. I don’t know any candidates,…

    I do, but not everyone would agree with my opinion on her qualifications. (And I still say that what one person considers "good" another will describe as "awful," that there isn't an objective standard, and anyone who claims there is is effectively saying, "My opinions are better than yours.") Besides, she's moved on to other things. Mind you, if I had the money to do it, I'd set up a foundation and fund her going back into doing something along the lines you suggest.

  5. When Gene Siskel likes a movie, it matters to the box office. Sometimes he pans movies that I like, sometimes he praises movies I dislike. What matters is that his reviews are treated as authoritative by a large portion of the American public. (Less so in the days of Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, but sci-fi isn't there yet.) Even if it's elitist, even if there's disagreement, authoritative reviewers are good for their industries. It's not about being right all the time, it's about gaining the audience's trust.

    It seems like we can distinguish objectivity from good taste. Tastes differ, and no matter how good she is, a food critic can't persuade me to like kale or brisket. However, she can persuade me to try new things and couch her praise in a way that maximizes the chances I'll appreciate those things the first time I try them: "If you go to this Vietnamese restaurant, be sure to have the Phở: it's the best in the city." Once she's earned my trust, she can say things like, "If you love experimental narrative structures, you should try Sam Delaney." "If you liked Nylund's Halo novels, you should read Heinlein's Starship Troopers or Steakley's Armor." When I say those things, no one listens. But if sci-fi had a Siskel, he could say them and get people to pay attention.

    I wish you'd say who you're thinking of, but even if she's irretrievably lost to her new job, there's still hope. What if there were a category for "Best Long-form Review"? If the industry can't afford to syndicate a really good reviewer, maybe the Hugos can be a place to recognize good reviews when they occur. You could make authors ineligible and then let the nomination and voting process produce your candidates. Announce the category for next year, and I promise that in the next twelve months people will start competing for the honor. A few years of such competition would produce some clear candidates for our sci-fi Siskel.

    By the way, if you're interested in the political theory that grounds my suggestions, you should take a look at Ackerman and Fishkin's book Deliberation Day. I'm just applying some general insights of deliberative democratic theory to the specific case of the speculative fiction publishing industry.

  6. But if sci-fi had a Siskel

    No one has a Siskel. As you suggest, it isn't even true of the vastly more popular film industry.

    There are dozens of great SF reviewers. None of them are authoritive in the way you suggest and none of them are going to be. The closest person would be John Clute and even he is a long way from your ideal.

  7. I guess that Kevin is talking about me. After all, what you suggest is exactly what I had in mind when I started reviewing in Emerald City. That, however, was almost 15 years ago, and I'm a lot wiser now.

    I should first point out that there are some very good reviewers in the SF field. Gary K Wolfe (Locus) and John Clute (scifi.com) come to mind immediately. However, they are not seen as arbiters of taste in the wider community in the way that Siskel & Ebert were. These days I think it would be very hard to achieve that sort of reputation.

    Over the years of running Emerald City a number of things became clear to me. A lot of people liked what I did (enough to vote me a Hugo), but many more readers disputed my right to pass judgment on books, especially books they liked. As far as they were concerned, I was just some fan with a big mouth whose opinion was no more valid than their own. It didn't matter to them that I read large numbers of books, that I tried to learn from the likes of Wolfe and Clute, and so on.

    So the first thing that your uber-reviewer needs is a solid reputation. She'll probably need to be a respected author in her own right, and be prepared to abandon that to write reviews instead. An academic won't do – see some of the reaction that Roberts' piece has garnered.

    The next thing she'll need is money. Siskel & Ebert got paid well for what they did and consequently had the time to work hard on their craft. Clute and Wolfe do get paid to review, but by no means enough to live off. Most of what I got out of running Emerald City was free books and egoboo. Clute is, as far as I know, the only person in the world to make a living an an SF critic. There isn't the money in the industry to allow others to do so.

    Finally your uber-reviewer will need security. Whoever has the job will be a media celebrity of sorts. She'll be constantly under attack from fans that she has offended by not liking their favorite books enough. One of the many reasons I stopped doing Emerald City was that I got to the point where I felt I needed a lawyer. I wasn't prepared to put my job or my family at risk.

    By the way, books of reviews are eligible for the Best Related Work category of the Hugos and have occasionally been nominated. Clute and Wolfe have both won awards for collections of their reviews – Wolfe a World Fantasy Award – but never a Hugo. Some of the fanzines that won Hugos before Emerald City will doubtless have carried reviews, though I don't know if they were the mainstay of the magazines as they were for me. I also note that one of the many reasons I was told that Emerald City should not be eligible for a Hugo was precisely because it did carry reviews. Back when I started reviews were not considered appropriate content for SF fanzines. That piece of nonsense I hope I have managed to help kill off.

  8. Cheryl, thanks for stopping by. As I've said, I come at this as someone who has loved the genre since childhood, but I'm not an expert. I've never really read sci-fi reviews before, except for the kinds of criticism that Samuel R. Delaney sprinkled throughout his faux interviews.

    As for the slings and arrows you suffered, they sound familiar: "The greater part of critics are parasites, who, if nothing had been written, would find nothing to write." I think this is wrong-headed, but it's exactly the kind of thinking that tends to circulate in a community that feels marginalized by the mainstream and thus defensive, committed to loyalty rather than quality. It's all about boosterism: the critic is supposed to be bound by some weird variant of the Hippocratic oath: "Do no harm." As if bolstering weak writing and poor plots is really helpful? To the author, maybe… (but fool me once….) It's not really good for the industry.

    I'll follow John Clute's reviews for a while and see what emerges, though from what I've seen his writing is a little too performative to immediately hold promise as our uber-reviewer. Maybe I'll pick up Jay Lake's Green on his recent review, which comes right up to the brink of "If you like Gene Wolfe, you'll like Jay Lake," but never quite actually says it.

    Perhaps my request is couched too personally, but I can't help thinking I'm not alone: I know quite a few geeks-made-good who'd like to find their way back to the home-genre a bit more often than they do.

  9. Joshua:

    While there are certainly people who welcome the opinions of informed critics, they are in a fairly small minority. Most readers would much prefer a recommendation from a friend whose tastes they know and trust. Through the magic of social networking they also consider many celebrities to be their "friends".

    Remember also that Adam's criticism of the Hugo nominees was not that they were bad books, but that they were conservative and comfortable. That's actually what most readers want, and it is why such books are popular.

    The ethics thing drives me crazy. Most reviewers I know are honest and fair. The first resort of any fan whose favorite book get slammed is generally to yell, "you're biased," as if deliberate malfeasance is the only possible explanation for not sharing his taste in reading. Anyone who bangs on about the ethics of reviewing is probably either anti-reviewing, or somehow trying to bolster his own reputation at the expense of his fellows.

    Do try the Lake – I have heard a lot of good things about that book and am looking forward to reading it.

Second Opinions