Sunday, 27 November 2011

British Fantasy Awards: why I'd reluctantly suggest that BFS members vote against the proposed changes

The BFS has announced its proposals for the British Fantasy Awards, and, to be frank, I think they’re a bit of a mess. The previous procedure had a leak or two, but the new proposals chop up the boat and build a rickety raft that I reckon will sink the first time it hits a storm. Even the new awards administrator says she has a lot of questions about how they are supposed to work, and no one involved in proposing them has come forward to explain.

It's a procedure that's been put together in a rush – albeit with good intentions – and it shows. Basic issues are unaddressed, such as how the administrator should decide between ties. When you have a hundred or so people recommending a hundred different books for four slots, you’re going to get a lot of ties. I can't imagine that there’s a fair way to decide between ten books that all got three votes, and putting them all onto the shortlist would be ridiculous (and isn’t countenanced by the new rules). Rolling a D10 is great when it comes to dodging a goblin's sword thrust, but it's not how the BFA shortlist should be decided!

I’m not sure why they didn’t just keep the old system but have a jury read the shortlist. That was what we thought we were voting for, more or less. For example, there had been no suggestion until this procedure was announced that voting on the longlist was going to be abolished. Or that members would be limited to making three recommendations. At the 2010 AGM I tried introducing a rule that limited members to five recommendations: the response was so negative I withdrew the proposal without even putting it to the vote!

I’m really disappointed by what that all means: there’s going to be very little member participation in the awards. We won’t get to vote, and only a handful of us, if any, will be involved in the juries, which are unclearly stated to "comprise individuals directly or indirectly related to the writing, publishing and bookselling genre fields". Although everyone who reads a book is at least indirectly related to the publishing fields, the intention seems to be to limit the jurors to industry types. Ordinary BFS members are going to pay for the awards, but will have practically no say in the results. (Except in so far as their recommendations will contribute to the shortlist, and that contribution may be discounted at the discretion of the juries – see below.)

One big but unannounced (and possibly inadvertent) change is in the detail of the wording: what was a constitution now becomes just guidelines. This is a potential nightmare: under these proposals the BFS committee will lose the ability to vote for changes to the procedure, but since the rules will now be just guidelines, the administrator can make up new rules on the fly as they need them, as long as they don’t actually add them to the formal rules. So we’ll end up with the awards being run on a series of unwritten and informal – and thus inconsistent and unaccountable – rules. I’ve seen that happen in the past, and it wasn't pretty.

The problem is, I think, that the people who have put together the new procedure haven’t (as far as I know) run a cycle of the awards between them. So they’ve decided what the rules should be, based on what they don’t want to happen (i.e. they don’t want Sam Stone to win again), but don’t seem to have thought ahead and imagined how the awards will play out based on these rules.

Let’s do that.

For example, we know that Sam Stone won best novel having got at least 24 votes this year. Let’s imagine that those 24 people split their 72 short story recommendations for 2012 over four of her short stories from her 2011 release, Zombies in New York. All four stories would be practically guaranteed a place on the shortlist.

(In fact, going on recommendations levels in previous years, I reckon six, five or even four recommendations will usually be more than enough to get a spot on the shortlist under the new rules - in the best novel category in 2010, only one title got as many as six recommendations, and that was when members could make unlimited recommendations per category, not just three. I reckon that under the new rules a canny publicist could buy a book straight onto the shortlist for under £300.)

So we have a shortlist for best short story that is entirely made up of Sam Stone’s short stories. Now what does the awards admin do? Well, nothing, the rules don’t allow her to. Although since the rules are now just guidelines, she could go off-track... but that way lies madness!

So the shortlist goes to the jury, who have no idea who recommended a piece or why. By the rules proposed they have to read the stories to decide whether they should be kicked off the shortlist. So they request them from the publisher, who supplies five copies of Zombies of New York. The jury reads them, and then has to decide whether to throw them off the shortlist.

If they don’t kick them off, the shortlist is announced as four stories by the same author from the same book, and the BFS is right back where it started, mired in controversy and accusations of nepotism.

If they do want to blackball them, they’re going to have to play detective. They’ll have to trawl Facebook and Twitter to see if there’s any evidence of the suspected canvassing, which is just a ludicrous thing to expect of literary jurors. If they find any, they can then kick the stories off the shortlist. If they can’t, then presumably the stories stay on the shortlist.

(Note that the option to remove books from the shortlist for canvassing only applies to bad books. If you have what the jury considers a good book, canvassing is not against the rules, and no one will go looking for it. Nothing unfair about that, is there?)

If the shortlist is then announced without any of Sam’s short stories, the publisher is going to know that she has been kicked off the list, and there is going to be a scandal. BFS members are going to know that their votes have been discounted. The publisher will be annoyed about all the money he spent on supplying those books. And the BFS is going to have to publicly defend its decision that the short stories were so bad that they only got onto the shortlist by “canvassing”. It’s not catastrophizing to say that the BFS, its award administrator and the jurors could very, very quickly (by which I mean next April) find themselves on the wrong end of a defamation suit.

So that’s why I’m against that bit. Another problem is that although 50% of people surveyed voted against splitting the best novel category into fantasy and horror awards, it’s been proposed anyway. The proposers think it’s an important step to put fantasy back at the heart of the awards, and I can see why they think that. But this has been proposed before, and the proposed new rules don’t address any of the problems that have previously been raised with it. They have just left all the problems for the next awards admin to sort out. Lucky her!

My preference would have been for the “Conan” amendment I suggested, reserving one spot on each fiction shortlist for sword-swinging fantasy. Easy and practical to implement, saves the cost of an extra awards trophy, and sidesteps all the problems a split award will introduce. Another obvious and fairly easy option would have been to have a separate award for sword-swinging fantasy. Keep the best novel, but add an award for that particular sub-genre. (The David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy had its roots in a proposed BFS award of this type.)

It’s also frustrating that in naming the award for Fantasy after Robert Holdstock – who was of course a wonderful writer who fully deserves to have awards, streets and bridges named after him – they’ve (i) failed to identify it as an award intended to highlight the kind of fantasy that is so neglected in the BFS awards, and (ii) named yet another award after a man. If this proposal goes through we’ll be up to four awards named after men (some of them fairly obscure), and none named after women. The BFS has an ongoing problem with gender representation in its awards: this would have been an ideal opportunity to do something about that, rather than make it worse.

Members will take part in an online vote on these proposals from from mid-day on 1 December 2011 to mid-day on 8 December 2011. Ideally, one would hope that the proposers will take the criticism of the proposals on board and try to fix them before we have to vote, or at least separate out the controversial bits. If they don't, would voting against these proposals leave the BFS in a fix, as has been suggested? No, because the existing awards constitution, which is a pretty robust document, allows the committee to introduce changes by a formal vote. The new committee will be able to sift through the wreckage of these proposals and implement the bits that were a good idea (having a jury read the shortlist) and ditch the rest (pretty much everything else, as far as I can see).

The key question for BFS members to consider is this: would things have been better had these rules been in place for this year’s awards?

If you didn’t like David Howe asking his girlfriend, her BFF and their other friends to hand out the awards at the ceremony, how would you have felt if they had been appointed to a jury that decided eight of the awards? And how would you have felt about them having the ability to secretly kick your books off the shortlist? I doubt David would actually have done that, of course, and had those people been on a jury I’m sure they would have fulfilled their duties admirably and conscientiously, but that's the power the awards administrator and the jury will now have. It's easy to trust a hypothetical juror. Think of people you don't trust (for some of you that'll be me!): would you want them to have that power?

I wanted a change to the procedure as much as anyone – I was one of the first to say online that this year's results were a sign we should consider introducing a jury system – but I can't in good conscience vote for proposals that include secret blackballing of nominees, give a commercial sponsor the power to pick a jury, make it easier than ever to game the shortlist, and reduce the rules to the status of guidelines. Unless these things get fixed, I'm afraid I think that members should vote no. The proposals, as they stand at the time of writing, will in my opinion make the awards worse, not better.

But if you vote yes, I’ll forgive you. I just want to point out the problems before it all gets set in stone. We can always get rid of the bits that don't work at the next AGM.


  1. Interesting thoughts; my own is do we need the awards at all? Aren't they the equivalent of a tiny group of people patting each other on the back whilst the rest of the world fails to give a damn and focuses on Twilight/Harry Potter/Eragon etc?

    Oh and I'm most amused by your roleplaying reference.

  2. I don't know if we need them, but I do find them very interesting!

    I think the important thing about them for me is that they are a community activity, something BFS members do together (albeit much less so under the new rules). They're also something for us to talk about - pretty much the only thing that ever gets people talking on the BFS forums!

  3. I thought the point behind this revamp was to get away from the conception that it's just 'a tiny group of people patting each other on the back' and back to the idea of awards recognising literary quality.

    And yeah, in a world where everyone is reading "Twilight" etc, it seems vital to remind people that there are other criteria for success than how many copies you can get flying off the shelves.

  4. If they stripped away all the rest of the proposals, and just had a jury reading the shortlist as produced by the existing rules, I'd vote yes enthusiastically.

    I want two things: (i) the awards to be decided by people who have read the nominees and (ii) a well thought-out awards procedure. It's a shame that I'll have to vote against the former because they haven't given us the latter.

  5. Now that the bit about removing nominees in camera has been removed from Proposal 1, I'll be very happy to vote for it. I'm still not keen on the "directly or indirectly" bit, but that's so woolly it won't have any effect anyway. Aside from that, having the awards ultimately decided by a jury is just what I was after.

    All the other stuff I think is a bad idea is in the other proposals, so if Proposal 1 goes through and the others don't I'll be very happy.