Saturday, 29 October 2011

The British Fantasy Awards kerfuffle: a view from a former awards admin

My post from September 2010 on Withdrawing TQF from the British Fantasy Awards now seems unfortunately prophetic, given the doorway the BFS and its awards walked into at FantasyCon a year later. Among other things I said (emphasis added in bold):

"The BFS is now taking recommendations for next year's awards, and I've decided to withdraw Theaker's Quarterly Fiction from the Best Magazine/Periodical award for as long as I'm the awards administrator, or as long as I'm the editor of the magazine – whichever tenure comes to an end first. …

That's partly because I'd have been profoundly embarrassed to win the award over a shortlist that included for example Black Static and Interzone, magazines to whom, for all our good qualities, we can't hold a candle. But also because a win for us in that category would have cast not just my integrity into doubt, but the integrity of the entire awards."

Hard to believe now that some people thought I was over-cautious. (In the event I had resigned from the post of British Fantasy Awards admin by the time this year's awards got seriously underway. I did offer to stay on until the AGM, but luckily (for me, at least) I was given permission to leave straight away.)

Of course it wasn't just the results of this year's awards that caused all the fuss. It was also the people chosen to present the awards (the chair's partner, her close friend, and other friends and colleagues of theirs), the toe-curling scripting of the entire ceremony, the scolding of the MC when she went off-script, etc. The lack of any accounts at the AGM caused a lot of concern. There had also been rumblings before the event: there seems to have been some ongoing quarrelling between the BFS chair and the FantasyCon organisers, and about a week before the event the BFS cancelled all its rolling PayPal memberships, because they wanted to be able to increase fees each year more easily. Not the best PR move in the world.

But the results played a pretty big part. I've said before that I think this year's results would have been the same had I still been running them, which in a way is more depressing than the idea that they were down to one dodgy geezer. It's hard to find anyone who has actually said they believe the results were falsified – although since that suggestion was made in the newspapers, the BFS should have done a full audit, as allowed for by the awards constitution, before declaring that they absolutely, definitely hadn't been in a statement that seems unreliable, to put it kindly, in other respects.

BFS committee members have said that the results were counted electronically, as if that automatically removes any opportunity for wrongdoing (or error). It doesn't, of course. For example, in 2010 TQF got onto the shortlist as a result of a non-member vote being disqualified by the secretary at the last minute (I don't think the other magazine lost its place on the shortlist – the lost vote created a tie which took us both on). It's not hard to imagine a situation where the disqualified vote would have knocked my magazine out of the nominees. Who would have known if I decided to leave that vote in?

The "electronic counting" in question is just using Gdocs or Excel to count up the results, or at least it was in previous years: that most definitely does not exclude the possibility of wrongdoing, even if we don't think it happened. The awards admin could get up to any old nonsense if they were so inclined - excluding valid nominees, creating fake voters, excluding valid voters, etc.

And there's always room for error. Last year a couple of items were initially left off the longlist after I lost them in a mail merge. The previous year there was a novella on the shortlist for best short story. This year, we know that there was at least one very significant mistake at the shortlisting stage: the awards admin forgot to count up the write-in votes.

In the end, though, we don't need to look for wrongdoing or error to explain the results. After all, if you look at the 2010 nominees, when I was running the awards, a lot of the same people show up in similar categories.

What happened this year, I would imagine, is simply that a smallish group of BFS members and FantasyCon attendees wanted to see particular people win, for reasons of business, friendship or their own contributions to the nominated works. There's nothing unusual or evil about voting for someone because they are your chum - but it becomes a problem for the organisation when that has the appearance of having been the deciding factor in many of the awards given out. That's why there has been such a demand for reform this year.

As I said on the BFS forums, I hope that the reaction to this year's results will have a positive effect even if the rules don't change a great deal, because it will encourage people to think twice before helping to push someone they are friendly with into a potentially awkward and embarrassing position. The results of these awards come under intense scrutiny every year, and if the winning material struggles to stand up to that scrutiny, questions are always going to be asked about how it came to win.

Anyway, the BFS is now consulting BFS members and attendees of FantasyCon 2010 and 2011 on the direction the awards should take. The tricky thing, I think, is that there are competing urges, both coming out of the negative reaction to the results of this year's awards.

On one hand, there's a desire to see the best nominee win. I hadn't read all of the items in every category this year, but as far as the short story category goes, it's practically impossible to believe that anyone who had read all five of the short stories could have voted for the eventual winner in good conscience (four of them were available for members to read online). If a panel read the shortlisted works, that wouldn't necessarily lead to the best in the category winning (remember M People winning the Mercury Music Prize?), but we would at least know that the decision was an informed one. If the result was odd, we would know exactly who to blame for it! However, the idea that one item out of a bunch of usually very good nominees can be categorically described as the best has its own problems. During the couple of years I ran the BFS short story competition, it wasn't at all unusual to see stories given 5/5 and 1/5 by different readers. One would praise the elegant style, the other decry the purple prose.

On the other hand, and perhaps more significantly in the context of the BFS, is the desire to see winners of whom BFS members and FantasyCon attendees approve. Part of that, unfortunately, is that a lot of BFS people like to see awards go to people who attend FantasyCon, something you can see in the ridiculous decision this year to abolish the film and television awards (consistently among the most popular with voters since their introduction). It's clear, watching the YouTube videos of this year's awards, that there was a great deal of unhappiness at the event about the results, in particular best novel, which was greeted very quietly indeed, rather than the rapturous applause of the last couple of years. A preferential voting system, or a 3/2/1 points system (as used at the longlist stage), would at least ensure that each winner had the backing of many members. Even if those members hadn't actually read any of the nominees, they'd be happier with the result. But is that something we should settle for?

The BFS's survey can be found here. Tough choices to make!

Perhaps it would help a little if we stopped being quite so polite about the nominees - if we did actually make the effort to discuss their relative merits. It's just a little awkward when so many of the writers, publishers and editors are on the BFS forums too.

Mr Johnny Mains got quite a bit of criticism a couple of years ago for saying exactly what he thought of one winner, but as I said back then: we've all moaned when a film we think is rubbish wins the Oscars. That's an essential part of the fun of awards! Does it make a difference when we know the people involved? Should it? There is a definite double standard, where people are happy to slag off the work of Stephen King on the BFS forums, assuming he won't read any of it, barely even acknowledging that he's a human being, but call it bullying if anything at all critical is said about the work of people they know. If more people had been a bit less polite about the nominees this year, the principals involved might have had their feelings hurt a bit, but they would have been better prepared for the reaction to the wins, and better prepared to manage the situation.

Certainly, although I loved running the British Fantasy Awards, and it broke my heart to see what happened to them this year, I'm very glad to be free of the need to appear neutral, and glad to have the freedom to say what I actually think of the nominees I've read. If anything, I wish I'd been a bit less subtle, and come out and said outright how crap I thought some of them were. Next year, when the shortlist is announced, let's have a thread on the BFS forums, saying "What do we think of the nominees?" It will be easy for the nominees to stay out of it if they want to protect their feelings.


  1. I like that last idea, Stephen. Let's put politeness to one side and call a spade a spade - or a pile of sh*t just what it is. Mind you, I can just imagine the results. :)
    It's a pity the awards have overshadiwed everything else, because, apart from a few personal niggles, I think the BFS has done very well over the last couple of years and its various committee members have worked hard and concientiously. Although I couldn't attend this year, it's good to hear that this year's con was a record breaker - a far cry from some of the poorly attended ones in the not too distant past.

  2. You're right - from January 2010 to present we've had a good run of fairly regular mailings. The BFS has had much worse periods. From what I remember of Silver Rhapsody, there were years where FantasyCon was practically the only thing the BFS got done.

    I can imagine the results of an honest discussion too! The problem is the "Does my bum look big in this?" factor - if you're not polite about someone's work, they think you must have a motive for not being polite. I suppose you could look at it this way - if I come on the forums and say I read Book X and it was rubbish, that should at least provoke its supporters to come out of the woodwork and explain what they liked about it.

  3. The daft thing is, on the BFS's opinion poll I expressed a preference for the awards to be decided by a panel reading the shortlist, but now I'm hoping it goes the other way, because I don't want to give up my vote...

    It's going to feel kind of empty if the shortlists are announced and then all we do is wait for someone else to decide what should win.

    Head v heart!