There has been some comment on the BSFA’s decision to provide a recommended reading list of non-fiction, rather than a single award; I thought I’d round it up here, and highlight a couple of points that haven’t yet been made. I am not, in any sense, speaking as The Voice Of The BSFA in this matter. I do welcome letters to Vector on this or related issues.
To recap: this year, BSFA members were asked to nominate any written non-fiction work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2006. Based on these nominations, a recommended reading list of five items was compiled and published. This is different to what happened in previous years. The non-fiction category was first introduced in 2001 as an award voted on by the membership, in the same way as all the other categories. It was suspended for 2004; for 2005, a different approach was piloted, in which nominations were invited as normal, and then a judging panel (of which, in the interests of full disclosure, I was a member) selected a winner and a companion recommended reading list.
Paul Kincaid has said that this was a thoroughly excellent arrangement of which he approved: this is not a consensus opinion. Criticisms of the system for the 2005 award include that it (or at least the way it was implemented) implied that BSFA members at large were not competent to judge a non-fiction award; and, from the other end of the spectrum, that recruiting sufficiently knowledgeable judges on an ongoing basis would be difficult if not impossible.
More generally, any non-fiction award faces the problems outlined by Graham Sleight in a comment on my shortlists post:
I think there are a number of problems built into it as it has stood for the last couple of years, and can’t easily see how they could be resolved. Firstly, it tends to privilege book-length over essay-length (and essay-length over review-length) stuff. Given that this is, historically, a field, where a disproportionate amount of critical work gets done in reviews, how are you going to reward that. (Example: I think David Langford is terribly undervalued as a reviewer – as opposed to a fan writer – and I can’t see anything in the non-fic award set-up that would unpick that.) Second, I think comparing stuff written within the protocols of academic writing and the world at large is not exactly apples and oranges but certainly very difficult. And thirdly, as I understand it, the non-fic award currently (and has always?) excluded stuff published in Vector and Matrix, which is a pretty big gap – Gary Wolfe’s piece in the Storying Lives issue, for instance, is one of the best I’ve read anywhere in the last year.
Graham is right that material published in BSFA magazines has always been ineligible for the non-fiction award, on the grounds that the BSFA should not be giving awards to itself. One suggested alternative to the current situation is to have an award only for BSFA-published material. Graham’s own suggestion is to have an award administered by a body other than the BSFA. (Martin McGrath suggests the sort of inter-organisation approach that the Clarke uses.)
Adam Roberts suggests that:
it’s a bit silly offering a ‘recommended reading list’ of SF criticism, rather than deciding (via bsfa vote, or if it’s thought that too few members are interested enough in crit to have read the stuff, by a panel of experts as was done last year) on a title. I assume the intention is to spread the honour around, but I don’t think it works that way: a ‘recommended reading list’ sounds like something your college professor hands to you, and insists that your read whether you want it or not; it seems, paradoxically, dispraising rather than praising the works themselves. An award makes sense in that it picks one title that deserves closer attention, or merits celebration. Otherwise the award becomes like a primary school sport’s day where everybody is given kojak-lollies just for turning up. My ha’pennorth would be: if the bsfa (I mean members, or committee-on-behalf-of-members) isn’t interested enough in Sf criticism to decide an award it should stop offering one: put out an award for TV, cinema, graphic novel instead perhaps. Don’t get me wrong: I think this would be a great shame, and that SF criticism is very poorly represented in the awards culture. But that would seem to me more honest.
Tony Keen raises one objection to the no-award route:
I think my problem with the Non-Fiction Non-Award is the message that it sends out about criticism, that in the BSFA’s opinion writing about sf really isn’t that important, and doesn’t warrant a proper award. Now, of course, actual original sf creation is always going to be more important than the secondary activity of writing about that creation. But nevertheless, good criticism is important, and I feel that part of the mission of the BSFA is promoting good criticism – that is, after all, why Vector exists in its current form. Now, one can say that the recommended reading list does promote non-fiction, and I suppose it does for someone who has time to read all five. But what of someone who doesn’t? One of the functions of the best novel award is the BSFA as a group saying, “if you’re only going to read one novel this year, we think it should be this”. Now the Association is not going to do this for non-fiction. Given, as Adam rightly observes, criticism is not overly supplied with awards, for the BSFA to pull back in this fashion seems to me to be a retrograde step.
I think I’m right in saying that, excluding graduate or society-specific awards, the only awards for non-fiction are the Pioneer Award for the best critical essay-length work of the year, and the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contribution to sf scholarship. There is also the Clareson Award for “outstanding service activities”, which can include sf criticism, and, in principle (although rarely in practice), the Hugo for Best Related Book.
Edward James raises another objection:
I feel really guilty about not going to BSFA meetings, or, if I go, not making my voice heard. But as someone who produces, occasionally, sf non-fiction and does NOT produce science fiction itself, I feel excluded from the organisation which I first joined 43 years ago… You don’t know why the BSFA abandoned the non-fiction award. OK: two questions — can we find out why they abandoned it, and can we restore it? The BSFA, after all, is only the totality of its members… and probably more of its members write ABOUT sf than actually write sf, so one would think that a majority of the membership did favour a non-fiction award
So, these are the questions: is a non-fiction award something the BSFA should continue to have? Is it practical? And if so, what form should it take? None of which are easy to answer. On the upside, at least one of the people on this year’s list is happy with the current arrangement:
And the nicest thing? There’s not going to be an individual winner. They’re calling it the BSFA’s non-fiction recommended reading list. And the BSFA membership won’t be voting on it. Frankly, I find that much less stressful. No getting your hopes up for a win. And looking at that shortlist, I had buckley’s. Julie’s Tiptree bio is not only the best book on that list, it’s the best book about science fiction in a very very long while.