So, I found out recently that the committee of the David Gemmell Legend Awards wanted me to assist them in promoting the award and ensuring as many votes were cast as possible to pick a suitable winner. This got me to thinking about the differences - the pros and cons - of juried awards versus popular awards.
The DGLA are an example of the latter - publishers submit any novels for consideration that they believe fit the remit of the award, these are all listed on a longlist and the public is able to then vote on the one they want to see go forward for the shortlist. I was also made aware (hadn't been up to that point!) that, if the public believes a novel *should* be on the longlist for voting but wasn't put forward by a publisher, then it can be submitted for consideration. After the deadline has passed, that longlist becomes a shortlist, and the vote is then reopened to the public.
Juried awards, on the other hand, involve a small panel of people hand-picked (usually for their expertise and experience - and probably their willingness to be involved) who will read all of the entries into an award, decide on a shortlist themselves and then finally pick their winner. As with popular awards, the entries are submitted by publishers - I don't think, in this case, there is any opportunity to add additional titles if they are felt to be missing.
So.... What is good about a juried award?
As I said before, the panel are deemed to be experts on the subject, or at least knowledgeable enough that they will be able to find a suitable winner. They have been picked to cast their collective eyes over the best of the speculative fiction published in a specific year. Whether true or not, this tends to give an air of gravitas and prestige to an award - the juried awards are recognised and debated and generally thought to be an excellent way of discussing literature. All the juried awards generate great excitement in their respective spheres each year - from the announcement of the shortlist to the eventual winner - and there tends to be national press generated from the result.
The judges will all read through a large number of novels to decide on those they feel represent the spirit of the award - consequently, there does seem to be more credibility, since the judges have looked at the merits (or not) of many books alongside each other. This is unlike the Hugos, say, where a person can still vote in a category even if they have only read one of the nominations - hell, as long as they are a member, they could vote in a category where they haven't read any of the shortlisted works!
What is bad about a juried award?
Although there is a panel of judges, which takes away an element of this, these type of awards will always be incredibly subjective. It is merely the opinion of six people, or a dozen people. Obviously the fact that a decision has to be reached (without a fist fight!) ensures that a little of this subjectivity is removed - but, honestly, what right do these six people (for example) have to tell the rest of the reading population what the "best" novel is?
Small presses never seem to be as well represented as the larger presses. This might change as a result of Zoo City winning the Arthur Clarke this year, since Angry Robot is a smaller publisher than those who have recently carried away the award - we can only hope, since a number of small presses are producing seriously exciting and boundary-pushing works.
Sometimes subgenres can be sneered at a little by the judges, as in with the Booker Prize and genre fiction - it can be argued that, if an award for excellent literature is ignoring a whole subfield, then how can they possibly be presenting the best work. This year there was both delight and mystification about a YA novel sitting proudly on the ACCA shortlist - Monsters of Men didn't win the prize, but it contained accomplished writing, and good discussion on the nature of warfare. I know some people who declared they would refuse to read this book, simply because it was YA. With a popular award, no subgenre is exempt from being voted on.
And what else is good about a popular award?
Well, democracy apart from anything else. It is the most democratic way of establishing a winner. The quality of that winner can be debated from here to the ends of the earth (did they just manage to enable their fans better than the other representatives? Did the people voting only read the one novel they voted on?) but the system itself is sound. One person, one vote. It's your fault if you moan about the result, but didn't cast a vote, you know?
An argument can be made as to the pool of voters - how many people voted? The DGLA team at Eastercon revealed that this year over 10,000 people had voted on the longlist to create the shortlist. Some people would say that was a decent number, since effort has to be made to make the decision and visit the voting site (and even be aware that it's occurring!) but when you consider the large number of fantasy readers across the world and the international nature of the DGLA (anyone can vote, remember?) it might be argued that this is, in fact, a very small percentage of people.
On the bad side, a popular award is only as good as the publicity it receives. If people are not aware about it happening, or are not stirred to cast their vote, the award will lose credibility. There is the possibility of it being seen as a little meaningless, since the winner is *just* picked by the public.
Specifically for the DGLA I want to discuss, as a con, the fact that fantasy is the genre being dealt with - for good or for ill, fantasy tends to come in series. And this means a situation like 2011's DGLA shortlist - three of the novels from six are the second novel in a series. One is the thirteenth! Only two of those novels can be picked up immediately for people to read if they wished to effectively judge themselves the best of the shortlist. Science fiction produces far more standalone fiction - this year the ACCA had only one novel on the shortlist that required any prior reading (the aforementioned Monsters of Men) which does allow people with a casual interest to pick up most of the shortlist and try it out for themselves.
What's my ultimate conclusion? That both types of awards have pros and cons, and a place in the literary sphere for publicising good literature. Without either award, we might be less aware of all the excellent novels that are available each year for reading. With juried awards, we get to disagree vehemently with the judges' decision! With popular awards, we get to marshal our "gangs" and try to push our favourite to the top of the heap! Both have their place and should be celebrated.
So, with all that said, go vote immediately on the 2011 David Gemmell Legend Awards and know that you're having a democratic effect on the best fantasy novel of the past year. Then come back and debate with me vigorously the merits (or not) of both types of award!