Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Haven't the British Fantasy Society Awards always been a bit odd?

Okay, so there is currently a massive uproar from the awards of the BFS, held at Fantasycon 2011 last weekend. The most detailed explanation of this hoo-ha can be found here, written by Steve Jones. I can totally understand the issues that are being faced by the BFS, and that a shake-up of the awards is overdue, but I can't help feeling that the awards have always been...well, a little odd compared to others.

Here is a list of the award winners for Best Novel since the BFS Awards came into being:

2004 - Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler
2005 - The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower by Stephen King
2006 - Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
2007 - Dusk by Tim Lebbon
2008 - The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell
2009 - Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney (pen-name for Graham Joyce)
2010 - One by Conrad Williams
2011 - Demon Dance by Sam Stone

In my view, when looking at that list, Sam's win suddenly doesn't look quite as out of left-field as it did to me before checking out the other winners. After all, novels from small presses have been celebrated in the past. There has always been a tendency towards the weird and wonderful and niche in the awards (barring perhaps Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman). Although most of these are celebrated authors, with great talents, it would be strange to see the same names on any other awards being handed out. Just for contrast (although admittedly of only small value, because of the differences between them), here are the Best Novel winners from the Hugos from the same period:

2004 - Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
2005 - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
2006 - Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
2007 - Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge
2008 - The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
2009 - The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
2010 - The City and the City by China Miéville
2011 - Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

How can two awards for Best Novel reveal such inordinately different names? How can the BFS Awards (British FANTASY Awards) have revealed such a list of horror writers as their preferred talent?

Just for fun, let's also throw in the winners for the World Fantasy Award:

2004 - Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
2005 - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
2006 - Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
2007 - Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe
2008 - Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
2009 - The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford
2010 - The City and the City by China Miéville
2011 - ????

Once again, the BFS Awards have shown themselves to be distinctly odd with respect to the particular winner they've picked (although, again, I state that some of these differences are thanks to the assumed ineligibility of some of these winners compared to the BFS Awards).

Having said that, let's look at some of the fantasy novels that have been published and were eligible in the same year that Sam Stone's Demon Dance was declared top dog of fantasy novels (bearing in mind that I cannot easily find any reference to what makes a novel eligible, so I'm guessing it would be by a British author and published within 2011):

- The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
- Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
- The Hammer by K J Parker
- The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
- The Neon Court by Kate Griffin
- Savage City by Sophia McDougall
- By Light Alone by Adam Roberts
- Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper
- The Age of Odin by James Lovegrove
- Corvus by Paul Kearney

I have to say, if I were Sam Stone I would be feeling embarrassed to have been handed an award when the above weren't even shortlisted... (in fact, I see that she has been moved to return her award, which is incredibly fair of her but also a damning indictment towards a system that allowed it to be awarded in the first place).

But is this Sam's fault? Only to the extent that she lobbied her fans to vote in a system that allowed them to vote. The first past the post system utilised by the BFS means that Sam could fairly easily drum up enough support in an award that is notorious for not receiving very many votes.

For me, the issue is not so much the winner, but is the longlist and shortlist itself - far too heavy on horror, small press and niche authors - and the lack of support from the members. Over the years the members must have grumbled each year at the Best Novel winner, and yet NOTHING has been done to make extensive changes to date. Therefore, in my mind, the fault lies with the majority who don't vote and then bitch about the winners afterwards. In my mind, if you have the opportunity to vote in an award/election/anything then you do so otherwise you forego bitching afterwards.

Personally, I think that positives are already emerging from this matter - although Sam has been put into a vile position, and although some harsh words have been passed across the divide between the two camps, it looks as though new members are being encouraged to join the BFS and effect change by nominating and voting next year. I certainly plan to do so. So here is the call to arms: if you've even been remotely interested in the Awards handed out this year and feel it could and should have been different, get yourself a membership of the BFS and start making a difference. Next year, the BFS should be handing out awards that mean something from a massively strong shortlist. We have one of the finest communities of fantasy writers in the world and need to use the awards to celebrate that fact.


  1. A good balanced assessment there, Amanda. It's a tricky one to get right in terms of being neutral, but it also does strike me the awards gave out a very wrong impression. The quality of the winners is not the issue, I feel, just the way things were run. This needs to addressed in time for next year's event - like you say, maybe this incident is the wake-up call needed.

    Great post!

  2. 'Next year, the BFS should be handing out awards that mean something from a massively strong shortlist. We have one of the finest communities of fantasy writers in the world and need to use the awards to celebrate that fact.'

    This. Exactly this.

  3. This year's winner certainly wasn't out of left-field if you're thinking in terms of genre rather than quality. The BFS awards do tend to focus on weird fantasy, despite the society's name changing, and this book fits there very snugly.

    It's wrong to say "NOTHING" has been changed - very big changes were made to the awards procedure three years ago. And there is no lack of interest from members. Any suggested change to the procedure is hotly debated at the AGM.

    The 2011 award is for novels published in 2010.

  4. Thanks for the clarifications Stephen - but therein lies another fault with the BFS at the moment: communication. There have been complaints already that people weren't made aware that the AGM was open to all - I'm sure there would have been issues even more hotly contested this year had there been more knowledge of this fact.

    In addition, I looked on Wiki and on the BFS site and I'm damned if I could find easily the criteria for how to nominate anything for the 2011 awards. If you want people to nominate and vote, make everything more clear and communicate more.

    What big changes were made to the awards procedure? As far as I can tell, it's always had the longlist nominated by the membership and then the shortlist voted on by the membership...

  5. No, the shortlist has only been voted on for the last few years.

    Before that, although a shortlist was announced, the result had already been decided by voting on the longlist. This meant that awards could literally be won by getting a handful of first choice votes, which is why we felt it had to change.

    We hoped it would lead members to read as many nominees as possible before voting; clearly that hasn't happened this year, which is why I'd support a change now to having a panel read the shortlisted works.

  6. Think one of the changes was going from: nominate to get the longlist then vote on that to get the winner with the shortlist emerging from the runners up; to vote on the longlist to get the top five for the short list, then vote on that to get to winner. I think. Possibly. Errrm....

    Not that it was easy to nominate multiple things in the first place due to the form that was in use that only let you do one at a time (have had words about that, and apparently it's changing for next year)

  7. Sorry about that, Jenny...! It was designed to make it easier to process the recommendations - i.e. each would end up in its own cell in the spreadsheet.

    But given that the longlist was so much shorter than usual, with barely any recs in some categories, I think it was a mistake. For one thing I didn't consider the power of an empty form to prompt people's memories.

  8. Just took some persistence to nom multiple things, is all. :-)

    Oh, Pete Coleborn has asked me to mention on his behalf:
    "The British Fantasy Awards started in the 1970s, not 2004. The eligibility year is the preceding calendar year (ie 2010 in this case). And yes, lack of "fantasy" is due to people not nominating or voting."

  9. I think it is beyond odd for someone to preside over the tabulation of votes for awards for which he and his partners in life and in business are nominated.

  10. Thanks for taking such a balanced view, Amanda. Hopefully there is something positive in this - the way I see it, if more people join as a result then it's something: we end up with a stronger, better, more balanced Society, and that's good for everyone.

  11. You can find the criteria for the awards on the BFS site here:

    Nominees do not need to be British. Or fantasy. For that matter, the book doesn't even need to be published in the UK. However, as you spotted, the de facto state of play is British & horror. The last American winner was in 2005 (Stephen King), the last non-horror winner was China Miéville (2003) .The winner is almost always a credible candidate for any 'best of the year' discussion, and often someone overlooked by the other awards (see the King, Gaiman and Joyce picks). And even in its weirdest moments, the BFS selection is historically no more or less bizarre than any other award (e.g. the controversy that has erupted around Gaiman's YA pick, the Chabon win, Willis' Blackout, etc. etc). There are now other awards that veer more commercial or more progressive or more science fiction-y or whatever. None of them will ever produce a book that everyone will agree upon, but all of them spur discussion. Which, if people would talk more about books and less about process, is probably the point...

    I'm with Lou. I joined the BFS last year, and it has been quite a bit of fun. The publications alone are worth the cost of admission.

  12. I think you are missing one of Stephen Jones' points of his article. It is not about the winner in general, but about a relationship between David Howe and British Fantasy Society with some of the winners that can easily raise questions. The credibility of the BFSA this year suffered greatly, although none can say that strange things happened. It would not be fair. Still, being in personal relationship with the chair of British Fantasy Society (if I am not mistaken) or having him as director of the publishing house and winning the award can in most natural way raise questions of credibility and eligibility. That, I believe, is the main problem with BFSAwards this year.
    Also, having numerous votes from fans doesn't mean that you deserve an award. Actually, you do, but of popularity. Not necessary of quality. I will not talk about Sam Stone's "Demon Stone", I didn't read it, but I know Gary McMahon and Graham Joyce's novels from the shortlist and those are award material. At least for me. Not overly popular, but how many works that won awards were in the first line of popularity? That's why you need a jury. Pick 5 or 10 members for a jury each year and the awards will gain credibility. There will still be voices to contest those results, but I don't think that they will be as many as this year.
    On the good side, to promote small and indie publishing houses and authors is a praiseworthy attitude. I do not have a problem with that at all. It is true that you need to balance those with the big guns of publishing too. But bringing small and big voices together can lead only in improvement. And as long as the award is judged the same for everyone I don't see any problem. As for horror, I think that some of the strongest voice of modern speculative fiction come from horror. It is not wrong to properly acknowledge them.
    I am convinced to join British Fantasy Society, at least for a year, to see how and if things are improved next year :)

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  14. So the British Fantasy Award only dates back to 2004? Then why do I have one that says '1989' on it?