I’ve been pretty wound up the last couple of days. And yes, I know I’m getting older and have publically said I intend to become a “grumpy old man”, but this is about books. Books!
I’ve sat on this for a couple of days because I disagree with people I like. I think they’re massively wrong but that doesn’t mean I think they’re idiots or never want to speak to them again. So I don’t want to say anything that singles them out or distorts what they actually said. Over the last couple of days I’ve slipped into generalisations, and as we know people are defined by their exceptions, quirky little beasts that they are.
So I’m going to talk in general terms and not mention names. So if you read this and think “that sort of sounds like what we were talking about the other day” it probably was, but that was my jumping off point and my argument is not about the specifics. I want to talk about books and nepotism and awards and promotion, and I want to talk in general terms.

We’re about to enter award season and with it come the blog posts moaning about awards and voting and all that malarkey. Later, when awards have been announced, we’ll moan about the awards and the voting and all that malarkey and so the circle goes.
The SFF community, especially in the UK, seems extra sensitive about awards this year. The BFS showed what happens when well-meaning nepotism isn’t guarded against.
For that reason (amongst others), some have taken exception to the fact that some authors are making people aware of what work of theirs is eligible for various upcoming awards. There is this view that if it’s done there’s the risk of skewing the votes towards the popularity of the author rather than the quality of the work. I think that’s a fair concern whilst not one I particularly think a problem. My issue is that some people have said that they won’t vote for any author who has announced his eligibility.
If we’re really concerned that a vote is about the quality of the work rather than popularity surely the converse is true. If an author is a complete douche but writes the most amazing book, don’t they still deserve our vote? If you’re going to boycott authors, isn’t that just as bad (in terms of skewing the vote) as just voting for author X because they are popular?
The thing that really “gets my goat” is that somewhere buried in that argument is the assumption that everyone is an idiot. That I’ll just vote for author X even though I’ve not read their new book, because they wrote an entertaining blog post and they mentioned they were eligible.
“Ahh, yes,” the boycotters say. “But even you admit that nepotism exists.”
True, it does. But that’s not how it happens. I’ve thought a lot about this over the last couple of days and think it largely comes around for two reasons.

  1. A question of finance. Hardbacks are expensive and it’s rare that the hardback and the paperback come out the same year, leading to all those, except the most devoted (or those who make proper use of their libraries) to wait for the paperback release. As a result, when it comes to voting it’s easy to find that most of the ‘new’ novels you read in the previous year don’t qualify. This limits the pool of possible nominations to just those that you were willing to shell out for the hardback for (popular authors, author friends, etc.). Faced with either voting for something they haven’t read, something they have or not voting, people vote for what they have.
  2. A question of sociology. The SFF community is a small one with a vast array of views. It makes it interesting but it means there are little cliques (although to be fair nowhere near as bad as other social groups I’ve belonged to). We largely tend to be friends with people who share the same interests and passions as us. Let’s face it, if there was another writer who loved Star Wars, Geocaching and monsters, I’d probably get on with them. Now if those passions fuelled the ideas behind a book, there’s a higher chance I’m going to like it. So I don’t like a book because someone is my friend so much as I like the book because the ideas and friendship have a similar origin.

As a result I think nepotism is a lot more complicated than just “voting because someone you like told you something was eligible” and to discourage people from announcing their eligible works is not seeing the real reason it happens.
But the issues go further than just nepotism. I think popular authors also have a major problem as well. If they’re nominated people moan they’ll get loads of votes and be a shoe in. “Think about the other guy who’s never won an award,” people will blog and tweet. But if they withdraw, they’re suddenly dissing the awards, and the person who eventually won only did so because author x withdrew. They can’t win, because they can’t help but win.
When I see things like this, I do get annoyed. There’s a reason a popular author is popular. They did not wake up one day and be bestowed the title and the admiration. They worked like everyone else and built up their fan base through the same opportunities every other author has. If people are so worried about lesser-known works getting missed by the voting public… maybe that energy they spend ranting should be spent spreading the word about the book (*looks at self, says nothing*).
But, no! Apparently talking about books is now out of fashion! I’ve noticed a number of people moaning on twitter about how everyone is going on about one new book or another. These are people I like but I just don’t understand it. I’d question whether they thought twitter was made just for them, but I know they’re intelligent, decent people and I’m not going to paint them as idiots when they are not.
I was told that the problem is the hype… that the expectation never matches the end result. But to be honest, if there was no hype, no excitement, it would still be the same book, the same words. Hype does nothing to change the actual quality of a book. It might change your own expectations, but then surely the problem lies with you and not the book.
And how’s it the author’s fault if people are excited? It’s not like they’re standing in the wings geeing everyone up. People are wrong for being excited about things? I just don’t understand that. Maybe it’s because they are excited about things I may not be? I still don’t understand it.
So instead, it seems that people are arguing that we should keep quiet about books. I don’t think they seriously mean that, but that’s what they are implying. We should not mention authors’ eligibility, we should not mention them at all. And through this self-imposed censorship we’ll all be richer for it? I don’t think so!