What I Want, Exactly
In a post entitled ‘The Hugos, The Clarke Awards And What Do You Want, Exactly?’, Cora Buhlert writes:
“The Hugos are broken” posts came mainly from (male) British critics this year, and not against international fans and writers in general… Indeed, the one thing I don’t see on the list are British nominees, at least not in the fiction categories, which probably explains the dissatisfied grumblings of British fans and critics right there.
I’m not sure that first point is borne out by her own round-up post which links to not a single male British critic. Given this, her explanation for these grumblings is even less plausible than it would ordinarily be. She then goes on to discuss the Arthur C Clarke Award:
Indeed, my main reaction to the Clarke shortlist in comparison to this year’s Hugo controversy is the question to all the Hugo critics, “Is this really what you want?” An award shortlist chosen by a jury of qualified experts, which nonetheless winds up consisting entirely of white men and books which are far less diverse in theme and style (several of the nominees are basically reimaginings of hoary old SF tropes) than those on the Hugo shortlist, for all their flaws. One thing that all of these discussions and their recurrence show is that the SFF community is changing. However, it’s not necessarily changing into the direction that the brigade of young male British critics would prefer.
I don’t know who this brigade is but – speaking as a young(ish) male British critic – I certainly prefer this year’s Clarke shortlist to that of the Best Novel Hugo (and I prefer the BSFA Award shortlist to both). I base this on my previous experience of the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, Mira Grant, Lois McMaster Bujold, John Scalzi, Chris Beckett, Nick Harkaway and Ken MacLeod (and M John Harrison and Adam Roberts). That is not to say that I’ve read the majority of the work on the shortlists but I do think it allows me to make a relatively informed comparison. However, what I find interesting about Buhlert’s post is not these specific points but the fact she links criticism of the Hugos with criticism of the Clarke, particularly with respect to diversity. I think this is unsuccessful because of a failure to discussion the ways in which the awards are fundamentally different, a difference that is, I think, how they are decided (five judges versus any interested member of Worldcon) than what they decide. By discussing that issue, I aim to answer Buhlert’s rhetorical question more fully.
The Clarke Award is for best science fiction novel published in the UK; the Best Novel Hugo is for best speculative fiction novel published in the US. The Clarke Award has a pool of eligible work pre-selected by UK publishers; the Best Novel Hugo has no pre-selection of its eligible pool. We know that this year, that means that the judges of the Clarke Award had 82 works to select their shortlist from (substantially higher than in previous years). But the Best Novel Hugo pool is vastly bigger than this – at a conservative guess I’d say at least four times the size. We also know from Niall Harrison’s count that ratio of speculative fiction books published by men and women is very different between the two countries. For example, using books received by Locus in 2011 as a proxy, he found:
Overall, 47% of titles listed were written or edited by women, 53% by men; that’s closer to parity than last year. It also obscures a large difference between the US and the UK. In the US, last year, Locus received very nearly equal numbers of books written/edited by men and women. In contrast, only 1 in 3 books received from the UK was written or edited by a woman.
Which brings us to the fact that this year, for only the second time in its 27 year history, there are no novels by women on the Clarke Award shortlist. I mentioned this briefly the other day when I talked about the existing data on women and the Clarke but it is perhaps worth unpacking a bit more. It is my belief that the lack of women on the shortlist can only be explained by individual sexism, institutional sexism or some combination of the two. A good example of the former theory can be found in this post by James Nicoll:
Congratulations to the Clarkes for resisting the deadly temptation to produce a more diverse nominee list, especially given the outrageous – by what appear to the current standards of British SF – presence of women, persons of colour and Muslims on the submissions list. In particular I’d like to praise you for snubbing Alif the Unseen, which could have only embolden those people into further creativity in the field of SF.
I think most people would agree that when it comes to likely reasons why the judges did not put Alif The Unseen on the shortlist, naked anti-Muslim hatred is pretty far down the list. When it comes to women, however, there is a much stronger case. This is based on the demographic argument that women make up more than half of the world’s population so we should expect them to be represented in those proportions. Given the distance between the 50% we should expect and the 0% we got – the argument goes – it is just not plausible that the four women and one man who judged the award this could not select a book by a woman on merit. As someone puts it in the comments on Nicoll’s post: “An all-male list shows that they’re already judging by something other than quality.” Now, this is a very handy rule of thumb but one that is predicated on supply of eligible work matching those demographics. For the Hugos, it does; for the Clarke, it doesn’t come anywhere close.
To take an example from another area where women remain disadvantaged, a lot of the actively bad practice has disappeared from recruitment and promotion over recent decades but it doesn’t matter if you have impartial criteria and a representative and independent interview panel if only men apply for the job. In this way, a fair selection process can still produce a disproportionate outcome. This counter-argument has been put forward by Liz Williams, one of this year’s judges, and I think it is a compelling reason to believe that the sexism here is institutional rather than individual.
In this respect, I was struck by something that Paul Kincaid said before the award: “If, for instance, Empty Space, Jack Glass, Angelmaker and Alif the Unseen are all excluded from the list, we will have very legitimate cause for concern.” Angelmaker did make the shortlist so hopefully he didn’t find cause for concern with the award this year (Kincaid has written his own dyspeptic piece on the Hugos and the Clarke). What struck me, however, was that you would be hard-pressed to change the ratio of authors and make this core proposition 75% women. If the judges don’t like a highly-rated novel by a man then there are plenty of other highly-rated options by men. If they don’t like a highly-rated novel by a woman then that can wipe out a lot of the available pool. Niall Harrison suggested in his excellent piece on the shortlist that the most plausible other contenders by women were The Method by Juli Zeh (which was shortlisted for a Kitschie) and Pure by Juliana Baggott. There is also vN by Madeline Ashby, a book that had much more mixed reviews but represents pretty much the only core science fiction contender by a woman). I am looking forward to reading these novels but I wish there were many, many more of them; as with the employment example above, I think the focus of fixing the problem needs to be on removing barriers for people who aren’t white men.
You’ll also notice that Empty Space, Jack Glass and Angelmaker are all most readily identified as science fiction whereas Alif The Unseen is most readily identified as fantasy. No one knows whether the judges liked it but didn’t think it was eligible or thought it was eligible but didn’t like it (or, indeed, didn’t like it or think it was eligible). These edge cases offer an additional opportunity for elimination and, if they are not eliminated, they always prove contentious. For example, this comment by Jonathan McCalmont in the context of a very interesting article about how to fix discussion of the Hugo Awards: “An interesting example of this type of thing in practice is the Clarke award which, despite being an SF award, has recently been nominating works of urban fantasy and novels containing talking horses.” Both Zoo City (a primarily fantasy novel by a woman that can be read as science fiction) and The Waters Rising (a primarily science fiction novel by a woman that can be read as fantasy) are dismissed. (McCalmont goes on to echo Cheryl Morgan’s suggestion that this year the judges have directly responded to this reaction: “But then you look at this year’s shortlist and you see nothing but core genre. Something happened. People talked about it. Something else happened.” I find this theory unlikely.)
So, what do I want from the Arthur C Clarke Award, exactly? I want knowledgeable judges to read the submitted work, think carefully about which of these novels truly constitute the best science fiction published that year and advocate passionately for these books to their fellow judges. I want them to be open-minded about what constitutes science fiction and I don’t want them to try and second guess the response their shortlist. I’m lucky because this is exactly how I believe the award already operates. But I also want the judges to be able to draw on a broad, bold and diverse pool of high-quality submissions and sadly that isn’t the case.
The Hugos, however, do not have such a problem so what do I want from them? I want the voters to act as if they were judges, to treat the process of voting as a privilege and a responsibility. I want them to read the material made available to them in the voter pack and cast an informed ballot based on this, meaning categories such as Best Fan Artist to receive as many votes as categories such as Best Novel. I want everyone who can vote to actually vote, meaning more people voted than nominated. But I also want everyone who votes to nominate next year and make use of what the Clarke doesn’t have: a pool of potential nominees constrained only by the imagination of the people who decided the shortlist. Being an informed nominator is a tough job – it is much harder than being an informed voter – but it is only way to make an informed vote truly meaningful. To make this process easier, we all need to help each other by posting our draft ballots, engaging with low nomination categories and just generally talking about what really is the best that speculative fiction has to offer.