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Black Static


The Glittering Prizes

4th Jul, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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Every so often some fool or other nominates me for an award, and on some occasions I’ve actually won, and at such moments in my life I feel that awards are the most important thing in the world, the true measure of a writer’s worth.

Most of the time though I’m pretty cynical about the whole thing, albeit that won’t stop me banging the drum for my own favourites, and highly dubious as to the merits of any award system, be it down to the public vote or presented at the discretion of some panel of supposed experts and/or professional body. Each and every method of selection seems prone to its own particular shortcomings.

Where the popular vote rules the roost there is too much room for sentiment, and considerations other than actual ability come into play. To prove the point you only need look at the world of reality TV, where the likes of Coleen Nolan and John Sargent, despite their obvious lack of aptitude at ice skating and ballroom dancing respectively, were voted back on over and over again simply because they were well liked by the great British public (and apologies, if anyone feels I’ve lowered the tone here).

The experts, of course, should be above such bias, but that’s true only if you live in an ideal world. In this world, the members of professional bodies are just as prone to favouritism and prejudice as anyone else, and it could be argued that within the charmed circle there is more opportunity for effective brown nosing and what have you, and often the considered opinions of 'experts' seem totally at odds with popular perception. Add to that other factors such as market penetration (e.g. I have no idea if King’s Duma Key was a better novel than the other Stoker nominees in its category, but I am reasonably sure that it sold more copies and was read by more people than all those others put together) and the sheer volume of material that has to be assessed (given the amount of published work that is out there, is anyone in a position to make an informed choice about best novel/collection/short story etc?), and it’s easy to see why the cynics dismiss most awards as popularity contests or lucky dips.

And the fundamental problem with any award, or at least those within the literary world, is that it’s an entirely subjective matter, unlike say a sporting competition where there are clear winners and losers on the day, and so of course there are going to be glitches and results that seem unfair.

Many of these problems were seen in the ill-fated Zene Awards, which I organised for TTA Press back in the day. For those who are late to the party, Zene was a print magazine and the predecessor of The Fix, and if you don’t know what The Fix is there’s a handy link waiting for you up there in the top right corner of the screen.

The idea was sound – ask Zene’s readers to vote for their favourite magazines and writers, artists and poets, as a way of raising the profile of the small/indie press – and that was about the only thing that was sound.

For starters, although Zene had a core readership of several hundred, from memory only seventeen people bothered to vote. And several of those votes, within the various categories, had to be discarded because their recipients were ineligible. The most ‘interesting’ result was in the Best Poetry Magazine category, where the seventeen voters picked sixteen different magazines, and the one with two votes won. Elsewhere, I recall one person who voted for themselves in just about every single category – Best Writer, Editor, Poet, Artist – demonstrating a degree of self-cnfidence that seems hard to credit. While not strictly against the rules, I have the feeling that it was, as we English say, not quite cricket. Oh, and nobody thought to query the fact that the individual who won in the Writer of Non-Fiction category was also the person counting the votes (that would be me – can you smell the stench of corruption?).

Nonetheless, flawed as they are, I think awards do serve a useful purpose, in that they help to focus our minds on what is best about a given genre, to boost standards of excellence within literature and to acknowledge the contribution of individuals who might otherwise go unrecognised. And, all reservations about the selection process aside, in general awards do end up being given to people who deserve them, even if we personally do not agree with a particular choice. It’s as if those who decide such things, either by popular vote or some more esoteric process, have an inbuilt good sense that, when push comes to shove, compels them to focus on the quality of the work and ignore other considerations and distractions (a good sense that invariably deserts people when the time comes to select who will govern the country, but that’s an issue for another day and another blog).

And, perhaps the most important factor, awards are fun. We all like to shoot the breeze about our personal likes and dislikes, and awards provide both a pretext and a structure for that, a focus for our constant and ongoing conversations about what is hot and what is not.

With that last in mind, during the month of July I’d like to use this blog to shine a little light on the British Fantasy Awards, which are voted on by the British Fantasy Society’s membership and presented at the BFS Convention in September. A while back it came to my attention that Charles Tan was interviewing nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award on a dedicated blog, and it occurred to me it should be possible to do something similar for the BFAs under the umbrella of Case Notes. I can’t interview all the nominees – there are just too many of them, and I don’t have time to read the books that I’ve missed – but as a first step I do have pencilled in interviews with Joel Lane and Paul Meloy focused on their nominated stories from Black Static, and I am interested in including other people if they're up for it (for details of that, follow the first link below).

I won't however, be directly asking anyone other than Joel and Paul to contribute, tempting as that is, as I don't want to leave myself open to any later charge of personal bias (except in the case of Black Static stories, where bias is perfectly justifiable). So, if you're interested in promoitng your BFA nominated work please get in contact via, and if you're not, then that's cool too.

July is British Fantasy Awards month at Case Notes.


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