Don’t Kick the Puppy (21/6/2011)

It’s the middle of June. Must mean it’s time for the Gemmells and for all its detractors to, well, detract I suppose. It all strikes me as very disingenuous, but I’m sure to those who think the Gemmells are A Bad Thing, there is some sort of deeply important underlying issue at stake, well worth risking the ire of all those who work to make it happen, usually out of their own time and pocket.

Trouble is, three years in, I’m still trying to see what it is. None of you have convinced me that it is A Bad Thing. Flawed, yes, but that fantasy literature would be better off without it? No. What I do think I see, is meanness of spirit and the use of the Gemmells as a pawn in some rather larger and more important debates within the genre. So I challenge you, detractors, to convince me that you’re right, that these awards are, somehow, harmful to our genre, or indeed to anything at all.

No, wait, that’s not going to fly, because then all I’m going to hear are the same things I’ve already heard, and since those arguments haven’t convinced me yet, we’d all be wasting our time. So I’ll trot out the arguments I’ve already heard and tell you why I think they’re either plain wrong or simply irrelevant and disingenuous, and then you can come back to me with how I’ve misunderstood or somehow missed the point, or with some argument that I’ve never heard before. I’m easy to convince of almost anything, provided you can back it up with evidence and don’t talk in absolutes that are easily shown to be false by reductio ad absurdum.

The mission statement for the award is up on their website, as are the criteria for eligibility. “Traditional, Epic, Heroic or High Fantasy and/or in the spirit of David Gemmell.” If you want to argue that this isn’t the same as “rewarding excellence in the field [of the fantasy genre]”, that the scope of the award is too narrow, that by both their choice of scope and the way the winners are chosen by open public vote, the Gemmells reward mainstream commercial fantasy and neither encourage or reward diversity or novelty, go for it. I’ll not disagree. The scope is what it is. It’s narrow. My only question when you’re done will be so what?

So there’s no award for fantasy that doesn’t lie within the scope of the Gemmells. So? The world is full of awards and they all have their own scope, some of them broad, some of them narrow. Does that make them all wrong? Are awards fundamentally bad for having a scope and thus excluding some things from eligibility? Where is the right place to draw a line and say ‘this scope is broad enough and that is not’ and why is your opinion on where that line should be better than mine or those who administer the Gemmells? Criticize the DGLA for their choice of scope if you like – everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Maybe there should be an award for ‘fantasy that doesn’t fall within the scope of the Gemmells.’ Great. I agree. Within reason, I’ll even help.

Criticize the choice of winners if you like. Speech is free, and yes, it’s pretty obvious that if you can gather enough of your friends and fans around you to support you, you can skew the vote, it being a public and open one. So? I don’t hear much criticism of Polish or German or Icelandic or French or Black Library fans for voting for their first choice, and I don’t hear much noise de-crying the apathy of people who didn’t vote. Just the outcome. It’s not perfect. Fair enough. Neither are juries, for that matter (cue endless Booker-Prize-doesn’t-like-genre acrimony).

It is what it is. Criticize it for that by all means. Maybe it could be better. It’s certainly not without its flaws. Complain that it’s not as good as it could be. If the kind of book it seeks to applaud isn’t your cup of tea, you might see very little good in the award. If the money it has raised for charity [1] and the potential for a little social networking between fans and authors and editors[2] leaves you cold, you might see it as having no value whatsoever. A complete irrelevance. I could say that about plenty of things that exist in the world in which I have absolutely no interest whatsoever but which seem to make other people happy, and I’m sure you could too. If it does no harm, so what? Any genre fan who chooses to jump up and shout about something like that would benefit, I suggest, from a little more self-awareness. The world does not revolve around any one of us and what we like. It mostly stopped doing that when we were about five.

That’s if it does no harm. If that’s not true, well then shout and jump and make noises all you like and I’ll shout and jump with you, but so far, I haven’t seen a single convincing argument that says the DGLA is any way bad for anything or anyone.

First complaint: The DGLA encourages mediocrity. Tosh. The Gemmells may by default reward commercial mainstream fantasy of a certain type (and the “of a certain type” is defined by their eligibility criteria). Anyone is entitled to think that commercial mainstream fantasy is all mediocre (“middling or average in quality or performance; rather inferior” – Chambers). That’s a subjective opinion on ‘quality’ and almost by definition incorrect as far as performance goes. In the sum of all opinions, ‘mediocre’ and ‘mainstream’ doubtless overlap to some degree, but neither is a subset of the other. It only takes one person to consider one ‘mainstream’ fantasy book to be of excellent quality for the idea that mainstream = mediocre to be provably false. I don’t need to go very far to find such an example. The idea that the DGLA is somehow in any way responsible for dragging fantasy down towards mediocrity strikes me as ludicrous. How? How does such an award achieve this? Even if you accept the argument (and I don’t, and I cite The Name of the Wind and The Lies of Locke Lamora as counter-examples[3]) that publishers control what is successful, then take issue with that (and I’ll be keeping very quiet and listening very hard at that point). Publishers are fairly conservative and will tend to publish what they think will sell based on what has sold before (sad, but they’re businesses that have to make money to survive). Book-buyers are fairly conservative and will tend to buy what they liked before (sad, but that’s basic human nature). The desire for greater diversity in fantasy, in what fantasy is and what it can do, is laudable, but I don’t see the logical link that goes from that desire to the DGLA being in any way bad. Maybe it does nothing whatsoever to further that desire; well neither do any other literary awards. Neither do grass or trees. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad, it just makes them not relevant to that particular aim.

Note, in passing, that the winners, up until this year’s Way of Kings, were not the great commercial successes of the year in any country. In a way that’s by the by, but note it anyway.

The DGLA encourages mediocrity? Discourages any other kind of fantasy (presumably any kind outside its scope)? Those who think either of those things, I suggest have stepped off the reality train and been seduced onto a branch-line of some other agenda, because really, the Gemmells simply aren’t that significant. As an author, as someone who’s spoken to a lot of other authors, some successful, some still aspiring, the idea that any kind of award has any kind of influence on what we write seems ludicrous. The award that matters most is a contract. Maybe, just maybe, if the DGLA was an award for arthouse books far removed from the mainstream that would struggle to achieve viable sales figures, then you might have an argument to say that whatever its eligibility criteria were, they could influence what authors choose to write. But it isn’t. It rewards the kind of fantasy that already tends to be rewarded by success because it’s the kind of fantasy that sells; in that context, the DGLA and its selection criteria are irrelevant. Yes, a miniature axe and a pat on the back are nice, but besides selling enough copies to make an independent living, irrelevant.

The DGLA is an award for a certain kind of fantasy, and that’s a kind of fantasy that tends to sell well. If you don’t like that kind of fantasy, good for you. If you do, good for you too. I don’t see a shred of evidence to say it has any affect on what gets published and what doesn’t, what gets written and what doesn’t. I challenge its critics again: prove me wrong. Not with unsubstantiated opinions, but with concrete examples. Otherwise, to claim that the DGLA has some bearing on what the fantasy market looks like, that’s just like kicking a well-natured puppy because you don’t like what its master does for a living.


[1] In previous years. This year’s auction was to fund the award.

[2] Yes, I’m reaching a bit – but the potential is there.

[3] Very commercially successful debut novels that were certainly not pushed extremely hard on their first release. Pushed a bit, as many debuts are, but not like, say The Passage. And yes, publishers do control what is successful by what they choose to publish; still, they will follow trends in what people choose to buy. Maybe we’d all like them to be more adventurous, and they’d probably like it too, if someone could just show them how to do it without going bust.

12 Responses to “Don’t Kick the Puppy (21/6/2011)”

  1. Adam Whitehead says:

    I’m so far impressed by the fact that the Gemmells have not rewarded the ‘obvious choices’ as much as some were fearing. First year out it championed a Polish author very little-known in the West. Second year, it did the same for a French author (in the newcomer award) and opened a debate on the merits of tie-in fiction, long the whipping boy of genre fiction. Arguably only this year did an ‘obvious choice’ win (and then not for the obvious book). So whilst there are some issues, I think the award has so far been more refreshing and discussion-raising than I think people first thought it was going to be.

  2. Ghostwoods says:

    Well said. The concept of any book award being anything other than positive for writing is simply unhinged. Don’t like David Gemmell-style novels? Great, don’t take any notice of the award. I hate soap operas, and thus ignore TV drama awards. And, in fact, I’m don’t really like Gemmell-type books either.

    The only possible _real_ objections I can see are “Someone is doing something that might possibly take some limelight from _my_ pet award ceremony”, “They haven’t hailed me as a genius”, and, just possibly, “I have an irrational hatred for David Gemmell, and don’t want to have to ever hear his name again”. I assume all detractors fall into one or the other camp — most of them, I assume, the first one. Either way… pathetic.

    The Gemmells are a plucky little award, celebrating the memory of someone who was well-loved, who went several extra miles to be nice to two personal friends of mine one time, and whom I’ve never heard a bad word about as a person. Only a real shit-heel could object to that.

  3. @mangozoid says:

    How.anyone can kick up a stink over a cool little Golden Axe as a trophy is beyond me. I cannot see the harm in these awards unless the Axe was life-size. The only argument I can see with the slightest plausibility is one of cessation and diminishing returns, and I believe the point has already been made that this is purely subjective and readily dismissed.

  4. Jared says:

    @Ghostwoods: I’m a detracting detractor – you’ll have to forgive me if I prefer Stephen’s title to that of “shit-heel”. I’ve also never heard anyone complaining about the award on the basis that they didn’t like David Gemmell as a person, which what you strongly imply.

    The soap opera metaphor only works if the Soap Opera Awards suddenly claimed to represent the “Best TV”, the “historical and cultural importance of television”, as said what they were doing was creating an “appreciation of excellence in television”. If you were a TV viewer and watched more than soaps, you’d be pretty confused. And if you didn’t watch TV, you’d assume that everything on it was a soap.

    @mangozoid: I think the axe is a pretty awesome trophy.

  5. Mark says:

    The problem with any fan-voted award is not the award nor the mechanism; it’s simply the failure by everyone involved to understand what creates fans in the first place. A good book? Surely every publisher will claim all their books are good, else they wouldn’t put them out there. No, what creates fans -in general – is sales. And what creates sales? Well, a great cover, of course, but having the publisher spend a lot of money by putting books in promotions, doing ARCs, sending out review copies, adverts in magazines – from which we both benefit, it’s worth saying. It’s competitive as hell out there, of course. It doesn’t equate perfectly, but if publishers spend little on a title, generally it won’t sell – and of course, that means fewer fans – to then go on and vote. Small press books don’t get a chance, irrespective of quality.

    What fan-voting awards to on this scale is simply reward (by giving more publicity) titles that have had a lot of money invested in them over the years. And does it preach genre externally? Not to my knowledge – most of this is communicating already successful books to the same readers (SFX, blogs etc); contrast this with the reach of the Clarkes.

    No award is perfect, of course – that’s part of the fun of them. However, some awards are less perfect than others. I still think fantasy fiction lacks a solid, celebratory, award for quality in the UK, and that’s a shame – an equivalent of the Clarkes would be splendid.

    Does any of this matter? Not really. Any award other than the Man Booker or Orange fiction etc, hardly sells more than a few dozen extra copies at best.

  6. Stephen Deas says:

    No name-calling, please!

    @Jared: Forgive me if I’ve missed something, but where does the DGLA actually claim to represent the “best” fantasy? I’m not sure I see the contraditction between “celebrating the history and cultural importance of fantasy literature” and the scope of the award, although I’m not sure I see much of it going on either. But the scope of the award and their “appreciate and reward” mission statement do seem at odds. It really needs to be extended to be “in the field of epic and heroic fantasy” or something that brings it in line with the award’s own eligibility criteria and removes the implication that is ’speaks’ for the entire fantasy genre (which by its frequent own admission, it doesn’t). Fair cop, I reckon.

  7. Stephen Deas says:

    Also, if anything I’ve said appears to be at odds with what Mark says, I’ve probably not said it very well. Although sometimes a damn good book creates sales (I stand by the examples I cited).

  8. Mark says:

    Certainly, yes, good books generate genuine word of mouth attention, and that results in sales. It’s remarkably rare these days because conversation has been commercialised heavily – and we can’t blame publishers for doing that, since it’s their job!

    I suppose it ultimately comes down to what you want of your award. Personally, I think the best any award can hope for is to get a bunch of people in the industry, who have good knowledge of the literature at hand, holding up a book and saying that it’s worth looking at more than some others that year. Readers benefit, the author (who might not have any sales at all) benefits just a little, but gets a higher profile, and a little spotlight. The best awards all do this – Man Booker through to the Clarkes. But the most any award can really do is generate the right kind of debate. It’s attractive internally and externally of the genre. It brings new readers in.

    That’s what’s lacking here – most of the debates for the Gemmells seems to be highly dismissive. At no point is anyone, anywhere online, really getting to the meat of: are the books any good? A simple congrats or a casual dismissal is all it’s got. No fan-voted award will ever really get more than that, unfortunately.

  9. Stephen Deas says:

    @Mark I guess what gets my goat is that a lot of people put their own time and effort into making it work. Even if it does the genre as a whole no good whatsoever, provided it also does no harm, why get all stabbity about it? (My blog, my made-up words!) Sometimes it seems to get attributed a (negative) power that, as you rightly point out, it simply doesn’t possess. A decent juried fantasy award might eclipse it almost at once or it might not, but so far, there isn’t one and so we’re left to guess. Personally I’d rather have both and find out than have neither.

  10. Mark says:

    Regarding harm: well, I suppose I would rate this as slowly damaging in the way that it promotes heavily titles that are already promoted heavily. That means that titles that aren’t promoted heavily get no reward. The titles that get promoted heavily tend to be ones that are commercial, so all this does – by the medium of publicity – is obscure a greater breadth and range of genre, perhaps?

  11. Adam Whitehead says:

    I see the point about the award rewarding books that have already been successful to some degree. The enormous Black Library fanbase pushed last year’s winner, and the truly enormous European fantasy audience pushed Sapkowski the year before (though getting him more noticed in the UK and USA anyway seems a positive thing in our often Anglo-centric field).

    There’s also the very frequently-made point that if the award was to truly reward the author for most writing in the style of David Gemmell, Paul Kearney should have been at least nominated if not won outright, but his low profile and presence on one of the smaller of the notable publishers precludes that. A juried award could do a better job of highlighting lesser-known books, if it was as handled as well as the Clarkes.

    The organisers of the Gemmells themselves have pointed out that the awards are a work in progress, and will evolve over time. It is possible they will head towards that kind of model, or maybe a publicly-voted longlist and then a juried selection of a shortlist and winner.

  12. Stephen Deas says:

    Failing to do something that would also not be done if the Gemmells didn’t exist doesn’t make them bad or harmful! I suppose the one criticism I can see that does hold up to scrutiny is that they divert already thin publicity resources towards the titles that probably least need them and thus (by implication) away from those that need them most. But that’s what I meant about kicking the puppy – the Gemmells garner such little time and attention that they can’t possibly make much difference even there!

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