Sunday, 28 September 2014

Thoughts on Judging the British Fantasy Awards

So I mentioned last week that I was one of the three judges for this year's British Fantasy Award for best short fiction, and mentioned too that while I felt the result we came to was a definite win, whereby an excellent story gamboled off with the prize - that being Signs of the Times by Carole Johnstone, as published in Black Static #33 - there were also a few hurdles and moments of doubt along the way.

For instance, I'd by fibbing if I didn't say that I found the initial shortlist disappointing.  Not because there was anything wrong with the stories put forward but because the list seemed symptomatic of failings I'd noted before in regards to the British Fantasy Awards: too much emphasis on Horror over Fantasy, too many small press markets, too many British markets and - the one that personally galled me most - too many low or non-paying markets.

Before I upset anyone unduly, I should put all of that into some kind of perspective.  I've nothing against Horror as a genre, I've written enough of it, and I don't even object to it straying into what's nominally a Fantasy award so long as there's a reasonable balance.  I've certainly nothing against the British small press, nor against British publishing, having had three novels and a chapbook out from UK publishers both large and small.  Non-paying markets, admittedly, I have a certain theoretical disagreement with, but I'm ready to concede that there are exceptions that make the publishing landscape a better place.  My point isn't that these things are bad in and of themselves, it's that put all together they don't do much to represent the current state of Fantasy publishing.  The small press unquestionably produces some superb work, but so do the many professional magazines out there - markets like Clarkesworld, Shimmer and Apex, to pick a few - and a list that included none of them felt blinkered.  To fall back on a word I've used on this subject before, the initial shortlist felt like provincialism; a British Fantasy Award that was all too close to actually, literally, being a British Fantasy Award.

And there ends the grumbling portion of this post.  Because while, if I remember correctly, there was a time not so long ago when the winning story would have been selected from that initial short list, that time is now past.  These days, the judges (I seem to remember a time when there weren't those either, but honestly it's hard to tell if I'm just making this stuff up) can add a couple of stories of their  mutually-agreed choosing, and what we decided to do - this not being a terribly difficult decision - was to add in the next two runners-up.

Honestly, it sounds like such a small thing, but it made all the difference.  Suddenly there was a better balance of genres, a better balance of markets, of writers ... and what made it most satisfying was that it also felt completely in the spirit of the award.  We weren't overruling the voters, just widening their selection a little.  And now we had seven stories to choose from, and somehow that list of seven felt in every way stronger than the original list of five.

That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that Signs of the Times, our eventual winner, did come from the original short list.  Or that the story that everyone agreed was its closest contender was one of the two that we added.  Take from that what you will, but to me it says that things worked out nicely; that the combination of a membership ballot and a jury decision can yield both a strong shortlist and a solid result.

Is that to say the current situation is perfect?  Not entirely.  Regardless of the quality of the story itself, I personally feel that a story that appeared in a British Fantasy Society publication shouldn't have been eligible; for me that harks back too closely to the British Fantasy Awards of old.  Part of me feels, too, that putting novelettes and chapbooks up against shorter stories published in magazines is unfair to both, though I'm not one hundred percent sure why or what the answer would be.  I certainly don't think there's a need for British Fantasy Award for best novelette, but perhaps the current length bracket is a touch too broad.  And of course the greatest limitation on the British Fantasy Awards continues to be the membership size of the British Fantasy Society; with such a relatively small voter pool, there are always bound to be some curious nominations and results.

But you know what?  Awards don't have to be perfect.  And, as I touched on last week, nor can they be, because perfection lays awfully far outside of their purview.  What awards can do is make sure that things that are awesome get recognition they might not otherwise have done.  And, in my wholly biased opinion, that's exactly what happened - not only with the one I had a hand in judging but with this year's awards in general.  So, while I wouldn't mind seeing a little more tightening of the rules - seriously, BFS-published stories should not be getting nominated for BFS-issued awards - I'm really glad that things appear to be on the right track, and here's hoping that this year was an indication of what we can expect to see from the British Fantasy Award in the future.

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