Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Fantasy Novel Awards Debate

Mark Charan Newton (author of the excellent Nights of Villjamur and upcoming City of Ruin), has written a good post on his site about the David Gemmel Legend Award, posing questions about why there aren’t any comparative reviews of award shortlists or explanations as to why one novel should win over another.

The comments this post has spawned are plentiful and – in another example of (a select few) fantasy fans being impeccably eloquent and erudite – manage to enhance the debate, rather than debase it, as is so often the case with anything debate-like located online (the internet is, we have to agree, largely populated by lunatics). For no other reason than I happen to be having difficulty sleeping, I thought I’d scribble some notes down, based on what others have written. Hopefully, I won’t ruin the debate. (Because I’m perhaps too scared to put my thoughts on wider-read blogs, it’s being posted here… It’s also my first long-ish post that isn’t a review, so please forgive the stream-of-consciousness lack of polish.)

Peter V Brett

(Author of The Painted Man and The Desert Spear – reviews coming soon, hopefully)

It’s easy to divide books into good or bad, but there’s a point where it becomes totally subjective to compare stories that are utterly different and call one better than the other.

As for whether or not the genre is “taken seriously”, well, what does that mean? That is garners the same gravitas of snooty literary fiction? Who cares?

There are millions and millions of SF nerds worldwide, and our numbers continue to grow. We don’t need anyone’s approval to love what we love.

This is, indeed, my opinion. The fantasy genre is so diverse that many comparisons between different novels, series, or authors is ultimately pointless. Some prefer sweeping fantasy epics (Robert Jordan, Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, etc.), while others prefer less epic series (I, for one, prefer authors like Scott Lynch, Brent Weeks, Mark C Newton, Joe Abercrombie, and Terry Pratchett – yes, he’s fantasy, so counts). The only way you can compare these authors is on style and composition, which again is totally subjective – some prefer dense tracts of exposition and world-building, while others prefer clear and speedy pacing. The genre is not “taken seriously” by many in the ‘mainstream’, it’s true. Even outside the press, many will turn their noses up at a fantasy novel, until they’re told it’s “ok” to read it (Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.). But, what ultimately makes it “ok” are the hordes of existing fantasy fans who manage to convince others that these novels are worth checking out, and so the boulder gathers momentum and more moss. Alternatively, you need a very persistent publisher, which a good budget…

Mark C Newton

In this age, it’s those books that receive a decent marketing budget which perform – on average – better than others. It costs publishers money to put that in front of people, costs them to sell advertising, even to position it in bookstores – an incredible amount of money, in fact. I’m one of the lucky ones.

A juried award can, to some extent, put lesser known writers in front of a wider audience, perhaps against the grain. Is that bad?

In my experience, fantasy publishers are most generous to (online) reviewers – is this because of the mainstream media’s bias against fantasy, as mentioned above? Who knows (though I’m eternally grateful). While I have no illusions as to how widely my site is read, I know that my reviews have influenced many who have read them (that, or friends and family who I simply force books onto at any given opportunity). I’ve found Amazon an invaluable site for discovering new authors (and bands, incidentally), through the recommendations and such. True, these recommendations are driven by sales to people who have done the legwork and discovered new authors, and then reviewed or rated them alongside others. Mark is right, though – it must be very difficult to raise awareness of new authors with a small budget or just in general. Indeed, I would never have heard of his debut (or, at least, it would have taken a good deal longer) if I hadn’t been sent it to review. Same goes for many authors I feature on the here.

A juried award would be excellent. If I was allowed on the panel…


(Prolific blogger and tweeter on everything and anything books-related; an excellent source of info, reviews, and so forth)

Lots of blogs attempt the Booker long and short list. I guess it’s something that bloggers in general don’t seem to do.

Maybe we should be encouraging more bloggers to attack the Award short lists and come up with their own judgments after reading the books mentioned?

This is an excellent idea, and one I would whole-heartedly support, except for a couple of issues: time and access. The Gemmell award list is huge, and you’d have to have super-human reading skills to get through them all, and longer if you wanted to be able to give them proper attention and consideration for proper comparison. What I mean by ‘access’ is the difficulty in getting hold of all the novels with enough time to read and review them all. Personally, I’d find it impossible to acquire them all (from publishers or stores). It would, however, be a great experiment, and one that Nic Clarke has tried over at Strange Horizons.


(Unknown person who appears to have been involved in awards-things in the past…)

Mark, I am with you in your desire to raise the status of the genre as worthy of serious literary discussion (it is being done now) but the gatekeepers of the broadsheets around the world and the drawing rooms and the Newsnight natters and the cultural radio reviews will continue to manage that rare feat of holding onto those keys and holding forth while having their pokers of pomposity stuck firmly up their arses.

I just liked this paragraph. Mainly because it’s true.

In my humble opinion, fantasy will always retain the reputation of being an underdog genre, despite continued and solid sales ()

Anyway, if you want to throw your hat into the ring, head on over to Mark’s page and dive right in (a mixed metaphor, to be sure, but what’re you going to do about it?).


  1. Thanks for the kind words.

    In the end the Gemmell Shortlist was:

    ABERCROMBIE, Joe – Last Argument of Kings (Gollancz/Pyr)
    MARILLIER, Juliet – Heir to Sevenwaters (Tor UK)
    SANDERSON, Brandon – The Hero of Ages (Tor US)
    SAPKOWSKI, Andrzej – Blood of Elves (Gollancz)
    WEEKS, Brent – The Way of Shadows (Orbit)

    It's only six books long and if you're reading a lot of Fantasy it's likely that you've read a couple of them. So would it be much of a stretch for more bloggers to read the rest and start talking about the strengths and weaknesses?

    Though saying that we don't generally don't do indepth criticism and don't engage with others that have read the book at that level.

    Maybe that's something we should be doing to raise the bar? Looking at both reviews and more critical essays?

    Just an idea.

  2. We've had reviews of two of those on CR (Brent Weeks & Juliet Marillier), and Abercrombie's books are my guilty misses these past couple of years. I think my vote would go to Weeks' "The Way of Shadows" - simply because it's the only I've read and I did actually really like it (the whole trilogy, actually, was good).

    I think a balance between reviews and more critical essays (such as the one linked to in the main post) is certainly something we should all aspire to produce.

    Ultimately, it comes down to what you want your site to "do": point people in the direction of books they should check out, or critique books in a continuation of English Lit classes. Personally, I love discovering new authors and novels, but there's also a certain personal pleasure that can be gained from diving into a novel deeper than "it reads well and the plot is good, go get it".

    I'm currently thinking about a post looking at what I see as the more realistic trends in fantasy (bearing in mind, I've never been a complete devotee to fantasy, rather someone who came to the party a little late, but sometimes rather liked some select output).