NOTE: As usual, the following constitutes my opinion and should not be taken as anything but that.
All of the preceding two posts should not be taken to mean that I am a staunch Ursa defender (though I have moved that way in recent years), nor that I have no interest in an alternative award. I have in fact been involved in four separate attempts to create an alternative to the Ursas, and so when I heard about the most recent one, my distance from it (not that anyone noticed) was more of a “I don’t want to go through this again” than “this is a pointless exercise.” I admire the spirit behind it.
So let me summarize what I think the goal of an alternative award usually is/should be, because one of the pitfalls people fall into early on in this process is attempting to describe the award by what it is not (i.e. the Ursas) without specifying what it is. What I think people want in a general way is something that recognizes literary quality rather than popularity (not that a work can’t excel in both, but that’s another rant) (*).
*Now, I will freely admit that what follows is mostly based on this goal that I made up, but that goal is based on what I have heard in previous and current incarnations of the “we should have another award” discussions, and it seems like the most likely goal for a new award, given that most of the awards we have out there in the general mainstream (Oscars vs. People’s Choice, Hugo vs. Nebula) are divided along the “popular”/”quality” lines (though you will also note that the claim of the Oscars or Nebulas to be really about quality is shaky at best; really they are “most popular among people who live in the world of that art,” which is about all one can ask for). There really are only two kinds of awards: popular vote and juried, and since the popular vote award already exists and is successful, I chose to discuss the juried award vote (and their hybrid child, the “popular vote among people chosen by some criteria related to the award”).
This post was written before the announcement of the “Coyotl” awards, which are basically an award voted on by members of the Furry Writers Guild, though I admit I had heard rumblings that such ideas were circulating. I don’t really follow the arguments there and so I want to say in advance that none of the things that follow are aimed at any specific people or intended to rebut specific statements by specific people. They are a distillation of arguments I have heard repeatedly from many sources over the last few years.
Setting that aside, if you were to set up an award like that, the goal should be to recognize the best literary efforts created by the furry fandom. Sounds simple, right? Well. Let’s look at how you would do that.
- “Recognize…”Okay. Stop there. Who gets to recognize? There are a whole host of problems with this.The people most qualified to recognize good literary fiction are, in general, the people writing it. This means that every year, some or most of your ideal judges would have to recuse themselves from the judging process. As I mentioned back in the Ursa discussion, I excused myself from any involvement in the awards early on; as a writer and publisher, I wanted to be creating furry stuff, not judging it.
The qualifications of any subgroup of the fandom to judge fiction better than any other subgroup of the fandom are questionable.Science fiction has a pretty clear line between Authors and Fans. If you look at the rolls of the SFWA, you will find M.A.s and MFAs, people who have spent twenty and thirty and fifty years studying literature and writing, people who on a regular basis attend casual or professional workshops, or even teach them. Our fandom is a really young fandom, and we just do not have that population of experienced professional writers in it. I’m not trying to mock or denigrate the fandom here; I think the creativity and passion in the writing community is terrific. I just don’t see the line in our fandom that I do see from my time in the SF community. This makes a juried award—an award decided by a small select jury, usually of professionals—impractical at this stage in the fandom’s life.Yes, but! you cry, The Ursas are open to ALL, and this would be (hypothetically) restricted to certain people who have demonstrated some writing ability. I would counter that mostly the people who vote in the fiction categories of the Ursas are people who love to read. They’re just self-selected instead of having to qualify for some Furry Readers Jury or something. I know several very smart, very discerning people in the fandom who don’t write fiction (for instance, Fred Patten, who has reviewed more furry books than most people have read, and yet would not qualify for membership in the FWG). While I admire the intent behind a jury selection based on writing or some other qualification, I would contest any assertion that fandom-published writers, or “people chosen by a specific subgroup of the fandom,” are somehow more qualified to judge fiction than anyone who loves books enough to make it through the Ursas’ registration, nomination, and voting process and simply doesn’t have the drive or talent to write.
- “…the best literary efforts…” Another sticking point. How do you quantify a literary effort? With a “Dead Poets Society”-type graph of quality vs. subject matter? These things are always contentious no matter where you attempt to apply them, and if you think that everyone else shares your opinion that Book ABC was really the best book published in 2010 and if only these awards were in place, it would definitely win, then, well, I’m sorry, but you are in for a crashing disappointment. However, this is something that’s an issue with any award, the age-old struggle between popularity and literary merit. Ask Stephen King about it sometime.
Related Sub-issue. In order to judge which of the literary efforts in the fandom IS the best, however that is done, you need to have a group of people (see “juried award, above”) who are willing to read ALL the entries in a given year. If you have five novels nominated (however that happens), you will have to trust all the members of the voting body to read all five of the novels in the voting period. It’s hard enough to find anyone who’s read more than two novels a year, let alone five in a short span.
- “…in the furry fandom.” Another great divider. Who’s “in the furry fandom”? The Ursas kind of judge work based on furry content (though they do fall down in some cases: http://publishyourstory.blogspot.com/2007/06/earth-rise.html), but again, they rely on popular vote, so if a “big publisher” book caught the interest of the fandom (“Tales from Watership Down”), it would be nominated. This is kind of a hidden issue with the Ursas: they do not specifically celebrate works created by the furry fandom. They celebrate works that are popular with the furry fandom.
It seems to me (though this is probably the point most open to debate) that if you are creating awards to celebrate the furry fandom, you will need to set up some criteria to eliminate entries that are not from the fandom. In most cases, creators either self-identify as furries or don’t. But there will inevitably be corner cases, and some thought needs to be given to how those will be addressed.
I hate to be one of those people who offers criticism and no solution. So I have an alternative to propose! Next post.