A Case in Point

Jason Sanford on this year’s Million Writers Award contest:

In years past I’ve been the sole judge, reading all the notable stories and picking my ten favorites. This year, though, I invited two others to join me in this duty. Everything was looking good until one of these judges decided she no longer wanted to be a judge.

You see, she was worried what a writing friend would say because she hadn’t picked this friend’s story from the notable list. Even though this judge had already turned in her picks, and even though I promised her anonymity, at the last minute she demanded I remove her and not use her selections.

I gnash my teeth and flail my arms because this is so stupid. This is what happens when we let personal connections get in the way of honest evaluation. Clearly the judge was capable of setting her friendships aside when evaluating the stories, because she passed over the friend’s story rather than giving it special consideration. That’s step one. But step two is trusting her friend to take a similarly dispassionate, quality-based approach, and apparently that was unpossible. So the judge’s assessment of the friend’s irrationality is really what led the judge to withdraw.

The solution seems straightforward:

  1. If you are in the business of evaluating artistic works created by people you may know, only befriend the sensible, rational people in that group of artists.
  2. If you fear that a friend of yours is not sensible and will be offended by you not automatically declaring their work the best ever simply because you are friends, either stop being friends with them or cope with their irrationality, but don’t pass the buck. Your friends are your problem.
  3. If neither 1 nor 2 is tenable, get out of the business of judging or reviewing.

I realize this sounds a bit harsh, but as a former awards judge I am appalled by this judge’s behavior. Really poor form.

I do wish it were easier to do anonymous review in SF/F/H awards and contests, and even in book reviewing and anthology compiling. Obviously it’s impossible for a retrospective award–the judges are fans, and will already have read many of the works up for consideration–but under some other circumstances it might be worth trying. Another layer between judges/editors/critics and authors can only be a good thing.

21 thoughts on “A Case in Point

  1. Jonathan M

    I agree that this is a problem but I don’t think that it’s a soluble problem because, at the end of the day, the genre field is based on friendships.

    Adam Roberts diagnosed this when the Hugo shortlists came out and once you start to notice all of the mutual back-scratching, the log-rolling of friends and the nominating for awards on the basis of how much people like authors as people you realise that once you strip all of that stuff out… there’s not much of a field left.

    Initially, the online genre scene was kind of a remedy for the smug chumminess as people who reviewed online were not as convention-centric as more established fan reviewers but then, over time, social media began to creep in and publishers got a lot better at cosying up to reviewers and now you have a situation whereby Gollancz has its own cadre of tame reviewers and people who run review sites spend their time putting Angry Robot books on prominent display in book shelves because they want to help their ‘friends’.

    The truth is that the field has no interest in candour because the field is ultimately grounded in fannish attitudes and fannish attitudes are all about ‘getting excited about stuff’ and not ‘being objective about stuff’.

    This is a problem but it’s a systemic problem that grows out of the nature of genre as a field. Strip out the bias and the ‘I’m really excited because my friends won awards!’ squee and what you’re left with is well… nothing…

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      As a die-hard optimist, my immediate response is that if you are accurately describing our current culture, then we should change the culture.

      Upon some consideration, that is also my considered response.

      So my scolding is equally directed at writers and publishers: Don’t be that “friend” who values personal connections over honesty and expects the reviewers of your acquaintance to do likewise.

      1. Kate @ Candlemark

        As the editor-in-chief at a (very small) genre publisher, this is precisely what I strive for. I embrace mixed reviews and critical reviews of the books we pubilsh (although I naturally weep at negative ones) because they help me as an editor and as a publisher to better understand what people like and dislike in certain genres and subgenres, and that helps me put out better books.

        I’ve actually made BETTER personal connections with a couple of review bloggers because of their critiques; they were sort of shocked when I wrote and thanked them for their honesty. But, really, honest reviews are what I want to READ, so they’re what I’d like done to/for my books. Even if it makes me wince a little sometimes.

        The in-crowd culture is a problem; it’s not necessarily inherent to being “fannish,” but there is a tendency to get cliquish and to then not want to offend a friend. There needs to be a line between business and personal, and that’s hard to do in this uber-connected world, especially within genre, it seems.

      2. JMS

        Log-rolling has been a problem in the US, UK, and Canadian publishing industries since their origins (those are the three I know best).

        We owe readers more than log-rolling for our friends. For that matter, we owe our friends more than log-rolling their work out of guilt or peer pressure.

    2. Amanda D.

      Fannish attitudes are driven by the work. So you may have a fan who over-praises work by their favorite author but only because the author’s past work has been good. Most fans aren’t lucky enough to have a personal relationship with their favorite authors where they would feel social pressure to praise the author regardless of the work.

      When the fan is a reviewer, and they feel pressured to give an inflated opinion because they are friends with the author, that’s a problem. It’s a problem based on the author and the reviewer being too close, which might refelct on the size of the community but not on the nature of the work. It’s a matter of professional honnesty and personal taste. Personal taste might run a bit more narrow in SF/F than in other genres, but reviewer honnesty should not.

    3. JMS

      at the end of the day, the genre field is based on friendships

      I disagree.

      I think there are people who would like it to be like that, sure. But ultimately we are talking about products that have to move thousands of units or people in suits will be angry—and the products do, indeed, move thousands of units (and hundreds of thousands of units) to people who really enjoy them.

      There have always been log-rollers. There will always be log-rollers. The idea that that is all that is going on seems beyond words out of touch to me.

      1. JMS

        Shorter version: SFF is as big as the number of people who buy books in it, not as big as the Usual Suspects at cons or at Making Light or at Scalzi’s blog.

  2. JMS

    I believe the Truman Principle of heat and kitchens is apropos here, as in so many places.

    Yes, many people are irrational. I myself have been inured to that ever since receiving death threats (not ones I took seriously, but ones that were sincerely meant by the person issuing them) for writing something critical of Martin van Buren. After that, nothing can surprise me.

    Arundhati Roy gave an amazing interview to the Guardian recently about the constant threat she has been under since publishing a book supportive of Kashmiri independence. She and many other writers risk their lives to tell their truths. I feel shabby, myself, for worrying about risking difficult conversations to tell my smaller, lower-stakes truths (and yet I do, because I am a conflict-averse person, so I have empathy for the writer in Sanford’s story if not sympathy).

  3. David G. Hartwell

    It seems on the face of it foolish to seek anonymity in anthology editing (Kathryn’s and my selections for Year’s Best anthologies are our choices, no more or less, not statements of universal value, for instance). And who would want to read an issue of Analog edited by Anonymous? Personally, I feel the same way about reviewing (knowing that other feel differently) because I find I can only judge a reviewer’s competence by reading a number of reviews of differing books, through which the personality and strengths and weaknesses of the reviewer become evident. Much too often in my years of reading reviews, including anonymous ones, I have felt that the anonymity was a cover for personal grudges, boosterism (Sue Denim, the classic cyberpunk reviewer), or general ignorance of the matter at hand. These faults are not exclusive to anonymity, but are certainly more noticeable in anonymous writing.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      By anonymous review I actually mean that the stories are anonymized, not that the editor/reviewer/judge is. For example, when I participate in judging for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, I get manuscripts that are identically typeset, with a title, an ID number, and no clues as to the author’s identity. Again, this isn’t possible for retrospectives, but it is possible for magazines, some anthologies, some awards, and any other situation where the manuscripts under consideration are unpublished.

      1. Kitti

        I had the same misunderstanding from reading your entry; I thought the judges were to be kept anonymous. I suspect I’m just ignorant of the process.

        1. Rose Fox Post author

          I forget that not everyone has a background in scientific publishing! The link that I put from the words “anonymous review” has more information on the concept.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I have added a ), a ‘, and a T. Please let me know if I missed anything.

  4. Andrew Porter

    David Hartwell gets it spot on. The stupid practice of people writing anonymous comments and reviews means they can say anything. Anyone who has an honest opinion should always write it under their own name. I discount opinions by those above who hide behind these pseudonyms.

    Also, the idea that a bunch of friends of authors is nominating for the Hugos is dumb and wrong. It costs a substantial amount of money to join the World SF Convention. If you are not a member, you can neither nominate nor vote for the Hugo Awards. Also, all nominations are made using Real Names.

      1. Andrew Porter

        Sorry, haven’t read PW’s reviews since my subscription lapsed a decade ago. Did you read my pithy report on the 1972 worldcon in an issue that year?

    1. Adam Lipkin

      The idea that a bunch of friends of an author might not already be going to the worldcon anyway (and thus be eligible to vote) is a little naive. The annual breakdowns of the voting also show just how few votes separate the nominations that miss from the ones that make the cut. Nothing wrong with that, of course (the Hugo voting process is, after all, the worst form of selecting the best works except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time), but it’s worth remembering.

      1. Andrew Porter

        You don’t vote AT the worldcon. That’s where the awards are given out. The deadline for voting this year is July 31st. About your definition of the Hugo voting process: didn’t someone say that about our system of government?

        The online ballot is available here:
        http://hugos.renovationsf.org/vote/

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