The British Fantasy Awards 2011
October 9th 2011
This is a probably ill-advised attempt to sum up my thoughts regarding the most recent British Fantasy Society awards. If you’ve never heard of the society, or the awards, that’s fine – it is very much a minority sport. If you don’t want to read anything about the internal politicking of a small organisation focussing on the fantasy and horror genre in print and other media… then that’s fine too.
Firstly though, I have to declare some interests – the chief of which is that my novella Another War was published by Telos, and that I know Dave Howe well enough to consider him a friend. I’ve been going to FantasyCon (that’s the society’s annual convention) for the better part of a decade, without ever being a member of the society. I’m acquainted with most of the principle parties involved.
So, time for some background. The BFS awards are nominated by members, voted on by members to to form a short-list, and voted on again to decide a winner from that short-list (I think that’s right). This is the way it’s been done since I’ve been going, and the awards have always thrown up some unexpected winners. The voting pool is small (usually a couple of hundred people who vote), so statistically, that’s going to happen, and in some categories, the same person/publishing house wins every year for a substantial block of time. Peter Crowther’s PS Publishing magnanimously chose to sponsor the Best Small Press award, rather than dominate the field in perpetuity.
The awards (as both a punter, and as someone who was in a winning anthology) have, hand on heart, never been taken that seriously. Yes, it’s nice to see your friends win (cue ribald cheers and drinks in the bar), and sometimes the results leave you scratching your head, but it’s never been something to get too excised over.
As far as I can piece together the timeline, it goes something like this. The BFS awards are administered by the Awards Administrator. In January of this year, the sitting administrator has to leave their post for personal reasons. Their replacement also leaves, also for personal reasons, in March. Dave Howe, chair of the BFS, as one of his requirements, picks up the duties of administrator.
The nominations, short-listing and final voting go ahead more or less to plan. There are some entirely valid complaints about notification of the voting deadline arriving, with the society’s publication, after the date has been passed, and moving to electronic voting only. Others have also said that they received email notification of the voting procedures in good time, so it’s difficult to say how this affected matters.
Dave Howe checks the electronically-counted votes, gets the results rechecked by another committee member, and then proceeds to order the awards and get them engraved with the winners’ names. He also organises appropriate people to present the awards at FantasyCon.
Now, in hindsight, this is where the flags should have been raised, because it’s at that moment that Dave discovers that his partner (Sam Stone) has won two awards, and Telos (of which he’s a director) has won Best Small Press, and published two of the other winners. Dave should have handed the whole process over to someone else. Not because he’s done anything wrong – no question of that – but because of how it’s going to look. He (and co-host Sarah Pinborough) would be giving awards not only to himself, but also to his partner and to people he’s published.
Hindsight is, of course, wonderful. It allows all concerned to have a clarity of vision they simply never had while they were in media res. And, in common with many voluntary societies (including the ones I’m involved with), there is a magnificently British tradition of muddling on and letting goodwill and sympathy carry them over the rough patches.
To sum up so far: the rules have been followed, no one’s done anything wrong, the votes cast were all legal, not tampered with or adjusted in anyone’s favour. The awards ceremony is scheduled for the Sunday afternoon of FantasyCon, all the physical awards have arrived with the correct names on and the presenters are… present.
Remember what I said about hindsight, and about how it would look to be presenting awards to yourself? If there was one mistake in all this, that would be it right there. And just so I’m not misunderstood, I think that was the only mistake Dave made. And again for clarity, it’s the sort of mistake that ought to leave you with toe-curling embarrassment and a red face, and something for your mates to poke fun at in good-humoured jest for at least the next few years. And certainly, all concerned would resolve to make bloody sure it doesn’t happen again. He was, in popular parlance, a muppet.
It’s not the resigning, hand-the-award back, shitstorm that subsequently ensued. Dave has offered his resignation to the BFS committee, who have accepted it whilst issuing a statement exonerating him completely. Sam has returned her Best Novel award. A lot of things have been said that cannot be unsaid and some people have burnt their bridges and divided into camps. The Guardian (and now the Express) have covered the situation.
What precipitated this? Stephen Jones blogged this (http://www.stephenjoneseditor.com/article-sj-fantasycon201101.htm). If you haven’t already read it, take the time to do so now. (See update at bottom of post if this comes up 404.)
As I’ve said elsewhere, Steve Jones can be a very polarising character. There’s absolutely no doubt of his passion and commitment to publishing fantasy/horror, but being the gatekeeper to some of the biggest commercial horror anthologies for a very long time brings its own problems. So before this incident, even someone as socially unaware of subtexts as I am was cognisant of two broad poles in the BFS which I will call for shorthand-sake, pro-Jones and anti-Jones.
While there have probably been previous skirmishes of which I am blissfully ignorant, this has certainly crystallised matters. Jones essentially levels two charges at the BFS in general and Dave Howe in particular.
Firstly, that the BFS and FantasyCon members who voted, voted for the wrong people to win the awards: “Perhaps the majority do not read outside the small press anymore? Maybe they no longer have good taste or any critical acumen?”
Secondly, that the voting system was compromised by Dave’s involvement: “there is certainly a strong case for the BFS Chairman to have removed himself from the entire process once it became apparent how many of his own titles and those of his partner were on the initial nomination list. This shows a serious lack of judgement by someone in such an important position.”
However, to that second point, there is more. He accuses Dave of using society funds to further his own, and his partner’s, and his friends, careers. He accuses Dave of a ‘fix’, and a ‘con’. The get-out clause of “Without any proof, I’m not accusing anybody of doing anything underhand” doesn’t negate or lessen the charges.
To the first charge, I shall simply quote the old football chant, “you only sing when you’re winning.” The voting system this year hadn’t substantially changed (caveats above) from one year to the next, including 2010 when The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20, ed. Stephen Jones (Constable & Robinson) won Best Anthology. It’s a common charge to make that a popular vote didn’t choose who you wanted, therefore the electorate had taken leave of its marbles, but if the same system has made you a repeated winner… it’s not a very good argument.
The second charge is where the rubber hits the road. I pretty much agree with the statement quoted. Yes, there was a lack of judgement. In the circumstances, he should have insisted that someone else take over responsibility for the awards, or let them lapse for the year. When you’re juggling a day-job, a busy small press, duties as Chair of a society, and an additional workload due to not all of the committee places being taken? It was, I think, a mistake – see above for notes on goodwill and sympathy.
The additional barbs speak for themselves, and most eloquently. They are, I believe, (amongst other things) just as, if not more unwise than Dave not recusing himself . The BFS has, at least from this outsider’s view point, always been a fan-run, slightly anarchic society which nevertheless manages to throw a decent party. I go because I get to meet my friends and drink and eat and talk with them. I’m not particularly concerned by how ‘professional’ it is, or how many industry people turn up, though I appreciate that some are. I’m just there for the beer and craic, and I like it like that. If the BFS want to change that, then fine – that’s the way the members will take it, but it’s ultimately the members’ decision, and there’ll always be a corner of the bar where the writers congregate and bitch about publishers and reviewers, so I’m reasonably insulated from any decisions. I get to be a filthy pro elsewhere (even if I did hang out an awful lot in the fan bar at Eastercon).
I didn’t get to go to FantasyCon this year – despite the remark “do those people never go on holiday?” to which the answer is yes, but because I work in a school on Mondays and Tuesdays, I have to be awake, sober and ready to teach a class of ten and eleven year olds, and I absolutely cannot be late, which is something I could guarantee I wouldn’t be when the event was in Nottingham – so I missed out on what was by all accounts a classic convention. Steve Jones was part of the organisation, so kudos where it’s due.
But we can’t have everything the way we’d like it. Sometimes is nice, always isn’t good for the soul. Steve Jones can probably take care of himself, but I do feel for Dave, and especially for Sam who deserves absolutely none of the criticisms levelled at her. Being guilty of winning a popular vote isn’t exactly a hanging offence. Neither is being gratuitously nasty on the internet, of course, but Jones’ post is the very opposite of professional. It would go a long way if a fulsome apology were forthcoming.
I have no idea how this will resolve itself. Reconciliation is understandably a million miles away. If there’s one good thing about this is that lots more people are joining the BFS so they can have their democratic say on the future direction of the society. I might well be one of them.
UPDATE 13/10/2011: The Steve Jones link is coming up as a big fat 404. I don’t know when or why it was taken down – for completeness’ sake, I’ve saved the googlecached copy, which if I put a copy up here I’m reasonably certain will breach copyright. But I do have a copy and it should stay on googlecache for a while at least, here.