On Awards and Popularity

Eric Flint wrote recently an essay on the divergence between popularity and awards in science fiction. I commented on that post but thought I’d post it here as well. I definitely suggest you read the original essay, it’s a good look on how to measure the popularity of writers.

Flint lists the most popular SF/F writers based on the space they are given in bookstores:

Four feet authors

  • Jim Butcher
  • Orson Scott Card
  • Raymond Feist
  • Mercedes Lackey
  • Terry Pratchett
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • David Weber

Three feet authors

  • Terry Brooks
  • David Eddings
  • Eric Flint
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Terry Goodkind
  • Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson
  • Robin Hobb
  • Tanya Huff
  • Robert Jordan
  • George R.R. Martin
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • John Ringo
  • R.A. Salvatore
  • Harry Turtledove

Two feet authors

  • Piers Anthony
  • Robert Asprin
  • Anne Bishop
  • David Drake
  • David Gemmell
  • Charlaine Harris
  • Dan Simmons
  • S.M. Stirling
  • Tad Williams

He goes on to point out that most of these authors haven’t won awards. In fact, many have never been nominated! Even those who have won major awards – biggest of them undoubtedly Orson Scott Card – did so decades ago. The odd man out here is Neil Gaiman, who has been nominated and won enough to even have declined a nomination a couple of years ago.

He also notes some “bubbling under” authors who don’t really claim shelf space but seem to be popular. The most important of these is Neal Stephenson, but he also mentions Lois McMaster Bujold and Ursula K. Le Guin.

Serialization won’t win you awards

Although I’m not familiar with the works of all of those popular writers, I do notice a bit of a tendency there: series.

Terry Pratchett wrote 40 books of Discworld. Card has written, among others, Ender, Alvin, Homecoming and Pastwatch sagas. Robert Jordan had Wheel of Time, Raymond E. Feist churns out Riftwar books, Terry Brooks does Shannaras, Kevin J. Anderson has written Dune prequels, Saga of the Seven Suns etc. Jim Butcher of course writes Dresden Files and Robin Hobb has her trilogies set in The Realm of the Elderlings.

I think this affects both the shelf space and the award nominations. Once the series has you hooked, you’ll probably buy the sequels even if their literary value diminishes, so book stores stand to gain by keeping series in their shelves. On the other hand, judging a single book of a series, and considering it for an award, is a lot harder.

I personally own a dozen Card books, first nine of Hobb’s books and about 25 of Pratchett’s. I’ve enjoyed at least most of them, but, at the same time, how do you judge the merits of the 22nd Discworld book when there’s a huge body of work that predates it and adds to the experience of reading it? Is it any good as a single book?

That’s something I had to think at this year’s Hugos: Skin Game was 15th of the Dresden Files. I’ve never read that series, so I had a fresh view, and the end result probably isn’t a surprise: even though I can appreciate Jim Butcher’s writing skills, it isn’t a book you enjoy on its own, and being required to read 14 books before being able to judge the merits of the actual nominee is a bit much.

By contrast, I think Kevin Anderson’s Dark Between the Stars did a much better job at setting the stage – although that’s probably at least partly because it’s the beginning of a new, although related, series. I think Ancillary Sword, being the second book of a trilogy, also did an admirable job of getting the reader up to speed regarding past events (although I have read Ancillary Justice so my view here is tainted).

And, if you take a look at the popular authors who have received nominations, my observation seems to hold at least reasonably well: Gaiman doesn’t write (novel) series, Stephenson’s nominations have come mostly for one-off books (Baroque Cycle books won Locus awards but weren’t even nominated for Hugos or Nebulas). Dan Simmons has written mostly one-off books or short series (although his single books of late haven’t really garnered nominations).

There are obvious exceptions: George R. R. Martin’s all Song of Ice and Fire books have been nominated for Hugos. And to tell you the truth, if you look at the individual books, particularly the last two, it’s really hard to understand, why. McMaster Bujold has been nominated multiple times for Vorkosigan series, and that I can mostly understand – they are just unbelievably good books.

So, on the whole, I’d argue awards shunning popular books isn’t so much about “popular, therefore not eligible for the in-crowd”. It’s more about how that popularity was achieved, and whether it translates to something that is powerful enough on its own to be nominated for, or even win an award.

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