My Proposed BFS Reforms
Recently I filled in an online questionnaire about suggested improvements to the awards procedure of the BFS (British Fantasy Society). Why I was asked to do this is a mystery, as I'm not a BFS member or a member of any society. I'm a contrarian-libertarian-individualist, but we'll let that pass for the moment. Maybe the questionnaire was sent to me because of a simple clerical error? I filled it in anyway.
I imagine that my responses will be ignored, as the proposals in this blog post will probably be ignored; but as an enthusiast of the literature of the imagination I have as much right as any other enthusiast to express my thoughts on the matter. Whether these thoughts are ignored or not is a moot point. So I intend to keep expressing them. For anyone who isn't in this particular loop, the BFS is a long-established society that (among other things) holds an annual ceremony in which anthologies, novels, short stories, etc, can win an award. The procedure followed is conventional: a longlist, a shortlist, a result!
However, concerns have recently been raised as to the integrity of the system. Dark mutterings have been on many lips: the entire procedure is corrupt, they say! And yes it is, and it has been for a long time, doubtless since the inception of the society. Most societies are corrupt, aren't they? All of them are, probably. In a bid to clean up the BFS act from inside, a fellow of integrity and talent (the decent and honourable Graham Joyce) has finally been given a mandate to reform the entire awards protocols. He is asking for suggestions. Here are mine:
(1). Disband the BFS. Don't have a society at all. Writers should be independent mavericks. The existence of literary societies encourages the formation of cliques, of mutual back-patting, of mob psychology, of unfairness. Dismantle the BFS and sell off the jowls and egotism. That's my preferred solution, but it's never going to happen. And so:
(2). Keep the society but don't have an awards ceremony. The whole concept is ludicrous. For instance, are we really supposed to believe that Stephen King's The Dark Tower VII was the best fantasy novel published in the entire world in the year 2005? Better than Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore? Better than Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown? Better than Ismail Kadare's The Successor? Better than Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake? Better than Jose Saramago's The Double? I could go on and on, but I'm sure you get the point. The BFS 'best novel' award can never represent the best novel out there. How can it? The task is impossible. The scrapping of all awards ceremonies seems the only logical course of action to me.
(3). However, scrapping the awards ceremonies will never happen because there are too many vested interests involved; there is too much desire on the part of business insiders to keep the awards going. So then. The best that can be done is to try to keep the system as pure, independent and uncorrupted as possible. One of the main weaknesses of the BFS voting system (any voting system really) is canvassing. It's not merely that canvassing is open to abuse but that canvassing itself is unfair. It gives an unreasonable advantage to those who can canvass and disempowers those who won't or cannot. Ten years ago I received an email from a writer who had a book on the BFS longlist. His scheme was to form a voting cartel that would take it in turns to vote for each of its members. He asked people to vote for him that year, promising that he would vote for them the following year. A good definition of corruption. My solution to this is simple: anyone caught canvassing at all for votes should be instantly struck off the longlist (or shortlist, if they have reached that far).
(4). An option should be available to strip previous winners of awards retroactively if evidence emerges that they used dishonourable methods to increase their chances. If an author is caught cheating, all his or her awards should be stripped. This should be a deterrent to many potential cheaters. So the writer who sent the email mentioned above would lose any awards he previously (or in point of fact subsequently) won.
(5). Some sort of provision should be made to make sure that writers who are by nature outsiders aren't neglected or overlooked because of the political workings of the system. For instance, a writer who prefers not to network and socialise, who perhaps alienates other writers by his disarmingly honest attitudes, shouldn't be punished as a consequence. I therefore propose an extra award: 'Best Outsider', to be decided by an independent judge or judges and not by 'popular' vote. How else will talented outsiders receive the recognition due to them? It must always be remembered that it's the work that is being rated, not the worker.
(6). Democracy is often praised in our culture as the highest form of political evolution. But the objections Plato raised to it 2400 years ago still haven't been properly answered. Democracy often empowers the ignorant and encourages populist posing. To maintain the purity and independence of the awards ceremonies, the longlists, shortlists and eventual winners should be decided only by competent, widely-read judges and not by ordinary proles. These judges should be drawn only from a pool of expert writers, scholars or readers who agree to forever sign away their own eligibility to win an award. A few years ago I got talking to a writer of very little talent who had spent years attempting to further his career through networking; he attended every convention he could and promoted himself with all the energy and drive that he failed to put into his actual writing. Having managed to secure himself a position as a BFS committee member, he lamented the fact that he wasn't eligible to use his position to help one of his own books get onto the shortlist. The fact that this was an unethical aspiration didn't seem to bother him. The BFS really doesn't need administrators of his calibre.
On a more general level, I would like to object to the fact that the BFS (British Fantasy Society) often seems to function more as a BHS (Not British Home Stores but British Horror Society). When I raised this point recently, an engaging and erudite chap, Stephen Theaker, who is a BFS insider, replied that the awards longlists are often dominated by horror titles but that the guests of honour at the conventions are drawn from a far broader spectrum. This seems to be true. I was delighted to note that Brian Aldiss, the greatest living British writer, was a guest of honour at the 2011 event. However, the fact that the awards longlists are still dominated by horror titles is a real problem. The membership is clearly dominated by horror fans and these horror fans can be pressed into service by horror writers. The horror scene tends to be small and tribal. I'm not saying that the horror fans' votes can necessarily be bought by direct bribes from the horror writers, but friends do tend to vote for each other despite the actual merit of the work in question. Maybe there should be a separate category for 'Best Horror Novel' to help filter the muddy waters?
Finally, I think it's very important to remember that fantasy literature isn't a speciality of Western writers. The finest fantasy novel of the past decade, in my view, is The Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Some of the best fantasy writers out there aren't British or American. Why are they so poorly represented in the BFS awards procedures? This needs to be addressed.