If I Ran the Nebulas
Not that anyone’s actually asking, but if I were in charge of the Nebulas, the awards the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America give out to honor the best writing in the genre, here’s what I would do:
1. Put the awards on a calendar year schedule. The Nebula awards are currently on a "rolling" nomination schedule, which means one can nominate a novel for 12 months after it’s published. For example, if your novel or story is published in June of 2006, someone may nominate you for the Nebula through June 2007. Now, if your work gets enough nominations from SWFA members (10 will do it) by the end of the calendar year of 2006, you’ll go on the 2006 Nebula long list, from which the nominees are ultimately selected. However, if it doesn’t get enough recommendations until 2007, then it’ll go on the 2007 Nebula long list. In effect, one can win what is an annual award for a work that was put out two years previous.
Now, maybe that makes the Nebulas more fair for books printed up in the second half of a calendar year, but it also makes them stale; one of the Nebula nominees this year is Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was published in 2004 — and which has already won the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award. Whatever its inherent qualities as a work (I quite like it myself) it is old, old news. This also makes the nomination process more confusing than it needs to be, which is no good for anything.
Stale and confusing are not good things for an awards process to be. Simple solution is to get the Nebulas back on a calendar year schedule. I’m not entirely convinced books published later in a calendar year would be at a disadvantage; Clarke’s Strange was published in the second half of its year (September) but won the calendar-year-oriented Hugo, as did Bujold’s Paladin of Souls (Published October 2003) and Gaiman’s American Gods (July 2001), and Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (July, 2000). Indeed, four out of five of the most recent Hugo winners were published in the second half of their year (and four out of the five — the same four out of five — were also fantasy novels. Discuss).
Maybe SFWA writers will complain that they don’t have time to read all the eligible books or whatever, what with all the writing they have to do, but, you know. The people who nominate for the Hugos have full, rich lives too, and yet they manage just fine. Also, if the Nebulas didn’t look like were trailing every other genre award, people might care about them more. Yes, the Oscars are the last set of movie awards, and it doesn’t hurt them. On the other hand, it’s not like Sideways or The Aviator were nominated this year, either. The Academy stuck to the films in 2005.
2. Abolish the pointless and stupid Best Script Nebula. Because no one cares. As with the dramatic presentation Hugos, this is a downstream award, which is to say the award is given with the hope that the award giver will be recognized by the award recipient as worthy of attention. This is not a good place for an award to be. The Nebula is as likely to become a significant award for Hollywood as I am to sprout opposable thumbs out of my back; there aren’t enough SFWA members actively working in Hollywood to justify its inclusion. Best to chop it out and focus the Nebulas on what the vast majority of SFWA members are themselves focused on.
3. Make the nomination process anonymous. When one nominates a work for a Nebula, SFWA notes the nomination and that it’s you making the nomination, so the person whose work you’ve nominated and every other SFWAn who cares to look will see that you’ve done it. On one hand, it’s nice to be able to say to a friend "dude, I recommended you for a Nebula," and then back it up with documentary evidence. On the other hand, it opens the process up to unseemly accusations of quid pro quo, in which people get nominated by other people in an endless backwashing circlejerk of gladhanding (yes, I intended to mash-up all those metaphors).
Authors don’t need to know who recommended them; all SFWA needs to know is whether the person recommending a work is actually a SFWA member. This can be fairly easily done and will trim down the perception of incestuous recommending (and possibly any actual incestuous recommending as well).
4. Ditch the Nebula Weekend. There’s some discussion among SFWAns about the utility of the Nebula Awards Weekend, which is the in-house get-together SFWAns have to have the Nebula awards banquet and to do some SFWA business. I’ve been a SFWA member for a few years now but I’ve not gone to one; from the program listings they don’t seem to have a lot going on that’s appealing for me. While that may contribute to a "relaxicon" feel, if I’m going to travel to a distant city, I want at least the option of doing more than sitting in a bar, watching fellow SF writers drink themselves blind. I did give some thought to going last year, when the Nebulas were in Chicago, but that was more because I had particular friends attending and because I went to school in Chicago than for the Nebulas themselves. This year they’re in Tempe, where I didn’t go to school and where none of my friends live nor plan to attend, and as I’m not nominated this year I can’t see why I would want to go. Even if I were nominated I’d have to think about it.
I’m not at all opposed to SFWA doing something to celebrate the Nebulas, but I’m less than enthused about a large chunk of my membership money going to pay for an event I have no interest in attending and that apparently quite a few other SFWAns are ambivalent about.
Fortunately, I have a solution, and it involves something SFWA is presently critically lame at doing: Fan outreach.
5. Have the Nebula Awards at an already-established SF convention. The Nebula awards are (so far as I know) held sometime between April and June; there are any number of well-established and well-attended SF conventions in that timeframe that would probably be very happy to host one of the premier awards in science fiction (and if there aren’t then the Nebula’s problems run deeper than I imagined). The nominees could connect with fans and participate in a special track of Nebula-related programming as well as the convention’s other programming; the awards banquet could be opened to con attendees or turned into an audience event outright. The Nebulas wouldn’t have to be nailed down to a single convention year after year; conventions could bid to host the Nebulas, so SFWA could share the love.
What will the conventions get out of it? Aside from the added con value of hosting the awards, they’re likely to benefit from the appearance of a reasonably high percentage of Nebula nominees and other SFWA members, which will make the con more attractive to more than the local SF fans. It’ll also help raise the profile of the con in the local media, since a city hosting significant genre awards is likely to be a good story for any paper outside New York and LA (this also serves SFWA’s purpose of raising the profile of the Nebulas in the general population).
So, basically, the con gives the Nebulas an established convention infrastructure in which to do its thing (at relative low cost to SFWA), and the Nebulas give the con some status. And one other thing, to sweeten the deal:
6. Introduce one Nebula awarded by fans. As a way of saying "thank you" to the con for hosting the Nebulas, SFWA should establish one Nebula award that the attendees of the convention should be allowed to vote on: The Fan Favorite Nebula, celebrating the novel-length work attendees of the convention enjoyed the most (or felt was the most significant, or whatever) in the previous calendar year. The nominations would be decided by pre-paid members of the year’s convention (and the attendees from the previous year, a la the Hugos), and the balloting for the winner could take place at the convention itself.
This achieves two things: One, it gives the con a concrete benefit in hosting the Nebulas — something to sell attendance locally and nationwide — and lets the con folk have a hand in making SF award history, which is not a bad thing. For SFWA, it could raise the consciousness of the entire Nebula award slate among fans and — this is the most important thing — give the fans an investment in the Nebulas that they don’t currently have. The Nebulas are a great award and they’re different than the Hugos in significant ways, and that’s a good thing. But in the real world of fandom (heh), the prestige of the Nebula is a distant second to that of the Hugo, and one suspects the economic and reputational benefit of winning a Nebula is likewise diminished for the writer, relative to the Hugos.
More than that, allowing the fans to have their own Nebula would be an explicit recognition by SFWA that fans are critical to the life of SF genre publishing — and by extension to SFWA itself. I suspect that SFWA is generally entirely opaque to readers of SF in general, and I further suspect that SFWA is increasingly irrelevant to fans. As the fan perception of SFWA goes, so goes the importance of the Nebulas as an award, and as a standard of quality, in the SF lit community.
Creating this one award will not substantially change the tenor of the awards (they will still be substantially different from the Hugos), but what it will do is make the Nebulas more relevant to the lives of the people who really care about SF literature. That’s worth doing. I’m personally willing to sacrifice the pointless and stupid Script Nebula to get this one on the boards.
Okay, those are my thoughts. Now tell me why I have got this all wrong.