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Editorial: Where is the World in the World Fantasy Awards?

Editorial: Where is the World in the World Fantasy Awards?

Lavie Tidhar

Writers talk – and one of those on-going conversations recently, here at WSNB HQ, has been the World Fantasy Award. It’s a very worthy award, singling out some remarkable works of fantasy in both long and short form. But one question kept bugging us, and it’s this: where is the World in World Fantasy?

It requires a mere glimpse at the list of winners, nominees or, indeed, judges to know that there is nothing very international about the WFA. Sure, there are the notable exceptions – namely S.P. Somtow and Zoran Zivkovic – but the award is predominantly – overwhelmingly – American.

Which is no bad thing, of course. American fantasy is, well, fantastic. But to call an American award the World Fantasy Award is to set out certain expectations and, one could argue, certain obligations. Are there no major works of fantasy in China? In Japan? In Russia? In France? In Latin America or Africa or the Middle East?

Not according to the WFA. I wonder how many of the previous judges could even read a second language. I do wonder what a panel of European judges would make of the award but, of course, English-speakers have dominated the judging, with very rare exceptions. My friend Alain, a French publisher, was a judge one year, and I remember him expressing similar frustration.

And it is frustrating. I’m not arguing a truly international award will ever be possible. But if it isn’t – and the WFA certainly isn’t – why not change its name? The American Fantasy Award seems a much more accurate description, and a more humble, more appropriate name. No French writer would raise eyebrows if they weren’t nominated for the American Fantasy Award. But to have a world – encompassing, one would imagine, Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, South America and – yes – North America (not to mention islands like Singapore or England) – in the title, and then constrict it to mean a small sub-section of humanity is hubristic, and unbecoming.

People might assume, incidentally, that the World SF Convention – the Worldcon – gained its name from a mandate that sees at least the possibility of it being held somewhere outside the United States (as the recent Japanese Worldcon – the first, and so far only Worldcon ever to take place in Asia). The explanation is much simpler, however, and rather charming – when it was set up by a group of young fans in New York, the World’s Fair was taking place in the city, and the organisers decided putting “world” before “convention” would make it sound grander (read Pohl or Asimov’s memoirs for the details). Nothing more, nothing less – and the convention has evolved over the years, as mentioned, to at least include the possibility of international hosting. Though it has to be noted the Hugo awards are still almost entirely dominated by American writers and publishers (to the exclusion of otherwise-obvious candidates from the UK, for instance), even when it travels outside of the US.

The World Fantasy Convention, on the other hand, was only set up in the 1970s, so I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind the name. The WFC takes place in the United States every year, and is widely seen as the important business convention in the American genre market. Again, one simply wonders why it has to be called something it clearly isn’t.

But what can be done about the WFA? Nothing, you might say. What difference does it make what it’s called? If you want, go and start your own, I don’t know, International Fantasy Award and leave us the World. Or, and that’s something organisers might, just possibly, consider, there’s the possibility of making the award more inclusive. How about a year without a single American or British judge? How about a mix of European, Asian and African judges? How about a year of French judges? Wouldn’t that be interesting? Or maybe I’m aiming too high. Even just one such judge might mix it up a little. Right now, there aren’t any.

I take international speculative fiction – that whole wide and exciting world of Malaysian horror and Japanese manga, of Israeli fantasy and French steampunk, of African magic realism and Chinese science fiction – seriously, because it’s seriously cool. There’s some amazing stuff out there – but not according to the WFA.

Perhaps it’s time to change that.

Or, more simply, change the name.

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November 18, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,


  1. I’d imagine this blog is a good first step in getting US/UK readers to look for work outside their countries.

    Comment by Jason Sizemore | November 18, 2009

  2. It is a complicated business, this, so apologies for what will probably become a long comment.

    The “World” Fantasy Awards – there’s not a lot you can do about them except complain and try to shame them into action. The WF Board is almost entirely American, and they set the rules.

    Worldcon is a different matter, being a participatory democracy, but it still isn’t easy to get the world involved.

    By the way, your history may be correct, but it is not helpful. The “World’s Fair” story is trotted out by American conservatives every time they want to complain about Worldcon going outside of their country. In practice the “World” in “Worldcon” means what the current members of the World Science Fiction Society want it to mean. Worldcon has been held outside of the USA 4 times in the past 10 years, and will be again next year. It has been held in non-English-speaking countries 3 times (4 if you are a Quebec nationalist), the first in 1970.

    Obviously that’s not genuinely international, but that isn’t necessarily evidence of perfidy on the part of Americans. The location of Worldcon is voted on by the members of WSFS. When a serious bid for outside of the US comes forward it generally wins. The only significant loss I can remember while I have been voting is Cancun, which lost to Toronto and was in any case a bid run by Americans, not Mexicans.

    So if Worldcon doesn’t travel the world more often, it is at least in part because fans in countries where it might go either don’t have the resources to run the event, or are not interested in hosting it.

    Similar issues affect the Hugos. They too are a popular vote award. That means numbers are important. The population of the US is around 10 times that of the UK, so if people voted on nationalistic lines you would expect that Americans would win 10 times as often as Brits. I don’t have numbers to hand, but I do remember that the last time Worldcon was in the UK all five Best Novel nominees were British. I also know that UK fans (Dave, Sue, myself) have been very prominent in the fan awards over the past decade or two. When Robert Sawyer won Best Novel in Toronto, people complained about nationalistic voting by Canadians, but the majority of Torcon 3’s members were from the USA, and because of the Hugo voting system Sawyer could not have won without substantial American support.

    The Hugos are open to works published anywhere in the world in any language. This year’s Worldcon had a significant number of Francophone members. If someone were to organize a campaign there’s a good chance they could get a French language work on the ballot. Whether they will or not is another matter. They have to nominate first.

    This is not simply a question of money. All members of Anticipation are entitled to participate in the nominations stage of next year’s Hugos. They can do so online, so it costs nothing but time. But many of them probably don’t know that they are entitled to participate, or have forgotten that they can do so. And then they may not bother. No end of UK fans have said to me that there is no point in participating in the Hugos “because the Americans always win.” More than half of Yokohama’s members were Japanese nationals, but from the voting figures it looks like only a handful participated or, if they did, they voted for English language works.

    So in order to get more “world” in Worldcon and the Hugos we need more participation. We’ll get that if people like you and I encourage them to do so. And when we get that, maybe it will shame the World Fantasy Board into looking outside of the US more often.

    Comment by Cheryl | November 19, 2009

    • “The population of the US is around 10 times that of the UK, so if people voted on nationalistic lines you would expect that Americans would win 10 times as often as Brits.”

      Owch, it’s only five times the size (US: 300m, UK: 60m).

      Comment by Adam Whitehead | November 28, 2009

  3. [...] at the World SF News blog Lavie Tidhar questions the “world” credentials of various science fiction awards and [...]

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  4. What Cheryl said. And note that the Hugo Awards have, for most of the past decade or so, provided that works first published outside of the USA get an extra year of eligibility upon their first US publication. This acknowledges that the largest single group of voters — regardless of where the convention is actually held — is in the USA. Moreover, works first published in languages other than English automatically get another shot at eligibility upon their first English-language publication.

    So the main reason that non-English-language works aren’t getting Hugo nominations is that the members of the Worldcon are not nominating such works. While we have no firm numbers on this, anecdotally it would appear that the people who might be presumed to be inclined to vote for non-English-language works are not bothering to vote even when eligible. This leads to self-fulfilling situations: “Americans always win, so I won’t both nominating” followed by “See, only Americans got nominated!”

    Comment by Kevin Standlee | November 19, 2009

  5. I should point out I wasn’t really talking about the Hugos or Worldcon – I was using it as an example of something that began in a particular way but evolved beyond it, and contrasting it with the WFC/WFA. So in that I think I’m pretty much in agreement with everything you say!

    But to get back to the WFA topic… one thing that didn’t really fit into the editorial, but might be worth mentioning, is that the award is modeled after H.P. Lovecraft, which I think is very, very dubious. I don’t know if it’s his overt racism (after all, Verne was strongly anti-semitic by most accounts, but still a fab writer) but it occurs to me Lovecraft is quintessentially an American author. I would have liked – for an award with World in the title – to see – I don’t know – Verne? Kafka? – or, if I can make a suggestion, why not redesign the award to be in the shape of Monkey – Sun Wukong, the Monkey King from Journey to the West? I know which one I’d prefer on the shelf… ;)

    Comment by lavietidhar | November 19, 2009

  6. While I’m sympathetic to your arguments, I would be amiss if I didn’t point out that flaws and all, the World Fantasy Award, at least for the Best Novel category, has not been dominated by Americans. Quick glance over this decade shows that non-Americans have won or split the Best Novel award something like 7 or 8 times out of the past 10. While it’s true that Murakami is the only author to win Best Novel with a translated piece, I can’t help but think that a renaming of the award would not fit in with the awards given recently.

    Perhaps a better solution (and one I think is starting to take place with the recent announcement at the San Jose WFC) is to have one set of novel/short story awards for fiction originally written in English and another for fiction translated into English. But that raises another problem, that of how “world SF” depends so much on English being the lingua franca. Something tells me that there’s just no easy solution to this quandry.

    Comment by Larry | November 19, 2009

  7. I don’t think a separate entry for translated fiction is particularly helpful. I think the WFA needs to decide what sort of award it is, exactly – because right now it represents a small sliver of the world pie, any way you want to look at it.

    Also, I have to confess I don’t know exactly what you mean when you say “how world SF depends so much on English being the lingua franca”. It doesn’t, really. The vast majority of Chinese SF or Israeli SF or Polish SF published every year exists quite happily in its own environment, read by people in those countries. There is also, it has to be noted, a lot more of a cultural exchange between non-English speaking countries, particularly in Europe, that sees works translated into several languages, while never appearing in English. My suggestion of having a panel of European judges still seems quite sensible to me, and should at least open up the possibility of a more varied short list – no?

    I think writers working in languages other than English are quite happy to be published and read in those languages. I suspect you need someone annoying enough to want to push it into English – which is where something like the WSNB, or my own translations of Hebrew short stories, come from…

    Comment by lavietidhar | November 19, 2009

    • Well, I’m not going to argue that having a larger pool is a bad thing, far from it. However, what I meant by the “lingua franca” is that the current reality for all sorts of global exchanges is that English is the general medium of communication on a large scale. Yes, there are strong, vibrant non-Anglophone SF communities. I am very aware of it, being able to follow stories written in Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian in addition to my native English. However, none of those markets, with the exception perhaps of the Chinese and Japanese markets, approaches that of the UK, much less that of the American market. For the majority of readers to become aware of so many of the stories out there, they either have to know how to read English or they would have to hope for a translation into their native languages, which while it happens much more often than into English, tends to take a backseat to English originals and English translations from what I understand of the situations in Spain, Brazil, and much of the world.

      But having a panel of non-Anglophone judges to supplement the burdensome reading list of the Anglophone judges (I believe there’s something like 400-500 books the judges have to consider each year at a minimum) would create other problems. While there certainly would be some translations from say German to French or Polish to Spanish, these would only be available to only a few of these proposed judges since very few would be able to read more than three. And why just European? What about the Chinese, Japanese, and Latin American writers? I just don’t know if anything comprehensive could be achieved by any one award, much less if the award-winning books would not be available in one of the two most widely-understood languages.

      So many problems with any possible approach, it seems. Frustrating, no?

      Comment by Larry | November 20, 2009

      • Sure, I know what you’re saying. No disagreement there.

        About the idea of a non-Anglophone panel, I said I don’t think a true world fantasy award is possible, I was just suggesting a way of making it possibly more interesting (and varied). Certainly making the judging panel more international might help? But I think the main issue here is not the award itself – which as I said, is a worthy award, with some more than worthy winners – but the misleading nature of its name. The one convention I attended that I thought was truly international was Utopiales in 2003 – which doesn’t even have “world” in the title! – and I think having a world convention with exactly one panel on international fantasy is a bit poor.

        So – change the name? Or make an attempt to be more inclusive with what sets itself, accidentally or otherwise, as an award representative of an international perspective it doesn’t, currently, have?

        I don’t find it frustrating, though! I love the fact we’re getting more stuff out there, and there’s more awareness. It’s exciting. ;)

        Comment by lavietidhar | November 20, 2009

  8. You make several excellent points, so it’s a shame that you overreach with the assertion that “The WFC takes place in the United States every year.” Not unless Ottawa, London, Montreal, and Calgary are in the United States.

    Yes, it would be good for the convention and the award to extend their horizons beyond the English-speaking world.

    Comment by Patrick Nielsen Hayden | November 19, 2009

  9. Absolutely right, my mistake!

    Though looking at the list of previous conventions, now, I kind of enjoy:

    World Fantasy Convention 1984
    Site: Westin Hotel, Ottawa, Canada
    Theme: Fantasy, An International Genre
    Guests of Honor: Tanith Lee, Jane Yolen
    Guest Artist: Jeffrey Jones
    Toastmaster: Spider Robinson
    Chairmen: John Bell, Rodger Turner

    I love the way the theme is reflected in the guest list… ;)

    Comment by lavietidhar | November 19, 2009

  10. Stanislaw Lem remarked on this point in his seriously bilious essay Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case With Exceptions:

    “In the science-fiction ghetto there is no lack of makeshift and ersatz institutions which exist side by side with those of the Upper Realm. The Upper Realm has the Nobel Prize and other world-famous literary awards. The science-fiction ghetto has the Hugo and Nebula awards; and American science fiction poses (still) as ‘world’ science-fiction as can be seen from anthology titles such as The World’s Best S/F.” (Microworlds, 1984)


    Personally, given Asimov’s self-confidence, I’m surprised he was content with “World” and didn’t try to corner tags like “The Universe’s Best SF,” or “Best of the Cosmos Including Areas with Time Travel.”

    Comment by Anil Menon | November 20, 2009

  11. Quelle surprise!

    Someone makes a completely reasonable point about how the World Fantasy Awards are misnamed and the Worldcon attack dogs turn up to defend the honour of their award.

    Comment by Jonathan McCalmont | November 20, 2009

  12. Johnathan: If you accuse Worldcons of things that they are not guilty of being, expect people like me to defend them. Are you saying that it’s a bad thing? Or are you saying that we should just go ahead and let false information stand?

    Why do you characterize publishing actual facts being an “attack dog?” Pesky thing, the truth.

    And as to why I (and several other people) are apt to turn up, well, it’s called “Google Alerts” and it’s not particularly difficult. If you don’t want to gain the attention of people who are interested in Worldcons, the Hugo Award, etc., then don’t talk about those things. If you do talk about them, be accurate about it.

    Comment by Kevin Standlee | November 20, 2009

  13. Firstly, Jonathan, can we keep this polite? I don’t think “attack dog” is particularly helpful, nor is Kevin representing the World Fantasy Award, as far as I know?

    Kevin, I’m guessing you’re adressing me when you say “If you don’t want to gain the attention of people who are interested in Worldcons, the Hugo Award, etc., then don’t talk about those things. If you do talk about them, be accurate about it.”?

    Firstly, I’m very happy to see you, or anyone else, show up here. Secondly, I don’t think I made any factual errors about the Hugos or Worldcon – as I said, it was created as one thing but evolved to have a lot more potential. However I wasn’t really planning to discuss worldcons here. There’s a lot that can be said about them – maybe in a future posting? I don’t really have an argument with anything you or Cheryl said here, though I don’t think it’s quite as cut-and-dry as all that. Another day maybe…

    Comment by lavietidhar | November 20, 2009

  14. That depends upon what you mean by ‘helpful’ :-) It’s helpful because it’s a good way of describing the PR approach of certain people connected with worldcon. You mentioned Worldcon in passing, it showed up in a google alert and certain people appear to remonstrate with you despite the fact that your article wasn’t really about Worldcon.

    Having said that, Cheryl is correct to raise the issue of the “World’s fair”. the World Fantasy Awards, much like the World Series and Worldcon are not named because they’re inclusive of the rest of the world. “World” here has a more imperialistic and colonial set of connotations.

    Which is to say that I entirely agree with you. SF awards (particularly ones based on mass voting) are generally unadventurous, closed-minded and culturally biased to the point of jingoism. That’s not an American thing, it’s a human thing as the British are just as bad.

    Is there a space for a proper world fantasy award voted for by a properly international jury? Hell yes. I think that would be a boon. Half the problem with foreign language genre writing is that people simply don’t know where to go. I’m a fluent french speaker myself and I have only the vaguest of notions of what’s going on in SFF novels.

    Comment by Jonathan McCalmont | November 20, 2009

  15. lavietidhar:

    nor is Kevin representing the World Fantasy Award, as far as I know?

    Correct. While I was part of the local organizing committee for the World Fantasy Convention that just passed, the World Fantasy Awards are independently managed and I have nothing to do with that administration. (The management structure of World Fantasy Conventions is significantly different from that of World Science Fiction Conventions; I can elaborate upon request.)

    Kevin, I’m guessing you’re adressing me….

    Not really. Johnathan has a bee in his bonnet about the evils of Worldcon and the Hugo Awards. My reply was more aimed at other things said elsewhere than about anything said here. As you said above, we appear to be pretty much in agreement on general principles.

    Comment by Kevin Standlee | November 20, 2009

  16. If you replace the word “American” with the word “Anglosphere” then everything you say is true, and worth noting. But it would have been worth thinking about this. It’s irritating for non-American English speakers when Americans do this sort of thing — it’s just as arrogant claiming the Anglosphere is all America as claiming you’re complaining about the World Fantasy Award claiming the Anglosphere is the World.

    I have won the World Fantasy Award: were it the “American” Fantasy Award as you suggest it should be, I wouldn’t have been eligible.

    Comment by Jo Walton | November 21, 2009

  17. Jo, I’ll concede that, though you can’t really argue an award given predominantly in the US, with predominantly US judges, and for US-published books, isn’t predominantly American? Even if it’s given to non-American writers? After all, the Israeli Geffen Award is Israeli but still given to non-Israeli writers in the translated categories – to use an example. Anyhow, totally unrelated but I just bought a copy of Farthing in Singapore – looking forward to reading it…

    Kevin – glad to see we’re not in disagreement!

    Jonathan – thanks for jumping in – incidentally, the whole World Series analogy – the only world series I watch is the WSOP and it’s a hell of a lot more international than the WFA… though possibly even geekier! ;-)

    I hope that, whatever polite disagreements we all have, the main point still came across. I just had a very nice e-mail from someone connected with the WFA asking for some suggestions, so I’m hopeful.

    Comment by lavietidhar | November 22, 2009

  18. [...] According to Lavie Tidhar, SF — and fantasy, as well — is suffering from monolithic anglophone syndrome; [...]

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  19. [...] According to Lavie Tidhar, SF — and fantasy, as well — is suffering from monolithic anglophone syndrome; [...]

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  20. [...] in 1953, are the oldest — and they’re drawing from a much smaller pool of writers. (Some have even suggested, perhaps not without merit, that the awards are at times too insular.) But even within that pool, [...]

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  21. Well this is a worthy discussion with some good points being made and the usual rationals presented.

    Leaving aside a personal bug bear (‘Fantasy’ in the editorials title and why the Hugo’s don’t have a separate ‘Fantasy’ category like Locus does, if Fantasy is meant to be covered as well as ‘SF achievement’ — the Hugo constitution seems to be a little self-conflicting)… What does one do about all of this?

    Well at SF & SF Concatenation we do try to give non-Anglophone SF an airing but it does totally depend on us being told by good folk in other countries what is going on.

    However we do have one non-Anglophone SF project on the go (hopefully to be posted in a few months time) and that is to use part of our netweok of contacts to identify non-English language SF books of note that may possibly be worthy of translation into English.

    Comment by Jonathan | March 5, 2010

  22. It seems like they could do something inbetween the two options you’re suggesting… make it officially English-language and change the name, but not make it American only. Then they could work on including more English-speaking countries and translated works in the awards, as well as broadening the judge selection. This would give it a more diverse scope, but at a level that should be possible with their resources.

    (Though I may be wrong, I get the impression they don’t have the resources to find that many multi-lingual judges. An all-language award would be awesome, but the resources needed would be much greater than a single language award).

    Comment by Polenth | March 1, 2011

  23. [...] Where is the World in the World Fantasy Awards?: World SF Blog, 2009, Lavie Tidhar [...]

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