(Note from SU Land. Our regularly scheduled essayist, Justine Musk, is lodged in pitched battle with a novel deadline — her post will appear down the road, but in the meantime here is an extra slice of Mr. William Lindblad)
By William Lindblad
Okay, it doesn’t exist yet, but it should. Here’s why:
Awards mean something, in a way most authors don’t care to admit to themselves. They mean a continued interest in your work after you stop writing, and especially after you’ve passed away. They also mean something when you’re basking in the radiated warmth of praise from your colleagues, or cashing a check for 50 thousand pounds for winning the Booker prize, or being inspired by its presence on a shelf near your computer (typewriter for you hardcore traditionalists.) But they also mean that you’ve been grouped with an elite cadre of writers.
There is an ocean of available books to read. Most readers work their way through less than five books every year. Those two facts are fearsome in their juxtaposed message. Now take out the effects of promotion by a publisher and self-promotion by the author, and books become lost in history.
Think of the books you read as a teenager. Some of them undoubtedly were on school reading lists. Others were being heavily promoted by the publisher. Some others weren’t getting a big push, but looked interesting, so you picked them up off the shelves.
When the buzz is present, casual readers will read the new, hot book. When it’s gone, they’ll stop looking for it. It’s not pleasant to realize that the book of yours that everyone’s raving about will have a shelf life roughly equivalent to a chocolate bar, but it’s the truth.
An award is a permanent promotional effort, varying in its impact in accordance with the prominence of the award. In terms of lasting impact, beyond-the-grave impact, awards are on the same level as school reading lists, major movies, and amazing contemporary sales figures. They encourage those readers who consume more than a handful of books every year to focus their attentions on writers beyond whoever is currently benefitting from the industry buzz. That, in turn, encourages publishers to bring them back decade after decade, further increasing the interest in the authors.
And that is a significant reason for having them.
In the science fiction field a few years back, the children of Paul Linebarger started The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. It was designed to focus attention on a sf or fantasy authors whose works deserved attention they were not receiving. Winners so far have been Olaf Stapledon, R.A. Lafferty, Edgar Pangborn, Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and William Hope Hodgson.
People familiar with sf/f history will recognize all of those names. They were not people with minor acheivements; they all created impressive bodies of work, often including a book or three within the field which is rightfully considered a true classic. The award is named after a similar author, a writer whose work created ripples which continue through today.
Honestly, there are critical reasons to analyze the merits of the Cordwainer, and the work of all of the recipients, but I’m not concerned with them. While I am undeniably knowledgable about the science fiction field, at heart I am more of a reader than a scholar. I am thus interested far more in the fact that the Cordwainer, every year, brings some attention to an author who, despite having decades of industry buzz and impressive sales figures, has become relatively unread outside of the historian circles with the passing of years. It serves as, effectively, an independent promotional arm of an effort like the NESFA Press or Millipede Press reissues, or the legendary Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.
Dark Fantasy/Horror could use something of this sort, and I’m suggesting Karl Edward Wagner for the headliner. There are people who made a great impact on the field, but died before they could earn the Life Achievement for World Fantasy or Grandmaster for the Stokers. R. Chetwynd-Hayes, Seabury Quinn, Frederic Brown… and those are merely the older authors. When and if Richard Laymon’s posthumous sales figures dim and the next Big Thing steps up to take his place on the paperback racks, it would be nice to have something to encourage new readers to pick up his work. KEW was a talented writer, but he was also an anthologist who scoured fanzines and semi-prozines as well as the professional publications for promising work; he respected other’s work so much as to butt editorial heads with L. Sprague de Camp over the Conan work; and when it looked like August Derleth’s death was going to shut down Arkham House, he and a couple friends put together Carcosa as publishers. I think he’d been an appropriate choice for the award’s name.
This has been an exercise in speculation. This is the sort of thing I think about when I’m working at the computer keyboard, and this seems like an appropriate venue to share it with people. Please, let me know what you think.