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April 10, 2004

Installment #4: Of Awards, A**holes, and Assorted Aggravations: Part One 

I. The Stoker Awards

In case you're not already aware of it, The Horror Writers' Association recently announced the nominees for the 2003 Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement in Horror. A quick look at the list of nominees confirms that, like it or not, Horror is Back.

I was completely and utterly stunned to find my work had been nominated in three separate categories (I'm still reeling a bit from it), and in the days since the nominations were announced, I've been thinking about awards in general, the Stokers in specific.

Removing my own nominations from the equation, the cited works on the ballot this year run the gamut from extreme bloody horror ( The Rising, Wolf's Trap ) to the more you-should-pardon-the-expression literary forms ( In The Night Country; lost boy lost girl, "The Haunting", "The Red Bow"). This year heralded Peter Straub's gloriously lean-and-mean redefining of himself as a writer of horror, the beginning of Stephen King's swan song to the field, and hands-down the strognest batch of fiction in the Work For Young Readers category that I've ever seen.

I am one of these fools who makes it a point to read (or see) all the nominated works each year before casting my votes; I think it only fair to the nominees and to HWA that I take my voting power seriously...and, besides, it keeps me reading, and anything that is going to require people to read more is okay by me.

The big plus this year is that (still keeping my stuff out of the equation) so many of the nominated works are just so damned well-written that it's been a pleasure to work my way through everything.

The point is coming, bear with me for a little while longer.

The day after the Final Ballot was announced, I received several e-mails congratulating me on having 3 works nominated. The majority of these e-mails were genuinely nice, but a few of them -- one in particular -- used the opportunity to remind me (in annoyingly back-handed ways) that the Stokers "...don't really mean anything." (That being a direct quote from one of the "congratulatory" notes.)

To which I say (borrowing Joe Lansdale's succinct phrase), "Bullshit, pilgrim."

Let me tell you why I think the Stokers mean something (and this can be apllied to all awards in one form or another).

There has to be a way of measuring standards in the field, not only for those who are working in said field, but also for those whose only way of judging the value of said field's work is by the award-winning caliber of that work to which they are exposed. If someone not affiliated with any writers' organizations -- like, say, the readers who buy our books -- sees a book whose author is touted as "Bram Stoker Award Winning" (or "World Fantasy Award Winning", or "Hugo Award Winning", etc.), the reaction that I think a lot of them have is: Wow -- this won awards. It must be good.

Damn straight; it must be good, because there has to be some way that writers and editors in the field can demonstrate to the reading public that what their particular field has to offer is quality work, work that the voters feel deserves to be called a Superior Achievement, work that deserves your attention, money, and reading time, work that will (hopefully) prompt you to seek out more books and stories in the field, even if these other works aren't touted as being "award-winning." The Stokers remain the single biggest opportunity for the horror field to draw public attention to the quality of the work being produced by its practitioners.

Go back and take another look at this year's list of nominees (and, yes, still keep my work out of the equation). I have read or seen almost everything on the ballot, and as one who is a merciless reader, you can take my word that the quality of work nominated this year is staggering. Horror is not only back, it is also coming of age, finally, and if this trend continues, stands a good chance of at last being taken seriously as the single most all-encompassing and moral form of storytelling it is and always has been.

The Stokers are arguably the lynchpin in earning and expanding the reading public's knowledge and appreciation of what the horror field has to offer. For that reason alone, they mean something, pilgrim.

The Stokers have been jokingly referred to as "The Strokers" both within the horror field and without, and continue to be criticized (and in some cases, ouright mocked) by many people. (But mock the Hugos, Nebulas, or World Fantasy Awards, and many of these same folks go apoplectic). The "Stroker" moniker came about as a result -- in my opinion -- of the 1997 awards, after which rumors and accusations of "vote swapping" ran rampant. ("I'll vote for your work if you'll vote for mine.") Now, my memory might have slipped a fear gears since then -- and if I'm recalling any of this incorrectly, I've no doubt that someone will justifiably point it out to me -- but I honestly do not recall the "Stroker" moniker being employed before the '97 awards. (Although the redoubtable Bob Weinberg -- a superb writer and a man whose word I'd be a fool to question -- tells me that the term "Stroker" originated outside of HWA as far back as the early 90s, possibly originating in Mike baker's Afraid magazine.)

Here's the short version of what happened:

Back in '97, there was a by-law in place that stated something to the effect that no one holding HWA office in any given awards year could have their work on the Final Stoker Ballot (that by-law has since been removed from the books).

If you'll pop over here for a moment, you'll see that the recipient of that year's award for Superior Achievement in Novel was Children of the Dusk by Janet Berliner and George Guthridge. When that novel was announced as that year's recipient, a lot of people were very surprised; until the recipient was read aloud, everyone (myself included) assumed that Tananarive Due's My Soul To Keep had a lock on the award.

What made this one of -- if not the -- single most controversial award in the history of the Stokers until that time was this: in 1997, Janet Berliner was an officer of HWA (I believe she was president). George Guthridge, however, was not. The reason Children of the Dusk was permitted on the ballot -- one that I agreed with, by the way -- was because Guthridge, not being an HWA officer, should not have been penalized because he co-wrote a novel with someone who held office; ineligibility by association could not be permitted. So Children got on tha ballot, everyone assumed that My Soul To Keep would win, anyway, and all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds --

-- until the moment the award was announced.

God, the accusations and rumors that started flying; Berliner had used her office to coerce people into voting for the novel; there had been vote swapping; there had been "political favors" promised in exchange for votes...it got really ugly really quickly. People whose work hadn't even been on the ballot started attacking one another about things completely unrelated to the awards (though the subject of the awards was, in most cases, what had prompted the initial disagreements); the younger members started accusing the older, more seasoned pros of forming an impenetrable clique, thus guaranteeing no new writers ever had a chance at winning a Stoker; a large amount of known pros left HWA as a result of the ugliness, and the Young Turks who took over in their place proved almost instantaneously that they were just as capable of keeping things as effed up as the old guard had supposedly been...it was bad. And HWA was viewed as an organizations composed of bloody-minded, mean-spirited, socially-inept weirdos whose members all suffered from a perpetual case of arrested literary adolescence and gathered in NYC every year to engage in a well-dressed tunnel-visioned circle-jerk called the Stroker -- uh, Stoker Awards.

(Two-paragraph parenthetical pause here: Yes, there is still some -- note that word -- some in-fighting at HWA, but I defy you to name me any 3 writers' organizations where some in-fighting doesn't occur from time to time. G'head, I'm waiting...

(But keep in mind that HWA has repaired a lot of the damage since then, a majority of it due to the efforts of the current administration under President Joe Nassie, who embodies the intelligence, grace, diplomacy, savvy, and willingness to listen that any president damned well ought to possess. If you're thinking about joining HWA, do it now. It's got a lot to offer if you have the sense to seek out and/or ask for it. Any writers' organization is only as strong and useful as its membership...and HWA's membership boasts a lot of power and integrity, starting with our prez.)

Not only was the value of the Stokers tainted by the ensuing ugliness in '97, but -- much worse -- the integrity and stability of HWA itself was called into question -- and, in my opinion, still hasn't fully recovered in the eyes of many, which doesn't surprise me; after all, Horror has always been the bastard child Lit-ra-chure keeps chained up in the basement whenever respectable folks come to visit and talk about Ulysses or Dune or other works that deserve serious consideration. Do I seem angry and perhaps a touch bitter? Hmmmmmm....

What got buried under the detritus of all the in-fighting, accusations, rumors, and exoduses resulting from the '97 awards was one simple fact: Berliner and Guthridge had agressively campaigned for the award: e-mails to members politely asking for their consideration, actual honest-to-God paper letters to the voting members and, finally, copies of the novel itself were sent to all qualified voters. (And we're talking something like 200 Actives at that time; a 6-dollar cover price, with a couple bucks in postage to send each copy, and you're looking at a couple of thousand dollars in materials and postage -- not to mention the twelve hundred or so dollars' worth of sales that Berlinger, Guthridge, and their publisher wouldn't make because of sending out all these freebies.)

Until the '97 awards, I had never received an actual nominated book, free of charge, for my consideration. Yes, I'd gotten more than my share of photocopied short stories and novellas, but this was the book, not an Advance Reading Copy, the actual book -- signed by both authors.

Upon removing Children from the padded envelope in which it had been sent, my first thought was: Wow, they must really want to win. This couldn't have been cheap for them. It impressed me enough to sit down and read novel at the first opportunity in order to give it the serious consideration I thought it deserved -- if for no other reason that its authors' obvious genuine desire to win. (For the record -- and I hope this doesn't come off as tacky -- I voted for My Soul To Keep. Children, while quite good and very much worth my reading time, just didn't strike as deep an emotional chord in me as did Soul.)

But -- as a result of Berliner's and Guthridge's aggressive (and probably expensive) campaigning -- The Little Paperback That Could was the recipient of the Novel award that year, and I cannot help but wonder if all the brouhaha following in its win would have occurred had Berliner and Guthridge -- instead of practicing the politically correct habit of saying things like, "We would very much appreciate your consideration of our novel in this year's Bram Stoker awards" -- opened their letters and e-mails with the following words:

Dear Active Voting Member of HWA: We want to win the Stoker this year, and so are sending you this copy of our novel so you can read it for yourself and hopefully vote in its favor.

But no one who's nominated ever does that because they're afraid that such honesty will be viewed as unprofessional and needy and have everyone chuckling at them behind their backs; which is really too bad, because I think a lot of unpleasantness could be avoided.

So -- knowing that people already chuckle at me behind my back, and knowing also that I am a needy little dweeb (though very professional, methinks) -- I have the following to say regarding this year's Stoker awards:

I want to win.

I want to win so much I can hardly stand it.

Am I campagning for the awards? You bet. "Duty" has been one of the featured stories on this web site since the whole sheebang went live four months ago because I want to make sure all voting members have access to it -- I'm not going to send anyone anything unsolicited, which is also why Graveyard People and Fear In A Handful Of Dust are being offered as PDFs that members can request (and, in the case of Graveyard People, Paul Miller at Earthling is generously making available a limited amount of PC copies that members can get on a first-come, first-serve basis). I'm making all my nominated works as available as is humanly possible without cornering each individual member outside their homes and ramming copies up their noses at gunpoint. At this point I'd probably piss on a sparkplug in the middle of Times Square at rush hour if I thought it would help my chances.

All because I want to win. Hell, I'd like to pull a hat trick and win all 3 (who wouldn't under the same circumstances?)

I want to win. There, I said it. Chuckle away.

Personally, and for the record, I have the sinking feeling that I'm going to set some kind of a record in June by becoming the firt person to lose 3 Stokers in the same year, so what's a bald-faced admission going to hurt? I am still -- and always will be -- thrilled at having my work nominated in 3 separate categories in the same year.

(Update: I was just informed today -- April 11 -- that I would not be the first person to lose 3 Stokers in the same year; that has happened twice before; first with Harlan Ellison in 1988, then P.D. Cacek in 1998, so at least I'll be in sterling company.)

I'm also going to tell you why I want to win: Because I hold HWA and the Stokers in high esteem, and because a win would mean that the other members -- writers and editors whose work I have always respected and looked up to -- would be saying that, in their opinions, my work deserves to be held up to both the publishing industry and the reading public as being among the very best the horror field has to offer. (I also have some intensely personal reasons for wanting to see "Duty", in specific, win, but I won't depress you with them here.)

Besides, I'm damned proud of all 3 nominated works; where's the crime or tackiness in that?

The Stoker award is the second highest honor that a horror writer can have bestowed on their work; the highest honor will always, always be having loyal readers who support and appreciate your work. But the Stoker...that comes from your fellow writers, artists, and editors, those who know how much work it takes to get and stay published, who are not so proud as to never stop and give another a pat on the shoulder and say, "Damn good job, congratulations".

For myself -- and I'm guessing a lot of others who are too embarrassed to say so -- winning a Stoker Award is something of a dream -- though not by any means the end of the dream; regardless of the final votes on June 5, we'll all go back to work June 6, because there are deadlines to be met and readers to please.

Now try telling me that the Stokers "...don't mean anything."

And I will quote again Joe Lansdale (a multiple Stoker recipient, by the way): "Bullshit, pilgrim."

(End of Part One; Part Two goes live April 30th)



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