Sunday, April 29, 2001

American Gods Blog, Post 40

So here's the speech I made tonight, introducing the Nebula Awards. This was the text I went from, and I sort of smoothed it up as I went. 'Black Pudding' was changed to 'blood sausage' because few people knew what a black pudding was. [Note -- the 'Harper Collins Royalty Statements' is just a cheap laugh line, and not intended as a slur or commentary in any way on Harper Collins royalty statements; and anyway, I have been assured that Simon and Schuster's royalty statements are worse.]

And as soon as Avalon is done then I'll write about American Gods again. Maybe even... well, we'll see.

It occurred to me recently that if I were now to meet myself at the age of 12 – the age, as all of you here know well, that has been called the Golden Age of Science Fiction – I would, I have no doubt, be an extreme disappointment to my twelve year old self.

He might be impressed by the fact that I’m a writer – but then, he knew he was going to be a writer. That I’m that one of a relatively rare clan, a writer who makes his living writing, would make no difference to my 12 year old self. He is, after all, convinced that the simple action of writing a short story and getting it published is like winning the grand prize at the end of the Quiz Show: the roof opens up and goods and money tumble down. He also has a strong suspicion that supermarkets, bank managers, and car lots will, on production of a book with an author’s name on the spine, allow the author the pick of the best of what they have, and never charge him a penny.

(My 12 year old self has not met any authors.)

As I said, he knows he wants to be a writer. And, with a 12 year old arrogance that is utter and absolute, he knows what kind of an author he wants to be. He wants to be the kind of author who wins Nebula Awards.

Which is to say he wants to grow up to be an SF writer, and an SF writer of a particular kind. He wants to grow up to write the kind of SF that changes how people see the world. He knows there’s a difference between the Hugos and the Nebulas, and he likes the way that some books have won both of them. He wants to be a Delany, or a Zelazny or an Ellison. He wouldn’t mind being a Heinlein or a Niven or a LeGuin. He wants to write SF.

And I would have disappointed him. I didn’t grow up to be an SF writer, except possibly in the loosest most “SF doesn;t stand for science fiction, it stands for anything we damn well please” sense of the word.

Understand, this came as an enormous surprise to me. My first book was a collection of SF quotes, after all. (I wrote it with Kim Newman, it was called GHASTLY BEYOND BELIEF, and it contained a raft of quotes from SF books and movies. My favourite was from Guy N Smith’s seminal giant crabs novel NIGHT OF THE CRABS “He wasn’t going to leave her alone that night, crabs or no crabs”.)

I was sure I was going to be an SF writer, as sure as anyone can be of anything. I just didn’t turn out that way.

Most writers of fiction are autodidacts, to some degree or another. We learn to teach ourselves what we need. We get in there fast and shallow and we suck the life and the juice from the subject in our own way. Then we manage to give the impression that we know everything about the subject in our writing.

I feel sorry for all the teachers who attempted to teach me the rudiments of subjects that I had no interest in. If I’d known that I’d need history and geography to write with, I would have studied much harder, just as I would have paid more attention in Maths if I’d known that one day I was going to have to make sense of Harper Collins royalty statements.

The subject I paid most attention to in school was SF. That they didn’t teach it made no difference. It was what I was studying. I was reading all the SF that was published and available, and, having finished that, I was reading everything I could find that was out of print, dusty, forgotten.

I enjoyed the good books, and I enjoyed the bad books. I read everything.

But most of all I looked out for and hunted down and read things that had won the Nebula. Because I knew it was going to be good. Not just popular good, but well-written, and wise, and that it would stretch my head into places it had not been before.

I am almost 30 years older than that boy, and I have become both more blase and more cynical about awards. I’ve won more than my share of awards. I’ve been an awards judge, and have learned that awards judges, like the makers of black pudding, do their business behind closed doors for a reason. I’ve learned that popular and democratic awards are too often fickle, and easily manipulated, and no guarantee of lasting worth.

Still, as individuals and as a group, the Nebulas are wonderful things. It’s a fine thing to be nominated for an award. It’s a finer thing to win an award – at least until the next morning, when you have to face a blank sheet of paper, and you find the writing no easier than it ever was – and, often, it’s harder.

But the real importance of awards like the Nebula, I like to think, is in telling us, and, more importantly, telling the next generations of SF writers, where to look, where to go, where the best writing and the coolest ideas are to be found. And this, after all, is what we are here for tonight.

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