The grandmasters

Monday, February 19, 2024

Comments: 8   (latest March 12)

Tagged: susan cooper, the dark is rising, sfwa, grand masters, science fiction, books, awards

The Hugo Award mess continues to be worse than expected. I'm not going there. Instead, let's talk about an award that everybody is happy about.

A couple of weeks ago, SFWA announced they were naming Susan Cooper as a Grand Master of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Properly a "Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master", but I was a Cooper fan before I ever heard of Knight so allow me the unadorned title.

(Footnote: I am a SFWA member but I did not contribute to this honor. It's a juried award.)

I was absolutely delighted to hear the news. I've loved the Dark is Rising series since I was a kid. Since the series was nearly brand-new, come to think of it. I couldn't have read them any later than 1980, and Silver on the Tree was 1977. Of course they felt like a foundational part of the literary landscape, like Narnia and Middle-Earth and Star Trek and everything else older than Me Right Then. Well, they were and they are.

I've come back to the series now and again. See my comments on how The Dark is Rising might work as a game. (Weirdly, because it's a weird book by modern fantasy conventions.) There was also a BBC radioplay a couple years back which I thought was quite good. (Except for the title music, which sorry no.) And I'm not the only one who will always have, somewhere safe in memory, the image of great wooden doors on a snowy hill.

But, as I read the news and smiled, I grimaced as well. You may remember that Patricia McKillip died just a couple of years ago. McKillip has received many honors, including the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. But she was never declared a Grand Master, even though she was a grandmaster, and she will not be: that award is not given posthumously.

In fact, the Grand Master Award, as originally conceived, was given to no more than six (living) authors per decade. In 1995 this limit was changed to no more than one per year.

As of last year, SFWA has a separate honor, the Infinity Award, given to writers who died before being recognized Grand Master. The first Infinity Award went to Octavia Butler. I have no doubt that McKillip's name will appear on that list someday. But I don't think this solves the problem.

Problem? Yes, I say there is a problem with the Grand Master award rules. A demographic problem, not just a "my favorite author didn't get it" problem.

For years I've described the award criteria as: a living author who has been writing SF, influentially, for forty years. That's not the actual rule; it's not written down anywhere. It's just my thumbnail of what SFWA seems to consider Grand Master territory.

Let me do a quick chart of recent Grand Masters:

  • 2024: Susan Cooper (writing for 59 years)
  • 2023: Robin McKinley (42 years)
  • 2022: Mercedes Lackey (37 years)
  • 2021: Nalo Hopkinson (25 years)
  • 2020: Lois McMaster Bujold (35 years)
  • 2019: William Gibson (38 years)
  • 2018: Peter S. Beagle (58 years)
  • 2017: Jane Yolen (47 years)
  • 2016: C. J. Cherryh (40 years)
  • 2015: Larry Niven (52 years)
  • 2014: Samuel R. Delany (52 years)
  • 2013: Gene Wolfe (48 years)
  • 2012: Connie Willis (34 years)

(Yes, these spans are quite subjective. I'm picking the author's first influential work, or when they started publishing stories regularly. Susan Cooper apparently wrote a short story called "The Ring" when she was twenty but I'm not counting it.)

Thus, a range, but 40-45 years on average. I won't run farther back, but the very first Grand Master was Heinlein, awarded in 1975, writing for 36 years at that time. So it seems pretty consistent.

Only, if this goes on --

I mean, what happened about 45 years ago? Terry Brooks, that's what happened, with The Sword of Shannara. The same year, Stephen Donaldson. Also Piers Anthony getting into pop fantasy (as opposed to his earlier New Wave SF). All three, by no coincidence, in paperback from the newly-imprinted Del Rey Books. Which is to say: the start of the Big Damn Fantasy Just Went Mainstream era.

By 40 years BP, fantasy is in full swing. (The Colour of Magic, Jhereg, The Mists of Avalon, The Anubis Gates, Tea with the Black Dragon, Alanna, and The Dragon Waiting -- all 1983.) And it's not like sci-fi is slowing down in that period. The same publishers are handling both and they figure (correctly) that the more people get into either genre, the better both will sell.

Conclusion: right now, the Grand Master is being given to people who started writing SF/F when a whole lot more people started writing SF/F.

Does it really make sense that only ten children of the 1980s deserve to be called Grand Masters?

Certainly a lot of the Big Fantasy Boom is trash. Nobody much claims that Brooks or Donaldson or Anthony are literary highlights. Mind you, Anthony was a genuine young hotshot for a few years before Xanth. And I will throw down for Donaldson having a real point behind all the guilt and clenching.

Anyhow, of course, a lot of 1940s, 50s, and 60s SF was also trash, burnished in memory. One job of the Grand Master award is to honor the stuff you loved as a kid, the stuff that shaped your reading life and the lives of current writers your age. (Consider why this award is given by a writers' organization!) Looking back and saying "Um, yeah, it was forty years ago and I see the problems now" is not a disqualification.

You could argue that only the ten best writers of the decade should be called Grand Masters. I don't agree. The 80s were a Cambrian explosion in the field: more books, more approaches, more styles, more kinds of people writing. I call that more great stuff. No sliding scale required.

(The SF/F field was still predominantly white at that point, but a lot more women started writing -- a fact that the Grand Master rolls are already firmly cognizant of. Someone else will have to write up the succeeding diversity explosion of the 2010s when 2055 rolls around.)

I say that if we try to recognize these people at a rate of one per year, we will fall behind and never catch up. That means authors dying faster than we can honor them.

But, of course, I need to back this up with data. Can I name more than ten writers per decade who I would call Grand Masters of the field? Well, sure.

I won't exhaust you with a chart of every SF/F writer of a certain age. Or even every author in my collection. (I'm smug enough about my collection as it is.)

But, of authors who started writing in the 1970s, you are considering at a minimum Terry Pratchett(*), Diana Wynne Jones(*), Patricia McKillip(*), Tim Powers, Anne Rice(*), Mary Gentle, Diane Duane, John Varley, Greg Bear, Orson Scott Card, and George R. R. Martin.

(Asterisks mark writers who are no longer with us, but I'm including them because they had that solid 40-year career.) (I'm using the same handwavy definition of "started writing", sorry, it's an approximation.)

(Yes, GRRM is a 70s writer, and was on his way to grandmaster status even before Wild Cards. Never mind the recent dragony stuff.)

And then you have to give some thought to Spider Robinson, George Alec Effinger, and John M. Ford, who weren't prolific for very long but had a hell of an impact. I mean, you could say that of Susan Cooper too.

Writers starting in the 1980s? Don't get me started, oops there I go: Bruce Sterling, James Morrow, James Blaylock, David Brin, Raymond Feist, Barbara Hambly, L. E. Modesitt, Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb), Steven Brust, Tamora Pierce, Sheri S. Tepper(*), Charles de Lint, Guy Gavriel Kay, Melissa Scott, Michael Swanwick, Philip Pullman, Walter Jon Williams, Tom Holt (K. J. Parker), Iain M. Banks(*), Tanya Huff, Neal Stephenson, Dave Duncan(*), Greg Egan, Kate Elliott, C. S. Friedman. Sure, you could narrow that list down, but then you could add more names to it. (Glen Cook! A. A. Attanasio! Lawrence Watt-Evans! Somtow Sucharitkul! Ellen Kushner!)

I'm not even pretending to have complete candidate lists. Just the people I'd argue for, or who are prominent or influential enough that I think other people would argue for them. Minus the many I've forgotten.

So. I think that makes the point. More than ten grandmasters per decade. The field only gets more crowded from there. Someone who's making the rules, take note.

(Footnote: I did a lot of ISFDB digging, but I may have missed some qualifications or death dates. Apologies if so. I know you're all eagle-eyed trivia noters and will correct my mistakes in short order.)

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