Last year I didn't actually vote for the BSFA Award for Non-Fiction; time was short, and I had read only one of the nominees; and though I very much liked it, I felt uncomfortable giving it a vote when I knew nothing about the competition. This year there are only three nominees, but this doesn't really make things easier: one is a big book about writing, one is the foreword to an anthology of stories about mummies, and one is a series of blog posts which started in mid-2012 and continues to this day. On top of that, I have read only one of the three in full – and I am putting it last. Yet I feel pretty confident in my vote, which will be as follows:
1) Wonderbook, by Jeff Vandermeer. I have not read this from start to finish, but I've read enough to be clear that it's a very serious, useful, friendly and engaging guide to creative writing, particularly of sf and fantasy. There are side essays by such as Neil Gaiman and Ursula Le Guin. There are gorgeous illustrations (some of which irritatingly break up the text, but not as badly as the last Vandermeer book I read). It will have a pretty long shelf-life, and indeed one member of my household who has stronger aspirations to creative writing than I do snatched it from me and became immediately engrossed in it (which is part of my reason for not having read it in full).
2) I am very happy that Liz Bourke has been nominated for this category. If I am not wrong, she is actually the first Irish nominee (this award was first made in 2002, and has skipped a few years in between). Tor.com has done a great thing in opening up its webspace to articulate commentators from different traditions, leaning to the progressive end of the political spectrum (though maybe I'm just ignoring the bits I disagree with). Liz Bourke has built up an impressive body of work, variable in subject but not in quality; as well as sub-genres (epic fantasy, urban fantsy, lesbian SFF) she writes about non-genre novels, games, museums, interviews particular authors, and takes on various topics succinctly yet in some depth. A good sample is her piece on her piece on older women as genre characters. Although… while I enjoy Liz Bourke's writing, I also am a bit surprised that this particular set of blog posts got chosen ahead of other possibilities by the BSFA selectorate; see further discussion below.
3) My bafflement at the BSFA nominations process mounts to a new peak with the inclusion on the shortlist of “Going Forth by Night”, John J. Johnston's introductory essay to Unearthed, an anthology of classic stories about mummies which he has co-edited with Jared Shurin. It's not that (as with one of the 2010 award nominees) I have any concerns about its eligibility. Clearly this is a "written work about science fiction and/or fantasy which appeared in its current form in 2013". My surprise is more that, well, it's not actually very impressive; a chronological listing – though sometimes repetitive and jumping about – of the theme of mummies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, carried through into the later film and TV tradition; with only a glancing reference to colonialism (some remarks by Conan Doyle, which are rightly disparaged but not analysed) and almost nothing about sexual symbolism. It also misses a couple of stories that I would have thought were relevant – The Story of the Amulet, by E. Nesbit, may not have a visible mummy per se, but does have a very visible mummy-case, and it is steeped in Egyptology, more so than Charles Bump's "The Lost Mummy" which is actually included in the collection. When I read articles about the genre, I want something that goes beyond mere indexing, and which – if it does index – includes the relevant things that I have read so that I can fit my own experience into the writer's argument; and this essay fails on both fronts. Also, considerable violence is done to the poor comma, over-used and abused on every single page of the piece.
Of course, if I want different things on the ballot paper, the responsiblity for nominating them falls to me, and I completely failed to do that this year. In terms of blog posts, I wish I had nominated Jo Walton's posts on Tor.com, or Abigail Nussbaum. From the Whovian perspective, I am regretting not having nominated Philip Sandifer's blog, or Tat Wood's latest About Time volume, or Neil and Sue Perryman's Adventures with the Wife in Space or The Eleventh Hour (essays on the Matt Smith era edited by Andrew O'Day) in time, though I also admit that would be on firmer ground had I actually read the last two of these. But, not for the first time, I find it quite difficult to understand how the BSFA Non-Fiction shortlist ended up looking like this, and wonder where the conversations that I must be missing are taking place.