Adam Roberts has posted an interesting article on Futurismic on the blog-baiting subject of "Award shortlists are all rubbish". Big Dumb Object has responded here.
Myself, I don't think awards shortlists are rubbish. I just think they're dishonest. The Hugo Award, the BSFA Award, the Clarke Award, the Nebula Award... are all given to the "best" novel, etc.
But that's not true. The voted awards are given to the shortlisted book which has the most votes. The most popular book, in other words. The juried awards are given to the book which the jury - no doubt after much argument and compromise - feels is the best of their shortlist. The same is true of the shortlists themselves. The process itself simply isn't capable of picking the best book of the year.
If every reader of science fiction and fantasy voted for the Hugo Award, the winner would always be the latest Harry Potter book. Because so many more people read JK Rowling than Michael Chabon (whose The Yiddish Policemen's Union - which is actually very good - won the Hugo for 2008). But then, of course, they'd have to call it the Hugo Award for Most Popular Novel.
It could be argued that shortlists provide a good reading list, a snapshot of the "state of the genre", if you will. For juried awards such as the Clarke, that's possibly true. Although given the Clarke's predilection for picking non-sf novels for its shortlist, you're not going to get much idea from it of what's happening in the genre in any given year.
As far as I can determine, the only conceivable purpose for the various awards which are handed out is... to celebrate the genre. It's a reminder to the general public that science fiction and fantasy still exist as a separate, functioning ecology; that there are writers, readers, artists and commentators working in the genre; that there are people who feel strongly enough about the genre to do the whole award shenanigans.
So let's drop the word "best" from all the awards. Let's call it the Hugo Award for Novel, the BSFA Award for Novel, and so on. Remove all references to any kind of value judgment. Let's stop pretending the winners are better books than every other genre book published during the same year. The same for short stories, magazines, writers, editors, artists, etc.
Let's be honest.
Let's focus on what the awards really are: annual celebrations of the genre.