The Hugos: Shenanigans & Unpopular Opinions

men dueling

Hugo Awards Duel, 1893

The picture above is a c. 1900 photograph of two men having a sword fight. Given photographic technology of the time, it was almost certainly staged, much as the posturing braggadocio swirling around the 2015 Hugo Awards is staged. Why staged? This is a well-rehearsed fight about issues of literary taste, generational shift, and identity (particularly race and gender) that have been publicly in play in F/SF fiction for some years, and have gotten increasing airtime as the world has diversified and everything has become less monolithic.

Now, what’s this about Hugo? For those who don’t know F/SF, the Hugo is one of the two biggest awards in the field. This year’s awards process has become a topic of particular debate because various people used a voting bloc strategy to get a slate (a blend of two slates, actually, proposed by folks going variously by the names “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies”—more here) of titles onto the ballot for this year’s award. The fight’s been nasty, attracting national and international media attention (e.g. NPR, The Atlantic, etc.). Otherwise deserving works of 2014 that attracted the attention of readers, reviewers, and taste-makers in and out of the genre community do not appear, including some yours truly personally loved.

Why do you care? I used to identify to some extent as a “fantasy author.” My fiction has, for the most part, settled into a flavor that seems to fit best, if not exclusively, in horror or literary mags. I publish in many places and tend to say “I write fiction” when people ask, but I still care about F/SF. I’ve never really been much into fandom or conventions, though I’ve enjoyed going to a few in recent years, although my interest is more academic and/or professional than fannish. By day I’m a librarian, and ironically I may actually care more deeply wearing that hat than I do wearing my writer hat: librarians regularly use awards as a gauge of what to purchase for their collections, especially when budgets are thin. Which library buys how many of what is complicated, but the last ALA survey puts the number of U.S. school, public, and armed forces libraries at 107,802. I know many authors who would be delighted by a bump to their sales in the amount of 0.1% of that number. Will all of those libraries buy a copy of each Best Novel winner? No, and for many reasons, but I’ve seen a number of comments about how awards can lead to “a few sales to libraries.” I repeat: 107,802.

And so you think all of this is…? The best thing I’ve heard said about this whole fiasco, by Farah Mendlesohn a week back on social media, is that it’s dishonorable. I agree wholeheartedly. This year’s behavior around the awards has been nasty, but the picture above is relevant here because people have behaved dishonorably. I think the word accurately captures the distress felt by people who feel awards ought to have legitimacy and a basis in the quality of the works under consideration. Honor is a quaint and curious concept in 2015, but I think it fits nicely in here. This shit would have resulted in duels and deaths a couple hundred years ago.

But politics are a dirty business! So indeed. The best, most thoughtful comments I’ve read along those lines come from Nick Mamatas. I have not (God help me) followed every corner of this debate, but I do think his points about “next steps” are good. Likewise, I strongly agree that the sword cuts both ways. You can’t engage in politics and then squeal when someone out-politics you. And make no mistake: “eligibility posts” are a form of campaigning, and saying anything less is hypocritical sophistry (even if one thinks, as I do, that they help to shed light on underrepresented people who and works that otherwise get lost in the scrum). Charlie Jane Anders argued after the award nominations were announced that the Hugos have always been political, and now they’re only political, and I very sincerely hope she’s wrong… but put three people in a room and you have politics.

Is this the end of the Hugos? I can’t count the number of people I’ve read dolefully and/or gleefully saying that this is The End for the Hugos, or that it’s The End under X or Y condition. This is nonsense. If you want it, fight for it. The Puppies figured out a way to mobilize, and so can anyone else, particularly given how few people have historically voted in the Hugos: 40-ish percent near the high water mark. Thousands of votes that don’t get cast are sitting there, ripe for the motivating/wheedling/convincing/mobilizing.

Wow, F/SF sure has problems. Well, yes, but other places do, too. For one glaring example, women are consistently and grievously under-published and under-reviewed by some major organs of mainstream English-language literary culture. And on a scale that makes the situation in F/SF look pretty chipper by comparison. At least genre fiction talks about its problems.

What do you think about all this? As every year, I’ve read little of what’s on the slate, and I can’t comment on the literary quality of it. I’m not a fan of the Puppies’ general approach, because I think it constituted a perversion of the process that has resulted in a problematic ballot, with multiple instances of the same publishing house or same person dominating a category. This isn’t the first time this has happened in the world of awards, and it’s always a problem, whoever/whatever is dominating. That includes when it’s your publisher, or your favorite author, doing the dominating. In those situations, the field’s usually weak, something’s screwy in the process, or someone/something is so disproportionately influential that they will always tip the scales.

The ballot is complicated, and people have strong feelings about it, with some nominees withdrawing, and others sticking to their guns for various reasons. Being nominated for a Hugo should, in any case, be a joyful moment, and I have nothing but sympathy for the folks for whom this affair has been deeply upsetting. All that said, awards systems are fallible, and people always unfairly get overlooked. I’m really glad for the recent trend toward increasing diversity of nominees over the past few years, and I hope it continues after what I hope will be seen as the unfortunate and exceptional debacle of 2015. Even if every single person on the ballot this year deserved to be there, the tactics by which many of them got there sucks, and so does the resulting hue and cry.

There are, however, a number of nominees on the ballot this year who unquestionably deserve to be there… and might not have made it without the Puppies. Voters in the past didn’t agree, and de gustibus non est disputandum, but F/SF hasn’t always seen fit to acknowledge critically the work of some tremendously popular authors of beloved books, whose commercial success has helped keep the genre afloat. Some people have mentioned the regular absence of commercially successful authors from the ballots, and I think this is perhaps the only unalloyed good to have come out of all of this, which I hope might persist in years to come.

Several years ago, I was in a conversation with a commercially successful author of fantasy fiction (not on the post linked above) who said with an impressive amount of good cheer that she was never going to be nominated for the Hugo because she didn’t write that kind of fiction, and the Hugo crowd was never going to give her the nod. Thus far, she’s right, she’s not alone, and both are problems. Beloved authors who fire hearts and minds should have a shot at the ballot. Likewise, authors of all backgrounds—every race, gender, creed, religion, culture, etc.—should have a shot at the ballot. It’s my hope that the end result of all of this drama is an increased number of people voting their passion, acknowledging the best of the full diversity of people and styles in F/SF, and finding a more graceful way to handle generational change.

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3 thoughts on “The Hugos: Shenanigans & Unpopular Opinions

    • Agreed. I’d read that first, but not the second. A lot of other big names have had interesting things to say, but I’ve particularly enjoyed GRRM’s comments. His voice is measured, and he has a good grasp of the history that many people (myself certainly included) don’t.

  1. Pingback: My Greatest Hits, by the Numbers | J. T. Glover

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