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.

Finding Sustenance at the Banquet

Here a Book, There a Book

Here a Book, There a Book

Used to be, you could look at my bookshelves and get a reasonable cross-section of my interests, from horror to languages to history to fantasy. Up until a few years ago, my books squared with who I was, but no longer. My recent diet in reading is part of the writing problems I’ve had recently.

Part of this is due to last year’s move. For a long time, my books were boxed, behind boxes, or otherwise inaccessible. Many of them are still in boxes, though things are improving in that regard. Our little Cape Cod is charming and quaint, but that comes at a price in terms of the house’s layout, and my office/studio isn’t optimized for bookcases. I plan to custom build in order to take maximum advantage of the space, but other projects are more urgent, and probably will be for at least a year.

Another part has been learning to cope with working in a library. I love my job, but having ready access to a substantial cross-section of the written word can be distracting. If an intellectual whim strikes me—Welsh etymology, exobiology, Kuru, Hans Memling, criticism of Wallace Stegner—satisfaction is either in or just outside my office. How many books have I dipped into and left unfinished as I surfed from whim to whim? Reader, you don’t want to know. I lived in the library as a kid, just like many of you, but eventually most people leave the library, bring the books home, and read them. I’m always standing in the river.

Speaking of surfing and rivers, Exhibit A: the Goddamn WWW. Need I say more?

What to do about all this, if anything, is the question. Whatever the answer, I think it has to involve focusing on joy. Not drudgery, homework, clicking, or snippets, but joy. Joy in story, language, and things dear to my heart. You’d think I would have learned this by now, but perhaps one of these days…

2013 & the Wake of Change

My year’s end thoughts tend to be heavy on things read or watched in the course of the year, new work done, or goals for the coming year. 2012 was a sea change for me on many fronts, and I count just getting through it a victory, even when the swells and waves were good things. What happened?

My mother-in-law passed away after a long battle with cancer. There were multiple concurrent serious family illnesses. There were trips to see my wife’s family and deal with my mother-in-law’s death. All of those took time and energy, and those of you who have been through it know how sad and draining the death of a parent is.

Yard Devastation

Yard Devastation

We bought a house and moved into it in November. It’s a wonderful little mid-century Cape Cod with nooks and crannies, room to garden, and is spacious on various counts. We’ve been doing all sorts of work on it, as well as being not yet fully unpacked, but here’s a picture of part of the remnants of the work my wife, father-in-law and I did toward the end of last week. RIP. I hated doing it, but the row of a dozen or so pine trees lining the street had been badly topped and were growing (and always going to be growing) into the telephone and power lines. I never expected to spend any substantial amount of time in life using a chainsaw, and yet.

Life was busy at the library as well, with some major changes in our systems, some personnel changes, and several kinds of new work. My “business” as a liaison to humanities departments grew in interesting ways, and 2013 promises to be busy in that regard as well. I also traveled to Anaheim for the annual American Library Association conference, which was illuminating and exciting, especially the digital humanities preconference I attended.

Fungi Cover

Fungi Cover

My writing life was mixed in 2012. Productivity-wise, I started and floundered on many stories, a novella, and a novel.  By year’s end, I’d completed a bare handful of flash and short stories, though I’m working on something that I hope will turn into a new novel. Publication-wise, I did OK, with one story at and another in the hardcover edition of the anthology Fungi. I’m still on the hunt for representation for my novel focused on conflicts of memory, ecology, and inheritance in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s hoping 2013 will hold enough peace and stability for me to refocus my efforts on new writing.

Figure Study

Figure Study

One of the unmitigated pleasures of last year was the painting and drawing. I took two drawing classes at VisArts, taught by local artist Tommy Van Auken, and I began irregularly attending a life drawing group. I’ve done some painting during the last year, though my focus has mostly been on improving my drawing skills. I’ve done a mound of work and enjoyed it, with the end results ranging across the spectrum from “useful only for learning” to surprisingly good, at least to judge by viewers’ reactions. I have enjoyed the arts in past–drawing, painting, sculpting, singing, playing instruments–but something about this year’s work was transformative, and I was grateful to have brushes to hand, especially when the words did not come. Here’s the last painting I completed in 2012, which combined a variety of things I learned over the course of the year, as well as helping me figure out what I want to do in the coming year.

What do I have in mind for 2013? Adventure, good work, success, and happiness. I have a plethora of more specific goals, but that’s enough for the Nutshell Edition. Here’s wishing you all the best for 2013.