Hugo Awards Debate 2015 – earlier every year

Yes, I know I already said last year that the inevitable Hugo Awards debate starts earlier every year, but it’s still true.

Indeed, it seems by now that we are having at least three big Hugo debates every year, one early in the year during the nomination period, one when the nominees are announced and one when the Hugos have been awarded.

This year’s first Hugo debate is driven by pretty much the same issues as last year’s, namely political bloc voting and whether awards consideration and eligibility posts are tacky or necessary.

Let’s start with the debate about eligibility posts:

Ian Sales comes out against awards eligibility posts, because they carry the danger of skewing the nominations. Besides, he feels authors don’t belong in fan spaces. He also believes you shouldn’t need to be reminded of work you consider awards worthy and that Hugo voters and nominators should take their responsibility seriously and nominate only works they truly consider awards worthy, which should go without saying.

On the other side, Catherine Lundoff comes out in favour of awards eligibility posts, because the playing field still isn’t level for women, POC and LGBTQ writers, especially considering how many of the “Most anticipated books of 2015” lists were comprised mainly or entirely of straight white American and British men. What is more, Catherine Lundoff has also created the Twitter hashtag #2014awardeligsff for linking to awards eligibility lists by women, POC, LGBTQ, small press, indie or otherwise marginalised writers.

Mary Robinette Kowal also comes out on the pro-self-promotion side of the debate and points out that no one would know about an author’s works, unless the author talked about them

I tend more towards Catherine Lundoff’s and Mary Robinette Kowal’s position, because they are right: The playing field isn’t level. And writers not making awards eligibility posts will do nothing to tilt the playing field away from the big names. If anything, it will tilt it further towards them.

Besides, unlike Ian Sales, I believe it is possible to forget a work one enjoyed or at least forget which year it came out. Now in order to counter this forgetting, I keep a running list of works I enjoyed enough to consider nominating them for the Hugos. And while looking through my 2014 list, trying to wittle it down to five nominees in those categories where I have more candidates, I came across some works in the various short fiction categories where the title didn’t immediately ring a bell and I had to look up the story again to check which one it was and why I liked it.

Personally, I won’t do a separate eligibility post, because the one time I did, I felt extremely silly about it. However, I will probably post my personal list of Hugo picks (either the long- or the shortlist – not sure yet), because I don’t believe we should leave posting such lists to the biggest names and loudest voices. And while I’m at it, I will probably also add an “And here’s what I have available this year” paragraph.

Meanwhile, John Scalzi is offering his usual open awards awareness for SFF authors, editors, artists and fan creators. The Hugo eligible artists tumblr is also active again. There is also a page listing authors eligible for the Campbell Award.

Meanwhile, the loudest and most unashamed self-promoters won’t be deterred by insinuations that what they’re doing is tacky. Case in point: The Sad Puppies are wailing again, because their preferred brand of speculative fiction still isn’t very popular with Hugo voters.

This year’s puppy in chief is Brad Torgersen who posts his campaign announcement here and calls for submissions for crowdsourcing what will presumably be another fixed slate. Some of the suggestions so far are actually decent like Skin Game, Jim Butcher’s latest Harry Dresden novel.

The post contains a mix of the usual arguments we hear from that part of the SFF spectrum, namely that the works that tend to be nominated for the Hugos and other genre awards are too literary and not entertaining enough, that they don’t contain sufficient speculative elements, that authors and themes skew to the left side of the political spectrum and that a lot of authors are only nominated because they belong to the right demographic group and not because of the merits of their work.

What always strikes me about those arguments – apart from the fact that the best antidote to nominating authors because of their demographics and political views rather than the merit of their work is apparently nominating authors because of their political views rather than the merit of their work – is that the Sad Puppies genuinely seem to believe that their ideas of what makes a work good or entertaining are universal and that everybody else nominates works they don’t actually like, just because the author has the right credentials or the work ticks the right boxes. After all, it can’t possibly be that people nominate works the Sad Puppies find boring, because – gasp – they actually enjoy them.

Taste is subjective. This means that ideas of literary merit and entertainment value are subjective as well. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie and The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison to list two 2014 SFF novels which show up on a lot of people’s favourites lists. However, I also understand that the fact that the plots of both novels mainly involve their respective protagonists sitting in meetings, trying to find solutions to unsolvable socio-political dilemmas, does not exactly make them thrilling reading for those who prefer their SFF with lots of action and explosions. On the other hand, I found the supposedly oh-so-entertaining works from last year Sad Puppy slate that made it onto the Hugo ballot about as entertaining as a visit to the dentist, when I tried to read them. Because taste is subjective.

Besides, it is not as if the Hugo shortlist is overrun by literary fiction with very tenuous genre elements. It’s not as if names like Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, Thomas Pynchon, Juli Zeh, Colson Whitehead, Junot Diaz or Gary Shteyngart are dominating the fiction categories. True, occasionally a more literary work with genre elements may make it onto the Hugo shortlist. Very occasionally, such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, which won both the Nebula and Hugo Award as well as a number of other genre awards in 2008, it may even win. But in general, the novels we’ve seen on the Hugo shortlist in recent years are core genre works published by mainstream SFF imprints. The works on the short fiction shortlist were not published in literary journals but in genre magazines. The nominated films and TV episodes are Hollywood or BBC productions, not small indie films or foreign movies. The Hugos generally reward work that is pretty mainstream.

What we are seeing is a shift in sensibilities away from so-called “big idea” stories where characterisation is optional and towards fiction which uses SFF backgrounds to tell personal, often mundane stories. Some people don’t like this (and mind you, this critic is about as far away politically from the Sad Puppies as you can get), but a whole lot of people – frequently a majority, judging by recent short fiction shortlists and winners – do. In general, these changing tastes and sensibilities as well as the increasing diversity of the nominees in the fiction and fan categories is a symptom of a demographic shift in fandom.

John C. Wright has apparently recovered sufficiently from his shock at seeing two women holding hands at the end of the Legends of Korra cartoon to endorse the sad puppies campaign. He also wishes to make the heads of the literati explode.

File 770 is rather snarky about the whole thing, but then File 770 has won more Hugos in the fanzine category (six, if I counted correctly) than Larry Correia and pals have been running Sad Puppy campaigns.

At Amazing Stories, Steve Davidson points out that the Sad Puppy campaigners don’t understand fandom very well and that sales figures and commercial success have never been the decisive factors for the Hugo Awards, even if the occasional megaseller like J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman has won them.

Now the tendency to use sales figures as the sole arbiter of literary merit has become quite common of late. I see it a lot in indie writing circles, where you often have people saying that unless you’ve sold X number of books or made X amounts of money, you shouldn’t even open your mouth. I also see it on the right side of the speculative fiction spectrum where the assumption is that just because Wheel of Time or Shannara or the latest media tie-in sold a gazillion copies, that automatically makes them awards worthy. Uhm, nope, it doesn’t. It simply makes them books that sold a gazillion copies. Besides, there already is an award for writers of speculative fiction that have hit a bestseller list. It’s the right to put a “New York Times and/or USA Today bestelling author” banner onto the covers of every book thereafter.

Besides, if you actually study the bestseller lists for a while – before they became all distorted by “Get 10 books for 99 cents” boxsets – you’ll notice that not a whole lot of speculative fiction in general makes it onto those lists. And that which does is usually speculative fiction which appeals to audiences beyond the core genre audience such as media tie-ins, genre hybrids like paranormal romance or romantic urban fantasy, speculative YA, speculative fiction that has been adapted for the movies or TV and entry-level SFF. It’s not necessarily the sort of speculative fiction that the core genre audience, i.e. the people who nominate and vote for the Hugos, likes best, even though they may read it.

Besides, if the Hugo shortlists were compiled based solely on sales figures, we should have seen such names as Stephenie Meyer, Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, Suzanne Collins, Charlaine Harris, Veronica Roth, Christine Feehan, Sherrilyn Kenyon, James Patterson and some of his co-authors, Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Brandon Sanderson (who has been nominated a couple of times and even won), etc… among the nominees. We might also have seen more literary writers who just happen to write speculative fiction in occasion such as Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Justin Cronin, Colson Whitehead, Junot Diaz, etc… pop up on the Hugo shortlists, because those books usually hit the New York Times bestseller lists and stay there for weeks due to the literary fiction publicity machine behind them.

Now such a Hugo shortlist would amuse me and I’d probably find more to enjoy there than on the actual shortlist. But I doubt it’s the sort of shortlist the Sad Puppies want to see.

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