‘Tis the Season: What Good are the Hugos?
Saturday’s announcement of the 2013 Hugo Award nominees has done what it always does: On the one hand, nominees and their friends were (justifiably) pleased, happy, and excited to be so honored. On the other hand, certain corners of the community were dejected, dissatisfied, and frustrated by the nominated works individually and the system which nominated them collectively. This is a cycle that we repeat every year and for just about every major award the field confers. It is not a debate limited to the Hugo Awards, nor to the Nebulas, nor to the BSFAs, nor to the Clarke Award. It is part of a perpetual cycle of community introspection and cultural validation.
On the Award Season Cycle
As I wrote last year, the disagreements produced by such awards are healthy for the field and for the community. Though the discussions seem repetitive, by constantly worrying at the bias demonstrated in nominees, by re-examining the processes through which works get nominated, and by criticizing the factions and reasoning for/against a particular title, we are all inching our community forward (or at least two steps forward and one step back).
One can wonder, for example, whether the increased frequency of female nominees on the Hugo slate is a result of previous year’s complaints, or whether it is merely a reflection of changing values/mores amongst Hugo voters. It’s a Zen koan-like question, and one which I think is ultimately unanswerable. Whatever the “truth”, I will cheer the Hugos’ increased inclusiveness regardless, while simultaneously lamenting that that they are not yet inclusive enough. I am confident that in time we will see still more diverse lineups, and maybe even (gasp) nominees who don’t come from a Judeo-Christian/English-oriented background. Every chance I get, I will wish for that and I will speak out for that. But I recognize that such change will take both time, and an exploration of how the Hugo procedures either inhibit or promote such inclusiveness.
The Unanswered Questions in this Year’s Discussion
This year’s paroxysms of disgruntlement, particularly the essays written by Justin Landon at Staffer’s Book Review and Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink, make me wonder about a more fundamental, heretofore unstated question: what good are the Hugo Awards? What is their purpose? What role(s) do they serve?
Every person who voices an opinion on the nominees, or the winners, or the awards process itself, has some presumptive answers to these questions. Are my answers the same as Justin’s? Are his the same as Aidan’s? Are ours the same as Kevin Standlee’s? Are Kevin’s the same as Hugo Voter X? Without exploring our unstated assumptions, it will be difficult to understand and contextualize either the complaints about the Hugo Awards, or the defenses of the same. Accusations of demagoguery and privilege are already flying in the comments to Justin’s post, and I suspect they stem from a disconnect in a basic question: what purpose do the Hugo Awards serve?
It is possible for each of us to answer this discussion differently, and yet to find common ground when discussing the Awards. Different individual values underlie any democratic system. Ask two people to prioritize the functions of government. You’ll get widely divergent lists, even among those who profess the same political beliefs. Yet by making those priorities and those values explicit, we can gain a better understanding of the real source of dissatisfaction. And it is that kind of understanding which I think is necessary if the Hugo Awards are ever to improve in any way.
Here are the unstated questions that I think deserve an exploration:
- What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?
- Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?
- Who are the Hugo Awards valuable to, and why?
Having asked these questions, I’ll take a stab at answering them, too. These are my own answers, and odds are they differ from those of many people. I’d love to hear what you think, though: it’ll help us find common ground on how to improve the Hugos.
What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?
I believe that the purpose of the Hugo Awards is to celebrate “worthy” works in the field of science fiction and fantasy. The process by which the Hugo Awards get selected is a system designed to assess a given title’s relative “worth” within the field. What constitutes that worth is idiosyncratic and highly subjective.
For example, I might nominate the works which I consider to be the most challenging, the most forward-looking, the most interesting in any given year. That’s because in my personal system of judging “worth,” those are criteria which rank high. Whether I enjoyed a given work or not may be of secondary concern (for example, I consider Lavie Tidhar’s 2011 Osama a “worthy” title, even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked to). Yet someone else might nominate the books that they enjoyed the most, irrespective of their progressive values, their innovation, or their challenging themes and techniques. That’s the nature of democracy.
As a result, the Hugo Awards are there to offer us a snapshot as to the creative/aesthetic values of fandom at a particular moment in time. The voting system is meant to take disparate and divergent priorities, and to aggregate a selection of the “worthy” titles. Some years (historically, rather often), the result may be backward-facing, reactionary, and nostalgic. Other years (even more often, I think), the result may be comfortable, safe, and conservative (culturally – not necessarily politically). And still in other years, the result may be innovative, challenging, and refreshing.
What is more, this process will vary across categories of work. While – for example – the Best Novel category may be deemed “safe” one year, another category (Fan Writer, say) may push the envelope in interesting ways. It is a messy, unstable process – like all democracies.
Yet in each case, the underlying purpose of the Hugo Awards remains the same: to select a “worthy” set of titles. I use that word advisedly, and you’ll note that I don’t say select the “best” works in the field. I know that the awards themselves label themselves “Best Novel” and so on. But the Hugo Awards are no more representations of the “best” in the field than the Oscars are a selection of the “best” films produced in a given year. The one adjective that I think can comfortably be applied is to say that they are all “worthy” titles.
And the purpose of the Hugo Award (honestly, even of a Hugo nomination) is to designate a title as worthy.
Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?
This question, I think, is much more difficult for me to answer than the last. One can make an argument that the Hugo is addressed to many audiences: to cognoscenti, to authors, to booksellers, to librarians, to non-readers of the field, etc. And while the Hugo does reach and communicate to each of these audiences, I think its primary audience is rather insular. I think the Hugos speak most loudly to the authors whose works are being celebrated.
This is – I suspect – a fairly controversial viewpoint. I would like an award addressed to broaden the fold, but the Hugos aren’t it. They have never been designed to reach or communicate beyond the borders of a particular subculture (fandom). Their procedures have always been built to select for more creatively conservative works that operate solidly within the genre’s historical conventions. Consider the arguments for a new sub-genre put forth by Gareth L. Powell in The Irish Times.
The Hugo Awards’ primary audience is the authors and editors who produce the works that win them. In this, they are like the Nebula Awards and the Oscars. They are a selection of worthy works, and the communication of their worth to the authors who created them. There is nothing wrong with this. This is not a complaint. It is merely an observation of the practical audience to whom the Hugo Awards seem to matter most.
Outside of the science fiction and fantasy community, the Hugo Awards are sadly irrelevant. Even in neighboring genres (like YA), people fail to differentiate between the Hugo Awards, the Clarke Award, and the Nebula Awards. That doesn’t happen with the Booker Prize. That doesn’t happen with the Newbery. It doesn’t happen with the National Book Award.
It is comfortable for us to lament this as the continuing ghettoization of our genre, but I think that’s overly simplistic. The Hugo Awards are not addressed to new readers of the genre. Nor are they (like the Newbery) targeting actors in the supply chain, such as librarians or booksellers. They are relevant solely to the authors, and to a lesser extent to the vocal minority of fans who wish to support them.
One can make the argument that the Hugo Awards should be targeting new readers, to widen the fold, so to speak. But that would mean changing their primary audience, which would have dramatic consequences for longstanding procedures.
Who are the Hugo Awards valuable to, and why?
A corollary to the question of audience is the question of addressed value. If the primary audience for the Hugo Awards are the creators themselves, who are they most valuable to? At first blush, it would be easy to say that they are valuable to those authors because it gives them a boost in sales.
But anecdotally, I have heard that Hugo awards offer a minimal sales bump. Is this true? When YA/MG titles win the National Book Award for Young Readers, or the Newbery Medal (or even get nominated), they typically see a significant sales bump. It is that sales bump which motivates their imprints to slap medal seal stickers on their covers or to accelerate their paperback reissue: the added expense is justified by the virtuous cycle of the even bigger sales bump thereafter. Even decades after their win, books like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time still wear their medals proudly.
I haven’t seen science fiction and fantasy imprints do this with the Hugo, which supports the anecdotes that Hugo Awards don’t offer a significant sales bump. What’s the truth of this? I suspect that the Hugo Awards fail to yield significant sales dividends (which further supports my belief that their primary audience is not the broader public), but I’d love to see hard data if anyone’s got it.
The lack of a sales bump would suggest that the Hugo Awards have little value in the genre publishing supply chain. If they were valuable to booksellers, you’d see more active promotion of the Hugo Awards at the retailer level. And we just don’t see that, outside of a limited number of specialist booksellers. If the Hugo Awards were valuable to librarians, you’d see libraries touting them in the local library. I’ve been to four libraries in the last three weeks, and not one of them had a “Hugo Award Winners” section (they had award-winning sections for other genres, though). Because they are not valuable to booksellers or librarians, they are likely of marginal value to publishers: Nice to have, but only important inasmuch as they secure a “floor” for a title among a core group of readers (the in-group of fandom).
So who then, are the Hugos truly valuable to? I believe they are most valuable to the authors themselves, because they provide some measure of creative validation and spark creative discussion. I also believe they are valuable to the cognoscenti in fandom because it likewise celebrates a genre tradition and gives us an outlet for expressing our tastes and values. Both are culturally important: the former feeds into and shapes future creative endeavors, while the latter helps cement bonds within the subculture.
Note, that these values are irrespective of whether one agrees with or disagrees with a given nominee/award winner. Consciously or not, our attitudes towards recent winners (in essence, the “headliners” of our narrow field) influence or at least shape the fiction we ourselves create. We may emulate their aesthetics or reject them, but they still influence us. Similarly, for every defensive SMOF who bristles at the suggestion that the Hugos are irrelevant or “broken”, their bonds with other SMOFs of similar outlook are strengthened by their shared defensiveness. The same goes for the “complainers” who attack the Hugos and gripe about the system. The genre contains multitudes, and even in their controversy, the Hugo Awards help to tighten the bonds between and among members of the genre community.
Where do we go from here?
So if that’s what/who the Hugo Awards are for, where do we go from here? I think that given the above, the Hugo Awards are doing their job just fine. I would like to see more works nominated from the younger, newer, and particularly vibrant online genre community. I would like to see more works from diverse backgrounds, particularly from outside of the English-speaking world. I would like to see more works by women.
But the current Hugo nominating systems will get us there, eventually. I wish we’d get there faster, but I think that history is on my side.
Do I think that speculative fiction needs a prominent award that will reach across the genre aisle and communicate to the broader literary community outside of our insular little world? Yes. I would love for there to be an award like that. The Hugo Awards simply ain’t it, and if we ask them to be then we really should re-examine the entire system that produces them.