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Posts tagged ‘Hugo Awards’

My Loncon 3 Schedule

Two weeks from today – August 14 – will mark the start of Loncon 3: The 72nd Annual World Science Fiction Convention (which, since that’s a mouthful, is more commonly known as either Loncon 3 or Worldcon). This Worldcon is particularly exciting for me for three simple reasons:

My First Ever Worldcon!

It’s hard to be engaged with the science fiction and fantasy genres and not hear about Worldcon. It’s a storied event, not least because of its awarding the Hugo Awards. While I’m relatively new to con-going fandom, this will be my first time attending a Worldcon and given everything I’ve heard – I’m looking forward to it!

Reflected Hugo Gloss

This is also the first Worldcon where a project I’m (somewhat) involved with is up for a Hugo Award. Speculative Fiction 2012: The Best Online Reviews, Essays and Commentary is nominated for Best Related Work. Jared Shurin (of Pornokitsch) and Justin Landon (of Staffer’s Book Review) deserve all the credit for editing this excellent collection of thought-provoking commentary about the genre, the field, and fandom. I’m honored to have my work sharing a TOC with the other authors, and I’m looking forward to cheering Jared and Justin on at the Hugo ceremony (though, to be fair, I’m likely to be cheering all of the nominees in Best Related Work: It’s a really tough slate this year, even if I do have my favorite).

If you’re a member of Loncon 3, don’t forget: Today (Thursday, July 31) is your last day to vote for the Hugo Awards. Regardless of which works you vote for, please do your part: The Hugos are only meaningful because of our engagement with them.

Loncon 3 Programming

And last but certainly not least, there’s programming. I’m slated to be on the following panels at Loncon 3, and I hope to see you there:

Friday, 16:30 – 18:00, Capital Suite 3 (ExCeL)
The Role of Fandom in Contemporary Culture
Fandom influences culture. Fan activism appeared in Thailand with the Hunger Games salute while the Harry Potter Alliance organise fair trade chocolate and gay marriage campaigns. Films and television shows change because of fans, thereby indirectly influencing non-fannish audiences. “Published fanfiction” is becoming ever more lucrative a business. Meanwhile, fan materials are widely used as educational tools, including at museums (fan vids were part of an exhibition at the New York Museum of Moving Image), but also at schools and universities. Internal changes within fandom also impact upon contemporary culture, such as the impact of fanfiction on the culture of reading or fan communities as modes of challenging conservative social and political viewpoints. In this session we try to unravel the role of fandom in contemporary culture, work out its impact in different parts of the public and private sphere and predict where we might be heading in the future.

  • Chris Gerwel
  • Jean Lorrah
  • Emily January
  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • Laurie Penny

Sunday, 19:00 – 20:00, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)
Fandom at the Speed of Thought
The story of fandom and the SF field in the twenty-first century is the story of the internet: more voices, fewer gatekeepers. How are authors, reviewers, editors and readers navigating this shifting terrain? In what ways has the movement of SF culture online affected the way books are written, presented, and received — and how has it affected the way readers identify and engage with authors and books? Do the old truisms — never respond to a review! — still hold sway, or are author-reader shared spaces possible, even desireable?

  • Chris Gerwel
  • David Hebblethwaite
  • Kevin McVeigh
  • Aishwarya Subramanian
  • Leticia Lara

Monday, 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 16 (ExCeL)
The Internet and the Evolution of Fan Communities
Fanzines, fan clubs, conventions and local fan groups drove fan communities from their beginnings, with contact being made via post or sporadically in person by those who were not fortunate enough to live near fellow fans. While the decades between the beginnings of SF/F fandom and the emergence of the internet saw new technologies helping fandoms evolve and adapt, little has acted as a catalyst for change as much as the internet. With the development of the internet fans were able to create and join communities anywhere. The diverse nature of these online spaces, with their varying longevity (in terms of existence and how they archived their material), access requirements, and moderating practices has been instrumental in diversifying, strengthening and fracturing communities. In this session we discuss the impact of the internet fan communities including how it functions within different sorts of fandoms.

  • Deborah Christie
  • Monika Drzewiecka
  • Chris Gerwel
  • PR K
  • Gavia Baker Whitelaw

‘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:

  1. What is the purpose of the Hugo Awards?
  2. Who is the primary audience for the Hugo Awards?
  3. 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.

Railing against Consensus Taste: Why We Complain about Literary Awards

Awards season is in full swing: we’ve got the Hugos, the Nebulas, the BSFAs, the Aurealis, the Bram Stokers. It seems that every week a different shortlist gets announced or a different grand prize is given out. And this year, just as in previous years, these awards have become a good excuse for folks (e.g. Christopher Priest, James at Big Dumb Object, Larry at The OF Blog, and plenty more) to wring their hands about competing tastes and the biases inherent in awards’ selection processes. And with this award kvetching as the backdrop, Sherwood Smith over at the Book View Café posted a thought-provoking essay about literary versus commercial writing which got my brain cells ticking.

One of Smith’s key points is that assessments of literary as opposed to commercial merit are ever-changing in line with our tastes. What the “tastemakers” might consider commercial trash when first published, with time might migrate into the “classic” column…and vice versa (consider how critics routinely panned Wodehouse or Doyle). Tastes and standards change with time. That’s pretty obvious. And yet, in a real sense, the awards that we bestow give us a snapshot of where our cultural priorities are in any particular year. And when we grouse about the shortlists and the winners, what we really rail against is the consensus taste that they imply.

Here are the five most common award criticisms I was able to come up with (What are some other ones? Please let me know what I missed!)

Criticism Translation
1 The award played it safe / ignored the cutting edge. The award selection process favored accessibility over innovation/complexity.
2 The award favored elitist “literary” writing over the fun stuff. The award selection process favored innovation/complexity over accessibility.
3 The award is biased in favor of/against [insert noun here]. Either:

  • The award selection process evidenced our society’s continuing discrimination against [noun], or;
  • Not enough books by/about/for [noun] were published/met award criteria.

4 The same people always win the award. The award selection process is inequitable/excludes the interests of [noun].
5 The award is irrelevant for the audience that matters. The award selection process failed to account for the interests of [noun].

Literary vs Commercial : Accessible vs Complex

I see the first two complaints most frequently, often about the exact same award. The reason for that is that they most readily tap into what we as readers consider our preferences. It is the rare reader (and yes, the rare critic) who is able to divorce their assessment of quality from their personal preferences. It’s only natural. And, as Smith points out, we naturally expect everyone else to share our (obviously wise) tastes. When they don’t, it is only natural for us to get defensive…and in some cases, offensive.

But what this unending see-saw really represents is the constant tug-of-war between accessibility and literary complexity. This is particularly relevant for speculative fiction, which by definition estranges the reader from their most accessible experiences. Readers of speculative fiction are, by definition, boundary pushers. Every fantasy or every space opera we read is pushing against the boundaries of the real world, against the literary boundaries of mimesis. But different readers want to push in different directions, and at different rates. This process is the grease that leads reader tastes to evolve, which in turn drives a further evolution of the genre.

A more interesting question, I think, than whether an award skewed too literary/not literary enough is why it skewed the way it did. There is no easy answer for this question, and to even approach an explanation necessitates an awareness of both the genre and the selection process. Whether the Hugo nominees push the envelope or not is less important than what their selection tells us about fandom, about the genre, and about the tastes of readers. Whether the Clarke Award shines a beacon on the future of science fiction does not matter. What matter is what its nominees tell us about our industry and culture today, as filtered through the prism of the jury whose opinions were deemed authoritative enough to select them.

The Thorny Question of Bias in Awards

Bias – positive or negative, and for/against any [noun] – is probably the second most frequent award criticism I see. And it is a more difficult issue, because the identification of bias is inherently associated with the (rightful) condemnation of the discriminators. But the identification of bias is, unfortunately, clouded by two issues that vary from one award to the next: the criteria for consideration, and the award selection process.

Consider the Hugos, which are selected by a ballot of the members of that year’s and the preceding year’s Worldcon. The awards are routinely criticized for favoring male over female writers. And yes, I happen to believe that those criticisms are valid and accurate. And yet, that is a criticism that can only be levied at an aggregate level: if we get into the weeds of any particular category, we get into a discussion of the relative merits of title X by male writer Y as opposed to title Z by female writer Q. That is a discussion that I am happy to have. And yet, taking the award to task for gender bias misdirects our criticism.

Bias in any award slate shows that as a society we still have work to do. The award slate is a snapshot of our cultural values, and if in a particular year the shortlist skews for/against any particular group, it demands an exploration of why it does so. It may do so because the award selection process fell prey to the bias inherent in our society, or because that year’s crop of titles “just worked out that way.” Ultimately, I believe that in most cases it is an unanswerable question and a discussion which will never (and should never) end. Hence its thorniness.

But does that mean we have lived and fought in vain? No. Because that never-ending discussion moves our society forward, shapes our cultural awareness, and shines a light both on the dark corners of our cultural judgment and on the clouded stars who deserve more recognition.

The Nepotism Argument

When people criticize an award as being for the “in crowd,” that really represents an exploration of the process by which that award is given. Every award is a contract which says “The titles which have earned this award were selected in good faith and through due process.” It is that due process which bestows upon an award its legitimacy. In a small community like speculative fiction, it is certainly possible that the same suspects will show up on multiple shortlists every year or two. But for the awards to retain their relevance and legitimacy, they require a process that is both transparent and that clearly enables competition.

In many cases, the gripe that the “same people” win every year is just a gripe. But each time it arises, it demands of us an examination of the process. As a community of readers, and critics, and award selectors it is our fiduciary duty to ensure the legitimacy of our awards. When in extreme cases the justice of that due process is called into question (as it was in last year’s British Fantasy Awards), it may necessitate a re-examination or re-design of the award’s entire process. Any legitimate award must have processes and procedures in place to support this, if for no other reason, than to keep itself honest. And for its own good, that honesty should be periodically called into question.

The Irrelevance Argument: Who really matters?

Like the bias critique, the irrelevance argument is thorny. In actuality it centers around an unstated facet of the award: who is the award’s audience? And does the awarding body identify the same audience as the awards’ critic?

The best example of this that I am familiar with is the Newbery Medal, which every year is awarded to the author of the most distinguished children’s book as selected by a jury of librarians through the auspices of the American Library Association. Someone always complains that the ALA picks books which appeal to adult librarians, irrespective of their appeal to children. But the audience for the Newbery Medal, I suspect, is not the same as for a given book.

In the case of the Newbery Medal, the award’s stated goal is to select the book that the librarians feel is most important for children. As such, the implied audience isn’t the kids themselves. Instead, it is those adult individuals (parents, teachers, and yes, librarians) who can help put such important books into children’s hands. The logic underlying the award is that – left to their own devices – kids will favor highly accessible, entertaining books over more challenging but meaningful ones, and so adults need a useful pictorial medal to draw attention to those which are worthwhile.

Is this logic correct? I don’t know (though, to be fair, I suspect it is). But is this the only way to do it? Is this the best way to do it? Here, I am less certain. But to meaningfully discuss such questions mandates an exploration of an award’s audience as compared to the literature’s audience, and the economic process which takes books from the slushpile and ultimately puts them in reader’s hands. And at the end of the day, I think those are some of the most interesting, relevant, and important discussions we can have about books.

What do you think? I’d love to know whether my way of looking at the criticism of awards makes sense to anyone other than me. What is it about awards that makes them interesting and important to us as readers, as writers, and as critics? Why do they – or why should they – matter? And how can we foster intelligent, meaningful discussion about them?

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