First, let me say that there are many names on this year’s slate that make me terribly excited. I like it when people I read and respect get public recognition for their amazing work, and there are a lot of people I read and respect on this year’s ballot. Yay! Congratulations to them!
There are people who are upset over another aspect of this year’s Hugo nominations, namely, that certain people who are known in fandom for . . . let us say, shit-stirring . . . campaigned for their fans to get them on the ballot, and succeeded.
I can’t speak as to whether their works were nominated by their fans because their fans love their writing — entirely possible, as fans do tend to enjoy things written by the people they fan on — or whether their works were nominated because their fans love them. Either way, I’m not sure it matters.
Because you see, though I sympathize with the outrage, I can’t share it in this case, because I think that an author’s ability to do this is a feature (or, depending on your point of view, a bug) of the Hugos themselves. People with large fandoms do, often, notify their fans of their eligibility, and do, often, end up on the ballot. However perceived-appropriately they frame the advertisement of their own work, authors mobilize their fanbases to vote for them, and the authors with large fanbases leverage those fanbases — de facto or overtly — come Hugo season. In this age of blogging, sometimes people in these fanbases will vote for people they like best rather than people whose writing they like best.
This is in the nature of the Hugos. They’re a popular award.
Just because someone is known in fandom for shit-stirring — and let’s be clear, such shit-stirring makes me very tired, when I’m aware of it, which I try not to be — and just because that person has also campaigned for a Hugo does not make the nomination (in my eyes, at least) substantively different from the nomination of any other popular online personality or property. I just don’t think we can draw those lines. We can judge the way someone campaigned as distasteful or inappropriate, sure. But personally, I’m no more angry at what happened here than I am at what’s happened in any prior years when I felt a nomination, for whatever reason, was unjust to what was actually quality in the genre, which I feel pretty much every year (ha!).
But there’s nothing I can do about that, because that’s what the Hugos are, for two reasons: (1) they’re a popular award, and (2) despite being a popular award, a very small number of people votes in them, relative to SFF as a whole.
Seriously, a devastatingly small percentage of SFF-dom votes. I checked the numbers for last year’s Hugo categories, and it took less than 40 nominations to get a novelette on the ballot. If I wrote a crap novelette and wanted it on the ballot, I’m pretty sure I could do it — I have forty people in my life who like me $40-worth, and I’m betting if I took to my real-life social media — the one filled with meatspace friends and family — that’s something I could make happen. I wouldn’t even have to have the appearance of crossing any lines, I am guessing — it could be a reasonably tasteful campaign, one that never (horrors) asked anyone to nominate me without reading the novelette first. And, you know, they would probably all mean to, and they would know it was good because I wrote it, or because they liked my other fiction, etcetera, etcetera, and I could pretend I didn’t know they were nominating me just because they like me.
I wouldn’t do something like this — it’s not particularly in the spirit of a writing award, and more importantly it’s anathema to my personality. But I’m not sure I see a substantive difference (an etiquette difference, sure, but not a substantive difference that would matter to the integrity of the process) between that and what people did this year, nor between either of those things and what other bloggers have done in previous years, successful or not. They all seem like the same cuppa to me.
It’s the nature of the Hugo Award, a nature that is very easy to skew because of the low number of voters. I think the only reason slates have tended to reflect quality in the genre is that the people who bother to vote usually intersect with the people who are well-read in the genre — but there’s nothing in the structure of the award that would guarantee that, at all.
To be honest, I don’t think most of SFF-dom even knows they can vote for the Hugos. The process is not particularly well-publicized. I know I thought it was a juried award until I started following writer blogs (which most of my friends don’t), and if people are finding out about the Hugos from their favorite writer’s blog, that’s some selection bias right there already that’s inherent in the lack of notoriety the voting process has (selection bias toward writers who blog). And there’s no critical mass of popularity about the Hugos as an award, the type that makes people excited about it because their friends are. I have a staggering number of friends who are rabid SFF fans, and I don’t think any of them vote. Yet they’re all voracious consumers of SFF literature: they’re the people the Hugo is supposed to represent.
Less than 2,000 people voted in the Hugos last year. That’s nothing. That’s two orders of magnitude below the number of people who spring for the expense and time to go to Comic-Con. And yeah, there are lots of non-book things happening at Comic-Con, but there are also non-book things on the Hugo ballot.
The fact that people can move the Hugos through a cult of personality rather than their writing is a problem, given the awards’ prestige in the genre. But I think it’s a problem with the robustness of the award rather than any particular non-rule-breaking campaign. Personally, I would like to see the Hugos become something casual SFF fans talk about: friends comparing their nomination slates, people making bets and predictions, everyone gathering in a Hugo Party to watch the ceremony.
To that end I wonder if rather than pushing for less campaigning, the answer is more. What if every publisher put a leaf in the back of SFF books informing readers how to vote for the Hugos, if they should choose to do so? What if the process was made easier and more visible to attendees at other cons? What about greater exposure for the lesser-read categories? (I don’t know how that would be done.) Does anyone have the power to build up the popularity around the Hugos so that no particular faction unknown to the casual fan can impact the vote?
Maybe, maybe not. But the prestige of the Hugo Awards has always struck me as vastly out of step with the way they work in practice, and this is just another reminder, to me, of how much that disturbs me.
We’ll always get people who try to game the system — which people may think has happened here to some degree, or may not. The fact that the most prestigious popular award in all of SFF-dom is so gameable, however, is a very sad thing to me.
So perhaps I do share the outrage after all, but for me, it’s a frustration that one of the top two most prestigious awards in science fiction and fantasy is so poorly supported as to allow even the appearance that a personal following rather than the quality of the writing can so affect the vote. There will always be assholes who approach a campaign for a popular award distastefully, and to me, the best revenge would be to make the awards so powerful that those campaigns would wither in irrelevance if the author’s fiction does not measure up.
On that note, I’m going to go now and email a bunch of people to tell them they can get the whole Wheel of Time series for $40 if they vote in this year’s Hugos, and that by the way, there’s a ton of other awesome fiction on that list too, and wouldn’t they like to be part of SFF’s Academy going forward?
ETA: Here’s the place to sign up for membership. If you don’t want to go to the con, a supporting membership that allows you to vote (and gets you the digital voter packet) is about $43.