Make the Hugos Better

Worldcon is less than two weeks off, which means that it's time once again for the SF part of blogdom to explode with complaints about the quality of the nominees. There are some reasonable reactions, but it's mostly slightly over-the-top broadsides.

It's worth emphasizing again that the source of the problem is also the solution to the problem: the Hugo Awards are voted on by fans. This means that they tend to skew to the middlebrow, true, but it also means that they can be fixed, in a way that, say, the Oscars really can't.

If you don't like the stuff that gets nominated for the Hugos, buy a membership and vote for better stuff. Next year's Worldcon is in Australia, so actually attending is a bit steep, but a supporting membership with full voting rights is presently $50 US. If you can't afford that, pool your money with some like-minded friends.

Or, better yet, you could try to convince people of the greater value of the works you prefer. Say, by using one of those new-fangled Internet thingies that let you broadcast your opinions to the entire world. I've got nominating rights next year, and I am willing to be convinced of the worth of other books than the default award fodder, so convince me.

If you think the recent Hugo nominees are mediocre, immature, or insufficiently diverse, tell me what I ought to be reading and nominating instead. I will make a good-faith effort to read books and stories recommended to me as more deserving than this year's nominees, and if I like them, I will nominate them for next year.

If you just wait until the nominees are set, though, and then complain about them at length, I have approximately zero sympathy for you. These are fan-voted awards-- if you're a fan, vote, and get your friends to vote, and make the awards what you want them to be.

More like this

So, we're supposed to pay for the privilege of voting? And then still having some crappy Robert Sawyer book get nominated?

There is something a bit amusing about this.

On the one hand we have a lot of criticism of the choices made for this year's Hugos. The criticism is centered on the idea that if the flaws in the current choices are pointed out, then folks will pick better ones in the future. On the other hand, we have people saying "if you don't like the current choices, vote, and you might get the choices you want." This is very much a discussion of the practical (written by Chad the experimentalist) versus the idea driven theoretical (written by the likes of SEK).

It seems a bit disingenuous to bemoan a slate of popular nominees that's skewed towards popular tastes. I'd love to read a post by someone who said, hey, here's the stuff you really should be reading. But instead, we have a whole slate of bitchy slapfests that reek of inside baseball. As opposed to, you know, actual thoughtful commentary about the quality SF that's out there.

I get why a writer could get a bit wound up around this. Even beyond the ego food, a Hugo is a big deal for your current and future sales, so there's real, feed-your-family food at stake. Throwing a tantrum doesn't help, but I can understand it. Still, I would love to find someone who points out -- and reviews, and makes the case for -- good, interesting, challenging work. But none of the referenced posts do that.

The Hugos are by definition an award for general popularity. That's partly why they have such an influence on sales: a Hugo badge says, "this book works well for the middle part of the bell curve". Complaining about that is a little like complaining that "America's Top 40" doesn't represent the best and most interesting music.

Scalzi nails it: "Shortlists of every description perform exactly two social functions: To let you know what some people think is the yearâs best something or other, and to give other people an opportunity to roll their eyes at what some people think is the yearâs best something or other."

So, I have dutifully read the shortlist, noted others' reactions to it, and had myself a really good bit of eye-rolling. That was fun; let's do it again next year.

Now I'll just get back to my reading, thanks very much.


By Roadtripper (not verified) on 23 Jul 2009 #permalink

Roberts did suggest several other, better shortlists, as well as a bunch of books that he'd like to see on next year's shortlist. And he does review books regularly on his blog.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the
"Don't like it? Then spend $50 on a vote!"
responses though.

While it's not very active at this time of the year, there's a Hugo recommendation community on LiveJournal.

As for $50 to vote: that's the equivalent of two brand-new hardcover books. Two books! (At least until the $26 price point becomes more firmly established.)

By Petréa MItchell (not verified) on 23 Jul 2009 #permalink

But deriding the horrible taste of other fans (as opposed to one's own refined and superior taste) is a time-honored and beloved fan activity! It's as predictable as the sun rising in the east: when Group A indicates that they like X, Groups B, C, and D will reflexively and enthusiastically explain why and how X totally sucks and how Group A is a bunch of morons for liking it.

Hugo voters do this as much as any other fandom sub-group! There are entire Worldcon panels dedicated to exploring the suckitude of various books! It's part of what makes fandom fandom.

Having the Worldcon in your home town does not always help a finalist win. Consider the sad tale of George Alec Effinger. He was was born in 1947, sold his first Science Fiction story in 1971, and almost immediately received a Hugo Award nomination ( the satirical "All The Last Wars At Once." His first novel, What Entropy Means To Me (1972), became a Nebula Award nominee). His first novel was a Nebula Award finalist the following year, and he was runner-up for the inaugural Campbell award for Best New Writer of the Year. But it was 1988 before Effinger won his only Nebula and Hugo awards. He died in 2002 with only the one double award to his name. A Fire in the Sun (1989, Hugo Award finalist). Worldcon 46 (Nolacon II) was in the French Quarter of New Orleans 1-5 Sep 1988. As it is written in File 770: [he] "had lived much of his life in the French Quarter of New Orleans, an experience that enlivened his finest writing.... The 1988 Hugo nomination of When Gravity Fails inspired the dream of George receiving the rocket at NolaCon II in his hometown but it was not meant to be. Ironically, the next year (1989) his novelette 'Schrödinger's Kitten' swept both the Hugo and Nebula Awards." My wife and I were there (and our son, in utero) and I assure you that George Alec Effinger did not pretend in the Hugo Loser's Party that "Just being nominated is honor enough." He was deeply hurt.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the
"Don't like it? Then spend $50 on a vote!"
responses though.

I'm not insisting that paying to vote is the only acceptable route-- I'd be perfectly happy to see people lobby for votes for better works, and encourage other people who have the disposable cash to pay for memberships to vote.

What annoys me is that every year the nomination deadline comes up, and passes with little comment (even when I ask for suggestions). And then, several months later as the Worldcon approaches, we get a raft of angry blog posts complaining about how the ballot is full of mediocre books by white men.

If you really want to see better books on the ballot, the time to make noise about it is February, when the nominations are due. That's the time to write impassioned open letters to SF fans and kick up a ruckus on blogs and LiveJournals, because that's the time when you can actually affect the content of the ballot. Whether you pay for a membership or not.

If you just want the catharsis of bitching about something every August, well, carry on as usual.

Roberts does review lots of new SF books on his blog though. I don't know if he pushes a slate of SF books for nomination, but it's not like he only appears once the shortlist has been announced.
'Encouraging other people to pay $50 just so they can vote' doesn't make a lot of sense to me either.

The time to kick up a ruckus is December or January-- by February, most people have made up their minds what they're going to try to read before the deadline.

By Petréa Mitchell (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

That's a good time for saying "Nominate this, it's really good!", but I don't see why it's illegitimate to also say "You nominated that? What on earth were you thinking?"

Roberts does review lots of new SF books on his blog though. I don't know if he pushes a slate of SF books for nomination, but it's not like he only appears once the shortlist has been announced.

The recent post linked above is the one and only mention of the Hugos in the last year or so of the blog. Yes, he reviews books, but this is the first mention he's made of the awards.

Look, I understand that ranting is cathartic, but I have a hard time with the annual ranting on this specific topic. If people want to bitch and moan at length about the Oscars, I get that-- the Oscars are handed out by an obscure cabal of the Hollywood elite, and the vast majority of people who write about how stupid the Oscar winners were will never, ever have a chance to influence the outcome.

That's not the case with the Hugos. They're fan-voted awards-- if you really want to see different sorts of things on the ballot, you have the ability to change it. You can lobby for your favorite authors and books, and if you've got the cash, you can buy voting rights. And, particularly in the short fiction categories, it doesn't take all that many votes to get a work on the ballot-- the last Short Story nominees are usually squeaking onto the ballot with something like 20 nominations. Novels get more, but you're talking about hundreds of nominations, not thousands or millions. These are numbers that are well within the reach of a blog or a LiveJournal.

The Hugo ballot isn't like the Academy Award nominations-- if you have a problem with it, you can fix it. But none of the people who spend the summer complaining about the ballot ever seem to get off their asses and do anything about it. And I find that maddening.

If you want something to win an Oscar, you can lobby members of the Academy, write blogs saying "vote for this art director!", etc, etc. Given the relative sizes of the electorates, the average blogger will be more likely to reach an Academy member than a Hugo voter.

The Hugos are fan-voted awards - but "fan-voted" by a very particular group of fans, those people who go Worldcons (and maybe three people who don't go but buy a membership so they can vote anyway). They aren't all fans, or even a representative selection of them. (As you say, the novel award gets less than a thousand votes) And part of Roberts' argument seems to be that the awards are distorted because people aren't voting for the best books in any real sense, they're voting for figures who are popular within that fandom community.

Now, in one sense, there's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with 'fandom', so constituted, having it's own set of awards, or having those awards be based on things other than pure literary worth. And I don't really see any way of changing this that would have continuity with the awards that have gone before. But neither do I think that telling people to pony up for supporting membership fixes the problem. 50 dollars is far too much money to expect people to pay for the privilege of voting. (The only way I could see it happening would be if some publisher decided that $2000 on supporting memberships was a cheap price for a Hugo Winner sticker on the cover)

"They aren't all fans, or even a representative selection of them."

So if that's the problem, how do you figure that encouraging a broader cross-section of sf readers to participate is *not* the solution?

By Petréa Mitchell (not verified) on 26 Jul 2009 #permalink

I think that telling people to buy $50 memberships is not an effective way to get a broader cross-section of readers to participate.
The Hugos are stuck somewhere in the middle - they don't have the appeal to educated authority that a juried award would have, or the democratic defence of something with a truly broad electorate. Of course, you could look at it the other way, and argue that the Hugos have the best of both worlds.