The failure in Chicago of the proposal to add a YA Hugo has caused a lot of yelling online. Some people are furious at what they see is a bunch of old folks denying YA readers and writers recognition, while others are furious about what they see as attempts to create an unnecessary and unworkable category. I’m going to try to illuminate some of the issues. I guess that means that both sides will end up hating me.
Part of the problem is that the two sides are looking at entirely different parts of the elephant. From a marketing point of view, having a YA Hugo is a great idea. The publishers would be all over it (at least in the short term while YA is still popular); there’s a vibrant online community surrounding YA fiction; and few things would do more to help sell Worldcon to young people than a Hugo Award specifically for the books that young people read. It would do a lot to help the convention seem relevant to new generations of fans.
Unfortunately, from the point of view of award design, the YA proposals have been a nightmare. To start with there’s no clear definition of what YA means. In addition it is clear that YA books are not greatly disadvantaged in the Hugos because they keep getting nominated, and even win. Generally new categories are introduced to help works that are being missed out, not ones that are apparently punching their weight.
By the way, I’m sure that a lot of people out there are convinced that they have a watertight definition of what YA means. Unfortunately there are many different such definitions and none of them agree. A definition is pointless unless you can get most people to sign up to it.
Whenever a new category is proposed, someone from SMOFdom always complains that people will be able to cheat their way to a Hugo because of it. This appears to be a Pavlovian reaction. I can’t really see writers trying to pretend that their books are YA in order to get into a supposedly weaker category. The opprobrium heaped upon them in social media would deter all but the most shameless. However, because we can’t pin down what YA means, there will be a lot of disagreement over whether the nominees should have been eligible. In particular I expect that the Hugo voters will nominate works that many people in the YA community think are not YA, and much yelling will result.
One possible solution to this, which was proposed by Colin Harris at the debate in Chicago, is simply to allow works to be eligible in more than one category. Then you would not need to make decisions about eligibility. However, while most authors won’t have the chutzpah to pass their books off as YA when they are clearly not, fans have no shame when it comes to voting for their favorite writers. Allowing works to compete in both YA and the adult categories would, I think, increase the likelihood that works did get nominated in two categories. China Miéville? Railsea is totally YA. Connie Willis? She’s a woman, she must be writing for kids. George Martin? The central characters are teenagers, how can it not be YA?
Furthermore, the idea that you can’t win two Hugos for the same work has been enshrined in WSFS lore for decades. When Colin first proposed his amendment my reaction was that he was trying to wreck the motion by adding a “poison pill” clause. As it turns out, it appears his concern was genuine, but even so there are bound to have been people who were wavering who will have come down against the motion because Colin’s amendment was accepted.
To my mind the most interesting argument against the proposal was made by Chris Garcia. He said that the last thing that young people want is to have bunch of old folks telling them what they should read. A YA Hugo would only make sense, therefore, if it were voted on by young people.
I have heard this argument advanced before, including by some actual youngsters, though I have no idea how prevalent the sentiment is. It does, however, offer a way out of the predicament.
Firstly the idea of the voters deciding what is YA and what isn’t makes much more sense if the voters in question are actually all young people. It would be hard for anyone to argue with that. Also it would be entirely reasonable for a work to be eligible in two categories if the electorates for those two categories were different. Then having a YA book win both the adult and YA categories would mean something.
So, would this be possible? I can hear the SMOFs stirring already. They will complain that unscrupulous fans will pretend to be kids in order to be allowed to vote in the YA category. We could get around that by saying that you had to vote in either the YA or adult categories, but I’d prefer not to keep the kids out of the other awards. We’d therefore need some means of verifying that WSFS members were entitled to vote on the YA award. If they are attending members that’s OK as Worldcons now have youth memberships, and it is pretty obvious when you arrive whether you are a kid or not. For supporting members it will be harder, but hopefully not impossible. As is their wont, some of the SMOFs will say that we mustn’t adopt such a system unless it can be proved to be flawless, but they say that about every rule change and we always ignore them.
I suspect we’d need a cheaper supporting membership, because even the $40 that London is charging is steep for teenagers. I’d love to see WSFS working with schools and colleges to encourage young people to vote.
So, how about it? A YA Hugo that is actually for young people, rather than being just us oldies telling kids what is good for them? How can we make this work?