The Hugo Retirement Thing

Various people have asked me exactly what I meant when I said I wanted the Fan Writer Hugo to go to someone else next year. Here is the official public statement.

You can’t win with this. If I were to compete again next year and win then people would complain that I was being greedy and dominating the category. If I retire people will complain that I am being arrogant in assuming I might win again. Of course the smart thing to do is to compete again and somehow ensure that I lose, but I don’t really want to do that, so I’m going to settle for being called arrogant instead. I have, after all, been called worse things.

Of far more concern to me is that I’ll be accused of devaluing the contest. Kate Heartfield made an impassioned plea about this a few days ago. In the case of something like Best Novel I think she has a point. Certainly when Neil Gaiman declined nomination for Anansi Boys, and when Terry Pratchett declined nomination for Going Postal, there were people around fandom who said this just proved how worthless the Hugos were, because some of the most successful writers in the genre were not interested in winning then. The fan Hugos, however, I think are different.

Inside the community we make a point of insisting that the fan Hugos are just as much Hugos as any other category. Winning one, and even being nominated, is a tremendous honor. I’m certainly absolutely delighted with the success I have had. Outside of the community, however, things are very different. If you look around reports of the Hugo results you will see that the fan categories (and semiprozine) are often left off the listings. And even within the community there is an awareness that some Hugos are worth more than others. Would I have won this year if John Scalzi had been on the ballot? Of course not. Would I have won against Jo Walton, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Jay Lake, Wil Wheaton or Elizabeth Bear, all of whom got significant numbers of nominations? I very much doubt it. All of those people are much more high profile than me, and better writers as well.

When talking about the fan/semipro/pro categories in the Hugos Kevin often uses the phrase “going up a weight category”. It is an analogy with boxing. If you win in a lower weight category you can choose to beef yourself up and compete against bigger fighters. By that analogy I’m about 3’6” tall and puny, and I don’t stand any chance of being able to duke it out with the Mike Tysons of our world, let alone the Ali-like elegance of Gaiman, in Best Novel. But I chose to take Emerald City into the semiprozine category and got nominated there. I feel that I have a reasonable chance of a share of a nomination in the same category next year with Clarkesworld (though I hope that Neil Clarke takes most of the glory because he deserves it). And maybe one day I’ll be good enough for a shot at Best Related Work, or even one of the Editor categories. I want to try my luck.

Also Scalzi and I are having a race to see who can be the first to win a Hugo in every category.

Then there is the whole difficulty with the “body of work” categories as well. No matter how much you tell people that they are supposed to be voting on who did the best fan writing in the past year, you can’t stop people voting for the person they believe to be the best fan writer of all time. I don’t see any way of changing that other than re-designing the categories or having people drop out.

I have one more reason as well. Over the past few years I have been doing a lot of work on promoting the Hugos and trying to get them, and Worldcon, more responsive to fandom as a whole (rather than simply be what the small number of people who frequent the SMOFs mailing list wants them to be). Kevin is doing a lot of the high profile work within WSFS, but he needs someone to help with the day-to-day work as well. It is hard enough for him as it is, without having people telling him that I should not be allowed to do the work as I’m a potential nominee. It is also hard for me to push the Hugos publicly when people are saying that I’m only doing it to try to win one myself. So I think it is time for me to take much more of a back seat and do the work rather than take the glory. Not having my name up as a nominee for Best Fan Writer will hopefully help with that.

So that plan is that next year I will decline nomination for Best Fan Writer. I am telling you now so that you don’t waste any of your nominations by listing me.

Next year, give that Hugo to someone else. Preferably give it to someone new. I know that Dave Langford is still the best fannish writer out there, but there are lots of other good people around too (here are some suggestions). Because few things devalue the award as much as making it seem like a foregone conclusion.

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13 Responses to The Hugo Retirement Thing

  1. V says:

    This is why people like you. Because you make thoughtful decisions.

    And I hope you beat John Scalzi in the race. Two good runners, but I am biased for you ( :

    You are a positive example to us all.

    And I see how hard you work . . . !

    Ok, that was frothy Cheryl-worship, but there’s truth in it, darn it.

  2. there were people around fandom who said this just proved how worthless the Hugos were, because some of the most successful writers in the genre were not interested in winning then.

    …over and over again.

    Seriously, that’s a great argument for withdrawing. The most successful writers don’t need another rocketship to sell books. One rocketship (in an appropriate category, of course) could be plenty of validation.

    Of course, retirement may be followed by regret at not having a chance to win the most beautiful ever rocketship trophy in the history of man (as Garcia might describe it) once the base design is unveiled at the awards ceremony.

  3. ***Applause***
    Elegantly written, as always.

  4. PurpleRanger says:

    Cheryl, you would have to win the category about another 20 times before we could honestly accuse you of being greedy and dominating.

  5. anna tambour says:

    You must face facts, Cheryl. You are a non-achiever when it comes to arrogance. You have modesty to spare, though, and this piece by you is as thoughtful as ever.

  6. Cheryl says:

    I note in passing that I was accused of being arrogant when I withdrew Emerald City in 2007 so as not to have the whole “only because you are folding” nonsense.

    And I’ve already been accused of being nominated much to regularly. Some people think I should have withdrawn earlier to give others a chance at nomination.

    Just like many other things, arrogance and greed are in the eye of the beholder.

  7. Lee says:

    Could one avoid the whole problem by changing the rules so that no one person can be nominated two years in a row? or within a certain period?

  8. John Scalzi says:

    You don’t need to change the rules; there’s no need for an institutional change. People should be allowed to nominated whoever would be eligible, and those people should be able to decline he nomination if they choose. As long as the set-up is like that, there’s not a problem.

    I do think the idea that if one withdraws from nomination then one is cutting down the award is nonsense, not in the least because it presumes that there are only five people/works in every category that are worthy of nomination, which is silly. Had I declined my nomination in the Best Novel category this year, Iain Banks’ novel Matter would have been on the ballot. I think that would have been a more than acceptable alternative, as would many readers of SF.

    Likewise someone already well-known declining what they feel might be a reflexive nomination potentially opens the field to people who careers might benefit from the boost. Neil taking himself off the Best Novel Ballot in 2006 opened up a slot for Old Man’s War, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say being on the ballot that year did significant things for the awareness of the work and for my career, and yet by all indications did no harm to Neil’s stature.

    On my end of things, I was delighted to win the Fan Writer Hugo last in 2008 but lobbied hard to stay off the ballot this year (it worked!) and would have declined the nomination had it been offered to me this year, based on the idea that there were in fact a number of other people who genuinely deserved the award for their writing, and the best thing to do for the health of the award itself was to encourage people to look at other writers. It doesn’t undercut the award to remind people of the overall strength of the category, basically.

  9. James B says:

    I don’t think it is arrogant at all, I think you said in words on stage that you were grateful and thankful and that next year someone else.

    That you now actually confirm that, and what you mean, is good and honest and fair enough. I don’t think that folks will mind either way, you have a Hugo, you beat a tremendously strong feild, you are happy, end of story.

    The fan hugo’s are important though, and although I understand why they they may not get listed in certain places, fans know and appreciete and dare I say respect, winners of the fan hugos.

    Disagrement can obviously occur, it is democracy, but generally I think in the SF community people the hugos for fans are highly respected.

    J

  10. This post is so well-written that I think it deserves some sort of award.

  11. Gary Farber says:

    “If you look around reports of the Hugo results you will see that the fan categories (and semiprozine) are often left off the listings.”

    It seems that sometimes winners forget to even mention the name of the category they’ve won.

    It may have been completely happenstance, or for any number of quite good reason I can imagine, of course — and it undoubtedly is! –that this account never mentions the word “Semiprozine,” and only refers to a “category” that “Weird Tales” was in twice, without ever mentioning the name of the category.

    But I did happen to notice that omission, however unintentional or well-intentioned it likely was. No big deal in one little report, of course. I certainly don’t mean to be picking on Ann or Jeff VanderMeer!

    “Then there is the whole difficulty with the ‘body of work’ categories as well. No matter how much you tell people that they are supposed to be voting on who did the best fan writing in the past year, you can’t stop people voting for the person they believe to be the best fan writer of all time. ”

    S’true. The problem applies to some degree to all the categories, actually.

    Even in the fiction awards, people often tend to be influenced by memories of past works, or general reputations, or general feelings about the writer.

    And, yes, being social and visible in the Worldcon/sf/fan community is a factor, at times, as is an online presence. (And in a negative sense, if you’ve done something to put you in a very negative light with some voters, this will affect some votes.) These are not overwhelming factors, obviously, but they’re not always completely insignificant, either.

    The “‘body of work’ categories” problem is accentuated in all other-than-fiction and other-than-book, categories, including Best Professional Artist, Best Fanzine, and Best Fan Artist, as well, along with Best Editor, beyond your mentions of the Best Fan Writer and Best Semi-Prozine categories. Always have been.

    Short of rewiring people’s brains, or making them pass tests before voting, I don’t know much can be done about it, though putting onlne as much work worth considering for nomination as possible, in all categories, helps, as does, once there’s a final ballot — and this is more practical, as a rule — continuing the trend towards putting online nominated work, or work from the past year by people nominated.

    “Just like many other things, arrogance and greed are in the eye of the beholder.”

    Only someone hiding their true arrogance could say that.

    “Could one avoid the whole problem by changing the rules so that no one person can be nominated two years in a row? or within a certain period?”

    So if someone does two brilliant pieces of work two years in a row, or produces the most brillaint body of work two years in a row, they shouldn’t be eligible? Problematic.

    Those also might be the only two years in a lifetime that a nominee does work worth nominating. There seems to be an assumption behind this that most nominees will keep on working in their category year after year, and that’s a false assumption in many cases.

    “I do think the idea that if one withdraws from nomination then one is cutting down the award is nonsense, not in the least because it presumes that there are only five people/works in every category that are worthy of nomination, which is silly.”

    John Scalzi is, of course, correct: if a category were so weak as to have only even ten or twelve worthy contenders, we should be getting rid of the category.

    James B: “…but generally I think in the SF community people the hugos for fans are highly respected. ”

    Or derogated as irrelevant, going to people one has never heard of, not rewarding the Right Type of fanac (there are various entirely separate categories of folks who believe entirely different things as to what the Right Type should be, or which is, for some specified or unspecified reason, being unjustly not considered), too diverse, not diverse enough, and so on and so forth.

    As part of this, “in the SF community” is no longer a consensus view by people who identify themselves as such, or think others don’t consider them as valid members (sometimes correctly, sometimes not).

    These days a lot of people seem to be in an uproar, or at least, confused, when someone uses the word “fan” to refer to anything more specific than “enthusiast of a particular field/thing.”

    Whereas “sf fan” has a 70+ year of being used as a term of art to distinguish between enthusiast/readers, and those active in an active fan community of one sort or another.

    (Ill set aside here the long history of some members of these communities also regarding other communities, or sub-communities as not as legitimate as theirs.)

  12. House says:

    I have actually been thinking about this a bit myself. Anticipation was my first Worldcon, and I had a great time. I did notice a few winners suggest someone else should be nominated instead of them next year. I kind of viewed it as a bit gracious.

    Anyway, I’ve been following the Hugo Awards for a few years, and have noticed in the “body of work” categories that the same names crop up an awful lot. That this happens shows these people are doing excellent work, and they no doubt deserve their nominations, but as someone not all that familiar with the field of the award (eg. fan writer), it doesn’t give me much of a sense of just how much is out there.

    Ack. I’m starting to ramble. All this is just to say that yes, I agree that it doesn’t “dumb down” a category by having a nominee decline.

    However, if there *were* to be institutional change to avoid repeats, I think Lee’s approach (in comment 7) is a little too severe, and has some problems as suggested by Gary in 11. I would perhaps suggest simply that the winner of an award for a body of work in one year is ineligible for nomination in the next.

    Such a rule wouldn’t really hurt a person who does only a couple years of brilliant fan writing, unless they win, and doesn’t prevent the losers from being nominated the next year.

    This approach wouldn’t be viable for the individual work categories, of course, since they need to be judged, well, individually. But if a rule change *was* required, I think this would be the least problematic.

    That’s a fairly sizable “if”, however, and one I’m not qualified to argue for either way.

  13. Gary Farber says:

    “but as someone not all that familiar with the field of the award (eg. fan writer), it doesn’t give me much of a sense of just how much is out there.”

    There are many sorts of fan writing, and each voter is free to choose which sort is their sort.

    You’d find considerable variety of the traditional sort here.

    Others can better guide you to other portals for other types of fan writing, including comprehensive sets of blogs.

    And Cheryl already linked to some suggestions here.

    “Such a rule wouldn’t really hurt a person who does only a couple years of brilliant fan writing, unless they win, and doesn’t prevent the losers from being nominated the next year.

    This approach wouldn’t be viable for the individual work categories, of course, since they need to be judged, well, individually.”

    So is a “Best Fanzine” of the year a “body of work” for that year, or an “individual work” category?

    To qualify, you must produce: “Any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects which by the close of the previous calendar year has published four (4) or more issues, at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year, and which does not qualify as a semiprozine.”

    Sound simple, but among this year’s nominees was Steven Silver’s Argentus, which has one issue per year.

    There have been other nominees that consisted of only one issue in the past year.

    In 2007, Science-Fiction Five-Yearly won, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out often it came out; altogether it had 12 issues.

    The Fan Categories have been a lot more static in recent years exactly because the growth of fandom, and then the internet has tended to spread the fame and word of a few people far and wide, ironically making for a small range of individuals being nominated than in the earlier years of the Best Fan Writer and Best Fan Artist Hugos, after Ted White created them in 1967.

    It wasn’t until the mid-Seventies that the awards started settling more and more often on nominating the same people, whereas earlier there were more people who flared up for a year or three, and than died down in activity thereafter.

    You can see this in the Best Fan Writer Award. But truly, most of those nominated were absolutely deserving.

    And in 1989, Dave Langford started publishing Ansible, succeeding Checkpoint, and it circulated extremely widely, being a single sheet of paper that came out monthly, and was full of fascinating news, great quotes, and endless hilarity, and the Award became the David Langford Award.

    Which David deserves, and David is a good friend of mine, whom I often exchange emails with multiple times a day, but sometimes nowadays folks can use reminders that it hasn’t always been thus.

    And I’d suggest that the overall set of nominees has always had as much to do with the degree of circulation of the nominees writings, as the quality of the writings. It couldn’t really be otherwise, but it does mean that people who write for more obscure fanzines, or now more obscure blogs/sites, have far less chance at a nomination that writers who aren’t as good, but who are more prominent.

    The same trend has always been there for Best Fanzine, as much as it is for Best Fan Writer, though the former has a significantly longer pedigree. None of the nominees from 1956 on was a small, obscure, but excellent, fanzine; they were newszines, and big genzines with big circulations for their times (to varying degrees, but at least well-known in the fan community), at least in their given year.

    There are various strategies to winning a Best Fanzine Hugo, if one wants to calculate towards that as a goal, and today a web presence would be essential, and otherwise being either a site/fanzine filled with news, or a big genzine with lots of meat, are still apt to be successful at giving you a chance. The more quality, the higher the chance, but, frankly, in the history of Best Fanzine nominees, there have been some mediocre nominees with large circulations, and more often than there’ve been great zines with very small circulations.

    One could argue the specifics of counter-examples all day and night, of course, but I’m going to generalize nonetheless. (The major exception to newszines and genzines being nominated was Don C. Thompson’s Don-O-Saur, which was a unique personalzine/letterzine, but he also had one of the highest circulations in fandom with it, sending it to well over 900 people, which in the Seventies was an unheard of number for a “personalzine.”)

    (For what it’s worth, the zines I personally believe to be mediocre nominees — and it’s just one person’s opinion — are long defunct, so I’m not thinking about you, recent nominee.)

    The main point I started out with in this comment, though, is that until recent years, we had a lot more nominees for best fanzine and best fan writer that were nominated only for one to three years, and then not again, then we’ve been having the last twenty years.

    Maybe we should pay more attention to recent trends, of course, than the long-term history, but it’s worth keeping in mind that assumptions that the same people will keep doing their work, whatever the category, year after year, isn’t a safe one, and rules built around the idea that they don’t and won’t exist, won’t be fair to them.