Meme Stomping

It being that time of year again, all of the usual muddle-headed ideas about the Hugos crawl out of the woodwork and have to be stomped upon. Kevin has made a good start here, taking aim at the idea that there is a shadowy “Hugo Committee” that makes up the rules of the awards and has the power to rescind an award should an outraged fan decide that the wrong person or work won, but there’s always more that needs doing.

One I have seen already this year is that only works published in America are eligible for the Hugos. This is completely wrong. I know that the word “world” occurs in both “World Series” and “World Science Fiction Convention”, but they don’t mean the same thing in those two phrases. There are all sorts of reasons why American writers and American-published works tend to win more Hugos than any other country, starting with the fact that the USA has a huge population (roughly 10 times that of the UK, for example), which makes a big difference in any international, popular vote award. But works published and people living outside of the USA are eligible for the Hugos. The works don’t even have to be written in English (though again voter demographics favor those that are).

The other recurring meme that I want to stop heavily upon is the “I’m not qualified to vote” meme. This one cropped up in the latest episode of Galactic Suburbia. Tansy did a fine job of stomping on it then, but I’m sure other people will be promulgating it so I’m going to add my 2c here. (And Tansy, yes, you are right, it is almost always women who disqualify themselves from voting using this meme.)

The basic form of this meme is that people complain that they are not qualified to vote in awards because they haven’t read enough of the field.

People, this is not what a popular vote award is all about. If you have a juried award then the judges have a duty to read all of the books submitted/recommended to them. If you have a list of nominees to choose from, such as the final ballot in the Hugos, then there is an expectation that you will read all of the nominees because there are only a few of them. But an open popular vote award, such as the nomination stage of the Hugos, or the Locus Awards, does not work like that.

Because if the requirement was that you read “all of the field”, or even a majority of it, then no one would be qualified to vote. Remember, the Hugos are open to every work of science fiction and fantasy published in the previous year, regardless of where it was published or what language it was published in. No one can possibly read more than a tiny fraction of that, ergo no one is qualified to vote. That’s clearly a ridiculous conclusion, so the argument must be ridiculous.

Popular vote awards are designed to find out what is popular. So when an award says “best” what it really means is “most popular”. The process of finding out what is “most popular” is statistical. You ask a large number of people which books (or stories or movies, etc.) they liked, and you add up all of their individual votes. Those works that get the most votes are, by definition, the most popular.

So to be qualified to vote in a popular vote award, all you have to do is to have read (or viewed) something that you thought was good. No other qualification is required.

Now of course you may think that the whole idea of a popular vote award is stupid, and that awards ought to only be given out by experts who are in a position to know what is “best”. But there are plenty of awards out there, and if you think that way all you need to do is pay attention to the World Fantasy Awards or the Clarke or the other awards that have juries.

One thing, however, is certain. If you don’t vote in a popular vote award then your views as to what is good won’t be included in the statistical process, and so the sort of works you like will be less likely to win. The only effect of taking this high moral stance and disqualifying yourself from voting is to hand control of the process to other people. And if you do that then you have no right to complain about the results.

(Some of you may remember that large chunks of this post appeared on SF Awards Watch a couple of years back, but these things need saying every year.)

15 thoughts on “Meme Stomping

  1. I used to feel guilty that all my short fiction Hugo nominations came from F&SF, because that was the only magazine I read at the time. Thanks for allaying that guilt, Cheryl.

    OTOH, when the Hugo finalists are announced, I do make an effort to try to track down as many of the final nominees as possible and check them out.

      1. In my opinion the Voter Membership is worth it for the literature included alone by a huge margin.

  2. All of your points are well made, but my inner nerd feels I have to mention that US population (301m) is approx 5 times that of UK (61m), rather than 10 times.

    Back in my box now.


  3. If you’re keeping a list, the one I run into the most is “The Hugo voting base doesn’t like the kind of sf I like, so why should I bother?”. There’s also its less common cousin, “The Hugo voters need to pay more attention to such-and-such.”

  4. Thanks for the Galactic Suburbia plug, Cheryl! I like to think of participating in the nomination process as Bitch Insurance – means I can bitch about the results quite happily and without guilt.

    The trouble is, most fans are completionists and many of them have obsessive or perfectionist tendencies which tends to lead to the mindset of “If I can’t Nominate More Completely and Thoroughly than the Universe has ever Seen Before, I may as well not bother.”

    I did hesitate (for once) to make the gender observation, but even without a culture that tells women (and especially women fans/geeks) that we’re doing it wrong, women are very good at sabotaging ourselves by setting impossible standards for our own personal competence.

    Having said all that, I completely understand why people acquire that mindset that the Hugo process is something that happens to, and involves, other people, and how easy it is to not bother joining something because of prior results. Which is why these discussions are so important!

  5. I’m a newbie to this Hugo nominating process. What do I have to do to be able to participate?

    On another front: Wasn’t England wonderful? After 24 years – Ashes come home!

    1. Martha: The minimum that you need to participate (and given your location the most appropriate option) is a Supporting Membership. You can buy that here. It costs $50, but in return for that you get the Hugo Voter Packet. Obviously we have no idea at this stage what will be in the packet, and the contents are always subject to negotiation with publishers, but a list of the contents from last year can be found here. Note that although these works are all in digital form, they are all readable on ordinary personal computers, you don’t need any special hardware.

    2. Oh, and you need to buy that by Jan. 31st in order to be able to nominate. You can wait until after the final ballot is announced if you want to see what is likely to be in the Voter Packet, but then you only got to vote on the final ballot.

      1. Cheryl forgot to mention that you also get to nominate for the following WorldCon (regardless of whether you nominated for ‘your’ Worldcon) – so with my AussieCon membership I can nominate for the Hugos that will be awarded at Reno.

  6. Cheryl,

    Thank you so much for this post! I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve taken the liberty of quoting you a bit extensively at my Livejournal:

    I was just chatting with Cat about various genre awards, and she pointed out to me that part of the World Fantasy Awards are also open to popular voting! I never knew this, and thought that there really ought to be a well-publicized FAQ for all these genre awards, detailing for the general public who can nominate/vote and etc.

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