As Hugo Outrage season has been replaced by Clarke Outrage season, I should be wrapping up what I say about this year’s nominees, but I did promise Sandra McDonald a full reply to a comment she left on one of my earlier posts. This is the meat of what she said:
Here’s my concern: in the year 2013, with perhaps more magazines and anthologies than ever before, with almost 700 ballots cast, the best the ballot can provide is 3 choices in the short fiction category. There are 10 movies or television shows to choose from, but only 3 short stories. 3 short stories, in a field rich with amazingly talented writers sharing a lot of great stories. 5 short fiction editors, but only 3 short stories. And woe to voters who took the time to vote with choices that didn’t make the 5% rule, because we’re only going to have 3, and 2 of them from the same (very excellent) magazine. That’s not what I call plentiful options expressing the wide diversity in short fiction today.
The first thing to note here is that 3 short stories is very much a matter of definition. Yes, the Hugos have two categories for dramatic presentations, but they have four for written fiction, three of which are for shorter lengths. The breakdown between Novella, Novelette and Short Story is by no means a given. The World Fantasy Awards, for example, have only two short fiction categories. Some awards only have one. Compare this, for example, to non-fiction, which is mostly what I write. There’s only one category for professional work, and it has to be shared between critical works, reference works, how-to books, art books, and thanks to a bizarre decision from last year that still rankles, music CDs.
Now as far as I’m concerned, categories rise and fall dependent on the level of support they get. The catch-all of Related Work exists because probably none of the things that go into it can sustain a category on its own. All three short fiction categories are well-supported, despite the diversity of nominations in Short Story. But equally when I see short fiction writers complaining that they are getting short shrift I find it difficult to feel very sympathetic.
Then there’s the voters. Some of them have had their nominations ignored. Well, yes, it happens. Most years most of my Novel nominations are ignored. I’ve not got time to do tallies, but I suspect that most years around half of the works I nominate don’t get on the ballot, possibly more. That’s the nature of the beast. Under normal circumstances only five works get on the ballot in each category. If you have a lot of potential candidates, then a lot of people’s nominations are going to get ignored.
Finally, what about diversity? We’d like to encourage that, wouldn’t we? And actually, that’s what the nominations stage is for. People elsewhere have been complaining that the Hugos are battle between competing voting blocks, but that’s exactly what the system is designed to produce. A consensus on a winner is only required in the final ballot (which uses a very different voting system). What is expected in the nominating stage is that a variety of different works will get on the ballot, each of which is a favorite of its own particular constituency. It doesn’t always work, but provided you have a range of different tastes voting then you should get a range of different types of work on the ballot.
The problem with Short Story is that the electorate’s taste is far too diverse. There’s not enough agreement on what the best stories of the year might be. It isn’t clear why that might be the case. Possibly it is because there are so many venues, but then there are hundreds of novels published each year and that doesn’t cause the same problem. Possibly it is because of the lack of review venues for short fiction (I know I found Rachel Swirsky’s recommendation posts invaluable). Possibly it is because most of the people who write short fiction are not such big stars as those who write novels, and don’t have huge fan followings. All sorts of explanations are possible.
I would certainly like to see five nominees in each category. But at the same time I don’t want to see 10 stories on the ballot because of a big tie for 5th place, and I don’t want the threshold for getting on the ballot to be so low that it is easy to buy your way on (which people have tried to do). So we need to craft a solution that will do more good than harm. I have some confidence in the minimum number of votes idea that I suggested, though I fear that many people will want it set very low. Some sort of action outside of WSFS, to help voters find the best stories, might also help, and may also prove quicker and easier to implement that the grinding wheels of WSFS democracy.
Hopefully, someone out there will have the time to do something.