Behaving Badly at the Hugos

I would imagine that everyone has now seen the outrage that accompanied the CoNZealand Hugo Award Ceremony. If you haven’t, the short version is that a fabulous list of winners and some really great acceptance speeches were completely overshadowed by a couple of old men grandstanding.

Before I get into the detail, I want to mention one of the acceptance speeches. Neil Gaiman won a Hugo for the television version of Good Omens. In his acceptance speech (Farcebook link) Neil spoke about how he made the series as a favour for his friend, Terry Pratchett. Terry, despite being hugely loved by fans all over the world, never won a Hugo. He was a finalist once, but declined the honour. This was not, as Neil explained, because he didn’t care, but because he cared too much. Terry wanted a Hugo so badly, and was so convinced that he’d never win one, that the mere thought of being a finalist was too much for him. That’s how much Hugos mean to people in our field.

The theme for last night’s 3.5 hour marathon bore-fest was Hugo history. George Martin and Robert Silverberg regaled us with stories from Worldcons past. In that vein, I would like to take you back to LA Con IV in 2006. That convention too had chosen an aging writer to have an important role in the ceremony. The writer in question was Harlan Ellison, who had a far bigger reputation for shooting his mouth off than either Martin or Silverberg. By the end of the evening, the social media of the time was incandescent with fury over something that came to be known as Gropegate. Here’s what I wrote after the event.

It was clear right from the start that Harlan was planning to behave badly. It was just that no one quite realized that behaving badly would include trying to swallow the microphone and groping one of Connie’s breasts during the ceremony. Harlan, I suspect thought it would be funny.

That would have been Connie Willis, who was the Writer Guest of Honour and was also hosting the ceremony.

Fandom was incandescent with fury. And I went on to say the following:

What I do know for sure, however, is that every time Harlan’s name comes up in a convention committee discussion, any convention committee discussion, in the future, people will remember what he did in Anaheim and, if they have any sense at all, will not want anything to do with him.

At the time I had a fair amount of profile as a fan writer. I had nominations that year in Fan Writer and Semiprozine (I had taken Emerald City out of the Fanzine category). Consequently Harlan heard about what I’d written. We didn’t know each other, but he knew Neil Gaiman and Neil knew me. As a result, I got a phone call. We chatted for quite a long time, and I’m not sure that Harlan ever quite understood why what he had done was wrong. It was the sort of thing that men got away with routinely when he was younger. But one thing was very clear: Harlan, who had won eight Hugos himself, was mortified that his actions had damaged the reputation of the awards.

Contrast that with CoNZealand. What we seemed to have there was a couple of old men conspiring to take over the ceremony, disrespect many of the Finalists, and bore the audience to death, because they don’t like the sort of people, and the sort of works, that are winning Hugos these days. It was, it seemed, a deliberate attempt to cause controversy and drag the awards through the mud. Hosting the Hugo ceremony is an honour, and should be treated as such. Many other people, including high profile names such as Neil Gaiman, John Picacio and Garth Nix, have done the job, and taken it much more seriously.

It doesn’t just stop there either. There was the incident where the introduction to the Best Fancast category concentrated solely on podcasts, despite the fact that one of the Finalists, Claire Rousseau, uses video rather than audio. The CoNZealand Chairs said in their apology that this was an error, and the CNZ staffer responsible has apparently owned up and apologised. But equally I have been in Claire’s position where people were saying that I should have been disqualified because I was using the wrong sort of delivery system. And when people see such obvious disrespecting of Finalists elsewhere, the natural assumption is that every such incident is deliberate. Bad behaviour elsewhere poisons all other interactions, even when a genuine mistake has been made.

Of course people will claim that Hugo winners have taken to making their acceptance speeches political. They are winners; that gives them a lot of licence. And mostly it is their own reputation at risk. Jeannette Ng did so and got a Hugo for it, which I think shows that she hasn’t lost much over it.

But when you are hosting the ceremony, it is not just your reputation that you damage if you misbehave. You sully the reputation of the convention, of all the people who worked so hard to make it happen, and of the country that is hosting the convention. Most of all, you sully the reputation of the awards themselves. Harlan understood that. I’m not sure that Martin and Silverberg do.

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