The ill-fated women in the Hugos amendment (I’m not going to call it the “Joanna Russ Amendment” until I know that Joanna has sanctioned this – she is still alive and may not agree with the motion) is continuing to attract discussion around the blogosphere. Mostly this is good. I seconded the motion precisely to generate discussion, and I want discussion because I’m tired of the regular rants about how the Hugos are evil and sexist that happen every time the nominee lists come out. If something is wrong, we should discuss how we might fix it, and if nothing is wrong we should stop complaining.
However, some of the posts I have seen have been quite critical of Yonmei for being an extremist, which I think is somewhat unfair because her initial proposal (a year in which no men would be allowed on the ballot) was way more radical. She allowed herself to be talked down to a more reasonable position, whereas some other people were much less willing to talk. Also some of these posts seem to be rather missing the point, because they don’t understand the Hugo process very well.
One post that dismisses the motion as a bad thing is this one by Adrienne Martini on the Locus blog. It was a little surprising to me because if I’m not mistaken this is the Adrienne Martini who, back in 2007, roundly attacked the male dominance of that year’s Hugo nominee lists. She attributed this to sexism on behalf of the Yokohama Worldcon committee and demanded that something be done.
Martini’s post is headlined, “No one wants a pity Hugo”, which shows that she still doesn’t understand how the awards work very well. Nothing in Yonmei’s amendment would have automatically given women writers a Hugo. It would have given some a nomination, but in such cases the women would have had to battle it out in the final ballot against five male writers. Indeed, other people who have attacked Yonmei’s motion have suggested that it would have meant fewer women winners, because if people saw a woman on the ballot they would automatically assume she was there because of the special rule, not by right, and vote her down accordingly.
All of this misunderstands how nominations work. In the final ballot the nominees fight it out on a more-or-less equal footing. The voters generally make an effort to consider them all. But nominating is very different. It is quite impossible for anyone with nominating rights to consider all of the possibilities. (There probably isn’t anyone who reads enough languages to do so.) So the five nominees are by no means necessarily the five best candidates ranked in order. If they were there would be no need for a final ballot — we’d just pick the top-ranked nominee as happens in the Locus Awards.
The Hugo nominee process is an exercise in using the wisdom of crowds. The theory is that with a big enough number of nominators the works that get the most nominations will be those that are the best-liked. The process has acknowledged flaws, because some books don’t get noticed in time for people to nominate them. That’s why we have eligibility extensions. There is an inherent bias against books published late in the year that people may not have time to read, and possibly against books published very early in the year that people may have forgotten. We don’t do anything about this because the system of rolling eligibility that the Nebulas tried was so unpopular.
There are other issues too that people might think about looking at. Sometimes you get ties, so 6 or 7 nominees are listed. But sometimes you get a situation where 6 candidates are well ahead of the pack but the 6th-placed candidate doesn’t quite have enough votes to make a tie and so has to miss out. The cut-off point doesn’t have to be 5. There are other ways the nominee list could be worked out. I’ve seen plenty of situations where I have looked at the final nominations numbers are wished that the 6th-placed candidate had been on the ballot.
And remember, the work or person that gets the most nominating ballots is by no means certain of victory. There are plenty of occasions when that person does not win. I think it has happened to me in the past.
So this idea that the five nominees are fine and worthy, whereas any work that does not feature in that top five is not even fit to shine the nominees boots, is nonsense. We know that the nominations process is flawed. We have some patches already in place. We might consider others. The final text of Yonmei’s motion was an idea that I came up with in 10 minutes in the shower on the Thursday morning of Worldcon to head off an idea that was genuinely outrageous. With plenty of time to reflect and discuss, I am sure we can come up with something better. (Although of course if that idea doesn’t require us to change the mechanics of the process at all, so much the better.)