Hugos Wrap (I Hope)

As Hugo Outrage season has been replaced by Clarke Outrage season, I should be wrapping up what I say about this year’s nominees, but I did promise Sandra McDonald a full reply to a comment she left on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.

11 thoughts on “Hugos Wrap (I Hope)

  1. I’ve been thinking about the short story issue a bit. I realized, with a bit of a guilty start that I’ve ready virtually no short SF this last year… to be fair I haven’t read any long SF either but I’ve been busy. But I don’t subscribe to any of the magazines I used to, and I don’t really go looking for them much either. I find it unlikely that I’m alone in this. If there’s a new story by an author I know and like then I might check it out… I did that with a Peter Hamilton time travel short that I got free on Amazon a few months ago.

    However, outside of that… it’s not like the 90s where I’d buy a couple of short story magazines every month (not that I could afford to go to the Worldcon then) so my concern is the field looks sparse simply because actually it is, and the numbers of people reading any particular short story are relatively small compared to those that can afford to do the Worldcon thing.

    That strikes me a feature of an ongoing change more than anything else.

    But the idea that because Blogs are big now we have to have a Blog Category, which I’ve seen this week a few times, is equally flawed… not to mention, do you REALLY want to turn John Scalzi into Dave Langford (although I think John Scalzi would start turning down the nods).

  2. I’m kind of over the blogs vs. fanzines argument. There are fanzine-like blogs and websites with publishing schedules, regular columns and special features. Blog publishing software is just a new medium for that content and skill set. And, yes, with bigger readership, they’re likely to take over the category.

    As for blogs generally? A lot of them are just perzines without the paper and schedule. They have no less and no more editorial guidance than a lot of random perzines. I think they’ll mostly suffer in the nominating process, and likely not even get to the ballot box.

    1. Agree that most won’t get onto the ballot, and those that do will be the usual suspects.

      Besides, who still reads paper versions of Fanzines? I actually read more Fanzines now I can pull them down onto my iPad than I ever did when people would post them to me.

      1. The only paper fanzine on the ballot is Banana Wings. The Drink Tank is PDF-only (and probably won’t win again unless it does another omnibus edition featuring writings of 300 of Hugo voters). Journey Planet prints paper copies, but it’s pretty limited distribution compared to the PDF readership.

    2. Given the number of times I see Hugo Haters insist that websites are not eligible for the awards, I suspect that if they weren’t so keen to sling mud they’d get what they want.

      1. What I truly don’t get about the position is that it still requires people to vote for them. And even though the voting block of the Hugos is attendees of the Worldcon, they still need to have heard of the bloody thing and have read it… This gets into a ‘be careful what you wish for’space.

  3. Half?? It’s a good year for me when any of my nominations make it onto the ballot. But I can accept that that isn’t because my vote is being “ignored”, it’s because most of the rest of the Hugo voting pool either isn’t reading and watching the same things as me, or because they disagree with me.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, my orbital mind-control laser is running behind schedule…

  4. Yeah, as you pointed out, this could also very easily be no problem at all. We might very well have another twenty years of full nominee slates. And who knows what the other two nominees would’ve been, without the 5% rule. Maybe they would’ve been something a bit embarrassing (as sometimes seems to happen with the Nebulas).

    1. We’ll know in September, when the They Also Ran list comes out. For example, the 2011 Hugo Awards had only four nominees on the ballot. With 515 ballots cast, you needed at least 26 nominations to make the fourth or fifth place. Hannu Rajaniemi’s “Elegy for a Young Elk” missed the cut by one vote. (Full details including the other works that didn’t make it are available on the Hugo Awards web site (PDF).

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