The YA Hugo: Pros & Cons

The failure in Chicago of the proposal to add a YA Hugo has caused a lot of yelling online. Some people are furious at what they see is a bunch of old folks denying YA readers and writers recognition, while others are furious about what they see as attempts to create an unnecessary and unworkable category. I’m going to try to illuminate some of the issues. I guess that means that both sides will end up hating me.

Part of the problem is that the two sides are looking at entirely different parts of the elephant. From a marketing point of view, having a YA Hugo is a great idea. The publishers would be all over it (at least in the short term while YA is still popular); there’s a vibrant online community surrounding YA fiction; and few things would do more to help sell Worldcon to young people than a Hugo Award specifically for the books that young people read. It would do a lot to help the convention seem relevant to new generations of fans.

Unfortunately, from the point of view of award design, the YA proposals have been a nightmare. To start with there’s no clear definition of what YA means. In addition it is clear that YA books are not greatly disadvantaged in the Hugos because they keep getting nominated, and even win. Generally new categories are introduced to help works that are being missed out, not ones that are apparently punching their weight.

By the way, I’m sure that a lot of people out there are convinced that they have a watertight definition of what YA means. Unfortunately there are many different such definitions and none of them agree. A definition is pointless unless you can get most people to sign up to it.

Whenever a new category is proposed, someone from SMOFdom always complains that people will be able to cheat their way to a Hugo because of it. This appears to be a Pavlovian reaction. I can’t really see writers trying to pretend that their books are YA in order to get into a supposedly weaker category. The opprobrium heaped upon them in social media would deter all but the most shameless. However, because we can’t pin down what YA means, there will be a lot of disagreement over whether the nominees should have been eligible. In particular I expect that the Hugo voters will nominate works that many people in the YA community think are not YA, and much yelling will result.

One possible solution to this, which was proposed by Colin Harris at the debate in Chicago, is simply to allow works to be eligible in more than one category. Then you would not need to make decisions about eligibility. However, while most authors won’t have the chutzpah to pass their books off as YA when they are clearly not, fans have no shame when it comes to voting for their favorite writers. Allowing works to compete in both YA and the adult categories would, I think, increase the likelihood that works did get nominated in two categories. China Miéville? Railsea is totally YA. Connie Willis? She’s a woman, she must be writing for kids. George Martin? The central characters are teenagers, how can it not be YA?

Furthermore, the idea that you can’t win two Hugos for the same work has been enshrined in WSFS lore for decades. When Colin first proposed his amendment my reaction was that he was trying to wreck the motion by adding a “poison pill” clause. As it turns out, it appears his concern was genuine, but even so there are bound to have been people who were wavering who will have come down against the motion because Colin’s amendment was accepted.

To my mind the most interesting argument against the proposal was made by Chris Garcia. He said that the last thing that young people want is to have bunch of old folks telling them what they should read. A YA Hugo would only make sense, therefore, if it were voted on by young people.

I have heard this argument advanced before, including by some actual youngsters, though I have no idea how prevalent the sentiment is. It does, however, offer a way out of the predicament.

Firstly the idea of the voters deciding what is YA and what isn’t makes much more sense if the voters in question are actually all young people. It would be hard for anyone to argue with that. Also it would be entirely reasonable for a work to be eligible in two categories if the electorates for those two categories were different. Then having a YA book win both the adult and YA categories would mean something.

So, would this be possible? I can hear the SMOFs stirring already. They will complain that unscrupulous fans will pretend to be kids in order to be allowed to vote in the YA category. We could get around that by saying that you had to vote in either the YA or adult categories, but I’d prefer not to keep the kids out of the other awards. We’d therefore need some means of verifying that WSFS members were entitled to vote on the YA award. If they are attending members that’s OK as Worldcons now have youth memberships, and it is pretty obvious when you arrive whether you are a kid or not. For supporting members it will be harder, but hopefully not impossible. As is their wont, some of the SMOFs will say that we mustn’t adopt such a system unless it can be proved to be flawless, but they say that about every rule change and we always ignore them.

I suspect we’d need a cheaper supporting membership, because even the $40 that London is charging is steep for teenagers. I’d love to see WSFS working with schools and colleges to encourage young people to vote.

So, how about it? A YA Hugo that is actually for young people, rather than being just us oldies telling kids what is good for them? How can we make this work?

18 thoughts on “The YA Hugo: Pros & Cons

  1. The next issue of The Drink Tank has a lot more about it. I still think an award voted by the target audience of YA would be best, but I also think after talking with so many people at Chicon after the business meeting, it might be a good idea to give it a shot for the WorldCon Option Hugo over to the category for one year. If it works, I think it’ll be obvious, if not, well then it can die off.

  2. Ooh, I do like the idea of only Youth Membership holders being eligible to vote in the YA category. That solves so many issues I had with the category… of course, there’d probably be even fewer nominations and votes than for Best Fan Artist, but you can’t have everything…

    As for needing to prove that a Supporting Youth Membership holder is actually a youth… the Supporting Memberships already work on the honour system. The only thing that stops me from buying standard Supporting Memberships for my unsuspecting family and stuffing the ballot for my own fancast in their names is a) my bank balance and b) that it’d be really, really pathetic 😀

    1. The easiest way to accomplish this (see my comment below on changing what many see as fundamental Hugo principles) would be to create a new award that is not a Hugo. Getting it given out at the Hugo ceremony (with the visibility and the association with the Hugos that would bring) would be, in my opinion, a much smaller task than changing the Hugos enough to allow for this.

      1. I continue to believe that making it something other than a Hugo would be a PR disaster. The YA community would be convinced it had been deliberately snubbed. Look at the fuss people make over the Campbell, which WSFS simply kindly offered to administer.

        1. I don’t dispute that — I was only thinking of the easiest way to get the award created, and trying to avoid commenting on what I think would be a good idea or not.

          But actually I was thinking about the Campbell, and how (in my experience) a small number of people may make a fuss but the large majority seems to equate it with the Hugos without knowing there’s a difference. So I don’t know if the Campbell at least can be classified as a PR disaster (but I admit my perception on how people see it may well not be accurate).

          1. From my point of view the Campbell is a major PR problem. Even people sympathetic to the awards are constantly poking fun at the fact that we have to keep saying it is not a Hugo and suggesting that this is very rude of us.

  3. To read this you’d think 100% of Smofs were violently opposed to a YA Hugo and relentless conspiring to defeat it when, in fact, the motion received the backing of 43% of those in the room and came within 16 votes of passing.

    In fact the narrowness of the loss suggests that while Chris Barkley is widely liked, in contrast to John Adams in the movie 1776, one thing the YA Hugo situation has in common with the Declaration of Independence is that if someone else was spearheading the effort I believe it would have passed already. There would be no weariness factor (you know as well as I how many Hugos Chris has helped add in the last decade) or baggage (he was a mover in the attempt to delete the Semiprozine Hugo).

    1. Mike, you are assuming that everyone in the meeting identifies as a SMOF.

      You are dead right about presentation, though. What that proposal needs to succeed is some actual young people to come forward and argue for it.

  4. A good post on an interesting subject!

    As I see it, there are indeed several hurdles for the category to get acceptance, but two are in a category of their own:

    What I see (from following the Hugo discussion over some years, not as my own opinion on how things should be) as some of the fundamental characteristics of the Hugos include:
    1) All works should be eligible in only one category, with no overlap.
    2) All members of WSFS are eligible to vote in all the Hugo categories.
    3) The Hugo administrator is not supposed to have to make judgment calls except as a last resort.

    Therefore I think it would be naïve not to regard any YA Hugo proposals that would change any of these as attempts to change the basic nature of the Hugos instead of just “adding a category”. This of course means that the work needed to get them accepted (and the likelihood of succeeding) is very different than with proposals that would add a new category, or split an existing category in two.

    If you don’t go that way but try to add a YA category within the framework of how the Hugos currently work, I see several not-so-small challenges to overcome, even if trying to ignore the SMOFfish knee-jerk reactions and to leave out all the arguments that are based on personal taste, and also those that depend on speculating about the effects of the split. Those are fodder for another discussion (or several).

    – Defining what is YA is, as you said, very difficult if not impossible. I see some people criticizing this with “but defining SF is hard too”, but it’s a different thing. It’s quite ok to leave defining what is SF to the nominators, because it is only a question of whether to vote for some work for a Hugo or not. With splitting YA in its own category, it’s a question of in which category to nominate works, with a much bigger impact on having to deal with splitting the nominations (and creating headaches for the administrator).

    – If splitting only YA out of the category, you need to be able to create a consensus on where children’s books (and middle-grade books, and what have you) belong — within the YA category (making the split adult books/younger audience books) or within the normal category (splitting YA/everything else), and you also would probably have to justify why only the YA age category (after people first agree what the ages for it are) is worth its own award and not the others.

    – At the moment, the Hugos aren’t divided by marketing categories, or by any subjective categories (this is of course debatable, with some categories more than others, but it is the intent, and for the written fiction categories is reasonably clear). So you would probably also have to address the issue of why YA SF is a more worthy candidate for its own Hugo than for example fantasy, urban fantasy, etc. Now all the literary works only compete equally with other works in the same length category (which is not subjective).

    – Any proposals should state whether they are only talking of splitting the best novel category to allow for YA novel (and why only that). The other option would be creating a single YA category for YA works of any length (and that would raise a lot of questions as well, I think). Also it would basically segregate all YA works to be ineligible for any other Hugos.

    There are other issues (that I can think of) as well, but what I’m trying to say is to very much agree with you on saying that supporting or opposing the YA Hugo goes way beyond supporting or dissing YA fiction.

      1. I think you have to. YA is a difficult enough area to define without adding restrictions on it.

        Plus if you want to honor the best YA book you don’t want to miss it because it was not the right length, and I don’t think you’d stand a chance of adding 4 YA Hugo 🙂

        Personally I’m on the fence. I like the idea of a YA Hugo, but the analyst in me wants a YA Hugo award that will work. And for me that means one voted on by the right age group, but one voted upon by a large enough group that the selection is not random.

        My own inclination at the moment would be to have a YA Hugo nominated by Child and YA members (of all three Worldcons to give it the biggest pool of nominators). But then leave the voting to the YA/Adult membership who will then hopefully read it before voting.

        1. Thanks Steve, that’s a very interesting idea. It would make the category feel more like a a proper part of the Hugos, and would encourage the adult members to read the books the kids chose.

          Of course the adults would dominate the final ballot voting, at least in the short term, so there’s still the danger that the YA community would feel marginalized.

  5. I think Tero is right. Adding the YA category as a regular Hugo would be changing the fundamental nature of the Hugos (works only being eligible for one category… or, otherwise, someone would have to decide where each work falls). It could be an administrative nightmare, worthy novels would not get to be nominees because their votes would be divided… On the other hand, I think that the YA category is too good to let pass, for the reasons Cheryl and others have enumerated. The vitality of YA literature almost demands that there should be a YA Hugo. It would be good for the Hugo Awards to have that category, and it would be useful for readers and authors.

    I agree with Tero that the best solution would be to create a new award that is not a Hugo (or, at least, is not a regular Hugo…). Still, I think it should be called Hugo, otherwise it’s just not the same; it would be just another award. The name Hugo still has the power to make it matter. Maybe it could be called a Special Hugo for Best YA Novel?

    That way, a novel could potentially win both the Hugo for Best Novel and the Special Hugo for Best YA Novel, and voters could vote for a novel in both categories, if they wish. Let voters sort what is YA and what is not.

  6. Pitchfork returned to the garden shed and flaming brand doused. Damn it, Cheryl, stop being so damn thoughtful and nuanced! 🙂

  7. Here, have a US book centric factoid:

    “”Adult” is the key word in Young Adult book sales, according to new research from Bowker, which found that 55% of the buyers of YA books are 18 years old or older. The largest age segment (ages 30-44), which accounted for 28% of sales, said they were purchasing the titles for themselves 78% percent of the time. ”

  8. I have been reading the comments on this thread and as the main proposer of the YA Hugo Award, I feel compelled to step in and add some context to my actions.

    1) My only intent in proposing this category is to honor the many excellent works being published nowadays. While I acknowledge the criticisms leveled at this measure, I am astounded that those critics have taken such a simple concept, one that SFWA, the Mystery Writers of America and Locus Magazine among others, have NO trouble administering each year, and turned it into a more complicated issue than it actually is.

    2) I believe that if this award can’t be an actual Hugo category, you run the risk of actually making it ‘ghetto’ award. There is nothing like a Hugo Award so why should any author, or the readers who vote on them, settle for anything else? (And yes, I support promoting the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer into an actual Hugo Award, too, but that is another battle for someone else to wage…)

    3)I believe that the electorate of the Hugo Award are intelligent enough to discern the difference between what a YA and an adult novel. Critics, along with some current and former Hugo Administrators, don’t share this view.

    4) I have never given any thought as to how I am perceived in fandom or among the SMOFs. Being a somewhat private person, I have never sought attention for myself, not have I ever shouted from the rafters that I was responsible for the creation of new Hugo categories. However, after encountering the open hostility at the Chicon 7 Business Meeting and the outpouring of support that scores of people have expressed to me since then, I knew I would have to take a more visible role in seeing this effort through. I have done all that I have done because I wanted to see the awards be engaging and relevant in the 21st century. Through the slow introduction of these new awards over the past decade, I believe this is being accomplished.

    5) There is NO downside to trial test of the YA Book as a new award. It’s a win-win for the Hugos, nominated authors, publishers and readers (of all ages). The original proposal was for a two year tryout (and as of this writing remains so), with either LoneStarCon and/or Loncon 3 trying this out as a Special Category.

    6) I never felt that this category should NOT be restricted to younger voters; the award is an inducement for young readers, parents and librarians to pick up a work and consider reading it. I believe that one of the side benefits of the YA Hugo would be inspire young readers to read more works of fiction AND possibly find out more about the Hugo Awards and get involved in fandom. As a professional bookseller, I can testify to all of anecdotal evidence that a great many of adults are reading YA fiction. Barring them from voting would be discriminatory towards them. I know I would resent it…

    7) For the record, while I was a co-sponsor of the move to kill the Semi-Prozine Award, I was never actually the originator of the amendment, Ben Yalow was. At the time I signed on, I believed at the time it was the right thing to do due to what I felt was the ‘rubber stamping’ of the Hugo each year for Locus Magazine. I subsequently changed my mind when the S-P community rose up, defended the award and defeated the amendment in the second year ratification vote.

    As I have stated elsewhere, I will re-introduce this proposal at LoneStarCon3, Loncon 3 and beyond to see that this proposal gets a fair trial. I do so knowing what to expect from my many detractors, but knowing my heart I am doing the right thing, for the right reasons.

    1. Chris mate, as you are doing such a good job of turning me against your campaign, could I suggest you get someone else to be the spokesman for it?

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