“They” Are At It Again

Possibly building on the panel discussion at Finncon (in which he made very similar points) Adam Roberts has taken a pot shot at this year’s Hugo nominees. It is an interesting analysis, and much of the subsequent discussion focuses on the fact that the Hugos are a popular vote award, whereas the Clarke, whose nominees Roberts prefers, is a juried award. (It is also the case that several of this year’s Clarke nominees were not widely available outside of the UK, and indeed the winner was published by a small press and was not widely available inside the UK). A couple of comments, however, stood out. It appears that the mysterious “They” who control the Hugos have been at it again. Abigail Nussbaum:

Adam, you’re assuming that SF fandom = Hugo voters. It’s clearly in the Hugo administrators’ interests to maintain the perception that Worldcon membership is representative of fandom at large, but that hasn’t been the case for some time

Nicholas Whyte adds:

primary responsibility lies with those who currently run and promote the Hugos to entice those potential voters to participate.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact the Hugo Administrators are different people each year, and that they generally have little or no PR function, where exactly is the evidence that anyone is trying to pretend that Worldcon membership is representative of fandom as a whole, as opposed to, say, trying to get more of fandom to participate in the Hugos? Can you say “voter packet” anyone? Is that not, perhaps, enticing people to participate?

It is clearly in Ms. Nussbaum’s and Mr. Whyte’s interest to maintain the impression that the Hugos are controlled by a mysterious and shadowy cabal, rather than by ordinary fans who are trying hard to improve the awards. That makes it so much easier to play victim and whine when the results of the awards don’t turn out the way you want. But actually pretending that people who have been tasked with promoting the Hugos are doing nothing, or are actively trying to cover up the lack of participation, is downright inaccurate. More than that, given the amount of time that Kevin and I, and John Scalzi, and several other people, have put into doing this, it is fucking insulting.

The irony is that this year’s Best Novel short list has attracted far more attention than most years I can remember. It has got that attention precisely because all of the people on the list are very popular: Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi and Charlie Stross. They are people that I would expect to see at the top of the pile if there was wider participation in the results. (Not vastly wider participation – that would bring in Stephanie Meyer.) And indeed the statistics (which Neil Clarke dug out and I quoted on SFAW recently) show that participation in the nominating stage of the Hugos rose by 65% from 483 last year to 799 this year. That suggests that some of what we have been doing has had an effect.

Like Adam, I wasn’t hugely enthralled by the books that made the short list. It could have been better. Like Adam, I would have liked to see The Quiet War on the ballot (and I very much hope that its forthcoming US publication means it will be there next year). But I recognize that my tastes (and Adam’s tastes) are somewhat different to those of fandom at large. Indeed, if the Hugos regularly reflected my tastes, rather than the tastes of several hundred people, I suspect that there would be far more suggestion that the results were unrepresentative of fandom as a whole.

(None of this, by the way, negates Adam’s point. He’s not saying that the nominees are unrepresentative of fandom’s taste, he’s saying that fandom’s taste is boring.)

I’ll continue to try to influence what other people read (go out and buy Palimpsest, all of you), but as far as the Hugos go I’ll hope for them to reflect which books are actually popular each year, not what I happen to think should get an award. And if The Quiet War and Palimpsest and The City and The City don’t make the ballot next year, I won’t go around muttering about mysterious conspiracies and complaining that those responsible for promoting the Hugos are failing in their task. That would be rather pointless, because I’d be complaining about myself.

And by the way, getting to be one of the people responsible for promoting the Hugos does not require knowledge of secret handshakes, massive bribes, or having been in fandom for the past 75 years. All it requires is that you should ask me, or Kevin, if you can help. Or indeed you can just do something yourself by talking about the awards an encouraging people to get involved.

25 thoughts on ““They” Are At It Again

  1. Cheryl, is there a list anywhere on line showing the full list of nominated works/people (including the ones who didn’t make the ballot) and how many nominations they each got? I’ve seen these for previous years but haven’t been able to find one for 2009.

  2. Matt:

    That’s because the list isn’t published until after the winners are announced. This year’s administrator, Jeff Orth, has promised to supply us with copies for the official Hugo Awards web site. I expect the data to be online within an hour of the end of the ceremony. I’ll try to remember to tweet when they go live.

  3. Cheryl,

    Neither Nicholas nor I are arguing that there is a conspiracy or a shadowy cabal running the Hugos, and to suggest otherwise is to tilt at straw men. Our point (as well as the one made by Jonathan McCalmont in the comments to Niall’s post) is a simple one: the Hugo presents itself as the award of SF fandom as a whole, when really it’s the award of the people who go to Worldcon, who haven’t represented SF fandom as a whole for a long time.

    I don’t feel that Worldcon is doing a great deal to interest and draw in a new generation of fans. The voter packet is a laudable measure, but surely the focus should be on changing the makeup of Worldcon attendance, not racking up supporting memberships or encouraging existing members to vote? The stock reply whenever someone complains that the Hugos are old-fashioned and repetitive is ‘why don’t you join Worldcon instead of just complaining about it?’ I did just that and, shockingly, considering that I’m only one voter out of 800, the nominees are still old-fashioned and repetitive, except that now they have my name, in some small way, associated with them. No single member is going to change Worldcon. It’s going to take a concerted effort from the con leadership (and if there isn’t a con leadership there ought to be) to bring about that change by encouraging a steady influx of new blood. I freely admit that I have no idea how such a change could be achieved (or for that matter whether Worldcon is even interested in it) but that doesn’t change the fact that if the Hugos want to hold on to their relevance and to their right to call themselves the representative award of SF fandom, it needs to happen.

  4. and if there isn’t a con leadership there ought to be

    I could die laughing. You have no idea. But presumably you think that the con leadership should be you, and that you should be given the job because you deserve it.

    I freely admit that I have no idea how such a change could be achieved

    Then I suggest you shut the fuck up, or at least stop having a go at the people who are actually trying to make changes happen rather than just whining selfishly from the sidelines.

    except that now they have my name, in some small way, associated with them

    Oh, you poor, precious little Princess. How awful it must be for you to have your name sullied like that.

  5. Cheryl,

    I appreciate very much all the hard work you and the other Hugo organizers have put into the Hugos. It’s an awful shame that people want to tear into that.

  6. Am I correct in that one of the things that the Hugo Marketing Committee has been trying to accomplish is to communicate to the people who don’t feel included in Worldcon fandom that they are fully able to participate even if they are unable to attend, simply by becoming supporting members?

    I seem to recall some, fairly heated, discussion about the concerns over the current price of a supporting membership at Worldcon being perceived as a barrier to voting, but I would guess (not wanting to necessarily stomach some of these rantings and discussions myself) that some of these people seem to assume that participating in the Hugo awards requires both an attending membership at the administering Worldcon, and personal attendance. In fact, that isn’t even technically required for some aspects of participating in the business meeting, although voting does require being present in the meeting, and thus at the convention.

  7. Abigail, and her ilk,

    You want a “better” convention? A “better” award/contest? Run one. No one says you can’t. In fact – DO!! Please!!! We’ll all benefit and YOU get the convention or awards you want!

    There’s still time to do a reasonable bid for the 2012 Worldcon (the 2011 vote is coming up kinda quick, but you can get a write in there too).

    Show us how you’d do it. Show us how great you are at organizing a “true fan” convention and representing broader fandom. And while you’re at it, volunteer to run the Hugo Awards and show us all how much improved the process is.

    Put your effort into doing something instead of uninformed bitching about the dedicated volunteer work of others.

  8. I agree with Abigail – that is, with what she actually said, rather than with what you claim she said. I am glad that you at least posted the link to Adam Roberts so that the difference between our actual words and your representation of them is easily visible to the interested reader.

    I’ll add another point. When I made similar criticisms of the quality of work shortlisted for the Nebulas, Russell Davies acknowedged rather civilly that there was an issue but said that it would not be his top priority as SFWA president. And then in fact went on to do something about it.

    When I raise my concerns about the quality of the Hugos, you respond with baseless accusations of slander.

    You suggest that the concerned fan ‘should ask me or Kevin if you can help”. Quite apart from the revealing way in which you phrased that (“should”, “if”), if I had been in any way inclined to do so, this exchange makes it clear that my input is not welcome. I wonder how many fans you will entice into activism that way? But perhaps that was not your objective.

  9. Cheryl, I seem to have struck a nerve and I’m sorry about that, but I honestly don’t see what I’ve said to deserve the kind of vitriol you’re flinging at me. Both here and at Adam’s (and many many times in the past) people have responded to criticism of the Hugos and Worldcon with the equivalent of ‘put up or shut up,’ but this strikes me as entirely the wrong way to go about it. Kevin Standlee writes: “Twenty-five years ago, when I attended my first Worldcon, I saw things I wanted to change, and realized that nobody was going to change them for me, so I got out there, joined, and worked to make change happen.” But that’s taking the first step – going to Worldcon – for granted. You have to love a thing before you commit to changing it and making it your own. What you and so many others are saying is that we should commit to Worldcon before we love it. By the same token, I’ve always found the stock response that people who don’t like the Hugo nominations should buy supporting memberships in con very odd – why should people with no investment in Worldcon buy into it instead of simply dismissing the Hugo and getting their award jollies elsewhere? Surely the supporting membership is for people who already consider themselves Worldcon goers and simply want to stay in touch in the years that they can’t make it to the con itself?

    Now, I am attending Worldcon this year, and maybe it’ll turn out very different from the impression I’ve formed and I’ll love it and want to get involved, but I’ve already made the first step of joining, and the only reason I’ve done that is that people I know are going and involved in programming. When outsiders like myself look at Worldcon, we see the Hugos, an award completely out of touch with our sensibility, and people like you telling us that unless we’re 100% in, sight unseen, we should shut the fuck up. Is it any wonder that that’s often too high a barrier?

  10. #9 Abigail:

    For many of us who volunteer (and not just in fannish orgs) “I freely admit that I have no idea how such a change could be achieved” is a hot-button statement.

    Granted, I’m thrilled when people admit their ignorance (particularly in my professional life, where ignorant people always think they know more about how to do my work than I do), but in a volunteer organization if that’s not followed up with a “and I’d like to overcome my ignorance” or “but I’d like to learn how I can help” you’re going to get written off.

    #8 Nicholas:

    It’s an “if” situation.

    Not everyone who wants to help is, in the end, helpful. The folks who have put in years of work developing a project or a team get some latitude in determining whether a volunteer’s skills or personality will fit into an existing team.

    For example, I dread new volunteer “webmasters” and “designers” getting involved in a project. Too many want to tell the project or organization leads how the old website sucks and that they should be given free reign to start over from scratch, rather than working to learn how the existing system works and incrementally update and improve the site. At best this results in undue drastic changes for the users. At worst (and I’ve seen this happen numerous times) it results in completely broken functionality that they can’t repair.

  11. Ron:

    There are still plenty of people who believe that you have to buy an Attending Membership of Worldcon (and go to the convention) in order to vote. We are trying hard to disabuse people of that notion, but it is an uphill struggle.

    A rather more serious problem is the idea that people who have the right to vote are somehow “not qualified” (usually on the excuse that they “haven’t read everything” or “don’t have an opinion in every category”). If we could get rid of that notion we could see participation in the Hugos leap by around 300-400%, though we may instead just see people saying that they didn’t have time or can’t be bothered.

    The price of a Supporting Membership is a barrier to participation. Getting it down will be hard, because that requires either getting the Business Meeting to act or persuading seated Worldcons to ask for less money, neither of which are very likely. Instead, thanks largely to Scalzi, we are trying to make it more worth the money. With this year’s voter packet I think we finally got there, though it is depressing how many people (even people well connected to fandom) that I have met in New Zealand, Australia and Finland who had no idea that the voter packet existed.

    Technically you are right about the Business Meeting – you don’t have to be there in person to submit a motion. But given the way BM attendees behave they’ll give you short shrift if you don’t turn up. You really have to be there. Participatory democracies are very tough to work with.

  12. Nicholas:

    You can claim that black is white as much as you want, but don’t expect anyone to take you seriously, especially when you carry on to spout the same sort of nonsense.

    I really don’t care what you say about other awards. What I care about is that you blame your dissatisfaction with the fact that fandom doesn’t have the same taste as you on malfeasance by people who are trying to make the Hugos better.

    I’m sorry we are not moving fast enough for you, but SFWA is an incorporated society with actual officers who can have an influence over how things are done. WSFS is a participatory democracy that can only change policy through a vote of the Business Meeting, and even than can’t enforce much because each Worldcon is entirely autonomous. Nevertheless, changes continue to be made. Categories change and get added or deleted. The voter packet continues to improve. That’s not lack of action.

    Ultimately, however, none of this will satisfy you. The Hugos are a popular vote award. Increasing participation is not going to make them more reflective of your (or my) taste in books. All I can do is try to ensure that the awards are not the provenance of one small part of fandom (older fans who are rich enough to attend every Worldcon). I have a suspicion that the more people who participate, the less you’ll like the results. A different type of award might solve your problem, but I can’t see anyone agreeing to change the Hugos to produce the sort of results you want.

  13. Abigail:

    Thank you. Apology accepted. I am very tired at the moment, and rather cranky. Much of my tiredness stems from working on various volunteer projects for fandom, which may explain a little.

    Kevin and I are very sympathetic to the idea that people should not have to invest too much in order to participate in WSFS. We have argued frequently for a lower Supporting Membership fee, and we spend a lot of time telling people about the Hugos and encouraging them to participate. As I said to Nicholas, we can’t change everything overnight. We can’t carry votes in the Business Meeting by ourselves, and we can’t force individual Worldcon committees to do what we would like them to do. All we can do is herd cats, and work on our own to do publicity.

    Just as example, we’ve recently launched a website for coordinating reporting on conventions, with Worldcon as the first featured event. We have a lot of high profile and industry bloggers involved, and I’m hoping that we’ll get a lot of fans adding links to their reports as well. We already have people able to report on the convention in French, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew as well as English. The idea is to use the Internet to give everyone around the world the chance to get a taste of the Worldcon experience, and encourage them that it is worth investing in.

    Equally, as I have said about, we are working to make sure that the Supporting Membership is good value for money. We recognize that many people can’t afford to go to Worldcon more than once a decade (when it is in their part of the world), but we want to encourage them to care about it, and be involved in the Hugos, every year.

    One of the reasons I went to a French convention this year is because this year’s Worldcon is going to be bilingual, and I wanted to encourage French fans to get involved. If enough French-speaking fans get enthused about the process it is not beyond the realms of possibility that we could have a French-language work or two on the ballot next year. That would really shake things up. I’m also delighted that the Japanese are bidding for another Worldcon, and I hope this time they can persuade their local fans to use their Hugo voting rights.

    What I can’t promise is to make the Hugos any more in touch with your sensibility. Personally I would love to see the Hugo short list contain books by some of my favorite authors, but I know that the only way to achieve that would be to either change the Hugos to a juried award, or to try to restrict participation in some way so that only people whose tastes I approved of were allowed to vote. The former isn’t going to happen, and the latter is a route I’m not willing to take.

    Instead what I’m doing is trying to raise interest in, and the profile of, the Hugos. By doing so I expect to encourage more interest in science fiction in general, and help everyone in the field sell more books. I’m perfectly happy for Adam (or you, or Nicholas or whoever) to then berate fandom for its poor taste, and encourage them to read better books, because the more people we have involved and talking about books the more people will actually buy the books we love.

    As to whether you will enjoy Worldcon, that entirely depends on how you approach it. Intellectually I’m pretty sure you’d prefer Readercon. Worldcon is more of a spectacle than a meeting of minds. On the other hand, I’m sure that Farah and her team will have crafted some fine program items for us to attend. You’ll probably be horrified by the Business Meeting – most people are – but fortunately there are hard cases like Kevin prepared to spend their time there and work with it. My advice, however, would be to focus on making friends (and meeting people who you have only known through the Internet). Hang out in the bar with people whose work you admire (most of them are very friendly) and make contact with people from all over the world that you won’t get another chance to see until Melbourne. Then, when it comes time for everyone to go home, and the most commonly heard phrase in the hotel lobbies is “see you next year”, you might feel like coming back too.

  14. As someone who has been eyeball deep within the most recent changes in the Hugo Awards (Best Dramatic Presentation, Best Editor and most recent, the new Best Graphic Story category), I can tell you first hand horror tales of how those pieces of sausage were made…

    But the point is that changes WERE made over a period of time to the Hugo Awards, sometimes (actually, most of the time) under hostile or adverse conditions.

    I helped institute these changes to raise the profile of the Hugos AND help raise their profile with the fantasy and sf readers. I would venture to say at this point the the efforts of Cheryl, Kevin and the efforts of John Scalzi to include the voter packet with a supporting membership will have a greater impact on improving voter participation that anything I might have come up with.

    Abigail, I hope you have a wonderful time at Anticipation…

  15. Abigail said;’I don’t feel that Worldcon is doing a great deal to interest and draw in a new generation of fans.’

    well what would you suggest.
    I have nothing to do with worldcon, if you mean anticipation, apart from being a volunteer at low grunt level.

    But this weekend I am at London film and comic con, in earls court, with other fans. We gave away 400 books yesterday, we use free books as a lure, and 300 hard copies of ansible at this very media orientated event. With thousands of young people.

    On our calender, hand drawn, is anticipation. I had some bumpf which like the dark horizons, prisim’s and colour cover vectors are now all gone. We have given away hundreds of flyers.

    We have engaged and informed fans of the things that are out there, it’s actually really good as the discussions centre around books. There is a young audience of ‘media’ fans who definitley read.

    So I disagree that worldcon (it’s quite a high level of anarchy actually, with a diiferent gang each year) is not informing and encouraging new and young fans to consider it.

    By proxy perhaps, people are being informed.

    What are you doing?
    Will you be at Icon giving out fan materiel?
    Just wondering what you suggest.


  16. James:

    Excellent work. Wish we had had books to give away at Finncon. It is an excellent idea, but something that I suspect can only be done at larger events (10,000+) because publishers don’t think anything smaller is worth going to. Or have you sourced those books yourself?

  17. We source the books.

    This is our fourth outing at a massive media event but we also did Thought Bubble last year, and fandom (donations and free cycle sourcing) and convention dealers have provided us with thousands of books and more on the way for this project. Also the show promoters are sympathetic and supportive. We started this time last year. After each one LX saw a marked increase in memberships.

    At a base level it’s encouraging reading, but we immediatly know then that the maybe 500 or so people who we directly engage with out of the 10,000 are book fans.

    The model is simple and should be easily copied. It is though, like so many fannish alruistic endeavour, hard work. 😉


  18. “Then, when it comes time for everyone to go home, and the most commonly heard phrase in the hotel lobbies is “see you next year”, you might feel like coming back too.”

    Well, it’s certainly more likely to encourage people to return than “shut the fuck up” isn’t it?

  19. Jonathan:

    Well you see, if people are friendly and listen and try to understand then other people tend to be nice back to them. Whereas if people make whiny, selfish complaints about something they know nothing about people tend to get pissed off with them. It is something you might think about.

  20. I do think about it.

    I think, for example, that it isn’t friendly to completely misrepresent what someone says and then tell them to shut the fuck up when they take issue with said misrepresentation.

  21. Jonathan:

    This “completely misrepresent” nonsense is starting to become a bit tiresome. You might think that it is OK to insult people and then when they take exception to what you have said come up with some bland excuse such as “I didn’t mean what I wrote” or “I didn’t say what I said”, but I expect people to take responsibility for what they say, and if they go around accusing others of malfeasance they should expect to be called to account for it.

  22. They’re not accusing anyone of malfeasance. Therein lies the problem.

    The criticisms leveled at the Hugos this year stem from the fact that the Hugos have a degree of cultural significance that is out of proportion with the fact that they are voted for by a small and aging sub-section of fandom. There are no shadowy cabals, no handshakes, no bribes and no conspiracies. The problem is not that the Hugos are corrupt, it is that they’re not open enough to be a genuine representation of the attitudes of genre fans but nor are they informed enough to offer any insight into the cutting edge of SF.

    To address these kinds of criticisms through talk of shadowy conspiracies is to attack a straw man. It is a dismissive misrepresentation of Nicholas and Abigail’s positions that only feeds the perception that Worldcon and the Hugos are institutions as insular as they are increasingly out of touch.

    The aggression and vulgarity with which you have dismissed their concerns as well as your failure to then apologise does no favours to either you or the institutions you would think to defend.

  23. Jonathan:

    You are calling black white again. And talking nonsense to boot.

    Let’s take the malfeasance argument first. Adam’s original post was entirely fair. He doesn’t think much of the Hugo short list, and he berates fandom in general for having conservative taste. I have no quarrel with that. However, Abigail suggests that “the Hugo administrators” are deliberately misrepresenting the nature of the Hugos. Nicholas says very clearly, “primary responsibility lies with those who currently run and promote the Hugos to entice those potential voters to participate.”

    Now “the Hugo administrators” and “those who currently run and promote the Hugos” are not amorphous representations of fandom as a whole, they are specific individuals. One of them is me. Consequently I am being directly accused of being responsible for the poor state of the Hugos.

    The implication here is that I, and people working with me, are either doing nothing or we are deliberately preventing wider involvement of fandom in the process, presumably in order to give preference to works that we like.

    And you continue to along those lines by claiming that the Hugos are “increasingly out of touch”. Again the suggestion is that nothing is being done, things are getting worse.

    As I have tired to explain, quite a lot is being done. The Hugos continue to evolve, adding, dropping and changing categories. We added a new web site a few years ago. We’ve been running the logo contest. And most importantly, thanks largely to John Scalzi, we now have the voter package, as a result of which voters now get something very substantial in return for their money.

    This year, as I noted, we’ve seen a substantial increase in participation at the nomination stage. We have also seen a Best Novel short list that comprises five very popular authors, which is exactly the sort of thing I would expect to see from a popular vote award.

    Your problem is that when you talk about the Hugos being “out of touch” you mean that they are out of touch with you. As Abigail says, they don’t reflect her sensibility. Well guess what, they don’t reflect mine either. The point of changing the Hugos is not to swap from reflecting the tastes of one small group of fans to reflecting the tastes of another small group of fans, it is to get them to reflect the tastes of fandom as a whole. The inevitable result of that will be nominees who are popular, not nominees that you or I or Adam think are the finest examples of experimental fiction around.

    So this year’s Best Novel short list is not the result of inaction, or of deliberate attempts to discourage participation, it is the result of actual action. Arguing that it is the result of inaction and malfeasance is completely wrong. And if you want to argue that those in charge (and believe me, no one is in charge of WSFS, or ever will be) should change the Hugos to reflect your personal taste rather than that of other people’s personal taste makes you no better than the “small and aging sub-section of fandom” that you decry.

    As to failure to apologize, you have me there. I was impressed with Abigail’s second response. I tried to respond in kind, but I did neglect to apologize for yelling at her. Sorry Abigail.

  24. “aging sub-section of fandom”

    Really? Citation please.

    While you look for such, it would seem that a list with 3 novels on it that could be described as “YA” would seem to contradict that assumption.

    All of which is not to say what gets nominated – and sometimes wins – doesn’t give me those WTF moments. But it’s what the peple who bothered to nominate and vote wanted. So it goes.

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