By now I am sure that everyone heard about the Hugo controversy, when a group called “Sad Puppies” campaigned among their followers (which they gained, as I heard, for reasons unrelated to writing) to secure a bunch of nominations that have nothing to do with merit. Not only did it make the ballots look ridiculous, it also bumped off a number of deserving people who would have been on the ballots instead.
Many people who are much better than me at blogging wrote extensively on the topic. I loved reading the posts by G. R. R. Martin (admittedly, in part, because I love his writing so much), but there were many others who said it all much better than I possibly could. Yet, I am still feeling compelled to belatedly contribute to this ongoing battle.
I hope I will not be viewed as a Puppy supporter if I say that there is indeed a disconnect that has developed in the SF&F markets today between award-winning books and books that are popular with the readers. Back in the good old days, major awards more or less reflected the most popular books published each year. In those times, relatively few books were published overall, and most of the fans of the genre actually read all the good ones and submitted their informed votes that usually resulted in selecting the best works for nominations and awards. In those times, being a Hugo award winner meant major recognition from both the public and the critics and ultimately led on to further success.
In our days, the number of books published each year increased exponentially, and the talent among the new science fiction and fantasy authors soared to new heights, resulting in the emergence of really amazing authors who, in my view, make many of the older books seem flat, even if we do continue to appreciate them as part of our history. This change has nothing to do with the author’s race, gender, political and religious views, except perhaps the fact that authors from different backgrounds tend to introduce novelty and freshness into the scene.
It is not surprising that on such a rich backdrop, the professionals in the genre who get to make decisions on the majority of awards tend to gravitate to unusual books that push boundaries and introduce new concepts or tools. This is very natural. If you have seen pretty much everything, the unusual begins to stand out. On the flip side, however, this tendency creates a divergence between the critics’ opinions and the public tastes that often stick to elaborated versions of the familiar and comfortable. As a result, the award-winning books are no longer the same as the top sellers each year. In many cases, not even close.
Until the current controversy, I did not even realize that the Hugo award has been somewhat different from the others. This is the award determined by the attending and supporting members of the Worldcon, which means that regular people, not only the professionals, can buy membership and earn an equal opportunity to vote. In theory, this means that the nominees and winners of this award should be much closer to the public tastes and correlate with the popularity of the book. Right?
Ideally, yes. But, added to the current landscape, when no one could even attempt to read all the deserving books published each year — even if they read full time — new practices have emerged. Instead of voting for the books they like, people become susceptible to campaigning: voting for their friends, people who belong to the same circles, or, on occasions, people with high public media exposure, or those who give out well designed mementos at conventions and events, or perhaps even money?…
I am very certain Sad Puppies were not the first to take advantage of this turn, but they are the first who did it so shamelessly and openly, e.g., by putting a single poorly known author into multiple categories with nominations for multiple works, and then publicly bragging about it. In a way, we probably should be grateful to the Puppies: they did not crack the system, but they breached the crack into a major gap and drew everyone’s attention to it.
The end result is sadly the same. Hugos are broken this year. I am very sorry for the deserving authors who ended up just off the ballots, or felt compelled to withdraw their nominations and pass up a major career highlight. I am also very sorry for those who are working very hard trying to fix the mess and finding no grounds to disqualify the bulk of the Sad Puppy slate. I would not want to be in their shoes.
So, is there a solution?
This year, probably no good one. The only thing everyone should strive to do is to actually read all the nominated works and vote for those you believe to be the best based on your own opinion, not a campaign. Don’t vote “no award” and don’t vote for anything you have not read. This would not help anyone.
Going forward, I believe that the best way to redeem the situation and restore the prestige of the Hugos (and perhaps the other awards) is to ensure that every nominator and voter actually *reads* the work they are voting for and actually considers it to be better than the other comparable works published the same year, based on valid criteria. Barring that, the awards have no meaning, I think everyone would agree to that.
How to achieve it practically?
For one, every nomination should be publicly listed, with the name of the person nominating and voting for each work openly accessible, along with the checked “yes” next to the questions on whether they personally read the work, and whether they truthfully consider it the best in the genre.
I would go even further, though. I would request for each nomination to contain a short paragraph of what you like about the work and what made it stand out for you and seem like it deserved the award. This information should also be made public from the start and required with each nomination (notably, reasons based on the race, ethnicity, and political and religious views of the author should not be permitted).
I am aware that this would probably drastically reduce the number of people willing to nominate. But I bet that no slate voting would be possible with this kind of a system. Even if a person is willing to outwardly lie on a public form, if the writeups for the slate voters are commonly generated through a campaign, this fact would become immediately transparent.
Are there ways around this system too? Yes, with a lot of effort and dedication. Is it worth it? In my opinion, no. In the end, one does want an award they receive to mean something, and if you go to major ends to falsify an award, you are, in the end, devaluing your own work. In the current system, when everything is hidden, one can perhaps have an illusion that this cheating would go unnoticed, but with the open system this illusion would not be possible anymore.
This year, above all, the Sad Puppies have revealed themselves as a group who is in the writing business for all the wrong reasons. I can’t imagine a person in their right mind who would ever go on to buy a book from Castalia House or submit their work to them. Certainly, Hugo award is bigger than all that. I do very much hope that soon we will all be able to forget this ever happened.
And of course, my heartfelt congratulations go to those authors who ended up on the Hugo ballots based on merit and the high quality of their work.