Hugo awards: what can be done to save them?

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.

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About Anna Kashina

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3 Responses to Hugo awards: what can be done to save them?

  1. Lord Darque says:

    I am glad to see you favor reading the stories and voting on the merits. That is the right way to do things. I believe you are also quite correct that behind the scenes campaigns have been going on for quite some time and have had a major effect on the outcome.

    Although I am a little puzzled when you say ” shamelessly and openly”. Do you believe it is more honest to work behind the scenes? I find the Puppies approach far more honest. They stated their goals and what they were trying to do and did not hide the fact. What I find amusing is that their stated goals are not that different from those opposing them. The SP wanted to bring authors who have not gotten recognition into the game. One sides does it for gender/racial balance and the other for political/religious balance. How can one be better than the other?

    You are also mixing up the Sad Puppies with the Rabid. It was the Rabid Puppies who nominated all the authors from Castalia House. Since the RPs was run by the owner of that publishing entity it does not seem to me to be all that surprising.

    Finally your proposed solution is both unworkable and dangerous. There is a reason that all significant votes from politics to anything else you care to name are done in secret. To list who nominated for what is going to lead to nothing but pressure. You would be handing a list of people to put pressure on to each side. The unworkable part comes in when you look at how WorldCon is run. They have very limited resources. To manage the system you propose would break them.

    There are really only 2 ways forward. The one that will work is to just encourage everyone to publish their own slates. Request that all slates contain more or less than the 5 available slots. Get enough slates in play and no one will be able to dominate the Hugos.

    Banning slates is impossible. Again because WorldCon simply does not have the resources to police such a system. How do you punish people who put out slates? Ban them? Ban all the authors they list? That is a road to a very ugly place.

    What I believe we are going to see eventually a push to eliminate supporting memberships completetly. The core group at WorldCon wishes to keep the Hugos to themselves. The only way to accomplish this is to remove the outside influences. It is the only way to return to the old days. Right now they are looking at all sorts of proposals but almost all of them will fail because of the limits of what WorldCon can do. In the end this will be their only option.

    • Anna Kashina says:

      Thanks for the detailed response. And — sorry for mixing up the puppies. You are right, of course. Perhaps unfairly, the distinction between “Sad” and “Rabied”, while evident, does not seem that important from the perspective of sci-fi and fantasy.

      I think “shamelessly and openly” does sum it up. It is open, true, this is how we learned about it — and yes, it is better to be open if you do such things. It is also shameless — not because of being open, but simply because the puppies put an agenda ahead of the quality of writing. Anticipating objections, there *is* no gender/racial bias in the current award system, the notion itself, to my knowledge, belongs to the puppies and their followers/founders. There *is* a bias toward new and unusual, but this has nothing to do with agenda or any background of the authors (as explained in my original post). The puppies are the one who introduced the agenda unrelated to writing. I don’t think anyone before them ever went beyond simple campaigning for their favored work.

      I don’t see why open voting could possibly be dangerous — as long as it is about writing and not any other considerations. I know that voting was open until fairly recently, and was abolished, only to give rise to situations like this. Getting rid of supporting memberships could potentially work, but it would be a huge financial blow to Worldcon, not not mention a defeat.

      My general problem with slate voting, aside from the puppies, is that it is too easy to push bad nominees through by putting some good names on the slate along with them. People vote for what they know, and tend to ignore unknown. To me, banning slates seems to make absolute sense. A more problematic thing for everyone seems to be the idea of actually reading the work they nominate and vote for, which seems a no-brainer as well, but has ceased to be the practice a while ago. And yes, if a famous author openly nominates someone, his/her readers and followers are more likely to vote for that person, but at least the process is transparent and has nothing to do with politics this way. Generally the authors that rise to the top do so because the readers love them (not because they win awards), and they tend to be free thinkers and very good at what they do. Which is infinitely more than I can say about the people behind the puppies campaign.

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