Some comments on the Hugos and other SF awards

I’ve been doing my best to stay away from the current ruckus over the Hugo Awards, but it’s now spread widely enough that it’s spilled onto my Facebook page, and it’s bound to splatter on me elsewhere as well. It’s also been brought to my attention that Breitbart’s very well-trafficked web site—never famous for the accuracy of its so-called “reporting”—has me listed as one of the supposedly downtrodden conservative and/or libertarian authors oppressed by the SF establishment. Given my lifelong advocacy of socialism—and I was no armchair Marxist either, but committed twenty-five years of my life to being an activist in the industrial trade unions—I find that quite amusing.

So I decided it was time to toss in my two cents worth. Well… if we calculate words as being worth eight cents apiece, my five hundred and eighty dollars worth. (Not quite, but I’m an author so I’m rounding the word count up. To do otherwise would get me drummed out of the Scribbler Corps.)


So, here goes.

First, on the Hugo and Nebula (and all other) awards given out in science fiction. Do they have problems? Yes, they all do. For a variety of reasons, the awards no longer have much connection to the Big Wide World of science fiction and fantasy readers. Thirty and forty years ago, they did. Today, they don’t.

Is this because of political bias, as charged by at least some of the people associated with the Sad Puppies slate? No, it isn’t—or at least not in the way the charge is being leveled. I will discuss this issue later, but for the moment let me address some more general questions.

What I’m going to be dealing with in this essay is a reality that is now at least tacitly recognized by most professional authors—and stated bluntly on occasion by editors and publishers. That’s the growing divergence between the public’s perception of fantasy and science fiction and the perception of the much smaller group of people who vote for literary awards and write literary reviews for the major F&SF magazines. There was a time in fantasy and science fiction when the public’s assessment of the field’s various authors and the assessment of its “inner circles” was, if not identical, very closely related. But that time is far behind us.

There was never an exact correlation, of course. There have always been, in our field as in any field of literary or artistic endeavor, a certain number of authors who, while very popular, never got much in the way of recognition in terms of awards.

Two examples are Murray Leinster and Andre Norton. Both Leinster and Norton had immensely successful literary careers that spanned over half a century. Leinster was once dubbed by Time magazine “the dean of science fiction”—he had the title before Heinlein more or less took it over—and it’s almost impossible to overstate Norton’s central position in the field for decades.

Nonetheless, in his entire career in science fiction, Murray Leinster got almost no recognition when it came to the field’s major awards. Before I go any further, I should specify that by “major awards” I am referring to the Hugo and Nebula; and, in the case of fantasy, the World Fantasy Award. Of these, the Hugo is generally considered to be the pre-eminent award in our field.

The Nebula award ignored Leinster completely. The World Fantasy Award also ignored him, but that award wasn’t established until 1975. Leinster died that year, and his active writing career had ended several years earlier. He probably wouldn’t have ever gotten nominated for the award, anyway, since Leinster was almost exclusively a science fiction author.

He did receive two nominations for the Hugo and won one of them—that was for his novelette “Exploration Team,” in 1956. Still, that’s awfully skimpy recognition, given his overall career.

The situation was, if anything, even more extreme with Andre Norton. She was also nominated twice for the Hugo—for best novel (Witch World) in 1964, and for best novelette (“Wizard’s World”) a few years later, in 1968—but she didn’t win either time. Another way of looking at this is that, for almost the last forty years of her career (she didn’t die until 2005 and was writing actively until the very end), she received no recognition of any kind from the field’s premier award.

And, just as was true of Leinster, she was completely ignored by the Nebula.
She never won a World Fantasy Award for any specific work of hers, either. No best novel, no best novella, no best short fiction. (The WFC doesn’t make the distinction the Hugo and Nebula awards do between short stories and novelettes.)

She did, very late in her career, receive belated recognition from the World Fantasy Award. The third time she was nominated for a life achievement award, she won it.
But that wasn’t until 1998. To put this in perspective, that was:

  • 46 years after the publication of Star Man’s Son (aka Daybreak, 2250 A.D.) the first novel in our field that sold over a million copies;
  • 45 years after the publication of Star Rangers and 43 years after the publication of Star Guard;
  • 35 years after the publication of Witch World, the first volume in what became one of the most successful and long running series in fantasy.

Belated recognition, indeed.

As the example of Andre Norton demonstrates, even at their best, literary awards are a very imperfect reflection of actual achievement. Nor is that peculiar to our field. Just to give one example, James Joyce never got the Nobel Prize for Literature. Neither did Henry James, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost or Jorge Luis Borges.
On the flip side, it was always true—and properly so—that the major awards were given out many times for authors who, other than one or two specific works, never had much overall impact on the field. Perhaps the most obvious example is Daniel Keyes. From the moment his short story “Flowers For Algernon” appeared in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, it has been universally recognized as one of the great stories of our genre.

Of fiction in general, actually, genre distinctions be damned. I first ran across “Flowers For Algernon” a few years later, as one of the assigned readings in an American literature course I took as a junior in high school.

Yet, except for that one brilliant story, Keyes had an otherwise undistinguished career. A total of three novels—one of them a novelization of “Flowers For Algernon” which won the Nebula in 1966—and perhaps a dozen short stories, none of which are considered by most people to be particularly exceptional.

Still, although there was never an identity between the field of fantasy and science fiction as perceived by the mass audience, and that perceived by what for lack of a better term I will call the in-crowds, there was a tremendous overlap. Both fields inhabited the same planet, certainly.

When I was growing up and even as a young man, through the decade of the 1960s and well into the 1970s, the authors I would run across regularly on the shelves of any science fiction section in any bookstore—or on the revolving wire racks in drugstores—were by and large the very same authors who were regularly nominated for major awards and won them at least on occasion.

There were some exceptions like Andre Norton and Murray Leinster, true enough. But, by and large, that was overshadowed by the overlap. To name some specific top-selling authors of the time:

Robert Heinlein: Twelve Hugo nominations and four wins; four Nebula nominations, although he never won the award.

Arthur Clarke: Seven Hugo nominations and three wins; three Nebula nominations and three wins.

Poul Anderson: Fifteen Hugo nominations and seven wins; twelve Nebula nominations and three wins.

Anne McCaffrey: Seven Hugo nominations and one win; three Nebula nominations and one win.

Fritz Leiber: Thirteen Hugo nominations and six wins; eleven Nebula nominations and three wins.

Ursula LeGuin: Twenty-two Hugo nominations and five wins; seventeen Nebula nominations and five wins.

Roger Zelazny: Fourteen Hugo nominations and six wins; fourteen Nebula nominations and three wins

Clifford Simak: Ten Hugo nominations and three wins; four Nebula nominations and one win.

Gordon Dickson: Seven Hugo nominations and three wins; three Nebula nominations and one win.

I’m not including the World Fantasy Award, because it didn’t exist in this time period. And while I could go on, I think the point is obvious.

What has become equally obvious, to anyone willing to look at the situation objectively, is that a third of a century later the situation has become transformed. Today, there are is only one author left who can regularly maintain the bridge between popular appeal and critical acclaim. That author is Neil Gaiman. And there are no more than a handful of others who can manage it on occasion. Perhaps the most prominent in that small group are Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula LeGuin and George R.R. Martin.
Once you get beyond that very small number of authors, the field diverges rapidly. That handful aside, there is no longer any great overlap between those fantasy and science fiction authors whom the mass audience considers the field’s most important writers—judging by sales, at any rate—and those who are acclaimed by the small groups of people who hand out awards.

And they are very small groups. Not more than a few hundred people in the case of the Hugos and Nebulas, and a panel of judges in the case of the WFC.

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So what’s going on? Why has a situation developed where for an author to become too popular seems to be effectively the kiss of death as far as awards are concerned? (Again, with a few exceptions like Neil Gaiman.)

Well, let’s see if we can answer the question. And let’s begin by taking up the most obvious solution: The mass audience for F&SF is just plain dumber than it was thirty or forty years ago, that’s all. The reason these authors are popular is because they’re pandering to what is now a very lowbrow and unsophisticated readership.

That explanation is not—quite—as preposterous as it sounds. We do, after all, have the sobering example of the movie industry to consider. There is not much question that, for all the tremendous improvement in technical effects and technical skills, the average popular movie today is just plain a lot dumber than they were a quarter of a century ago.

True enough—but there’s no mystery about the demographics involved, either. For various reasons, the movie-going audience over the past two decades has become dominated by teenagers, mostly male, and the movie industry has adapted its output accordingly. What you’re seeing isn’t so much “dumb” movies for a “dumb” audience—plenty of those teenagers are very bright—as it is movies shaped for a teenage audience. But is there any similar dynamic happening in literary F&SF?

Well, no. In fact, the standard complaint is exactly the opposite—that the field is “graying” because we’re not acquiring enough in the way of new youngsters. There is absolutely no reason to believe that the F&SF mass audience today—speaking of readers, at least—is any less sophisticated than it ever was.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the opposite is true. In addition to being an author, I also do a lot of editing of old science fiction stories. I’ve produced by now something like three dozen anthologies of stories written mostly in the fifties, sixties and early seventies. And I can state flatly that the average level of fiction written in our field today is far higher than it was half a century ago. As fond as I am of the fiction I grew up on, the simple fact is that most of those authors couldn’t get published today.

It’s not just a matter of prose, either. Just about everything in those days was crude, compared to the situation today.

The science in “science fiction” was often abysmal, especially the biology. Edgar Rice Burroughs was by no means the only author who told stories in which humans mate with aliens and produce offspring. Thereby demonstrating a grasp of biology stuck somewhere in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

The settings were typically crude, too, compared to the settings of most stories today. So were the plots. There were exceptions, to be sure—and, not surprisingly, those tended to be the most popular authors.

My point is simply that there is no rational basis for thinking that the literary sophistication of the mass audience for F&SF today is any worse than it was some decades ago, and plenty of reason to think that it’s actually superior.

Scratch that theory, then.

Then, there’s the argument advanced recently by the people around Sad Puppies is that the Hugos (and presumably the other awards) have been warped by politics. Specifically, by a bias against conservative authors like Larry Correia and John Ringo.

My response to this can be either short or very long—very, very, very long—and I’m opting for short. In a nutshell:

Any author—or publisher, or editor—who gets widely associated with a political viewpoint that generates a lot of passion will inevitably suffer a loss of attractiveness when it comes to getting nominated for awards—or just reader reviews. Somebody is bound to get angry at you and denigrate your work, and often enough urge others to do the same.
Does it happen to people who are strongly associated with the right? Yes, it does. But it also happens to people who are strongly associated in the public mind with the left. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is read through Amazon reader reviews of my work and see how many “reviews” are obviously triggered off by someone’s outrage/indignation/umbrage at what they perceive as my political viewpoint and have little if anything to do with the book which is theoretically being “reviewed.”

Nor does it matter very much whether the assessment people have is accurate or not. To give an example which is germane to this issue, there is a wide perception among many people in fandom—the average reader-on-the-street could care less—that Baen Books is a slavering rightwing publisher. And never mind the inconvenient fact that the author who has had more books published through Baen Books than any other over the past twenty years is…

(roll of drums)

Me.

Who is today and has been throughout his adult life an avowed socialist (as well as an atheist), and hasn’t changed his basic opinions one whit. A fact which is well-known to Baen Books and has been well-known ever since my first conversation with Jim Baen almost twenty years ago, which was a two-hour discussion of politics. (The next day we talked about my novel which he was considering buying—and did buy, saying: “Well, I guess if John Campbell could get along with Mack Reynolds, I can get along with you.”)
So why does Baen keep publishing me? For the same reason any sensible commercial publisher keeps publishing a given author. I sell well.

Duh.

This whole argument is just silly, and reflects the habit too many people have of seeing nefarious conspiracies everywhere they look, all of them aimed against them.
Yes, it’s true that Larry Correia and John Ringo are pretty far to the right on the political spectrum and they don’t get nominated for major awards despite being very popular.
You know what else is true?

I’m very popular and further to the left on the political spectrum than they are to the right—and I never get nominated either. Mercedes Lackey isn’t as far left as I am, but she’s pretty damn far to the left and even more popular than I am—or Larry Correia, or John Ringo—and she doesn’t get nominated either.

The popular fantasy author Steven Brust, like me, is what most people call a “Trotskyist.” In a career that has now lasted thirty years, he’s picked up one Nebula nomination. On the other hand, China Miéville—another so-called Trotskyist—has gotten around a dozen nominations and won both a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Mike Resnick has gotten more Hugo nominations than just about any author in the history of science fiction—he’s won five times, too—and he’s a Republican. A sometimes loud and vociferous Republican, as I can attest because he’s a friend of mine and we’ve been known to argue about politics. Loudly and vociferously.

The fact is, there is no correlation I can see between an author’s political views and the frequency (or complete lack thereof) with which he or she gets nominated for SF literary awards. The claim of the Sad Puppies faction that so-called “social justice warriors” are systematically discriminating against them is specious. It can only be advanced by cherry-picking examples and studiously ignoring all the ones that contradict the thesis, of which there are a multitude.

****

All right. Now that I have—to my satisfaction, anyway—disposed of the most common reasons advanced to explain the situation, let me present my own analysis.
I believe there are three major factors involved that account for the ever-widening gap between the judgment of the mass audience and that of the (comparatively tiny) inner circles of SFdom who hand out awards. Of the three, two of them are objective in nature, which is what makes the problem so intractable. And all three of them tend to constantly reinforce each other.

The first objective factor is about as simple as gets. The field is simply too damn BIG, nowadays. For all the constant whining you hear from lots of authors about how tough things are today for working writers—which is true enough, in and of itself—the fact is that the situation is a lot better than it used to be. Half a century ago, I doubt if there were more than a dozen F&SF writers able to make a full-time living at it, and most of them were not making a very good living. Today, with a North American population no more than twice the size it was then, I figure there are somewhere around a hundred F&SF authors able to work at it full time, and at least a third of them are earning more than the median annual income. Even in per capita terms, that’s a big improvement.

I can remember the days, as a teenager and a young man, when the science fiction section of any bookstore amounted to maybe, at most, one bookcase’s worth of titles. Usually it was only a shelf or two—or, more often than not, just a handful of titles on a revolving wire rack in a drugstore. Today, in any major bookstore in the country, the F&SF section is huge in comparison.

Forty or fifty years ago—even thirty years ago, to a degree—it was quite possible for any single reader to keep on top of the entire field. You wouldn’t read every F&SF story, of course. But you could maintain a good general knowledge of the field as a whole and be at least familiar with every significant author.

Today, that’s simply impossible. Leaving aside short fiction, of which there’s still a fair amount being produced, you’d have to be able to read at least two novels a day to keep up with what’s being published—and that’s just in the United States. In reality, nobody can do it, so what happens is that over the past few decades the field has essentially splintered, from a critical standpoint.

Both of the major awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, are simple popularity contests with absolutely no requirement—or even expectation, any longer—that the voters will have read all or even most of the nominees. In the old days, that wasn’t much of a problem because you could expect that most voters were at least reasonably familiar with the authors and works under consideration. But today that’s not true at all. People routinely vote for “best novel” or “best short story” when all they’ve read is one or two of the nominees, and in many cases, have never read anything by many of the other authors nominated—not to mention being completely ignorant of other authors who never got nominated in the first place.

What happens in a situation like this is inevitable. It’s the same thing that happens in the face of any kind of sensory overload. To use a completely mundane example, the same thing that happens when someone—under instructions from a spouse to “buy some cereal”—turns their shopping cart into the aisle where cereals are sold…

And discovers that, today, there are a dozen different brands of muesli.

Whatever the hell muesli is.

Nine times out of ten, the shopper—out of self-defense—will narrow his or her focus and look for the old standby reliables. You can always count on Cheerios and corn flakes.
The same thing happens with the awards. Willy-nilly, the award-voters look for the standby reliables.

You get a de facto division of authors into “award worthy” and “not award worthy,” and the division is often based on completely accidental factors.

The problem isn’t who gets the awards. The problem is the large number of possible nominees and winners who simply get ignored year after year after year—especially when you realize that they include the big majority of the field’s most popular authors.
As time goes by, the Hugo and Nebula contests have become increasingly incestuous. Every year it’s basically the same thing: “round up the usual suspects.” This incestuous situation reached perhaps the height of absurdity with the Hugo award for best artist. For nine years in a row, between 1996 and 2004, that award went to two artists—Bob Eggleton or Mike Whelan. Bob or Mike, Bob or Mike, Bob or Mike, Bob or Mike, year after year after year. Finally—glory be—Jim Burns and Donato Giancola were able to break through. But many other excellent artists are still continually ignored.

To make sure there are no misunderstandings, I have no problem with either Eggleton or Whelan winning the Hugo award for best artist. They are in fact excellent artists, both of them—and Bob’s done a number of the covers for my own novels, including one of my personal favorites. (The cover for Rats, Bats & Vats.) The point is simply that it’s absurd to narrow the field of award-winners down to two artists, year after year after year, when there are so many excellent artists in the field.

By the way—credit where credit is due—Bob himself eventually found the situation so preposterous that he launched a campaign to get someone else the award. Specifically, Darryl Sweet.

He failed. Once again, he won it. (Or Mike Whelan did, I can’t remember.)

What makes this problem still worse is the very unfortunate linking of the major awards to an annual cycle. That annual cycle for handing out literary or artistic awards was always a bad idea. It automatically injected a completely arbitrary element into the awards, since the annual cycle has no intrinsic relationship whatsoever to literary or artistic merit. It was perfectly possible to have some years with a relatively mediocre output of work mixed in with years where there was a super-abundance. But it didn’t matter. The rigid annual structure meant that an award—one and only one, for “best” this or that—had to be given each year.

Still, the fact that most readers were able to stay on top of the field as a whole tended to mitigate that problem. Today, they can’t. Not only do you have a few hundred people each year voting for the “best” whatevers for the Hugo and Nebulas—out of the millions of  people in the United States who regularly buy and read science fiction and fantasy—but those few hundred people have to make their decisions under the gun. They not only can’t stay on top of the field, but they are further constrained by the fact that they have to decide within a year which works that came out were the best. This, despite the fact that almost none of them have the time to even read all of the nominated works.

****

The second objective problem is that due to massive changes in the market for F&SF—changes so massive that they amount to a complete transformation of the field over the past several decades—the structure of the major awards no longer bears any relationship to the real world in which professional authors live and work. That’s especially true for those authors who are able to work on a full-time basis and who depend on their writing income for a living. Award-voters and reviewers and critics can afford to blithely ignore the realities of the market, but they can’t.

Both the Hugo and the Nebula give out four literary awards. (I’m not including here the more recent dramatic awards, just the purely literary categories.) Those awards are given for best short story, best novelette, best novella, and best novel. In other words, three out of four awards—75% of the total—are given for short fiction.

Forty or fifty years ago, that made perfect sense. It was an accurate reflection of the reality of the field for working authors. F&SF in those days was primarily a short form genre, whether you measured that in terms of income generated or number of readers.

But that is no longer true. Today, F&SF is overwhelmingly a novel market. Short fiction doesn’t generate more than 1% or 2% of all income for writers. And even measured in terms of readership, short fiction doesn’t account for more than 5% of the market.

Don’t believe me? Then consider this: I have published at least half a dozen novels each of which has sold more copies than the combined circulation of all science fiction and fantasy magazines in the United States—and I am by no means the most popular author in our field.

To make the situation still worse, the official rules for both the Hugo and Nebula define a “novel” as any story more than 40,000 words long.

Half a century ago, that was reasonable. The average length of an SF novel was between 40,000 and 60,000 words. But today that definition is simply laughable. Every professional author and editor in our field knows perfectly well that no major publisher, outside of the YA market, will accept a “novel” manuscript that’s less than 80,000 words long—and they usually want between 90-120,000 words.

So, because of the rigidity of the award structure and its inability to adapt to changes in the market, an entire category of fiction has literally disappeared from the purview of the awards—despite the fact that this category (stories between 40K and 80K words long) is the type of fiction that routinely won the best novel award, year after year after year, when the awards were first set up.

By the way, fiction of this length—I think of them as “short novels”—does still get written. I’ve written half a dozen myself. But about the only viable market nowadays for these kinds of short novels is in shared universe anthologies—and no story published in such an anthology will ever get considered for a best novel award. (Nor can they be considered for best novella, because they’re too long.)

Still, every year, the award-voters keep pretending that anything more than forty thousand words is a “novel.”

Then, it gets worse. Because the market today isn’t simply a novel market. It’s become predominantly a market that wants long series, not stand-alone novels. And the existing award structure is very poorly designed to handle long series. About the only way it can do it is by—quite artificially, in most cases—cutting one book out of a series and pretending for the moment that it’s a “this year only” quasi-stand alone story.

That can be done with some series, which are designed by their authors to consist of stories that are only somewhat loosely connected. But other series are quite different. To name just one example, the current situation with David Weber’s long-running Honor Harrington series is that no fewer than three novels are running more or less simultaneously with each other, with the action of the various characters penetrating from one story to the other—and, just to put the icing on the cake, a number of the major characters were first developed in short fiction published in one or another of the anthologies that are part of the series, and some of them by authors other than Weber himself. Trying to separate any of these out as “best this or that of Year X” would be an exercise in futility.

And never mind that Weber is doing something well enough that the Honor Harrington series is one of the very few purely SF series that regularly makes the New York Times bestseller list. His narrative structure doesn’t match what the awards are comfortable with, so to hell with him. And to hell with what the mass audience thinks.

What it all comes down to, being objective about it, is that every year a few hundred people—Worldcon attendees, in the case of the Hugo; SFWA members in the case of the Nebula—hand out awards not for what authors are actually doing but for what those few hundred people think authors ought to be doing.

“Well, dammit, you OUGHTA still be writing lots of short stories—sure, sure, you’d starve but that’s your problem—instead of these godawful endless multi-volume series just because that’s what the mass audience wants to read and it pays your mortgage and medical bills.”

****

Put these two objective factors together, and the end result is the ever-growing division you see today between those authors whom the mass audience perceives as the major authors in F&SF and those authors whom the comparatively tiny but socially prestigious award-voting and critical in-crowds consider major authors. It’s a division which is getting worse, not better, as time goes on.

Naturally, objective reality tends to produce subjective reactions that match it. So—this is the one major subjective factor involved—you also get an ever-growing division in peoples’ attitudes about what constitutes “good writing” and what doesn’t.

What’s involved here is essentially a literary analog to genetic drift. Biologists have long known that the role played by pure chance in evolution is greater in a small population than a larger one. The same thing happens in the arts, especially those arts which have a huge mass audience. The attitudes of the much smaller group or groups of in-crowds who hand out awards or do critical reviews are mostly influenced by other members of their in-crowd, not by the tastes of the mass audience. Over time, just by happenstance if nothing else, their views start drifting apart from those of the mass audience.

This is by no means peculiar to F&SF. In just about every field of literary or artistic endeavor—hell, just plain hobbies, when you get down to it—you tend to get a division between the interests and concerns of the mass audience involved in that field and the much smaller inner circles of aficionados.

Forget high-faluting literature, for a moment. Consider…

Dogs.

Hundreds of millions of people own dogs. If you ask those people what constitutes a “good dog,” you will get a range of answers but they will mostly focus on a dog’s behavior toward the humans they deal with.

But now go to a dog show, attended by the comparatively tiny number of people who are hobbyists when it comes to breeding and raising dogs. Most of the criteria by which Dog X or Dog Y gets chosen as “best dog of show” are going to be criteria that the average dog-owner around the world thinks are esoteric at best and often downright silly or even grossly wrong-headed.

So it always is, unless—as with the Oscars—there is so much money at stake in winning an award that the Powers-That-Be in the industry will damn well see to it over time that the award never strays too far from what the world’s multi-billioned mass audience wants. But, of course, there isn’t anything like that kind of money involved in most awards. Certainly not the Hugo and the Nebula.

I think of it as the movie reviewer’s syndrome. I noticed many years ago that almost all movie reviewers will automatically deduct at least one point from their rating of a movie if it contains a car chase. Why? Well, it’s not hard to understand. Seeing three or four or five movies a week the way they do, they get sick and tired of car chases.

But the average movie-goer doesn’t watch new movies four times a week. For them, movies are a relatively occasional experience—and, what the hell, car chases are kinda fun.
What you get with literature, including any and all forms of genre fiction, is the following division:

What the mass audience wants, first and foremost—and this has been true and invariant since the Sumerians and the epic of Gilgamesh—is a good story. Period.

“Tell me a good story.” Thazzit.

But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”

Eventually, form gets increasingly elevated over content. “Originality” for its own sake, something which the mass audience cares very little about—and neither did Homer or Shakespeare—becomes elevated to a preposterous status. And what withers away, at least to some degree, is a good sense of what skills are involved in forging a story in the first place.

To put it another way, every successful author has to master two skills which, although related, are still quite distinct: they have to be good story-tellers; and they have to be good writers.

Of those two skills, being a terrific story-teller but a journeyman writer will win you a mass audience, and is likely to keep it. On the flip side, being a journeyman story-teller but a terrific wordsmith will win you critical plaudits but won’t usually get you much in the way of an audience.

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I should add something here, before I close. As a rule, critically-acclaimed authors are not oblivious to this reality at all. The award-voters and reviewers and critics may be oblivious to it, but the authors rarely are. I have now and then run across critically-acclaimed authors who were egotistical jerks, but not often. In my experience, most authors who get nominated a lot and win awards are quite down to earth and no less appreciative of the sort of skills that I have as I am of theirs. Many of them are friends of mine, some of them are good friends, and there are none of them—well… there’s a jackass or two, but never mind—for whom I wish anything but the best in their careers.

Having said that, though, I feel required to add something else. I’m not the one who needs to get awards to stay afloat, as a writer. I’m doing just fine, thank you. The people who are really getting hurt by the modern drift of the awards away from the mass audience are the authors who win them. Why? Because the farther and farther those major awards diverge from any connection to the mass audience and its opinions and attitudes, the more they become devalued as awards that mean anything that isn’t purely self-referential.

Every professional author today who doesn’t have his or her head stuck in the sand knows perfectly well that winning a Nebula or a World Fantasy Award isn’t going to have the slightest positive effect on their career, so far as the publishers are concerned. The Hugo still counts for something, but…

Not much, any longer. And that little is getting eroded, as each year goes by. Within the foreseeable future, even winning a Hugo award will be shrugged off by publishers the same way that winning a Nebula or a WFC is already shrugged off.

(I should mention that there is one exception to what I said above: The awards do matter when it comes to foreign sales. Publishers in foreign languages usually don’t know the U.S. market all that well, but they can easily look at a list of award winners.)

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Is there any solution to the problem?

I doubt it, to be honest. It’s a tough nut to crack, because most of the problem is objective.
One way to tackle the problem, I suppose, would be to expand the awards still further. Go from four literary awards to…

Well, here’s where the problem comes in. I write in all lengths, and I’ve been professionally published in all lengths, from fifteen hundred word short stories on up. But, mostly, I work in long series. And I can tell you that under the existing category of “novel” there are at least four different types of stories each of which pose as many separate challenges and require as many varied sets of skills as the differences between writing a short story, a novelette and a novella.
Those are:

1) Short novels. Stories from about 40,000 to 80,000 words.

2) Full length stand-alone novels.

3) Mega-novels. These are stories which are actually a single “novel” in the sense that they are based on an integrated story arch, but which are so long that for practical and commercial reasons they have to be published in multiple volumes. Probably the classic instance in our field is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It is usually called a “trilogy,” but it is in fact a single novel.

An example from my own work would be the six-volume Belisarius “series,” which is really just one great big novel.

4) Series, properly speaking. These are stories which share a common setting and usually a common set of characters, but do not possess a single story arch.

Just to make things more complicated, there is really quite a big difference between two kinds of series: the traditional “beads on a string” series, which proceed as Volumes 1, 2, 3, etc., and the more complex kind of series where the stories branch off from each other, often run parallel to each other, and can’t be neatly assigned to any clear and definite chronological sequence.

I’ve worked in both kinds, and they really do require different skill sets, although of course there’s a lot of overlap. (My Trail of Glory series is a “beads on a string” type series. My 1632 series and Joe’s World series are of the more complex “branching bush” type.)

So what are we supposed to do? Scrap the existing best novel award for four or possibly even five different awards?

And if that seems excessive, contemplate this:

As long as we’re considering solving award problems by expanding the number of awards, let us not overlook the still more long-standing problem that comedy is always lumped in with dramatic story-telling even though everybody who knows anything about stories know perfectly well that:

—comedy is really, really hard to do well;

—and it never gets any critical respect.

That’s partly what explains the preposterous fact that Terry Pratchett got so few nominations in his entire career. And it’s also the reason that the Golden Globe movie awards, unlike the Oscars, make a distinction between comedic films and dramatic films.
I can see it already…

We’d have seven different literary awards instead of four, and then duplicate each of them for comedic treatment for a total of fourteen awards handed out every year.

Somehow, that strikes me as more than a little goofy.

Granted, they hold the Golden Globe awards every year with even more categories of awards and people pay attention. On the other hand, they’ve got lots of photogenic actors and actresses on the red carpet–not to mention the beaches at Cannes–and we don’t. The number of F&SF writers or convention-going fans who look good in a skimpy gown or swimsuit is… ah…
Not large.

But I personally think the best solution, if there is one at all, is to scrap the whole existing set-up. Of all the awards handed out for literary merit, the only ones that seems to maintain any sort of ongoing more-or-less objective relationship to the real world are those given out for often broadly-defined achievement. They’re not awards given out for “best XYZ of year ABC.” Instead, they are achievement awards handed out for a body of work, that may be anchored to something specific but takes other considerations into account, and perhaps most importantly is not tied to an annual cycle.

That allows such awards to adapt to changes in the market (or the equivalent in other fields), not to be forced into making snap judgments—and, perhaps most important of all, allows the voters to consider the ongoing and cumulative impact of an author’s work rather than artificially dividing it up between Works 1, 2, 3, etc., etc.

It is simply not the case that every author’s importance to the field can be gauged in terms of this or that specific story, matched up against all other stories in the year it came out. In the case of many authors, even though they may never have written any single work that anyone (including themselves) would consider “the best whatever” of Year ABC, they manage to produce a body of work over many years that, taken as a whole, often outshines—even dwarfs—the overall body of work of authors who might have won annual awards fairly regularly.

Consider the example I gave earlier: Andre Norton. Who will be remembered in our field long after most award-winners are forgotten.

All that said, I think the likelihood that either the Hugo or the Nebula will be scrapped in favor of general achievement awards is probably indistinguishable from zero. These things tend to develop a tremendous institutional inertia. If such an award started with a very large and prestigious body of sponsors, it might have a chance of getting off the ground, I suppose. My problem is that, deep down inside, a little voice is whispering to me….

Oh, great. Just what the world needs. Another goddam award that nobody pays any attention to except the people who voted for it.

About Eric Flint

Author and Editor
This entry was posted in Hugo Controversy, Information. Bookmark the permalink.

302 Responses to Some comments on the Hugos and other SF awards

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  3. Bret Hooper says:

    I have read that Richard Wagner was not at all a nice person, and that may be true, but so what? He wrote some very beautiful music (my personal favorite is “Entry of the Guests” from Tannhäuser). John Scalzi MAY not be a nice person (I’ll reserve judgment until I get acquainted with him, if I ever do) but I greatly enjoyed all the books of his (at least 3 or 4) that I have read. I have many friends that I love very much, but who have never written a single book or composed a single piece of music.

    How nice a person is (or isn’t) has no bearing whatever on the quality of that person’s work output.

    Like EVERY AMERICAN, I am one of a religious minority. (The largest single religious group in America, Roman Catholics, are still a minority of United States’ citizens.) Politically, I am probably a bit to the right of my #1 favorite living SF author, Eric Flint, but to the left of most Democrats. But my friends range politically and religiously all over the spectra. I don’t know of anyone who agrees with all my opinions, but I know a LOT of nice people who don’t. And sometimes it has turned out that one of them was right and I was wrong, so I had to apologize and/or change my opinion.

    John 13:34 (probably mis-)quotes the Jewish prophet Yeshua bar Miriam (Jesus), “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” That is good advice. Love works better. Gossip likes to find fault with others’ behavior. Love likes to find excuses for it. Some (a very few) do turn out to be inexcusable, as Eric Flint (above) has demonstrated with regard to Theodore Beale, but I find that the excuses I find for others turn out to be true, or very near the truth, surprisingly often.

  4. James Clougher says:

    Very well written assessment of the situation, excellent work.

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  7. Dan Stith says:

    BWAHAHAHA…. this comment from Mr. Flint just highlights why I love his style as a writer and a person. You slay me sir in the best of ways. Keep on crying all the way to the bank and I take pleasure in that just a teeny-tiny bit of that well earned compensation comes from my own pockets. Cheers!

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  9. James May says:

    The social justice warrior argument is not specious but right on point. When you have SF authors writing posts about white privilege and others saying straight out they won’t review white men then that represents a sea-change, and a very new one, only 3 years old or so. That sort of thing is not occasional but obsessive and daily and it is not the usual right vs. left, although it is often couched in those terms. That is why people make the mistake of stretching this conflict years and even decades back rather than the months back it deserves.

    However that all depends how close you stick to the core SFF community which administers the Hugos and Nebulas. If you live next to a fire station it may at times seem like the world’s on fire. The truth is that in the wider world which embraces SFF, this weird feminist cult may be statistical zero of everything out there, feminist whining about Age of Ultron notwithstanding. The bottom line is that it’s easier for both fans and authors to stay far away from the social justice noise than not, authors like Peter Hamilton being a case in point. I’d guess the vast majority of readers are unaware of the advent of white privilege and promotions of non-white writers though it may be bleeding onto their radar a bit.

    • Echo says:

      Yes, I notice very, very few people addressing this issue. When “Requires Hate” is at the top of the clique’s “authors to promote” list, something is wrong.

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  13. Echo says:

    I wasn’t going to leave a late comment on your blog, but noticed quite a few spam posts on the most recent page. I managed a reasonably popular wordpress blog at one point (30k hits a day), and found Askimet a very useful plugin for filtering that kind of thing.

    Suspect you are spot-on about the hugos, but perhaps restrict your analysis to the last 5ish years? That’s when the “down with straight white men!” chanting seemed to take off among the hugo clique.
    I could take advantage of that trend, but know they would eventually turn on me too, as all vicious, unthinking mobs tend to do.

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  16. J. Guidry says:

    Fredric Brown
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    He did win a Edgar

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  22. Richard Bottoms says:

    Excellent, excellent article, this from someone who loved Niven in High School 40+ years ago.

    Whether the complaints are coming from whiny right-wingers or lack of humor left-wingers, there are very few authors who are problematic for me because of their politics, in fact there’s exactly one. Much of the complaints about “political correctness” come from a lack of understanding that those who were shutout for three centuries or more are learning to balance the eye-blink in human history we’ve been free with the rights of the dominant society.

    Expect a certain humorlessness if Emmett Till is not someone you’ve barely heard of, but a cautionary tale told by your parents to keep you alive. Expect a certain lack of humor if rape is an omnipresent possibility or worse an indelible life experience.

    I’ve been alive barely longer than the right to vote has been guaranteed for us as black folks and lived through the continuing evolution of women’s rights to a full equality still unrealized.

    I came to this discussion by way of white men casually discussing just how soon the race war will start and which version of the flag of oppression will be their standard.

    The Hugo Award controversy is not some academic exercise, not when I read anonymous men discussing assassination and rebellion. OKC and Charleston are not isolated incidents, but the continuation of war by other means in my estimation.

    ..

    But now that I’m here.

    Science fiction I loved as a teen, circa 1968 for the most part just doesn’t stand up to our current science fact. I’m having trouble reading anything pre-Internet, much less pre-Apple iPhone, social networks, and 3-D printing.

    I loved hard-SF and comic books as a kid, rarely reading fantasy. These days it’s totally reversed in part because the terrifying outcomes illustrated by extrapolating today’s science is tremendously more scary, because some many bad outcomes for the human race are all too possible, if not unavoidable at this point.

    Were Heinlein and others fascistic and racist? No doubt. And yet there are stories that do stand the test of time even of their author’s political and social views do not.

    Did some writers of my youth realize we not only had to get off this rock to survive as a species, and at the same time conclude socially and technologically we’d never do it? I think so and the zero sum game of who makes it through this real life Survivor influenced what they wrote. In the end, there can be only one as they say.

    ..

    I remember dreaming of the stars and saddened we no longer even go to the Moon.

    So what’s left as movies make our fantasies almost real and books postulate The End?

    Hope.

    Hope that the spark of science fiction and fantasy leads a young girl or boy to STEM and to the invention that averts fate.

    Hope that we will do it as a civilized human co-existing race.

    That’s why I read science fiction then, and more so why I read…and watch it now.

    It ain’t over until it’s over, until then please keep pondering the tales of humanity, both as a means to learn from the past and to imagine the future.

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  40. Tim Cunningham says:

    I’m not really a deep dyed follower of the politics of SF but ISTM that one obvious alternative that might improve matters is not being considered here. While I agree with Eric’s analysis of the needed category changes, I suggest that they need to be doubled. The one list would be Eric’s categories voted on by Worldcon attendees, the other would be Eric’s categories voted on by all readers of SF and paid for in book purchases (i.e. which book in each category has sold the most copies that year.) Yes this second list may prove heavily weighted towards old pros, but shouldn’t they be recognized for continuing competence in storytelling?

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  45. A generally good analysis. The field is too big now to be catalogued by any subgroup of readers or writers. The readership is more diverse, in part because the population as a whole is more diverse. The same is true for those who write in it.

    I would add that “novelty” has always been a part of the SF appeal…the “sense of wonder” and “what if?” elements. This accelerates the division between pure storytelling and “other elements” in terms of valuation. For some SF readers, the novelty aspect was always extremely important. My little group of five or six (squabbling over who got to be first to read one of the two copies of ANALOG that appeared in our town monthly) read it for ideas more than stories. Stories were fine, but we could still, back then, get stories in other fiction magazines as well as in the library. What SF had that nobody else had was exciting ideas about science. Not future predictions, even…just ideas that lit up the insides of our young brains. For some readers, this is still true. Only…science has gotten a lot more complicated, a lot farther from general knowledge, a lot more specialized. So the nifty cool Idea that thrills one reader is less likely to thrill someone with a different personal science background. Fewer “Idea” stories in pure science resonate with most readers.

    “Idea” stories began shifting over into the social sciences fairly early but the shift accelerated as science itself accelerated in the 1960s and beyond, and the scientific literacy of the general public lagged farther and farther behind. This began even before the anti-science/anti-intellectual effects of religious/political attacks. But the social sciences, very much human-focused, also allowed better Story to run parallel with the Idea without distracting from it too much. You can play games with various approaches to psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology and have a people-centered Story more easily than “Jack/Jane’s great discovery of the X”, where the X is supposed to center the Idea story.

    As someone who stayed up all night to watch the first Moon landing, and much more recently the announcement of the Higgs boson discovery straight from CERN, and again to watch the most recent Mars landing, and again to watch a lander approaching a comet, and a bunch of other things, I’m an enthusiast for many kinds of science…but as a story–a story people want to read, a story that makes a good novel–you have to go back and put in the people, the personalities, and, yes, the politics woven into who did what when and how.

    And right there the readership is going to split, because now it’s big enough. It’s diverse enough. There’s enough SF/F out there that readers do not have to read a book they don’t like. Back in my young years, if you were crazy about SF, you didn’t have that many sources…I read ANALOG and F&SF cover to cover every month I could afford or borrow a copy. I could read ANALOG in a couple of hours. A 60,000 word novel might take an afternoon and there weren’t that many. By junior year in high school, I had read every SF book in two school libraries and the town library. Every single one. I spend my lunch money on paperbacks from the hole-in-the-wall across the street from the high school, at least one a week. I read a lot of books with a lot of ideas I didn’t particularly like, just because they were SF and there were plenty with ideas I did like.

    Nobody has to do that anymore. You can specialize in reading libertarian, or socialist, or religious, or anti-religious, or near future, or far future science fiction, or written only by men, or written only by women, or male-protagonist only, or female protagonist only…or just about any subset you can think of. There’s plenty of different foods in this marketplace to choose any taste. As with a grocery–if the only ice cream flavor is rocky road, everybody in town eats rocky road and likes it, but if there are 30, 40, 50 flavors…then I’m with the chocolate fudge and he’s with the peaches & cream, and she’s with the peanut brickle and so on.

    The problem comes when some people want to make grand pronouncements about what is “real” SF (or the only “real” ice cream.)

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