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

  1. BobG says:

    Thank you, Eric, for writing this. While I’ve been aware of the irrelevance of the Hugo awards for a long time, I have had no insight into why. And the back-and-forth poo flinging I’ve seen in the news has not improved my awareness.

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  3. A well reasoned argument, and a pretty good history lesson as well. Only a hundred who make a living at it, and ever fewer who make above the median income? So I’m doing quite well, it seems, and I know some other indies doing even better. Didn’t realize that. I don’t really care if I win any of the awards. Having readers and selling matter much more (what Rebecca Moesta called the Washington Award). Most of the people I know in other fields who are winning literary awards always seem amazed at my sales, which goes to show that even in other genres the awards aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

  4. David Byrd says:

    Thank you Eric. do not think everyone is going to like this but find it excelent.

  5. Brad Handley says:

    Eric,

    I know of two reasons why you will never be nominated for a Hugo without a strong populist backing.

    1) You uplift authors based on their ability to write. Worse yet, the people you lift up from places like the Grantville Gazette out sell “approved” authors. They feel you “steal” their book sales. And your uplifting others in unfair to them because they have no help to become successful. Commercial success is cause enough to be black balled. Lifting up other writers like you do makes it even worse.
    2) You pioneered Baen’s free e-book. This policy was contrary to the SWFA policy and worse, you did not want the books encrypted. Which the e-book companies did not like. The fact that you proved these policies was financially successful only alienated them more.

    • Kinda like Turenne being in very bad odor with the French Military Establishment because he succeeded admirably while Valois et al. failed so ignominiously.
      Brad wrote: “The fact that you proved these policies was financially successful only alienated them more.” Right! I suspect that the push for DRM, etc. comes mainly not from the authors and their families, and not from the more enlightened publishers, but from those greedy publishing corporations that are so blindly desirous of capturing all the benefits that they “fall all over twenty dollar bills to pick up pennies.” and end up 98% of a small pot instead of 78% of a pot 2 or 3 times as big.

      • Oops! that should have been “end up with98%”

        I wish your webmaster would copy Amazon.com’s and let us edit our comments.

        I wish Amazon.com’s webmaster would copy yours and allow italics and boldface, etc.

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  7. Seth says:

    Brad, both of those might speak to the Nebulas. As a fan (and one who buys a lot of Eric’s books), they don’t bother me at all. Introducing me to authors I end up liking is a good thing. And giving me free books is certainly not something I find objectionable.

    • Eric Flint says:

      In response to Brad and Bret:

      I do not believe for one moment that the reason I don’t get nominated for awards is because someone — be they fans or other writers — has an animus against me. So far as my long-time opposition to DRM is concerned, plenty of authors — including the former president of SFWA, John Scalzi, as well as the oft-awarded author Charles Stross — agreed with me and did so in public.

      Meaning no offense, but you’re engaging in the same conspiracy-theorizing that I criticized in the essay.

      Why don’t I get nominated? Hell, who knows? The most likely explanations are these:

      First, the stuff I write is particularly difficult to fit into an award structure. I work almost entirely in long series and, to make things still more difficult for would-be award nominators, I do more collaborative writing than I do solo writing. I’m pretty much the poster child for HOW THE HELL IS ANYBODY SUPPOSED TO NOMINATE THIS GUY FOR ANYTHING?

      To be honest, there are very few of my works that _I_ would nominate for “Best Whatever of Year X.” In my entire career, there are really only a handful of things I’ve done that would fit the existing award structure. Those are:

      My first novel, MOTHER OF DEMONS, was good enough to qualify me for consideration for the of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. But I had to take my name out of the running because your first pro sale has to happen within two years of the award and I’d published a short story four years before the novel came out.

      1632 should have been nominated for Best Novel in the year it came out (2000) and I think what’s happened with that story since pretty well demonstrates that the Hugo nominators goofed. Big deal. They goof every year, it’s the nature of the beast. I’d goof every year too, if I voted for the Hugos. (I don’t attend most Worldcons and when I do I don’t vote because I haven’t read most of the nominees.)

      I think the novel I wrote with K.D. Wentworth, THE COURSE OF EMPIRE, should have gotten a Best Novel nomination also. But, it didn’t. I’m sure it wasn’t the only novel that got overlooked that year as well. That happens to almost all authors. There’s no conspiracy involved, it’s just the way things shake down, that’s all.

      I’ve never had any doubt that my novella “Islands” should have been nominated for Best Novella the year it came out. But I knew it wouldn’t be because it was published in a military-SF anthology (WARMASTERS, edited by Bill Fawcett) that wouldn’t even be noticed by most people who vote on either the Hugos or the Nebulas. So it goes. Before anybody gets worked up about the “injustice” involved, take a deep breath and calm down. The same thing happens to art works in _every_ field. Venue matters, when it comes to awards. (Hell, it matters when it comes to sales, too.)

      And… I could make a good case that 1824: THE ARKANSAS WAR should have gotten a nomination. The problem is that it’s the second novel in a series and while that isn’t automatically the kiss of death — as Lois Bujold has proved several times — it does make it harder.

      But that’s about it. Almost none of the individual volumes in the various series I work in are suitable to be nominated for “Best Novel in Year Whatever.” They’re not designed that way in the first place. You could make a case for the series as a whole except…

      First, there is no award for series. Second, none of them except the Belisarius series is finished and the one I’m best known for, the 1632 series, is designed not to ever be finished. So when would you vote for it even if such an award existed?

      Mostly, I think people need to relax. There are many, many ways that authors get recognition for the value of their work. Awards are one of them, but they’re only one. Sales are another.

      And maybe the most satisfying recognition is the kind I got yesterday, when a roofer came by my house to give me a quote for a new roof — we’re probably overdue — and it turned out he was a fan of mine. Who knew? Stuff like that never happened to me in my days as a machinist, a truck driver or a meat packer. I really don’t have much sympathy — not any, in fact — for writers who whine about their sorry lot in life.

      • Laura says:

        Hey, does that mean you can pay him in books? ;)

      • Sean says:

        Hell the Belisarius books or ‘megabook’ as you call it [I never looked at it that way but in retrospect I understand now] should have gotten at least one nod in the years they were being put out. If only for the simple fact that if they did for others what they did for me..they weren’t just good awesome books, they got people to look into history. Or in my case and In the case of Belisarius himself someone I’d missed in my ‘holy shite I need to read everything history and nothing but’ period I went through.

      • Steven Brust says:

        Good essay. The one thing that makes me want to comment (and, yes, I KNOW this isn’t the point), is that I agree: 1632 should have been nominated. I love that book so many times.

  8. Eric, you nailed it. You absolutely nailed it. I wanted to do a standing ovation when you got to the end.

    I will say this: great writing should challenge the reader, take the reader out of the comfort zone, and make the reader pause and re-read parts, marveling at how well the author made his point. It might make you cry. It might outrage you. It might make you laugh so hard you can’t breathe. You might hate it. You might love it with an undying passion. It might do all of these. And by and large, I’d say most of the works that win awards, probably 75-80% do this. God knows I can’t. I’m content to be a good hack (which is, after all, a solid, reliable horse that can always be depended on to get you where you want to go in reasonable comfort and on time).

    • The lady sells herself short, I feel. The rest I agree with (and Eric’s arguments).

    • Kado says:

      With respect, ma’am: you’re nowhere near a hack. Thank you for the stories.

    • Jasmin Tomlins says:

      Given that while re-reading (for the umpteenth time) the Arrows of the Queen trilogy I was suddenly filled with a certainty that reading your books when I was a child (and then continuing as I grew older) was in no small part responsible for the formation of my rather stalwart moral compass, and my fortitude in believing always that it is never hopeless to hope (especially when it seems the most so), I would say you’re much more than a purveyor of timely and reasonable comfort.

      If you’re determined that you don’t craft fireworks, then I say you craft the ubiquitous small blue blossoms of spring; no-one knows their name, but everyone recognizes them. They aren’t bought as large bouquets to impress or apologize, but are instead picked by small hands to give to their mothers, or as a small sweet thought for a friend, or lover, or stranger; and the giving stays. Perhaps it’s a small impression, but the kind that adds up. The kind that goes relatively unnoticed until the day it’s become big enough to surprise.

      The large events in life are perhaps remembered and remarked upon (and given large awards), but it is the myriad days between that make up who we are.

      Your work has always been those days for me. :)

    • JonO says:

      Ma’m, with all due respect, you are a far better critic of others than you are of yourself. You are a wonderful writer who has always provided me with my money’s worth.

    • Andrew says:

      I do not disagree with these sentiments, but I would also note that the Hugos don’t appear to be rewarding great writing this century.

      American Gods, Rainbows End, City and the City, those are the books I know I’ll be rereading twenty years from now, because I’ve read them multiple times since they won. That I can’t remember some of the winners, and I know I’ve read them all, mans they did not meet the same criteria for me. Does that make me an outlier, or not a hard core enough fan? I don’t know, but if 80% of the past Hugo award winners should make me feel as M Lackey describes, they’ve been failing.

  9. Cheers, Eric. Well done, that man.

    On the subject of art Hugos, I will chime in with my own experience. At age 17, my hero Mike Whelan called me “more competition.” I resolved I wanted a Hugo Award by the time I was 30. It was not so much a huge egoboo as it was that the guy believed in me, and I wanted to show him that he was right. Back then, as hard as it may be for people to understand, there were only a few hundred fantasy & SF artists. There was Mike, and there was Kelly Freas, Frank Frazetta, Boris & just “we merry few.” So a Hugo meant something then.

    Then…

    Then Mike kept winning it, even after he effectively exasperatedly declared, “Thanks guys, I get it, you dig it, hey look, here are these other few hundred people.”

    And we all LOVED Mike. This was not a jealousy thing when I say this: we all just lost morale to some degree. Yes, Mike was, and shall always be, one of our field’s truest heroes; a fine creator and a fine human being. But, among the rest of us, our aspirations towards a Hugo were crushed because discovered, Mike was always gonna get it, and since a “Hugo winner” sticker affected our income, could never get that particular brass ring. We couldn’t win.

    Something about that bugged me, because this thing that was supposed to be good for us wound up poisoning hope out of us. Some of us simply gave up. Others diversified, like I did and wound up splitting time between art, writing, and a few other careers.

    Then around ten years ago, I realized: I wasn’t even bothering to look at Hugo awards any more. I’m a lifetime member of SFWA and I don’t bother looking at the Nebulas. I dedicated my life to doing good in the world and working well, and have had no time for them. They all just drifted away.

    These days if a pal tells me they got an award I congratulate them, since it seems to make them happy, then ask how they are, how the kids are doing, and so forth. I love my fans and I appreciate their support, I know I am doing the best work I can, and I don’t think I was ever cut out for popularity contests or campaigning anyhow, even after around 260 convention appearances, mostly as GoH. The smile on a fan’s face beats a chrome dildo on a stand, any day.

    Then again, after 31 years in F&SF full time, paying all my bills with hard work and imagination, y’all probably still haven’t heard of me, because I have no awards to list. :)

  10. Another case in point: Girl Genius winning the Hugo many years in a row.

    I mean, I know Girl Genius is a great comic and all—it’s one of my favorites—but it’s not the only great comic out there. It finally got to the point where the Foglios had to recuse themselves from nominations to give other people a chance.

    • Andrew says:

      The Foglios weren’t the only ones who have recused themselves in the past. Chu did as well, after winning Best Artist several times in a row.

  11. George R.R. Martin says:

    Good piece.

    Allow me to point out, however, that Andre Norton was named a Grandmaster by SFWA, for her lifetime achievement. Something I remember quite well, since I was on the SFWA Board of Directors at the time, and helped (a little) in the selection. She was, I believe, the first woman to receive that honor.

    Some of the Golden Age giants you mention might well have received more awards, had the awards existed when they were in their prime. But do recall, the Hugos did not begin until 1953, the Nebulas until the mid 60s.

    • Eric Flint says:

      I agree that SFWA’s Grandmaster Award has improved the situation. The problem is that it’s a once-only lifetime award so it’s inherently limited in the way it can be used.

      As I said in a different response I just posted, I think people need to calm down about this whole kertuffle. There are many ways writers can and do get recognition for their work, of which awards are only one. And by their very nature, awards have inherent limits. Leaving aside the ones I noted in my essay, there is the most basic one of all — many works satisfy readers in ways that simply can’t be dealt with by ANY award, unless we were to proliferate awards to an insane degree.

      Let me name two: In one of the comments posted here, Misty Lackey said she was “content to be a good hack.” I think she’s short-changing herself. It may be that her work doesn’t fit the criteria for existing awards, but there are a whole lot of young people out there, especially young women, who’ve been helped along in their life by reading Misty’s work. I’m not guessing. I’ve been told so by three of them.

      And I’ve gotten hundreds of letters over the years from people from working class families thanking me for my favorable portrait of those classes of people in the 1632 series. (Typically, the letters come from people who have a higher education themselves but whose fathers or brothers were coal miners or truck drivers.)

      There’s no award for that sort of thing, or for what Misty does, and I think it would be silly to create one. But it doesn’t make the sentiments any less real, and it doesn’t detract from the satisfaction I get whenever I receive such a letter or that I’m sure Misty gets when someone tells her that her works made a difference in their lives.

      P.S. Fair warning, George: My wife has a George R.R. Martin doll ready to get pins stuck in it if you kill off Arya.

    • Thomas Monaghan says:

      If you’ll allow me to mention that Jim Baen never won a Hugo. He even missed when he was nominated after his death. Where is his award?

  12. @JSto says:

    “dominated by teenagers, mostly male”

    This isn’t accurate. Ticket sales are pretty much split 50/50 with women buying slightly more, and it has been this way for at least a decade.

  13. Mike Spehar says:

    Once again, Eric has shown why he is considered one of the sanest men in the room. (Perhaps it’s a happy result of his political “otherness.”) The observation about the size of novels is important and the “genetic drift” idea is particularly persuasive.

    I write this despite being a fan of the Sad Puppies. As I viewed things, they didn’t (and don’t) come off nearly as elitist and exclusionist as their opponents. But here comes Eric with a plausible explanation that the more reasonable elements of both sides can accept. Talk about spreading oil over troubled waters!

    Thanks, Eric!

  14. Mike Scott says:

    One correction. The Hugos have a few thousand voters, not a few hundred. 1,848 voters in 2013, 3,137 in 2014. And I’m expecting more than that this year.

    • Reasonably Neutral Observer says:

      A few hundred voters, at best, choose the winner every year. Usually the actual number of votes that determine the outcome is even smaller than that. My take on his reference to that number was that Mr. Flint was counting the people who actually voted for the nominees/winners.

      • Eric Flint says:

        Yes, that’s correct. The number of people who actually vote for the Hugos is much smaller than the number who could vote. The same is true for the Nebulas.

        • CarolC says:

          FYI, last year there we 1595 nominating ballots for the Best Novel category, and then 3,137 valid votes cast.

        • Mike Scott says:

          Even using the rather bizarre method of determining the size of the electorate by only counting those who vote for the winner, it’s still in the thousands for the Hugos, thanks to the alternative vote system. 1,497 voters voted for Ancillary Justice last year in some position on their ballots.

  15. Erik V. Olson says:

    A few points

    1) Artist: The problem is that we don’t want Best Artist, which is a body-of-work award, we wanted Best Artwork. The problem with that? The voters would see a cover, and have no idea that the art was actually created three years ago!

    Nowadays, with the web, it may be a problem we can solve, but the SF/F artist scene has the Chesley Awards, which, since it’s For Artists By Artists, has more careful attention paid to it, and seems to be more highly regarded by the artists. I’ve always thought we should retire the Hugo, except I get why we’d want to honor the artists, those darn covers got most of us into this stuff!

    2) New Categories. I have a rule of thumb. To create a category, what I want to see is the list of 6-10. That is, the five works that, in your newly proposed category, would have just missed the ballot. I’d like to see that for a few years back.

    If we look at that, and we see “Well, heck, that’s a bunch of good stuff” and we then look at the same list of the category we’re splitting off from and see that we haven’t left it a desert, then we can say it’s a good, strong category, and I’ll support the creation. And you may well be right that we need Best Novel A and Best Novel B.

    But you have to be careful that you don’t leave either a wasteland, by making Best Novel B so wide that Best Novel A has very few works left, or create a wasteland. The problem with Best Series or Best Meganovel is how many of those finish in a year? Of those that do, how many are award worthy? Just finishing shouldn’t get you onto the ballot, right? This is about the supposed best, right?

    So — that’s the crux there. I’ve long said that there’s clearly Short Stories, there are clearly Novels, and there is clearly Something Between Them, but there sure as heck ain’t two Somethings. You’re argument, though, that there may be something above or beside Novel is an interesting one. There are lots of Short Stories, that’s a nice healthy category, but you’re right, there are even more Novels.

    How to create that second category though? In general, WSFS likes clearly definable boundaries, which is why size is the primary tell for the four written fiction categories. Anything that requires a judgement call of the administrator is likely to be looked down on, because every year has a different one. (Aside: This has been a problem with a theoretical YA Hugo. Define, please, a YA Novel, in such a way that a bad Hugo administrator will be able to correctly judge the category.)

    Small Novel/Big Novel is an obvious split, but I’m not quite sure where to draw that line. Books are getting bigger, so I don’t know how flexible we’d need to make that line, or if the right answer is to nominate, say, 7, fill two 5 spot ballots, split them by length, and call them best Longer and Shorter.

    But there’s a lot of merit in the idea of Another Novel Hugo. You’re absolutely correct that it’s the meat-and-potatoes of the written genre today.

    • GiantPanda says:

      You might make it “Best Series” instead of “Best Meganovel”
      – A series can only be nominated if it contains at least 3 (?) novels and something has been published in that year.
      (It need not be the end of the series. Maybe add a minimum length.)
      – No series can win it more than once.

      Looking at my bookshelf I think there would be plenty of excellent candidates. Even more if you allow multiple series in the same universe.

      • Sean says:

        ” Even more if you allow multiple series in the same universe.” Kinda like the Honorverse? Or Warhammer or Warhammer 40k?

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  17. Mike Rafferty says:

    The problem with number of people involved in awarding the Hugos is the number of nominators not the number of people voting on the final award. With a thousand or so people nominating you don’t really have enough diversity to cover the field in enough depth to pick up new authors. Expand the number of people nominating and you are better positioned to pick up new authors. It certainly won’t be perfect, but it could certainly be better.

    A “long novel” award does seem like a good idea and finding a way to award works in a series or overall series would also be interesting.

    • Mary says:

      There has been a seven hundred person jump in the number of nominators over the last two years. That helps.

      • JonO says:

        The Sad Puppies are bringing up the numbers

        • DanAudy says:

          I think LonCon has more credit for that than Puppies being the biggest WSFS convention in many years (possibly ever). It will be very interesting to see what percentage on LonCon attendees continue to maintain supporting memberships and likewise the large number of new supporting members both for and against slate voting this year as the next few years carry on and this stupidity is (hopefully) just a memory of the past.

          I look at a vastly expanded supporting membership nominating and voting (without the use of slates) as the silver lining I hope that this situation brings about. If the Hugo’s expand their voting population by 2 or 3 times permanently I think it could help expand the diversity of nominations and revitalize the Hugo as the premier award in the field.

  18. Fred Kiesche says:

    //slow clap//

    Fantastic essay, Eric. Most even-handed in-depth one on the situation yet. Thank you!

  19. TC McCarthy says:

    Eric:

    Thanks for the blog post; I’m sure that took a long while to write. One thing I often notice in reading blogs like yours and GRRM’s, is the realization that your perception of the SFF community as a long time author (who got in when the community was small) and mine (I just published my debut in 2011, in a huge community) are so vastly different. My experience has been very similar to that described by Larry and Brad, and I respectfully submit that it’s different from yours perhaps BECAUSE you’ve been in for so long. It’s almost like the difference between me and my children. I can communicate with them, but sometimes have a hard time understanding, sympathizing and empathizing with them because I grew up in a time of rotary dial phones and neighborhood kickball games; we had to call someone or visit to have a conversation. They have instant communications, all the time, anywhere. I could go on. My point is this: you may not be able to see the reality newcomers to the field face today because you aren’t a newcomer. And I hope you consider this as a possibility – that maybe Larry IS right, from his perspective, since his perspective and yours are totally different.

    To wit:

    1. I don’t see the issue of voting campaigns, slates, etc., discussed in this blog (but I may have missed it). See Ellison (https://youtu.be/gFR9TYxAVZQ) who noticed this in the 1990s. It’s gotten to be accepted practice. So any new author just getting started is at a distinct disadvantage if he/she doesn’t already have a substantial social media platform. One could argue that – at least sometimes – those with a voice, win (regardless of degree of writing talent). Note that I’m not saying this is unfair or illegal; I’m just stating that (a) this issue exists, and (b) it becomes clear to new authors that if they don’t have their own platform, they better align with one. Fast. Writing a kick ass book is only part of the equation.

    2. I don’t see in your blog any mention of the very vocal and very negative group of social activists within the SFF community who in 2011-2013 thrived on taking the offensive and attacking authors they deemed worth targeting. Requires Hate was one. But it wasn’t not the only one, just the worst offender, and some were/are prominent authors and/or reviewers. One even wrote a piece in the mainstream media that portrayed Larry and Brad as racist misogynists. They also do this to debut novels. Just look at the infamous hit piece written by Liz Bourke re Mark Lawrence’s debut novel, Prince of Thorns. Based on that review I assumed Mark was a horrible son of a bitch, only to be shocked that – after reading his book – it was as if she never read the book at all. The same treatment was given to my debut – again by Liz Bourke – at Strange Horizons.

    3. I may have misunderstood your usage of all the big names who never won awards, so I apologize in advance if I get this wrong. But it seems like you’re arguing that these examples demonstrate that “literary awards are a very imperfect reflection of actual achievement” (Side note: I suggest the Nobel Prize for literature is a flawed analogy; there was a rule-interpretation that resulted in people like Henry James, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Robert Frost or Jorge Luis Borges not winning the award). I think I agree? Certainly I would argue that the fact that all those HUGE authors never won is NOT an indication that everything is OK and newer authors should just shut up and wait our turn; it’s a clear indication that something has been wrong with the system for some time (again, see the Ellison video). But I think your point is that these authors didn’t win, not because of political views, but because of a small voting body that over time started looking at form, then originality, ultimately resulting in a disconnect between an author’s popularity and awards. The problem with this interpretation (unless I got your meaning totally wrong, which is possible) is this: I’ve seen some books and stories over the last 10 years with horrible form, that were completely unoriginal, and which won Hugos, Nebulas, etc. Depending on perspective (a key word, I think) these could easily appear to be (or could actually be) because of reasons 1 and 2 above.

    I guess what I’m saying is this: from your perspective (and possibly GRRM’s), there’s no political motivation behind recent trends in Hugo awards, etc.; it’s a function of time and voter demographics, tastes, etc. I think that’s only a portion of it. There is an important issue of perspective here. And – and I say this with GREAT respect for you, GRRM, everyone whose been at this as long as you have – there’s a significant percentage of younger/newer authors who are being marginalized for reasons that seem at least partially rooted in politics and dirty pool. You don’t have my perspective. I think that unless once considers and gives adequate weight to the issues of slates, hit pieces, etc., one will never characterize the problem to an extent that would allow us to address it.

    Thanks for letting me post this. If I get tons of comments, I may move it to my blog where I can manage things more easily.

    • My apologies for the typos. Once should be “one”, etc.

      • Martin Easterbrook says:

        Thank you for this excellent piece.

        While the current schism may be more heated than previous ones I would suggest that we do see this problem emerging whenever the Nebulas and the Hugos lose their distinctive identities and become too similar.

        When the Nebulas concentrate on literary merit and experimentation and the Hugos concentrate on popularity within wider fandom then more people are happier that their tastes are being respected. When that does not happen there will be a feeling of exclusion felt by many people which is just waiting to be exploited by anyone with a political agenda.

    • Thomas Monaghan says:

      TC it seems Liz Bourke does reviews using patreon.com nowadays at $60 per.

    • Max says:

      The implication that Bourke’s review impugned your character is easily refuted by a reading of her review. If your takeaway from that piece was that she was attacking you on a personal level, that’s a problem with you, not with her review.

      “I hope in years to come McCarthy will add some more unity to his narratives, and learn to write female characters who aren’t pure cardboard cutouts. In the meantime, this would be a perfectly cromulent war is hell novel with skiffy trappings, except that where it comes to characterization and women, it falls rather short of the mark.”

      Truly vicious libel! I can see why you’d be nursing a grudge three years later.

  20. DarylS says:

    I hesitate to comment here with such illustrious people, but a relevant people’s award I know of is – in the city library of my provincial Australian city the racks have signs depicting the more popular authors along the top. Among the mainstream authors there are Flint, Weber, Ringo, Lackey, Stirling, Bujold, Butcher, and others. Being a good craftsperson with literary skills is essential, but the storytelling gene is the primary key to respect among us, the consumers.

  21. Josh Jasper says:

    It’s worth noting that of late, more folks who’ve won multiple Hugos have started recusing themselves from nominations. Gaiman in particular recused himself from the award that John Scalzi ended up winning – had Gaiman not recused, Scalzi would not have been on the ballot.

    There’s a growing sense of wanting to let new people get celebrated, and that speaks to the health of the community if it’s done without gaming the system.

    In terms of voters, I’ve been one a few times myself, and my motivations are not always “this person wrote a wildly popular story”. A book that sold well that I bought because I like the fun parts – Jim Butcher, Simon Green, Seanan McGuire, etc might not be doing something bold and new. I tend to weigh someone who’s trying something I’ve not seen before and carrying it off well over someone who’s doing something they’ve done a lot that I want to read because I love the continued adventures of so-and-so. A lot of Hugo voters think that way. We want to expand boundaries and celebrate that with awards. At the same time, we buy a lot more of the comfort food type books.

    I think that explains a trend in Hugo voting to some degree. The “best artist” category is problematic though. I’ve skipped voting on that one from time to time, to be honest. Perhaps we should have a Campbell for artists?

  22. Pingback: Hugo Awards: Eric Flint Speaks, and Final Nomination Changes

  23. Very thoughtful and well reasoned. Quite a relief from the unrelenting hyperbole surrounding the Hugos this year.

    You put your finger squarely on the problem; the small number of people who nominate and vote for the Hugos. Of 15,000+ eligible voters this year, only 2,122 submitted nominating ballots. That pitiful turn-out was a record the most participants in the nominating process. With that, it would seem the solution to the literary ‘genetic drift’ you describe is to increase voter participation among the general public. The larger the nominating/voting pool, the better the chance that good storytelling will carry the day over literary agendas.

    http://theinfinitereach.blogspot.com/2015/04/2122.html

  24. This has been an immensely saddening experience for me, even though I’ve never voted for a Hugo in my life (the field was *always* too big for me to be sure). I’ve seen knee-jerk thinking, inflammatory rhetoric, shibboleth-spouting and all kinds of idiocy on both sides, and recognised it in myself, and I’ve come to realise that even if the Sad Puppies’ claim about the Hugos themselves is unfounded, they have a point with regard to the way liberal fans treat those with whom they disagree.

    Thank you for this post.

    • The unfortunate truth is that Worldcon’s “Fandom” is an almost entirely liberal American club, stocked with white American liberals. To them, diversity means occasionally bringing on a non-white American liberal. Or having a lot of women who are also white, and also liberal. When you have that large of a crowd — all coming from the same ideological side of the tracks, all operating from more or less the same assumptions about how the world ought to work — you wind up with something a lot like that old quote from the night after Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, “How could that man win, nobody I know voted for him!”

      Thus Sad Puppies 3 shocked them out of their socks, with some (sadly predictable) outrage.

      So, Worldcon “Fandom” tends to react to other sectors of fans in the same manner. Both for political reasons, and for reasons of taste. Good example: tie-in writers, and the fans thereof, will never be accepted as “real” in the eyes of Fandom for this reason. The bias against tie-ins (indeed, the bias against blockbuster franchises that don’t originate from within Worldcon proper) is a hoary old thing that never seems to go away — because it’s passed down from the elders of the tribe, to the new members. As gospel.

      Kris Rusch wrote a terrific article about all this, and she did it ten years ago. It’s as pertinent to the discussion now, as it ever was. I highly recommend anyone interested in understanding the “rift” take a look at this. Kris isn’t approaching anything from a standpoint of politics. She’s approaching it from a standpoint of culture clash.

      And it’s culture clash — tribalism — which is at the root of the 2015 Hugo awards debate.

  25. Pingback: Scratch the Hugos — Let’s Get Behind the Erics! | The Improbable Author

  26. Cobbler says:

    Well done, Eric.

    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.

    They weren’t flying off the shelves, either. At local bookstores, I trusted the books to stay available. They mostly did. The huge SF sections and fast flow through of books at B & N just didn’t exist.

    As an impecunious teenager I coon fingered Silverlock for half a year before buying. Despite the back cover blurb, which ended:

    There is the alphabet, listing each letter
    Yet not listing episodes, matching or better

    Encountered by dozens, with Shandon as leader
    But shared, even-Stephen, with you as the reader
    For SILVERLOCK tells of his marvelous journey
    Through JOHN MYERS MYERS, who has power of attorney
    To pass it to you with the imprint of Ace;
    At every good bookstore, six bits on the face.

    Book prices kept going up. They really charged a whole seventy-five cents for that paperback.

    Neither do they write blurbs like that today. But then, they never did. Myers was sui generis.

    Growing up I could learn the SF-F field by reading old pulp magazines, anthologies, collections, novels. Even including the nineteenth century stuff, they weren’t that many words. I certainly didn’t read everything. But I read enough that when I met other fen, no one doubted those credentials.

    (There was an almost vanished language. The plural of “fan” was “fen.” Making yourself look or feel important was “egoboo.” Gathering with other fen for a purpose was “fanact.” Correction Fluid was “corflu.” Someone should compile a lexicon.)

    When the Hugo nominees were announced, I knew all the writers and had read most of the stories. When the New Wave waved, it waved the whole damned field. We won’t see that again. You can’t know the field that way. You can’t change the field that way. “The Field” is an umbrella containing multiple sub-genera.

    I no longer pay attention to the Hugos and Nebulas. Not when I can examine a Hugo list and not recognize a single name.

    It could be argued—indeed it was, and a friend convinced me—that the miniseries is a new dramatic form. One well designed to present a novel. No need to wreck the story to fit it into a movie sized framework. No movie will capture Clavell’s Shogun the way the miniseries did.

    Come to that, a series of related novels is also a new thing in the world. Dickens never did that. Nor did Verne or Wells. The earliest series novels I can recall were by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan, and John Carter and such. For space opera, it may have started with Doc Smith.

    Come to that, Smith was involved in the earliest shared universe story. In the 60s somebody submitted a story to Analog. It was a side story set in the Triplanetary universe. Campbell published it with a paragraph from E. E. Smith. Doc graciously gave the writer permission to play in his setting. I thought, “Only in Science Fiction can somebody ask to borrow a cup of your universe.”

    Thieve’s World and other shared universe set ups all came later.

    • Minor correction, Verne did write a couple series of interrelated novels: “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Around the Moon” (and “The Purchase of the North Pole” as well, perhaps); “20000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island” (and “In Search of the Castaways” if you count some character intersection, though my understanding is it’s very, very minimal).

  27. Simon Spanton says:

    Watching this from the UK, where I work in the genre (for Gollancz), I’d just like to say that you have, with this piece, both made a splash here (which sometimes feels like a very distant and unregarded grandstand on the whole shebang) and contributed a very welcome and level-headed analysis.

    Bravo.

  28. Tom Mays says:

    Thank you, sir, for this post. It is very refreshing to see an alternative perspective. Whether right or wrong, the deepest of the entrenched on both “sides” of the current debacle may have damaged the awards scene irreparably for the future, whether right or wrong in their opposing assertions. I foresee a very contentious rules/business meeting at most award bodies this year and next. I hope that if changes are coming, some may take a form similar to the categorizations and expanded eligibilities you point out here.

  29. Thanks for this, Eric. I was contemplating calling you and asking on your thoughts about this whole thing.

  30. Very well said.

    In addition, electronic publication (Third Millennium, Smashwords, Amazon Kindle, etc.) is in the process of increasing the number of published SF novels by a great deal. It also supports the publication of shorter works more effectively.

    Perhaps the length descriptions should be changed. Having one short fiction category (say, under 60,000 words) and several longer categories might work, but is unlikely to happen.

  31. Just a reader says:

    It’s interesting to hear the luminaries of SF&F discussing awards in here, and this essay is a very cogent one.

    Perhaps I live in a bit of a political hole though.

    Here is who I am, as a fan: I don’t really like short stories. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they should be banned or anything! They just don’t cater to what I want, when I sit down to read. I do like a good series – but there is an important caveat. I hate plotting for plotting’s sake – I see Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series as the poster child of this. I like and actively seek out series of books that promise a coherent, cogent, planned, over-reaching plot arc with no pointless dead-ends and irrelevant tangents.

    There are very few of these.

    Because of this, I seek out discrete entities – novels whose plot is completed within its covers. If the authors should then choose to resurrect that character, so be it. If it’s done well, I will buy the book. If it is not, or I feel cheated in some way, like the author has simply knocked this one out because they wanted to Winter in the South of France this year, I probably won’t buy that book again. If it’s blatant enough, I will actually walk away from the author altogether, regardless of how beloved they have been until now.

    What upsets me more than anything, therefore, is, as has happened with many authors, they then step away from a series altogether (or in the worst case scenarios, have the bad grace to up and die before completion…) to follow other stories, and the reader is then never rewarded for the years of dedicated reading and patient fan-following.

    My life is boring. It’s hum-drum. I work hard to keep body and soul alive. I want a good, thick, rich plot, filled with variety and interest, filled with a story that catches me unawares, takes my breath away, blindsides me with fiendishness or deviousness and delights me with its imagination and joy of storytelling. To be honest, I’ve stopped reading anything other than SF&F because I find most of the other genres to be unspeakably samey. With SF&F, if the author is good enough, they can tackle the same issues or tell the same kinds of stories as with other genres, but the SF is what makes it worth the journey.

    But how do I know about these stories? How can I know they exist, especially if, like me, you live a little bit unawares of all these sorts of issues that are affecting you, the creators. I work hard. I cannot know all issues and right every wrong. There aren’t enough hours in the day. But I want to know what’s good to read. I want to know what the people I read are reading.

    For me, the average Joe, that is what awards are for. They are for the books that you, as authors and creators and writers, think are the best. And you should know, because you are the professionals. If you are making money off your writing, it entitles you to commentate on the field of authorship. If one of my favourite authors talks about reading another author, I am immediately interested. So if a group of you get together and vote for a book, I expect it to blow my socks off and leave me needing a post-coital pick-me-up.

    I have to be honest. This hasn’t been the case for many, many years, now. It’s almost as if what the voters are looking for, isn’t what I’m looking for. And some of the winners remind me an uncomfortable amount of being in school, having to pour over John Steinbeck’s entire freakin chapter describing a tree in Grapes of Wrath, when I have to be honest. I didn’t care. I don’t care about a tree. I certainly don’t care enough about a tree to read an entire freakin chapter about it, describing every inch of it in detail and I don’t care how genius the writing is or how many allegories he’s spinning from his metaphor. I don’t care. I am not reading for an English class any more, where I have to write an essay about it afterwards… “Compare and Contrast the use of gene modification in …” You see where I’m going with this?

    That’s the kind of thing that seems to be getting picked – the plots aren’t great, the characters aren’t really meaningful to me, or aren’t people with whom I can relate. Some of them are like reading a Steinbeck. Some of them aren’t even like reading SF&F at all, anymore. More like thinly veneered social or political commentaries and while there have been some great SF&F political commentaries, I have to be honest with you – sometimes, you don’t want to be beaten over the head with a moral or yet another finger wagging. Sometimes, you just want to be entertained. Not everything has to relate back to A Cause. Remember what was killing off cartoons in the eighties? People couldn’t stop ramming messages down the throats of their seven year old audiences. I know it got me out of the house in Summer, rather than listen to yet-another-moral. I just wanted to laugh at some daffy antics.

    Just like Crufts. As Mr. Flint was talking about dogs, I agree. The most popular dogs in this country are never reflected by the winners of Crufts, who seem to be the sort of dogs that look weird, are a pain to keep and maybe four of them exist outside their native territories. Their relevance to the average dog owner has to be questioned. If Crufts wants to put on a Best of Weird Breed award, then so be it, but don’t tell me it’s a popular breed of dog, when no one has ever heard of it. I can accept best of Weird Breed, but not best of ALL Breeds.

    So too, your awards. And they are, to me, YOUR Awards. Why should I be voting on these? To my embarrassment, especially as such a die-hard fan of SF&F, I hadn’t heard of Andre Norton. Turns out I own one of her books, though. Didn’t know she was a she. Didn’t care. Just wanted the story. I don’t care about the mouth that it comes out from. I am not interested in the personal lives of the people I love to read. I just want the stories. In exchange, I give you money. This is how it works, in my eyes. You should be awarding people’s work because what they have produced is excellent – it is so excellent, in fact, it deserves to be highlighted and underscored and shown around to everyone with an interest in the category. Any other reason for giving out an award will dilute the impressiveness and relevance of that award, forever.

    If you are having problems with the categories then why not do away with having fixed categories, the same ones every year, and simply award a general award to those novels or series or graphic novels or art works or whatever, that deserve to be highlighted on their own merit, simply because some aspect of that work is genius. It’s unique or hilarious, or wild or just so damn awesome everyone should hear about it and its creator. Why be so hung up about categories in general when most of us, if we haven’t heard about it, will then get to because of the award, and can share in the cool?

    If this isn’t how these SF&F are being carried out now, then I don’t understand what is their relevance to me. How are they still relevant to you, as creators, as authors?

    • stellabystarlight says:

      Very well said. This is exactly what I have been feeling about award novels. As a fan of Larry C I read all of the Hugo nominations last year and thought most were dreck.

      • Bill Thomasson says:

        A perfect example of differences in taste. I read all of last year’s novel nominees except (for obvious reasons) “Wheel of Time.” And “Warboud” was the one I couldn’t really get into.

    • Flyover Fan says:

      Wow. You could be me. This articulates so closely and exactly what I feel about SFF. And the awards tempest in a teacup. Thank you Just-a-reader for taking the time to write this.

      I’ll add this. While an award might have been a guide to point the reader to good work in the past, now it feels more like a warning sign to stay away. Thanks be to for Amazon, where I find a cornucopia of books for browsing, stumbling across authors and reading a sample, so much like standing in the drugstore and reading the beginning of the book from the wire rack. And then there are the author blogs all across the big wide information highway, where I can learn more about an author I’ve discovered, including — and this is amazing — what authors and books _that_ author enjoys. It is so freeing, not being tied to the institutional bottlenecks of paper publishing and its imperative to have that award medal logo on the book cover. And I enjoy the idea of supporting indie authors who write stories that uplift my mundane life — plucky individual entrepreneurs working their tails off and making a go of it — down with The Man (old industry gatekeepers)!

    • Dave Mann says:

      I don’t care about the mouth it comes from. Golden.

    • Cobbler says:

      What upsets me more than anything, therefore, is, as has happened with many authors, they then step away from a series altogether (or in the worst case scenarios, have the bad grace to up and die before completion…) to follow other stories, and the reader is then never rewarded for the years of dedicated reading and patient fan-following.

      I still haven’t forgiven Gordy Dickson for dying.

      Actually, I haven’t forgiven him for frittering away his time. He had years to write the sequel to The Chantry Guild. He could have finished The Childe Cycle. Instead he wrote side novels like Young Bleys, or The Dragon and the Fair Maid of Schenectady.

      That’s the kind of thing that seems to be getting picked – the plots aren’t great, the characters aren’t really meaningful to me, or aren’t people with whom I can relate. Some of them are like reading a Steinbeck. Some of them aren’t even like reading SF&F at all, anymore. More like thinly veneered social or political commentaries and while there have been some great SF&F political commentaries, I have to be honest with you – sometimes, you don’t want to be beaten over the head with a moral or yet another finger wagging. Sometimes, you just want to be entertained.

      There were debates about this decades ago. Some argued for Employing their Art for Human Betterment. Or something.

      The other side argued that writers competed for the attention of Joe Bus driver. Would he buy your book? Would he buy a six pack? If you wanted him to buy your book, tell him a good story.

      They argued that the social significance crowd was “Selling their birthright for a pot of message.”

  32. Bob Eggleton says:

    Actually one factual correction Eric. Dave Mattingly tried to get the Best Artist Award for Darrell Sweet. And it didn’t work because at the time it was seen as blatant campaigning which, at the time was rather unfannish to many. Not that Sweet did not deserve it…but David did what he felt in his heart was right. Sweet was nominated in the 1980s, after doing some terrific work for Del Rey, Baen, Tor and others…. and was beaten out by Whelan(as everyone was in that decade save for for 1987). He became ill with pancreatic cancer and miraculously survived….and as many cancer survivors do, things get into perspective fast… then largely retired doing covers for only a few select people and working on his Western art. Mattingly tried to get him basically an award for his career. Something better done with the Chesleys.

    Mattingly hinted that he wanted me to remove my name thus giving Sweet a better chance. The problem was Sweet didn’t even come close. That year in 2004 was my last Hugo Award and, graciously so. It was a tough ballot: Frank Frazetta, Donato, Kelly Freas, Jim Burns and me. Kind of an all-stars as I was told. As I recall Sweet didn’t even come in as a close runner up. So it would not have worked. I won in my strange way of “coming from behind”(coined by Locus Magazine) rather than straightforward, and at one close point it was between myself and Donato but, two or three votes from Freas and Frazetta fans(I was their second) put me over the top. Close. And it was re-counted three times I recall the then-administrator saying afterward.

    After this however, is the start of the campaigning which started around 2005 or 2006 in the Best Pro Artist category with several interested parties even attempting to change the conditions for nominating because they were fed up with myself or Whelan always being A) nominated and B) potentially winning. I was even asked to withdraw my name-publicly(at the 2007 Hugo Awards in Japan) and privately I was getting my arm twisted and a form of ostracism started taking place. It was not a fun place to be for me, and no longer a good feeling. I felt that as Whelan fell off by attrition so would I eventually and in 2013, after 24 years, I did. I am happy it went that way, I wish and always wish all the winners and nominees for this award well, and personally congratulate them all via email or if they are present. I’ve been thrilled to see it go to newer winners Shaun Tan and John Picacio for example both good pals as well as amazing artists. And that is how it should be.

  33. Bob Eggleton says:

    Something else…in 2001, I won TWO Hugos. I won for Best Related Book for my artbook of 2000. In that category one other nominee was expecting to win for his Heinlein study book. He’d gotten a ton of accolades and kind words and was rather confident he’d win. If anything I ever learned, NEVER make a space for an award because you never know if it will go your way or not. Just take it one moment at a time. Anyway, he lost by something like one or two votes in that preferential ballot system. He clearly failed to understand how it worked(years ago I sat down with some fans who SHOWED me with pencil and paper how the Beast worked). I get home to a rather dunning letter from him, full of rage and telling me he was going to get that award-expecting me to “be a gentleman and hand it over” then implying if no, suing me or the Worldcon, ordering a re-count, one way or another. He then sent out his vitriolic attack to six hundred people, many pros stating his “case”. Getting little sympathy he came off as the ultimate sore loser. It was hurtful to me, extremely so despite an apology. He soured a good moment for me. This all happened days before 9/11 and after that things went into perspective fast. In 2007, he actually shook my hand and, well, me being the nice guy, all was forgiven, more or less. So, I have had small battles with this, that when I see the fracas now, now pale by comparison. There have always been uproars large and small, but then we didn’t have Social Media.

  34. Pingback: Spoiling the Punch • distal muse

  35. Jeff Ehlers says:

    Like many of Eric Flint’s essays, I found myself nodding and saying to myself, “yeah, that makes sense” by the end of it.

    I also liked the part where he mentioned that writers need two skills; being good at story-telling, and being good at writing. I happen to be reasonably good at the latter, but I don’t really know how to do the former. Personally, I think that the former is, by far, the more important of the two; you can always hire someone to help edit a good story that’s not particularly well-written, but you can’t really do the reverse.

    I can also speak to the tendency of people to stick to what they know when it comes to fiction. I only started reading Eric Flint’s books (back in the early 2000s) because of two things. First, because 1632 was on sale at the bookstore I bought it from, and second, because 1633 had David Weber listed as a co-author, and I already liked his stuff. The free library has helped in this regard; it’s a lot easier to decide if I like an author’s work when I can read at least a couple of their works for free.

    And last, a couple of interesting coincidences. I lived in Wellsburg, WV in 2000, which is in the panhandle, a hundred or so miles north of Morgantown. And part of my family came from Gettorf, in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. I only found that out as a result of reading the Ring of Fire books; I knew part of my patrilineal family tree came from Germany, but it was only because of the specific interest from reading the books that I started trying to find out where.

  36. Toastrider says:

    Hm. This is a damned good analysis.

    Unless someone has a better explanation, I think Mr. Flint may be at least partly right, especially in regards to the size of the field and the equivalent of genetic drift. I still think there’s a strong ‘sociopolitical’ element at work here — certain people wanting to push ‘message fiction’, instead of a good story. My blunt comment to a friend was that I felt certain people involved in the Hugos had really done it to themselves, with their actions encouraging the Sad Puppies slate vote. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all. The whining over ‘we’ll just vote No Award’ strongly smacks of being poor losers as well.

    As Mr. Flint notes, if you want to make money, you gotta be a good storyteller. But it seems like making money is considered lowbrow or gauche by certain folks.

    Of course, I believe it was Sir Terry Pratchett who said that losing out on an award only bothered him until he went back to sleep on his huge bags of money. Sometimes the best award is ‘Pay to the order of…’ :D

    Still, overall an excellent and even handed review of the mess. I need to start picking up 1632verse books again; I think the last one I read was the Galileo one.. :)

    • “Of course, I believe it was Sir Terry Pratchett who said that losing out on an award only bothered him until he went back to sleep on his huge bags of money. Sometimes the best award is ‘Pay to the order of…’ :D”

      The comments I made earlier about the Artist Hugo and how it affected me relates to this AND Misty’s view, like mine, of being a good solid hack. A hack can be a noble thing. A hack always gets you through a storm.

      Misty and I described ourselves in a recent interview as being “The comfort food of fantasy.” We’re the mac & cheese. She’s the mac, I’m the cheese. :) There are geniuses in our field, who do stunning work that twists the mind, but sometimes that isn’t what a person needs at a particular moment. We also know there aren’t any awards for “oh good, I was in the mood for that” books. The big-sacks-of-money beds would be nice, though.

      I’d done a bunch of gallery-stuff in the fine arts world back in the early-80s and I found myself gut-wrenched away from it. It was very seldom about anyone’s work at all; it was about how well you could do Galleryspeak, and who you bought dinner for, and what review material you could hand to the lazier journalists to copy.

      I looked into what it took to win awards in my much-beloved F&SF field, and it seemed to be split between A) Galleryspeak campaigning/schmoozing (and how disturbingly easy it was) or B) being astoundingly, undeniably good. And then it hit me, in plain honesty, I couldn’t do either. Mike Whelan and Bob Eggleton, Boris, Frank, Kelly, they all DESERVED awards, and new folks much better than I were coming along every year. That’s a hard thing to come to terms with, knowing you’re never going to make that grade.

      What could I do? Well, what I do best is being there for people. I steered my career towards being a good, solid, steady, reliable show-must-go-on pro. Comics, book covers, game design, logos, novels, short stories, editing, I did some of each, and devoted myself to mentoring. I devoted myself to Misty, and to being her backup on everything.

      I figured, the guys who did the welds on Saturn Vs weren’t going to the moon, but they helped the astronauts get there.

      And so, like Terry said, maybe I didn’t win an award, but I could be content with something else: making a living in a field where few can. I’ve made it 32 years fulltime now, by having two priorities:

      1) As Betsy Wollheim at DAW said, “Publishers don’t exist to print books. Publishers exist to make money printing books.” Did I help my client come out better today than they were yesterday? Did I help the publishers stay solvent?

      2) Have I served people well by what I have done? The customers, the fans, the people who have a need for what I can offer—have I treated them well, and given them the best I’ve got?

      So, to sum up, during all this attention on awards, I hope we’ll stay mindful that awards aren’t everything. The love for the audience is.

  37. Paula Lieberman says:

    The Worldon though does have body-of-work recognition positions, called :Guests of Honor. Andre Norton and Ian and Betty Ballantine were Guests of Honor at the 1989 Worldcon. The Ballantines were the creators of mass market paperbacks and also founders of the science fiction genre paperback subset of publishing. .

    Other SF/F conventions have guests of honor, lso, and that’s where the recognition of writers and artists come at a wider level than who get Hugos. For that mtter, there are a bunch of other awards for SF/F given out in various communities for the types of stories those communities appreciate.

    As for the number of people earning a living writing SF/F, add in the authors at e.g. Ellora’s Cave, Loose ID, Dreamspinner Press, and the dozens if not hundreds of publishers active online in addition or instead of print and focused subgenres (romance, erotica, LGBTQ, time-travel, military SF/F, various types of fatnasy, etc) pus successful self-published authors invisible outside their own market segments (notoriously, for example, prehistoric dinosaur porn SF/F, and no, I am NOT joking!) and the number of authors earning a living in SFF in in the hundreds, at least.

    One of Sherillyn Kenyon’s science fiction romance novels was a New York Times #1 bestseller and apparently had an initial hardcover print run of 150,000. The attention paid to it by the non-romance SF/F was zilch. The Puppies have made no mention of her or her colleagues as highly popular military SF ignored by the Hugos….

    • Phil Sevetson says:

      At the risk of promoting Thread Drift, the mention Ellora’s Cave needs an asterisk after it. Apparently a bunch of authors have complained about not getting paid. Suits are flying.

  38. Tom Whitmore says:

    As a bookseller in the field for over 30 years, I certainly noticed the tendency for some very popular authors not to get awards. And I tend to agree with Lackey, above, that some of that is because they were dependable, reliable hacks. That’s where the bread-and-butter in bookselling was — dependable, reliable books. The breakout books (most of which benefited the small specialty booksellers less than they benefited the large chains) were where we made a little bit of jam for the bread. And your books, Eric and Misty, were good solid dependable sellers. I could pile on accolades to others speaking here, but that would extend this more than I think it deserves: so consider this another “+1” on the strength and cogency of your argument.

    • Sean says:

      Do I take your comment to mean that you’ve been working in book stores either as just a cashier /stocker up to management one is guessing…for 30yrs? If so I would have a question for you. As I worked in the field for 6yrs. right during the birth of the megastores and the death of the smaller mall stores.

      • Tom Whitmore says:

        I was one of the owners of The Other Change of Hobbit in Berkeley from its opening in 1977 until the mid-noughts. And I’ve been doing some rare book selling both before and since.

        • Sean says:

          Nifty! Then here’s a question for you. Do you believe the birth of the megastores, Borders and B&N in particular, were responsible for the..death of customer service in those same megastores? Just seems to me as I worked in Waldenbooks for a number of years before Borders killed it, that in the smaller format stores you got better customer service, the staff were friendlier. If you were a voracious reader that made multiple trips to the books store in a month you got to know them by name and vice versa. Even if it was only twice a month. Heck when I worked for them I got to know some customers who were once a month regulars because they bought so much! When I was growing up I was in a Walden or B Dalton pretty much every weekend or every other weekend. Hence how I ended up working there. I put in an application and nagged the manager mercilessly for about 6 weeks until he hired me on a July 4th weekend and put me to work for about 4hrs the same day to get my feet wet.

          • Tom Whitmore says:

            I think it’s partly the megastores, partly other issues. Back when Crown Books was new, I used to say that there were two reasons people would work for them:

            1. They’d do anything to have a job with books.
            2. They’d do anything to have a job.

            The small independents screened to get people who were in the first class. So you could count on having people in the store who loved the books and were passionate about sharing that love. It’s not a good business model, though, particularly when Amazon set its sights on taking all the market share. There remain some people who are committed to books (Borderlands in San Francisco is a good example, and Greg Ketter’s Dreamhaven in Minneapolis, if you’re looking for genre books in the SF/F field). I’ve said frequently that it’s not a good way to make a living, but it’s a great way to make a life.

            • Sean says:

              True. I always said that if I’d stayed there, because I was happy while there, that I’d never get rich. Too much of my pay checks went back into the company coffers as soon as I cashed em

  39. Very sensible, and an excellent point about Terry Pratchett. Thank you, sir.

  40. Wendy S. Delmater says:

    There is much good to think about in this article. Thank you for some points to ponder.

  41. Amy Bauer says:

    Thank you for this really thoughtful post. One of the silver linings of the Hugo debacle is listening to the thoughts of those like you and others who have been around the field for some time. It has been enlightening.

  42. RES says:

    A minor footnote to Eric’s assertion about authors able to make a living writing SF/F full time a half century ago. In his review of the Poul Anderson anthology “A Bicycle built For Brew” reviewer Tom Shippey begins the review with this statement:

    In the 1950s there were only about five authors who made a living from sci-fi without needing a day job, and only one of them made a good living. It wasn’t Asimov or Heinlein. It was Poul Anderson (1926-2001), whose work had consistently high quality coupled with unpredictable variety.
    http://www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-a-bicycle-built-for-brew-by-poul-anderson-1406924607

    Say what you will about the Journal’s editorial policy, this seems like something the fact-checkers would have challenged if unsupported by evidence.

    BTW: Wiki describes Shippey thusly:
    Thomas Alan Shippey is a British scholar of medievalism, of medieval literature, including that of Anglo-Saxon England, and of modern fantasy and science fiction.

    His liking for Anderson is probably not unrelated.

  43. Walter Daniels says:

    Eric, I’m one of those who contribute to your “income,” because you “write a damned good story.” IMO, you’re right about _part_ of the problem. A “small group” mostly “Publishing Professionals,” who dominate the nominating/voting crowd. The rest of the problem, is that they *demand* that it remain that way. “Increase the number who nominate/vote, Never.” They shriek. :-) Like many, I want the Hugo to remain at least _somewhat_ relevant.
    As you say, there are too many *good* authors, unlike when I was growing up, to know all of them. IMO, it’s why we need “alternative sources of names to consider.” Then, *I* can decide if, despite their sexual preferences/gender/race/religion, they are well enough written to be nominated. *Not,* if some “SMOF” thinks that they are “good enough.” (Note: at one time _I_ qualified as a SMOF, but injuries put an end to that.)

  44. Ambrose Bierce says:

    Wow! What a great piece! I think I have read novellas that were shorter and frankly I was quite disappointed that you didn’t work a few giant robots into the piece. I started reading science fiction and fantasy in the 60s, as a teen, and over the years have never bought one single book because it was a Hugo or Nebula award winner.
    I buy books for the story. I don’t care about the author’s private life. I’m not interested to know if they are left, right, gay, white, black or female. Much to my embarrassment this novella/article educated me to the fact that Andre Norton was female.
    OK granted I’ve had a few favorite authors such as Pratchett, Banks, Farmer and Attanasio. By the way, Martin is NOT on this list because he quit writing (in what I feel was the middle of the story) what is now called “The Game of Thrones” series a while back which pissed me off as a reader. So I refuse to watch the HBO series and in fact would like to either borrow the Martin voodoo doll from your wife or otherwise send her an extensive collection of pins.
    Either you enjoy the stories and the writing style of an author, or you don’t. An award might hold meaning to an author as a token of respect from their fellow authors, but for myself, as a reader, it has no influence.
    I like many of the authors who were mentioned in your novella/article as well as most of those who responded. So that’s my wax job for anyone whose ego needed a stroke today.
    I’m going shopping for pins now. Tell your wife to keep in touch, and let me give you a big THANK YOU for this piece.

  45. KarenJG says:

    I suppose “I agree with what he said!” is not a particularly useful comment (though it’s accurate). So, I’ll expand on that with my personal observations. As a reader of 3-4 books a week, I have lately found the Hugo and Nebula awards to be more of a warn-off than a recommendation. As “Just A Reader” said, the awards voters don’t seem to be looking for the same things that I am. (In fact, they sometimes seem to be looking especially for things that I detest, and awarding prizes based on how many of them an author can include in one book. I kid. Sorta.)

    Tell me a story about characters I can like, and move it along briskly – although not at a breakneck pace. Make sure things happen – challenges that are met, obstacles that are overcome, defeats that are recovered from, successes that are celebrated. (One of the things I detest is the “character study” – books that, yes, illuminate a character through examining his/her daily life, but in which nothing really happens.) And give me an ending that satisfies my need to see these characters – that I’ve come to care about – do well. (I also detest downer endings. I read novels for entertainment. If I want “downer” stories, I read the news.)

    And, as a personal plea to authors, please, at least warn me in the blurb if your book is one of the trendy “present tense” novels. I get it: it’s new, it’s different (though not so much anymore), it’s a challenge to write. Well, it’s also a challenge to read, for me – every time I encounter a present tense verb, I’m kicked out of the story because my reader brain shouts ‘WRONG!” It’s distracting. I can get used to it during a reading session, but if I don’t read the whole book in one sitting, when I come back, the shouting starts all over again. That may not be a universal response, but it’s important to me.

    To bring this around to the subject, none of the things I like, and most of the things I dislike, seem to be like crack to the awards voters. So again, if it’s won an award, I’m probably going to run away. Very fast. I doubt that’s what the awards committees intend, but you never know. Perhaps I’m just too low-brow for their tastes, and they’re thrilled by my response, because it means their taste is far superior to mine. Or something.

  46. Eric Flint has always been one of my favorite old pros — he is one of the very few people in this business to whom I will happily sit and listen, on almost any topic or subject, however controversial. Because I always know he’s going to offer a reasonable position that is couched in both realism, and a respect for the fact that any issue has more than one side. In fact, it may have many different sides.

    Terrific and detailed analysis, Eric. Thank you for taking the time to put all of this together. It’s a necessary essay — and while I could quibble here and there, I won’t. I think you laid it all out superbly.

    I am sad that Annie and I couldn’t make it to Colorado this year. Might be seeing you in Los Angeles again in 2016, once my military deployment is concluded.

  47. Gary C says:

    A terrific essay. Thank you for this, Eric.
    I certainly agree that the awards categories should be updated to reflect the paradigm shift in the SFF publishing marketplace from when the Hugos were started. Market forces have always had a hand in shaping the reading habits of the public (as any good Marxist knows) and, to some extent, vice versa. The market has changed, so should we change the parameters which define the goods it produces.
    I also agree that the Worldcon constitution needs to be tossed out and rewritten altogether, and not just to change the definitions of award categories. It is frustratingly vague and absurdly outdated from top to bottom.
    However, I do take issue with the suggestion that winners/nominees of said awards do not sell well. It is true that most of them do not generate Gaiman/GRRM level sales (few do), or perhaps even Weber level sales (again, elite company), but I think you’ll see that some (like last year’s winner) have achieved bestseller status, and the majority, at the very least, enable their authors to make a decent income at their craft. The “glittery hoo-ha” brigade sell books too, and not just within the tiny insular cliques that vote for awards.
    I have heard (and also posited) many solutions to the problem of “bloc voting” that has troubled the awards this year, as well as the related problem of “single issue” voting that was being complained about long before the sad and rabid puppies came along. Along with changing and expanding the categories for literary awards, there are easy to do, and perfectly fair, ways to change the nominating process to make it more equitable and diverse in the choices that make it on the final ballot. Worldcon is run by smart people; they can figure out a way to do this without excluding or suppressing anyone’s voice, and without favoring one type of “popular” choice over another. But as you said, it starts with throwing out the old parameters and drawing up new ones.
    Most importantly, nullifying the problem of bloc voting – or single issue voting or whatever kind of voting attempts to game the system to manipulate the outcome into one “tribe’s” favor – means finding ways to greatly increase the number of overall voters so that the widest variety of popular tastes is reflected in the final tally. Any changes to the Hugos should make this the top priority.

  48. Lindsey says:

    This is a very good piece. The field is much bigger than it used to be, for sure, and it’s much harder to get noticed in the crowd. Hugo choices are often kind of cliquish, but that’s not an ‘SJW’ thing, and honestly, the idea that that would be a derogatory label is absurd.

    I think Ms. Lackey got it pretty squarely up there: Stuff that gets awards is stuff that often moves the audience, sticks with them. It is for me. I genuinely like literary, experimental and widely diverse science fiction. I like fancy prose. I like reading about characters who come from a wide variety of backgrounds and engage in a wide variety of activities.

    And sometimes, I just want to snuggle in with a comfy blanket. Mr. Flint’s own work fills some of that role for me in the 1632 series. I would never nominate it for an award, I don’t think. This isn’t because it’s bad. It’s just not [i]exceptional[/i] to me. It comforts me when I want a little jaunty pick me up. It does not fill my hunger for novelty or surprise me terribly much, but [i]that is okay[/i]. I don’t know if it’s possible to create an award category for ‘stuff that’s fun but kind of disposable’. I say that with no disrespect–I buy and enjoy those novels for those reasons. I just tend to think of awards for the ones pushing boundaries and exploring new things.

    The puppies’ assertion that people are voting ‘politics’ over quality is silly. I’ll tell you: Puppy work that I’ve encountered has just not been very good. Certainly not award-worthy by my own measure. And who am I to judge? Well, a person who can pay $40, that seems to be the requirement. As qualified as anyone else.

  49. I praise your insights because I agree with you, and that no doubt, prejudices me. Excellent analysis.

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