16 April 2015
Summary of what’s in this post: the final Hugo Awards nomination changes, a discussion of a great post about the Hugo Awards from Baen author Eric Flint, and a constructive suggestion to those who, like the puppy sympathists, feel their own favorite works are being left out of the big table. And, at the end, I have a suggestion.
I’ve updated the Puppy-Free Hugo Award Voter’s Guide to reflect the changes in the Hugo Awards nominations after two nominations were declared ineligible and after two nominees withdrew their works. The tl;dr version: Puppy-free works have been added in Best Novel (The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu) and Best Novelette (“The Day The World Turned Upside Down” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translated by Lia Belt). Congratulations to all the new nominees, and condoliolations (congratulations on having been nominated, condolences for the situation leading to no longer being on the ballot) to those who withdrew or were declared ineligible.
I’m especially jazzed about having two works originally published in other languages on the ballot, as literature in translation is so frequently overlooked.
As noted in the File 770 piece, Hugo Award administrator John Lorentz has locked the ballot, and no further changes will be made. (There were also a couple of technical corrections on the final announcement.)
Eric Flint has his own “I can tell this was written by a novelist” piece on his blog.
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.
Flint discusses at length the paucity of awards for Murray Leinster and Andre Norton in particular, then lists several other writers’ nomination and win counts.
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.
Exactly so, though I’d argue that LeGuin is perhaps less famous with mainstream, but more famous in literary circles. When I was an undergrad, I was told I couldn’t write science fiction or fantasy and work with writing faculty unless I wanted “to write like Ursula LeGuin.” I declined (because I want to write like myself, not LeGuin) and worked with a science faculty member who was an sf/f reader. (The program, then a part of Vermont College, required a faculty sponsor for the semester, but none of the writing faculty were willing to sponsor anyone writing any form of popular fiction.)
Anyone who writes genre fiction and wanted to seriously pursue a writing degree has, no doubt, run into some form of the above at some point.
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)
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.
I’m also unhappy with the reduction of Baen to only publishing right-wing (and various other tropes) authors because I’m also a Baen author. I’m not as universally liberal as you might think, and I’ve in fact been a libertarian (both big-L and not) in the past. My religious affiliation could be best described as “Agnostic Pagan,” specifically Druidism.
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.
Exactly so. Resnick was also an editor of mine. I’ve had some great conversations with him over the years.
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.
Back in the old days, many of the most popular authors had a number of pseudonyms. Mike Resnick has a Rolodex full of pseudonyms. Not a joke or exaggeration. So in the old days, there was a different kind of problem: you’d like six authors, but they’d all be the same person.
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.
Romantic Times gives out an absolutely dizzying number of awards each year. Here are this year’s winners. Note that quite a few of those are publisher specific. Romance is an even more overwhelmingly novel-oriented market than science fiction or fantasy are.
To give you an idea of how large that field is, I read 150 romance books last year, mostly ones published last year. I’ve only read one of the books on the list. I’ve read twelve of the authors, though most of those have been published in sf/f.
Also, I disagree with the point he then follows up with about the novel length for the Hugo being wrong. Up until 2010, I’d have agreed with him. However, with the rise of digital first publishing, many more short novels are being written than used to be. It hasn’t picked up as much in science fiction and fantasy as it has in romance—in part because it began earlier in romance with a greater number of digital-first publishers and the popularity of “category length” (read: shorter) books—but I believe that is just a matter of time.
While there are romance series, most of them are a completely different style than is popular in sf/f: the protagonists of book 1 become side characters in book 2, and vice-versa.
Is there any solution to the problem?
Well, freeping the Hugos doesn’t fix the problem, it just vastly increases the number of people who are unhappy.
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.
The quality shift was a concerted effort on behalf of people like Robin Scott Wilson, who created the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s to help improve the quality of writing in the field. These days, there are quite a few similar workshops open by audition:
There are, finally, also programs in writing popular fiction, including MFA degrees from both Seton Hill and the University of Southern Maine.
Knight also founded SFWA, and part of the intention of the Nebula Awards was to focus on works on literary quality (as distinct from popularity). Yet, over time, the Nebula Award and Hugo Awards nomination lists seem to be (this is a perception that I have not analyzed, to be clear) closer rather than farther apart.
Over time, Clarion has produced (let’s say 15 people average per year x 40+ years) over 600 graduates, and many of those vote or nominate. Or hold (or have held) editorial positions at some point. When you add in the members of the other groups, too, this represents a significant influence on science fiction and fantasy books and short stories.
Yet, as a counter-example, a couple of years before I attended Clarion, Gordon van Gelder was the editor-in-residence. He handed the class his slush pile, and said, “which one of these would I buy?”
The class read the stories and argued with each other and had it narrowed down to a list of five candidates. Gordon said, basically, that it was none of them. He pointed to a story by a far more famous writer and said (paraphrase), “I’d buy this one, so I could put his name in big letters on the cover and sell the magazine.”
The sword definitely cuts more than one way. As Gardner Dozois put it, people become publishable before they start selling.
Here’s my proposal: someone (not me) should start a workshop designed for people who want to write the popular end of science fiction and fantasy, and possibly aimed at people who wish to write sf/f books (the existing workshops are mostly about short-story writing). Yes, I know that Viable Paradise is about that, but the field is certainly big enough for two such workshops.
Not only that, it could be one that valued humor more than Clarion et al tend to. (You know what’s harder than writing humorous work? Critiquing it. Harder yet is understanding how to use the critiques.)
Make it six weeks long, have authors bring complete novel drafts, and workshop the whole draft in six chunks.
Don’t make it depend on ideology, make it depend on wanting to write stronger works of popular fiction.
This would be a great place to form relationships with other, similar writers, to build interrelationships within the field (as happens with Clarion et al), and doesn’t have the problematic relationship with the Church of Scientology that Writers of the Future does.
You’re only 47 years behind.