Monday, June 15, 2015

Final Words on #Hugowank

I’ve written and tossed two versions of this already—including one that extensively deconstructed the various puppy claims. But other people have already done this, and I doubt one more would do anything other than stir the pot one more time. And who needs that, really? So I’m going to try to do something different here.

See, while I’m utterly frustrated by the current situation, I’m also the kind who thinks it’s better to dial it down than dial it up when things get too heated. That doesn’t mean accepting bullshit—like, say, watching the individual who wrote this publicly claim that someone else has committed slander or libel, and then have a major publishing house take it seriously. But it does entail remembering that not everyone who sympathizes with the puppy campaign is cut from the same cloth, as well as considering that maybe it’s time to try to shift the discourse in a more constructive direction.

Because I’ve had it with all the negativity and recrimination. Like many people, I’m utterly frustrated by the transformation of a field that most of us enter as a pastime into yet another tiresome battleground in the so-called “culture wars”—a dynamic that, of course, only benefits the most deeply committed culture warriors. I like having cordial, measured conversations with people who don’t see the world through the same lens as me, yet that is increasingly difficult to do when everyone’s supposed to pick a side. And, again, I am not alone in this: most people I’ve spoken to are just as frustrated by the posturing, pontificating, attention-seeking, rabble-rousing, logrolling, dog-piling WANK of it all.

So maybe—just maybe—it’s time to pull the plug on #Hugowank. Here’s how I’m planning to do that (for myself):

1. Isolate and address the legitimate grievances

The sad version claims its campaign is really about sticking up for fun and/or commercial and/or pulpy and/or conservative and/or apolitical science fiction and fantasy against the onslaught of intellectual snobs and/or “social justice warriors” who have forced works of high-minded and/or message-driven and/or progressive literature on the unsuspecting masses of fandom.

Despite finding the majority of victimization claims empirically bogus, I do have some sympathy for the base-claim that popular genre is often crowded out by a specific style of literary-minded SF/F. But in short fiction, where voting pools are small and its likely that writers, editors and slush readers represent a disproportionate slice of the electorate. And it’s not the result of conspiracy but an institutional effect—a self-replicating mechanism that structures the field. Jonathan McCalmont explains how that works in these (one, two, three) articles.

For the record, I see no evidence of this in the best novel category. In fact, I see the opposite—voters rewarding novels that are, on the surface, light and breezy, but have some deeper messages if you bother to look for them. However, it’s not necessary to do that if you just want fun and adventure—sort of like Firefly. (Actually a lot like Firefly, come to think of it.) Plus several Hugo winners, Redshirts and Among Others in particular, are aimed directly at so-called trufans: Redshirts is a Star Trek parody and the protagonist of Among Others is literally a trufan. These are genuinely popular books, and if being a fan is a major part of your life, then there’s an even stronger chance you’ll connect with them. But New Yorker material they are not.

What's more, even if certain kinds of short fiction enjoy institutional advantages at the moment, pulpy SF/F has not been shut out. Brandon Sanderson, for example, won Best Novella in 2013 for the popular and commercial The Emperor's Soul. And though I understand Charles Stross is, for some, a demon whose recent Hugo successes haunt dreams and stalk imaginations, 2014 Novella winner "Equoid" (on Tor dot com) is actually super pulpy.

It's just that, in recent years, a disproportionate percentage of:

  1. Hugo/Nebula/Locus winners in the short fiction categories
  2. Selections in the annual “best of” collections
  3. Stories published in the pro-paying markets (Analog excluded)

...seem to conform to a certain narrative format, where genre elements are thin but literalized and employed as a metaphor through which to explore emotional or psychological issues. These are all connected, and reinforce one another. Voters are more likely to nominate works in high-prestige markets, while high-prestige markets are more likely to publish works that look like award-winners. Over time, in such an environment, writers are more likely to shift toward the successful narrative models, as these are the ones that will advance their careers. The institutional structure thus provides clear incentives for narrative convergence.

Is this a problem? Depends on your perspective. Jonathan McCalmont thinks so; Jodie from Lady Business does not. I’m somewhere in-between: I like a lot of literary-minded SF/F, including stories where genre elements are thin and literalized, and routinely complain that the novel categories for the major awards aren’t daring or literary-minded enough (see, for example, me griping about this year’s Nebula (best novel) shortlist). And some recent award winners have been flat-out great, like Pat Cadigan's "The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi" (in Edge of Infinity) or Aliette de Bodard's "Immersion" (in Clarkesworld).

But I'm also convinced that the narrative convergence described above is underway (in the prestige circles that matter for short fiction), and I don’t think convergence--on any style--is healthy. In any given year there are really worthy examples of pulp SF/F, or SF/F that is high-minded or literary but doesn’t adhere to the literalized metaphor model. And I’d like to see that kind of stuff get more serious consideration—from editors, publishers, readers and Hugo/Nebula/Locus voters—than it has over the past few years. For the record that includes stuff that puppies like on stylistic grounds, as well as stuff puppies dislike on political grounds.

[Editor's Note: for clarity's sake, this is not a justification or rationalization of any puppy claims. Please see my reply to Jonathan M. below for further explication.]


2. Just say no to slates

The puppies claim they want to broaden the field too, though in reality slates like theirs reduce narrative diversity, impose severe limitations on what's chosen and, as such, work against that stated goal. So we here at ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’ are hereby adopting a strong anti-slate position.

Why? Because if slates are bullshit, and this year proves that they are, then I don’t want to be part of the problem—even tangentially. I mean, the Hugos are supposed to be a celebration of what we love. It’s supposed to be about individual fans selecting the things that moved or excited them, and any ballot or shortlist published while voting is on going potentially encroaches upon the autonomy of the individual voter.

To that end, I won't tell you who I've voted for this year's awards until after voting closes. As for next year, we’ll be publishing a longlist instead of a shortlist, one that draws on the whole ‘nerds of a feather' team’s reading/consumption experiences over the previous calendar year, and which provides at least 15 suggestions in every category we decide to comment on. We won’t recommend that anyone do anything other than read/consume the things we put on it, and we won’t lend support to anyone else’s efforts to sway voting.

We do, of course, reserve the right to thank anyone who sees fit to include us on their own lists, or mention that someone else’s list fits our various definitions of “good.” We just won’t get behind any organized effort to mobilize or influence voters. No sides, no teams, no bullshit.

3. Stop feeding the wank

I'll freely admit, there have been days where I've read every last word of every last blog post that made the daily file770 roundup. Mike Glyer has done an incredible job chronicling the whole sordid affair, and indeed some of the editorializing has been quite good (hi, Spacefaring Kitten). But at some point #Hugowank achieved perfect circularity. For me the moment came when Mike linked to a tweet that referenced a comment left on a previous daily #Hugowank roundup.

So as far as I can see, there isn't very much left to say--and yes, in case you are wondering, I do recognize the irony of asserting such a thing in the midst of a long post on #Hugowank. But it's true. I could deconstruct the puppies or come up with some new, flashy acronym to describe those terrible people who don't like the same books as me (TTPWDLTSBAMs). Only what would that accomplish? And what would reading more about TTPWDLTSBAMs accomplish, for that matter?

On the other hand, I think there's much to be gained by denying oxygen to a raging flame. It's not the only way to go about one's business, but as far as I'm concerned, it's the healthier option. I'm just gonna keep doing my thing, evangelizing the stuff I think is deserving and griping about the stuff that bothers me. Don't like it? Take a number.

Of course this is going to get a lot harder to do when the results are announced. Most people I know are assuming it'll go like last year, when the puppies got a bunch of stuff nominated but had little-to-no success in the final round. But remember--a lot of people who voted last year and nominated this year, were LonCon 3 attendees who are unlikely to pay for a Sasquan supporting membership, especially in the current climate. Most British LonCon 3 members I know shifted attention back to the BFSAs this year. So while I don't think many puppy candidates will win, I suspect more will be in the running than last year. I don't think the "no award" folks are going to get their desired outcome.

(As a reminder, I do not back the "no award" campaign, but rather will only put "no award" above nominees who are also activists for one of the slates, or for works that are not appropriate for/worthy of the award they are nominated for.)

4. Keep trying to improve the Hugo system

For the past two years I’ve advocated changes in how the Hugos are set up—getting rid of or rationalizing nonsensical categories, simplifying byzantine terms of inclusion, calling for Worldcon to lower cost of voting, etc. I doubt these efforts have had much impact, in the grand scheme of things, but I’m going to keep it up as long as the Hugo categories remain the clusterfuck they are. Meanwhile, it's at least theoretically possible that a reform movement could highlight areas of common interest among those who care about the Hugos. 

Put another way, while I realize this blog has limited influence in fandom, I’m reaffirming commitment to working toward the end of rationalizing and streamlining the Hugos in a way that isn’t exclusive to the like-minded. To that end I will reach out to people who care as deeply about the Hugos--regardless of whether we read the same books or have the same politics.

That would, at least, be a small patch of common ground to stand upon.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and
'nerds of a
feather, flock together' founder/administrator

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