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The Hugo Conversation (Hugo Awards 2016)

October 28, 2016

Hugo conversation

I don’t have much to say about the Hugo award winners this year. As usual my favorites mostly didn’t win, but the stories that did win were all worthy of their awards. The nominees, good and bad, have been discussed to death and I don’t think I have much to add. The same goes for procedural changes, and while I do care about making the process better, I prefer to leave that analysis to the experts who have been studying the options. So what’s left to say?

With the various criticisms that have been made over the past few years, I felt like I needed to re-evaluate my participation and understand how the Hugos were impacting the various groups of Fandom. I have to admit that since I first started voting I’ve taken for granted the idea that they were “science fiction’s most prestigious award” and that by participating I was supporting the advancement of the genre. I was still enjoying the process, but was that enough to justify continuing? If only for my own satisfaction, I felt like I needed to come up with a defense that wasn’t based on politics, story themes or the identities of the groups who were saying that the process wasn’t fair. No, I don’t expect to actually convince the members of those groups of anything, but I want to believe there are other potential fans out there still looking for information, not sure who to believe about this situation. Mostly this is for me, but if others find it useful so much the better.

It starts with the question: who are the voters? The Hugo award is known for being voted on by fans, rather than a jury or a select group. Supporters say that it represents all fans, detractors say that it only represents a small percentage. Who’s right? Both sides kind of agree on the concept of capital F Fans and Fandom, but again they differ on what that represents. Some say Fandom encompasses every Fan who wants to be a part of it, others say it excludes Fans based on what stories they like and what activities they’re involved in. I could argue that they’re both right, that Fandom allows anyone to join who wants to, but relatively few choose to do so, and among those who do there are some identifiable biases. I want to take a step back, though. To me, what makes a fan a Fan is participation. Millions of people may go see the next Star Wars or Avengers movie, but that alone doesn’t make them Fans. Most of them only buy toys for their kids to play with and only wear costumes on Halloween. Capital F Fans are the ones who find a way to keep participating in the experience after the movie or show or book is done. They join clubs, mailing lists, online forums, and they go to conventions. Having any kind of presence in one of those groups is enough, because every Fan draws encouragement from the fact that somebody else shares their passion.

Ronan the Accuser

You stand accused . . . of Fannish activity

Fandom has many overlapping subsets. Some of these are centered on specific franchises: Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and so on. Some Fans only get involved in a single Fandom, others get participate in several. Fandom can also be grouped by the activities they engage in: cosplay, collecting things like toys, comics, or memorabilia, blogging, fan fiction, fan art, and the list goes on. Again, some fans focus on one activity, some participate in several. Some dedicate all their free time to their activities, some just dabble here and there. There’s no one right way to be a Fan, in fact just the opposite, every Fan defines their own unique space in Fandom. Time and effort is really the key to making a Fan. Buying one comic doesn’t make a Fan a Collector, wearing a costume one time doesn’t make them a Cosplayer. But it isn’t like there’s a test to qualify as a Fan either: you don’t have to spend six months making a costume to be a Cosplayer, and you don’t have to buy 200 comics a year to be a Collector. You don’t have to wear a Star Trek uniform or paint your car like a TARDIS to call yourself a Fan of either of those shows. There isn’t a judge watching you to see if you’re worthy to enter Fandom. A Fan’s Fandoms are determined by which activities interest them to the point where they’re willing to spend that time and effort to participate.

Once I started thinking about Fandom in these terms, it occurred to me that voting on awards is just as much a Fan activity as any of those others. Voting, in this case, doesn’t just mean checking boxes and clicking submit on a form, it means the whole process: researching potential candidates, nominating, reviewing and ranking nominees, presenting the awards, celebrating the winners, and examining all of the voting statistics afterwards. Different voters may emphasize different parts of the process, but they all put time and effort into it, just like Fans of other activities.

So when we talk about a Fan-voted award, we aren’t talking about a random sampling of Fans from across Fandom. We aren’t talking about a group that was selected on some basis, they aren’t necessarily more knowledgeable than anyone else and they don’t have an agenda to push. The core Voter Fan group is unified only by the fact that they enjoy participating in awards. They don’t make up the whole voter population, there will also be occasional participants who are either trying it to see if they enjoy it, or they joined the group for some other reason and they’re voting just because they can, or because they do have a particular story, author or agenda to push (obviously this has been an issue recently). So Voter Fandom doesn’t automatically control the outcome of any particular vote, but they’re usually going to be an influential voice in the proceedings.

This explains why a relatively small group of Fans determines the outcome of some major awards. It’s just not an activity that attracts a big crowd. It doesn’t really have the perks that other forms of Fandom have, no one wants to take your picture, and no one compliments you on your ballot. If anything, it’s just the opposite, lots of people will tell you everything that’s wrong, both with the awards overall and with your personal choices. People often say that award results would be better if there were more voters—I’ve said it myself—even if they don’t agree on what better awards would look like. But while there is always a certain amount of turnover, and there are always new Fans finding their Fandoms, I think the majority of Fans are settled in their choice of activities. I don’t believe there is a massive pool of prospective voters who are just waiting for an invitation.

This can also be seen in the results of other awards. Not all Voter Fans participate in all award votes, but many of them participate in more than one. Voting is what they like to do, so why not take advantage of every opportunity? This doesn’t mean that the same stories win every award, differences in voting structure and voter population usually lead to different results. At the same time though, if an award publishes a list of runners-up, honorable mentions or also-rans, the stories that are popular among Voter Fans are likely to make their appearance, if they don’t win outright. For Voter Fans, that’s often part of the interest, seeing how those differences affect the outcome. They aren’t trying to monopolize all awards, they want to hear what other Fans have to say, but they aren’t going to recuse themselves from voting either. Ultimately the array of awards and winners serve Fandom in general, since there tend to be more great stories than there are awards to recognize them.

Most Fandoms have a public side and a behind-the-scenes area. Cosplayers wear their costumes for everyone to see, Collectors display their collections in one form or another. Cosplayers (I presume) also have message boards where they can talk about new ideas, construction techniques, events, whatever interests them. Collectors have networks where they can buy, sell and trade with each other, discuss and compare finds, and so on. These networks aren’t necessarily hidden, they just aren’t of interest to people who aren’t involved in that Fandom. For Voter Fandom, the public aspect is the announcement of voting results and the handing out of trophies. What happens behind the scenes, though, is what really defines it as a Fandom. “Voter Fandom” works as a label, but I think what this group is really doing is having a conversation about stories. The various voting processes serve to impose some structure on the conversation: at first everything is fair game, then when nominees are announced the focus shifts to the merits of those particular stories, and when the final vote is called it signals time to move on to next year’s batch of stories. This is part of what sets the Hugo awards apart, in particular. Certainly their history and prestige are part of the attraction, but for Voter Fans, the Hugo process stimulates the conversation more than any award I’m aware of. Fans get to vote on the nominees, the finalists, and even the rules that govern them. The structure encourages Fans to read all nominees, making them all part of the conversation. The rules have a high degree of stability, so Fans don’t have to worry about unexpected procedural changes, they can just focus on starting the conversation as early as possible.

The conversation explains why Voter Fans don’t like slates and similar manipulations. Even well-intentioned slates disrupt the flow of the conversation, and malicious slates purposely derail it. They try to shoehorn their stories into the conversation instead of letting it happen organically. Are the wrong stories winning the awards? That’s not for any of us to decide. The prestige of the Hugos, or any other awards, derives from how the winners are judged by history. In the past, the Hugos have largely succeeded on that score, although with a few missteps. Will the same be true of recent winners? It’s too soon to say, but in my opinion at the very least there haven’t been any egregiously weak choices. I’m sure not everyone agrees. But ultimately I would say that each award belongs to the people who vote on it. If the voters vote honestly and are satisfied with the outcome then that has to be enough. It’s no one else’s place to try to impose any sort of agenda on those voters. The whole point of being a Voter Fan is making up your own mind. If certain authors and stories don’t get support for a particular award, that’s just the collective will of the voters asserting itself. If an award can translate the opinions of its voters into a single winner, then it’s served its main purpose.

I think most Voter Fans don’t approach their awards as competitions. They want the winners to be worthy of recognition, representative of what’s good in their respective fields, but they generally don’t get too invested in seeing specific stories win. It only takes a couple of votes to realize that you can’t control the outcome, so you’re better off just congratulating the winners and moving on. Great stories will get recognized as such with or without awards, and you’re not wrong for liking what you like, no matter what other Fans think. That’s all just more fodder for the conversation. So what does an individual Voter Fan get out of being one voice in a crowd? I can really only speak for myself here, but I think this is true for a lot of Voter Fandom: what I get is the discovery of new stories and new writers that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. I get to sample what’s up and coming in the genre, and while it’s not always to my taste, it’s worth it to me to go through a couple of duds to get to a story that really makes me think. Most satisfying of all, though, is when I can recommend a book to someone else, and to have them come back and say they loved it. To me that’s the true essence of being a Voter Fan.

What does this mean for the future of awards? Could the Hugos be eliminated, as certain individuals have expressed a desire to do? Will new awards gain prominence and old awards fade? The thing to remember is that for Voter Fans, voting is part of their Fan DNA. If a given cosplay event was cancelled, the cosplayers would migrate to a new event, or organize their own event if they had to. That’s what’s in their Fan DNA, and they’ll do what’s necessary to be able to express their Fandom. The same is true for Voter Fans. I think it’s highly unlikely that the Hugos would actually be cancelled, but if that happened Voter Fans would not just disappear, they would continue to vote and have their conversation around other awards. Voter Fandom includes quite a few experienced award administrators, so I suspect they could put together a new award pretty easily if they needed to. One way or another, I think Voter Fans are always going to have a voice in greater Fandom. Some may agree with that voice, others may disagree, but no one is going to silence it. The conversation may suffer some brief disruptions but it will find ways to continue.

I started by asking if my enjoyment of the Hugo process justified my participation. My answer now is that not only is enjoyment a good reason, it’s the best reason. Having fun is what Fandom is all about. For anyone who’s gotten interested in the Hugos over the past couple of years, I would say try adding your voice to the conversation. It doesn’t matter what route you took to get here, whether you want change or you like things the way they are. The conversation is always willing to make room for new voices and new ideas, as long as they’re offered constructively. People will disagree with you, people may argue with you, people will probably vote for things you don’t like but that’s all part of the fun. The disagreement helps you define and defend your own taste in stories, and sometimes, if you’re willing to take a few chances, you can find yourself liking something that you didn’t expect to. That, in particular, is why it’s still fun for me, and why I’ll be back to do it again next year.

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2 comments

  1. […] AWARD FANAC. Jugger Grimrod continues “The Hugo Conversation (Hugo Awards 2016)” at silence is a […]


  2. Hear, hear. Very very well said.



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