Thursday, April 16, 2015

Biases in the Hugo Awards

Somebody got me blowing hard again on Facebook, so contrary to what I (Aaron) said yesterday, I'm going to add another thought here.

It seems the Sad Puppies discussion really involves two distinct issues. One is whether bloc-voting for a slate to game the Hugo nominations process is okay. The other is about whether, prior to this year, there has been a disconnect between what gets nominated for Hugos and what is actually the best SF/F work being published.

I don't want to further belabor the first issue, since it's already been kicked around to death in the blogosphere and social media. Suffice to say, I think there is a glaring, obvious distinction between John Scalzi saying, "This is what I wrote last year that's eligible for a Hugo Award," or, "Here is a thread for people to recommend anything you read from last yeat that you think should be considered for a Hugo Award" and bloc voting for a slate. (If the Puppies honestly think those are not very different, then they should just agree to follow the recommendation thread approach next year, and a lot of the outrage about this all would dissipate pretty quickly.) The Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies announced five nominees for Best Novel, five nominees for Best Novella, five nominees for Best Novelette, etc., knowing full well that if their group voted as a bloc, which they did, then those would be the final nominees and nobody else's nominating ballots would matter. I find that unethical on multiple levels, and just a completely shitty thing to do. Not everyone agrees.

On the second issue, I have to confess I have a hard time understanding the complaints about what is getting nominated for and winning the Hugos. (The mere fact that complaints exist does not tell me anything relevant. If you give out awards, there will inevitably be complaints, no matter how good your system is.)

One problem I have is that I hear and read very general complaints, and then when I look at the Hugo ballots over the last several years, I see that the complaints are simply mistaken as a factual matter. Conservatives are excluded from the Hugos? Mike Resnick has gotten more fiction nominations than anyone ever, and won a bunch of them, even though he's widely known as a staunch conservative. Hell, Brad Torgersen was the Sad Puppies' leader this year, and he was nominated for a Hugo just three years ago, and deservedly so. There is a bias against white men? White men continue to get their fair share of nominations, no problem. As recently as 2010, white men swept all five fiction awards. Fun, popular, adventure-style fiction doesn't get considered? The voters gave a Hugo to Harry Potter. George R.R. Martin is as popular as it gets in the genre right now, and he has won four Hugos and been nominated probably a dozen other times. The last three years before this year's debacle, the Best Novel category included Leviathan Wakes (deliberately old-fashioned space opera), Redshirts (which the Puppies hate, but it's just the kind of fun entertainment they like to talk about), and The Wheel of Time. The things people say can't get on the Hugo ballot anymore are in fact on the Hugo ballot every year.

The other difficulty I have in understanding the complaints about the Hugos is that the Hugo voters overall seem to have tastes very similar to mine, as I've already described. Over and over and over, the authors I come across doing really powerful, original, memorable work get rewarded by the Hugo voters. And a lot of them are new to the genre, certainly not established cool kids already favored by the voters.

BUT I must acknowledge that last point is tied to my own literary tastes. If a lot of people feel like there is great work being overlooked by the Hugo voters, that's something we should be discussing. ("Discussing" being the operative word, as opposed to just fucking up the whole damn system to try to piss everyone off.)

Part of that discussion has to be what we think the Hugo Awards are supposed to be recognizing. There are authors on the SP/RP slate who are good writers, doing consistently solid work that is commercially successful. And as far as I can tell, they have no particular interest in writing powerful, original fiction. They are content to write quickly, to write things that sell well because people enjoy them, and to get paid for doing that. I have no objection to that. But I personally don't think that's the kind of work that should be getting Hugo Awards. If most fans disagree, then I'm outvoted. I wasn't outvoted this year, just a small group of people who disagree rigged the election.

Another part of the discussion should be what kind of biases are we okay with in the Hugo balloting process? People are human beings; they cannot rid themselves of biases. It may be that the Hugo voters have a slight bias in favor of women or minority authors or in favor of stories with a particular message. But as discussed in the link above, the Hugo voters' biases don't seem to interfere with them consistenty recognizing great stories. Of course, that includes a lot of great work done in recent years by authors who happen to be women or people of color or liberal-minded — I'm giving dissatisfied folks the benefit of the doubt that they wouldn't wish deliberately to exclude those authors.

Probably a more significant factor is that the Hugos are (or were, before this year) decided by a popular vote. And the reason they call it a "popular" vote is it often turns on who is the most popular. But the fascinating thing with Hugo voters is, who is the most popular tends not to depend on a person's gender or race or looks or politics or social status. John Scalzi is popular mostly because he writes clever things on his blog. Seanan McGuire is popular in part because she's a good filksinger. Given that everybody in the world has biases, it strikes me that the Hugo voters' biases are incredibly cool. You get a slight leg up in the voting process if you can walk into a convention with a guitar and sing songs with science fictional lyrics? Maybe that makes some people mad; it makes me want to give all of fandom a big bear hug.


Fantastic Reviews said...

I'm Amy, the webmaster and other reviewer here at Fantastic Reviews.

As far as popularity, I think the power of social media should also be mentioned. On Twitter Seanan McGuire has over 15K followers, and John Scalzi has over 80K.

Lori Coulson said...

Indeed -- there are any number of SF/F authors with a large social media following. But you don't see them telling their fans and fellow travelers to "vote for only the items I approve."

It was no secret that anyone with any organizing ability could game the Hugos, but because most fen are ethical they avoided doing so.

Fantastic Reviews said...

This is Amy, the site webmaster, not Aaron, the author of this post.

Scalzi and McGuire have large social media followings. I was stating a fact in my comment. I did not say, or intend to imply, that I think they did anything unethical with their popularity.

In my opinion, voting a slate to support an agenda is unethical. Some Puppies supporters likely didn't even read what they nominated. I believe that people should only nominate those works that they personally found to be of high quality.