Why Some Creative Works May Never Win a Hugo Award

stewart

Screenshot taken from twitter

Okay, so the people on twitter who (very politely) accused me of being a moron because I was clueless about exactly what the Hugos are, and how creative works are awarded Hugo Awards are correct. I didn’t do my homework. I did have one woman accuse me of not even being a fan, and admittedly, in my youth I read a ridiculous amount of science fiction and fantasy compared to today.

So many books, so little time.

That said, I do read science fiction, but not every book I read is SciFi. Am I still a fan? Maybe not by that person’s standards, and I especially don’t read brand new science fiction, since I can’t afford to buy a bunch of brand new books, digital or otherwise. I usually depend on the public library, or occasionally a friend will lend me a book, but those works are usually several years (or decades) old.

That brings me back to the Hugos and twitter. I’m not getting any more tweets, but some of those previous tweets are being “liked” on twitter, and they show up in my notifications. I saw the tweet again yesterday that I posted a screenshot of above.

So really, the Hugo voters, those who nominate a work for a Hugo, and then those who vote for finalists and winners, aren’t all that many folks. Who are they?

I went to the Hugo Awards FAQ page and found out:

Who can nominate and vote?
Nominations are open to members of the current year’s Worldcon, the members of the past year’s Worldcon, and, starting with the 2012 Hugo Awards, the members of the following year’s Worldcon. The final ballot is open only to members of the current year’s Worldcon. You do not have to attend the Worldcon in order to vote. Each person may cast only one nominating ballot even if that person is a member of more than one Worldcon. A special category of Supporting Membership is available for people who wish to vote but cannot afford to attend the convention. Supporting Membership also entitles you to all of the official Worldcon publications for that year, and entitles you to participate in the vote to select the site for the Worldcon to be held two years hence. Each Worldcon sets its own membership rates.

And then…

Why do I have to pay to vote?
Well, the simple answer is that the Hugos are awarded by WSFS members and, just like most other clubs, you have to pay to be a member. Your money goes towards helping finance the awards and the convention that holds them. There is also a view within WSFS that it is a good thing to limit voting to genuine fans, people who really care about science fiction and fantasy. Finally requiring WSFS membership helps prevent ballot stuffing. If voting were free people might go around hassling their friends, or even random strangers, to vote for them, a process known as “freeping.” Because there is a small barrier they are less inclined to do so. In any event, it isn’t a “poll tax” because WSFS isn’t a government; it’s a voluntary organization. You have to join the World Science Fiction Society and pay membership dues to WSFS in order to vote.

I believe the current fee for being a WSFS member is $50 annually. I couldn’t find how many members there are of the WSFS, but let’s take Bill Stewart’s word for it and say there are a few thousand. That means, there is a limited number of people who will be deciding which creative works will get a Hugo in any given year. It’s a fan-driven award, but only the fans who pay to become WSFS members at any point in time.

If I can’t find out how many members there are, I probably won’t be able to discover the demographics of the membership either. But why is that important?

Think about it. People nominate and vote for creative works they think are good and worthy of an award. But while there are certain general rules for writing and such, ultimately what is “good” is defined subjectively. It’s also defined by what you have and haven’t read or otherwise consumed. You can’t very well nominate a short story or novel for a Hugo if you haven’t read it or haven’t even heard of it.

Does that affect the “fairness” of the Hugos? Probably not, however it would be interesting to see what the demographics of the WSFS membership is like year over year, then trace it backward a few decades to see how (or if) it’s changed.

As we saw in the recent WorldCon implosion, there was something of a scandal regarding programming and recognition of marginalized populations of authors (POC, women, LGBTQ+), and the Con’s organizers are probably still scrambling to restructure everything so those who were angered will see it was all just a mistake and they aren’t really evil.

hugo

Found at io9.gizmodo.com – No image credit available

This probably wouldn’t have happened five, ten, or twenty years ago because the social landscape has continued to evolve. In the past, you didn’t have #OwnVoice campaigns, or twitter, or social media, and going back far enough, the internet. Groups of people who are very vocal now, in part due to the instantaneous communications afforded by social media, were less likely to be heard.

Also, as the SF/F fan base becomes younger, and given that younger SF/F fans are more likely to be liberal and progressive than in past generations, their tastes and opinions on what is “good” are likely to reflect their personalities and how their opinions have been shaped by the ever shifting scale of social justice, among other themes.

I’m heavily theorizing now, but this might be what some of the folks known collectively as Sad Puppies have encountered, not a deliberate attempt to “game” the awards left, but a changing set of values reflecting younger populations influenced by social media and smartphone technology.

Is there anyway to prove this? Not directly. I did come across a 2017 article at The Verge called Women swept nearly every category at the 2017 Hugo Awards. In past years and decades, if the awards were “swept” by men, no one would have batted an eye (well, maybe a few people would have), based on the assumption that most SF/F writers were men (whether that was actually true or not).

Statistically, if both men and women are writing SF/F today, what are the odds that almost all of the Hugos would go to women in a given year?

If Hugos were some other type of award, and used some other sort of nomination and voting process, the odds might be a lot longer, but we are talking about a fairly limited number of fans involved, so it’s quite possible, assuming their preferences, thought processes, and values were all pretty similar, that you could see a result such as this one.

Remember, who and what gets a Hugo is dependent on a limited number of people who possess a specific set of qualifications, such as they read a bunch of brand new SF/F, know about the Hugos and WSFS, care about voting and awards, and have $50 (or so) to spend on the aforementioned membership.

That’s not everybody, and it’s not even everybody who reads (and/or writes) SF/F.

So you’re not going to get each and every new creative work thrown into the hamper, so to speak, or even considered for said-hamper.

Thus, as the demographics of those who choose to purchase a WSFS membership and nominate creative works for Hugos changes (and remember, I’m just guessing on those demographics), so will what does and doesn’t get nominated.

Now, if social justice is currently more prevalent in the consciousness of the WSFS membership, then which authors and which themes they write about will be considered differently. Certainly, if they feel women authors have been held back or discriminated against in the past, the tendency might be to vote for more women creators and/or works that highlight strong female characters. The same could be said for POC authors/themes, and LBGTQ+ authors and themes as well.

If anyone had the time and resources to analyze Hugo Award winners over the decades (and the award has been around since the 1950s), they might be able to derive the demographics of each year’s voting body based on those winners.

There are a couple of other things to consider.

Back in the day, pretty much your only option as an author to get your work to the public was with a traditional publisher, which meant going through whatever gatekeeper process they had in place.

Today, with a much wider variety of choices, such as self-publishing and indie-publishing, with a certain about of effort, anyone can have a book for sale on Amazon.

Of course, the author has to wear a lot more hats, since the book will need to be edited, will need cover art, will need to be marketed, and so forth, so it’s a ton of work, but then again, you get to keep more of your money, assuming people actually buy it.

However, relative to WorldCon, WSFS, and the Hugos, and my assumption that the demographics of Hugo voters are skewing more toward the left than in the past, who you are as an author and what you write about could make a big difference as to whether your products will be considered.

I recently read and reviewed an anthology called To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity published by Superversive Press. I’m also in the process of writing a more detailed review for this blog, but it’ll take some time.

This is an anthology that will never be nominated, let alone win a Hugo. None of the short stories therein will likely be nominated, because (and this is my opinion) the stories do not lean left, and in fact, they are a deliberate attempt at celebrating what one might call “old school masculinity,” including depicting men as providers, protectors, and sometimes even religious (specifically Christian).

Is that unfair?

to be men

Cover image of the soon to be published book “To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity.”

Depends on what you call unfair. If the Hugos are only issued by a small group of fans who are WSFS members, and who (possibly) skew more towards leftist and progressive values, then it’s just a small group voting based on their opinions and preferences. They don’t have to be fair. Fairness isn’t a qualification for being a Hugo voter or WSFS member.

In that sense, certain works and certain authors will (in all likelihood) never, ever be considered for this particular award, and there’s nothing inherent in the process that says they have to be.

I understand there’s this thing called The Dragon Awards out there, and if awards are your thing, I don’t doubt there are plenty of others to consider (though I haven’t done my homework on them, either).

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5 thoughts on “Why Some Creative Works May Never Win a Hugo Award

  1. Typo alert! “Inherent”, not “inherit”, in the next-to-last paragraph. Given the above description of the Hugo panel as comprising paid members who have thus demonstrated their serious interest, I really can’t understand the fuss and accusations from those perceiving themselves as representing marginalized demographics. No one is being denied membership or voting privileges for any reason except paid membership and some amount of reading. You didn’t seem to qualify that latter criterion very well, though I would expect that there ought to be some requirement for voting members to have read some minimum number of recently published works on a comprehensive current-year WorldCon reading list. Otherwise there would be no statistical validity to the Hugo selection — and its value would quickly plummet if this became commonly known. Now, being included in such a list, in order to be considered a Hugo candidate, might become subject to contention if works by representatives of the marginalized demographic were not included in some statistically fair proportion to the numbers of such writers. However, merely perceiving oneself as marginalized does not argue for favorable treatment above the statistical representation that should constitute “fairness”.

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