The year is a scant few days old, and yet Hugo season is already upon us. Renovation, the 2011 Worldcon, started accepting Hugo nominations on January 1st (and will continue to do so until March 26th), which means that from now until August 20th we're all on Hugo readiness alert. It's customary for fandom to spend the nominating period recommending works and people, pimping their own eligible novels and stories, posting their ballots online to inspire, and to be criticized by, others, and just encouraging them to nominate. I'm not a member of Renovation and I don't plan to become one (if I do--depending on the ballot and the availability of the Hugo voter packet--it'll be after the nominating period closes), but I'd like to join in this tradition. Not with a recommendation, though, nor with its opposite. More like a request.
Dear Hugo nominators: please do not nominate Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear as a single work.
Some background: Blackout and All Clear were submitted by Willis to their publisher, Spectra, as a single work, a time travel novel about London during the Blitz, which takes place in the same universe as her previous novels Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. As reported to me by Niall Harrison, in an interview with Willis in Interzone 227 she revealed that the submitted book was edited down to its current, published length of nearly 1,200 pages. It was then split (according to Willis's blog, because it "was too long to be published in one volume") into Blackout and All Clear, which were published in February and October 2010, respectively. Nowhere on the front covers, title pages, or front matter of either book is there any indication that they make up two halves of the same story, and many readers reported being surprised when they turned the last page only to find an abrupt stop in the story and an invitation to purchase its second half. Though both volumes are available as e-books, these are sold separately, and at full price. Blackout/All Clear's reception has been generally positive, but nearly every review has stressed that neither volume stands on its own as a novel, and that the cutoff point between them is all but arbitrary. Because they were published in the same year, the Hugo rules allow for Blackout and All Clear to be nominated in the best novel category as a single work, and almost as soon as Blackout was published I started seeing calls for Hugo nominators to do just that.
Before I get into the reasons why I think this a bad idea, let's get one thing out of the way: I am not a big Connie Willis fan. I am, in fact, a big non-fan of her writing, and her rapturous embrace by fandom--and particularly Hugo-voting fandom, which has awarded her two best novel wins, eight awards in various short fiction categories, and thirteen more nominations--has never failed to baffle me. As far as I can tell Willis is a limited writer whose creative peak is nearly fifteen years in the past, and whose career in the twenty-first century has been marked mainly by an ever-increasing descent into her worst writerly habits. When Nick Mamatas complained, in his review of Blackout, that the book was slow, bogged down in minutiae, and unfunny, I had to check and recheck that had ever read anything by Willis before (it appears he has), because in my experience these flaws are universal to her fiction, and as a self-confessed admirer of it you would think that Mamatas would have known to expect them. I mention this because this post could easily be taken as calling for Willis not to be nominated for the Hugo at all, which is not my goal. Though I admit that as a reader, a reviewer, and a once and (probably) future Hugo voter I'd prefer it if Willis stopped turning up on the award's ballots (though in all fairness, I haven't read Blackout/All Clear, and for all I know it is a deserving work), I'd like to believe that I'd be making the same argument if the author and book involved were nearer to my heart. I think that I would almost rather that Blackout and All Clear took up two spots on the 2011 Hugo ballot than just one, because the former would at least be an expression of overpowering love for the book, while latter seems to me to reward some very bad behavior--if not on Willis's part then on the part of her publishers--that I don't think an award given by fandom should be in the business of validating.
The voices I've heard calling for Blackout/All Clear to be nominated together have repeatedly argued that it isn't right to punish Willis for her publisher's choice to split the novel, which strikes me as wrongheaded on two counts. First, because though it may be true that Willis was powerless to overrule Spectra's choice to split the novel (and their choice to conceal the fact of the split and effectively con their customers) she is by no means an innocent bystander. Willis made choices that helped bring this situation about. She wrote and submitted what was, by her own admission, a very long novel without, apparently, giving any thought to breaking it up into distinct chunks with actual stopping points. And she signed off on an edited two-volume version without, again, trying to craft satisfying reads out of the individual volumes. In contrast, I'm in the middle of writing a review of Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World, which is proving difficult because, like Blackout/All Clear, it's the first half of a story. But though I can't call The Half-Made World self-contained, it does come to a stopping point that makes it a coherent reading experience in its own right, while everything I've heard about Blackout/All Clear suggests that it is an ongoing story that simply stops midway. The frustration and disappointment that fans felt upon discovering that they'd have to wait eight months to read the next chapter in that story is at least in part the result of Willis's choices as a writer--the same choices that a nomination for best novel would celebrate.
Even more problematic to my mind is the notion that to deny Willis a joint nomination for the two volumes is somehow unfair. For one thing, it seems to imply that an award nomination is something an author is due rather than something that they are, well, awarded, as a gift. More importantly, as far as I can tell there's only one group here that's been treated unfairly, and that's the fans. They're the ones who have gotten one book for the price of two, and who have had an eight-month-long wait inserted, without warning, into the middle of a story they had already waited nine years to read. Willis and Spectra may suffer negative consequences to their prestige and reputation because of their behavior, but they've also reaped rewards. It's only the fans who have experienced exclusively negative consequences as a result of a choice they didn't make and weren't informed of until it was too late. For the Hugo, the award given by the fans, to now validate this kind of behavior, strikes me as an affront.
This post is not directed at Hugo nominators who share my opinion that Connie Willis is not a good writer, or even at those who are her fans but didn't care for Blackout/All Clear. It's directed at nominators who truly believe that Blackout/All Clear represents one of the best genre novels published in 2010. I'd like to argue that there's another principle at stake, one that might be more important than artistic merit--that of fair dealing. The Hugo reflects the fans' judgment, but that judgment doesn't have to be, and hasn't always been, purely artistic. At its worst, the Hugo has been used to reward well-liked people regardless of the actual value of their work, but at its best it has also been used to rebuke bad behavior--perhaps the most recent example is Locus's loss of the Best Semiprozine Hugo in 2009, which has been widely regarded as a response to the decision to change the vote-counting mechanism of the magazine's annual award after the ballots had been counted. I think that there's a chance to do that again in 2011, and I think that fandom should take that chance. There's been a lot of talk about fair and unfair in this discussion, but from where I'm standing there's no fairer way of behaving than this: Blackout and All Clear were two books at the checkout counter, and two books in their publicity material; they should be two books on the Hugo nominating form.