Monday, January 03, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: An Appeal to the Hugo Nominators

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.

9 comments:

Su said...

I'm not sure how this speaks to your point, but I was very surprised that the second volume just picked up where the first ended--no exposition or back story to help readers picking it up cold to figure out where they were. I also examined my library copy pretty closely and couldn't find anywhere on the cover or title page where it was explained that All Clear was the second half of Blackout. It was very strange, and speaks to your point about the lack of effort put in to make this a two-book experience.

My take on Willis is that she's a tremendously uneven writer. I have read Doomsday Book more than once and stll think it's terrific, but some of her other stuff (Passages, for instance) I have found embarrassingly bad.

Blackout/All Clear is an interesting book to me in that, even though I recognize that all the bad reviews are completely right about its flaws, I still really enjoyed it. I actually read Blackout twice, first in the spring and then again to refresh myself before reading All Clear, and liked it better the second time (oddly, it seemed less tedious the second time around). But that means I can't defend the book; I can only say, "I liked it!" like Lena Lamont after the permier of The Dueling Cavalier. And I freely admit that may reflect badly on me.

Alexander said...

"though in all fairness, I haven't read Blackout/All Clear, and for all I know it is a deserving work"

Oh, it really isn't. The central suckiness of the texts in question really makes it difficult to associate other principles in this instance, although the main argument here is a good one. There's certainly room in fandom for a more critical posture towards these kinds of stunts, a recognition of what kind of minimal obligations should be done in self-representation. And 'doesn't have a real ending' is a pretty big issue.

Jonathan M said...

Well said Abigail!

What is also clear to me as someone who has read it is that it simply does not need to be anywhere near as long as it is. You could easily lose half the pages and not put a dent in the ultimately very 'Okay' narrative.

lisa said...

I haven't read any Willis myself, so I can't speak to her as an author, but I do think it's only fair in any awards competition to judge the work as it is, not the work you'd ideally like it to be. Blackout and All Clear were published as individual novels and should be compared to other individual novels; it's not fair to also consider the backstory. Unless you want to start considering the backstory of all the books under consideration: This one changed editors in midstream, and this author was very ill during the editing process, and this one was distracted by family obligations during a crtical moment in writing the final draft (hypothetical examples all). The book is the book and should be judged as such, at least in an awards competition ...

SF Strangelove said...

I think the issue that Abigail is skirting around is that the Hugos do not adequately address the issue of series fiction. Blackout/All Clear is a series of two that had the benefit of being published in the same year. Some series are written as a huge novel with no concern for closure or recapitulation of backstory in individual volumes. Examples include The Lord of the Rings and The Book of the New Sun. The last two have been published as massive single-volume novels, which is arguably an improvement on the manner they were originally published: in three or four separate volumes, respectively, over the course of years.

I am not advocating a Hugo for series fiction, I am just pointing out that it doesn't have a comfortable home in the novel category. Series fiction is a muddy term, to be sure. Jo Walton wrote a fine article (dated April 6, 2009) on tor.com about the types of series. To use her numbering system:

(1) Series such as Blackout/All Clear or The Lord of the Rings that are one long novel.
(2) Series that need to be read in proper order, such as Abraham's Long Price Quartet, with some closure in each volume, and continuing storylines from volume to volume.
(3) Series that do not need to be read in order, such as Bujold's Vorkosigan books. Each volume is nearly independent and some storylines continue.
(4) Series of stand-alone novels with shared characters or setting, such as Cherryh's Union Alliance books.

If I were suggesting a new Hugo category (I assure you I am not), it could only work for the first type of series, the long novel, and it could only be awarded on publication of the concluding volume. (There are other Hugo categories more deserving of creation, such as a YA Novel category -- see Cheryl's Mewsings "YA Hugo Update.")

As for the work of Connie Willis, I agree with Su, who describes her as an uneven writer. Interestingly, I had difficulty with Doomsday Book (which Su likes) and I enjoyed Passage (which Su did not). I will be reading as many books as I can before voting for the Hugo nominations. I doubt that I will read Blackout/All Clear for award consideration simply because Willis has plenty of Hugo awards and there are many worthy authors and stories with none.

Iain Coleman said...

I don't think your argument holds up.

These novels are eligible for nomination as a single work.

You have outlined very clearly reasons why readers of these novels may well feel aggrieved and disappointed due to the way they were published.

But if enough people love this story to nominate it, and to vote for it, despite the handicap of its unfortunate publication format, doesn't that just confirm that it is truly deserving of an award?

After all, it would, by your own argument, have had an easier time being nominated and attracting votes if it had been published as a single work. So, if it does win, it's winning with one hand tied behind its back.

You are of course quite correct that the abrupt ending to the first volume is a structural flaw. That will become a compelling reason for denying the book a nomination in the very year that a book without flaws wins the prize. I doubt either of us will see that day.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Su:

The lack of effort, as you call it, is indeed one of the most baffling aspects of this story. Just look at the cumbersome name, Blackout/All Clear - you'd expect there to be a series title, but instead we're stuck with that monstrosity. It's as if Spectra thinks that if they just pretend that this isn't a single book split in two, no one will notice.

On liking bad works: I think it happens to everyone, and I'm always quite fascinated when it happens to me, trying to figure out just what's caught my interest. I watched the entire first season of Syfy's Haven, for example, even though it is just terrible, and I have no idea why.

Jonathan:

It's hard not to suspect that the book could have stood to be shorter because, let's face it, what 1200 page book couldn't? (This is something I'm particularly sensitive to this week because I've been reading SF from the late 60s, and the novel I'm in the middle of is, in a tiny mass market paperback edition with huge print, less than 200 pages long.) But again, the issue here isn't whether or not the book could have been shorter, but whose responsibility it is that it wasn't, and thus needed to be split. And that person is probably Willis, who at some point in the editing process would have had to say that no, the line must be drawn here, this far and no further.

SF Strangelove:

I'm not sure the term series fiction is appropriate here. No one, as far as I know, is suggesting that N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its sequel, The Broken Kingdoms, both of which were published in 2010, should be nominated as a single work. Even if we're talking about multi-volume novels, however, I don't think that Blackout/All Clear is the same sort of animal as The Lord of the Rings. On the hierarchy you describe, it occupies a zeroth level, of works whose individual volumes don't stand on their own, whereas LOTR, for example, is made up of three distinct books (actually six, two in each volume).

So I don't think it's necessary for the Hugos, or any award, to give much thought to the handling of series fiction. Even if a book isn't a self-contained work, it can, and should, have merit in its own right, and we've seen fandom and award bodies recognize that merit, as in the cases of Hal Duncan's Vellum and Catherynne Valente's In the Night Garden, both the first halves of duologies that also stand on their own. The problem occurs when the books don't stand on their own, and in that case, as I say in this post, I think the response should be to strongly discourage publishers from this practice.

Iain:

if enough people love this story to nominate it, and to vote for it, despite the handicap of its unfortunate publication format, doesn't that just confirm that it is truly deserving of an award?

Well, I don't know what "truly deserving" has to do with it - it's not part of the point I'm trying to make - but yes. If fandom, having considered both sides of the argument, decides to reward Willis nonetheless, then that's how it goes. But I haven't seen anyone else make the argument I'm making here. What I have seen is the attitude that it's fandom's job to protect Willis from her evil publishers, and this post is an attempt to point out that there's another way of looking at the situation, and that nominating the two books as one sends a message that we might not want to endorse.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that Blackout/All Clear is the same sort of animal as The Lord of the Rings. On the hierarchy you describe, it occupies a zeroth level, of works whose individual volumes don't stand on their own, whereas LOTR, for example, is made up of three distinct books (actually six, two in each volume).

I'm not sure this makes sense to me. Technically, each volume LotR stands on its own in that there's a divider page and, for most of them, a shift of characters/settings, but I don't see how you'd be any less lost or thrown into the middle of things if you picked up with no backstory Book 3 of the Lord of the Rings than if you picked up All Clear.

claybonnyman said...

I am *so* happy to have stumbled across some like-minded readers re "Blackout/All Clear" and Willis in general. She was quite good many years ago, but I agree with Abigail that "Willis is a limited writer whose creative peak is nearly fifteen years in the past." And yes, her worst writerly instincts are virtually all she traffics in now. I've met her several times. Very nice person. But like others, I am distressed that fandom will throw awards at her laundry lists just because they like her. Make no mistake, 'B/AC' is wildly overlong, not very funny, relies on anachronisms (i.e. poor communications in the future that would be solved by today's technology), an obsession with her preferred historical periods (indeed, she is only barely an SF writer in 'B/AC' or at all, recently) and her penchant for having characters run around like they're in 1940s movies has grown more than tiresome. Don't get me started on the li'l tykes who are supposed to provide comic relief in the novel. In short: No. This "book" (what a total ripoff for Bantam to do it this way; $52 bucks for two halves of a book) is just not very good. Not Hugo worthy, for sure. Sigh.

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