Thursday, March 06, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on Award-Pimping

It might be hard to remember, because there have already been two bigger and more bitter slapfights since, but the first genre kerfuffle of 2014, lo these six or seven weeks ago, was about award-pimping.  More specifically, it was about the increasing prevalence, in the last half-decade, of "award eligibility posts," those lists posted by authors around the beginning of the year and of award-nominating season in which they list their work from the previous year and what categories it's eligible in.  Perspectives on these kinds of posts differ wildly: some people view them as innocuous, as a benign public service, or as a harmless bit of self-promotion.  Others, meanwhile, see them as gauche and unpleasant, and as actively harmful to awards and the genre in general.  Adam Roberts kicked off this year's iteration of the discussion with a post firmly on the anti- side, and though I find his piece smart and thoughtful, it mainly reminds me that this is an issue on which I find it difficult to form an opinion.

On the one hand, I'm largely unbothered by award eligibility posts when taken in isolation.  Though I've seen examples that have been hectoring, self-satisfied, or demanding, I find most of them informative and unassuming.  I'm sympathetic to the argument that they represent a public service, reminding readers of work they might have missed or forgotten.  (Though I would also point out that this is a function that can be served just as well, and often better, by a frequently-updated, organized, easy to find bibliography, something that a shocking number of authors don't bother with.  If, in the course of my Hugo reading, I come across an author I like and want to look at more of their work, I'm not going to trawl their blog archive for an award eligibility post.  I'm going to look for a bibliography and, if I can't quickly find one, move on to an author who can be bothered to put one together.)  I also take the point, raised by Amal El-Mohtar in a post responding to Roberts, that anti award-pimping arguments impact more powerfully on women and people of color, who are anyway discouraged by cultural conditioning from tooting their own horn.

On the other hand, I'm not happy with the way that discussion of award-pimping has proceeded, particularly in the wake of El-Mohtar's post.  I'm disappointed with the way that the term "award-pimping" has been subsumed and finally replaced by "self-promotion."  One of the most important arguments, it seemed to me, in Roberts's post was that award-pimping was "directly and negatively distorting of the award shortlists that follow."  By substituting the specific activity of award eligibility posts with the blanket term self-promotion--which can comprise any number of types of behavior, both acceptable and unacceptable--we short-circuit any possibility of a discussion of whether this particular kind of self-promotion is desirable, effective, or conducive to a healthy award scene.  To take a different example, a few days after the award eligibility kerfuffle happened I saw John Scalzi complain on twitter that he had attended a convention panel in which a member of the audience, seeing that a panel member had failed to show up, unilaterally placed themselves on the panel.  I'm sure that if you challenged this person they would respond that they were simply promoting their brand and visibility, but does it therefore follow that this is the kind of behavior we want to tolerate or encourage?  Is it conducive to an optimal con experience for other attendees and panel members, which is what we, as a group, should be concerned with?

I can't help but take the unwillingness to debate award-pimping as a specific tactic, rather than an expression of self-promotion, as yet another reflection of the way that sooner or later, everything in fandom starts to be perceived as existing for authors.  You see this a lot in reviews: the perceived illegitimacy of negative reviews (and the attendant belief that reviews should function as a "constructive," workshop-esque critique), or the assumption that reviews are directed at authors, who therefore have an automatic right of response.  Increasingly, I'm seeing the same attitude where awards are concerned.  Awards are, of course, a powerful career (and sometimes, sales) booster.  But the purpose of an award isn't to celebrate any single author; it's to celebrate the field and recognize excellence within it.  Though, as I've said, I don't find award eligibility posts objectionable in isolation, as a phenomenon they bother me because they shift the focus of the conversation surrounding awards from the field as a whole to the individual author.  In a trenchant analysis of some of the fallacies surrounding the award-pimping conversation, Martin Lewis writes that the unspoken subtext of award eligibility posts is "my work is among the five best works of its kind published last year."  I think that, more often, the subtext is "I want an award."  There's nothing wrong, of course, with wanting an award, but there is quite a bit wrong with the primacy that that desire, and its expression, have been allowed to take in the conversation, to the point of being treated--as I think El-Mohtar's post and discussion following from it do--as something virtuous and even political. 

On the third hand, saying that I wish there had been a discussion of Roberts's argument that award-pimping posts are harmful isn't the same as saying that I think they are.  In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that they even work.  If anything, a glance at the last few years' Hugo ballot suggests that if award eligibility posts make a difference, it's only for people who already had the kind of enormous, loyal readership that is either a reflection or the cause of the kind of popularity that practically guarantees Hugo nominations all on its own.  (In that sense, some of the defenses of award-pimping from or on behalf of less recognizable authors feel a little like mid-level or low-selling artists defending copyright extension laws that will only ever benefit mega-corporations.)  Would John Scalzi's April's Fool story "Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City" had garnered a Hugo nomination in 2012 if Scalzi hadn't drawn attention to its eligibility on his blog?  I suspect not, but Scalzi himself would still have been perennial Hugo nominee (and eventual winner).  And what about the case of Seanan McGuire, who had four nominees in the fiction categories (and only missed out on the fifth by a few votes) in 2013?  That result surely can't be ascribed purely to whether or not McGuire decided to post a list of her eligible work.  On the other hand, Larry Correia did engage in explicit and unabashed award campaigning in 2013 (which he represented as a blow on behalf of pulp writing and against the "literati critics" who apparently make up the Hugo voter base), resulting in several of his favorites gaining nominations in the related work and podcast categories, and in Correia himself coming within less than twenty votes of a best novel nomination.  It's doubtful that he would have achieved those results without his campaign--but then, it's equally doubtful that if we were to achieve the result Roberts hopes for, of creating a norm that views award eligibility posts as illegitimate, that someone who seems to hold the Hugo award in as much contempt as Correia would abide by it.

On the fourth hand, this is really nothing new.  The Hugos are, and have always been, a popularity contest.  Who you are and who you know have always played a role in whether you get nominated.  There's no question that there's been a palpable shift in Hugo nominations in the last few years, away from perennial nominees like Mike Resnick (whose position as the award's most decorated author is often ascribed to his popularity among certain segments of the Worldcon membership) and towards authors with a larger online presence, but that simply means that a different group of authors is benefiting from the same dynamic.  (It's also worth noting that one of the effects of that shift is that Resnick doesn't get nominated for as many Hugos any more, and I doubt there's anyone of sense who can argue that that's not an improvement.)  In his post, Roberts writes that SF awards are characterized by a tendency to vote out of fannishness for a particular author, rather than fannishness towards the field as a whole, and it's certainly difficult to look at the three examples I've given and not conclude that this is probably what lay at the heart of each of them.  But as he himself concedes, that's a tendency that is baked into the award's format and history.  We can ask whether the acceptance and celebration of award-pimping doesn't exacerbate that tendency--which is, again, a conversation that I wish we were having--but it certainly didn't create it.

On the fifth hand, that's not a compelling argument for remaining invested in the Hugos.  It's easy to point a finger at award-pimping because it's a relatively new phenomenon that has dovetailed with an obvious shift in the Hugo's tastes, one that has resulted in shortlists that have been less interesting and of an overall lesser quality, but the truth is that that shift may simply represent a fundamental problem with the award itself.  Last year after the nomination period closed Justin Landon made a powerful argument for just not caring about the Hugos anymore, and while I've obviously failed to do that it certainly is true that in the last few years, as each Hugo ballot has been announced, I've found myself feeling less and less invested in the award.  Whatever the reason for it, an award in which a joke story is in the running for best short story of the year is not in good health.  An award in which a single author receives 20% of the fiction nominations is not in good health.  An award in which a concerted and open ballot-stuffing campaign bears fruit, very nearly to the point of affecting its tentpole category, is not in good health.  I've spent the last few weeks in a flurry of pre-Hugo reading and consideration, but the truth is that when I look up from that work and consider the award dispassionately, I find that I feel about it the way I felt about the Nebulas seven or eight years ago--as if the Hugos had grown increasingly irrelevant as a yardstick for excellence in the field.  (As an important ray of hope, it's worth noting that the Nebulas have rehabilitated themselves significantly since that nadir, producing, in the last few years, several interesting and varied shortlists.)

On the sixth and final hand, I feel that there's a wind of change this year.  Or maybe a better way of putting it is that elements that were gathering force in the last few years seem to have achieved a new level of prominence this year.  Even as the award eligibility phenomenon gains steam (and respectability), more and more people are also using the internet to create a more broadly informed voter base.  Dozens of people are posting their Hugo ballots and recommendations (to take a by no means exhaustive sample: Nina Allan, Thea and Ana at The Book Smugglers, Liz Bourke (1, 2, 3, 4), the bloggers of LadyBusiness, Justin Landon, Martin Lewis, Jonathan McCalmont (1, 2), Aidan Moher, Mari Ness, Ian Sales, Jared Shurin, Rachel Swirsky (1, 2, 3), Adam Whitehead).  Blogs like Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) seek to inform people (like myself) who have little grounding in the category, and make them acquainted with worthwhile nominees.  Existing projects like Writertopia's Campbell award eligibility page collate information that makes it easier to nominate for an award whose eligibility requirements can seem tricky even if you're an old hand at this Hugo stuff.  If you're someone who is interested in voting as more than a single author's fan, it has never been easier to gain a broad appreciation of the field and its practitioners, even the ones who aren't superstars.

I still don't know whether award eligibility posts are part of the problem or simply a ineffective distraction.  I do think that the efforts I've been seeing in the last two months have a real chance of being part of the solution, and I mean to join in.  In the next few weeks, I'll be posting my own Hugo ballot, a few categories at a time.  (I'll also be posting links to works that I consider worthwhile on my twitter account.)  It's entirely possible that when the Hugo nominees are announced I'll once again feel demoralized, and as if all this effort--mine and everyone else's--was as naught before the onslaught of some popular blogger's megaphone.  But for the time being I'm hoping that a lot of small voices have their own power.


Adam Roberts said...

What a great number of hands you do possess, Abigail. Thanks for this: smarter and more thoughtful than my post, (though I appreciate the kind things you say about that, even whilst recognising and respecting that you don't really agree).

As to whether awards-pimping-posts actually works, well I don't know. One would have to run the numbers. My gut is: they work if the person posting the pimpage has a large enough, loyal enough following -- the minions/megaphone point I made originally. And I absolutely agree with you on the undesirability of running together awards pimping and general self-promotion. As I say in my post, the latter is something I do, conscious as I do so that self promotion that pisses people off is directly and disproportionately counter-productive. The former is where I draw the line.

I didn't respond to Amal El-Mohtars' eloquent post at the time, in part because I didn't want to seem boorish by stomping into her gaff and disagreeing or, indeed, to seem to be piling on. I suppose my reaction is that of course I take the force of the argument that women writers and writers of colour are already under enough 'silencing' pressures as it is without imposing yet another in the form of a 'No Awards Self-Pimpage' interdiction. But at the same time I genuinely don't see how me saying well that argument has changed my mind, I'm going to pimp all my White Hetero Male writings after all! would be any kind of help as far as that goes. Nor would I ever advocate direct censorship; it's about the protocols of community, about what is considered courteous and discourteous behaviour. If we moved to a situation where male white writers felt too inhibited to self-pimp, but other kinds of writers felt comfortable using the platform, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Better, though (or so it seems to me) would be the kind of world you intimate in one of your latter hands, viz. a world where fans, of all colours, backgrounds, genders and sexual orientation, reserved to themselves the business of reccing texts for awards, as with the voting.

David Moles said...

I'm trying to figure out how the panel analogy works. Clearly the panel isn't the award, because you can't get an award just by declaring you have it. Clearly the panel isn't the awards ballot, because you can't get on the awards ballot just by declaring you're on it. Maybe the panel is the set of works the voters were going to consider putting on the awards ballot? In which case it's hard for me, the voter, to see why this should be a bad thing. But I can see why a critic would think it devalues criticism.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As Niall and Martin have suggested on twitter, David, the example of the panel isn't an analogy. It's an illustration of the point that "self-promotion" is a blanket term that comprises many sorts of behavior, not all of which we might find desirable.

More broadly, I suppose I was also trying to make the point that while for the individual author self-promotion might be a compelling motivation, it isn't necessarily the business of fandom as a whole to enable or encourage that behavior. The person putting themselves on a panel could argue that they are engaging in self-promotion, which is a perfectly reasonable motive for them to have. But our goal as a community should be the success of the panel, and the convention, for all its participants, a goal that isn't necessarily furthered by allowing any particular author to promote themselves. By the same token, I think our goal as a community should be to produce the strongest and most diverse award ballot we can, not to further any particular author's desire for an award.

everythingisnice said...

Martin Lewis writes that the unspoken subtext of award eligibility posts is "my work is among the five best works of its kind published last year." I think that, more often, the subtext is "I want an award."

I'm not sure I'd describe either as a subtext; they are the two implications of putting yourself forward and they both sit very near the surface. But I agree with you that the latter rather than the former is the actual motivation (and my challenge to authors at the end of that post to publically pick one or the other is an attempt to flush that out).

-Peder said...

I'm completely with you on point five. Whether or not the self-promotion/larger internet presence is behind it or not, there are some awfully weak things coming out. Ok, ok, my taste differs from those of the voters. That's no slight on them. Everyone has different tastes. But frankly, if the voters are going to keep giving me Mira Grant, I'm simply going to assume that we're looking for much different things.

Standback said...

It's interesting to revisit this discussion now that the nominations have been determined and we've got VD on the ballot.

I feel a sad little irony here, since many of the consider-for-your-nomination posts I personally saw had an explicit goal of producing a more diverse ballot, with more women, authors of color, and nationalities. But those with the opposite goal did basically the same thing - and were more uniform and less diverse, which must have helped.

Overall, I feel like the 2014 ballot wound up with representatives from several major clans and factions of fandom. As though several distinct (and conflicting) cliques each used the signal-boosting of the internet to get something in. And then in the final voting, the overall voting body will choose the awards between them. Although I'm dismayed at some of the nominations on the ballot, that actually sounds like a fairly reasonable system, given the diverse and divisive streams of the SFF community.

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