The Real Access Problem with the Hugos

There has been a lot of stuff written in response to the Hugo award nomination mess, most of it stupid. Some of it is stupid to such an impressive degree that it actually makes me feel sympathetic toward people who I know are wrong about everything.

One of the few exceptions is the long essay by Eric Flint. This comes as a mild surprise, as I've always mentally lumped him in with the folks whose incessant political wrangling was a blight on Usenet's rec.arts.sf.written back in the day; now I can't remember if he was actually one of the annoying idiots, or if I've mistakenly put him in with them because I associate them with Baen...

Anyway, Flint's post is very good, and gets to the thing I think is the real problem here. A lot of the anti-Puppy writers take the basically correct position that since the Puppy slate was put in by a tiny fraction of the eligible nominators, the solution is to just get more people to nominate. To this end, there are measures like Mary Robinette Kowall's offer to buy supporting memberships for random people. Which is a lovely gesture, and I applaud it, but I think it kind of misses the point.

I don't think the real barrier to Hugo nomination is financial-- after all, there were thousands of people who already had memberships but didn't nominate at all, and many more (like me) who sent in nomination ballots with a lot of the categories blank. What's stopping those people isn't lack of money, but lack of information, because of the factors Flint identifies:

The first objective factor is about as simple as gets. The field is simply too damn BIG, nowadays. [...]

Forty or fifty years ago—even thirty years ago, to a degree—it was quite possible for any single reader to keep on top of the entire field. You wouldn’t read every F&SF story, of course. But you could maintain a good general knowledge of the field as a whole and be at least familiar with every significant author.

Today, that’s simply impossible. Leaving aside short fiction, of which there’s still a fair amount being produced, you’d have to be able to read at least two novels a day to keep up with what’s being published—and that’s just in the United States. In reality, nobody can do it, so what happens is that over the past few decades the field has essentially splintered, from a critical standpoint.

This problem of not being able to keep on top of things is especially acute for the Hugos, because as Flint points out, they're designed around how the field was fifty-odd years ago:

Both the Hugo and the Nebula give out four literary awards. (I’m not including here the more recent dramatic awards, just the purely literary categories.) Those awards are given for best short story, best novelette, best novella, and best novel. In other words, three out of four awards—75% of the total—are given for short fiction.

Forty or fifty years ago, that made perfect sense. It was an accurate reflection of the reality of the field for working authors. F&SF in those days was primarily a short form genre, whether you measured that in terms of income generated or number of readers.

But that is no longer true. Today, F&SF is overwhelmingly a novel market. Short fiction doesn’t generate more than 1% or 2% of all income for writers. And even measured in terms of readership, short fiction doesn’t account for more than 5% of the market.

Taken together, you have the reason why so few people nominate, and why many of those who do send in ballots that are 75% blank. The market is so big and diffuse, and three-quarters of the categories are for stuff that just isn't widely read. You can see this in this year's stats: over 1,800 people sent in ballots with Best Novel, but just over 1,000 nominated for Best Novelette. And that's with the Puppy voters inflating the totals.

It's not just a matter of getting more people the right to vote-- the set of people who nominated a novel but didn't nominate any short fiction is about three times the plausible size of the Puppy bloc. What you need is a way to get those people the information they need to fill out those categories they're leaving blank.

Now, in an ideal world, those people would all read a lot of short fiction and make up their own minds about which stories are their favorites, and the voting will take care of itself. In that same ideal world, I have a pony. A magical nanotech pony that eats carbon dioxide and craps out diamonds.

It's not enough to buy memberships for more people: you can already more than fix the problem with just the set of people who already nominate, let alone the people who were eligible to nominate (there were something close to 10,000 of those, I think, from last year's Worldcon attendance). What you need is a way to help those people nominate in categories of works that just aren't that widely read.

And that's a really tough problem to crack, if you're implacably opposed to counter-slates. There are a few relatively neutral recommendation lists, but they're not much use. The Locus recommended reading list usually does a decent job identifying high-quality works, but it's mostly useless to a low-information potential voter-- in the most under-nominated category, novelette, they recommend more than 50 stories. Only a fraction of those are readily available on-line, with most of them in a bunch of anthologies that voters would need to buy or get from the library. And the Locus list comes out in February, leaving barely more than a month to read enough of that to make an informed decision.

(The situation isn't a whole lot better in the other short fiction categories; the list of recommended novellas is at least short, but about half are published as stand-alone books, where you could get about a third of the novelette nominees out of the same handful of anthologies. The short story list is about the same size as the novelette list, but at least those are, by definition, shorter. Another option would be the various "Year's Best" anthologies, but those have similar size and timing issues, though they would reduce the expense somewhat...)

I'm not sure how you fix that without slates, or something that will look too much like a slate to satisfy a good chunk of the anti-Puppy crowd. Tweaking the nomination rules isn't really a fix, but it's probably the best you could do-- of the options, I'd probably go for keeping the nominations per ballot at five and expanding the number of finalists to ten. Yeah, that doesn't leave a lot of time to read the ten finalists before the voting closes, but it's still better than trying to plow through the Locus list. And even before the Puppy nonsense started, it was a rare year when the Hugo ballot didn't feature a few books and stories I stopped halfway through.

That's a slow change, though, because of the way WSFS works, and the best it can do is limit the impact of slates (so, for example, it wouldn't prevent everyone's least favorite walking prion disease from oozing his way onto the Best Editor ballot). If you're going to do all that Business Meeting work to change the rules, you might be better off changing the categories instead, to better reflect the modern market.

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If most of what's being read these days is novels, then perhaps the novel part of the Hugos needs to be expanded. Best Hard SF Novel, Best Space Opera Novel, Best Paranormal Teen Romance Novel, Best It's 10,000 Years In The Future But All The Characters Are Straight White Males Novel, etc.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 18 Apr 2015 #permalink

I used to be a SF fanatic (reading novels constantly)- but not anymore. I think the biggest factor for my reading decline is that novels have become too long and series dominate the field. I honestly think novels (regardless of genre) were better when they were about 200 pages max (with exceptions like LOTR, of course).

Leaving out the ballot paper blank is the reason most people think what is being read these days are science fiction novels and I would guess that is what Hugo thinks as well. But the reality is what Kim says, series dominate the field because novels have just become too long to read and people do not find that interesting any more.

By R.S Sitwala u1… (not verified) on 19 Apr 2015 #permalink

After this debacle, I'd support just dissolving the Hugos altogether. They've become irredeemably tainted.

i agree with Kimr about the length of the novels. I love certain authors to pieces, but I don't like spending three days or more on one book. Also, can we get the steampunk out of sci-fi? And the romance?

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink

I agree with Kimr that a novel does not need to be very long in order to be excellent literature. For example, their are quite a few short novels that are brilliant and stood the test of time (Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, etc.). However, in some cases it is necessary to add volume to a book in order to tell the full complex story. Look at Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones for example.

By u15009565 (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink

One possibility would be to go to a two-year rolling window of eligibility (like the Nebula Awards already has). Aside from giving people more of an opportunity to seek out relevant works, it would also have probably resulted in "The Martian" getting a well-deserved Best Novel nomination this time around.

By Ray Radlein (not verified) on 20 Apr 2015 #permalink

I think giving people the right to nominate 5 is a mistake and the easiest quick fix, at most 3 would work. Expanding the final ballot is the next step but I think 10 is too many.
Having all genre magazines and blogs and podcasts talking and writing about best of the year in all categories from the end of December to the end of January or later is a must, the more involvement the better.
Doubt anything will prevent the rise of slates, parties naturally arise even on these elections supposedly about merit.

Ray: Funny you should mention the Martian, since I'd just borrowed it from a small library my museum has. Based on your recommendation, I read it,and now I think I'm going to have to buy the darn thing. I even liked the ending, which is odd since I'm a pessimist.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 26 Apr 2015 #permalink