Fear and Loathing at the Awards Table 2

John Scalzi and Damien G. Walter have been engaged in a bit of an internet dust-up over criticism of science fiction’s two big awards — the Hugos and the Nebulas — which tangentially touches on something I wrote awhile back, regarding the pure subjectivity of any voted awards system and why it’s a bit odd to see anyone asserting that their subjective opinion is an objective fact, based solely on appeals to authority, or educated taste. Without wading into Scalzi’s and Walter’s particular debate, their mutual back-and-forth does make me wonder (again) why science fiction fans and professionals simultaneously crave and disdain external validation from the mainstream and academic creative establishments?

Especially when science fiction and fantasy consistently score at the motion picture box office — motion pictures being arguably the dominant creative innovation of the last 100 years, above almost everything else, including the internet. How is it that “skiffy” whales with films like Avatar or Star Wars, and yet written skiffy continues to take a back seat to ‘serious’ fiction produced for both contemporary commercial consumers, and the more esoteric academic sector? Hasn’t the Harry Potter franchise effectively buried the notion that “skiffy” is either too dense, too technical, too crude, or just too stupid to perform effectively on a bigger stage?

But wait, Harry Potter has a hard time getting respect even among “skiffists” who should know better. As with Twilight, Harry Potter is often derided by skiffists (skiffies?) for being too “mundane” to qualify as a true product of the genre. Its success damns it with skiffists as surely as with academics or mainstream critics. Success being one of the surest signs that a thing is not, in fact, art. But rather a grubby perversion of art for monetary gain.

Thus we seem to have a peculiar dichotomy: the academics and literary folk within science fiction and fantasy disdaining a popular science fiction and fantasy product, while at once disdaining — and yet craving very badly — the approval of the external (larger?) academic and literary world, which seems to wholly disdain literary science fiction and fantasy et al at the same time it voraciously and unapologetically consumes speculative and fantastic product geared for the large or small screens.

It’s enough to make your head hurt!

Mr. Walter’s main point appears to be that nobody outside of science fiction or fantasy gives a damn about the Hugo or the Nebula awards. And he may be right. Certainly I’d never heard of them until I picked up Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, two books noteworthy because they were the only books (at the time) to have picked up back-to-back Hugo and Nebula wins in successive years. But isn’t that the whole point of the Hugo and the Nebula? To provide popular recognition for outstanding genre product that will never get the time of day from the Pulitzer or the Nobel? Why would anyone working in science fiction or fantasy particularly care about external validation, especially when it’s a fair bet that even a modest genre story turned into a motion picture will reap the scruffy little skiffy writer enough cash to retire ten times over?

I somehow suspect that consumers voting with their wallets offsets academic or mainstream critics voting with their blogs or their review columns. Given the choice between academic or mainstream critical acknowledgement, and sales, I am afraid I have to pick sales 100 times out of 100. Simply because I’ve never pretended to be any kind of great artist, nor even a particularly great storyteller. I love writing science fiction (and occasional fantasy) stories because it’s fun, because it allows me to use my imagination far more than if I write in other genres, and because it appeals to the boy in me who very much loved and adored Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Captain Kirk, and Mr. Spock. And everything and everyone that came with them — warts and all.

Which takes me back to wondering how or why the Hugo and the Nebula appear to be falling down a familiar rabbit hole: praising and recognizing work for suspiciously academic or critical reasons, rather than raw, unadulterated fun. Some of my professional friends write bestseller after bestseller, and can’t ever come close to a Hugo or a Nebula. Why? Because their success marks them as too ‘low brow’ for the trophies? My editor Stan Schmidt has edited Analog for 30 years now — still the English language’s most popular science fiction magazine in the world — and he can’t buy a Hugo. It appears WorldCon voters would sooner dig up the most obscure, most out-of-the-way short fiction editor, before they’ll deign to give the metal rocketship to a man who has labored long and well in the service of the field which apparently can’t be bothered to recognize everything he’s accomplished.

So perhaps Mr. Walter is correct. The Hugo and the Nebula don’t matter as much as we skiffies (skiffists?) like to think they do. If true, I am going to suggest that we did it to ourselves. By too often running away from the core of what made science fiction and fantasy fun and exciting in the first place. By pursuing and praising the very stuff that many of us abhorred when it was thrust down our throats in AP English: stuffy, tired, tedious, boring literary style. Truman Capote being a good example, a writer for whom I reserve intense apathy, he so absolutely bored me at a time when science fiction lit up my world like a fireball. I gratefully retreated to my Star Trek novels and my Orson Scott Card when too much Capote got me down. And yet Capotishness seems alive and well in science fiction and fantasy, and I wonder if it isn’t because skiffies and skiffists alike unconsciously attempt to emulate the same staid derision heaped on us from the outside?

Which is not to say taste is wrong. I know many skiffists for whom the so-called Golden Age of the genre is a barbaric, embarrassing morass of unsophisticated pap. Even many New Wave authors aren’t spared the vivisection of the postmodern deconstructionist’s sharpened literary scalpels. And for the postmodern set, their taste in things cannot be wrong… for them. What is wrong is when the literary-minded in the genre try to export their opinion as objective fact, just as the literary and academic world outside the genre attempts to export its opinion as fact. Taste gets obliterated in the rush to pronounce literary dictatorship. Smash the windows and drive out those dirty sci-fi guys and their stupid spaceships and robots and space princesses!

If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t modify the Hugo or the Nebula so as to appeal to a crowd that already scorns skiffy. I’d modify them so as to bring in and appeal to a much broader range of genre readers, fans and professionals. When I sat in Reno two weeks ago and watched those rocketships being given out, it was plainly obvious that the tiny fraction of people — only a little over 2,000 if the math is accurate — who’d voted on the awards, were just that: a tiny fraction. They no more represented science fiction and fantasy consumers et al than the external critics who tut-tut at the genre as a whole. They are a tiny, decidedly biased slice of a pie that is essentially ignored. Hence a man can walk into the Hugo ceremony with multiple popular books to his name, and emerge empty handed — because a tiny slice of the genre’s consumer population gets to decide who is to be acknowledged in any given year. Regardless of how the ‘real’ consumer population might feel.

Once in awhile, the awards do get it right. My friend Eric James Stone did win a Nebula, for a story which was honest and pure and sweet in the way some of the best stories always are. Likewise, the Harry Potter franchise did earn a Hugo, albeit before the Harry Potter franchise outstripped most small countries in terms of annual revenue. But too often the awards seem to miss the whole point: recognizing extraordinary popular accomplishment in a genre which can’t get a break from the bigger literary universe, which is itself anti-popular in both tone and tenor. We skiffies and skiffist ought to be doing our awards differently from the snobs. Could we please have an equivalent to the Gold and Platinum Album? Where at least a pretense of objectivity — in the form of sales — keeps things honest? Where a work’s ability to draw in and hold the attention of large numbers of people matters, versus the jaded and often cynical whims of a self-assigned cognoscenti who seem more determined to award the boring, as opposed to the truly special, which has the capacity to touch and change lives?


  1. It kind of reminds me of the Academy Awards, the Oscars. Every award season I always read about how the academy is out of touch with what people actually watch, and they tend to award these art house films that people rarely watch. Once in a while they’ll award a Titanic, but usually you don’t know much about the films they like.

    The latest article I read was how all the Harry Potter movies, despite all their cultural impact and well-regarded cast, will probably not win an Oscar next year. Not only is it fantasy, but it’s “for kids” so it can’t be taken seriously.

  2. My thought is that Harry Potter has to win, for the same reasons The Return of the King had to win, for the LotR franchise: the books and movies had made so much money and left such a mammoth crater in the world-wide culture, to turn their backs on the franchise would have been a bald statement by the Academy that they’re not serious about the awards, and are in fact engaging in a dishonest enterprise unrelated to acknowledging actual accomplishment in the motion picture arts.

    Having said this, I won’t be shocked if Harry Potter gets the cold shoulder. That won’t shock me at all.

  3. What I think is cool about the Hugo awards is that it’s a voted process. People are literally rewarding meritorious books. It may be a popularity contest, but everyone’s got the same right to be a fanboy/fangirl and vote for their favourites; and the artists ultimately handed thems rocketships are rewarded for the non-negligible fact that a bunch of people liked their stuff. That’s pretty cool.

    That said, I also like to read critical reviews and browse the lists of “academically” selected awards, because the lists generated by those literati tend to contain different works that are generally neither more or less interesting to me than “popular” fiction – but definitely different or apart from what you’d see selected by popular vote. I think most people tend to fall on one side or another of the equation and look for either “populist” or “academic” laudations to determine how to fill their libraries, and assume that the other side is somehow inferior, but I think both critical and popular acclaim are pretty important: if I’d ignored one or the other, I’d have missed out on great books.

  4. I think this is a symptom of awards ceremonies in general. How many times have we screamed at the television during something like the Academy Awards because the quirky indie film received an award over our favorite blockbuster? Too many to count. But the Academy does give awards to the big names to. And so do the Hugos and the Nebulas. I’ve known about both awards for years, ever since I was a little girl. Both have always struck me as being a big deal and I’ve always respected Hugo and Nebula award winners. They haven’t lost their shine yet. I think they have their years of obscurity and their years of sense.

  5. Brad, I recently wrote what I think is a similar opinion in my most recent Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal. From my view point, these awards do two things:

    1. Provide an opportunity for fans of the genre to give props to their favorite work or author. (And I say author because, like the All Star game in baseball, sometimes, it is less about the work than it is the author, and that is okay.) In the case of the Nebulas, it allows peers to do the same.

    2. It provides a useful list of what might be considered important or notable reads within the genre. Note that I don’t say “the best” of the genre. But for my non-SF friends who are interested in trying out some SF, I will often point them to the Hugo and Nebula lists.

    3. As you say, it is something fun that fans and writers can bond around.

  6. Hey Brad,
    Interesting post. Certainly sales would be a more objective measure, but I think there is more at stake. SF, perhaps more than other genres, has the ability to forge new ground, tilling new idea after new idea. Popularity, particularly among YA, treads in dystopias and urban transylvanias, and becomes derivative and mundane. I am currently reading the novel, _The Windup Girl_, which didn’t, but could have won the hugo. It is fresh and innovative and I think it’s popularity will continue to increase beyond what some of the airport kiosk books achieved a couple of years ago (and can now be purchased for $0.01 each).

    I would love to be published in Analog and I am surprised Stan hasn’t won an award, but I wouldn’t change the format because of it. Some of the best school teachers never receive teacher of the year and some of the greatest peacemakers never win the nobel prize. So is life.

    Regardless, I enjoyed your post and it was also good to see some of the winners drop out for next year (was it Girl Genius and Clarkesworld?) to help rectify the inherent flaw of fans voting.

  7. “Could we please have an equivalent to the Gold and Platinum Album? Where at least a pretense of objectivity — in the form of sales — keeps things honest?” Yes, good idea Brad – even if they were given as well as the others – it’s not just a recognition of sales, but the amount of readers that author has touched and I think that’s important. I’d like to see BOTH though, because I also agree that awards should also be given to mind blowing newcomers who take a risk, particularly in Spec Fic, who may not actually have the sales or fan base yet. That said, I scratch my head at some of the winners in both Hugos and Nebulas – some claim that it’s more a popularity contest or who you know in the industry, but not sure myself as you do see the odd newbie break straight through with an award.

  8. I think it’s because science fiction (at least the mega-seller form of it) has become trendy and academic. Those teachers, students, readers, and writers have come to the party, and it’s becoming their party. Sucks to have been here since the 50’s, but we ancients who pounded on manual typewriters are supposed to be in our graves now. Can I show you my slide rule?

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