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Why I love the Hugos

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I've been a fan of the Hugo Awards all my life.

I recognize that the awards have problems. For example, I was shocked when I first learned how few people are involved in nominating and voting; I think my first exposure to that information came from George Flynn's excellent stats-heavy article “Hugo Voting: Let's Look at the Record,” which I think I encountered sometime in the late '90s.

Ever since then, I've been trying to encourage people to participate in the process. And although I don't think my encouragements in particular have made a significant difference in numbers, I've been very pleased to see the numbers go way up in recent years.

I've also been very pleased to see an increase in diversity of authors in recent years. For example, see my author-gender stats page, which shows an amazing increase in the number of women nominated for the fiction awards over the past few years. (And then, of course, a big drop in 2015.)

But I've also seen a whole lot of people upset about the Hugos over the years. The most common complaint, which I see from a lot of people nearly every year, is that they don't consider the nominated works to be the best of that year; the works that they nominated, or that they would have nominated if they'd nominated anything, aren't on the ballot.

Some of the other frequent complaints I've seen (the first two are factually incorrect, but the rest are imo at least semi-valid concerns):

  • The people in charge should have put together a better list. [This comes from people who think it's a juried award, because they don't know how the process works.]
  • Every year, the number of people participating gets smaller. [This is demonstrably false, but I see people say it every year.]
  • It's a popularity contest; it rewards popular work rather than good work.
  • The nominating-and-voting system is confusing, and hard to participate in, and people who know how it works are sometimes dismissive of people who are new to the process.
  • The categories aren't parallel and don't make sense. (For example, why do we have Pro Editor but not Prozine?)
  • Changing the way anything about the award works (adding a new category, redefining an existing category, etc) is extremely difficult, and people familiar with the process are sometimes dismissive of attempts at reform.
  • Such-and-such work on the ballot is objectively bad, so there's no possible explanation for how it got onto the ballot other than underhanded campaigning or nominators using criteria other than quality.
  • The Hugos don't represent what I like; therefore, they are imminently doomed to irrelevancy and self-destruction.
  • Participation is too expensive.

There are more, but I think that's most of the most common ones I see. And because I don't spend a lot of time in the conservative and libertarian parts of the blogosphere, most of where I see these complaints coming from is people who I'm in political agreement with.

I sympathize with many of these concerns. I quite often don't find much that I like on Hugo ballots. I've used No Award a lot ever since my first Hugo vote, which was probably in 1989. I regularly see works on the ballot that I think are not just not-great, but terrible. And although I think I have a pretty good handle on how the various processes work, and I like and respect people who are heavily involved in keeping the system running, I can also see how the whole system can feel weird and exclusionary to people who aren't used to it.

So given all that, why do I still love the Hugos?

One of the biggest reasons is that I love the awards ceremony itself. Because sitting in that room with a couple thousand people who care about science fiction and fantasy feels like coming home to me.

I acknowledge that the system is contentious and complicated and initially confusing, and I'm sad that people feel excluded, because I want everyone who's interested to feel like they can be part of it. In general, I feel like bringing more people into the process means that the awards are more valid, because they're less likely to represent the views of only a few people.

And there's a whole lot of room for expansion. Even though I agree that the financial barrier to entry is high, that's certainly not the only issue, because every year a large percentage of the Worldcon members who are eligible to vote don't do so. So it's great that the nominating and voting numbers have been going up and up in recent years, but there are still a lot of people who could vote but don't, and a lot of other people who want to but can't.

But even so. Despite all of the system's flaws; despite my eye-rolling when an MC yet again does the “I'm going to make this ceremony last as long as possible” schtick; despite occasional bad behavior on the part of an MC or a presenter or a nominee; despite my personal disappointment that the magazine I edited for twelve years hasn't yet won one (I've wanted a Hugo since I was a kid); despite the sometimes-contentious arguing about what should be nominated and what should win; despite my dubiousness about making nominees sit there tensely waiting to find out whether they've won, and about the basic idea of declaring one particular work or person to be the “best” of the year; despite everything—the Hugos are important to me.

And I especially love the Hugo ceremony itself, in all its disparate parts. The pause to honor the people in our field who've died over the past year, as their names scroll by on the screen. The awards honoring contributions to fandom, like the Big Heart award. The occasional very entertaining MCs. The beautiful designs for the Hugo award base. The passing-along of the Campbell tiara. The delight of most of the winners. The sometimes gracious and sometimes funny and sometimes overwhelmed acceptance speeches. The rush to analyze the stats afterward. The whole thing, flaws and all. It's one of my favorite things about Worldcon, which is (despite its flaws) one of my favorite conventions.

(If you've never been to a Hugo ceremony and you can go, I recommend it. If you can't go in person, I recommend watching the video livestream, if you can do that. Some parts of it may be a little offputting, especially to newcomers—see above about flaws—but I think those are generally outweighed by the good aspects.)

And although the ceremony is my favorite thing about the Hugos, I feel like that sense of community is also part of the award process leading up to that ceremony. We as a community talk about the works that we like; we individually decide which ones we like best, and nominate those; then we as a community engage with that list of finalists. We read and review the works, we look over what's been done in the past year, we argue with each other, we talk about What This Means For The Future Of The Field, we make predictions about what and who will win; and then after the awards are given out, we complain a little and we gear up to do it all again the next year.

So when I see (some of) the Puppies say that they've felt shut out of the system, I have complicated reactions.

First, I have some sympathy for that, just as I do for anyone who feels shut out of the system.

But I also think that they may be unaware of how shut out of the system many other people feel, and have felt. I think they may not understand or recognize that plenty of people with political views strongly opposed to theirs have also been feeling shut out.

Part of my initial gut reaction was, certainly, that I wished the Puppies would go away and leave my award that I care about to people like me. But that was just my gut-level emotional reaction. When I thought about it more, I had to acknowledge that the award doesn't belong to me-and-people-like-me, and never has. Even for someone who's as much of an insider as I am, someone who's been immersed in the system for twenty-plus years, the Hugos quite often fail to represent my tastes.

And that's okay. Most years, there are at least one or two items on the ballot that I loved, and most years, at least one or two of those items win, and that's always lovely. And some years, most of what wins isn't to my tastes, and that makes me sad, but it's all part of how the system works. No system can please everyone, and the Hugos are more important to me than any individual year's outcome.

So what I would hope that the Puppies and all the rest of us can have is this:

A sense of engagement with the field, and with the awards; a sense of being included in the process, no matter how it turns out; a sense of community; and a desire to bring more people who love science fiction and fantasy into the fold, to get more people involved in participating in and sustaining the awards that are, in some ways, at the heart of the community of this particular branch of fandom.

(I wrote most of this in April, but stalled and didn't finish it 'til now.)

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