So, I happened to look at The 2009 Hugo Nominations again today, and was again reminded that I am perplexed by the Hugos.
Mostly, what perplexes me is that the Hugos are simultaneously a Big Deal and not a Big Deal. The nominations are decided by three or four hundred fans, and the actual awards are decided by seven or eight hundred fans. It’s not like the Booker Prize or something where there is a panel of judges, highly qualified eminences worthy of the most scathing criticism when they reward utter crap instead of the obviously worthy stuff I like. And as a popular expression of what is actually being read in the streets, by people who should probably go home or at least to a coffeehouse somewhere, it’s such a laughably small group that it can be easily dominated by partisans of one or another writer, or certainly by partisans of one or another style. I mean.
Now, before I go on with that whole irrelevance thing, I should discuss the idea that the voting pool for the Hugos is a good working combination of the two. Because the WorldCon draws a good chunk of writers and publishers, the group of people with voting rights is disproportionately made up of people with a good deal of experience in The Industry (as with the Motion Picture Academy for the Oscars). Instead of being an insular group of insiders, though, that Inner Ring is leavened with the fen who get a vote as part of the package of going to the con, or who have spent a little dough to support the con. The combination (this argument would go) works better than either one or the other.
Or, there’s the argument that specfic writers and fen are special cases, much more likely to read each other’s stuff than in other genres, and that Kazuo Ishiguro would be a lousy judge of Martin Amis novels, but Connie Willis would be a terrific judge of Ian McDonald books. And that the fen are more likely to read all around within the genre, and are therefore better judges than readers of literary novels or historical novels. And as proof of that, we can look at the list of Hugo-winners and compare it to the National Book Awards or the best-seller lists, and frankly, the Hugos do look pretty good, considering.
On the other hand, my main point isn’t that the Hugos suck, it’s that the Hugos aren’t a Big Deal, or shouldn’t be seen as one. You can tell it is a big deal because people argue about it a lot, which is a sign of a Big Deal. The set-up should keep it from being one of the things worth arguing about. It should be one of those things that you find when you click on the Awards link: ALA Notable Book, BookSense Pick, Hugo nominee, as featured on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. You know? Certainly a cool thing, but not an on-the-cover-of the-next-printing thing. Whereas, in the word we live in, the Hugo is The Thing for a specfic novel, and then Nebula is The Other Thing, and then there are a bunch of other awards that nobody really argues over with any vehemence. And I don’t think there’s any good objective reason for that—or for that matter any subjective reason I have found persuasive.
And, you know, this year I happen to have read three of the five nominated novels (no, I have only blogged two as of yet), and although I loved one and thought the other two were perfectly good, I didn’t think of any of them as worthy of the Top Award in the Field. And in fact, my preference is for the Top Award in the Field to go to something I wouldn’t have picked up anyway, if you know what I mean. The Hugos aren’t set up to do that, I know. But that’s why they aren’t really relevant.
OK, look. This year, three out of five I read, two because I read all their stuff anyway, for whatever reason, and one because the publisher sent me an ARC. Last year I read two out of five (again, I had read and enjoyed previous books by the authors), rejected one because I don’t like his stuff, put one more on the hm list, and picked one up at the library because it was a Hugo nominee and didn’t get past the first chapter. In fact, I think the last time I finished reading a book that I had started because it had been nominated for a Hugo was in 2006 with Spin, and then before that I think 2003’s Hominids (which I read somewhat later), and then we’re back to Darwin’s Radio. That’s three in ten years.
Of course, I’ve read lots of others, and it’s certainly possible that I would have enjoyed reading others if I had bothered to get them, but still: here’s a fellow who reads a lot of specfic (30-40 novels a year, not counting re-reads, counting YASF) , and the list of Hugo nominees over ten years comes down to two big categories: books I read for other reasons and books I wouldn’t read if you paid me (well, I would want cash). With a handful of outliers. That ain’t good.
And you could argue that the purpose of the Hugo nominations is not to introduce people like me to new books that I would enjoy but would not otherwise have read—and that’s true, the purpose is to award a sort of Best Book Prize, but then, why is it a Big Deal?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
Post Script: Yes, I know, there are other Hugos. It’s plausible that people argue about them, too, but seriously: short stories and novellas are just not a Big Deal these days, culturally speaking, and besides, I don’t like them very much.