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What’s wrong with the Hugos, part 3

By / June 21, 2015 / no comments

So, having first argued that science fiction is now too big for the Hugos, I then went on to argue that the governance of the award is too slow and too prone to complexify rather than simplify. At the end of that post I said that one of the major ways in which this unnecessary complexity shows itself is in the proliferation of categories. This brings us to:

Problem 3: The Award categories are inappropriate

I hold that too many of the award categories are irrelevant, or so poorly shaped that the voters do not know what they are actually voting for. And yet one of the most persistent and pernicious trends over the last few years has been to add further categories, which does nothing to make the whole thing simpler or clearer.

I think these problems, to a greater or lesser degree, apply to just about every category, but to try to keep my argument as straightforward as possible, I’ll confine myself to just a few of the categories or groups of categories.

Let’s start with the four fiction categories, novel, novella, novelette and short story. This is one of the most consistent parts of the award, which is why most people probably just take them as they are without really thinking about it. But here there is a problem of definition.

For the purposes of the Hugos, the division is simply one of word length. A novel is anything over 40,000 words; a novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words; novelette is from 7,500 to 17,500 words; and a short story is anything under 7,500 words. Let’s be honest, there is no structural difference between a work of fiction of 17,450 words and one of 17,550 words, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. Though this division of novella and novelette is peculiar to science fiction, other branches of literature don’t divide up short fiction in quite this way.

But the more you think about these divisions, the more peculiar they become.

40,000 words was probably the average length of a story serialised across two or three issues of a magazine, back in the day when magazines did that sort of thing. Nowadays it is ludicrously short for a novel. In fact, nowadays there is a trend to publish novellas as stand-alone books, and most of these are probably hovering around the 40,000 word mark. As far as most voters are concerned, I doubt if they can see much difference between nominating something like Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress for best novel or best novella (and I happen to know that the publishers submitted it for both juried short fiction awards and juried novel awards, so they were very happy to maintain the ambiguity).

This three-part division of short fiction comes (as so many things connected with the Hugos do) from the magazines. The digest magazines, like F&SF or Analog, have long divided up their contents pages between serial, novella, novelette and short story. So when most people got most of their contact with the genre through the magazines, it seemed natural to divide up the awards in the same way; and because the magazines already divided up their short fiction, voters didn’t have to wonder which category any particular work belonged in.

Today, of course, it is very different. The vast majority of the short fiction now nominated for awards does not come from the old digest magazines, but from anthologies, online magazines, non-digest magazines like Interzone, or short pieces that are published as standalone ebooks, none of which distinguish between novella, novelette or short story. So when nominating a piece for an award, you either have to count the words, or guess. And that’s not so easy. In 1987, when The Dark Knight Returns got onto the ballot for Best Related Work, it had actually received nominations for novel, novella, novelette and short story as well as related work, voters just didn’t know where to place it, and that is a surprisingly common problem.

The short fiction categories, in other words, are arbitrary and unrelated to anything that contemporary sf readers are going to know or care about.

But the novel category isn’t much better. 40,000 words is, as I say, ludicrously short for a novel these days. But the upper limit would seem to be infinite, given that all 14 volumes of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, completed by Brandon Sanderson, was on the ballot in 2014. How do you make such comparisons? Given that individual volumes of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun were nominated for the award, it is easy to imagine a situation where a part of one series and the whole of another are going head to head for the award. That way lies madness.

In fairness, someone out there recognises this. I’ve learned that there is a proposal to eliminate the novelette category, and introduce a category of Best Saga. On the surface this is sensible, but it still feels like a sticking-plaster-on-a-broken-limb solution to me. By all means cut down the short fiction categories, that can only be a good thing. But the Best Saga category, obviously a knee-jerk response to the Jordan/Sanderson nomination last year, doesn’t make sense. Presumably this can only be awarded when the saga (by which I am assuming that they mean multi-volume work, though I am not sure if there is meant to be a restriction on number of volumes) is complete; but The Wheel of Time took 13 years to complete, are fans meant to be that patient? What about open-ended series that show no sign of reaching a conclusion, the Honor Harrington series, the Miles Vorkosigan series, how are they accommodated? And what happens if someone writes a standalone novel, which is so good it wins an award, and sometime later decides to make it the basis for a series (Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood would be a good example)? In other words how many series are going to reach their conclusion in any given year? Are there going to be enough to make a short list? And what do you do if a series is brought to an end, then the author thinks again and continues it (as Douglas Adams did with his trilogy in five parts, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)?

I do not see Best Saga is a viable category. But there was controversy about The Wheel of Time getting onto the ballot, so the immediate reaction is to expand the categories to accommodate that situation in future. This sort of thing has happened before. There was a big controversy when The Dark Knight Returns was included on the Best Related Work category, so when Watchmen came out the next year, WSFS acted to prevent the same situation arising by renaming the category Best Related Non-Fiction Book and throwing in a new category, Other Forms. Watchmen duly won Other Forms, and the category was quietly dropped the following year and has never reappeared. I think Best Saga is a non-category in the same way that Other Forms was.

So the fiction categories are a mess and could become messier, but they are actually much less of a problem than many other Hugo categories.

Let’s take another pair of categories, Best Editor (Long Form) and Best Editor (Short Form). Actually there used to be just the one category of Best Editor, but in another display of how WSFS likes to make things ever more complex they split it into two a few years ago.

Now, I have a reasonable idea of what I’m voting for in Best Editor (Short Form): someone whose name appears on the cover of a good anthology or on the masthead of a favourite magazine. Actually, it’s not as straightforward as that, yet again there’s an element of comparing apples and oranges. The person who edits a reprint anthology, such as a year’s best anthology, is doing one particular job (basically, scouring as many short fiction outlets as possible and making an aesthetic judgement, but without actually editing any of the fiction), but the person editing an original anthology is doing a very different job, commissioning stories, excavating promising work from the slush pile, working with the author through various revisions to make the piece fit for publication. And again, the person editing one anthology a year is doing a very different job from the person charged with bringing out maybe a dozen issues of a magazine in the same period. So there are a number of different interpretations of the job of editor involved here, but at least there is a name attached to the end result.

But Best Editor (Long Form) is a very different beast. Tor is the only publisher I know who regularly includes an editor’s name in the books they put out, though even that is not invariably the case. So, if you are not plugged in to the publishing world (as most readers, most Hugo voters, are not), the first problem is knowing who should be in contention.

But that’s the easy part, the main problem is knowing what on earth it is you are voting for. Let’s assume that we know the name of the people who edited all the books published in the year. (Actually, even this is problematic, because editing is a multifarious job that can involve, for instance, commissioning a book, accepting or rejecting it for publication, working with the author on revisions, copy editing, proof reading, etc, etc. These are distinct roles in the progress of a book from initial idea to finished copy, but they may actually be done by several different people, so identifying just one editor may be questionable. Nevertheless, let’s assume we have just the one editor …) So we know that X edited the best novel of the year, while Y edited an enjoyable potboiler. Does that make X the best editor? But that best novel might have arrived on the editor’s desk in pristine condition requiring no further work, while Y might have performed editorial wonders turning a messy, incomplete manuscript into the book you enjoyed. You don’t know, you can’t know, because what the editor does is invisible, and intentionally so. Therefore, there is no way that the reader, the voter, can know who is the best editor of the year, it is literally meaningless to them.

So here, as in several other categories, people are being asked to vote for the best without having any reasonable means of deciding what “best” might actually mean in this instance.

I suspect, in the majority of cases, people vote on name recognition, which is hardly a valid way of going about it. And which illustrates another problem with these and other categories: we are being asked to vote for a person, not a piece of work. I firmly believe that the only awards that should go to a person are lifetime achievement awards decided by one’s colleagues. Other than those rare special instances, I think every award should be for a specified piece of work. This gives you the voter something to assess. Wouldn’t an award for Best Original Anthology make a lot more sense than an award for Best Editor (Short Form)? Personally I’d scrap both Editor awards, unless you could make them for an identifiable work. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think editors deserve recognition and awards; just that such awards should come from within the industry decided by people who know what they are voting for. A popular vote award where the voters cannot know what any of the candidates has done to merit such an award is totally inappropriate.

There are other categories that are pretty meaningless. I could go on for hours about the fan categories, for instance, if only because nobody seems to have the first idea what is meant by a fanzine or a fan writer, and fancast (such an ugly term) really doesn’t make much sense. And then there’s Semiprozine (another ugly made-up word) which was originally devised because Locus kept winning the Best Fanzine category, so they opened a new category to give other fanzines a chance of winning (on the same principle I spent years convinced that they were going to devise a Best Fanwriter who isn’t David Langford category or a Best Artist who isn’t Michael Whelan). But the requirements for what constitutes a semiprozine are again arcane and probably opaque to the majority of potential voters.

In fact there are too many categories that don’t make much sense. Of these the most egregious example has to be Best Related Work. I said of Best Editor (Short Form) that it was like comparing apples and oranges; Best Related Work is like comparing apples and pyjamas. It’s a catch-all category for anything that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else, and it keeps being expanded to take in more and more diverse elements. At one point it was specifically for a non-fiction book. Now, even this was defined very loosely, so that it could include an encyclopedia, a book of memoirs, a collection of academic essays, and a volume of artwork without any commentary. It’s not easy to compare these, but I suppose there is some slight connection between them. But the category has become ever looser as the years go by. Nowadays it might include an individual blog post or a piece of music, or just about anything else: so long as you can say there is some connection with science fiction and it doesn’t fit into any of the other categories, then you can probably shovel it in here. This has gone beyond being meaningless, it is actually idiotic.

I might know, for instance, how to assess a piece of criticism; I might similarly know how to assess a piece of music; but how on earth am I meant to decide whether the piece of criticism is better than the piece of music? How am I meant to decide between a collection of book covers by my favourite artist and a biography of my favourite author? We do need a good popular award for non-fiction, but believe me, this isn’t it.

Okay, I’ve been rambling on for too long, but basically it comes down to this: most of the categories of the Hugo Awards are not fit for purpose. They are dependent on knowledge that the voter cannot have, or they make distinctions that are irrelevant to most voters, or they require comparison between items that cannot sensibly be compared. And these problems, or variations of them, extend into just about every one of the 16 categories there currently are in the Hugo Awards. It’s a systemic problem that ties in with the problems of governance and the problems of relevance that I have already highlighted.

I don’t know what the solution is, other than tearing the whole edifice down and rebuilding it from scratch on firmer grounds and on a simpler model. But I don’t think that is going to happen.

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