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Apr 15

Hugo Commentary: Best Fan Writer (long post – tangents included)

As I understand it the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) will be debating this year whether Best Graphic Story should survive as a category or be taken out and shot.

There’s actually a number of good reasons why you’d remove the category from the ballot ranging from graphic comics being well serviced by other awards (The Eisner Awards, for example) to the less well founded view that SF and F lit fans don’t generally read comics (or at least not since they were in their teens).

But what has really hurt Best Graphic Story since its inception in 2009 is that the ballot has looked liked a cut and paste job with the same titles appearing year after year and Girl Genius winning the category each year.  It became so embarrasing that Kaja and Phil Foglio (the creators of Girl Genius) decided to take themselves out of the running for this years ballot.*

As it is, the ballot for 2012 (which I’ll discuss in another post) isn’t that awe inspiring and still features 3 of the graphic stories that appeared on last years list.  In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if this lack of diversity sees the category removed for 2013.**

What you can bet, though, is that no-one will be talking about disbanding Best Fan Writer for exactly the same reasons.  This year, the ballot for Best Fan Writer, looks like this:

  • James Bacon
  • Claire Brialey
  • Christopher J Garcia
  • Jim C. Hines
  • Steven H Silver

Now, I should say at this point – before I go all constructive criticism on the category  – that although I’m only familiar with Jim Hines writing (and he’s wonderful and funny and insightful – go check out his blog here and this piece on “writing about rape” that he did for Apex) I understand from fanzine connoisseurs, like Bruce Gillespie, that the four other nominees are wonderful writers.

In 2011, Best Fan Writer looked liked this:

  • James Bacon
  • Claire Brialey
  • Christopher J Garcia
  • James Nicoll
  • Steven H Silver

And if you go back further not only do very few women appear (as noted by Rose Lemberg here) but it’s the same 17 names appearing over a thirteen year period.

But so what?  Doesn’t 17 names at least show some diversity – especially when compared to Best Graphic Story.  Well, let’s do the maths***:

In the13 years from 2000, Best Fan Writer had 65 slots available – if I divide that by 17 people that comes to 26%.  For the sake of my mathematical argument let’s call this % a diversity ratio.  The higher the percentage, the greater the diversity within in the category.  If I run the same whizz bang maths against Best Graphic Story, noting that the award has only gone for four years, I get the following – 12 distinct graphic novels for 21 available slots, which is a diversity ratio of 57%.

Now, I’m not willing to stake the claim that Best Graphic Story is a healthier category because the ballot over four years has featured a greater selection of nominees.  For one, my maths might be rubbish.  For two, I’m comparing four years against 13 years and against a category that’s been around since 1967.  And for three, if you look at the first four years of Best Fan Writer, you’ll see that there were 15 distinct nominees for the 20 slots available**** – a diversity ratio of 75%.  Maybe that’s the fairer comparison.

And yet… that final point does go to show how the rot has truly set in with Best Fan Writer, how over 45 years it’s gone from a category that featured a range of different voices to a category that’s features, for the most part, the same voices.

I can also hear the case being made that Best Graphic Story featured the same winner three years in a row – and in its first three years.  So while it might be a more “diverse category” than Best Fan Writer, at the least BFW had three different winners over that same three year period.

True.  Of course that’s discounting the 19 years in a row that Dave Langford – a wonderful and popular writer – won the Hugo.  OK, not the first three years of the category, but still a size-able chunk of its life.*****

But wait a moment, I hear someone saying, Best Fan Writer is no different to a bunch of other categories that also seem to feature the same people again and again and again.  For example, Best Professional Editor became so repetitive that it was decided to split it into Long Form and Short Form (not that that’s entirely solved the problem, but at least it’s allowed for greater diversity).  While Best Fan Artist has been far more insular than Best Fan Writer featuring only 14 distinct nominees over a 13 year period.******

I agree.  This is one of the main problems with the Hugos.  For a populist award that’s meant to be recognising all of fandom in all its different stripes, it’s extremely insular.  The Best Doctor Who Episode Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) has been taken over by one specific fan-base, while Best Fanzine feels like it’s been barricaded by the old farts of fandom.

The thing is, though, if we actually give a shit about any of these awards we should be doing our best to promote diversity.  Last year and this year a number of fans were making an effort to expose potential nominators to graphic stories they might not be aware of.  It didn’t necessarily pay-off in terms of this years ballot, but at least people were doing something.

And it’s high time that Best Fan Writer – the category I probably care about the most, which is why I’ve started with it – got the same treatment.  You see, I don’t want Best Fan Writer to be disbanded, or have its rules changed or have it slapped with a different title – Maybe Best Fan Writer on Paper Based Products and All Social Media/Blogger Platforms.  No, what I want is for the category to thrive and for it to highlight the startling and exciting array of voices out there in the fandom world.

So I say enough with the whinging and the moaning about how blogs and podcasts aren’t recognised properly by the Hugos and how certain bloggers never ever get nominated.  Rather, those of us who give a shit******* and who want to see that diversity ratio increase above 26% should be out there banging on about the fan writers we love (both e-zine / paper based and on blogs) and not two weeks before nominations close.********

At least that’s what I intend to do this year.

This isn’t an attack against this years nominees.  Aside from anything else they were chosen because they’re bloody good at what they do.  But the time has definitely come for this ballot to feature new names with new ideas.  And while I’ve done this before, here’s a list of bloggers (not exhaustive) that you should be reading, all of them worthy a spot on the Best Fan Writer ballot:

(I promise my other posts won’t be this long and tangential – or have maths).
*It’s not a practice I agree with. If the Hugo’s is genuinely an award that recognises those things that are most popular in a given category, then it should reflect that even if that popular person(s) or thing keeps winning each year.  That said, I understand why the Foglios pulled themselves from contention.

** I’ll talk about why this would be a shame in my post on Best Graphic Story

*** My maths is shit, so feel free to correct me and show me how horribly wrong I am

**** Yes, I’m counting those that withdrew

***** Out of curiosity, what fan debates erupted at the time Dave kept winning the award?  Was there talk of disbanding the award as WSFS meetings?

****** And often featuring the smallest amount of ballots of any category.

******* Yes, Macca I really do give a shit.

******** This isn’t just about getting more bloggers on the ballot.  Aren’t there paper based fan writers, like Bruce G, who deserve to feature on this ballot?

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  1. Jonathan M

    While it’s very kind and very flattering of you to mention my name in that kind of context, I genuinely think that the demographics are against us here…

    Back in the 1960s, the babyboomer generation came of age and began colonising most of the institutions created by previous generations. Because the babyboom was most evident in the US and because Worldcon is a largely-US based institution, the babyboomers colonised the Hugos and never let go.

    Now, fifty years later, we have an institution that is dominated by old white men because, back in the 1960s, that is what most fans were. Unfortunately this means that while new fans emerge all the time, the babyboom generation is still around accruing social capital and making its influence felt. Influence that continues to be seen not only in racefails passim but also in the tendency to ignore fan writers who do not publish something approaching a traditional fanzine.

    I don’t blame the babyboomers for being closed-minded and stuck in their ways. I think it is simple human nature. Just as I think that racefails and feminismfails tendto be the product of the very human tendency to make friends with people who are just like you and mistrust people who are that little bit different. I don’t blame the babyboomers for being reactionary fossils, but I do think that their refusal to die is beginning to damage fandom as a whole.

    Consider the following: You’re a teenager and you have an interest in science fiction. Desirous of meeting people like yourself, you begin attending local conventions. Now… which convention is more likely to suck in new fans? A convention hall filled with elderly neckbeards or a convention filled with people under-20 from a variety of different races, sexualities and genders? Why would a teenager choose to go to Worldcon and become a written-SF fan when they could go to an anime convention, hang out with people their own age and talk about SF-themed anime?

    The babyboomers who dominate fandom have given their lives to the cause. They have kept institutions alive and encouraged generations of talented writers. However, we have now reached the point where their dominance of the field is actively proving harmful. Frankly, I would like the usual suspects (particularly Langford) to recuse themselves from the Fan Writer Hugo in order to force the Hugo voters to look beyond the same old names. Seriously guys, you’ve had your fun… it’s time to diminish and go into the West.

    1. Mondyboy

      I know you’re right about this. When I did go to the Nova Mob (a Melbourne based SF readers group) I noted that even at 36 I was one of the youngest guys in the group. Very few of them know what a podcast is… and while they understand blogs and blogging as you say they’re deeply suspicious of the whole thing. So when I stir the pot and mention, for example, that Writer and the Critic should be nominated for Best Fanzine a number of them go into conniptions. It’s fun to do, but it’s also really sad.

      You’re a 100% right that until these people become demented or dead there’s very little chance that the Hugo ballot is going to change. All that said, fucked if I’m going to allow that baby-boomer mentality to stop me from fighting against windmills. I’ll keep stirring the pot and I’ll keep writing this shit and if nothing changes then so be it.

      But I’ve discovered in the last 12 to 24 months that my heart is in the criticism and the fannish stuff and the podcasting and I want to broadcast this passion to the 25 people who read this blog. And yeah that’s a bit melodramatic – but fuck them windmills.

      1. Jonathan M

        They seriously said that they were “suspicious” of blogging?

        I’ve heard the oldies say that they couldn’t get their head around RSS readers (which is fair enough) but I’ve never heard anyone say that they were suspicious of blogging. What do they think bloggers are trying to accomplish?

        I totally respect your desire to keep tilting and every time I peek into the field of SF I see a number of windmills that are crying out for a damn good tilting. Windmills such as lack of inclusivity, the problem of corruption in blogging and the fact that SF is now pretty much entirely disengaged from the problems of the real world. I see all of these windmills and I feel that old urge to saddle up but then I remember all the times I was either ignored or dogpiled and I remember that most fans like things the way they are. Nowadays I see many fights and know that they are worth having but I no longer see them as even remotely winnable.

        1. Mondyboy

          Well, I’m not sure anyone said they were suspicious. But I gave a talk on Infinite Jest one month and told those in attendance that the talk was up on my LJ. For a few of them that didn’t count as much. But if I’d published on A4 and disseminated it around, they would have been all over it. So maybe I was over-stating things with suspicious.

          And if Janice’s comments below are common, then I think you have a point.

  2. Liz

    I am totally in agreement that more variety in the nominees for best fan writer would be a good idea, and I plan to keep suggesting Abigail Nussbaum in particular until everyone finally nominates her. I think Claire Brialey is the best fan writer out there, but I am always slightly surprised when she appears on the ballot, because her work is available to such a limited audience, and it means that a huge percentage of that audience is consistently nominating her. It helps that her audience is more likely to nominate in the Hugos, but it would only take a tiny fraction of the readership of more widely-read bloggers to get them on there, and yet it rarely happens. I think it’s promising that a different writer has won every year since the end of the Langford phase, though, even from a limited pool of nominees.

    I do think there’s something your “diversity ratio” is missing, which is that the potential for repeat nominees differs between categories. It’s rare that a fan writer goes from being a nominee to being ineligible the next year, but of the graphic stories which are not perennials on the ballot, Serenity, Y: The Last Man, Captain Britain and Grandville Mon Amour were all nominees which couldn’t be repeated the year after.

    1. Mondyboy

      Liz, you’re a 100% right, it was probably never a fair comparison in the first place. It was done more for effect than anything else.

      I know I could easily find more of Claire’s work if I was motivated. And from everything I’ve heard I’m sure I’d love her work and that she’s more than worthy to be nominated year after year. This year I may find that motivation.

  3. Sean the Bookonaut

    I wondered if the post should have been titled Coliingwood 62 Carlton 122 just to confuse northern hemisphere readers 🙂 – and of course rub it in to all those Pies supporters.

    Thanks for the list of bloggers, there’s a couple not in my feed.

    1. Mondyboy

      HA!

      CARN THE BLUES!!!!!

      Wait, Sean, are you also a Blues supporter… because, you know, I might just fall in love with you if you are.

      1. Sean the Bookonaut

        I have fond memories of watching the Blues slaughter Richmond in my first and only trip to the G. I use to wear a guernsey with Stephen Silvagni’s number on the back. And have a remarkable talent for staying in the same hotels as Ron Barassi (and at the same time obviously). I was given the choice of Essendon or Carlton at age 5 and obviously there was no choice, I chose the Blues.

        If I make it to Melbourne for Continuum we may have to sing the Anthem.

        1. Mondyboy

          I knew there was a reason I liked you Sean.

          I am an insane Blues fan. I watch every game then go on the Carlton Supporter forums to discuss the match. And during the game, at quarter time, half time and three quarter time my Dad will call and we will dissect ever play.

          Judd, Murphy, Gibbs, Kroooz, these people are my idols.

          The Writer and the Critic Panel at last years con was during the Carlton v Brisbane match at Etihad. I kept checking the score during the recording…

  4. Janice

    The Hugos are not “a populist award that’s meant to be recognising all of fandom in all its different stripes,” The Hugos are awards voted on by the members of the Worldcon for that particular year. Nominating and voting for the Hugo awards is a perk of being a member of the Worldcon. They are not a broad-based popular-vote people’s choice award and never have been. If people want a people’s choice award, they should create one. If people want to see the Hugos reflect a broader range of nominees, they should join the Worldcon and nominate and vote for them. Most of the time, the people who are complaining about what other people nominate or vote for have not actually joined the Worldcon and nominated and voted. Frankly, it’s like the tag line of the old Pope joke: “You no playa da game, you no make-a da rules.”

    1. Mondyboy

      Well, I have joined and nominated which is why I’m quite happy to write the passionate rants above. Not that you’re accusing me, but I thought I’d mention it.

      I do agree that if people want to make a difference then they should become a member and nominate. But I don’t agree that people don’t have the right to complain if they haven’t spent the money. Not everyone can afford the $50, and considering how people enjoy debating juried awards that they’re not technically involved in (Chris Priest come on down) I don’t see why any fan – whether a paid member or not – can’t have a bitch about the insular nature of the Hugos.

      1. Janice

        Glad to hear that you participated.

        I don’t agree that debating juried awards is a good analogy: you *can’t* influence a juried award so you get to complain all you wnat about what the supposed experts who have selected the nominees have chosen :-> However, if you could have influenced the result but didn’t take the trouble, then no, you don’t have as much right to complain. As for the $50, if the awards are so important to someone that they get aggravated about them enough to rant, saving $5 a week for a few months every year should be manageable for nearly anyone.

        However (second part of my own particular rant), I have a real problem with people who join the Worldcon just to vote for the Hugos (or to get the Hugo packet). The intention of a Supporting membership is to support the Worldcon and get the related publications such as the souvenir book and progress report because you can’t attend that year. Nominating and voting for the Hugo awards is a perk of being a member of the Worldcon. As I said before, they are *not* popular-vote comprehensive awards.I don’t think it should be the sole reason for buying a membership, and I don’t think the Worldcon should, as some have suggested, price and advertise cheaper memberships to make it easier for people to vote for the Hugos. I really really *really* wish someone would invent an alternate set of “People’s Choice Awards” for the genre that would be based on a free popular vote (monitored to prevent vote stuffing, of course) so we didn’t have to go through this angst every year.

        1. Mondyboy

          So I don’t put words in your mouth, I’m interested to know whether you think people who buy a supporting membership should be able to nominate and vote on the Hugos? I’m also wondering whether you think $50 is too cheap?

          Just so you know, I get my supporting membership entirely to nominate and vote for the Hugos. I wouldn’t bother otherwise.

          I also wonder whether your opinion on how the Hugo’s should be perceived is a minority one. Since I was young (I’m now 37) the Hugos were viewed as the big popular award for SF. It’s the trophy everyone wanted to win. But more recently there’s been a push by all sorts of people, spearheaded by a number of Hugo committees, to increase nominations, to emphasize that this is THE award.

          Also, I never, ever assume how much people can afford. Yes saving $5 a month shouldn’t be that difficult, but I’m sure there are people who want to nominate but simply can’t justify even that small an expense.

          So I’m of the view that supporting memberships or even Hugo nomination and voting only memberships should be made as cheap as possible. Because since I was about 15 the Hugos were more than just a perk of attending a particular con. And I don’t think I’m alone on that.

          1. Janice

            I believe that the Hugos for a very long time were the be-all and end-all of genre awards, mainly because for many years they were the only ones probably that would even acknowledge that it was a genre that was worthy of awards :->

            My problem is that for a long time the Hugo were the awards that the members of the Worldcon voted on as their favorites of the year. Now, as you note, there’s a move afoot to try to make them *the* most well known and reported-on genre awards. The result of this — proposals for voting-only memberships, etc — is that there’s almost a situation where the tail is wagging the dog; that is, the Worldcon for many people is solely the mechanism by which they can vote for the Hugos. That’s what I object to. We’re now IMHO in a transitional period where the Worldcon is having to handle much more extensive nominations and voting because it’s not just a matter of their true membership and supporting members voting, but rather a rash of people who are joining solely to nominate and vote on the awards and, even more often of late, paying money solely to get the nominations packet. Personally, I dislike this situation. IMHO, if we’re now in a situation where people just want to nominate and vote on popular-choice, open-to-everyone awards, then there should be an avenue where the focus is on that type of award and the effort people are putting in should be just on those awards.

            (As for the expense, Worldcon site selection is held two years before the actual convention. There’s a little over a year before the Hugo nominations open. If you care about the Hugos and really want to nominate and vote, you could put aside a $1 *a week* over that first year and afford a supporting membership.)

            1. Mondyboy

              It’s funny how you say that the tail is wagging the dog, because I would say that the cat is out of the bag 😉

              Joris pointed me to the Hugo FAQ, this is what the second para says:

              The Hugo Awards are awarded each year at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). Voting for the awards is open to all members of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), and to become a member all you have to do is buy a membership in that year’s Worldcon. It is not necessary to actually attend the convention. A “supporting membership”, currently around $50 though it can vary from year to year, is all you need to join WSFS.

              In that para you feel a sense of excitement behind the idea that you don’t “actually” need to attend the convention. That it’s more then just a perk of the convention. And maybe that’s wrong, maybe that’s not what the Hugos are about. But frankly that’s what it’s become. Something that’s bigger than the convention or society that spawned it. The Locus – which was bandied about on your LJ as a possible people’s choice award – simply doesn’t hold a candle to the perceived, and possibly genuine perception that the Hugo is something special.

              Which is why I think supporting memberships should be as cheap as possible. Because you don’t “actually” need to attend the convention. And because the Hugos is more then just a perk.

              1. Janice

                ??? I never said you had to attend the Worldcon. I specifically mentioned Supporting memberships and what they were originally intended to be.

                The point I’ve been trying to make is that it saddens me that the main reason many people are joining the Worldcon has absolutely nothing to do with the Worldcon, and most of the people joining have no idea what the Worldcon even is. (That’s what I meant by the tail wagging the dog.) The Hugo Awards have essentially become a separate entity for which people are buying the ability to nominate and vote, and people are arguing that we should make it even easier and cheaper for them to do just that. People want them to be universal awards that can be voted on by anyone with no relation to the Worldcon. I something think that the Hugos should be spun off into their own entity rather than having Worldcon supporting memberships become the travesty they have become.

                1. Mondyboy

                  Apologies for misreading you.

                  I suppose we will have to agree to disagree. I care more about the award then the actual convention. And I don’t see a problem with that.

  5. Carl Duzett

    The first time I actively followed the Hugos was last year, when I decided to be a voter and get a digital voter’s packet. I diligently read all the graphic stories, and was frankly shocked that Girl Genius won (not knowing that, apparently, it just wins every time ezpz). I’d never gone out of my way to read SFF graphic stories, but I really enjoyed being introduced to Schlock Mercenary, the Unwritten: Inside Man, and especially Grandville Mon Amour, which was absolutely awesome.

    It’s sad that particular fandoms tend to always win this award, but I appreciated the excuse to read some excellent graphic stories I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

    I don’t know what my point is other than I’m still upset that Unwritten or Grandville Mon Amour didn’t win, and that it’s sad these smaller awards tend to mostly be handed out on momentum.

    1. Mondyboy

      That’s always the best things about ballots and why they’re so much more important than the actual winner. You get exposed to stuff you might not have normally read.

      Which is also why I can be quite critical of certain short lists and ballots when it feels to me that the “safe bets” have been nominated.

  6. Joris M

    I don’t think the Hugo does that much worse than the Eisner, they both manage to ignore hugely important swaths of the field by their own specific focus and voter pre-selection and biases. But that is probably a discussion left to your dedicated post.

    In this case I think your maths are good, even if it would be interesting to see a variability in the nominees as well. Although I have to say I would not know where to start with doing that. I think it is probably possible to show the difference between a group of nominees that slowly changes, a group that stays static with one position changing every now and then, and a group that is selected from a slightly larger group of eternally electable nominees (which I suspect is more or less the case for editors).

    It is probably significant to notice that the Hugo awards site presents the ability to vote for the hugo as a main perk of WSFS membership (which for historical reasons is linked to worldcon membership). So at least in their publicity the hugo voting is more important than the connection to worldcon. link

    1. Mondyboy

      I’ve only just started looking at the Eisner this year, and I have to say that this years ballot exposed me to a couple of interesting mini series that I’ve never heard of.

      And thanks for pointing out that link.

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