What’s Right and Wrong with the Hugo Awards

May 4th, 2011

The Hugo awards are based on fan voting for various science fiction and fantasy categories, such as best novel.  Hugo winners have always been part of my ongoing reading list my entire life.

First of all, one of the things that’s right this year:  my buddy Jay Lake is one of the hosts of the award ceremony in Reno.  I was initially planning to go, then leaning against it, and now I’m considering it again.  I would be tickled to death to see Jay hosting.  He and I go back nearly 20 years to when neither of us were close to being published, and now things are different.  So different.

I’ve been going to Worldcons (where the Hugos are awarded) off since 1988 and have done my share of voting.  Never nominated myself, but a number of good friends have been.  I have come to realize that I prefer a number of the nominees to the winners, and that sometimes the winners have winning personalities that help swing them some votes.  But I don’t want to criticize that aspect.  That’s fair and natural in any system with voting and the winners are still really good and deserving.

Let me make it clear how fundamentally important the Hugos have been to me.  A bunch of us aspiring and semi-pro writers were talking in Austin back in the 1990s about our ultimate writing goals.  One of them said that she’d like to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, even though she didn’t seem to ever write anything that would fit into that category, sticking usually to commercial genre fiction.  Myself, I said I wanted to win a Hugo someday.  I’d still like to, although balancing priorities had made pursuing that goal challenging.

No, my main complaint about the Hugos these days is that some of the categories are just stupid or confusing, and some that should exist don’t.  Let me elaborate.

Best Related Work: Awarded to a work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year or which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year. The type of works eligible include, but are not limited to, collections of art, works of literary criticism, books about the making of a film or TV series, biographies and so on, provided that they do not qualify for another category.

This is a catch all, and while I like the flexibility, it just seems like a mishmash.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form): This Award can be given a dramatized production in any medium, including film, television, radio, live theater, computer games or music. The work must last 90 minutes or longer (excluding commercials).

I’m ok with the category, but would an 88 minute movie actually be shifted to the short form category? I’d hope not.

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form): This Award can be given a dramatized production in any medium, including film, television, radio, live theater, computer games or music. The work must be less than 90 minutes long (excluding commercials).

We should have TV episodes separate from actual shorts.  “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” is up against Dr. Who episodes.  Silly.

Best Editor (Long Form): This is the first of the person categories, so the Award is given for the work that person has done in the year of eligibility. To be eligible the person must have edited at least 4 novel-length (i.e. 40,000 words or more) books devoted to science fiction and/or fantasy in the year of eligibility that are not anthologies or collections.

Best Editor (Short Form): To be eligible the person must have edited at least four anthologies, collections or magazine issues devoted to science fiction and/or fantasy, at least one of which must have been published in the year of eligibility.

I’d like there to be awards for editors, but I don’t think fan voted Hugos are the way to go.  The long form is impossible to judge.  Did the editors acquire the novels or were the books forced on them?  Fans don’t get to see the books as submitted and the books as revised, so how can they judge?

For the short form, the authors decide where to send stories, and the editors do different sorts of editing.  Again, the readers don’t have a clue about why a given story ended up somewhere, who rejected it first, or how an editor helped improve a story.

Best Professional Artist: Another person category, this time for artists and illustrators. The work on which the nominees are judged must class as “professional”.

This should be tossed out in favor of best genre artwork, likely book and magazine covers.  There could be subcategories for color vs. black and white, for instance.

Best Semiprozine: This is the most complicated category because of the need to define semi-professional. A lot of science fiction and fantasy magazines are run on a semi-professional basis: that is they pay a little, but generally not enough to make a living for anyone. The object of this category is to separate such things from fanzines, which are generally loss-making hobbyist pursuits. To qualify a publication must not be professional and must meet at least two of the following criteria:
1. had an average press run of at least one thousand (1000) copies per issue;
2. paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication;
3. provided at least half the income of any one person;
4. had at least fifteen percent (15%) of its total space occupied by advertising;
5. announced itself to be a semiprozine.

Who wants to announce themselves to be “semi-pro”?  Seems like something to do to announce you’re either overperforming amateurs or less than successful pros.  I don’t like mixing fiction and non-fiction publications.  Who can judge that?  This category has often been the Locus award over the years.  I like Locus and have been a subscriber off and on over the years, but I don’t think a Hugo should be for just doing a good job year in and year out, but for excelling in some specific way.

Best Fanzine: This is the other serial publication category. This Award is for anything that is neither professional nor semi-professional. The publication must also satisfy the rule of a minimum of 4 issues, at least one of which must have appeared in the year of eligibility.

Best Fan Writer: This is another person category. Note that it does not just apply to writing done in fanzines. Work published in semiprozines, and even on mailing lists, blogs, BBSs, and similar electronic fora, can be including when judging people for this Award. Only work in professional publications should not be considered.

Best Fan Artist: The final category is also for people. Again note that the work by which artists should be judged is not limited to material published in fanzines. Material for semiprozines or material on public displays (such as in convention art shows) is also eligible. Fan artists can have work published in professional publications as well. You should not consider it when judging this award, and also any artists who make the final ballot for Best Professional Artist may not also be on the final ballot for Best Fan Artist.

These are just weird and are a legacy of the fan origins of the Hugo awards, but they don’t make sense to me for the same reasons some of the above categories don’t work for me.  They’re awards for people who may be doing both pro and “fan” work, and voters are supposed to separate the two.  It’s not for any specific work, but for some impression of a body of work.  Some of the same people appear on the nominee list for decades.  I don’t like any awards for just being good in general.  I think awards should be for specific work.

I’m not the first or last to make criticisms like this, I’m sure, but maybe if enough of these are leveled regularly enough some inertia for a change of direction will set in.  I’m a fan of the Australian voting system for the awards, and the list of nominees almost always great reading even when I don’t agree with the ultimate winners.

But let me summarize how I’d change the Hugos, for starters:

The dramatic presentations should be separated into movies, TV episodes, and shorts.

Get rid of editor awards, perhaps adding them to the Nebula Awards which are voted on by professional writers who have a clue about who is good.

Get rid of artist awards in favor of best artwork (e.g. book covers).

Get rid of fan writer and fan artist awards in favor of awards for best genre-related article (e.g. in a fanzine, blog, where ever) and best genre-related comic (online, fanzine, wherever).  I was the Missouri Amateur Chess Co-Champion in 1986, and I know exactly what that means and what it doesn’t.  It’s not in the same class as being a professional champion, and it’s kind of embarrassing in my opinion.

Get rid of “semi-prozine” category and let there be just fiction and non-fiction categories, “pro” or not.  I’d prefer specific issues of periodicals to compete rather than annual runs.  It’s too easy for people who are casual readers to vote with as it is.

Add categories for best blog post (which can get 10-100 times as many reads as most of the pro magazines) or online commentary, best genre website (e.g. Tor.com, io9.com, etc.), best original anthology, best periodical in fiction and non-fiction, etc.  So much in the community has moved online and that should be recognized without having to resort to catch-all categories or shoving it into best fan writer.  Hell if I know what I write that qualifies as fan or pro at any given time.

How about best genre video game???  Writing in a video game, art in a video game.  There’s some fine work being done there, and the fan base is MILLIONS, not hundreds.

The whole problem of Worldcon attendance being small, the Hugo voters being small in number (hundreds at most for most awards, sometimes dozens), etc., is another big problem.  I don’t know how to get more people interested in reading science fiction again.  Maybe the Hugos will just diminish and vanish in the future.  Worldcon is small these days compared to Dragoncon and Comicon and a number of other cons.  I don’t want that to have happened, but it did.  The world has changed, and so has our ghetto, for better or worse.

I love the Hugo awards, but the system has problems.  I won’t even mention some travesties in past voting (although I will save them for a future post).  I’m too busy and probably don’t care passionately enough to get involved to fight for these, but I’ll give a shout out for some changes, because I do care enough to do that.  Screw the Pulitzer, I still want a Hugo someday.


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