Every year, pretty much on schedule, there are, shall we say, heated disagreements about the Hugo shortlists. The novels tend to be at the forefront of such debates, but it’s not limited to them; art awards, stories of various lengths, and visual presentations aren’t free from controversy either.
Probably the saddest thing about such discussions/flame wars/dog-piling is that there’s a false dichotomy being promoted on both “sides.” I’m talking about the good old “you have poor taste and it’s your fault the Hugos suck, you schmuck” versus “you’re too elitist to simply enjoy books unless it’s something convoluted like Ulysses1, you academic” so-called debates.
To them both I say: oh grow up. The Hugo nominations aren’t the result of dumb versus smart, elitist versus down-to-earth. The fans of SF/F are yea numerous these days, and there are many sub-cultures that value sometimes vastly different things—why else do you think that an award like the Hugos settles on what may be thought of as a common denominator among many of these factions? These are books we commonly know and that are, no matter how many people like to curve their grading, actually a good cut above much of rest of the field.
Not to mention that, as the old saying goes, we contain multitudes, each one of us. I’m never going to stop being amused at those who find it incongruous that someone who loves vampire grocery store romances also loves James Joyce2, or those who can’t believe that professors of classical literature may not also obsess over Doctor Who. I think you’ll find that among individual nomination ballots, there’s quite a few oddball listings. Everyone I know prides themselves on having a wonderfully quaint, mixed tastes that others just don’t have.
It’s easy to forget that your tastes are actually personal, not objective—the results of who you are, how you grew up, who you hang out with. You can take apart any book you like and decry its lack of artfulness and meta-themes, or maybe sniff at its overly pontificating wordplay—but chances are that someone is perfectly capable of tearing apart your favorites, too, and for perfectly good reasons, at that. You don’t need a degree in literature to do this—and you don’t need to be “uncontaminated” by said study of literature either.
There’s also a lot of weird disrespect going on every which way, and somehow doesn’t take into the fact that nobody who bothers to vote in the Hugos, much less even contemplate about the Hugos, is actually stupid, filterless, or thoughtless. They have their own reasons for picking what they did—reasons you may not understand and even hate. Again, it’s culture. There are people who can analyze the intricate soap opera cycles of superhero comics with as much pizaaz as those of us who engage in mythopoeic play; there are those who can pick out the growth and development of story and character in Harry Potter as much as those who study the Golden Age classics of science fiction. Is it not enough that we fans are all, while disparate in opinion, still akin in our tendency towards taking many things as Serious Business?
Given this variety among us, even within each of us, there’s nothing wrong with an award for which “the best” has always been defined as “most popular amongst the many tribes of SF/F fandom (or at least those who bothered to vote)”? You may have traumatic memories of popularity awards in high school, but they do have their place. For when you’re talking about a group as diverse as we are, it’s an important vector to take note of and to reward. And remember that it’s never good enough—was never good enough for any of us—to simply hear about such and such a book, even if it’s free. The book has to be liked, and liked well. It’s quite difficult to write a book that crosses so many borders, which every nominee has managed, despite the throng of conflicting opinions.
Indeed, these reasons are why the Hugo nominees often cross into awards like the Nebula Awards, World Fantasy Awards, Prometheus Awards, John W. Campbell Memorial Award3, etc. etc. etc.—i.e., into territory many might consider more controlled. Juried awards are also a victim of accusations of bias towards mediocrity; I see no reason to vilify popularity awards more especially so. None of these awards, even the juried ones, serve the same purpose.
The Hugos are a valuable award. Across varied fandom there isn’t an award quite like it.
And if you want to change its course, then get a supporting membership next time. Good gods, if only there were enough of us, the price might sink down some more.
1 I'm aware that I now owe Nick Mamatas one dollah.
2 And now I owe him two dollahs and possibly some change via Paypal.
3 Not associated with Worldcon. That would be the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
Arachne Jericho writes about science fiction, fantasy and other topics determined by 1d20, at Spontaneous ∂erivation. She also thinks waaay too much about Sherlock Holmes. You can read about her faux-literary schmoo tastes at Tor.com on a semi-biweekly basis.