John Scalzi has raised some objections to and reservations about the proposal that will be coming out of Sasquan for making some changes in the structure of the Hugo awards. I thought his comments were worth taking up and I’ll be doing so here. I had a friendly private exchange with John on the subject, and I want to emphasize that I view this as a discussion more than a debate.

You can find John’s remarks here:

Since he put up this post and he and I had our private exchange, John’s major objection seems to have become a moot point. It now seems that the proposed amendment to the Hugo rules that would have eliminated the category of “Best Novelette” has been withdrawn.

But he also registered a disagreement, if not as strong a one, to the idea of adding a category for “Best Saga.” (I.e., a best series award.) And that’s what I want to address in this essay.

I want to start indirectly, though, by taking up some comments that were made by other people in response to John’s post. I was particularly struck by comments that expressed either indifference or even hostility to a series award because it would mostly benefit male authors.

A series award wouldn’t be helpful to female authors?

Let’s consider some authors active today in fantasy and science fiction:

  • Ilona Andrews
  • Kelley Armstrong
  • Elizabeth Bear
  • Patricia Briggs
  • Jacqueline Carey
  • Julie Czerneda
  • Kate Elliott
  • Diana Gabaldon
  • Barbara Hambly
  • Laurell K. Hamilton
  • Charlaine Harris
  • Tanya Huff
  • Kim Harrison
  • Robin Hobb
  • Sherrilyn Kenyon
  • Mercedes Lackey
  • Elizabeth Moon
  • Naomi Novik
  • Jody Lynn Nye
  • Tamora Pierce
  • Melanie Rawn
  • Laura Resnick
  • Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • Nalini Singh
  • Judith Tarr
  • Sherri Tepper
  • Margaret Weis
  • Janny Wurtz
  • Jane Yolen
  • Sarah Zettel

Of the thirty authors listed above:

  • All are popular and have published many books.
  • All of them work heavily and in some cases exclusively in series.
  • Twenty-nine and a half are female. (Ilona Andrews is a wife-and-husband team.)
  • Twenty-four have never been nominated for a Hugo award.

Four were nominated once for fiction, but didn’t win (Robin Hobb as Megan Lindholm, Elizabeth Moon, Naomi Novik and Sherri Tepper).

Only two, Elizabeth Bear and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, have ever won a Hugo—twice, in Bear’s case—but neither of them won for best novel. (Rusch was nominated frequently for a Hugo as best professional editor and won once, but I’m only discussing awards for writing.)

My apologies beforehand, by the way, for any author I overlooked who ought to be in the list above. I’m working from memory and I don’t have a major bookstore nearby where I could double-check my list against the authors on the shelves. I’m sure I’m overlooking several people.

But I’ve listed more than enough to make my point, which is that the idea that female authors wouldn’t benefit from having a series award is just….

Well. Silly. Of course they would.

Would they benefit as much as men? I have no idea. That depends entirely on the literary preferences of Hugo voters. Having a category of awards devoted to series would simply expand the possibilities, that’s all. It’s neither intrinsically male nor female.

I can say one thing for sure and certain. If Hugo voters change their current indifference to paranormal romance—a sub-genre of F&SF that has become so popular it now often gets its own section in bookstores—then you’re likely to see women winning a series/saga award year after year after year. The problem here, from the standpoint of gender diversity, is not the presence or absence of a series/saga award. It’s the tastes and opinions of people who vote on Hugo awards.

If you want to expand the range of those tastes and opinions, you’d do it far more effectively by adding a series/saga award that might draw the attention of the millions of people who read paranormal romance and completely ignore the Hugos, than you would by deliberately restricting the range of awards on the grounds that male authors might benefit disproportionately. Which is an ass-backwards way of dealing with the issue of diversity in any event.

Of the many paranormal romance authors listed above, my own tastes and opinions on the subject lead me to prefer Ilona Andrews, followed by Patricia Briggs. My wife Lucille’s tastes are broader than mine when it comes to paranormal romance—possibly because she’s female, but who knows?—and while she’s very fond of Andrews and Briggs she’d probably favor Nalini Singh over any of the others.

But leaving aside the fact that Lucille’s tastes and mine overlap a lot but aren’t identical, one thing is for damn sure: We both prefer the work of several paranormal romance authors over many of the works that have been nominated for the Hugo award for the last decade or two. I doubt very much if we’re alone in that assessment. But given that almost all paranormal romance authors work in series—exclusively so, for the majority of them—it’s difficult for any of them to even get nominated for a Hugo, much less win one.

Just how difficult is it? That leads me to one of John Scalzi’s major points, which is the following. (It’s in his comments on the post, not the post itself.)

“First, books in series get nominated for the Hugo all the time. Two of my own Best Novel nominations were for books in series — The Last Colony, which was book three of the Old Man’s War series, and Zoe’s Tale, which was the fourth. Excluding first novels in a series, sequel novels and series installments made the ballot in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Additionally, numerous sequels/series installments have won the Best Novel award: Ask Bujold, Robinson, Card, Vinge, Brin or Cherryh about that.

“The current proposal (in my opinion) complains that sequels/series not getting nominated just isn’t enough, they have to win, too, and recently they haven’t. And, I don’t know. I see that as a weird bit of entitlement. There’s no structural barrier to sequels/series installment winning — it’s been done numerous times — so perhaps it’s simply the actual voters who currently favor stand-alones to sequels/series installments. There’s no reason why the award has to follow market trends (which is an argument pulled into the proposal), so griping about the recent lack of wins for sequels really feels like these proposers are saying to the voters “No, you’re voting all wrong.” Which they are not. In any event, there’s no reason why the pendulum couldn’t suddenly swing back towards series installments winning.”

I have two disagreements with this argument, the first of which is a disagreement in detail. (So to speak.)

That’s this: Most of the winners he names—he himself is the only exception, in fact—date back to a very different period in our genre as well as the awards. David Brin last won a Hugo for a series novel almost thirty years ago. The same is true for C. J. Cherryh and Orson Scott Card. Kim Stanley Robinson won for Blue Mars almost twenty years ago. Vernor Vinge last won for a series novel fifteen years ago. Lois McMaster Bujold won for Paladin of Souls over a decade ago.

I think it’s a bad mistake to conflate two quite different periods in F&SF. One of the main points I tried to make in my first essay on the subject is that when the genre of F&SF was much smaller—as it was thirty and even twenty years ago—it was a lot easier for readers to keep track of the various authors and their work. Today, it’s simply impossible.

Secondly, except for Bujold, all of the winners have won with hard SF novels. (And most of Bujold’s Hugo awards came for SF also—Paladin of Souls is something of an outlier, being a fantasy novel.) Granted, I’m defining “hard SF” a little more loosely that many people would. But it’s still true that fantasy in all its forms including urban fantasy and paranormal romance is almost entirely absent from John’s list. That, despite the fact that traditional SF is today much less popular than fantasy, especially when you include paranormal romance and urban fantasy.

But my biggest difference with John’s approach has to do with something very general—about as general as it gets, in fact.

What are the goals of literary awards in the first place? And what’s the best way to achieve those goals?

There are two ways to look at this. The first is the way John is looking at it, which runs throughout his entire argument, not just in the two paragraphs I quoted above. For John, awards should not only be a recognition for excellence, they should be designed to encourage the development of new talent by being concentrated in those areas where new talent is most likely to emerge.

Hence, he champions short fiction awards. Please note that John is not disagreeing with a point I made in my first essay and have repeated many times since—to wit, that short fiction represents only a very small slice of F&SF whether you measure that either in terms of readers or (especially) the income of authors. He simply feels that’s not very relevant because what he sees as most important is the following:

3. It [a “Best Saga” award] privileges the established writer over the newer writer. Almost by definition, the authors who are eligible for the “Best Saga” award are very likely be writers who are already successful enough to have a long-running series and the ability to publish in those series on a recurring basis. It’s theoretically possible to have someone toiling away on a series in utter obscurity and suddenly emerge with a knockout installment that would pop that writer up into “Best Saga” consideration, but as a practical matter, it’s almost certainly more likely than not that the nominees in the category would be those authors with perennially popular series — people, to be blunt, like me and a relatively few other folks, who are already more likely to have won the “genre success” lottery than others.

I don’t disagree with the point John makes when he says that “the authors who are eligible for the ‘Best Saga’ award are very likely to be writers who are already successful enough to have a long-running series and the ability to publish in those series on a recurring basis.”

He’s absolutely right about that. But where he sees that as a problem, I see it as an essential feature of any award structure that’s designed to attract the attention of its (supposed) audience. In fact, it was exactly the way the Hugo awards looked in their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

Who were the winners of the Hugo awards for Best Novel back in those days? I’ll start with 1958, since that’s the first year following which an award was always handed out for best novel:

  • 1958: Fritz Leiber, The Big Time
  • 1959: James Blish, A Case of Conscience
  • 1960: Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers
  • 1961: Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle For Leibowitz
  • 1962: Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
  • 1963: Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
  • 1964: Clifford Simak, Way Station
  • 1965: Fritz Leiber, The Wanderer
  • 1966: Frank Herbert, Dune
  • Roger Zelazny, Call Me Conrad (tie)
  • 1967: Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • 1968: Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
  • 1969: John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar
  • 1970: Ursula Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness
  • 1971: Larry Niven, Ringworld
  • 1972: Philip José Farmer, To Your Scattered Bodies Go
  • 1973: Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves
  • 1974: Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous With Rama
  • 1975: Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
  • 1976: Joe Haldeman, The Forever War
  • 1977: Kate Wilhelm, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
  • 1978: Frederick Pohl, Gateway
  • 1979: Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake
  • 1980: Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountains of Paradise

Reads exactly like “the establishment” that John decries, doesn’t it? And there’s a reason for it, which is that in those days it wasn’t easy for an author to get a novel published. F&SF was still mostly a short form genre at least until the mid-late 70s. Today, new writers take it for granted that they can start their careers with a novel—as I did myself. Not “take it for granted” in the sense that it’s easy, which it’s certainly isn’t. But nobody today thinks it odd that a publisher would publish a new author’s first novel despite that author having no significant history as a writer.

That just wasn’t true in the 60s and 70s. With very, very few exceptions, an author had to demonstrate that they had a successful history as a short fiction writer before a publisher would be willing to gamble on them with a novel.

In other words, the very same situation that John (quite accurately) depicts with series today—[it] privileges the established writer over the newer writer—was the situation with stand-alone novels several decades ago.

But what that also meant was that when a young F&SF reader—like me—looked at the Hugo awards, they instantly recognized the authors and in many cases had either already read the novel awarded or went right out and got hold of a copy of it. And what also happened because youngsters like me paid attention to the Hugos—mostly because of the best novel award—was that they also got exposed to other writers who were winning awards for short fiction. And most of those writers were getting published in magazines which I also got exposed to because of the Hugo awards. Like most fourteen-year-olds, I couldn’t possibly have afforded a magazine subscription and my high school library—which is where I found most of the F&SF that I read—didn’t have a subscription either. Most libraries didn’t.

By the way, if you think the Hugo awards for short fiction were all that much different from the novel awards, think again. Here were the winners for the Hugo for novella from 1968 (when it was first given out) to 1980:

Philip José Farmer, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, Fritz Leiber (1970 and 1971), Poul Anderson, Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr. (1974 and 1977), George R.R. Martin, Roger Zelazny, Spider Robinson (1977 and again in 1978 with his wife Jeanne), John Varley and Barry Longyear. The only little-known author in the list (at the time he won the award) was Barry Longyear. All the others were already well established.

The award for best novelette wasn’t much different either. Here are the winners from 1967 (when it was first given out regularly) to 1980:

Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson (1969, 1973 and 1979), Harlan Ellison (1974 and 1975), Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, Joan Vinge and George R.R. Martin. Again, there was only one author in the group who was little-known at the time, Joan Vinge.

It was only with the short story award that you saw more than one “non-establishment” author winning the Hugo. And there weren’t that many of those even in this category. From the inception of the short story award in 1955 to 1980, the winners were:

Eric Frank Russell, Arthur C. Clarke, Avram Davidson, Robert Bloch, Daniel Keyes, Poul Anderson (1961 and 1964), Brian Aldiss, Jack Vance, Gordon Dickson, Harlan Ellison (1966, 1968, 1969 and 1978), Larry Niven (1967, 1972 and 1975), Samuel R. Delaney, Theodore Sturgeon, R.A. Lafferty, Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, Ursula Le Guin, Joe Haldeman, Fritz Leiber, C.J. Cherryh and George R.R. Martin.

The reason I call those days “the heyday” of the Hugo Award is because those were the days when a really big percentage of the mass audience—probably even the majority of readers—paid attention to the Hugos. And the main reason they paid attention was because most of the authors receiving the awards were people they’d heard of and in many cases already read.

Today, they don’t. That’s just a fact, whether fans who regularly attend Worldcons and vote on the Hugos like it or not. In the modern era, the Hugo awards are only of interest to a very small percentage of the F&SF audience and for the great majority of readers do not serve any longer as a guide to what they read (much less buy).

And here’s where I part company with John. I don’t disagree with him that one of the functions of a good literary award—as is true also of good literary reviews—is to boost the careers of promising new writers. But you don’t do that by narrowing the awards—or the reviews—to focus entirely or even mostly on such writers. Because if you do that, you start losing the very audience you’re presumably trying to expose those promising new writers to.

This is something the people behind the Oscar Awards have always been quite aware of. Whenever the Oscar nominees start drifting too far away from popular tastes—which any award will always tend to do for the reasons I laid out in a previous essay [see “TRYING TO KEEP LITERARY AWARDS FROM FAVORING LITERARY CRITERIA IS AN EXERCISE IN FUTILITY. GET OVER IT”]—then the number of people who watch the Academy Awards or buy movie tickets in response to the Oscars starts dropping, and before long it’s dropping like a stone. At that point, because unlike the Hugos there is a lot of money at stake, the Powers-That-Be in the movie industry use their muscle to get more popular films nominated. I know it will sound crude for me to say it, but it’s just a cold fact of life that handing out a certain number of awards to movies or books that lots of people have actually heard of is what makes them pay attention to the other nominees and winners.

An even better analogy than the Oscars is to look at how really good movie reviewers operate. Reviewing movies, unlike most forms of reviewing, is something that a person can actually make a living at—even a very good living, in the case of the top reviewers.

Take Roger Ebert, as an example. (But you could use almost any other well-known professional movie reviewer over the past half-century.) Every week, Ebert would run several reviews in his newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times. Later in his life, he also worked through his own web site. But whatever venue he used, Ebert would always do the following:

Most of his reviews would focus on the popular new movies coming out. He did that because that was his profession. That’s what brought him an income—because new movies aimed at a popular audience were what most of his readers were interested in. That’s why they opened the pages of his review section or went to his web site in the first place.

Having done that, as all good reviewers do, Ebert would also champion one or two less well-known movies, or bring the reader/viewer’s attention to some older movie that had for one reason or another gotten overlooked. And for him to do so would provide a tremendous boost to such little-known movies. But that was only true because a huge audience was reading him in the first place. Whereas if he’d restricted his reviews to only those little-known movies, he never would have gotten those readers. In fact, he never would have been able to make a living as a full-time movie reviewer to begin with.

There will always be a tug-of-war when it comes to awards for literary or other artistic achievement between the interests and tastes of the relatively small number of people who decide who gets the award and the interests and tastes of the mass audience. That’s inevitable. At any given time, an award may swing too far in one direction or the other. If it swings too far in favor of popular taste, with no other consideration taken, then it runs the risk of becoming indistinguishable from sales—in which case, why have the award at all? But if it swings too far the other way, the tastes and opinions of the group which makes the decision becomes increasingly esoteric to the mass audience, which stops paying attention to the award. In which case also, what’s the point of having it?

At the moment, and for some time now, the “pendulum” of the Hugo awards has swung too far away from the mass audience. Where I differ from John is that I don’t see any way to reverse the increasing irrelevance of the Hugo awards to most F&SF readers unless the Hugos adopt one or another version of an award for series (i.e., the “Saga” award that’s being proposed). When most popular authors are working exclusively or almost exclusively in series and most of the awards are given for short fiction you will inevitably have a situation where the major awards in F&SF become irrelevant to most of the reading audience. Which, in turn, means that winning an award becomes less and less valuable in any terms beyond personal satisfaction.

If the idea of modifying an award structure to better match the interests of the mass audience really bothers you, grit your teeth and call it Danegeld. But it works.