In light of the discussion that’s ensued here and elsewhere in response to my essay on the current situation with the Hugo awards (see below), I decided to make a few more comments.
There are two points I want to make, the first in the way of a clarification. The following statement of mine in the initial essay has been somewhat misinterpreted, I think:
“What’s involved here is essentially a literary analog to genetic drift. Biologists have long known that the role played by pure chance in evolution is greater in a small population than a larger one. The same thing happens in the arts, especially those arts which have a huge mass audience. The attitudes of the much smaller group or groups of in-crowds who hand out awards or do critical reviews are mostly influenced by other members of their in-crowd, not by the tastes of the mass audience. Over time, just by happenstance if nothing else, their views start drifting apart from those of the mass audience.”
Some people have interpreted this as a sarcastic remark, in which they seem to think I am deriding the tastes of what I called the “much smaller group or groups of in-crowds.”
But that wasn’t my point. What I was trying to explain, perhaps not clearly enough, was that once science fiction and fantasy became the enormously popular genre of fiction that it is today, the critical attitudes of any group of fans or aficionados will inevitably diverge over time from those of the mass audience as a whole.
The problem, I think, lies in a misunderstanding of the term “popular” when it is used to refer to a “popular author.” What happens is that people start thinking that a “popular” author somehow represents or reflects the mass audience—as opposed to the oft-derided “literary author” who only appeals to a small subset of the mass audience.
But that’s nonsense. All authors only appeal to a small subset of the mass audience, once that mass audience becomes huge enough. The difference between a “popular” author and a “literary” author (or “niche author” or “cult author”—pick whatever term you choose) may loom large when you measure one directly against the other. But if you measure either one of them against the mass audience itself, you will suddenly realize that you are trying to parse the difference between “tiny” and “itty-bitty” and “teeny-weeny” and “miniscule.”
Let’s take me for an example. I’m using myself because I know my own situation well. I am without a doubt one of the popular authors in science fiction. In a career spanning eighteen years I have published 47 or 48 novels (I can’t remember exactly and it’s not worth the trouble to count them up again), all of which are still in print. I’ve been on the New York Times bestseller list six times, and I have an income as a writer that is roughly three times the median household income in the United States.
I’m not the most popular science fiction author in the U.S., by any means, but I’m probably in the top twenty.
I estimate that I have a solid fan base of around 50,000 people—i.e., people who look for my titles and will usually buy one or another edition of them. There are probably five times that many people—call it a quarter of a million—who will buy one of my books on occasion, and there are probably a total of (very roughly) half a million people who know who I am and have read something of mine.
Sounds splendid—until you measure it against the mass audience. The best estimate that you will usually encounter of how many people in the U.S. regularly read science fiction and fantasy is five million. There are probably three or four times that many who read F&SF occasionally, and there are certainly fifty or sixty million who enjoy science fiction and fantasy in the dramatic form of movies or television.
So. My solid fan base consists of about one percent—that’s right, ONE percent—of the solid mass audience for F&SF. It rises to perhaps two percent—yeah, that’s right, TWO percent—if we measure everyone who’s occasionally read something of mine against the occasional audience for science fiction and fantasy. And it falls back closer to one percent if we measure my name recognition against the entire audience (including movie-goers and TV-watchers) for our genre.
In other words, the difference between Resplendent Popular Author Me and Pitiful Literary Auteur Whazzername is the difference between tiny (one percent) and miniscule (one-tenth of one percent).
Yes, that’s what all the ruckus is about. The Sad Puppies feel that they have been wronged because Their Tininess has been downtrodden by the minions of the miniscule.
Give me a break. No matter who gets selected for awards by the comparatively tiny crowd of a few thousand people who show up at Worldcons and nominate writers for Hugo awards, they will always—and inevitably—diverge from the broad preferences of the mass audience.
Let’s do a mental experiment. Suppose, for a moment, that the Hugo voters experienced a sudden change of heart/attitude/tastes and decide that the slate of the Sad Puppies is indeed the best F&SF has to offer and unanimously and enthusiastically votes for them to win the Hugos.
And does so the next year, and the next year, and the year after that.
At which point, the Disconsolate Puppies will rise up in indignation and outrage and denounce the Hugo crowd as a bunch of insular and incestuous fans bound up in esoteric literary fetishism and put forward their own slate, which advances the claims of that group of writers who are far more popular than such literary dabblers as Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen (and Eric Flint, for that matter), namely, the almost-entirely female authors who practice the sub-genre known as paranormal romance.
Sherrilyn Kenyon, for instance, outsells Larry Correia (and me) by a country mile. She’s placed dozens of novels on the NYT bestseller list, including many at the #1 position.
So why didn’t the Sad Puppies nominate her?
Or Laurell K. Hamilton, who has also had many novels on the NYT bestseller list?
Or Patricia Briggs, who’s done the same?
Or Nalini Singh? Or Kelley Armstrong? Or Kim Harrison?
Not one of these extraordinarily popular authors has ever been nominated for a Hugo award. Yet I don’t see the Sad Puppies expressing any indignation over that. In fact, I’m willing to bet they didn’t even consider them when they decided who they wanted to include in their slate.
Why? Because they don’t consider paranormal romance to be “part of the good stuff.”
Mind you, they have every right to feel that way and they are committing no injustice to anyone by failing to nominate any of major practitioner of that sub-genre for an award.
Other voters for the Hugo award have every right not to consider the work produced by Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen—or me, for that matter—“part of the good stuff” either. Without being denounced by them as “Social Justice Warriors” engaged in a dark conspiracy to deny popular authors their just due.
Harrumph. Well, I hereby and herewith name Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen and their followers to be “Romance Irrelevance Warriors” and denounce them for engaging in a dark conspiracy to deny authors who are way more popular than they are of their just due.
All of this is just silly and reflects an inability to do simple arithmetic. Any awards given by a relatively small pool of voters will fail to properly track the mass audience—once a mass audience gets big enough. Instead of whining over that fact, authors who can make a living at it should be glad that the audience has grown big enough that dozens of us can now do so.
And if one of the inevitable side effects of that explosive growth is that some—even plenty—of good authors get overlooked for awards, so it goes. In the immortal words of Liberace, I console myself by crying all the way to the bank.
Okay, now I’ll make my second point, which is briefer. There is one way we could at least improve the situation, and that would be to have the awards track reality instead of trying to cram reality into the Procrustean bed of the existing awards structure. Having both of science fiction’s major awards, the Hugos and the Nebulas, devote three out of four literary awards to short fiction and lump everything else into the category of “novel” is simply ridiculous. Fifty years ago, it made sense. Today, it would be as if the Oscar Awards insisted on handing out 75% of their awards to silent black-and-white films less than twenty minutes long.
(Which is not a sneer at silent black-and-white films less than twenty minutes long, by the way. I am a devoted fan of Buster Keaton, who made many silent black-and-white films less than twenty minutes long that are way, way better than 95% of the comedy films made today.)
I don’t propose to eliminate any of the existing awards for short fiction. I have no objection to them, in and of themselves, and I have no desire to make those writers who concentrate on short fiction feel slighted in our genre. I simply think that the category of “novels” needs to be expanded into at least three and preferably four award categories. My own preference would be for awards given in these four categories:
- Short novel (40,000 to either 80,000 or 90,000 words)
- Complete multi-volume novels (often called trilogies, quartets, quintets—but which have a definite ending)
I could live with combining multi-volume novels and series into one award category, but it would be a mistake. Inevitably, it would tend to elevate huge, sprawling—and sometimes wildly popular—series over the more compact works preferred by authors who like to work in trilogies or quartets. They really are two quite different literary forms—I know; I’ve worked in both—and should be treated separately. There is at least as much difference between them in terms of the skills involved as the difference between a novelette and a novella.
As far as the length of the short novel category is concerned, I think that should also be decided by tracking reality instead of using pre-determined criteria. This is the length of story preferred by young adult and indie authors, who otherwise tend to get lost in the shuffle when it comes to awards. We should find out what the usual upper limit is in terms of word count for such stories and use that to set the word count limits for this category of award.
And… enough. I’m off for a two-week trip to the eastern Mediterranean, partly because that’s where my wife wanted to vacation and partly so I could examine Dubrovnik and Athens for myself so I could figure out where and how I might want to destroy portions of them in a couple of upcoming novels. (The brain of an author can be a dark, dark place. Muahahaha…)