What I want to do in this essay is go back to where I started in my very first post on subject (“Some comments on the Hugos and other SF awards,” posted April 16), which is to discuss the problems the Hugo awards actually do have—which, as I’ve now spent a lot of time explaining, has nothing to do with the political issues that the Sad Puppies insist are central.
I singled out three key problems, two of them objective and one which is of a more subjective nature. The first of the two objective problems is the subject of this essay.
It’s not complicated. The genre of science fiction and fantasy with all its related sub-genres—some of which, like paranormal romance, are so popular they often get their own sections in bookstores—has become enormous. It is a far, far larger field than it was half a century ago. But even back then, there was always some disparity between the tastes and opinions of the people who voted for the Hugo awards and the F&SF readership as a whole.
To name what is probably the most outstanding example, Andre Norton never received a Hugo award. She was only nominated twice.
But she was hardly alone in being overlooked in the Hugo awards. Many other prominent and important authors of the time, whose stories filled the major magazines and the shelves in bookstores, also never received a Hugo award and in many cases were never even nominated.
Christopher Anvil was never nominated. Not once.
A Bertram Chandler was never nominated.
Hal Clement was only nominated once. He didn’t win.
L. Sprague de Camp did win one Hugo, but it was for his autobiography and came almost at the very end of his long life. He never received the award for his fiction, despite that fiction being an enormous body of work spanning more than half a century.
David Eddings, one of the most popular fantasy authors of all time, never won a Hugo. He was never even nominated.
Randall Garrett was nominated three times but he never won.
Keith Laumer was nominated twice, but never won.
Murray Leinster was nominated twice and won the Hugo for Best Novelette with “Exploration Team.” But when you measure that against his incredible career—this was the man Time magazine once dubbed “the dean of science fiction”—that’s pretty slim pickings. (If you want to see just how incredible that career was, take a look: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?257)
Richard Matheson was never nominated.
Mack Reynolds was only nominated once. He didn’t win.
Eric Frank Russell was only nominated once. He did win, though. (For “Allamagoosa,” in the best Short Story category.)
Fred Saberhagen never won a Hugo and was only nominated once.
James H. Schmitz was nominated twice, never won.
A.E. Van Vogt was never nominated.
Robert Moore Williams was never nominated.
Jack Williamson was only nominated once for a fiction piece, for the novella “The Ultimate Earth” in 2001. He did win, but…
One nomination? For Jack Williamson? We’re talking about an author whose first story was published in 1928 and who kept writing until his death—at the age of 98, in the year 2006.
And I’m not even including popular authors of their time such as Leigh Brackett, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Fletcher Pratt and Edmond Hamilton because their careers mostly pre-dated the inception of the Hugo award. But all of them except Pratt lived and kept writing well into the 1960s—into the late 70s, in Leigh Brackett’s case—and the only one of them who was even nominated was “Doc” Smith. (Twice, both in 1966. He didn’t win.)
And yet… I’m willing to bet that almost everyone reading this essay has heard of every one of these authors except possibly one or two.
Think about that, for a moment—and then consider these facts. Of the sixteen authors I listed above who barely registered if they registered at all on the Hugo awards…
Five of them, almost one-third of the total, were eventually inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. (Williamson, Van Vogt, Norton, Clement, Russell.)
Five of them, almost one-third of the total, were eventually named Grand Masters by SFWA. (Williamson, de Camp, Norton, Van Vogt, Clement.)
Most importantly, the way an author like me looks on these things, all of them except Mack Reynolds and Robert Moore Williams are still in print—I’m talking about current, paper editions—and Reynolds and Williams are readily available in electronic and used paper editions.
I’m not going to do it, both because it would be very time-consuming and rather invidious, but I could dig through the records of writers who won more Hugos than any of the ones above and show that many of them are no longer in print and certainly not recognized in the SF Hall of Fame or by SFWA as Grand Masters. Some of them have been almost completely forgotten.
My point should be obvious. Even in the past, when our field was much, much smaller than it is today and Hugo Award voters had a much easier time assessing the entire field, there were always authors—plenty of them—who wound up getting barely noticed or entirely overlooked. Despite, in some cases, being authors who are today considered to be among the most important authors in our history.
Nowadays, the situation is far worse. The genre has become so huge that it is no longer possible for anyone to keep track of it in its entirety.
It. Can. Not. Be. Done.
Period. What that means, inevitably, is that there will be even more in the way of accidental and haphazard factors determining—or at least influencing—which authors get noticed by the fans who vote on the Hugos and which authors don’t.
There is no way around it. Anyone who tells you that it is possible to make the Hugo Awards “fair”—much less “fair and balanced”—is delusional.
Yes, they can be made somewhat fair-er. Mostly by adjusting the awards so that they fit modern publishing conditions instead of reflecting conditions that haven’t existed for decades. I’ll discuss that issue in my next essay. But even those adjustments are not magic wands. No matter what you do, no matter what measures are taken and adjustments are made, there will always remain an element of chance when it comes to which authors get nominated and win awards, and which don’t.
Thinking about this as an issue of “fairness” is a mistake in the first place. Making things “fair” is essential if you’re trying to design a contest. In a long foot race around a track, for instance, the starting position of each runner is staggered depending on which lane they occupy. That way each runner has the same chance of winning the race.
But the Hugo Award is not ultimately a contest, even though we tend (unfortunately) to use the terminology of contests. We speak of “winners” and “losers” even though neither term is really applicable to literary awards.
In what sense has a Hugo award “winner” won anything? Who did he or she defeat?
The other nominated authors? That’s ridiculous. They weren’t directly competing with each other in the first place. To do that, you’d have to set up the Hugos as a real contest, i.e., one in which everyone started on exactly the same footing. For instance, for the category of Best Novel, every contestant might be required to write an urban fantasy set in Duluth in the year 2015 featuring dwarves and dragons—no elves, not allowed!—which is between 110,000 and 112,000 words long, is written in the first person, and features at least one appearance of figures from Ojibwe mythology.
Now, that would be a real contest. That would be “fair.”
What you actually get are several stories which usually have nothing in common with each other except that they all fall within the (very, very broad) category known either as “fantasy and science fiction” or sometimes “speculative fiction.” None of them are really competing against each other. They’re simply the stories that the voters chose to honor by nominating them to be a possible recipient of the Hugo Award. They are not “contestants,” they are simply the agreed-upon pool from which one of them will receive the additional honor of being called “Best [Whatever]” and never mind that calling it “best” is damn silly. What it really should be called is “Most Favored by the Most People [Whatever].”
Okay, I know that’s awfully windy and we’re probably stuck with “best.” But don’t ever forget that what a Hugo Award really is, is an honor. It is not a “victory.” Nobody is “defeated.” All that happens is that one story gets an additional honor that the others didn’t get.
If people can think of it that way, then the issue of making the Hugo Awards “fair” loses its edge. It should still be made as reflective as possible of what authors are actually doing, rather than trying to cram stories into a pre-existing and ill-fitting framework. But people should stop thinking of being nominated for a Hugo (much less winning one) as a contest in which one person emerges as the “winner” and the rest are “losers”—and the ones who don’t get nominated at all are the “sorry-ass losers.”
An author—a very, very good author—might go through his or her entire career and never get nominated for a single award, or perhaps just one or two. Big deal. You are now in the company of Andre Norton, Fred Saberhagen, A. E. Van Vogt and Jack Williamson. How is that anything to feel badly about?
The best advice I ever got on this subject came very early in my career and it came from my mentor David Drake. What he said to me was the following:
“There are three things a writer can look for: readers, money, and awards. Decide which of those are most important to you, and in what order. Then guide your career accordingly. For me, my priorities are, first, to have readers; second, to make money; and third—a long way third—to garner awards.”
That struck me as good advice at the time. Today, almost two decades later, I know it to be excellent advice.
The only awards I’ve ever won as a writer were first place in the winter quarter of 1992 in the Writers of the Future contest, and the Darrell Award for Midsouth regional F&SF in 2008. That’s it.
Moving up my list of priorities—way up, in my case—I’ve been very successful as a writer in financial terms. The income from my last royalty period was a lot closer to six figures than four figures.
This is nice. This is very nice.
But the thing that pleased me the most about that royalty report was how long it was. It covered three pages and listed seventy-four separate titles that I’d earned royalties from in that period. Of that number, thirty-nine were novels; twelve were anthologies in which I had one or more stories, and the remaining twenty-three were from anthologies that I’d edited.
I have other volumes floating around out there that didn’t earn royalties this last period. But even leaving those aside, seventy-four volumes means that a lot of people somewhere in the world have recently or are right now or will be soon reading either a story of my own or I story I liked and brought into (or back into) the world.
There is no better feeling, for an author. An award sitting on a shelf would be very pleasant to have, no question about it. And money, of course, is always welcome. But I didn’t become a writer to make money or win awards. The truth is, when I started on this career I didn’t expect I’d ever make enough money to have a “career” at all. Then, when the money did start coming in—a lot more than I expected—I raised my sights to okay, I think I can scrape by on the money I make. I didn’t expect I’d earn nearly as much as I did as a machinist, but I didn’t need to. I just needed to make enough to keep myself and my wife afloat and help my daughter through college. If I could do that, I could devote the rest of my life to shaping the stories I wanted to tell the human race. Not because I thought they were the best stories anyone could possibly tell—I’m not that egotistical—but because they had one absolutely unique quality. They were my stories, born and bred and molded in the crucible of my life, and the one thing I could give the world that no one else could.
Any author who needs more than that to motivate his or her work is not really an author in the first place. They’re just trying to make a living by doing something that’s easier than working on an assembly line or waiting on tables, and less stressful than being a firefighter or a surgeon.
There is nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s an honest living. If you’re good at it, it’s even a useful living. But you’re not an author.
So, to those of you reading this who are writers yourselves and may have a story eligible to be considered for a Hugo award, have at it. But approach it like an author.
Don’t get worked up because a lot of what happens with awards isn’t “fair.” No, it’s not. It wasn’t “fair” a generation ago—consult the ghosts of Hal Clement, Andre Norton, Richard Matheson and James H. Schmitz—it’s not “fair” now and it’s not going to be “fair” after you’re dead and have joined those ghosts. Accept that now or you will just sink into stupid and pointless resentment.
Yes, there are some steps that could be taken that would improve the situation. I’ll get into those in my next essay. But there is no way to get around the objective reality that only a tiny percentage of eligible authors will ever or can ever receive a Hugo award—or even be nominated for one—and the odds that you will be in that select group are tiny. You will certainly improve your odds if you can write really well, but that’s all you can do—improve them.
If you can’t accept that—accept it ungrudgingly; better yet, cheerfully—then you’re not thinking like an author. You’re thinking like a damn fool.