To George R.R. Martin: How You Can Fix Your Hugo Problem

So, in a recent post at his “Not A Blog”, George R.R. Martin is lamenting how the proposed rule changes to Hugo nominations won’t actually fix the problem of the “Puppies”. And he eventually says this:

Sadly, I don’t think there is an answer here. No magic bullet is going to fix this. And I fear that the people saying, “pretty soon the assholes will get bored and go away,” are being hopelessly naive. The assholes are having far too much fun.

A year ago April, when Sasquan announced the ballot, I wrote the Hugo Awards had been broken, and might never be fixed. A lot has happened since that time, and from time to time I’ve allowed myself to think that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, that this too would pass. Now I am starting to fear that my first reaction was the correct one.

The Hugo Awards have always been an occasion for joy, for celebrating excellence and recognizing the best among us. That’s what we need to get back to. But I don’t see how.

Well, Mr. Martin — may I call you George — you had a simple way to pretty much kill this at your command … and you and the others — and especially the others — completely flubbed it. Here’s what you had to do to make this mostly if not completely go away:

All you had to do was play fair.

See, while you talk about how this was all aimed at finding the best science fiction works, your nomination system … didn’t really work that way. The nomination system, as I understand it, gets people to nominate a number — 5, I think — of works in all categories that they think are the best, and the nominations are tallied and then are turned into the ballot. But this means that unless you happen to align with the majority on all of your nominations or are voting on a strong “recommendation list”, chances are at least one of the works that you think are the best for that year isn’t going to make it on the list, and will be replaced by something else. The best case there is that it’s a work that you hadn’t read and would have put on the list if you had. Typically, however, it’ll be a work that you think is inferior to the one you nominated that it replaced. And this could apply to all of the works in that category. None of which means that the other works are necessarily bad, but just that they aren’t the ones you really thought were the best.

Now, this is what you ostensibly want, because the only reason to go with fan nominations instead of jury selections that the fans then vote on is to muster the diversity of science fiction readers and thus end up with a nomination list that reflects all of the cross-sectional interests of science fiction. You want fans to nominate so that they can nominate works that are lesser known but have more resonance in the community as a whole than they do at the upper echelons. Admittedly, this isn’t that great a way to do it because the mainstream views will dominate anyway, but it does work to catch cases where the views of mainstream fans differ from those of the biggest names in the field.

So when people were coming into the actual vote, they weren’t necessarily — and were quite often — not voting for the work that they thought was the best, but were instead voting for the work they thought was the best out of those nominated. And that was the agreement, and one that was indeed used against people who complained that the works didn’t seem to them to be all that great: this is what has been chosen, so either suck it up and vote for the best out of these, or don’t vote. Now, there was an option added where if you thought that none of them were good at all, you could vote “No Award”, but in theory this is the nuclear option and should be quite rare. The expectation is that if the nominations are done reasonably at least one of the works would be good enough to win, even if you liked other works much better than all of them.

And so, what happened when the Puppies did manage to stack the nominations in their favour, and did so deliberately? Two things:

1) Immediately there was a call to change the rules so that this couldn’t happen (despite the fact that it already could have happened for years, and less direct “slates” might have been in place).

2) People decided that voting for the work that was the best out of those wasn’t what they wanted to do, and so they “No Awarded” entire categories out of spite … only, you know, not the ones where they really did like a work.

3) There was a push for people who were nominated because of the slate to withdraw just because they were nominated that way, which was pretty much a backhanded insistence that their works really weren’t good enough to win and that those doing that thought others were better.

Now, George, to your credit you’ve talked about how bad 2) was and that there were perfectly reasonable nominations that got “No Awarded”. I think you need to talk about it louder, because all you needed to do to shut down and shut up the Puppies was, in fact, to simply play fair, and vote the works that you thought good enough for an award above “No Award”, and the ones that you didn’t think were good enough for an award below “No Award”. If you had only done that — and not insulted authors by asking them to pull themselves off the list because clearly they shouldn’t have been there and were only there because Puppies — then you would have undercut the whole raison d’etre of the Puppies and so blunted their entire campaign.

I can see what the fear might have been, though. You were worried that they weren’t really there for the reasons they said there were, but that instead they were there to win awards, and if you didn’t do something at the rules and/or social level to avoid rewarding that, they’d just keep doing that to win awards. This requires us to think about what the motives of the “Puppies” actually are, particularly the “Rabid Puppies” who are the ones you most fear/need to fear.

So, they could be doing it to get awards. The problem is that this doesn’t seem to make sense. First of all, even with the idea of “Dread Ilk”, there simply aren’t enough people who want to see Vox Day win a Hugo to provide the numbers you need to run a successful slate that then gives Vox Day the win. If you undercut the overarching political issue, most of the people responsible for making the nomination slate work would abandon the slate, or at least drift away. Even if most of them really wanted to see those authors win, once they had won a couple of times most of them would get bored and drift away. You can’t maintain a slate of that form built mainly on outrage once they pretty much got what they wanted. Additionally, this assumes that Vox Day really cares about the validation of others, which isn’t very credible since if he did, he could very easily toe the party line and embrace the Social Justice mindset that gets people on the ballot. Vox Day has, for ages now, tended to take the more controversial side of, well, almost every issue he opines on. So it’s not all that likely that he cares that much about what people think.

Okay, but then maybe you can say that Vox Day wants attention, and that’s why he picks the controversial sides, and that’s why he’s doing that here. And if you all had simply treated it as an unfortunate event and played fair … he wouldn’t have gotten the attention that he’s getting now. And then he’d have had to move on to something else if he wanted attention, and again it would have been blunted. So if it had been treated like a non-event, it would have died down if Vox Day and the others wanted attention because, well, they wouldn’t have gotten attention.

Now we have to consider the possibility — strange though it may seem — that most of the people here are doing this because for the reasons that they say they are doing this, that they feel that works are being judged more on the politics of their works and their authors than on their real merits. If you had played fair, then this argument would have been blunted; you would have proven that you vote on the basis of merit but that for whatever reason more people think that other works are better than those ones that they say are getting excluded unfairly. Instead, what happened is that you proved that works not only can but are chosen on the basis of politics, by reacting strongly to the politics of the slate. Again, George, the you here doesn’t really include you, but is a shot at what is ostensibly your side.

The problem here is exemplified by a some comments on this very post. The first exemplifies the attitude that you — and I do mean you here, George — should be opposing with all of your strength if you want this resolved, from yagathai:

I have not read Between Light and Shadow. I do not plan to. I will nevertheless vote against it. Castalia House is the propaganda organ of an odious white supremacist and obscene misogynist, and I will fight to deny it even a breath of legitimacy.

That may not be all Castalia is. It may also publish serious works of scholarship, but that’s immaterial — lay down with puppies and you get fleas. Any work published by CH is tainted.

You can call this a “political reason” if you like. I don’t. I see it as a matter of common decency.

Here, yagathai is not only willing, but is in fact proud of voting against a work that you yourself, George, think is a worthy work simply because of who published it. Additionally, yagathai considers it “common decency”, which means that they think that everyone should act that way, voting down good works because of some sort of association that they can’t even prove and have to admit might not be entirely accurate, but even then they don’t care. If you want this problem fixed, George, you have to smack down such idiotic statements, not leave them sit uncommented upon. Well, sure, if you think that most people find such a view abhorrent, you could ignore it on that basis … but that doesn’t really hold in a post where you gently chide people for pretty much doing exactly that. It exists, and you need to acknowledge and condemn it if you want this to get settled.

You also have to address the issue that some of those who post at Castalia House do so because they don’t think they can get their works published elsewhere. You definitely don’t want to react this way, as you did:

I am a huge fan of Gene Wolfe, one of the living legends of our field… and someone who is long overdue for a Hugo, by the way. A study of Gene’s work is certainly a worthwhile project.

And I have seen Marc Aramini’s posts elsewhere on the internet, where he says repeatedly that no one but Castalia House would publish such a volume. In those same posts he often says how helpful VD was an editor… but here you are, saying you were the editor. Can you clarify? Who edited BETWEEN LIGHT AND SHADOW?

I really have to wonder about Mr. Aramini’s assertion that no one but Castalia would publish a work like his. I wonder how many publishers saw the book. Where did he submit it? Did Gene’s own publishers get a look? How about the academic presses? If the book is well researched and well written — have no idea if it is or not, since I have not seen it, but let’s take your word that it is great — there should have been PLENTY of good markets for it.

It’s not unreasonable, when some says that they couldn’t get published/couldn’t get hired, to ask them politely what it was that made them think that. It’s not reasonable to do so in a dismissive manner and demand to know who “really” edited a work that you think is a good work and should have been able to get published by other people. You look here like you’re trying too hard to deny that this was the case, instead of trying to find out why they think that and whether or not they are actually right. Because if you want to fix these issues in science fiction, George, if people really think this is the case you’re going to need to fix that impression. This doesn’t mean that you have to accept that they are right, just that they think this is the case and there are reasons for that. To use a Social Justice analogy here, it doesn’t matter if you have perfectly gender neutral hiring practices if women think that they won’t get hired just for being a woman. That doesn’t mean that your hiring practices are sexist, just that women won’t even try if they think they’re just going to fail. And the same thing applies to this case.

But, see, George, you kinda miss the boat on this because you dismiss the issue that started all of this:

I don’t agree that Larry Correia “continues to be right,” either. Correia has never been right. His own nomination for the Campbell refuted him, as did Brad Torgersen’s nomination for both Campbell and Hugo. They didn’t win? No, they didn’t. Boo hoo. I’ve lost seventeen Hugos and a Campbell too, some to better stories and some to worse. I didn’t need to blame secret conspiracies of Torlings and CHORFs and third-wave feminazis. You win some, you lose some, and some years you get ignored. That’s how it goes.

Except, Corriea’s comment was that when he got the nomination, people said that he ought not win and encouraged people not to vote for his work because of his personal politics. Not the politics of the work, but instead the politics of the author. So his complaint isn’t so much that he didn’t win, but that people were insisting that he ought not win because of his personal politics. I imagine that Torgersen has experienced similar comments, either about him or about his work. To think that none of this could impact the awards is utterly naive, so naive as to come across as disingenuous.

Now, you might argue, George, that you and others on your end of the political spectrum get that, too. Which is probably even true. But can we not agree, George, that this is bad? And, if so, can you stop saying that Correia has never been right when that sort of thing seems to have clearly happened to him? Or do you deny that that happened to him? If you do, then stop bringing that up as if it is obvious and prove that.

So, in conclusion, George, here’s what you need to do to fix the problem:

1) Play fair in the Hugo awards. Stop trying to fix the problem by changing the rules and twisting the rules because you don’t like the results.

2) Take the concerns of “politics” seriously, and evaluate them honestly, and work with those who you think are or who might be reasonable to either change the impression or change the system, as required.

3) Stop dismissing the concerns of people just because they’re saying things you don’t want to hear. You don’t have to think they’re right, but at least stop thinking that they have no reason to say what they say.

George, I’ve been a long time science fiction and fantasy reader. I love your “Wild Cards” series and have all of the original ones. I’m not as fond of “A Song of Ice and Fire” books, to be honest, but I love “Wild Cards”. I’ve been looking at getting back into reading new science fiction, and right now I’d rather go back and re-read those than even bother trying to find new works that interest me. Why? Because with this political fight I can’t trust anyone’s assessment or review of a book. I can’t trust that when you or someone else says that a book is good that it really is good or whether all that means is that it panders to your personal politics. And I think that’s true of all sides in this. Science fiction has a problem that it needs to fix, George, and right now no one’s fixing it. And while I don’t need you guys, I’m also the sort of person you want to attract because, well, I can afford to buy the books. Reading is the one leisure activity that I always do, so books are a big part of my entertainment budget. You want me buying books instead of buying games, and right now I can’t do that, George.

And that’s sad.

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2 Responses to “To George R.R. Martin: How You Can Fix Your Hugo Problem”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    The comments that Vox Day is a white supremacist never fail to make me laugh. Even IF he was white – which he isn’t – it is obviously and observably not true.

    The fact that Vox says certain races are smarter than other races, and blacks, for example, are not as smart as whites, does not make him a white supremacist, if for no other reason that he doesn’t actually think whites are the smartest of the races; as he has pointed out, he believes East Asians and Indians are smarter.

    I’m not telling people this is necessarily true, merely that it’s clearly not white supremacy. Not to mention the fact that “intelligence” and “inherent superiority” aren’t necessarily connected any more than physical ability and inherent superiority…but we don’t even need to go down that rabbit hole to see that the original claim isn’t true.

  2. Up Yer Arsenal, Worldcon! | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] finish below the “No Award” result in a category. So, in order to blunt the strategy, as I’ve said before all they need to do is play fair, which means that in general the works that really couldn’t […]

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