So, let’s suppose there was an award that no longer meant increased circulation for the book that sported the little seal on the cover: how far would you be willing to fight to preserve the right to have the award given to the people you wanted/to have the chance at the award yourself? If you were, that is, someone who played by the rules of the “in” group, the writers and publishers we’ll call “the old establishment”?
I am making a leap here, as I’m not sure the Hugo no longer boosts print runs at all. I know it no longer boosts them as it used to, because the Hugo used to be d*mn big noise, when I came into the field. The hierarchy when I came in, as told to me by older and more scarred pros was as follows: The Hugo meant an increase in circulation; the Nebula did nothing for you; World Fantasy Award LOWERED your circulation.
No use arguing those, btw. Last time I sat at a world fantasy banquet, the publisher was loudly hoping her author wouldn’t win it.
How does this happen? This happens because science fiction forgot it was science fiction and its greatest aspirational desire was to be considered “literary” — where “literary” is neither better nor worse than other writing but has the markings of “stuff they teach in college.”
Now I have nothing against stuff they teach in college, but it’s in truth just another genre. You might think it’s “better written” but that’s because it’s what your college professors told you it was good writing.
As someone who has enough training to teach literature in college, let me tell you a secret: there is no sacred anointing that makes that stuff good and the rest “trash.” As a writer it took me years to get rid of the markings of “literature” in my writing and even more years to believe that this was NOT what denoted quality. My first series still suffered heavily from it and was tagged as “literary fantasy”. So did the Magical British Empire for that matter.
Those markers? They’re mostly an aping of the things we consider “literature” or “important literature” because they attach to books that have proven their importance by surviving the centuries.
So, for instance, the language will be a little difficult, and the rules of the world/behavior might seem irrational. Listen to me very carefully: in centuries old work it is so because the time has changed. To put them in intentionally is akin to faking antiques in furniture something I know how to do and which is in fact a difficult craft, but which does not make the furniture into REAL antiques, no more than the use of tricks to make something feel like an old work that has been good enough to survive the centuries makes that work one that will survive the centuries.
In fact, something you can be sure of is that almost every work that is lionized by the elites of its day will be ridiculed by the future. With exceptions, of course. Shakespeare was beloved of both the groundlings and the elites. But he lived in more robust times than most of us do/have throughout history. In the bloody turnover of Elizabethan England, a lot of newly enriched merchants were the elites, and they hadn’t acquired a veneer of faux sophistication yet. And what kept Shakespeare’s work alive and going is that he did appeal to the masses. Go and count how many small American towns are named after his characters/locations. These were colonists, living hardscrabble. They had no room for affectation and affected tastes. They loved it because it spoke to them.
But unfortunately somewhere in the nineties or two thousands, the turn over of science fiction and fantasy professionals and fandom into the hands of people with degrees in humanities from excellent colleges was complete. Which means these people are trying to write/publish that which would impress their erstwhile professors or their colleagues now. And they all come from similar milieus.
This would be fine if science fiction were in fact a “literary” subgenre. Or if “literature” would ever approve of science fiction.
In fact science fiction is still sneered a by academics and their minions who hark back to an SF that never existed and talk of “naked girls and alien space lizards.” In fact a well known novelist with SF themes got very upset and said something of that kind when they asked her about science fiction.
(Oh, and let me interject here that yes, there is craft to “literary” and it’s hard to do. But that doesn’t make it “better” — better according to whom, tovarish? How will your work survive the ages when people won’t give you their beer money now. — every genre is hard to do WELL. Yes, even romance. The increasing slide of romance into erotica means that people have more trouble conveying “sizzling hot” without describing the body parts going into other body parts. That’s craft they’re lacking. Writing transparent prose so that the reader remembers as if he lived the story and doesn’t stop to admire your pretty prose is d*mn hard, particularly for someone afflicted with my love for words)
So, given that you could never get into the “big boys” table of literary and are stuck trying to make science fiction/fantasy look “literary” and looking down at your colleagues and screaming you are SUPERIOR TO THEM, and that the award at best gives you a modest boost, how hard would you be willing to fight to keep it within the right kind?
When we set out on this, back in the dim days of our first discussions of Sad Puppies (I object, of course. I have cats) the goal was to make the Hugo worth something again. Granted, we can’t cater for everyone’s taste. If you’re a heavy mil-sf guy and the prize goes to hard sci fi it won’t be to your taste. BUT to cater to the “literary” crowd is to cater to the tiniest fandom in SF. (I found this out in sincere arguments with agents while looking for one between my third and fourth. They all wanted me to write literary sf — because I CAN do it — because it would win awards and increase THEIR prestige (and make me slit my wrists in a warm bath if I had to write much more of it. It was no fun.) But they all candidly informed me that it sold almost nothing and so I should try to get a job teaching or write for literary journals or something. Why do you think they kept telling us that Ancillary Justice as a “fun space opera” — because no one buys “literary”. Or yeah, some people do, but not enough to keep you in writer kibble.
Our idea, goofy as it sounds was to get some good books/good names associated with the Hugo, so Hugo would mean a boost in print run again.
We were shocked at how hard they were willing to fight to keep it a “just us” club. And the ridiculous levels they’d go to.
And then I realized that, like the agents I interviewed they don’t view the Hugo as a promotional tool at all. They view it as bling.
What I mean is, when your book hardly sells, and you have to have other jobs –teaching, speaking, whatever — you need the awards as an appearance of legitimacy.
Awards are very important because most of the general public, even the casual readers who MIGHT try SF know nothing about the award process, who votes for them, or how it has gone.
So if you can’t say “I’m a bestseller” saying “I have x award” gives you immense prestige in the eyes of the world. I realized this while talking to someone who had read his first ever sf novel over summer and was asking me about mine. He was like “yah, uh uh” until I said “And it won the Prometheus.” He obviously had clue zero what the Prometheus was, but “won the Prometheus” translated to “instant affirmation someone else liked it” and he wrote down Darkship Thieves for looking up later.
And even if — as has been the run in recent years — picking it up after finding it had won an award, you immediately put it down and promised never to read any SF again, if that was the best out there, the bling still has value.
Why? Because they’ll book you on TV when there’s something even vaguely related to SF. Because all foreign countries still translate Hugo winners because they don’t know any better (and also most of them are more addicted to the symbols of status than we are.) Mind you, it’s killed their market. There’s a reason that Portugal no longer has sf/f shelves in most bookstores. BUT you’ll still make a boatload of money from so many (if small) translation rights.
For the outside world, those who don’t read sf, having “x” “y” or even “z” award still translates to money in your pocket and being considered by the world at large as the best in the admittedly tiny pond of science fiction.
If your philosophy in life is “I got mine” and your goal is to get while the getting is good, and “Apres nous le deluge” doesn’t trouble you at all, you will of course do everything to keep riding the award pony until it’s so dead that it even stinks in the nostrils of the “mundanes.”
Think of it as the parable of Solomon. If they weren’t killing the field in the name of uplifting it, we’d even let them have it. Because what we love, more than our own careers is Science Fiction. Note most of the supporters of Sad Puppies have no books on the ballot, not even short stories. And some who are on the ballot are there under protest: Dave Freer, for instance.
As it is, of course, we have to keep fighting. Because we want the genre to mean something and we want other people to find the joy and challenge in it that we have found.
If the books that won the Hugo, once upon a time, could speak to a young girl/woman in Portugal, who transitioned from reading them in translation to reading them in English and perfected her English in the process, if the genre could change her life and help her endure rather trying times, it’s a genre worth saving.
And saving doesn’t speak to going back to the past, but to porting the same enthusiasm and life to present day sf. (i.e. stop with the formulaic repetition of what you think are “international” or “multicultural” truths. Their attempt to be cosmopolitan which somehow uses exotic puppets to deliver their message to the world just reveals they never were out of your university campus, at least not in their mind. Of them I think it can only be said: “Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.” Real cultures have evil as well as good, a lot of them have more evil than we do, and it is patronizing and ignorant of them to make them into less than human, and walking advertisements for theirr academic philosophy. I agree that there needs to be more variety now, in a connected world, than there was in the past. BUT not a variety that makes natives of other cultures into painted saints. Trust me, that would have disgusted me when I was fully in that culture. Oh, and if they try to attract people of the culture you’re writing about, forget it. They’ll almost certainly get it wrong. I can’t read anything set in Portugal. the “flavor” is wrong. EVEN when other Portuguese write it, because they’re catering to the US market, anyway. And it’s better to write middle class US and make it exciting than to write a novel set in Lisbon and make it deadly dull by having all the usual villains and pseudo saints.)
I know this will be twisted and screamed at. If they could twist Toni’s post that amounted to “let’s establish bridges of understanding” to mean she was trying to exclude people, they can twist anything.
And I don’t expect them to stop, because they care about nothing but their own false bling, their tarnished glory.
I just want them to know we won’t stop either. Because that baby you want cut in half is still alive, if barely. And we’d like it to grow up into a fully realized person, one that can lead humans to the stars and keep humanity human wherever we go.
Yeah, it’s a crazed dream, but at least it’s not all about the present and bling we can get to make people who know nothing of the field respect us.
And you know, as we’ve said over and over and over again, with us it’s all about the dream.
We’ll continue working for it.