Awards, Panels, and Diversity

For those who are fortunate enough to have missed the latest kerfuffle involving the World Science Fiction Convention, this year, when a preliminary program was posted, there was an uproar.


Because, from what I can gather: (1) a number of authors who had been nominated for World Science Fiction Awards (the Hugos) were not even on the program; (2) at least one individual whose gender remains a mystery to me and who had been listed on the program was greatly offended because some convention volunteer had changed that individual’s gender to masculine; (3) too many white straight males and a few too many straight white females were on the program and apparently too few people of various colors and genders were not [I’m writing this on what was reported, because the first program was taken down before I ever saw it.].

Several years ago, there was a movement at WorldCon by the “Sad Puppies” to try to outvote “the regulars” because the Sad Puppies felt that the regular attendees were pandering far too much to diversity in nominating writers for awards and that “diversity criteria” outweighed story content and quality. This year, it appears, that the diversity crowd was outraged because they felt marginalized.

In short, it seems that in nominating writers for awards, and granting recognition in terms of being on the program, some group is always outraged. I’d be among the first to say that no individual or group should be excluded or marginalized because of color, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation or lack thereof, or choice of topic. By the same token, no one should be included just because of those characteristics. The focus should be on what is written, not who wrote it… or who didn’t.

Years ago, Betty Ballantine, the co-founder of Ballantine Books, was reputed to have said that there was more than one kind of award, and that one award that was so often overlooked was how many people actually read a book. Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, has offered similar words.

The Hugos are represented as acclaiming the best F&SF published the previous year. They don’t exactly do that. They represent the judgement of those WorldCon attendees who choose to vote as to what is the “best.” Nominations require that the nominator be a member of either the current WorldCon or the previous WorldCon, but only those who have purchased a membership for the current year can vote to choose which of the top nominees will win.

The number of WorldCon memberships can vary greatly from year to year, from as low as perhaps 3,500 to the 10,000 range [which is rare], and the winners rack up only a few thousand votes.

Now… consider the size of the F&SF readership market. Last year, in the U.S. alone, over twelve million F&SF books were sold, and major publishers and well-established independent presses issued roughly 2,000 different titles. There’s no truly accurate way to establish how many self-published titles were issued, but I think it’s unlikely that, at most, more than a few thousand titles sold more than a thousand copies, but that’s still at least another million or more books sold. The website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has more than 43,000 followers, and I know literally at least a score of writers I strongly suspect have sold more than 100,000 copies of one or more novels. All of the Harry Potter books sold at least in the tens of millions. Since it’s unlikely that most of the buyers bought more than one copy, this suggests to me that there’s a very active U.S. F&SF readership that well exceeds 100,000 and by quite possibly quite a bit more.

All of that means that, while getting a Hugo gets an author certain bragging rights, it doesn’t mean that other books may not be better. It just means that a majority of the few thousand attendees thought the Hugo winner was better than the other nominees. Even professional editors in the field and critical literary magazines disagree over what’s “best.” I know of quite a few F&SF books cited by Kirkus Reviews as “best books” of the year that didn’t even make the Hugo nominees listing.

So… who gets chosen for Hugo awards and representation on panels is still a very subjective matter, depending on where the convention is held and, frankly, to some degree, what writers, topics, and treatments are the “flavor of the year” and what are not… all of which tends to get overlooked in the on-going hullabaloo.

In the end, time will sort out what books endure as good or great, and which are not… at least mostly, because, upon occasion, even time is unfair… and that’s something all of us, writers and readers, should remember.

5 thoughts on “Awards, Panels, and Diversity”

  1. JM says:

    Something I greatly enjoy about your works is that they do “endure”. I was first introduced to your work via “The Ecologic Matter” which I found on my Father’s bookshelf when I was 12. That was in 2008.

    Needless to say I became a fan of your works despite many of your books being far older than I. Much like Robert H. your books, especially your SF works, examine issues that are still relevent in the present day.

  2. Tim says:

    When I collected SF in my youth I remember that there was a yearly Panther(?) paperback containing the Hugo award-winners. And it was always disappointing.

    The Nebula awards were far better. But I have no idea on the difference between the selection criteria.

    1. The Nebula Awards are voted on by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and to be a member of SFWA, you have to be a writer whose been published in professional publications [I won’t go into the criteria because I’m not a SFWA member and would probably get them wrong]. So on the one hand, with the Hugos, awards are decided by convention members, some of whom are professionals, while the Nebulas are decided entirely by professionals.

  3. M. Kilian says:

    It’s sad to see affirmative action creeping its way into every facet of society. Meritocracy seems to be lambasted constantly nowadays by a myriad of people with their own brand of “egalitarianism”.

    Determining the merit is the difficult bit I suppose. Some people will dispute an outcome decided by popularity, and some will dispute an outcome decided by a panel of experts in the field. And as some awards are done on a yearly basis, not every year will be a level playing field.

    I personally admire your pragmatic approach to engage the reader but still try to give a meaning to the story.

  4. Wine Guy says:

    I view these awards the same I view the Tonys, Newberry Book Award, Golden Globes, and Olympic Diving and Gymnastics: with a very jaundiced eye. There is no reason to think that the process is apolitical. The best of the best might be in the room… they might even be on the stage – but ‘winning’ one of these awards needs an asterisk that when one looks it up in the fine print says “This award comes from a subjective evaluation.”

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