No Award (Part Four)

This article first appeared on the now-defunct NerdHQ blog.

“No Award”

The Hugo Awards, Sad Puppies, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy Literature
Part IV: It’s Not Just the Hugos–
How Similar Issues are Shaking Up Other Awards, Literary Culture, and Fandom

By Chris Chan

This is 4 of 8 in a series of articles.

So far, these articles have focused entirely on the Hugo Awards and what the debates over literary quality and prize-giving mean for the science fiction fan community.  It’s also important to note that arguments such as these are going on in many different fields.  Many major awards for writing, acting, and other creative work have been challenged for their nominees, their voting procedures, and for the winners in recent years.  I introduce these controversies in order to show that the Hugos are not the only award to be challenged for various reasons.

In comparison to the science fiction genre, there have been some objections from various quarters amongst mystery fans.  In the mystery and crime fiction community, several prominent critics have voiced displeasure over some of the nominees for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards for reasons very similar to the Sad Puppies.  On some Facebook mystery fan forums and various crime fiction blogs, there are complaints that a lot of worthy nominees have been overlooked, that on occasion famous names dominate, and that certain subgenres of crime stories are favored over others, just to name a few complaints.  Just like the Hugos, there are other fans who strongly disagree with these criticisms.  Once again, there’s no pleasing everybody.

Looking at another crime writing award, some fans have cried foul over the fact that the same three authors have taken home the Agatha Award for Best Novel/Best Contemporary Novel each year for a full decade, complaining that other writers deserve a trophy.  Notably, the Agatha Awards are selected in a way comparable to the Hugos.  The nominees are selected and voted for by attendees of the annual Malice Domestic Conference, which requires a substantial registration fee.  In contrast, would-be Edgar winners submit their work for consideration (nothing can win without first being submitted), the nominees are selected by a panel of judges, and are then voted for by MWA members.  Many of the mystery genre’s leading awards, like the Anthony Awards, are given by conferences or organizations, and the differing memberships tend to honor differing works, depending on the personal preferences of each group.  Often, there is not very much overlap between the various mystery awards (like the Macavity Awards, the Hammett Award, the Nero Award, the Shamus Awards, and the Crime Writers’ Association Daggers), but it depends on the year– sometimes a breakout hit gets lots of nominations and wins.

For all of the controversy that the Hugos have received lately in the wake of the Sad Puppies movement, it must not be forgotten that virtually every major literary award, from the Pulitzer Prize to the National Book Award to the Nobel Prize for Literature has its share of critics, supporters, and detractors.  The Booker Prize has led to so many arguments and attacks that complaining about the nominees and anguishing over the winners has become an annual tradition in many literary circles.  The Booker provoked a further firestorm when it recently allowed American writers to compete, when previously, only British Commonwealth authors (and those residing in a select few other nations) were placed in contention for the gong.  All of these awards have sparked backlashes over who makes the selections, what gets picked, what gets overlooked, whether certain types of people or ideologies are chosen or not, and so forth.  And of course, some readers are perfectly satisfied with who wins what.  Comparably, look at the continuing debate over the merits of Bob Dylan’s Nobel win to see the fierceness of opinions over what constitutes quality literature.  The point is that the Hugos are by no means an aberration due to the Sad Puppies criticisms– every major literary award has provoked discontent, and in order to better understand the kerfuffle resulting from the Puppies, it is necessary to note how no award can satisfy everybody.

Moving on to the movies, the Oscars radically shook up their Best Picture category several years ago, when ten films from 2009 were nominated instead of merely five.  This was in reaction to sustained criticism that many popular and otherwise worthy films were overlooked for the top honor.  (The rules were later further revised to change the number of nominees from anywhere from five to ten.)  As explained here, the Best Picture vote is now decided by a preferential ballot.

In the theatre business, the Tony Awards have drummed up their own share of controversy.  In 2009, the Tonys announced that they would no longer allow journalists and critics to vote for the Tony Awards.  This meant that around a hundred Tony voters, approximately an eighth of the total voting membership, was cut from the voting process.  As many commentators argued, by deleting a significant percentage of the voters (one that may not have had a financial stake in the outcome of the awards, unlike some of the theater professionals who were voting members), it was possible that the results of the awards could have been substantially altered (though such a theory cannot be definitively proved).  This past year, just fifty-three people determined who got nominated for Tonys this years– a number that would only fill perhaps two to five percent of the seats in a Broadway theater at a single performance.  Some theatergoers have wondered how effective a means this is of determining merit, when other acting awards call for hundreds or thousands of voters to select the nominees.

One of the most controversial prizes in the field of visual art is the Turner Prize, a British art prize that currently offers forty thousand British pounds to an artist working in all sorts of media.  The Turner nominees tend to provoke heated debates over the artistic value of the winners and nominees.  Some of the most polarizing works include Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, consisting of a shark preserved in a glass box filled with a formaldehyde solution.  A non-winning but much talked-about nominee was Tracey Emin’s My Bed, which was a rumpled bed with assorted garbage and bedroom objects scattered about it.  One of the most memorable commentaries of Emin’s work was when Yuan Chai and Juan Jun Xi, known for their attention-grabbing stunts used to critique certain works, removed their shirts, leapt upon My Bed, pretended to drink from the empty liquor bottles included in the exhibit, and had a pillow fight for an estimated quarter of an hour.  They dubbed their actions performance art, and titled it Two Naked Men Jump Onto Tracey’s Bed.  One of the most famous Turner Prize winners is Martin Creed’s Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off.  It consists of a bare room where the lights are turned off and on again every five seconds.  As the celebrated novelist Beryl Bainbridge quipped, “That’s all they did.”

As one might imagine, critiques of these Turner nominees and winners run the gamut.  Some critics are blown away by these works, whereas others describe them as “elephant dung.”  In one case, this description is meant quite literally.  Chris Ofili is a painter and Turner winner who routinely incorporates actual elephant excrement into his paintings, and has drawn accusations of blasphemy for his use of the aforementioned material on a picture of the Virgin Mary.

Over the past several years, numerous awards have reworked the ways that they nominated candidates and winners.  The revamp of the Hugo Awards, where the number of nominees has been raised to six per category, and the new nomination system has been installed to prevent slate voting, has been discussed in an earlier article.  In wake of calls for more diversity (like #OscarsSoWhite), the Oscars have substantially expanded the Academy voting base, inviting far more members in order to bring newer perspectives to their selections.  The Emmys have been changing their nomination and voting procedures every few years over the course of the twenty-first century.  Judging panels were instituted, ostensibly to promote worthy but little-seen nominees, and to prevent the awards from being given only to shows that were already popular.  In the wake of this major revision, critics decried the fact that James Gandolfini and Edie Falco somehow missed the cutoff for nominations for their performances in the first part of season six of The Sopranos.  Over the past couple of years, the Emmys have also switched back from a ranked voting system to a straight first-choice ballot, expanded the number of nominees per category, and changed numerous procedures.  Though the Emmy nominees may change, no one is ever entirely satisfied with the selections– lots of worthy candidates continue to go unrewarded, and many nominees and winners still provoke the ire of fans.

So what does this mean for the Hugos?  Looking at all of these other awards, it just goes to show that prizes and contentiousness go hand in hand.  Unlike other prizes, where critics can complain forever without influencing the judges in any way, the Hugos, with their open nomination and voting system, was open to dissenting voices influencing the outcome of the awards in a way that the Pulitzers, the Nobel Prize, the Booker Prize, and other juried awards could never be reshaped.  Having made the point, it is now time to re-focus on the Hugos and look at what the voting numbers can tell us about the process and how many people have been participating in the awards.

 Coming up in Part Five of this series– A Look at the Hugo Voting Numbers