The Hugo Downside, Such As It Is

From the vasty fields of e-mail, a question about the Hugos:

“Now that you’re an old hand with the Hugos, tell us if there’s a downside to getting a nomination.”

Hmmm.

The short answer is no, not really. Particularly in the case of a Best Novel nod, what a Hugo nod means is that during the four months between the announcement of the nomination and the announcement of the winner of the award, your book is one of the big topics of conversation among science fiction fans and readers, and that’s the sort of focus you dream of. It means eyeballs on your words, a little extra cash in your pockets as people go out and buy your book (which on its next printing will have the word “HUGO NOMINEE” plastered on the cover), and some bump in your status on the intangible but nevertheless real list of who is who in the genre. It’s hard to complain about any of that.

The long answer is: Actually, yeah, there can be downside — if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t realize that being in the spotlight not only means that your work is given an opportunity to shine, it also means your work is a well-lit target for people to throw things at. Because once your book or story or art has been declared a nominee for the most prestigious award in the genre, there are inevitably people who are going to step forward and say, loudly and publicly, “Really? That work? Really?” And then once they’re done banging on your work, there’s also a chance they’ll have a few choice words to say about you.

As an example, since the Hugos were announced last Friday, there has been no shortage of people online who have been, well, underwhelmed that The Last Colony made the short list. Comments I’ve seen suggest it’s too lightweight for the honor, that it’s underwritten, that it’s poorly written, that it’s yet another predictable sacrifice at the altar of Heinlein, that it pales in worthiness to one and/or all of the other nominees, or that it’s taking the place of some more worthy tome that lurks below the nomination cut. Even worse, there are some people who are indifferent to it, which really sucks. At least the people who don’t like it felt strongly about it.

Mind you, it’s not just my book. Look online, and you’ll see each of the nominated books and authors has their full share of people wondering what the hell that book and author are doing on the ballot. And indeed, you’ll also find sweeping judgments on the Class of ’08 as a whole, ranging from dismissive to hostile. Apparently, we all suck, individually and in aggregate, even though the members of the class have won Hugos, Pulitzers, Campbells (both flavors), Nebulas and BSFA awards. Likewise you have people saying that (pick one book) will win even though (pick another one) clearly is the better book, because (insert rationale unrelated to literary quality here). Or they are casting aspersions on a particular author, his personality, his talent and possibly his cat. And there will be yet other criticisms: say, that none of the Best Novel nominees are fantasy novels, or that none of the authors of the books nominated are women.

This will go on for the next four months.

Now, to be clear, what will also go on are people defending each book and writer in turn, praising the work and the person who wrote it, and generally touting their favorites to friends and strangers. And, you know, that’s a good thing. The point here, however, is that as great as it is to get nominated for a Hugo, what it also means is that everybody gets to have their say in the quality of your nominated work and in your talent as a creator, and by no means will everyone think you or your work is wonderful — or, indeed, even mediocre.

If you’re not prepared for that, I think it can be hard to take, especially at first. Creative types are a twitchy lot as it is; a lot of us are really no good at all at handling criticism, especially if we perceive it as casually unfair or nasty. Going from the high of getting your work on a Hugo ballot to the low of someone going into detail about why it shouldn’t be there at all can be fairly whiplash inducing. Couple that with the general stress of being nominated for a major award (the number of science fiction and fantasy authors who are genuinely unconcerned about winning a Hugo is small and largely confined to the population of writers who have already won the Hugo of their choice), and you’re well on your way to making a writer an ulcerating wreck. To paraphrase a certain schadenfreude-laden saying, those SF/F writers the geek gods wish to punish, they nominate for the Hugo.

Is this my plea for fandom to be nice to those poor, suffering Hugo nominees, afflicted as they are by their acclaim? Well, no. As it happens I fall solidly into the camp of those celebrating the idea that fans and readers can and should say anything they like about the work authors and artists offer up for public consumption, and that creative types need to come to grips with the fact that not everyone is going to think either they or their work are special and beautiful flowers, to be cherished and gently held up to the sun. Having people bitching about your Hugo-nominated work is one of those high-class problems that lots of folks would kill to have, and the writers in the position of being nominated should (and, I think, largely do) recognize it as such.

Nevertheless, if there’s a downside to the Hugo (or, indeed, to any competitive award widely discussed in the public sphere) that’s what it is. High-class problem or no, having someone say “dude, your work doesn’t deserve to be on the ballot” still takes a little getting used to. Of course, if you win, I expect you manage to get over it pretty quickly. So that’s the upside.

42 thoughts on “The Hugo Downside, Such As It Is

  1. John, I am one of those writers who would be generally unconcerned about winning a Hugo – because I am one of those fans who complain bitterly about the quality of the Hugo winners.

    I am also one of those writers who have yet to be published, so there may lie the corollary of this argument.

    I can say, I hate to be in competition, because if I DON’T win after all the hoopla, I get very discouraged and down, and I’d rather just not be a part of that. Would I like people to enjoy my books (if I ever get one published)? Of course. Would I want someone to tell my my work is somehow “better” or more “genuine” than others? I guess so. Would I want to WIN the Hugo, or any major award? That would be nice. But I’d prefer not to even know I was nominated if at all possible.

    As I said, though – that may all change if/when I actually publish anything. Guess I’ll cross that one, etc … .

  2. You know, the one thing about the Hugo is it is by, for, and about the fans. Fans, or more specifically, fen, are just as twitchy a lot as the folks they fangirl about. They can very easily nominate something fairly lightweight (PotterPotterPotter) just because it’s the “in” thing that year….or not. The upside to the downside of getting a Hugo nom is, “Hey, Mister Critic, the *fans* thought enough of me to get me on the ballot in the first place.” And, well, at the end of the day, it’s the fans that buy the books and, ultimately, in these days of universal blogitude, probably sell more to other fans than any ad campaign or even Hugo nom could possibly hype. I know *all* the book reviews I read are by other fans, some of them (heck, most of the ones that write reviews) budding writers in their own right.

    There will *always* be folks who snipe at you; some folks snipe at anything that sticks its head up. But frankly? If you’re not offending *someone*, you’re not doing it right…

    Keep on keeping on, kind sir. I for one find your work very satisfying.

    – a once and future technical journalist, and amateur pundit

  3. Casting aspersions on a Hugo nominee’s CAT?

    I’m SHOCKED! SHOCKED, I say!!!

    There ain’t no justice!

  4. Nominees can also spend the 4 months worrying that they’ll place beneath “No Award” in the voting. That doesn’t happen all that often, but when it does, it’s right up there on the suckitude scale.

  5. <yoda>Nominations, bah. Awards, hmmmph! An author craves not these things…</yoda>

    Seriously, John, I might actually give a toss about what the crickets have to say when: a) they can point to their own shiny rockets-on-pedestals; b) when one, just one can name another author besides Admiral Bob against which you should be compared. All the imagination expended by your naysayers to date could rolled up and stuffed into a gnat’s navel… and there’d still be room for lint.

    In the words of ADF: “Ignore the ignorant, and stick to your phasers.”

  6. Ah yes, writers and criticism. Had a funny conversation with a writers agent, once I found out that’s what she did:

    Me “Is it me, or a lot of writers simultaneously arrogant about their work, while being completely neurotic about any criticism of it?”

    Her: “Yes, that about sums it up.”

    But as in most things, it doesn’t matter if everyone loves you, if you’ve published, that’s proof that someone does and that should be enough.

  7. A little side road on the subject -
    At chez bosswriter we tend to nominate things we have actually read, seen or know about first, then scour the recommendations of others to “fill out” the ballot.

    For best novel that usually means we have actually read only three or four novels that would be eligible to nominate, since we often times do not buy a hardbound as soon as it comes out or just have not gotten around to reading newer novels yet.

    A large number read the latest offering by their favorite authors first each year, then get around to new stuff by either new writers or writers they don’t normally read.

    This is one of the reasons, IMHO, that we see some authors repeat each year on the ballot. The pool of people that nominate is only a few hundred which, sadly I think, makes the Hugos somewhat diluted in it’s significance.

    But, it is the best thing we have right now, and I still feel it is something to be proud of.

  8. Just so as you are prepared, after you have won teh intrawebs will be full of people complaining about what a travesty your victory is, about how the “Hugo judges” are complete morons who should be fired; about how you only won because you somehow had an “in” with the voters; and even that people only voted for you because you post pictures of cats on your blog. This will go on for several years as you continue to accumulate Hugos, at which point people will suddenly start saying that it is unfair that everyone else should have to compete with someone as good as you and that you should retire from competition to give others a chance.

  9. I for one will not be casting aspersions on any of Scalzi’s cats.

    I don’t have a rocket on a pedestal, but will (and have) happily compare(d) Scalzi to Richard (K) Morgan and Peter F Hamilton for different treatments of similar themes. But this is a thread about criticising criticism, not criticism itself so I’ll stop here.

  10. I forgot the really good bit. After you have won a fan Hugo, you will get a few emails from journalists asking to interview you about your life as a science fiction fan. They’ll want to know about your favorite movies and TV series, which actors and actresses you most lust after, and which characters you most like to dress up as. They’ll ask whether you only wear your costumes at home and at conventions, or whether you wear them to work and to the mall. And they’ll want bring a photographer so that they can get pictures of you in all of your favorite costumes.

    I confess to having chickened out at this stage of the process, but you are made of sterner stuff and might like to follow through with the interview. You’ll then be able to watch the unfortunate hack work himself up to ask the questions that his editor really wants put: do you wear your costumes when having sex, how long have you believed in UFOs, and what did the aliens do to you while they had you on the mother ship.

  11. Well, I think that your book deserves to be on the short list. When the little yappy dogs come snapping at your ankles yelling “unworthy! unworthy!” it only proves how small they are. Most critics are far more interested in demonstrating their own supposed intellectual superiority than in actually reviewing books (or movies or …). I have read that most critics are failed writers. I don’t know how true that is, but when you read their complaints it certainly seems true.

    But one day, when you happen to be in a bookstore and see a book with “The New John Scalzi” spashed across the cover, then you will know you have really made it.

  12. Years ago I received some most excellent advice from a friend who happened to be a prestigious Psychiatrist at the medical establishment rated second in the nation (curse you John’s Hopkins!).

    He was an all around good guy and loved acting and because I was new to the game of acting I hung on his every word. On the topic of criticism from the audience his advice was very short and very sweet. “Eff ‘em.” He used the full word.

    I never expected something like that from him. He was always a nice guy. Explaining further he said the he performs for himself. At his core he defines himself, no one else does that. He was not arrogant – he was great at taking direction from Directors. He was very open to informed criticism from informed people. But if artists allow direction from everyone they will become hopelessly confused. You’ll get conflicting advice with most of it bad.

    If you are serious about your craft and you can make yourself happy you will have satisfied your biggest critic. Everything else builds from that.

  13. I read and write crime fiction, so maybe I’m not the person to chime in here, but form what I’ve read today and in other Hugo/SFWA, I think a lot of the sci-fi community takes this stuff WAY too seriously.

  14. JJS:

    “I have read that most critics are failed writers. I don’t know how true that is, but when you read their complaints it certainly seems true.”

    Well, you know. I made my living (all or part) from criticism for many years, so I don’t know if I buy into the “failed writer” theory, or that jealousy is a motivator.

    I will say, however, that having been a critic for many years has made me fairly immune to negative criticism. I know how it works.

  15. This is so true.

    The thing is, if you publish a story and it’s not to someone’s taste, they will probably simply not read it, or if they read it and don’t like it they will probably not say anything about it. Whereas once a story is an award nominee, many people who would have ignored it before will feel compelled to read it and comment about it. Including people who are not in the story’s target audience. Including people who hate that kind of story on principle. So the nomination process seems explicitly tailored to bringing the people who think your story sucks out of the woodwork.

    The worst part, I think, is the people who say that the whole slate is terribly weak and what were the voters thinking.

    And although winning is nice (damn nice), it doesn’t completely shut the whiny little inner demons up.

  16. Please excuse my ignorance but I am curious. How exactly does one get nominated and actually win a Hugo? I see in this thread the mention of voting by fans and voting by some panel. If it is the fans who have the final say then that should speak the loudest and be considered a HUGE compliment and honor by the author. If it is some panel that has the final say then what actually qualifies them to judge? Is it something like the Academy Awards? Lots of buddies inviting their other buddies to get in on the action?

    As for the nominations this year (from the list I have seen) there are some surprises. I have read several of the books on the list and for the most part they are good picks. My one surpise was Blackman by Richard K Morgan. Now granted I have read everything that guy has written and I find him to be an extremely good story writer with all the elements I enjoy in a story. But Blackman was kind of a dissapointment to me.

    Perhaps as a fan reader sometimes we expect to much. Especially when we close of the possibility of a writer (or any artist for that matter) to become creative and take their writing style in a new direction.

    As a musician I do have experienced both the pluses and negatives of change.

  17. To follow-on to Ray’s questions about the Hugo nominating process… given that the award is a zoomy rocket-ship, do you s’pose space opera — ya know, *classic* models of the scifi genre — have an advantage? Or might they be held up to still higher standards against the backdrop of the Great Ones?

  18. Ray: Wikipedia is your friend, but basically it’s a subset of fans, those members of this year’s Worldcon who can be bothered to vote, who decide the candidates and their winners. This process used to work better when more fans were involved with the Hugo and the field itself was much smaller; until about the mid to late eighties there were few duds in the novel section. These days, especially after Robert Sawyer’s win in 2003, I’m less optimistic.

    The problem is that the pool of Hugo voters is so small, usually dominated by American fans and somewhat conservative in its tastes, not to mention that a lot of the people voting will likely not have read all the candidates, especially in the novella and short story categories.

  19. Martin Wisse:

    Well, the pool for potential Hugo nominees is fairly large — a few thousand — but the number that bother to nominate is somewhat lower. I would imagine the number of nominators this year is lower than usual, too, because I kind of doubt the Japanese fans at last year’s Worldcon did much nominating.

  20. From the Denvention web site: “There were 483 valid nominating ballots.”

    I have no idea if there is a minimum number of nominations needed or if they just take the top 5 in each category. Also, note that not all ballots would necessarily have nominations in all categories.

  21. I’m a writer awarded with a rocket on a pedestal, and my opinion on this group of nominees is…. um, wait, I presume its satisfactory my rocket is filled with water under air pressure? Yes? May I continue to bloviate?

  22. “These days, especially after Robert Sawyer’s win in 2003, I’m less optimistic.”
    I’m not a fan of Hominids but are the other novels nominated that year that much better? (I put The Scar in a different category because one groks Mieville or one does not, and a lot of people don’t). I’m not saying they’re bad novels, but Sawyer’s doesn’t jump out as uniquely different in quality.

  23. Doing a quick comparision between the 2007 nominations
    (visible from this page http://www.thehugoawards.org/index.php?page_id=127) and the 2006 nominations (visible on this page, which is the Hugo edition of LA Con IV’s daily newszine – http://www.laconiv.org/2006/pdf/issue-h.pdf), the number of total votes to get a novel on the final ballot wasn’t that different between years (2006 had Glasgow and LA Con nominators and 2007 had LA Con and Nippon nominators). In most cases, the core group of people nominating and voting are pretty much the same year to year.

    I do note that in 2006, the Star Wreck: In the Perkinning got a few votes for Dramatic Presentation. That was a fan film that was not in English. Imagine the complaints there would have been if that had made the ballot!

    Lee Whiteside

  24. ““I have read that most critics are failed writers. I don’t know how true that is, but when you read their complaints it certainly seems true.”

    Well, you know. I made my living (all or part) from criticism for many years, so I don’t know if I buy into the “failed writer” theory, or that jealousy is a motivator.

    I will say, however, that having been a critic for many years has made me fairly immune to negative criticism. I know how it works.”

    I’m with John here, with the caveat that some folks are just better critics, have more insight and better thoughts that way, than they do when writing fiction. And writing and criticism are not mutually exclusive skill sets, but in fact have a great deal of overlap (and I’d think that a good writer self critiques well) Some folks, though, simply end up on one side or the other, for various reasons.

    One funny thing, is that no one explicitly points out that mere acceptance and payment (in advance) of your work is the the best criticism of all: A professional editor believes you will make her or him more money than you will cost.

    Money is part of the signal to noise ratio . . .

  25. Upon reading the Hugo website is looks to be (and someone correct me if I am wrong) that you can only nominate if you are a Worldcon or WSFS member. But the good news is if you pay 50.00 to become a member then you to can nominate!!

    That is not such good news to the 99.476% of Sci Fi readers that are not members who want to participate. And it is probably not such good news to authors who have a large fan base who also do not participate in the Hugo nomination process.

    (Hmm…did I just say the same thing 2 different ways?)

  26. I, for one, don’t think Scalzi’s cat deserves a Hugo nomination. I mean, they don’t give these things out just because you’re cute, you gotta have a body of work. And cat litter leavings don’t count.

  27. Cheryl said (no doubt from bitter, bitter experience):

    “I forgot the really good bit. After you have won a fan Hugo, you will get a few emails from journalists asking to interview you about your life as a science fiction fan. They’ll want to know about your favorite movies and TV series, which actors and actresses you most lust after, and which characters you most like to dress up as. They’ll ask whether you only wear your costumes at home and at conventions, or whether you wear them to work and to the mall. And they’ll want bring a photographer so that they can get pictures of you in all of your favorite costumes.

    “I confess to having chickened out at this stage of the process, but you are made of sterner stuff and might like to follow through with the interview. You’ll then be able to watch the unfortunate hack work himself up to ask the questions that his editor really wants put: do you wear your costumes when having sex, how long have you believed in UFOs, and what did the aliens do to you while they had you on the mother ship.”

    Compare the membership sizes of 1) WorldCon; 2) DragonCon, and 3) San Diego ComicCon. To the average editor, the final group is the likely one that this person is a member of, with the second the next most likely, and the first the most improbable of all.

    Add to that the historic low esteem of “Sci-fi” (perpetrated by people who, for example, go to meetings in Amherst, Emily Dickinson’s hometown, where women dressed as Emily read her poetry) and you begin to perceive the dimensions of the problem.

    P.S. Want to get my wife’s and my fanzine Alexiad, where we discuss cats and occasionally SF as well, but never lusting in our hearts after characters in media?

  28. doggo @ 30: I guess you don’t think posing for all those I Can Has Cheeseburger and lolCats pictures qualifies them? They should at least be eligible for a fan Hugo of some sort *smirk*

  29. Ray @29:

    Upon reading the Hugo website is looks to be (and someone correct me if I am wrong) that you can only nominate if you are a Worldcon or WSFS member. But the good news is if you pay 50.00 to become a member then you to can nominate!!

    That is correct. Join the current Worldcon as at least a supporting member and you get the right to nominate and vote on the Hugo Awards, vote on Worldcon site selection, and nominate on next year’s Awards.

  30. I hope you win, good luck!

    If you do lose, you should jump up on stage and grab the mic, like ODB.

    “Yo… I paid a lotta money for this suit.”

  31. Kerry @23:

    Also, note that not all ballots would necessarily have nominations in all categories.

    Denvention Three has updated the Hugo Nominations List to include the number of ballots cast in each category. Of course, a ballot is cast if someone has at least one nomination in that category. Few people use all of their nominations in all categories.

    When the final statistics come out after the Hugo Awards are announced in August, you’ll be able to see the more detailed breakdown.

  32. Lee Whiteside @27:

    In most cases, the core group of people nominating and voting are pretty much the same year to year.

    That’s true. There are something around 6000 people eligible to nominate in any given year, and less than 10% of them nominating. For a historical perspective, see this article which does statistical analysis on the nominating and voting figures through 1999 by the late George Flynn. Alas, nobody has gone back and updated the article since then.

    I do note that in 2006, the Star Wreck: In the Perkinning got a few votes for Dramatic Presentation. That was a fan film that was not in English. Imagine the complaints there would have been if that had made the ballot!

    Some, I think, but probably not as many as those who complained when “Gollum’s Acceptance Speech at the 2003 MTV Movie Awards” won BDP Short in 2004. And for that matter, I didn’t hear a lot of complaints about the the two live performances from the 2005 Worldcon being nominated for BDP Short in 2006 (“Lucas Back in Anger” and “Prix Victor Hugo”).

  33. ” . . . But the good news is if you pay 50.00 to become a member then you to can nominate!!

    That is not such good news to the 99.476% of Sci Fi readers that are not members who want to participate.”

    $50 does seem like a lot but a while back I found a way to put it into perspective:

    Buying a membership so you can nominate five novels published last year sets you back less than buying two novels published last year. Granted, that’s a sad commentary on the price of books but we all spend far more than $50 on them anyway.

  34. Both Randy Byers and I received a much higher quality of media coverage than the experience Cheryl described in #11. I wasn’t expecting any coverage at all; the fan categories are pretty esoteric to folks outside fandom. Both folks who interviewed me were reasonably informed. They were interested and listened to what I had to say, and they brought very few apparent preconceptions to our conversations. It turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant experience. The resulting newspaper profile and local access cable TV appearance both reflected well on the award and I didn’t come out looking too much a doofus, either.

    So you might not get to have so much fun answering reporters’ questions if you win after all. Or, more precisely, you might not get to have *that* kind of fun. You could well get the kind of fun that comes from sharing a celebration in a broader arena.

  35. Almost the only downside to an award nomination is indirect. Award nominations and/or awards can sometimes get the writer a bigger than expected Advance on Royalties for their next book.

    But wait, that’s more money. More money is good, right?

    Usually, but not always. Joan Vinge (unfortunately best-known now as ex-wife of Vernor Vinge, despite her considerable talent) received, to the best of my imperfect recollection, $80,000.00 advance for the next novel after The Snow Queen, written in 1980, won “the big one” (i.e. Hugo for Best Novel).

    $80,000.00 advance is big in 2008, but was huge circa 1981. Sadly, her next novel did not earn out. It was hard for her to sell the novel after that one. Publishers would not advance $80,000.00 again, or half that, after the bad profit/sales figures. Her agent felt that it would not do to crawl, hat in hand, begging for a small advance, just to get the next book published.

    There’s more to the story, but I’ll leave it at that. Corrections/amplifications by others always accepted gratefully.

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