The Hugo Downside, Such As It Is
“Now that you’re an old hand with the Hugos, tell us if there’s a downside to getting a nomination.”
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.