The Fan Writer Hugo, and Pros

Over at File 770, Mike Glyer takes aim at pro writers who have won the Best Fan Writer Hugo, me included, on grounds that we tend to minimize the Fan Writer Hugo on our professional resumes; as Glyer puts it, “People who are building careers as writers do not want to identify their brands with anything that hints of the amateur.”

I have a direct response to him in the comments there, which basically is, no, actually, I’m really proud of my Fan Writer Hugo, it’s important to me for all sorts of reasons, and I mention it here not infrequently. At the same time I’m careful how I advertise the win in my professional life because I recognize that a fair number of fans would be spiky about me using it there. In my case it’s not about worrying that it’s an amateur award, but trying to respect the context of the award and the community which awards it. Clearly (as in Glyer’s case) the mileage may vary on this sort of thing.

Glyer’s post jostled up a few other thoughts I have about the Fan Writer Hugo, how it relates to pro writers, and a couple of other points. So let me just toss them out now in no particular order.

* I disagree (obviously) with the contention that I don’t mention the award because I’m worried about its “amateur” status, but I will note that it is a strange award to discuss with people outside of sf/f fandom. “Fan Writing” is a phrase that either doesn’t mean anything to them, or, alternately, means fan fiction writing — which is generally not what is meant by “fan writing” in sf/f fandom, although strictly speaking there’s no reason a fan fic writer couldn’t win the fan writing award.

However, outside unfamiliarity with the Fan Writer award also offers an opportunity to talk a little about the dynamics of sf/f fandom, and why, in fact, it honors that amateur and fannish activity with the same awards as it honors professional work. I’ve certainly done that, because I’m not shy in discussing my Hugos with people who ask about them. It’s interesting to see the reactions.

* Now, I’m not gonna lie: As a practical matter, in my professional life as a science fiction writer, the Hugo I have for novel writing is more useful that the one I won for Fan Writing (or for Best Related Book), and there’s no point pretending otherwise. When I’m doing things in a professional context and awards get trotted out, I usually lead with the novel Hugo. But in fact, having the other two Hugos is also useful in a professional sense, because it speaks to the breadth of my writing interest and skill. When I’m selling myself as a nonfiction writer — which still does happen — those work for me.

* I (again obviously) don’t think there’s a problem with a writer who is primarily known as a pro getting the fan writing award, if the writing is fannish (i.e., largely done outside a directly professional context and touching on matters relating to science fiction/fantasy culture and interests). And I think when I won the award, it was a useful win in that I was the first person in nearly two decades to win the award who wasn’t Dave Langford, i.e., it reminded people that spreading the award around was not a bad idea (this is where I note that Dave Langford, in all that I know of him, is a lovely person who deserves recognition for his work). I’m still pleased that since I won, there has not been a repeat winner in the category.

Still: at the center of Glyer’s complaint is a perfectly reasonable and valid point, which is that pro writers nominated in the fan writing category often have one useful advantage over other nominees — they’re better known. The Hugos are a popular award; having a name helps. It doesn’t guarantee a win — I lost a Hugo in the Fan Writer category before I won it, you know — but it can certainly be a factor. It does make it tougher for the other nominees in the field.

And so in this category, as in every other category, it behooves the people voting to make the effort to read the work of the nominees and ask themselves which ones have work which best exemplifies the goals of the award. If it’s nominee best known as a pro writer, fine. But if it’s not, why not vote for the one with the best work that year? Or at least, rank them highly, the Hugo Ballot being an Australian Rules ballot, after all. Awards are given, but awards should also be earned.

* I would be sad if the Fan Writer Hugo became little more than the Pro Writer Compensation Hugo, because there are lots of people writing in the fan community, not generally considered professional science fiction and fantasy writers, who deserve recognition. For example, I think it’s something of a crime that Steven Silver, for one, does not already have a Fan Writer Hugo. This is an error that should be corrected sooner than later. James Nicoll’s LiveJournal is a daily stop for me, even when the commenters there are taking a brickbat to my head; I’d like to see him awarded as well. Abigail Nussbaum is another excellent candidate for a win, in my opinion (I suspect me noting this will surprise her), and this year Natalie Luhrs also makes an excellent argument for consideration in the category. These are just four people off the top of my head; there are many more.

* I don’t think you can stuff the pro writers in the the Fan Writing category back into the bottle, if for no other reason that there have been people who have been nominated in and winning the category who have likewise been pro writers too. When I was nominated for Fan Writer and Best Novel in 2009, I wasn’t even the first person to do that; Piers Anthony had me beat by nearly forty years. But Glyer’s not wrong that the award is worth celebrating as its own unique category, and that it should be given for its own merits, and appreciated as such (particularly by the winners). I am proud to have won the award; I would be happy for the award to be won by people who are not always like me.

33 Comments on “The Fan Writer Hugo, and Pros”

  1. I should note I think well of Mike Glyer and think he raises an interesting point, so please don’t feel the need to slag him or his piece on my account.

  2. In 1967 Hugo for Pro Artist and Fan Artist both went to Jack Gaughan.

    Luckily there was no Twitter back then. One had to actually type on a stencil, mimeo your fanzine, collate, staple, mail it out, wait for comments, retype the comments adding interlined response (much like email, hmmmmmmm) for the next issue …. outrage took time.

  3. Setting aside any water-under-the-bridge issues, the right thing to do is to highlight people who deserve recognition, as you have done here.

    (Except for being tricky to define, a “best pro blog” is an interesting idea.)

  4. @nickpheas:

    That opens two problems: First, that the definition of “pro” may be too complex; and second (and related), people may move in and out of the “pro” category. (Are professional reviewers who run a blog of unpaid reviews and book discussion in addition to their paid work “pro”?)

    And what if the blog is 90% about the same topics a non-pro writes about? Somehow I don’t think even pro writers are nominated for the posts in which they talk about their own books. While “I have a new book coming, and here’s what it’s about” posts are useful, they’re not why I read anyone’s blog.

  5. Until this very post I had never heard of “Fan Writing”. If I might ask, what is the difference between a “fan writer” and a “professional writer”? Just so I’m clear.

  6. I believe in this context, “Fan Writer” is someone who is writing about SF & Fantasy. Reviews, for example, or things happening in the community at large. So, theoretically, someone could win a Pro award for their novel, and a Fan award for their website where they promote other people’s works and the community as a whole.

  7. Historically, fan writers tended to be people who did fanzines or apazines, on hectographs in the really early days, and mailed them to each other. It was a thriving and interesting community, and I’m likely leaving out something crucial. There were ghods of fandom (Walt Willis is legendary), fannish words like ghods or fen (plural of fan), etc.

    As the Internet grew, a lot of fanac (fannish activity) moved online, and some of it changed in nature. Personally, I think of it as people who write interestingly about all sorts of topics relating to sff fandom and to the field in general, and *not* just about when their next book is coming out (can’t see that sort of blog ever getting close to getting nominated; hardly anyone reads them).

  8. Marshall Ryan Maresca, that’s true from my reading of the rules.

    From the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) constitution:
    3.3.15: Best Fan Writer.
    Any person whose writing has appeared in semiprozines or fanzines or in generally available electronic media during the previous calendar year.

    So that’s anyone who has written in a public venue that is not considered professional. The Whatever doesn’t pay John to write here, so despite the fact that he’s definitely a professional writer, he is eligible for the Best Fan Writer Hugo for his writing on this blog (generally available electronic media).

    Here is the WSFS Constitution with all the categories, including semiprozine and fanzine, defined (It’s a .pdf):

    There are a lot of really good blog writers out there and this year there have been some truly outstanding posts on those blogs. Or maybe that’s just me paying better attention. :)

  9. FYI, you have a few typos: Ms. Nussbaum’s first name appears to be spelled Abigail; 1970 is closer to 40 years before 2009 than 30; in your first comment Mike’s last name should be Glyer. I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning them but the 30 years thing bugged me.

  10. I think that he makes too much of Frederick Pohl’s bio. I think it’s more a matter of being slow to update. Pohl’s blog bio doesn’t even reference his death, but there is an “Official Obituary” link that calls out the Fan Writer Hugo.

    I suspect that “update the bio” is not high on most author’s todo lists. For instance, George R. R. Martin’s bio doesn’t even mention “Game of Thrones”. (And he’s an active blogger.) I suspect Pohl just had better things to do, like work on his autobiography.

  11. Would/do you list the fan hugo on the whatever compilations? It seems like it would be nonproblematic there.

  12. Dave Langford is also a published author, so he’s pro as well as fan. Nice bloke too.

  13. Most “pro” fantasy, horror and science fiction writers and/or editors are also avid SFFH fans, and are very likely, in blogs, magazines, non-fiction books, etc. to write about SFFH, its history, its concerns, its trends and authors and its future possibilities. Some of those writings by some and not all pro authors and/or editors will be considered of insightful use to the community, either historically or in terms of scholarship of the genres or both. Given that other fans have an assortment of day jobs, banning the day job of SFFH author seems a bad idea. That some fan writers have published a small amount of fiction but are not officially full out pro authors would further complicate trying to set up various categories.

    Yes, pro authors are going to have an advantage of familiarity and wider readership in the Fan Writing category. But that’s because we have a SFFH community that constantly, even before the Internet, talks to each other, writes about the genres, holds massive numbers of conventions, etc. No other types of fiction have these things with any degree of depth, tradition and size. Pro authors and/or editors are not separate from that community. They are deeply bound within it and sometimes that involvement is going to resonate.

    I do not think that any pro writer and/or editor who has won a Fan Writing Hugo takes that community for granted or the award for granted or sees it as lesser. It’s an award for sounding smarter about SFFH than other people, which may be arguably seen as harder to do than writing fiction. It’s an award that has less commercial worth perhaps than the ones for the fiction, and yet it therefore may be valued even more because of that, because it is more personal, from the community. Pro authors who are fans, who take the time to write as a fan, value being well regarded as a fan. If they did not, they would only have to withdraw their names from being considered for the category, as they sometimes do anyway.

    I have not noticed pro authors who won the Fan Writing award, when they do, being particularly reticent about having won it. (It was rather hard to get Hines to stop talking about it, he was so happy.) Maybe when you keep winning the thing, like Langford, Geis and Wood Glicksohn, but I doubt they took it for granted either. It is, I think generally acknowledged in the SFFH community, a badge of honor.

    What is very common, however, is for authors to be listed as Hugo winners, without it being specified for what they won a Hugo for — short story, screenplay, novel, especially if they have won more than one Hugo, including Fan Writer. If they are an author and they won a Hugo Fan Writer award and only that, then they may not list themselves as a Hugo award winner on that alone, simply because they don’t want to deceive people into thinking that they won for their fiction, which people may do because they consider it a fiction award. But I doubt sincerely most pro authors who have won for their fan writing have ignored it or thought it needed hiding.

  14. I suspect there’s also a question of Is this relevant? That’s not just an amateur-versus-professional question. For example, the cover of a novel set in a law firm might mention that the author previously wrote a popular novel about the Civil War, because “here’s another book of hers you might have liked” is a selling point. It might mention that she’s an attorney, as a way of saying “she knows what lawyers/legal work are like.” If the book was a first novel by an opera singer, restaurant prep cook, or high school Spanish teacher, that fact would be used to advertise the book, because it’s unlikely to attract the reader.

  15. Actually, from a purist’s point of view, I can understand being disturbed at Fred Pohl’s win of the fan-writing Hugo in 201. So much of the fannish material he used in the blog was rehashings of stuff that came out of “The Way the Future Was”. Personally,I think that the fact that he was introducing the historic material to the new generations of online fans is sufficient to justify it. If it was also something of a parting gift from fandom, I don’t see it as a big deal that others had to wait a year, Pohl still had a couple of years before he headed to that great WorldCon in the sky, but it could easily have been less.

  16. As Kat Goodwin suggests, If I were a pro (fiction) writer who won the Fan Writing Hugo, I wouldn’t want to downplay it as such, but would be a bit cautious about not overplaying it.

    Calling myself “Hugo Award Winner, Jo Schmo” at every opportunity might seem a bit misleading to potential readers if they realized it was in a category other than the one (fiction) in which I was promoting myself.

  17. Dave Langford is not only a pro, he has a pro Hugo for an excellent short story, “Different Kinds of Darkness” in 2001.

  18. Yes, thank you for this.

    The term fan writer exists for historical reasons, as has been pointed out in these comments, but the way I tend to think of it (which I think is also reflected in the behavior of the Hugo voters in the last few years) is an award for best non-fiction writer who is writing about genre or the genre scene. This can mean best blogger, best reviewer, best essayist, best fanzine writer. In the future it might mean best tweeter or best podcast presenter. If I’m ambivalent about the term fan writer it’s less because of professional writers being nominated in the category – there are many examples of excellent critics, reviewers, and essayists who are also professional fiction writers – than because of the implication that non-fiction writing is “fannish,” and thus somehow secondary. I know many excellent reviewers and essayists who are also fiction writers, and to them I don’t doubt that their reviewing career comes second to their professional one (to name a few examples, in case someone reading is looking for nominations in either the fan writer or fiction categories: Nina Allan, Sofia Samatar, Adam Roberts). But to me, writing non-fiction has always been what I love and what gives me joy, and I think that the best critical writing is worth reading in its own right (a transformative work, if you will). I wouldn’t be unhappy if the name of the fan writer category were changed to reflect the way that it’s been used in the last half-decade – which might also put an end to the debate over the place of professional writers on it.

  19. strictly speaking there’s no reason a fan fic writer couldn’t win the fan writing award

    Lev Grossman has given fanfic and AO3 shout-outs in Time magazine (a cover article, if you missed or ignored it), and the people at Making Light keep mentioning the Toasterverse, so maybe the automatic assumption of literary leprosy may one day diminish . . . well, no, not likely. But I’d love to see scifigirl47 at least get nominated, which is a necessary first step to victory, right?

  20. I think that bringing fanfic stories into (predominantly) non-fanfic communities is a dicey undertaking and often not welcomed _by the fanfic writers_ and would strongly discourage it without speaking to the writer in question first.

  21. (Also I think that if you think a fic is as good as published work and it’s okay with the author, you should nominate it in the fiction category. But that’s just me.)

  22. Well said, and very glad to see some recommendations in the post as well.

    Every year when I get serious about my Hugo nom reading (so, late February basically) I see the recommendations posts from people who are a bit less familiar with the lower part of the ballot. Often they are fast to dismiss them and call for their abolition, but put little effort into understanding them, or better yet adapting them to their own fannish experience.

    Amusingly, good educational fan writing on the subject is probably the best remedy.

  23. suzdal:

    I see the recommendations posts from people who are a bit less familiar with the lower part of the ballot. Often they are fast to dismiss them and call for their abolition, but put little effort into understanding them, or better yet adapting them to their own fannish experience.

    This year my nominations for the fan/artist/related work awards are mostly filled, where my nominations for the literary/dramatic presentation awards are terribly light.

    That’s quite a reversal from the last time I filled in a nomination ballot. I attribute it to my fannish activities taking place on line more and more.

    I’ll have memberships to the next four WorldCons so I’ll need to come up with a better strategy to be familiar with the whole ballot.

  24. Still: at the center of Glyer’s complaint is a perfectly reasonable and valid point, which is that pro writers nominated in the fan writing category often have one useful advantage over other nominees — they’re better known. The Hugos are a popular award; having a name helps. It doesn’t guarantee a win — I lost a Hugo in the Fan Writer category before I won it, you know — but it can certainly be a factor. It does make it tougher for the other nominees in the field.

    But isn’t that true of any award — I wasn’t only pleased to see the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist this years being a lot less of a dick-fest that it has been recently, but it’s also been an award (IMO) heavily loaded with high profile mid-career writers not exactly at the top of their (or anyone else’s) game.

  25. As a reader of both James Nicoll and Abigail Nussbaum (sorry about the brickbat), I’d love for both of them to be recognized. And I appreciate that the relative lengths of their comments here are completely representative of their respective writing styles.

    In fact, that brings up an interesting question about fan writing in the Internet era. James is a professional reviewer, but as a blogger, he doesn’t write essays so much as he engineers interesting conversations via brief deadpan comments. I think it would be easier to award him (he’s been nominated before) if it weren’t relatively difficult to find big chunks of his prose. It’s fan activity without being all that much fan writing. This might be a reason not to follow Nussbaum’s suggestion, which I’d otherwise instinctively agree with, to turn the fan writing into a review award. Certainly genre needs to up the status and quality of its review culture, but I don’t know that a fan award is the vehicle.

  26. @Ultragotha

    There have been some efforts to aggregate hugo recommendations, some more successful that others. The LJ Hugo_recommend group is not bad, and there are other resources, but I feel like I’m still waiting for something better to come along.

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