On Being Denounced, Again (Again)

Yesterday I came across a recent fanzine with a rather emphatic editorial about (and against) me, and my influence on the Hugo Awards and on science fiction and fantasy fandom in general. I posted a link to it on Twitter, and the editorial — and I — became the subject of much comment online. I was busy most of the day yesterday with business meetings and (because I’m in LA) driving to business meetings, so I didn’t have much to say about it. But I have a bit of time this morning to talk about some of the topics it brings up, so let me touch on a few of them.

1. First and most obviously, the author of the piece is perfectly within the bounds to have the opinion she has, even if she’s being mean to me, and even if I think the thesis of her argument and the general procedure of it is largely incorrect. I can take it, and I will remind people never to be an asshole on my behalf to anyone else, please, and thank you.

2. As it happens, I don’t regret winning the Fan Writer Hugo, not in the slightest, because I earned it fair and square, I love it was given to me by other fans, and it’s incredibly important to me as a member of the science fiction community. Nor do I think I broke that particular Hugo, in no small part because since I won it, no person has won it twice, and as such the award reflects a wide diversity of thought and expression in the science fiction community. I can’t take credit for that, of course, but I do like that it happened.

3. The Fan Writer Hugo, like the Hugos generally, are voted on by fans, or at least the subset of fans who have memberships at Worldcon; if this Hugo broke when I won it, it’s because the fans themselves decided it needed some breaking, and resetting. I was the beneficiary rather than the cause of that. We’ve seen over the years that the Hugo-voting fandom is notably resistant to people trying to game the awards for their own personal benefit, and this was true both before and after my Fan Writer win. I’m not sure why I would be an exception to that general principle; I’m not that special.

4. Likewise, as much as I would like to take credit for “breaking” the Hugos in general, inasmuch as that would mean I could say I was responsible for the Hugos of NK Jemisin, Cixin Liu, Ann Leckie, Kameron Hurley, Sarah Gailey, Mary Robinette Kowal, and apparently every other Hugo winner over the last decade or so — arguably one of the best decades in science fiction and fantasy — I’m deeply sad to say I cannot. One, the Hugos are not broken in the least, as even the most cursorial glance at the writers and works who have won the award in the last few years will tell you. Two, as others have cogently pointed out, placing the praise and/or blame on my shoulders erases the efforts of those who have more actively done the work, in the literature and in the fandom, to change the face of science fiction and fantasy.

5. What can I take credit (or blame) for, with regard to the Hugos? In what is no doubt a recurring theme in my professional life: For being in the right place in the right time. I came into the science fiction genre and fandom at a point when blogs and personal sites were blowing up in terms of attention and influence, and on my blog (hello!) I did in an amateur manner what I had done professionally for years: Wrote my opinion on things and wrote it on a very regular basis, and in an at least semi-engaging manner. This allowed me to make a bigger impact in the genre than many debut authors have done historically, even before my first book was published. These things made a difference for the award consideration of both my professional work (Old Man’s War being nominated for the Hugo out of the gate; me being nominated for and winning the Campbell) and for my fannish work (i.e., writing about the world of SF, among many other topics, here). I’m a good writer; I’m also lucky.

(And also, while we’re at it, I benefited from being straight from Central Casting for what many people would imagine a science fiction writer being, circa the turn of the century: A somewhat nerdy white dude with loud opinions and just enough personal charm not to be immediately punched in the face by others. I think there’s more to me than that, I should say, and I do try to use at least some of my luck and good fortune to benefit others. But I’m not ignorant that the Lowest Difficulty Setting worked for me then, and still does now.)

6. So why, over the last decade plus change, have certain people focused on me as the agent of change (and not necessarily a good one) with regard to the Hugos? After all, this latest editorial is not the first jeremiad about me on the subject; people will recall I was a frequent example from the Puppy Camp of Everything That Was Wrong in Science Fiction and Proof the Hugos Were Corrupt, etc.

Here are some of the reasons:

a) professional/personal dislike and/or jealousy;
unhappiness with inevitable change with fandom and the science fiction and fantasy community and genre generally and the need to find a single cause to blame it on;
c) ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the labor of other people (many of them not straight and/or white and/or male) to change the tenor of the SF/F community (and as a consequence, its awards);
d) a general lack of understanding that the SF/F community is a complex system and like most complex systems a single input or actor, in this case me, does not usually precipitate a wide system change on its own;
my privileged position in the community makes me an easy and acceptable target/strawman/scapegoat — no one’s exactly punching down when they go for me.

7. Speaking personally it’s weird — in a way that ranges from amusing to a little unsettling — to be cast as a radical agent in the house of contemporary science fiction and fantasy. Folks, I am, bluntly, as mainstream as science fiction gets: I’m a white dude writing largely conventional science fiction stories aimed directly for the middle of the market. It’s my whole remit, and the reason I have that silly long contract with Tor; implicit in that thing is the idea that I write books they can sell by the palletload. I think I write pretty good mainstream science fiction, mind you; I’m not going to have false modesty about that. I do what I do as well as anyone does it. But mainstream it is.

Likewise, as a mostly genial, mostly nerdy, mostly trying-to-be-decent person, I’m pretty much right in the middle of the SFF fandom bell curve. I certainly do have flaws, which I try to work on. But generally there’s not much about me that doesn’t suggest I would be a reasonably good fit into fandom and in science fiction and fantasy generally. Now, I admit that I’m looking from the inside; maybe I’m missing things, and I’m sure someone will tell me if I am. But as in other aspects of my life, I think how I present in science fiction and fantasy can pretty much be defined as “somewhat self-aware petit bourgeois.” I’m okay with this. I do think it makes me a poor example of disruption and radicalism, which is perhaps why people who see me as such sometimes appear to be confused about what my worst crimes actually are.

8. I get that science fiction and fantasy, and the community that grew around it, are changing, and that’s uncomfortable for some of the people whose self-identity is wrapped up in both of these things. I understand that I came around at a time when some of those changes started and kind of made a splash when I arrived, and that maybe it’s easy to confuse those splashes with the currents that were changing the genre. So I get that some folks will think of me as an agent of those changes, and some folks will blame me for them.

And, I don’t know. If it makes that change easier, or at least gives them someone they can point a finger at, then, fine. Point away. But on my end, I think I have an idea of my actual importance and influence in the community and the genre (and in its awards). It’s not zero, which is nice for me. But it’s not anywhere as much as I’m sometimes credited with. And I would just as soon that the work of others be acknowledged and credited appropriately.

Also: Change happens. In science fiction and fantasy, I think the change we’re having is a good — the field is better because it’s more inclusive and open to a wider experience and expression of what it means to love the genre and to be a fan. I’ve been in fandom now for sixteen years (since Torcon in 2003, which was my first science fiction convention, and where I met the first of the writers and fans that I now call friends), and even in those sixteen years those changes have been significant, and to my mind mostly positive. My personal expression of fandom is to be excited about what, and who, comes next, in the genre, in the community, and up on the stage, accepting Hugos.