The Hugo Window
Posted on June 22, 2020 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
One of the weird bits about my life is that from time to time people speculate about whether I, John Scalzi, will ever win another Hugo Award. Mostly the conclusion is that I won’t, although whether that’s about me in particular, or about general forces in publishing and/or society, is up for some discussion.
Today, speculation about my ability to win another Hugo Award comes from the Camestros Felapton blog, as part of a more general examination about who wins and/or is a finalist for Hugo Awards, and when they win them (and when they stop winning them, if they do indeed ever start winning them). The proprietor of the blog essentially argues that for every writer there is a Hugo window, during which they and their work are both popular enough and new enough to draw attention. But sooner or later that window closes.
I come up because I’m used as an example:
I am not saying John Scalzi will never win another Hugo Award but I don’t expect him to even though I think he’ll be writing good, entertaining sci-fi for many years. This is not because he’s not sufficiently left-wing for current Hugo voters but because we’ve read lots of John Scalzi now and sort of know what to expect.
It’s not about me, it’s about my Hugo window.
And do I think this is correct? Sort of, yes! And also sort of not.
To begin, in a very general sense I think it’s accurate that for most writers/performers who become notable, there’s a window where they are at the forefront of the collective consciousness of their field — they’re the flavor of the day/week/month/year — and then eventually they either fade from public view, or become “establishment,” which means they’re always there and taken more or less for granted, even as they chug along with perfectly good sales/public reputation.
(Anecdotally it seems that this window is correlated to relative newness in a field, but it’s possible to have that window happen later — one can plug along for years and then suddenly “hit” and then your window opens. I’ve seen it happen! With people I know!)
Does this correlate with awards presence? It can, especially if you fade. Most awards are popularity contests to one degree or another — the Hugos, an award given by fans, has popularity in its DNA — so to be considered you have to be noticed. If you become establishment you can chug along because you’re there, even if everyone basically understands your shtick. Sometimes you do your shtick real well, and people go, “oh, hey, I do like that!” And then there’s a finalist placing.
So let’s talk about me. From 2006 to 2013, I had ten Hugo finalist placings and three wins, including one for Best Novel (I also won the Astounding Award, formerly known as the Campbell). From 2014 onward, I’ve had a single Hugo finalist placing, and I did not win. Has my Hugo window closed?
Maybe! Certainly the “Hugo window” thing feels psychologically valid to me. I admit that prior to my Best Novel win for Redshirts, I was feeling apprehension that if it did not win, my time being able to contest the Best Novel category was going to pass. When the novel won, in addition to feeling elated, I also felt relieved. And having won the Best Novel category, which (for better or worse) is regarded as “the big one,” it’s entirely possible that Hugo voters have felt I’ve been rewarded enough, and are looking for other people and works to nominate. So there could be a window outside of my own neuroses on the matter, which could explain my relative dearth of subsequent nods.
On the other hand: Between 2013 and now we have the whole “Puppy” mess, which (to put it as neutrally as possible) altered the dynamic of the Hugo Awards in a manner that was both unique and, given the steps taken to correct the loophole that allowed slating, unlikely to happen again; I voluntarily removed myself from all awards consideration for work produced in 2015; and did not publish novels in 2016 or 2019. Since 2015 I have had four novels published; one came out this year and is not yet eligible for award consideration. One won the Locus Award and came in second at the Hugos behind the third part of a genre-shifting multi-volume work of art, and that was the correct placement. So one novel in three being a finalist for a Hugo in a year without active slating from people who unambiguously saw me as an enemy is… not a bad record?
Given that track record, I think it’s perfectly possible that The Last Emperox will be in contention for the Best Novel Hugo this next year; likewise The Interdependency for Best Series (an award, it should be noted, which explicitly privileges author longevity in the field). Will either win? Who knows? But in either case I don’t suspect anyone would find it notably unusual if that happened. Likewise it won’t be all that surprising if I keep showing up with finalist placements, as I’m a bestselling author in the field and have a long-term contract with a major publisher (two, actually, including Audible) contractually obliged to heavily promote my work when it comes out. Say what you will about me, I’m not likely to fade for a while yet.
(Also, the work generally is, you know, not bad. Which does not hurt.)
But if the book and series aren’t in contention this next year, and if I don’t subsequently make regular appearances on the Hugo finalist lists, I think both I and the Hugos will get along just fine. Looking at who have won Hugos since Redshirts, and particularly in the Best Novel category, I can’t argue that I’ve been particularly missed. It’s been a pretty remarkable run in terms of quality of work, and I feel pretty good that run of quality will continue with or without me as a finalist. If my fate is to be taken for granted for producing “good, entertaining sci-fi”… well, I mean, there are much worse fates in life, aren’t there?
I like being a finalist for awards, and for Hugos in particular. They’re my “home” award, as it were. It’s never not special to be a finalist. I like winning them even more! Rockets are fun! Please feel free to nominate me if such is your inclination. Thanks. Also, if I never win, or become a finalist for, another award ever, I will have won more than enough in this life. I will neither spend much time fretting about what it means, nor begrudging those who are finalists for, and winning, those awards currently. If there’s indeed a Hugo window, I got to have a nice long look through it. I’m happy to let others take in the view.
1. Although I tangentially bring up the Puppy mess, I don’t really want to generally hash it out again here, so feel free not to, in your comments.
2. I am neither upset that Camestros Felapton (it’s a great pen name, incidentally) suggests I am not likely to win a Hugo, nor feel I need to be defended on the score. I find it interesting, and I think I’m a decently good example for the proposed phenomenon being described (nor was I the only one being used as an example). So don’t feel the need to run down either the concept or the author, either here or at their site.
3. As an aside, I think the “novelty” of award finalist/winners can be contingent on factors not discussed in the article above, including number of awards given and/or exclusivity of either the voters or the field. There are seventeen Hugos; half of them are “fan” awards that have both relatively small numbers of nominators and finalists over the years, so people get nominated in those categories for years on end — their windows, in other words, are longer than in (most) of the pro categories. There are 80-some-odd Grammy Awards and over 100 Primetime Emmy Awards; it would be (and is) absolutely unsurprising for people in the “not novel” part of their careers to be still racking up finalist placements in specialized categories.
4. Also, to be clear, when I’m talking about people “fading” from a field it doesn’t mean that the work they were nominated for, or their subsequent work, was of lesser quality than those people who become fixtures, simply that their popularity lessened for whatever reason. Nobody knows anything; some people are lucky and some people aren’t; some people work to stay in it long haul and some people don’t care, etc.
5. Coming back to me for a second, people may note that there are other Hugo categories aside from Best Novel, and from 2014 to today I haven’t been a finalist in any of those categories either. This is correct, and also I would have generally been surprised if I were. I don’t write a lot of short fiction and most of it is not what I would consider award-quality (it’s mostly short and funny and not deep), so I can’t exactly be upset if I’m not a finalist there. The other category I could regularly compete in is Related Work, because of my non-fiction collections. But I don’t expect to a finalist there, for reasons including, simply, the blog moment has passed. Novel (and now Series) are the categories I think I’m generally most competitive in, which is why I covered those directly.
There may be a window, when readers become too accustomed to the author. Then again… Connie Willis…
Connie Willis is the Meryl Streep of the Hugos. And so is Lois McMaster Bujold.
There is another factor currently, perhaps the result of years of pent-up demand. This is the first year that none of the authors nominated for Best Novel is a man, but women have been dominating the category for a few years and one of them was the first to pull a hat trick. And she published another killer novel early this year. This year’s nominees may be the strongest I can remember, and my memory goes back an indecent amount of time. So, not getting nominated for being women but those particular authors are killing it. IMO, obviously.
I’m going to be selfish and hope that you continue losing. Because I’m always going to read a new John Scalzi novel. But the other winners have been *awesome* and I would have missed most of them if they hadn’t won or been nominated.
Also, if you lose the implication is that somebody out there wrote something even better. You set a pretty darn high bar, and anything that can exceed that bar means that all of us readers have won big time. Last Emperox is Hugo-worthy, and the best thing I’ve read so far this year. But the year is only half over and if I manage to read something better this year I’ll be super thrilled.
On the other hand, I’m a member of next year’s Worldcon, and I’m absolutely nominating William Gibson’s Agency. He keeps getting better and better, and I’m shocked that The Peripheral and the Big Ant trilogy didn’t get nominations (need to look at the stats for how far they were from the shortlist, though).
I think it’s true that people are reading and nominating more diversely, which is to the benefit of the Hugos generally. I also think that white dudes can still get nominated and become finalists (and even win) if their work is of sufficient quality. The difference now may be that they have to compete on a more even playing field than they ever have before. Which is a new experience!
I’m not 100% behind your reasoning there, in part because I know that the “best” book (by whatever criteria one judges as “best”) often doesn’t walk away with the award. Often what wins is the book that everyone voting can accept as a winner, especially when ranked choice voting is applied (as it is in the Hugos). Speaking personally, I hope for a really excellent class of finalists which makes the voters agonize over how to rank them — that they are all worthy of the award, so whoever wins, it’s a good win.
Heck, since we don’t know what you’re writing next, or the one after that, how can we predict?
If you publish a third ‘Lock In’ book is that a ‘series’ and thus eligible? Or another OMW book?
Or something as ‘unexpected’ as can be? Sure you have a ‘style’ but there is a huge difference in ‘worlds’ between OMW, LI and Interdependency. I’ll take what comes and enjoy, and if awards shower upon those books, fine. Otherwise I still get a good read. So I plan to be happy however things turn out ;-)
Speaking for myself and the Best Novel Hugo only:
I’d expect a winning novel to have some amount of mindblowingness (if that’s not a word it should be).
For most established writers, even if they consistently produce excellent and entertaining works, at some point this will get lost. The writer, their style, their strengths becomes known, and a little bit of “same old” creeps in. At that point (at least for me) the Hugo window closes unless the writer reinvents themselves and comes up with something new, fresh, mindblowing (e.g. Redshirts). And this kind of growth also becomes harder (not impossible) as one ages and the genre develops.
That said, I haven’t read The Last Emperox yet, but am very much looking forward to it.
Don’t sell yourself short. There is no way to know what you next series will turn into, or what other writers might come up with.
I know that you will do your best, as will others, but so many aspects of what is stellar depend on a world where the only that stays the same is the rate of change.
I , personally, think your readability is high up there, so you will never fall far from the top.
Awards are good for generating buzz and exposure, but I’d prefer sales to awards any day. You aren’t hurting there, so ‘sall good.
I mean, the acclaim of the fans or your peers isn’t nothin’. But you can’t retire on accolades. Bring on the encomiums.
I had been publishing short fiction for 10 years before I was nominated for a Hugo for one of them, so the “newness” question has always intrigued me. Do you have to be new to get attention? Maybe not! And you do see years where the same authors get a bunch of nominations, and then seem to disappear. And then there’s the example of Pat Cadigan, who was a finalist four times in the late 80’s and early 90’s…then her window apparently closed. Until she won the Hugo for best novelette twenty years later. So for every example of the window being in play, there’s a counter example. Exceptions proving rules and all that.
It’s interesting to me how we writers twist ourselves into knots over this sort of thing, as if being able to predict would give us some level of control and comfort. (And of course where people get in trouble is thinking that anyone is “entitled” to a Hugo nomination, for any reason…)
Yeah, the fact is that while one can talk in vague generalities, in reality everyone’s career is different and has absolutely unexpected elements to it that don’t fit the generalities at all. People twist themselves around concerning where they think they “should” be in their careers (I don’t exempt myself on this) when the truth is there is no “should,” just what is. And what might be, but which is not promised or assured.
And yes. Anyone who believes they are entitled to a Hugo (or any other award, really), is a fool.
According to the criteria at the Hugo Awards Categories webpage (http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-categories/), the rules for the “Best Series” category is that the series has to have at least three installments with a total of at least 240,000 words and at least one installment must appear in the qualifying year. A Series can only win one “Best Series” award, and a Series that is a finalist but doesn’t win is ineligible until at least two more installments appear with a total of at least 240,000 words.
Lots of stuff to agree about here.
Also, being IN A HUGO WINDOW is really kinda awesome.
My playwright friend has been a Pulitzer finalist for several of his plays. Some folks might be disappointed not winning one, but…multiple Pulitzer finalist? He thinks that’s pretty damn cool.
//There are seventeen Hugos; half of them are “fan” awards that have both relatively small numbers of nominators and finalists over the years, so people get nominated in those categories for years on end — their windows, in other words, are longer than in (most) of the pro categories.//
Firstly thank you for your post :)
Secondly, this is a very good point. I picked a narrow set of Hugo categories (Novel, Novella, Novelette & Short). If you include fan writer, related work and editor categories, the windows are much broader – in some cases (Robert Silverberg, Ursula Le Guin) by decades.
This is a mighty fine sentence “One won the Locus Award and came in second at the Hugos behind the third part of a genre-shifting multi-volume work of art, and that was the correct placement.” I think this is why you are a writer and a nice guy and I am a reader. Very well said.
Martha Wells is another author who started hot (1994: Compton Crook and Crawford Award nominee) and Nebula nominee (1998). She almost quit writing at one point! Then Murderbot for two consecutive Novella Hugos. And all the while she was writing great books which few people read.
“because I know that the “best” book (by whatever criteria one judges as “best”) often doesn’t walk away with the award”
After last year’s winners were announced I realized that for three years in a row the book that was ranked second on my ballot had won. Which did not mean that I was upset that they won. I agonized over each of those ballots, wishing I could put several books in the number one slot.
So, yes, like you, my main wish for the Hugos each year is that the ballot has a lot of excellent choices that make me agonize until the last minute, moving things up and down on the ranking.
I have found the Hugos to be an interesting leading indicator of an author’s career, especially for ‘Best Novel’. William Gibson is the most obvious current example. Basically, win once and win early.
Re: Your comment about taken for granted.
I recently had a discussion with someone in a fanfic comment thread on how us humans interpret “taken for granted” as a negative of “overlooked and underappreciated”, but it can also be interpreted as “considered so reliable and that one can trust they will be where you expect them to be, doing what you expect them to do, without having to check”, which could be a compliment in its own right.
Insightful and mature outlook, Mr. Scalzi.
In regards to what can impact a Hugo Window for authors, I would like to look at demographic data of nominees of the Novel, Novella, Novelette, and Short Story categories that Camestros evaluated in their blog post. If we start post-puppy influence in 2017 (excluding the 2 last loser nominations made by VD) there have been 94 legitimate nominations for these categories. Of those, only 13 have been men (13.8%) and there have been 0 men winners (0%). Obviously the more data the better but at this point it is looking like a factor in a Hugo Window involves gender.