Hugo Neepery, Via Reddit
Over on the r/fantasy subreddit, there was a post about recent Hugo Award stats (which excerpted this original post at the Mr. Philp’s Library blog), and in the comments people naturally speculated about why the Hugos are the way they are these days: Why Tor seems to get a lot of nominations, for example, and why diverse groups are represented in the finalist list as they are, and whether the Hugo voters are an insular and monolith bloc.
Naturally, I have thoughts on all of them and I posted them in a comment there, which I am posting here now (in lightly edited form, to add some useful qualifications) for archival purposes, and for the convenience of those who do not regularly go over to Reddit. Some of this is stuff I’ve covered here before and/or is known stuff to observers of the field, but it’s still useful, I think, when thinking about the current Hugos, and indeed about awards generally.
For the sake of context, here is the original post with its entire comment thread; and here is my original reply on Reddit with its own set of specific replies.
Some thoughts for all y’all to consider, and please note I am not an entirely objective observer, but do have relevant experience:
1. With respect to “why does Tor get so many damn finalists,” the answer (in my opinion) is: reach and design. The Tor Publishing Group (Tor, TorDotCom, Nightfire, and a couple of other imprints coming online soon) publishes more SF/F work in the English language than any other publisher, has an experienced and savvy group of marketers and bookseller/librarian representatives, and (this is frequently overlooked but is significant) has built up an exceptional editorial bench whose tastes and interests cover a wide range of work (Fun fact: The editor at Orbit, who was there in its heyday of Hugo finalists and/or acquired the authors who made the shortlist? She’s the publisher at Tor now).
Also, when authors want to publish in the genre, Tor is often the first stop for their manuscripts, so Tor gets the pick of the annual litter, so to speak, and continues to work with and cultivate the authors whose books hit.
2. The above advantages are especially borne out in the field of novellas. TorDotCom was originally created to acquire and market novellas, because Tor, pretty much alone out of all the major SF/F publishers, realized that the advent of electronic publishing meant there was now a viable market for them (supplemented by bookstore sales). Prior to the advent of TorDotCom, novellas were largely published by the SF/F magazines, who couldn’t publish many of them (they take up a lot of space, both in physical print and in the budget). They were, relatively speaking, few and far between — for years a hot Hugo tip was that if you wanted a fast track to award consideration, you should write a novella, because there were fewer of them to compete against.
And indeed this continues to be the case — except at TorDotCom, which has a robust novella publishing program (and also, non-trivially, pays better for novellas than most anyone else, again assuring they get first pick). In short, Tor dominates the novella category because, by and large, it created the modern novella market for SF/F/H.
3. If you are wondering how marginalized groups have started to become widely represented in SF/F awards (as they are not just in the Hugos, but also the Nebulas, the Locus and the World Fantasy Awards) there are three factors I want you to consider. The first is the (relative) decline of the “Big Three” short fiction magazines in SF/F (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF) and the commensurate rise of a series of online short fiction publishing venues like Uncanny, Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons (among others). The Big Three ran on Silent, Boomer and Elder GenX writers, and the market forces for the genre those writers came up in was heavily cis and white and male. The newer venues, by inclination and necessity, cultivated younger generations of writers from more diverse backgrounds. When the Big Three declined and the online magazines rose, their respective stables of authors more or less rose or declined with them, in terms of award consideration.
The second thing to consider is who is buying science fiction and fantasy, both in the magazine and in the publishing houses. Surprise! The editorial stratum of SF/F/H is not the straight, white and (predominately but not exclusively) male enclave it was before; the editorial bench of SF/F/H publishing (and publishing generally) is much more queer and of color than it has been in years past. They are interested in publishing more than just the “usual suspects” in SF/F/H as defined by previous decades and — this is important — the diverse SF/F/H they are acquiring is selling very well. This will naturally have an impact on what is considered at awards time.
The third thing to consider with respect to the Hugos specifically is that close to a decade ago a group of right-wing fans and writers, alarmed by what they saw as left-wing, SJW, politically-correct, etc work creeping into the awards, decided to try to run slates of work to counter that trend. This did not go well, in no small part because their tactics energized a very large group of fandom to counter their actions, including a significant number of more progressive Hugo voters. When the “takeover” of the Hugos failed, most of these right-wing folks flounced from the Hugo voting pool; some of the more progressive voters stayed and continue to vote today. This is reflected in what gets nominated and thus, what eventually becomes a finalist.
4. It is true that many Hugo finalists have been finalists previously. This, however, is not a recent artifact of the award (or indeed, of awards in SF/F/H generally, or even of genre awards widely). A short glance at the finalist lists for the Hugos over their 60+ years of being run shows many authors/editors/fans with repeat appearances. Author Mike Resnick was on a Hugo finalist list 37 times in his career; Robert Silverberg 29; Connie Willis 24. Most Hugo finalists (this is an anecdotal observation) have their nomination cluster within a specific set of years, getting a bunch for a while and then making way (willingly or otherwise) to a new set of finalists. This sort of consideration largely replicates the arc of the creative popularity of most artists in any field; you have a certain time being “hot” (if you’re lucky), and then times change.
5. There’s a tendency to speak of Hugo voters monolithically, and it is true there is a core of fandom that associates with the Worldcon year after year (the overlap between this core, and the core of fandom that volunteers to run the Worldcon, is fairly high). However, this core is smaller than a lot of people think, and as for the rest of the voting pool, it can change significantly based on a number of factors. For example, this year, the Worldcon is in Chengdu, China, and thus a significant number of nominators were Chinese (this is borne out by the Chinese language nominations in the short fiction and fanzine/semi-prozine categories, and among the editorial slates). Next year it will be in Glasgow, Scotland, and the pool of potential nominators/voters will shift again.
Also, of course, anyone can nominate for the Hugos and vote for the finalists; all it takes is a supporting membership to that year’s Worldcon, which these days is going for around $50 — not a trivial amount, but not insurmountable, either. And indeed, every year there are a non-trivial number of first-time nominators and voters, and within the overall pool, loose groups with very different nominating/voting considerations. Again, not a monolith! And — trust me — very much not an organized cabal. Especially now, it’s difficult to think of a “typical” Hugo voter.
6. People like to suggest there are other things that go into nomination consideration than just the quality of a specific work, so let me be very clear about this: Sure, that’s totally a thing, nor is it confined to the Hugos. Other factors can include (but are not limited to) what and how much the nominators have read in the genre that year, their thoughts on the author as a human, their own personal preferences (for whatever reason) in the genre space, political/social interests and theories, how effective the marketing for that work was in getting the nominator’s attention, what they had for lunch that day, and how they are feeling about the world in general. If the world has been an abject shitshow recently, for example, you might see escapist work being nominated because people just wanted to get out of their own heads for a while. Something dense and philosophically knotty but possibly stuffy might get nominated because the nominators feel that after putting in the work, they want to get credit for it. And so on.
Even if they only considered the works as literature, however, you would still see finalists that you would be all “WTF?!?” about. Because taste is subjective! And what you think is trash, or slight, or overwrought, or impenetrable or whatever, could be someone else’s jam, and something they can’t wait to vote for, and something they could very cogently argue for and defend against your disdain. Work hardly ever gets nominated for a Hugo because the people who nominated it are stupid or foolish or lazy, or are part of a cabal (that event a few years ago notwithstanding). It gets nominated because someone likes it enough to think it should get an award. You can disagree! And maybe nominate next time.