Some Notes On Awards Proposals

Posted: September 13, 2015 in Braak
Tags: , , , ,
hugo_sm

The Hugo Award is a rocketship, to indicate the importance of rocketry or something, I don’t know

(Okay friends!  We are trying to get back to some regularly-scheduled programming, now that this nonsense with the baby has settled down somewhat.  To reward you all for your patience, I’m starting on with some inside baseball horseshit about an obscure conflict deep in the nerdliest bowels of the science fiction & fantasy community.  Maybe this is what you read Threat Quality for!  Probably not!  Too bad!)

Today I would like to talk about this, a proposal for an award for SF storytelling, created by a guy named Jay Maynard, whom you probably (do not) know as “Tron Guy.” I do not think that this proposal, or the conflict that has engendered it, is particularly interesting or important in either the grand scheme of things or in the petit scheme of things, but puzzling over it has led me to some ideas that I have about the nature of criticism that I DO think are interesting, and so I’m going to write about it anyway.

Some Quick Backstory

There is a set of awards for science fiction and fantasy work – novels, short stories, novellas, movies, TV shows, &c. – called the Hugo Awards, named after Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories magazine, and someone who was very influential in the creation of “Science Fiction” as a modern genre form (not of the idea of speculative fiction, or of fiction with scientific underpinnings, and certainly not fantasy fiction, but the genre as a discrete form of literature that emerged in the early 20th century).

These awards are given out by a sort of loosely-organized body of people who pay a fee to sign up as members of something called “WorldCon” which is a convention of people who like this sort of thing; they nominate books and stories and vote on them.  There are not particularly many of these voters, and over the last couple years (and these details are not entirely clear to me, so forgive me if I don’t get them exactly right) a cartel of dog people (?) who felt that their own work, or the work that they like, or the work that they think should be rewarded, wasn’t getting rewarded enough, sandbagged the nominations process in a way that made everyone very unhappy.  They were friends, for instance, with Theodore Beale, a fellow who is (comparatively) famous (in nerd circles) for being a white supremacist.  (He is personally famous to me for the time he told me a story about how he karate-kicked his sensei so fast that his sense was like, “whoah, amazing!”, and if that doesn’t tell you everything you’d like to know about Theodore Beale outside of the white supremacy parts, I don’t know what else you need.)

It was just a shit-show of a business – a fellow named John C. Wright, who almost no one had heard of outside of the angry letter he wrote to the producers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra for letting his children know about lesbians, was nominated like five different times.  In protest of this process, a bunch of people used the Hugo option to vote for “no award” – and, indeed, in many categories no award was awarded.  The dog people declared victory, the Hugo Old Guard and enemies of the dog-men declared victory, no one else gave a shit about what happened.

In the wake of this business there has been talk about changing the awards process.  The Old Guard want to change it so this kind of sandbagging doesn’t happen again.  The Dog Men want to change the process so fewer stories about lesbians get awards, and more stories about Dirk Laser and the Space Brigade – you know, the kind of stuff that Hugo Gernsback would have published in 1950-something and would have thought was neato – get them.

It is probably obvious to you that I think the concerns of the dog people, when investigated, are dumb, and if it’s not been clear before, I think that awards are, generally, also dumb.  But if you know me at all, you know that I have poor impulse control and a desperate love for the sound of my own writing, so here we are.

The Proposal

Jay “Tron” Maynard’s proposal is a pretty basic one – he will form a 501(c )3 that is dedicated to giving out a science fiction award every year, along with some other people.  Those people will choose first a panel of judges for arbitration, and second the first members of a “trust network”.  Through some ludicrous bullshit of a process, different people in the trust network can increase the number of trust that you have, but you can’t increase their trust, but they can’t increase it more than three, or by more than three, or for three people (?), and eventually there will be a lot of people in the trust network whose trust level will impact…nothing, I guess, except how many people get into the trust network.

Anyway, the trust network nominates a bunch of books, and then the judges decide if those books “count” as “good storytelling”, and if not they throw the books in the garbage, and if they do count then people vote on them and an award is given out and then finally, FINALLY good storytelling will have the validation it craves so desperately every fucking minute of the day.

Who Gets Out, and Who Gets In

I would like to draw your attention to this first quote, about why such an award is needed in the first place:

“Why don’t you create an award for stuff you like?” Comments on this very blog have raised that point, and at least one commenter meant it in all seriousness.

This grates on me a bit. In one sense, to create a new award sounds like an admission of defeat, of an inability to make an award that’s supposed to represent all of fandom really do that.

Now, when faced with the concern that the award you’re going to give out doesn’t really represent all of fandom, your average awards-designer, or awards-giver, or awards participant or whatever might reasonably respond with, “Duh.”

Because, duh.  Of course a fucking award doesn’t represent all of “fandom” (as though fandom is anything even like a homogenous body of…what, I don’t know; people talk about “fandom” all the time like they know what it is and what it wants, and I have no idea who the hell they’re talking about).  It’s vitally important that we figure out what fandom is, though, because “what fandom is” is the root of this problem – the concern of the dog people is that “true fandom” isn’t being represented by the Hugo Awards.  The concern is that there are a bunch of FAKE fans, who vote for stories about gay cowboys eating pudding or something (and who also love the shit out of Guardians of the Galaxy), and REAL fans, who would vote for stories about straight space-cowboys shooting lasers and pudding aliens, if they did vote, which they don’t, for reasons that presently escape me.

The basis of the dog campaign is predicated on what they describe as increasing engagement to increase diversity – to hear these (dog) cats tell it, they don’t want their OWN books to win, necessarily, they just want more of the REAL kinds of fans, who would (maybe or definitely, but totally coincidentally) vote for those books, to be engaged with the process.

Fan engagement is great, of course, who doesn’t want that?  Everyone wants that.  I rankle at the tedious assertion that “SJWs” – people like me who believe that books that do not adequately express empathy and compassion for the varieties of human experience with stories that are not sufficiently addressed in mainstream culture do not, in fact, constitute “good storytelling” – act with one singular hive-mind, dedicated to quashing ANY AND ALL DISSENT, but whatever.  Fine, your plan is to increase the diversity of titles, sure; I don’t know how that squares with John C. Wright getting nominated three times in the same category, but whatever, fine.

It doesn’t take a genius, though, to look at this schema and see that it doesn’t intend to do anything like that.  No part of Jay “Tron” Maynard’s plan has anything to do with increasing the diversity or the engagement of the fanbase – it is explicitly a system designed to limit the diversity of the fanbase, to friends of friends of friends of friends.  Now, of course, eventually the base will grow so large that the “trust” system put in place will basically become meaningless (or it won’t, and this will be an award given out by the same thirty people every year), but should that ever happen, there’s a body of unelected judges whose sole purpose is to thwart it.

A panel of judges, selected by the founders of the award, whose single power is the power to throw out the nominations made by the trust network.

I don’t know how you can look at a project like this and think it has anything to do with increasing participation in the system; this is a project clearly engineered to keep the wrong sorts of people from voting.  There is a trust system, meant to keep people that the founders don’t like out; if that doesn’t work, and some undesirables manage to sneak their way in, there’s a group of judges there to keep those undesirables from getting any of the wrong sorts of books onto the list.

Cool guys.  Very inclusive.

Notes on Good Storytelling

“Chris,” you may be asking, “what the fuck does this have to do with anything?”  Excellent question.  I said before that I think that this is actually an instructive episode in the subject of artistic criticism, which as you all know is dear to me, and I maintain that this is true.  By way of illustration, I’d like to draw your attention to another, different quote from the same post:

In another sense, though, it’s a way to ensure that at least one set of awards for SF/F represent what it is truly about: the story above all else.

Had you read through the whole article, you’ll have noticed that there is not one. Single. Mention. Of what constitutes “good storytelling.”  This seems to me to be a bit of a problem even if we were just implementing the “trust network”, where hundreds of people’s notions of the idea might even themselves out into a general rubric; it seems like a HUGE problem when you’ve got a panel of judges who are supposed to be making decisions based on it.

Now, if you recall my previous rantings about Nerd Formalism, you know the kinds of problems that this is going to engender.  I think there’s something very striking about the fact that the solution to the problem here is not a “robust critical environment, helping us to understand our desires and preconceptions in a context of history and society” but is instead “what if we made MORE rules?”  I look forward to Jay “Tron” Maynard’s rubric for what constitutes “good storytelling”, which I hope HOPE will be some 95 – theses shit.

  1. The Hero Must Have Either Rippling Thews, or Be an Inexplicably-Attractive 40-year-old Schlub
  2. The Hero Must Refuse the Call to Heroism
  3. The Action of the Story Must Be a Freitag Triangle
  4. Black People Shall Only Appear If Their Blackness Is Essential to the Story, for Example If Their Natural Familiarity with Voodoo Helps the Hero Solve the Crime
  5. Lesbians?  Snicker, snort, huhuhuhuhuhuh

I’ve talked about this before, but I think that this is illustrative of a problem where awards and criticism overlap, which is a tendency to want to think of these things as being definitive.  We have a question – “is the book Good Art?” – and the award exists to provide an answer:  “It won a Hugo, it is Good Art.”

“Is the play Good Art?”

“The reviewer gave it the Thumbs Up, the play is Good Art.”

If you think of criticism as something more than an advertising vector – something explicitly to sell books or tickets, or contrarywise to warn audiences to not spend their money on garbage – which I do, then you probably read multiple reviews of the same subject when it comes out.  This is because you don’t expect a critic to agree with you on everything; you know the kinds of things they like, the kinds of things they don’t, what interests them, what motivates them.  From this contextual information, you can get a pretty good picture of whether or not you’re going to like the piece – certainly moreso than a simple rundown of the plot would do for you.

But more than that, I think, is that the criticism helps prime you to appreciate the piece.  It’s often the case that I’ll studiously avoid reviews before I see a movie, then read the reviews afterwards; I’m not interested in knowing whether or not the movie is good, I’m interested in processing the movie.  I want people’s opinions about it as part of my process of thinking about it.  Art, in every form, is an ongoing process of a culture communicating with itself – it doesn’t begin when you buy the ticket and end when the curtain drops, it extends, indefinitely, backward to the day you first learned your first language, and forward until the day you stop thinking at all.  No book exists solely within the boundaries of its own covers, and criticism is the place where it sort of continues onward, expanding out in these complex iterations.

Awards I think are fairly similar, because there’s a way in which they’re a kind of shorthand for review.  An award isn’t in itself definitive, but I don’t think anyone has ever thought they were, have they?  There are plenty of Oscar-winning movies that I don’t like, and plenty of Oscar-winning movies that I don’t think are any good.  Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, by Christopher Durang, won a dozen awards including the Tony for Best New Play, and it is a raging pile of hot fucking bullshit.

It matters, though, that Vanya et al. won the Tony; it doesn’t matter that it destroyed the sanctity of the award, or that it compromised the legitimacy of the award.  The play and the award don’t exist as separate, successive objects; the Tony isn’t a definitive answer to the question that Vanya asks.  They inform each other – the Tony tells us as much about the play as the play tells us about the award and the people and culture that awarded it.  (I would say in this case that the award tells us rather less.)

This is true of all reviews, it’s true of all awards, all the time – there is no strict rubric for What is a Good Art, and even if there were, the fact of that rubric would be just as telling as an award that was given out through some more mysterious process.

Now, so, bear with me for a moment and throw away the idea that an award is somehow a genuine article of merit, like a grade you got in school, or a paycheck for a job done correctly; instead imagine the award as part of a cultural conversation – the book talks to Us, We talk back to the book.  We give out awards not based on what the book is, but based on what we are – who are we, what do we care about, what do we like to see reflected?

In the case of the Hugos, assuming such a thing is happening (this is highly debatable), we are rewarding ourselves for being interested in and caring about things like diversity; in the case of the counter-Hugos, we’d be rewarding ourselves for our disinterest in them.  In this light, these “storytelling only” counter-Hugos aren’t a simpler or more aboriginal form of awards-giving – they are necessarily a culture’s statement about what it thinks is good, and a conscientious rejection of the idea that “good” should incorporate anything like the culture-at-large’s increasing capacity for humanity.

In that respect, of course the counter-Hugos are based primarily on a multi-tiered system of exclusion; the award doesn’t tell us about the book, it tells us about the people who give it – to solve the problem, we don’t need better books, we need better people.  Jay “Tron” Maynard’s proposal is not a purposeful rejection of a subcategory of genre fiction – it is a purposeful rejection of an entire culture.

Post-Script

Who are these fucking people that thing Rutherford Arsenio Heinlein didn’t write message fiction?  Did you READ Stranger in a Strange Land?  The whole plot of that book is “spaceman comes to Earth, participates in a series of vignettes illustrating the superiority of the author’s opinions on fucking.”  That is like half of Heinlein’s books!

Maybe you just like Starship Troopers, but how can you say that it’s not message fiction?  What about all the fucking fascism?  And look, I guess you can say that you don’t notice the fascism because you just like a good story about a guy in a robot suit shooting a bug-monster, but do you ever think that maybe that’s a problem?  That if a guy can put together an exciting story about shooting a space-bug, then the fascism becomes invisible?

You don’t worry about that?  Like, maybe, “what else do I like where I don’t notice the fascism, because someone figured out how to narrate it in a way where a guy with thews punches his way through the Hero’s Journey?”  Of course, we all know the difference between fantasy and real life, but DO WE?  HOW DO WE KNOW THE DIFFERENCE IF THE FASCISM IS INVISIBLE?

Post-Post-Script

C. Valente of novel-writing fame has also proposed a set of counter-counter-Hugos, which at least sound like more fun. I got not real horse in this fight, I really do sometimes think talking about things is a valuable end in itself, so whatever guys.  DO WHAT YOU WANT.

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selfieChris Braak is a novelist and playwright from Philadelphia, and is the only living bird species that feeds primarily on bone marrow.

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