Oh “Fandom”, You’re Just Not Voting Right

Yesterday, a science fiction author, who will remain nameless*, opened up a Hugo voting slate and called for the politicization of the Hugo Awards once again. (Brought to our attention by File 770.)

I don’t mention his name or link to the post for two reasons: I do not want this discussion to become a personal one (it is not) and because what I am about to address is only tangentially related to the topic covered in the post.  (And because:  an earlier, unpublished editorial bit I’ve been working on recently was a call to curtail personal attack politics from our online discourse and I ought to at least try to practice what I plan on preaching).

The major thing that concerns me today is not the conservative vs social justice warrior rhetoric, nor even with the suggestion that there is a cabal of “SJW” elitists who control the dialogue within the SF community and reinforce their SJW agenda by fixing the Hugo Awards vote, and by extension are obviously forcing “fandom” to walk in lockstep.

That argument is ludicrous if you really knew fandom.

But then that’s the problem I want to discuss.  The authors, editors and publishers advancing this argument, as well as many of their frequent commentors (largely supporters one would guess) demonstrate in their own words little to no familiarity with fandom, its history, its mores and its culture.  And that ignorance is, I believe, a major contributor to the flame fanning..

In putting forth a Hugo Awards Voting slate specifically to support a political agenda (as opposed to the marginally acceptable custom of touting works that are eligible through qualification), the argument is advanced that there are authors, editors and artists who are deserving of nomination yet never make it to the ballot.  Rather than blaming this on the staggering volume of works eligible each year, or a lack of proper and effective promotion and advertising on the part of publishers, blame is placed on the politics of fandom: “Hugo voting skew ideological, as Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award…”

“Like Herding Cats” is the appropriate metaphor for the activity of organizing fandom along ideological lines.  It suggests humorous impossibility, a task so far outside the realm of probability or even possibility that one laughs and immediately gives up on the prospect.

Fandom, as an institution, can not find its own ass with both hands (and I say that lovingly).  Fandom has deliberately saddled itself with both custom and legislative formality specifically designed to make it nearly impossible for any individual, group or ideology to attain a majority influence;  WSFS (the World Science Fiction Society, the unincorporated literary organization that oversees Worldcon and the Hugo Awards) announces this with its own extended name:  an unincorporated literary society.  Unincorporated so that there is no possibility of a board or executive officers taking over and “controlling” science fiction.

The rules of that society are designed along very conservative lines:  it was only recently that the rules were changed to allow the rules themselves to be changed on a two-year cycle, rather than the preceding three year cycle;  changes made and ratified at a sitting Worldcon’s business meeting must be ratified at the next Worldcon’s business meeting in order to go into effect.  And THOSE changes, whatever they may be, do not take effect until after the close of that Worldcon.  It’s slow and cumbersome and often frustrating, but understandable when the community at large has a long history of denying anyone or anything the ability to wield any real power with authority.  If you want to know why, go read a history or two of early fandom.  It’s largely because power mongers played lots of games in early fandom and the collective body of fandom determined that it was better to move forward slowly than to be constantly mired in power struggles.

The misunderstanding of fandom goes far deeper than that: “Likewise, the Hugos tend to be a raw popularity contest, for all definitions of “popular” that include “Trending with Worldcon.” Which may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with actual sales success on the open market.”…”if the Hugos really are the preeminent award in SF/F how come the Hugos so often ignore works and people who are, in fact, successful ambassadors of the genre to the consumer world at large?”

Because – and I will shout this – SCIENCE FICTION FANDOM IS NON-COMMERCIAL.

Fandom does not care how many books you sold.  Fandom does not care how commercially popular you are.  (That’s actually not really true:  fandom generally tilts against commercially successful properties BECAUSE they are commercially successful.) I don’t remember who said the following paraphrase, but it pretty much sums things up from the Filthy Pro (note the term) side of things:  “I write because I have to.  Getting paid for it is a bonus.”  The hierarchy there is deliberate:  art first, commerce, maybe.

Fandom cares about your work because:  they like your work and/or you; because it is interesting; because it is a good read; because what it says resonates; because what it says is important; because you are demonstrably a fan and have demonstrably contributed to the community.  (Note that none of those are commercial considerations.) Not because you’ve sold a lot of copies.  And certainly not because you wish to advance a political agenda.  Crying money to fandom is like nominating satan for pope:  It’s not going to happen and excommunication will surely follow.

(As further demonstration of the anti-commercial nature of fandom:  back in 1976, there was an opportunity for Worldcon to become Dragoncon.  Not directly, but the writing for SF conventions was on the wall:  embrace popular, commercial forms more deeply and you’ll attract a much larger crowd and make a lot more money – at the expense of diluting the meaning of fandom.  Popular entertainment cons – read “commercialism” – went one way and Worldcon went the other.  You may call that stupid, and in some respects it would be hard to argue that charge, if your goal is to make money but it remains a clear indication that fandom rejected the “make money” goal in favor of preserving the core of fannish identity.)

In a comment on a related post, an attempt was made to excoriate “fandom” by charging that the people who ran Loncon3 (this past year’s Worldcon) made a lot of money and that this explained the “pandering” to the social justice crowd.  No one really bothered to disabuse the readers of that mistaken belief.  Worldcons are all run by volunteers; any profits earned MUST be passed along to future Worldcons and or a handful of approved non-profit efforts supporting fandom (WSFS Constitution: “2.9.3: Each Worldcon or NASFiC Committee should dispose of surplus funds remaining after accounts are settled for its convention for the benefit of WSFS as a whole.”)

Another comment (to the article in question) stated: “That a fans’ award is decided by less than three thousand people, self-selected from the con-going crowd which is only a subsection of the greater reading market.” This comment completely ignores a large swathe of reality:  In 2014, there were roughly 10,000 eligible voting members at Worldcon (approximately 7,000 in physical attendance) and 3,587 votes were cast for Best Novel.  In 2013, there were 6,130 eligible members, with approximately 4,800 in attendance, while there were 1,649 votes cast for Best Novel.  In 2012 the attendance numbers were roughly the same, with 1,664 votes cast for Best Novel.

With the exception of this past year’s Worldcon, actual voting for the awards is participated in by far less than three thousand of the members.  That makes the case put forth in the comment sound even worse – until you look at it from a couple of different angles:  first – OF COURSE THE HUGO AWARDS ARE ONLY VOTED ON BY A SELF-SELECTED CON-GOING CROWD.  That’s who invented the award and that’s who hands them out.  The Motion Picture Association of America is NEVER going to give out an award for finger paintings, sorry. Bad, naughty, self-selected movie-making “MPA”!  Second – commercially motivated individuals looking to gain nominations for specific awards should actually take heart from the low vote count.  As the saying goes, everything has a price and the lower the vote count, the lower that price will be. (I’m not advocating the buying of votes, merely demonstrating the skewed logic going on here.) Thirdly, The self-selection mentioned requires, at last check, a check for fifty bucks.  You don’t even have to attend Worldcon to exercise your nominating rights. To put it bluntly – if you don’t participate, you’ve got no room to complain.  Go self-select yourself somewhere else.

(If you don’t like the way the “fandom” votes, and if you are as “commercially popular” as you suggest, it should not take a great deal of effort to rally your minions and get them to a Worldcon.  Failure to do this brings into question the claims of popularity and influence.  Failing to try to do this brings into question the motives behind the complaints.)

Furthermore, referring to the Hugo Awards as a “popular” vote confuses the issue, suggesting that the entire world ought to be voting, or at least the subset of people who have some passing familiarity with science fiction and fantasy.  (And further suggests the illogical conclusion that if more people – the right kind of people – voted, certain authors would be winning more.  Which is not a foregone conclusion.) The Hugo Awards are not a “popular award” and they never have been.  The Hugo Awards are the awards given out annually by the membership of an Unincorporated Literary Society – the World Science Fiction Society.  They are EXCLUSIVE awards, presented by an EXCLUSIVE society that has rules designed to keep it EXCLUSIVE.  In point of fact, the Hugo Awards are presented by a small handful of individuals who have taken the time to participate in that society and who have bothered to vote.  The great thing about that oh so very self-selected exclusive society is that anyone can self-select themselves right into it.  The only barrier is a few dollars that commercially oriented folk ought have no trouble surmounting).

But perhaps the “saddest” misunderstanding of fandom demonstrated here is the division into us vs them.  (Authors/works) “…who are entirely deserving, but who don’t usually get on the ballot. Largely because of the nomination and voting tendencies of World Science Fiction Convention, with its “fandom” community.”  The attempted separation is obvious.  It’s THEM.  “fandom”, not fandom.

While there are numerous definitions of fandom, the most populist one I am familiar with suggests that anyone who has even the slightest interest in science fiction or fantasy, be it games, movies, television shows, art, the literature, conventions, fanzines or whatever, are, by virtue of that interest, fans.  Certainly this includes authors (with the exception of those who refuse to acknowledge the genre, and even then we still try to rope them in), despite their relegation to a special enclave (filthy pros – set to the side because – taint of commercialism, gladly forgiven because of the wonderful things they offer us).  Them is Us.  Not getting that is the greatest misunderstanding of all.


*I have corresponded with the author in question over the past year or so in what I consider to be a friendly and productive manner;  Amazing Stories has reviewed his work  favorably, and has also reviewed the work of several other authors (favorably) that are seemingly connected with this “movement”;  From comments, the use of quotes from our reviews in blurbs and various other indications, we believe that our reviews have and do contribute to Hugo voting decisions.  These facts would seem to bely the contention that there is a movement to deny these authors exposure, at least insofar as Amazing Stories is concerned.

Correction: This article was amended to correct a number, from “a third” to “three thousand”.

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