How to Recommend Without Slating

Back in the 1970s when I first became aware of Worldcon and the Hugo Awards, I was also heavily involved with High School politics, having just fought a battle with the administration over reinstating the student franchise following a rigged student council election.

I was mightily impressed with the formula for the Hugo Award voting process, having just witnessed how a straight first-past-the-post system could be manipulated.

It was my understanding that what was described to me as the “Australian voting system” allowed the Worldcon membership to individually voice their opinions and at the same time arrive at consensus.

All without the usual campaigning and politicking normally associated with voting for anything.

Experience with the field at that point backed this up.  I’d never seen an ad in any of the magazines instructing readers to vote; I’d never seen an article in a fanzine telling fans how to vote.  I never saw a publisher shilling for votes at their table in the Huckster’s room.

When it came to voting myself, I believed that what I was doing was the same as everyone else was doing – nominating the things I believed were deserving and sharing my thoughts with a few close friends.

Later on, I became aware that there were rumblings about certain authors who were using their “influence” to try and gain an award.  Discussion, both in the fanzines and at various conventions roundly condemned these supposed actions.  Whoever was doing it was bad for doing it and it was clearly not the fannish thing to do.  Campaigning was seen as revealing of at least two things: that the campaigner was not deserving of the award (if they were, they’d not have to campaign) and, this kind of activity turned fannish convention on its head:  Egoboo, of any kind, is received, not asked for.

Further (and this may be a conclusion I arrived at later), campaigning diminishes the impact of the individual’s vote.  The Hugo Awards voting process is not just “one fan, one vote”, it is also “one fan, one influence”.  With a moratorium on campaigning, neither money nor presence can be used to sway the voter.  That’s a good thing because fandom is comprised of a bunch of elements, some of which can have greater influence if it was used.  Imagine the state of the field if Campbell and, say McComas had gotten into an editorial battle over nominations in the pages of their respective magazines;  or if Heinlein and Asimov had each recruited legions of voters from among their readers.

Despite the fact that we hear stories about authors banding together and sharing votes (“I’ll vote for you if you vote for me”), which may or may not be true, my personal reaction is – they didn’t extend such questionable activity to the wider voting audience.  I never saw a LOC from an author revealing how she and her other, influential author friends, were going to be voting.  Besides, if this was going on, it really didn’t rise beyond the equivalent level of influence that a group of fans working together to pick their nominations had.  The scope of the enterprise was very limited, non-public and statistically uninfluential.

This of course was the situation pre-internet.  The bully pulpit for campaigning was limited to the circulation of the magazines, the circulation of the fanzines, the attendance at conventions, the letters and phone calls that individuals could make.  Even if you organized a campaign, you just couldn’t reach more than a few hundred people, most of whom wouldn’t listen.  Actually, most of whom would reject such out of hand because it just wasn’t done.

Once we hit the internet era and people began to be able to reach a very wide audience, it’s nor surprising that things changed.

The first change was the advent of the “eligibility post”.  “I sold a short story this year and it’s eligible for the Hugo Awards.  You can read it here.”

I have to say that when I first saw this, I was miffed.  It just wasn’t right.  Not in keeping with the tradition.  But then I began looking at the arguments for and against and I had to admit a couple of things:  first – the internet.  The age of self-promotion was upon us and the game needed to be played.  Authors who didn’t mention their eligible works would probably get buried by those who did.  If an author didn’t do it for themselves (and exercise some control of the message), fans would do it for them. Absent the awards, there was absolutely nothing wrong with an author saying “here’s a new story I just had published”.

It became apparent that some form of eligibility listing was inevitable.  That being the case, it was necessary to formulate such things in a manner that was in keeping with tradition.  True, it represented stepping right up to the line, which made it that much more important to reinforce the line.

As it has evolved, an acceptable Eligibility Post is limited to the following elements:

  1. A statement that a work is, under the rules in play, eligible for a particular category of award.
  2. Information on where and when the story was made available (so that others can verify its eligibility)
  3. A suggestion that those voting for the award in question might be interested in checking it out

An Eligibility Post may also include an opportunity for others to add other works that are eligible

An Eligibility Post does not contain:

  1. reasons why someone ought to vote for the work
  2. begging for votes in any manner
  3. discussion of external politics that are somehow related to voting for the work
  4. discussion of the “messages” that will be sent by voting for the work
  5. plays for sympathy, or authorial love, mentions of career status

The Eligibility Post was soon joined by the “Recommended Reading” list.  Lists of this sort pre-date the internet and were traditionally prepared by clubs and a handful of larger-circulation fanzines, as well as, occasionally, in the review sections of some of the magazines.

They were not prepared as lists for voters to use during their selection process.  They were prepared as lists by readers and reviewers who wanted to bring works that they thought had some merit to the attention of other readers.

They served a valuable purpose because there was no electronic bullhorn available.  There were no chain bookstores;  most libraries had very limited SF/F sections; the wire racks at drugstores and supermarkets were stocked by distributors, not discerning readers.  (Paperbacks frequently featured a list of other titles and a coupon for ordering them on the last few pages of a book, because the publisher needed that level of marketing in order to make readers aware of what was available.)  Paperback science fiction lines were not budgeted for full page ads or billboards or television spots.  The New York Times Review of Books rarely considered genre works.

With the exception of categories like “Recommended” and “Highly Recommended”, or a star system of some sort, works were not categorized or ranked.  The list was either compiled by a single reviewer (whose tastes you’d gotten to know) or compiled as a group effort by club members, who you knew, because you got the list as a member of the club that put it together.

This meant that those who received such lists were far more intimately acquainted with the compilers, their tastes and their agendas (if any) than we are with similar lists today.  The judgement exercised in how much or how little credence to give to the list was more informed.

Recommended Reading Lists today are both crowd-sourced and individual.  A good recommendation list should contain the following elements:

  1. An explanation of how the list was constructed
  2. an explanation of how and why the list was limited in scope (if it is)
  3. an identification of those responsible for compiling the list
  4. the list, presented in some non-ranked order (alphabetical, by date, by source, randomly generated)
  5. sources for the items on the list (links)
  6. if objective measures were used to compile the list, they need to be detailed
  7. if subjective measures were used to compile the list, it should be stated as such, somewhere

The Recommended Reading List, by its very nature, is already making a judgment call. “I/we liked these works.” Further ranking within the list should be off-list (comments for example), not contained within the list.  Additional detail that adds layers of judgment (X reviewers liked this work, Y reviewers liked this one; this author has won X awards in the past; our club picked this story as #1 for the year) should not be included in the listing.

The idea is to provide the data (works that match the criteria of the list), while keeping potential influence over the reader at the barest minimum.  The best Recommended Reading list would be a straight compilation of every eligible work published anywhere during the previous year, presented in a randomized order to each individual viewing it.  (It may be some time before we see such a thing.)

Finally, there is the “What I’m voting for” post.   In general they should be avoided, but I get why we see so many of them.  They’re largely a mash-up of the fan’s response to eligibility posts and personal recommendations lists.  A form of sharing in the process.  But they are also attempts to influence, however mild it may be.  (My recommendations for voting No Award last year were a comment on process and tactics, not “who I’m voting for”.  That said, I expect a little heat on this because the difference is nuanced and we all know that there is an element out there that has difficulty with nuance.)  If you must talk about who you’re voting for, it’s best to leave it at the nomination process and to discuss your options, rather than your actual picks. “I’m trying to decide between X and Y;  I really like X because of, but I also really like Y because of…”

And then of course there’s campaigning and slates and bloc voting.  Share.  Don’t try to influence.

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  1. I’m don’t agree on the “who I’m voting for” posts. On those posts I’d like to see links to reviews and possibly a longer list. But in general I view the majority of these posts as simply getting the word out about books/stories/people who might be overlooked.

    Now if it comes with a political statement, indicates “vote for this”, or is ranked I have problems with it as then it falls into “slate” territory for me.

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