The Hugo Awards Best Related Work Category and the AO3 Nomination

The finalists for the 2019 Hugo Awards were announced recently and one subject regarding them has grabbed the headlines.  The nomination of AO3 a “project of the Organization for Transformative Works” in the Best Related Work category.  Which in other words is a website, a database, a series of search functions centered on the publication of FanFic (fan fiction, works based on existing fiction, frequently with a sexualized bent) and a community.

But first, all of the finalists in the Best Related Works category:

  • Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works
  • Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee (Dey Street Books)
  • The Hobbit Duology (documentary in three parts), written and edited by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan (YouTube)
  • An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton (Tor)
  • The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76(Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, John Picacio)u47la
  • Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon (Tin House Books)


Astounding is a history and biography of four influential figures;
The Hobbit Duology is an extended video review and critique;
An Informal History is a collection of review/commentary posts;
Mexicaninitiative is a website devoted to chronicling the attendance of over 50 Mexican authors, artists and editors at Worldcon76 (full disclosure:  Amazing Stories sponsored the Mexicanx Initiative) and
Ursula is an extended conversation with the author in book form.

and, more background, the definition of the Best Related Works category:

Best Related Work: Awarded to a work related to the field of science fiction, fantasy, or fandom, appearing for the first time during the previous calendar year or which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year. The type of works eligible include, but are not limited to, collections of art, works of literary criticism, books about the making of a film or TV series, biographies and so on, provided that they do not qualify for another category. Specifically, the Constitution says that any work in this category must be “either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category.” Nonfiction collections are eligible here, but fiction anthologies generally are not because all of the individual works within the anthology are eligible in one of the “story” categories. There is no category for “Best Anthology.”

In terms of eligibility, lets dispense with all of the other Finalists first:  All of the published works first appeared during the preceding year; Astounding is a non-fiction work and qualifies: Walton’s book is non-fiction and qualifies; Ursula is a non-fiction work and qualifies; Hobbits is non-fiction in video format and qualifies.

The Mexicanx Initiative is a “thing” – a social work, a promotional vehicle, a political statement, and does not fit any of the other categories.  It qualifies.

In terms of eligibility for the award (the determination on that made by the great unsung heroes of Hugodom, the Hugo Award Administrators), some questions have arisen:  did AO3 first appear during the previous calendar year?  No, it did not. In fact, it was first launched in 2009.

However, it has been claimed that the site has been “substantialy modified” in the preceding year.  While I don’t question the judgement made, I do question the ability of the average Hugo voter to determine how substantially modified a website is from one year to the next.  I can look at two editions of a book or two releases of a film and judge for myself (while understanding that the Hugo Administrators may very well legitimately come to a different determination than I do.)  But a website?

This is an issue because Hugo voters do not vote based on a single criteria (which work is “better”?);  they also make their own determinations as to eligibility, as in “I don’t think the changes (substantial modification) are sufficiently significant enough to give this work another go”: “I personally do not think this work belongs in this category” or even “I do not agree with the existence of this category”.

So what qualifies for making a website “substantially” modified?  Changing the background color?  The entire theme?  Making the search bar more prominent? Adding more users?  Adding additional capability to search functions?

I ask this question for good reason, two in fact.  First, the site qualified for the category based on the fact that it was deemed to have been substantially changed the past year.  I am, in effect, being asked to vote on those changes.  If it were a book that had a new issue with new material in it, I’d be judging my vote based on my reception of the original, but also on whether or not the additional material made it individually worthy of voting for.

A near perfect example would be the film Blade Runner.  It won the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award in 1983.  However, the film is famous for having numerous “cuts” released at different times, including the definitive “Director’s Cut” released in 1994.  It was awarded a Saturn in 1994, and, again in 2008 upon release of a special DVD edition, yet did not appear on the Hugo Awards ballot in any of those subsequent years.  Either voters did not deem it eligible for nomination or Hugo Administrators determined that the new editions did not incorporate modifications substantial enough for it to qualify.  Filmfans will agree or disagree as is their want, but there’s enough difference between the cuts for many people to have identified them and to have stated a preference for one or another – which strikes me as a reasonable measure of “substantial modification”:  – people have noticed a difference enough to make a choice.  Had the film not won in 1983, would we have seen it nominated in ’94 and/or ’08?  Would it have passed the qualification muster?  Regardless, individual voters would have been able to compare the various releases and could have made an informed decision on whether or not it should have qualified and then on whether or not it should win the award. Voters have an opportunity to agree or disagree with the Hugo Administrator’s decision.

In terms of AO3, since I can’t see the “change”, how am I to judge the substantiability?  Maybe, in my mind, it isn’t transformative enough to warrant a vote.  But I can’t make that judgement because I have no reference. I do not have the opportunity to weigh in on the Hugo Administrator’s choices.

Third:  we’ve already determined that websites can qualify under the Best Fanzine category and we can read right in the definition of Best Related Work that works qualify for that category “provided that they do not qualify for another category”.

Why doesn’t a website featuring fanfic qualify for the Best Fanzine category?  Call me a rube, but I can hardly think of a better category for a collection of fanfic than Best Fanzine.  In fact, I seem to recall that a bunch of highly regarded professional authors published their fanfic in…fanzines.  (The printed kind that some of you may not be familiar with.)

Further, if the “substantial change” that AO3 qualified under were additions and enhancements to its search capabilities (I’ve read that, among other things, they’ve added the ability to exclude items from searches, such as “find me all the Kirk/Spock stories that do not include Harry Potter”), then why am I voting on a website (which would seem to qualify elsewhere) when I really ought to be voting on search capabilities?

We’ve also got an award category for Best Fan Writing.  It’s one of the older categories (given out since 1967).  I don’t recall a single nominee for fiction.  Commentary, review, diatribes, rants, yes.  Fiction, no.  But it seems to me that if it were the fiction published on AO3 that was intended to be nominated, it would belong in this category.

And then there’s this:  Over on Reddit (“I guess this means we can all put that on our resumes, now, right?“), Vice (“Archive of Our Own is a finalist in the prestigious Hugo award’s Best Related Works category—which means thousands of fanfics are Hugo finalists.“), and other social watering holes, indivduals whose fanfic is published on AO3 are stating that it is their fiction that has been nominated.

No, it hasn’t been.

But I do strongly suspect that we’re going to see a lot of fanfic plastered with “Hugo Finalist” (or even, maybe “Hugo Award Winner”), necessitating a lot of running around by over-worked volunteers informing said individuals that they are not entitled to make such statements.  They can state “my work is published on the Hugo Award nominated website AO3” (or even better and more accurate, “I’m a member of AO3, the website that was nominated for a Hugo Award”), but individually, no work and no author can make a claim to Hugo Award Finalist or Winner status.

Doing so dilutes the prestige of the award.  (“This won a Hugo?”.)

We’ve already enough FInalists deserving of an astericks from the Puppy era dragging down the perception of the prestige of the Hugos.  We don’t need any more, especially inaccurate and unfounded ones.

Now I know that a lot of folks reading this are immediately going to turn it into an attack on FanFic in general, and I’m sorry they’re going to try and do that, but that isn’t what this is.  I’m personally agnostic on the subject of FanFic.  Folks do a lot of different things that I’m uninterested in.  My lack of interest is not a judgement of what they do.

I do know that some FanFic works have become traditionally published works (after names were changed to protect innocent copyrights), and I do know that a lot of authors have claimed that they used writing FanFic as a tool for learning how to write, and that many others do it for fun and to maintain their connection to favorites.  But I’m old school enough to have learned growing up that there are certain things most people do that are best done in privacy. On the other hand, I’m also old school enough to understand that cultures change over time and that many things once kept in the dark are being let out into the light, usually to positive effect.

It’s true that the FanFic community has often been derided and subject to statements similar to my “best kept private” statement and that it has not received the recognition it deserves as a vibrant, literary-engaged community, nor even as the incubator of professional authors that it probably is.  And on that score, AO3’s nomination is already having a positive effect.  I think I understand why this community has been treated poorly (back in the early days of the genre authors were encouraged to develop their own characters, style, plots, etc., and all forms of “amateur” writing were viewed as nothing more than necessary steps along the way to a professional sale; authors had to get the rights to use someone else’s characters and settings and playing in their universes was seen as poaching, not fan service.  Not to mention the heavy association between FanFic and SlashFic, it’s often orientation-bending pornographic cousin, which itself is seeing more light these days), but questioning the fitness of AO3’s nomination for the reasons I’ve stated previously is not an attack on the concept of FanFic itself.

Should we have been so negative towards FanFic in the past?  No, I don’t think so.  As I stated previously, I’m agnostic on the subject myself.  But it’s writing, and writing of some kind is better than not writing.  People getting together to talk about writing and to help each other improve their skills – isn’t that a lot of what we do at traditional conventions?  Sure thing it is.  It would seem to me that many practicing the art of writing FanFic are, and always have been, “our people”.  This nomination helps to highlight that fact.

In conclusion:  I strongly urge the folks responsible for maintaining AO3 to inform all of their members that it is the website that is on the Finalists ballot – not the individuals contributing to the site.  And – Congratulations AO3 on your nomination.

Editor’s note: Our featured image is a screencap from Star Trek’s original series episode Bread and Circuses.  It’s our understanding that this scene has been the inspiration for many, many, many words of FanFic.

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