How Not To Slate and Do Other Stuff Peoples Won’t Like: A Primer

You can’t keep a good kerfuffle down! Notes on how to avoid starting a kerfuffle and related fuffle.

Slates.  Fandom. Puppies.  Indie Authors.  Awards. Conspiracies. Ignorance. Politics.  How did it get to be 2015 again?

(Editor and author’s note:  Since the writing of this piece and prior to its publication there have been major developments in the Nebula Awards/20Books story:  most significantly, author Jonathan Brazee has offered an apology and an explanation and has cleared up some claims made in defense of the list.  SFWA has issued a statement and others have yet more to say.  Read Brazee and SFWA here.  I will note that both Brazee and SFWA touch on things written about below.)

(Another note:  If you want the Primer for the Primer, start with #8.)

In reading through the commentary on both public and private forums discussing “Slate Gate 2” (the “recommended” nomination list for the Nebula Awards published by the Facebook Group 20 Books to 50K® which has been called a “slate” by some and which has been called an “attack on indie authors” by others) a glaring lack of professed knowledge has become apparent (yet again).

So I’m going to make some suggestions and offer some definitions that I think ought to be obvious to anyone – or at least anyone with a shred of curiosity (which we’d like to think is a fundamental trait applying to authors, if not equally applying to fans).  You’d think that someone hoping to get nominated for an award in the field of science fiction would be interested enough to look up the history of the awards that they might be eligible for.  You’d think that doing such research would likewise reveal some related history on the field itself, its fan community (that has been ever so important in the development of the field).  You’d think, but in many cases you’d be wrong.

Ignorance of that past and the influences it has on our current day, at least as it relates to awards for works of science fiction, is one of the leading culprits in both past and present day award kerfuffles.

Shock over the No Award votes for slated works during the Hugo Awards of 2015, and shock over the response to the current slate for the Nebula is ample evidence of the ignorance I mentioned.  Anyone who bothered to take even a casual look at the history of this field would become aware of how such things have been rejected in the past.  Which leaves us with the conclusion that those responsible are either ignorant of that past, or just don’t care about the lessons they’ve taught.

So, suggestions, definitions and advice, for those who care.   Note that I am not trying to win hearts and influence minds.  I am laying out the landscape that exists, a map, as it were, of the terrain one will encounter when engaging with the field of science fiction, whether someone wants to recognize it or not.

1.  The Science Fiction field, as a discrete entity, has a bona fide history stretching back at least as far as 1926.
2. The Science Fiction field is comprised of equal parts of creative production (writing, art, edting, etc), fandom, commercial interests.  ALL have and continue to play influential roles
3. There were two early arguments within fandom that still resonate and influence today:

The first was whether the focus of fandom would be on amateur scientific pursuits or on the literature of the field.  The fans focusing on literature won that argument, which is why, today, there is such a strong focus within SF’s most prestigious awards and its premiere events on the literature;  it is also why there was a long-running kerfuffle regarding the acceptance of fans and conventions that were not literary focused;  this is expressed today by the careful delineation of “traditional conventions” vs “media conventions and gate shows”.  It is why it took so long to get media other than words printed on paper their own categories in the awards.

The second early argument was over whether or not fandom itself would become a commercial enterprise and/or a tool of commercial interests.  This was roundly rejected with such unanimity that the first and only international organization of fan clubs, sponsored and run by a publisher in the field, was disbanded in favor of independent clubs.   This preference would go on to influence many things, not the least of which is how conventions are run (non-profit) and the oft-heard statement that awards have nothing to do with either “popularity” or “sales figures” and have everything to do with quality;  this legacy even influenced the way that the Nebula Awards are handled:  Fandom already had the “reader’s award”, and so the Nebula’s differentiated themselves by becoming the “writer’s award”.  The influence exerted on the Nebulas acknowledged the importance of Fandom.  It’s why there was so much pushback against “recommended reading lists” (they were recognized as the slipperly slope they have become);  it’s why publishing houses are so circumspect in promoting eligible works;  it’s why Scientology’s attempt to “buy” an award was rejected;  it’s why you hear so many fans saying “vote for what you’ve read”, because any other basis for a vote is suspect.

The third early argument was over whether or not the “commies” or the “fascists” would run the Fannish world* (fans used those terms in fanzines of the time) and, while the “fascists” “won” the initial battle (the Exclusion Act of 1939 – look it up), the “commies” eventually “won” the war through their influence on the publication platforms.  As a result, Fandom, and not a small majority of practictioners of the art, lean left.  (At the time, those buzzwords resonated differently with audiences than they do now.)

(*No one in fact “runs the fannish world”.  I believe the expression “like herding cats” was created to refer to this incontrovertible fact.  Yes, there are “influencers” – but they are largely people who gained their influence through work in the trenches.  Yes there are clades and clicks and special interests and all the rest, but, by way of example, the World Science Fiction Society was deliberately created and is run as an “unincorporated literary” organization precisely so that no one person or group could ever gain ascendancy.)

The take-aways from the above should be: the present day does not exist in a vacuum;  if you want to be effective in this field, fan concerns are as important as anything else; the awards are grounded in and focused on literary quality; commercial influences are deliberately ignored and yes, the majority of those participating in any and all aspects of this community tend to lean left**.

(**This should be relatively unsurprising – with a little bit of homework – as it has been demonstrated, at least in the US, that embracing change, being hopeful for the future, believing that change can be for the better, are all traits of progressive thinking, not to mention being the bread and butter of writing science fiction.)

Unspoken Social Traditions

4. Like many institutions, the science fiction field is one in which individuals are expected to “earn their chops”;  writers write and suffer rejections until they find success;  editors work as unpaid slush readers, move up to being assistants;  fans attend conventions, work as gofers, become assistants to department heads.  Circumventing this long established methodology is often viewed with suspicion by those who previously put in their time and hard work.  This is understandable on the face of it.  We are also currently in a phase of coming to understand that there are now more paths available for “earning ones chops” than the traditionally accepted ones.  Those who have chosen alternative paths are understandably impatient.  However, when their arguments in favor of their position trend towards sales figures and internet rankings, they are stepping on long cherished toes and, at least on the face of it, demonstrating to others that their focus is on earnings rather than on the art.  This too rankles the establishment.  Writers are often taught to “show, rather than tell”.  The same rule applies here.  Show your art, don’t tell us how deserving it is of recognition.

5.  The traditional way to introduce something “new” into the science fiction community is to share it as widely as possible.  In doing so, you are cognizant of the fact that – despite being a community all about the future and change and progress – “new” is accompanied by fear and suspicion.  You should also have learned by now, from the schoolyard if from nowhere else, that attacking people who are afraid and suspicious is a certain path to even more rejection.  The traditional form of getting past that fear and suspicion is disclosure and exposure.  Why do you want this new thing on a panel, a category in the awards, as the subject of your book, as the focus of a new sub-genre?  There are three possible outcomes that result when introducing new things:  either your new thing comes to be accepted as desireable and valuable and is incorporated into the zeitgeist; or – your new thing is rejected (it either wasn’t really a ‘new’ thing, you handled its introduction poorly, the timing wasn’t right, there are good reasons why it should not be a new thing***) and you either drop it in pursuit of more rewarding endeavours or, you are so convinced of its value that you go off and do it.  Which latter action leads to its own binary results:  either you turn your new thing into a success, proving to the community that you were correct all along, at which point everyone says “yay, new thing!” and it becomes part of the zeitgeist, or you fail to gain traction for your new thing and some people who just can’t shut up say “see, told you so”.

What we DO NOT do upon receiving initial rejection is to create conspiracys out of whole cloth, attack the very institutions that we were previously trying to gain acceptance from, attempt to undermine everyone else’s efforts at their own new things and turn yourself into someone who will have great difficulty in the future when trying to introduce new new things.

Relatively recent history (there’s that word again!) illustrates this point.  When the Star Trek phenomena hit its stride in the late 60s and early 70s, many Trek fan groups went to their local clubs and conventions and tried to get more Star Trek centric programming and events incorporated into the mix and were roundly rejected.  (SF Fan was largely synonymous with Star Trek Fan btw, so it was a case of fans arguing with fans)  Eventually the hard core ST fans went off and did their own thing, which proved to be wildly successful.  These days, Trek conventions promote at traditional conventions, traditional conventions promote at Trek conventions, traditional cons feature programming devoted to media other than literature and media conventions host programming devoted to the literature of the field.  No one throws rotten tomatoes at fans wearing Trek costumes while roaming the halls at traditional cons.  No one forces fans to watch the TOS Blooper Reel Lysenko style at Trek cons.

(***Yes, the science fiction community, all aspects of it, probably really has already “been there, done that” and also has a lot of intelligent people who have given a lot of thought, for years, to a wide variety of seemingly arcane subjects.  There are people in fandom who have helped Disney figure out how to handle waiting lines, and Disney is considered to be a leader in that field.  There is a very good chance that whatever you think is a new idea, really isn’t a new idea.  The chances are even better that when you’ve discovered what you think is a glaring oversite, it isn’t, and there are good reasons that have been discussed endlessly over the past umpty decades as to why.  Rather than stating “we need to be doing this right now! – you people are idiots for not already doing it!”, you should be asking “hey, how come we don’t do this, that or the other thing?”  I assure you, you will get an answer.  You may not like the answer;  you may disagree with the reasons.  You may actually have found a clever way around an obstacle – but you won’t know until you ask, and if you don’t ask, you’ve already damaged your argument, at the very least by not recognizing that all of this stuff takes place within a continuum that has a huge knowledge bank, access to which is free for the asking.)

5. In the science fiction community, No One is “deserving” of an award.  No one.  Not me, not you, not Isaac Asimov, not Robert Heinlein, not anyone.  Claiming such strongly suggests that you are clueless about how this whole thing works and should probably be the very last person to be considered.  Numerous people have removed themselves from award ballots because they felt that they had not received their nomination on the basis of being worthy of consideration.  (That is an important distinction:  works can be worthy of consideration for an award, not deserving of an award.)  (Some of those works removed were worthy of consideration and those individual authors were robbed of their due consideration by those who did not respect the way things are done.)

6. One does not nominate Oneself.  It is (barely) acceptable to note that something you have produced is eligible for consideration.  The true test of worthiness is whether or not others – and a sufficient number of others – put you on their ballots.  (Oh sure, you may stick your own work onto a ballot among 4 or 5 other works in a category, but that’s one vote that will have no influence unless others who are not you agree with your assessment.)  Someone who wins an award through means other than the native process is not viewed as a winner, rather, they are viewed as someone who stood in front of a mirror while pinning a medal to their own chest.

7.  It is appropriate here to mention that the science fiction field does not operate in a vacuum.  The community talks amongst itself.  A lot.  And because of the strange and uncommon nature of this community, where the lines of hierarchy have been blurred since the beginning, you may have no idea that Lowly Fan routinely has lunch with the editor-in-chief of a big publishing imprint.  Further, that editor-in-chief listens to lowly fan.  Yay you, you got an undeserved prestigious award nomination you can splash all over your book’s cover.  Woe is you to discover that the community now rejects you – not because of your works, but because of what you did.  (For some I will note that this is not evidence of some vast conspiracy designed to keep those others out.  It is the normal, customary and unsurprising reaction of a well-established community to attacks on its customs, traditions and reason-for-being.)

8.  We do not solicit votes.  We do not organize voting campaigns (slates).  We do not trade votes.  We do not vote for something because a friend produced it.  We do not buy votes.  We do not offer votes because doing so will help our business.  We do not threaten dire consequences if the vote does not go “our way”.  We do not vote for works that we are personally unfamiliar with.  We do not vote because the creator belongs to a particular ism, or because they do not belong to a particular ism.  We do not vote to advance a political agenda.  We do not vote for a novel because we like the cover (that belongs in the best artist category).  We do not vote because a work won other awards.  We do not vote because a work is a “best seller”, nor because the author earned a lot of money, nor because they moved a lot of copies.  We do not vote for a work because others are voting for it.  We do not vote for a work because the author signed it for us, or Tuckerized us, or dedicated it to us. We do not fill out a ballot randomly because we are too busy or tired (we leave it blank).  We do not engage in activities that might influence how others perceive a work that is being considered (like giving it one star reviews without even reading it).  We try to focus on the work itself, not the creator, their home life, their politics or what flavor ice cream they prefer.  (I deliberately used the word “try” here because we are not always successful in that regard and, in the interest of full disclosure, it is important to not only admit there are areas we need to work on, but also accept the fact that sometimes the actions of the individual so affect the reception of their work that it is impossible to divorce them from it.)

9. We do not try to “game” the system.  We. Do. Not. Try. To. Game. The. System.

Regardless of whatever success is achieved through gaming the system, the community does not regard it as success, tit regards it as gaming the system.  Which is something we do not do. Your credentials mean nothing, even if you are able to take advantage of them within some narrow group.  We know you cheated and you will remain a cheater, forever suspect.

And yes, it is cheating, even if there is no specific written rule against it.  This is recognized by the cheaters themselves, otherwise, they’d not operate in a way that offers the cover of plausible deniability.  If cheating wasn’t involved, the response to initial protest would be to at least ask what the problem with their actions was, demonstrating a little empathy for the community they were seeking approval from.   Instead we get…well, we saw what we got during the Puppy Wars and we’re seeing the same thing from some quarters now.  The insistence on pushing forward a program that demonstrably upsets the voters involved is a clear indication that insofar as the cheaters are concerned, the voters don’t matter, which in turn strongly suggests that the award itself doesn’t matter, except for what it can do for the cheaters.  (I will again refer you all to Brazee’s explanation/apology and SFWA’s statement, here.  I believe Brazee’s sincerity.

The ironic thing about it all is, the vast majority of people involved with running the show (either Nebula or Hugo show) are well experienced and knowledgeable of the things mentioned earlier and, as the Hugo Awards and various WSFS committees demonstrated, are fully capable of taking effective, corrective action.  There will never again be whole categories devoted to slated nominees on the Hugo Awards ballot.  Yes, those actions took a full three years to implement, and the community suffered during that time, but this is a strength rather than a weakness:  despite massive pressure from within its own ranks (not to mention the external pressures from the cheaters), WSFS followed its rules and regulations, did so in a transparent manner and sought broad consensus from its members (which can be anyone);  it followed the process that had been approved by its membership (for years) and demonstrated that everyone could rely on that process, regardless of lots of seemingly good reasons for not doing so.  Everyone, puppies included.  In the long run, trying to go around the rules, spoken and unspoken, strengthened those rules against similar cheating in the future.

SFWA claims to be “working on it” in regards to the 20 Books To 50K slate.  They should be accorded every confidence that they will do so, in a manner that follows their own internal rules and regulations;  SFWA was founded after WSFS and shares many of the same foundational sensibilities.  Of necessity it will take time.  People will suffer, but it is not SFWA’s procedures that create the suffering.  (Again, my confidence has been rewarded with SFWA’s statement.)

10. Some express confusion over what a “slate” is.  Here’s a fairly simple, straight-forward definition as the term relates to voting for the Hugo or Nebula Awards:

Anything other than a single individual filling out a ballot based on their personal familiarity with the works they are nominating, works they have decided to be worthy of consideration based solely on personal experience with the field, the literary merit of the work and personal appeal.

That’s not a definition of “slate”, but it is definition of the only acceptable way to cast a vote.

A slate in general elections (a grouping of candidates who are allied through party affiliation and who campaign in support of each other) is not a slate when it comes to SF awards voting.  In the SF community, a slate is a form of seeking to get particular works nominated through group voting.  Slates have so far ranged from the overt to the covert.  Everything from a specific list and a request to vote for them (even accompanied by offers to purchase memberships for those pledging to vote the slate) to secret mailing lists containing the party line, to lists masquerading as “recommended reading lists” that contain either public or private (or both) hints and clues as to how participants are expected to vote.

What has reluctantly come to be acceptable, not seen as crossing the line, takes two forms:  there is the “eligibility notice” and the “recommended reading list”.  An eligibility notice takes the form of a creator publicly informing their audience that specific given works they’ve produced meet the eligibility requirements for a given award or awards.  This is usually based on the time frame of publication (“here’s a list of my published works from 2018 that are eligible for 2019 award consideration”), may include links to where the work can be found, may include more specificity as to a particular award category (novels can’t be nominated for short story) and maybe a request that the works be considered.

A Recommended Reading list is usually produced by a creator, reviewer or editor – someone who reads widely in the field – and is a winnowed list of works they’ve read that they believe are worthy of consideration.

Proper forms of either do not include exhortations to vote for particular works;  they do not in anyway conflate voting with a political agenda, a business agenda, a personal agenda.  They are not accompanied by veiled suggestions.  They are not ordered in a specific way (except perhaps by type or original publication).  A numbered list is suspect.  A list of works all hailing (or mostly all) from the same group of affiliated creators is suspect.  A group of works all associated with the same theme is suspect.  Periodicals can list all of the eligible works they’ve published.  Failing to include all that are eligible makes them suspect.  Failing to include considerations from outside the group that is creating the list is suspect.  Publishers should be very wary of producing such lists, as should any entity or individual who holds a position of influence – monetary, political, social – in the field, as it is very easy to be misconstrued.

Failing to check the appropriateness of the list with others in the community and outside of your personal venue (hey, we were thinking of doing X, what do you think?) adds to the suspicion.

In short, a proper recommended reading list or eligibility post is very carefully worded to avoid any and all possibility that it is anything other than what it claims to be – things someone has produced that meet the basic criteria for consideration, or things they’ve personally consumed that they think others might want to consider.  If it doesn’t read that way, there’s a problem.

It might be instructive to ask the question:  am I doing this for the community or am I doing it for myself?  An eligibility post contributes information to the community.  Likewise a recommended reading list.  Soliciting votes does not.  In fact, it harms the community by perverting the system and causing lots of volunteers to have to spend lots of time cleaning up the mess.  Voting for truly worthy works does contribute to the community by helping to elevate the overall standards we look for in the field.

11. If your motivation for even thinking about doing a slate is to give recognition to what you perceive to be something worthy yet under-represented in the field, there’s two sure ways to accomplish your goal and one sure way to shoot yourself in the foot.  First, you can engage with the community, do the hard work of raising awareness, taking the time to understand what are and are not acceptable ways of doing so, and hope that your methods are successful.  It takes time and effort, but has proven effective countless times in the past.  Or you can strike out on your own, create your own award that celebrates your pet interest and, through diligence and hard work and time, gain acceptance and influence the field.  Or (once again) you can attack the very institutions you are seeking acceptance from and insure that in the future there will only be one path open to you – striking out on your own.  Good luck on catching up to more than a half a century’s worth of history, after having been branded as a cheater.

12. In an ideal time and place, all of the works eligible for an award would be simultaneously laid out before the voters, who would somehow instantaneously consume the content and then everyone would cast their votes and winners would be declared.  There’d be no time for campaigning or influencing, there’d be no complaints about under-representation or of being over-looked because everything eligible would be there for review.  We’d get what we are looking for, a wide consensus drawn from a large field of relatively well-informed voters.

Of course this is an impossibility (at least until deep learning AIs are eligible to vote).  The point here is that when we offer awards and ask people to vote, the entire process should be striving towards the spirit of that ideal as much as we practically can.

*****Yes.  There are two number 5s.  It’s deliberate.  If you don’t know why, go do some research.  A little bit of our history will sneak in along the way.

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