Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

How Come China Miéville Never Blogs About His Award Eligibility?

with 16 comments

Once upon a time fandom was confined to fanzines and letters of comment, meetings and conventions. In other words, interaction existed but was limited. If you nominated someone for an award it was probably because you liked their work or had met them in person. Then along came the internet. Hooray! Among the many other awesome things the internet did, it massively increased interaction between fans themselves and between fans and authors. A good thing, obviously. Then one author had the bright idea of posting their award elibility so that their fans would be encouraged to nominate them. This idea soon caught on.

And why not? Authors obviously have a right to promote themselves, increasingly I would imagine they would say have they have a duty to do so. If you have a platform that speaks directly to your fanbase, why not use it for this purpose? Well, there are a couple of reasons why not. Firstly, it is unbelievably crass. By posting your eligibility you are implictly saying that you are worthy of nomination which means you are saying that your novel or story is one of the five or six best published in the entire field that year. Obviously, authors never come out and say this which only makes the situation worse. Secondly, and more importantly, it pollutes the awards themselves. If you move the discussion from the field as a whole to you as an individual author then you are changing awards from being an attempt to identify exemplary texts into a popularity contest. Unfortunately, although those who were critical – people like me – had the moral high ground, they still lost the battle: over the last couple of years, authors posting their eligibility has become endemic.

Apparently authors really, really want to win awards. Given that, you would hope they would look at award shortlists and think “wow, there is some really exceptional work on there” and aspire to produce something of a similar standard. Instead it would appear that they look at shortlists and think “wow, there is some really mediocre work but heavily self-promoted work on there” and take that as their inspiration. To hear authors tell it, they are trapped in an arms race; if they don’t post their elibiligy then their work will be drowned out by all the authors who do. It would be more accurate to say that there has been a vicious circle of the increasing prevelance of such posts weakening social norms which in turn increases the prevelence of the posts.

Something different happened this year though. As awards season came round and authors started to make eligibility posts it became clear that they weren’t satisfied with having won the battle, they wanted to take the moral high ground. A good example of this can be found in Juliet McKenna’s post on information, self-promotion, plugging and pimpage. She describes her personal evolution from being brought up to consider self-promotion “utterly reprehensible, no ifs or buts” to being an author in the modern publishing industry were some level of self-promotion is necessary before sensibly concluding that “ultimately every reader and writer will find the level of self-promotion that they’re comfortable with.” Exactly right.

The post becomes problematic, however, when McKenna suggests that “one of the most valuable functions of awards is to prompt the debate and discussion so vital for keeping a genre developing in ever more interesting ways for readers and writers alike” and that authors posting eligibilty supports this. That valuable function is certainly right but I’m extremely sceptical of the ability of such posts to support it. I’ve chosen McKenna’s post as an example of this new meme because several people (including me) try to unpick this point in the comments with limited success. I’d recommend reading the comments for the detailed discussion but it is abundantly obvious that if your goal really was to promote debate and discussion then posting your own eligibility is a singularly poor way of doing so. Charitably you could say that it might be a potential positive side effect of self-promotion, less charitably you could say it was a figleaf intended to give legitimacy to such self-promotion. I have to say, I tend towards the latter view (in my grumpier moments I considered entitling this post “Don’t Piss On Me And Tell Me It’s Raining”) but, if you want to prove me wrong, then Niall Harrison makes a very good point in the comments:

If I ever saw an author make a post that said, “Hey, Hugo nominations are open — I think you should read and consider nominating this book, because I think it is awesome for these reasons” I would probably forgive them a hundred posts promoting their own books for awards. But somehow that never happens.

Some of this comes down to taste. I think there are strong argument against eligibility posts but perhaps if I was an author I would weigh things differently (although the authors I admire don’t). As McKenna says, everyone will draw their own line. So worse than the overstated case for eligibility posts as a social good is the way she characterises critics:

So why should [authors] be discouraged by online hostility insisting they’re not allowed (and who exactly decides this anyway?) to tell me about their eligibility, nominations etc? With that insistence followed by threats that if they do, such behaviour should automatically stop any right-thinking person for voting for them now or in the future!

Quite obviously authors have not been discouraged in the slightest but this language of “hostility” and “threats” is troubling. Others have gone even further than McKenna in suggesting that not only is posting your eligibility socially positive but that this means that any criticism of such posting is inherently socially negative. Consider this Tweet from Cheryl Morgan: “The main reason why established fandom hates pimpage is that it encourages more people to vote.” This is initially deeply confusing since you would be hard pressed to think of a more established member of fandom than Hugo maven Morgan. Is she speaking on her own behalf? Presumably not. Then who? Well, if you know Morgan then you know she is a paranoid fantasist and you will quickly twig that not only is “established fandom” an imaginary construction, it also consists of imaginary people. That is to say, as is typical of Morgan, it is soon revealed to be a baseless smear. But what of the substance of the smear: if you criticise authors for posting their award eligibility then you are deliberately attempting to suppress the vote. Extraordinary. We are truly down the rabbit hole now.

Written by Martin

11 January 2012 at 13:17

Posted in awards, genre wars

16 Responses

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  1. What’s your thoughts on Scalzi promoting his own work, but then opening a page on his website for others to pimp their work in the comments section?

    Mondyboy

    11 January 2012 at 14:42

  2. Personally, one of the reasons I stopped reading Scalzi’s blog was because there was too much promotion going on. That he uses his blog to try to help other writers sell their books doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want to read a blog that’s trying to sell me something.

    Gail

    11 January 2012 at 15:16

  3. Mondyboy: What’s your thoughts on Scalzi promoting his own work, but then opening a page on his website for others to pimp their work in the comments section?

    Scalzi is an interesting one. I’ve only read Old Man’s War but that strikes me as a perfect example of mediocre novel that became an award winner because of the strength of the author’s self-promotion. He was at the forefront of popularising this sort of thing and has gained a huge amount of social capital through it. So it is nice that he is spreading some of that capital around by hosting such a thread (and having guestposts and all the other promotional stuff he does). But the cult of personality around Scalzi is exactly what I think is so dangerously distorting about this type of behaviour.

    Martin

    11 January 2012 at 16:38

  4. He was at the forefront of popularising this sort of thing and has gained a huge amount of social capital through it.

    I think that starting up the Hugo Voter Packet has earned him a huge amount of social capital. I suspect that the existence of voter pack, and knowing that a supporting Worldcon membership comes with a lot of free reading material, is part of the reason for the increase in Hugo nominations and possibly an increase in Worldcon memberships. That gets him a lot of goodwill from me.

    Liz

    12 January 2012 at 00:03

  5. The problem is that cultural spaces given over to heartfelt discussion tend to be very different to cultural spaces given over to advertising and by using cultural spaces designed for heartfelt discussion for what amounts to advertising, authors and publishers are distorting those cultural spaces.

    McKenna’s right that this is an arms race but we should remember how dangerous arms races can be. Indeed, had cooler heads not prevailed then Russia and the US might have kept on building nuclear weapons until both nations were bankrupt and forced to go to war. It was only by stepping back that leaders were able to create a culture whereby nations could get rid of their nuclear weapons without fearing immediate attack. If McKenna, Scalzi and Cornell would all rather promote themselves than preserve a culture of open and heartfelt discussion then I guess that is there choice but I think that, as fans, it is our duty to punish authors who would use SF’s cultural spaces in order to further their own selfish careerism.

    Jonathan M

    12 January 2012 at 00:47

  6. Morgan is talking about a specific subset of fandom that continually complains that the wrong people nominate. They do exist, there was a large cohort complaining about last year’s Hugos.

    Disagree with Morgan if you wish, but please do not insult her. She has been monitoring the Hugos and the debates around them for many years.

    farah3

    12 January 2012 at 09:27

  7. Liz: I think that starting up the Hugo Voter Packet has earned him a huge amount of social capital.

    Very good point and I was remiss not to mention it. I think he had a quite a bit of capital before that but the Hugo Voter Packet was a wonderful development. I think you are right about it increasing both nominations and membership; it was certainly a major factor in me buying supporting membership for the 2010 Worldcon. So yeah, Scalzi probably deserves a free pass for life on Hugo self-promotion. I still worry that it is a step down the slippery slope towards the situation Jonathan outlines.

    Farah: Morgan is talking about a specific subset of fandom that continually complains that the wrong people nominate.

    Who makes up this specific subset? Is it somehow exactly the same specific subset who are complaining about eligibility posts (which is what Morgan was responding to)? More importantly, if that is what Morgan is talking about, why does it bear no resemblance to the words contained in her Tweet?

    Martin

    12 January 2012 at 10:01

  8. The problem with Morgan’s position is that it isn’t just wrong, it scarcely makes any sense.

    What annoyed me about Morgan’s reaction at the time was the fact that she seemed to be suggesting that a taboo against self-promotion was part of some concerted effort to keep people out of fandom. As I say, I’m not quite sure how this would work but if we are talking about throwing up barriers to access then I suggest that the taboo against self-promotion does very little damage compared to the impressions that a) the Hugos are so complex that their rules require expert interpretation and b) changing the Hugo rules is such a legally intricate process that all proposals need to be presented in legalese and followed up by concerted lobbying campaigns. Morgan and her friend Standlee seem to work very hard to create and maintain these impressions about the Hugos.

    Which is more damaging to SF’s democratic institutions? A taboo against using those institutions for the purposes of advertising or an impression that becoming involved in those institutions demands a level of knowledge commensurate with becoming a constitutional scholar?

    I don’t mind Morgan being wrong, what bothers me is when that wrongness combines with hypocrisy and a needlessly confrontational attitude to innocent differences of opinion. That’s when you need to hold people to account and that is precisely what Martin has done.

    Jonathan M

    12 January 2012 at 10:08

  9. Jonathan: as fans, it is our duty to punish authors who would use SF’s cultural spaces in order to further their own selfish careerism.

    I’m not persuaded that this is in fact what’s happening. In my experience it’s rare for an author’s blog to become a “cultural space” in the sense that it hosts of a community of fans and a broad range of discussion. At best, it’s a site for a single voice and perspective (what Scalzi’s blog was in its earlier years, though it’s been several years since this was the case, and nowadays, as has been noted, most of the blog is taken up with promotion, of Scalzi’s work and that of others, and pointing to his writing in other places). It’s unusual to find a broader discussion of the genre or of specific works on an author blog – that sort of thing tends to be reserved for readers’ blogs, review sites, and forums. So I don’t think that self-promotion, whatever its ills (and I am agnostic about them though I agree with Martin that pretending that self-promotion is a public service is a risible insult to my intelligence), has had a significant effect on the conversation.

    Farah: as Martin and Jonathan have pointed out, if this was indeed Morgan’s intention then she was making this point a) to the wrong people, and b) on the wrong topic. If she made the tweet despite being aware of this disconnect then she deserves all the scorn that Martin heaps on her and more. If she isn’t aware of it, doesn’t that validate his characterization of her as a paranoid fantasist?

    Abigail

    12 January 2012 at 17:52

  10. How about the actual logistical value of these posts? Sometimes it’s honestly hard to work out what’s eligible and what’s not. Is that short story that I loved in a 2011 anthology eligible, or was is a reprint from 2005 and thus ineligible? Which things are semiprozines and which aren’t? Who edited that book that I loved?

    I’m split on this issue, since on the one hand I’m sympathetic to the gut feeling that it’s crass bragging, but on the other hand sometimes it’s really useful to avoid wasting votes on things that aren’t eligible.

    Of course, my only Hugo campaign this year will be Gary Wolfe for Evaporating Genres in Best Related Work. He’s never won a Hugo, and that’s just wrong. And I’d much rather see him get it for Evaporating Genres that for the review collections, which have a more uneven quality by virtue of their format.

    Karen Burnham

    12 January 2012 at 17:55

  11. How about the actual logistical value of these posts? Sometimes it’s honestly hard to work out what’s eligible and what’s not.

    There is a logistics issue but I don’t think it is a particularly big one and I certainly don’t think eligibility posts are a good way of addressing it. In fact, I don’t see that they are at all relevant for any of the three examples you gave.

    In the case of the anthology, any editor worth her salt will include original publication information as a bare minimum. If they haven’t, a quick Google will solve the problem. Semiprozines are a case where the Hugos have made a rod for their own back by creating a ridiculous category with no basis in reality. But again, it isn’t very hard to find out what is and what isn’t from Google. As for editor, well, that is a case where an author can make a big difference (see this example from NK Jemisin) but it is the opposite of self-promotion.

    If you want to nominate something and don’t know if it is eligible there are no shortage of people to ask, starting with the award administrator themselves. But that is the way round the process should be: reader led.

    Martin

    12 January 2012 at 18:12

  12. Hello, I followed you home one day from either Strange Horizons or James Nicoll’s blog, I hope you don’t mind.

    I too don’t understand what logistical purpose the self-promoting is supposed to serve. In order to be informed of my favorite writers’ eligibility, I’d already have to be aware of their eligibility, so that I know to seek out their blog, so that they can tell me what they’re eligible for. Tor.com, for instance, has already released spreadsheets of eligible novels and short fiction for the sake of of their Reader’s Choice vote (itself a popularity race), which seems like a vastly more efficient way to go about it.

    Scalzi probably deserves a free pass for life on Hugo self-promotion

    On the other hand, in his own eligibility post this year, he suggested that a vote for Fuzzy Nation would be a great way to vote for H. Beam Piper, of blessed memory. That was pretty crass.

    I haven’t been observing these awards for very long, but it seems to me that part of the problem with the Hugo, for instance, is that people around the award refuse to really clarify and examine the current nature of the award. There’s a lot of elision that goes completely unexamined between the competing claims of “the WorldCon award,” “the fandom award,” and “sf’s most prestigious award”. Comments on that–not even criticisms–get dismissed, with outrage, as “complaining” and as attacks on “the fans,” whoever they are. Morgan’s tweet is an example of that, it seems. I don’t know how it is with the BSFA awards, though.

    Seth E.

    13 January 2012 at 17:12

  13. Hello, I followed you home one day from either Strange Horizons or James Nicoll’s blog, I hope you don’t mind.

    Not at all, please comment away!

    I don’t know how it is with the BSFA awards, though.

    The BSFA Awards are much smaller than the Hugos and mostly avoids the problem of competing claims because of that. No one is going to mistake it for science fiction’s most prestigious award. But there is a pretty strong sense in which in speaks on behalf of British fandom, even though BSFA membership is only a subset of this. So I do think the BSFA needs to encourage those who are eligible to take part and to really think about what is out there. Hopefully we are relatively successful at this. The fact nominations are published as they are received is one way of helping potential nominators think about worthy winners by seeing what other people think is the best of the year (I certainly find it useful). It’s by no means perfect though; for example, I’d still like to see greater participation. I think vigourous discussion around shortlists is a good way of drawing attention back to how the process itself effects the outcome.

    By the way, if there are any BSFA members reading this, you’ve still got until midnight tonight to get your final nominations in.

    Martin

    13 January 2012 at 17:31

  14. [...] Reading Nick’s post was rather liberating. When I got my book deal, a few years ago, I started with the advice. I’m as guilty as those new writers Nick pointed out in his post. There’s some strange psychology about getting a book deal where you suddenly become an expert. Maybe not so much an expert, but people want to know your story of success, and you feel the temptation to share your secrets, and before you know it, down the line, you’re on the social media merry-go-round. [...]

  15. [...] – in which I discuss a story which is clearly on a reading list somewhere in 185 words. 6) How Come China Miéville Never Blogs About His Award Eligibility? 7) Back To The Mud: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011) – in which I review a [...]

    Four « Everything Is Nice

    24 September 2012 at 13:20

  16. […] comes an inevitable negative (authors posting their eligibility). I thought I’d written my definitive position on this two years ago but sadly things have worsened since then. So here are five beliefs I hold […]


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