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Why I Think Author Eligibility Posts Are Selfish, Destructive And Counter-Productive

with 16 comments

Today is the last day of nominations for the BSFA Awards. Members can nominate as many times as they wish (I’m on my third set) and here are some things I’d particularly like to see make it onto the shortlist:

  • Best Novel: iD by Madeline Ashby
  • Best Short Fiction: ‘Spin’ by Nina Allan
  • Best Artwork: Yuko Shimizu’s cover for The Melancholy Of Mechagirl by Catherynne M Valente
  • Best Non-Fiction: Jared Shurin on the Gemmell Legend Award shortlist.

Unfortunately, along with the positives of award season (talking about great books) there now 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 that together explain why I think author eligibility posts are selfish, destructive and, for the majority of authors, counter-productive.

1) Posting your eligibility is lobbying for awards

This should be blindingly obvious. The only possible effect of posting about the eligibility of your work is to change the number of people who nominate that work. This is, after all, why authors do it. Yet the fact that this is lobbying is mysterious elided in most conversations about eligibility posts which instead subsume it into the broader issue of self-promotion or couch it in the neutral terms of increasing voter information.

The brilliant thing for authors is that they don’t need to say “nominate me” or even “my work is worth nominating” (which strangely they recoil from) for the lobbying to be effective. But to claim there is no connection is about as sophisticated example of sophistry as this.

2) Reader voted awards are for readers, not authors

Perhaps this is a more understandable bit of confusion as speculative fiction has always had a very permeable barrier between fan and pro. So in the Hugos we have fans (some of whom are pros) voting for fan categories (for which pros are eligible), for pro categories (for which fans are eligible) and even, bizarrely, for industry categories that it is impossible for them to know anything about. But regardless of whether you are a fan or a pro or somewhere in between, when it comes to nominating fiction, you are acting in a specific capacity: as a reader.

A helpful analogy might be to reviews. An author might review another author but they must do so with their reader hat on and whilst a positive review might benefit the author receiving it, that is a side effect of its main purpose to inform other readers of the quality of the text. The same is true of awards where the purpose of voting is for readers to form a critical consensus around the best fiction of the year. Authors ‘helping’ voters to complete their ballots are no more neutral than authors ‘helping’ reviewers to interpret their work.

Authors have more power than readers and it is easy for them to unintentionally poison reader spaces, whether that is reviews or awards. Yet whilst the social norms preventing this still apply quite strongly to reviews, they have been stretched to breaking point with respect to awards. This year, we have seen authors accelerate the trend of taking ownership of the space by actively erasing readers. Take, for example, this quote from author Amal El-Mohtar’s widely discussed post about author’s publishing their eligibility: “There’s a peculiar, unbearable, vicious smugness in sitting back and talking about how tacky it is of people to list their publications and that of course YOU won’t do so because while winning awards is nice naturally YOU don’t really care about them.” The conversation has entirely shifted from readers to authors, from voting for awards to winning awards.

3) Eligibility posts don’t help readers to make their ballots more diverse

A new argument made this year – and the key thrust of El-Mohtar’s justification for such posts – is that if all authors publish their eligibility then this will increase diversity in award shortlists by correcting the tendency of women and minorities to be less comfortable at self-promotion. The first thing to say is that self-promotion (“please read my book”) is not the same as lobbying (“please tell people that my book is one of the best of the year”) and it is perfectly possible to want people to be more comfortable in promoting their work without wanting them to lobby for it.

This brings us to the arms race argument where authors might concede that perhaps in an ideal world they wouldn’t need to lobby but since some people do (and white men are more likely to do it) then others need to do it or they risk being drowned out. As a point of principle, a vote for yourself can never be a noble act; as a point of practicality, eligibility posts are an incredibly poor way of making your voice heard. If you are worried that someone has got a megaphone, cupping your hands together and shouting is not going to get you far. More than that, complaining about those people asking both of you to keep it down is just going to entrench the existing problem.

4) Readers are not employers

Part of the problem, I think, is two related issues intersecting in an unhelpful way. The first is that women are systematically disadvantaged in the workplace due to patriarchal culture, both visible (women remain the default carer and earnings never recover if you leave the workplace to become a carer) and invisible (the way women have been taught to act and the way people perceive the way women act). The second is that women are equally disadvantaged in the arts. This later point is set out by Coffee & Ink in this post in favour of eligibility posts but the trouble with the intersection is set out in the comments:

There has been a recent study showing pretty conclusively that in businesses that tout their culture as being one of meritocracy, so therefore, you know, no pesky diversity issues need to be considered, white men are rewarded much more [...] And while the study may have looked at businesses, writing and publishing and all that….is a business.

The problem is suggesting that awards are rewards equivalent to bonuses or promotions. Readers aren’t authors’ employers, publishers are authors’ employers; readers are at the bottom of the power differential, not the top. This is not to say that readers should abdicate all responsibility for ensuring that reader spaces are diverse, merely that it is most appropriate for readers themselves to address the issue. The need for the employee to be assertive to secure a deserved performance reward does not map across to literary awards (and where it does map across – for example, contracts – it needs to be directed at publishers). Rather there is a need for a collective discussion about what readers want from their awards, a discussion made harder by authors attempting to take ownership of it.

5) Literature is not a business

Yes, publishing is an industry but literature is an art. From my perspective, speculative fiction increasingly seems to be losing sight of this and we are moving to a situation where reviews and awards are viewed simply as publicity material. Worse, at any sign of push back to this cultural shift, authors play the victim. Slowly it is becoming the new norm for readers and authors alike.

I find it very sad. I don’t want to live in a world where books are the same as toothbrushes and readers are just consumers. I want awards to be about readers recognising and discussing exceptional work. At its best, eligibility posts would be irrelevant to this process since authors are uniquely poorly placed to assess the quality of their own work. But the ubiquity of such posts and their vociferous defence means they become actively harmful.

So I would like authors to be honest. If, on the one hand, you think your story is one of the six best published last year then say so. If, on the other hand, you don’t think your story is that good but, for what ever reason, you still want the kudos of an award then say that. If you can’t or won’t say either, perhaps you shouldn’t say anything at all. Or, even better, do what readers do: talk about someone else’s work.

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Written by Martin

13 January 2014 at 18:28

Posted in awards, sf

16 Responses

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  1. […] that “speculative fiction has always had a very permeable barrier between fan and pro” (as Martin Lewis does in his post on the topic)  is not only understating the case, but describes the dynamic in a way that does nothing to […]

  2. As with the previous post, thank you for writing this. (I would’ve been too afraid of the internet falling on my head!) (Although apparently only men complain about this issue, so, y’know.)

    I sympathise with the authors’/pros’ dilemma; writing looks from the outside to be an enormously insecure occupation, so I can understand the impulse to try everything you can to exercise some control over your career (particularly when the playing-field is clearly not level). And when online arguments leave me feeling upset by and alienated from the sf community, I can take a few weeks’ or even a few months’ break without my career suffering (quite the opposite…); they can’t, or feel they can’t, so it’s not hard to see why debates like this get a lot of pushback from pros.

    But: I just don’t understand how you go from “Big-name authors do well at awards because they have much bigger followings” to “Everyone should announce their eligibility because social justice!” In the end, the big-name author’s megaphone is still bigger than yours; playing within the system reinforces the system (which is always and inevitably built to favour those with the clout, and the time, and the means, to make themselves heard online), it doesn’t solve the problem.

    Much more appealing (to me, at least, although my only stake in this is as a reader, not as a potential nominee) is the idea I’ve seen floated by a few people now (coffeeandink and Jared, and at least one other): that of centralising the eligibility announcements in so-to-speak neutral territory, like a crowd-sourced wiki, or similar. That would surely help offset the disadvantages to those individuals with less of a social media presence or household name, and those groups whose work is historically under-represented in conversations about awards. It would also make it much easier for people nominating to take the information on board if it was all available in one place – less noise, more signal.

    Plus, never forgetting: talking about work you’ve liked, as a reader. (Rachel Swirsky is one of the best for this, IIRC: her posts on short fiction have given me so many excellent recommendations over the years.)

    Or we could just shrug and say: popular vote award goes to stuff that’s popular. Film at 11. ;-)

    Nic

    14 January 2014 at 16:09

  3. This post is so blindingly ignorant I’d rather read 100 eligibility posts.

    Lobbying has a specific meaning. Lobbying is attempting to influence government. Awards are not government. Readers are not government. Your entire post draws a comparison that doesn’t stand up to even basic scrutiny by comparing posting a list of eligible works to trying to make time with elected officials.

    Are authors who send the awarding organization their eligible works for an organization-wide eligibility list also the objects of your scorn? Or just ones who use their own spaces? Because some organizations have maintained such lists for years – but it’s a specific person, a woman of color at that, that you’re attacking, not, say, the whole Science Fiction Poetry Association.

    Awards eligibility lists, standing alone, are just that: “I published these things in the relevant period.” I am a reader. I find these lists helpful. My brain does not automatically register whether the story or poem I read in March was new, published the previous year before I found it, or was a reprint when I read it and thus ineligible. A few years ago two of the six finalists for the Rhysling award had to be thrown out because the winner in one category and second place in another were ineligible works. Obviously it’s helpful to more than one person to know “I am nominating this and it is in fact eligible so my nomination will not be wasted.”

    I like knowing what’s eligible. I like reading the works of marginalized people that I may have overlooked during the year. I don’t understand your sneering distaste for people summarizing their bibliography to assist people assessing the potential nominees for an award. Go after the people explicitly gaming the system by funding votes, not the people who *gasp* think their readers might want to know whether a work was a novella or a novelette or which poems were new in the preceding year. Only the former are doing anything to harm the integrity of the awards process.

    Elizabeth McClellan (@popelizbet)

    14 January 2014 at 17:03

  4. Nic: Much more appealing is the idea I’ve seen floated by a few people now: that of centralising the eligibility announcements in so-to-speak neutral territory, like a crowd-sourced wiki, or similar.

    That definitely has potential. The John W. Campbell Award eligibility page is extremely useful because, well, who the hell can keep track of the eligibility for that? It does have particularly complicated eligibility criteria and a relatively modest pool of nominees though. Keeping both the neutrality and utility might be harder for a broader category. It’ll be interesting to see what we can do with this idea but my hunch is that encouraging communities around recommendations rather than eligibity will be both easier and more helpful.

    Elizabeth: Lobbying has a specific meaning. Lobbying is attempting to influence government.

    It can mean that. It can also mean more generally to attempt to influence an outcome. So one meaning is completely unconnected to what I wrote and the other is directly relevent. Guess which meaning I was using?

    Given this and your characterisation of my post as an attack on a woman of colour, I find it hard to believe you are discussing the issue in good faith. However, I will pick up on one thing you say: “I don’t understand your sneering distaste for people summarizing their bibliography.” Has anyone ever complained about an author having a comprehensive, up to date bibliography on their website? No. Would this provide exactly the same benefit to readers as eligibility posts are said to have? Yes.

    Martin

    14 January 2014 at 19:16

  5. @popelizbet:

    “Are authors who send the awarding organization their eligible works for an organization-wide eligibility list also the objects of your scorn?”

    I can’t speak for Martin here, but for my part no, absolutely not. The SF Poetry Association list you describe sounds like exactly the sort of thing I, certainly, would like to see more of in the field: a centralised list (so that I can find all the information I need re. eligibility in one place, rather than having to remember which author’s blogs/sites I need to check), on ‘neutral’ ground (so that the size of an author’s fanbase has much less bearing on whether or not I hear about the eligibility).

    I’d love to see this. In terms of furthering conversation about a wide range of genre voices, it seems to me much more useful than individual authors tweeting or blogging about their own eligibility. (This may be a reflection of the way I interact with the sf community online, though. I tend to be on the internet in concentrated, irregular bursts, so I tend to miss a lot of what gets said on twitter – which I log into perhaps once or twice a week, depending on work – and elsewhere. I need aggregators :-))

    Because I’m somewhat obsessive-compulsive, I do keep lists of what I’ve read in a year, which helps with keeping track when it comes to awards nomination time. But annotated recommendation lists, like Rachel Swirsky’s as mentioned above, really help with pointing me towards what I haven’t read it. Again, individual authors posting about their own eligibility doesn’t really do this for me; when I’ve got a week until a nomination deadline I want the filters of others’ recommendations to help me prioritise what to read first. So I also find it really helpful when people post their draft Hugo ballots. I think a wider spread of this practice, in combination with a large aggregator site simply listing what’s eligible so I can get an at-a-glance sense of what’s being left out of the consensus, would be so useful.

    “it’s a specific person, a woman of color at that, that you’re attacking”

    This seems to me unfair. Martin’s post is no more an attack on Amal El-Mohtar personally than Amal’s post was on Adam Roberts; both are making substantive points in (strongly-worded) disagreement with others’ arguments, not attacking individuals.

    Nic

    14 January 2014 at 21:09

  6. I guess the problem is one of perception. People are going to assume traditional publishers – for whom literature really is a business – won’t be coy about lobbying on behalf of their authors in order to get some revenue back from their investment, or getting authors in their stable to lobby for each other. So why not lobby on your own behalf? I’m sure there are plenty of authors who genuinely believe that their work is better than the mainstream nominees and that their problem is simply one of discoverability. How does one prove otherwise? How does one prove that votes garnered through lobbying are tainted? What if those who vote for your work genuinely believe it deserves to be nominated?

    Aonghus Fallon

    15 January 2014 at 11:03

  7. Nic: But annotated recommendation lists, like Rachel Swirsky’s as mentioned above, really help with pointing me towards what I haven’t read it.

    Swirsky is very much a good thing and her recommendation lists are hugely helpful. I also think this discussion I’ve been having with her is probably most fruitful one I’ve seen in terms of bridging the divide between those for and those against. Too often people seem to find it expedient to talk at cross-purposes.

    Aonghus: People are going to assume traditional publishers – for whom literature really is a business – won’t be coy about lobbying on behalf of their authors in order to get some revenue back from their investment, or getting authors in their stable to lobby for each other.

    I’m not sure people are going to assume that. Is that really a widely held belief? And, if it is, is there any evidence it is based in fact?

    But anyway, if you think lobbying is widespread, that your work is better than that which appears on shortlists and that you should lobby to get your own, better work on the shortlist, go ahead and say so. That is my challenge to authors at the end of my post: be honest.

    Martin

    15 January 2014 at 11:14

  8. Well the nature of an assumption is that it isn’t based on fact, but on supposition! And at the end of the day –

    (1) Publishers sell a product.
    (2) They will try to promote the product.
    (3) Awards are a means of promoting a product.

    I’m being generous when I classify these as assumptions. Most people would think they were self-evident. Crucially, they collectively provide a motive for publishers to lobby on behalf of their authors. The real question is – why would anyone think otherwise?

    Aonghus Fallon

    15 January 2014 at 12:03

  9. There is certainly a motive for publishers to lobby on behalf of their authors for awards. But there is also strong (though perhaps diminishing) social pressure in the opposite direction (particularly for the sort of voting for each other pact you suggest). They might collectively lobby their list but indivual titles? Do publisher do those “for your consideration” ads that producers use to lobby for Oscars?

    In terms of your argument though, I think the important question is not whether publisher lobby (which I don’t see them doing) than if people perceive them to be lobbying (which I don’t see either). So I’m not sure whether this notional perception can explain the rise of eligibility posts from indivudal authors seeking to counter-act it. More likely, I think, is that this has snowballed from individual authors – that a couple of authors right out on the far end of the self-promotion spectrum did it, that a few others copied them unitl the behaviour became widespread and normalised.

    Martin

    15 January 2014 at 12:30

  10. “More likely, I think, is that this has snowballed from individual authors – that a couple of authors right out on the far end of the self-promotion spectrum did it, that a few others copied them unitl the behaviour became widespread and normalised.”

    Yeah, I think this is perfectly possible.

    Aonghus Fallon

    15 January 2014 at 13:29

  11. […] Why I Think Author Eligibility Posts Are Selfish, Destructive And Counter-Productive Of course you do, dude. Of course you do. […]

  12. […] a similar note, Martin Lewis at Everything Nice explains in great detail why he considers awards eligibility posts s…. The post is a bit of a mess, but apparently awards eligiblity posts disenfranchise readers (How? […]

  13. […] course, awards season means not just this but actually talking about good stuff. I am a Hugo voter this year and I’m planning to post […]

  14. […] reviews, his venomous trawls through celebrated short fiction anthologies and his willingness to publically criticise popular fans and authors when they misbehave or talk total rubbish. The fact that Martin does all […]

  15. […] the shortlist because of concerted mutual lobbying. This is a pretty obvious outcome of fan culture endorsing award lobbying so you can’t then turn around and complain that the wrong people were more successful at […]

  16. […] Why I Think Author Eligibility Posts Are Selfish, Destructive And Counter-Productive – Talking awards. Negative. (New […]

    Six | Everything Is Nice

    31 October 2014 at 08:47


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