“No Award:” The Hugo Awards Part VII – What is a Hugo Nominator to Do?


This is the seventh in a series of articles. For Part I, please see here. For Part II, please see here. For Part III, please see here. For Part IV, please see here. For Part V, please see here. For Part VI, please see here.

The Sad Puppies controversy started because a group of fans were unhappy with the recent nominees, and wanted to propose alternatives. Only an award like the Hugos, where fans can nominate works without having to go through the intermediary winnowing force of a panel of judges, can a group of fans make a focused effort to get their favorites honored with any hope of success.

However, many people connected with the Hugo Awards contend that they consider organized voting groups to be bad form. As noted multiple times, the rancor against the Sad (and Rabid) Puppies has been vocal. In 2015, author Connie Willis lashed out at the Puppies, writing that, “You may have been able to cheat your way onto the ballot. (And don’t talk to me about how this isn’t against the rules – doing anything except nominating the works you personally liked best is cheating in my book.)”

This attitude brings to mind the Simpsons episode “Sky Police,” where Marge and other members of the local church start counting cards at a casino in order to raise funds for the church. As the characters point out, counting cards at blackjack is not illegal, and is not even considered cheating, but since it lessens the influence of chance on the game and improves the odds of the players, the casinos oppose it. Homer is captured by the casino’s employees, and tied up in a back room where the following exchange occurs:

Homer: Are you gonna put my head in a vise?
Casino Employee: We don’t do that – we don’t even have a vise. We just want the money your wife stole from us.
Homer: Stole? How is counting cards stealing?
Casino Employee: Well, it’s not really stealing.
Homer: Is it even cheating?
Casino Employee: No, but it’s just not allowed.
Homer: I don’t get it. Football players can do the quarterback sneak and baseball players can steal bases. Why can’t I just remember which cards have been played?
Casino Employee: I can’t take any more of this guy. Get the vise!
Homer: I knew you had a vise. I knew it. (Grunting in pain.) I knew it. I knew it.

As stated earlier, one of the points of contention between the pro- and anti-Puppy factions is whether or not the Puppies’ voting and nomination strategy was acceptable or not. The high passions over this point have already been addressed, and will be explored further in a future article.

The fact is, trying to get even the most dedicated fans to work together on a major project (like promoting a shared favorite for awards consideration) is comparable to spinning a hundred plates at once without any falling and breaking. As Part V illustrated, the numbers indicate that many of the Sad Puppies voters did not follow the suggested slate exactly – the uneven numbers and some comments on various blogs indicate that some Sad Puppies voters did not include certain items on their nomination ballots, either because they didn’t like one or more of the Sad Puppies’ suggestions or because they preferred something else. Even the fiercest fans of one show may disagree sharply over which episode is the best of the season. Likewise, few large collections of fans are bound to be unanimous on the merits of a particular author or written work.

While the ideal of completely unorganized fans independently nominating their favorite works is often viewed as a pure and organic means of determining the broader fandom’s favorite works, there are certain inherent pitfalls that hold the potential to frustrate certain voters. The fact is that voters get a thrill by seeing their nominations make the final ballot, and someone who may have promoted certain works for years to no avail may decide to back works with broader appeal, if only that person could find out which works have a higher chance of success.

Hugo nominees have the option of declining their nominations. During the Puppies years, some declined nominations were based on a disinclination to be linked with Puppies. Other people might decline nominations because they have been celebrated multiple times in the past, and they wish to give somebody else a chance to have a shot at glory. Such an action may be meant as magnanimous good sportsmanship, but it may also have a souring effect on the fans who backed the withdrawing candidate. When a would-be nominee declines the nod, nominators can justifiably feel frustrated that their vote was essentially thrown away through no fault of their own. Had they known that their intended nominee would withdraw, they could have backed someone who would have happily accepted a nomination. If there were some message board or forum where potential nominees could announce that they would preemptively waive Hugo consideration, that might help (some writers do this on their own social media forums, but such posts can often be easy to miss), although the presumption that one person or work might be a serious contender for a Hugo nomination might rub some people the wrong way, unless the person in question has a track record of being nominated for Hugos.

Two Hugo categories that are very difficult for most Hugo voters to make an informed decision about (and as a result, many Hugo voters refrain from voting in these categories) are the Best Editor Long and Short Form categories. Aside from catching overlooked typos in published manuscripts, the average reader tends to have no idea about just what an editor has done or not done. For the most part, only the authors who work with the editor in question know the influence of the editor on the work, such as making character development suggestions, catching plot holes, noting inadvertent parallels to other works, and the heavy-duty reworking that goes into taking stories and cutting and polishing them into gems. When reading a short story or novel, it’s impossible for a reader/Hugo voter to determine whether an editor completely gutted and rebuilt a narrative, or simply turned a comma into a semicolon and called it a day.

This is one category where a bit of cheerleading and campaigning might be absolutely crucial. If only authors who have first-hand experience working with editors nominated, talented editors who only worked with a very small number of authors would be at a near-insurmountable disadvantage. If authors who worked with the nominated editors (or who wanted to drum up interest in these editors in order to promote their potential nominations), it would help if these authors could take the time to write short pieces explaining exactly what their editors did to make their works the best they could be. The narratives could be gathered and placed in the Hugo reading packet as a means of helping voters who were inclined to cast a vote in these categories to make an informed decision. (I am unaware of efforts like this being included in Hugo reading packets in the past, but if I have missed anything, I would genuinely appreciate a correction in the comments.)

In recent years, several complete seasons of television series have appeared in the “Dramatic Presentation: Long Form” category. In 2012, the complete first season of Game of Thrones won the DP: LF Hugo, with 171 voters nominating it for that category. That year, 71 voters nominated the Game of Thrones episode “Baelor” for the “Dramatic Presentation: Short Form” category, and 60 more did the same for “The Pointy End.” “Fire and Blood,” “Winter is Coming,” and “A Golden Crown” received 49, 31, and 28 respective nominations apiece. The people who voted for Game of Thrones were probably appeased and excited by their show’s nomination and eventual win in the “Long Form” category, but had the voters known that votes for Game of Thrones episodes in the “Short Form” category would be dismissed, they might have picked episodes from other shows for nominations, and that might have substantially changed the final nominations list.

This year, Season 1 of Stranger Things was up for the DP: LF Hugo but did not win. In the future, some fans may nominate under the belief that their preferred series may have a better chance of winning if they place the entire season in the “Long Form” category. Some TV series have at least one “standout” episode that might make the “Short Form” category more palatable, but with more comparatively short seasons being released within a single calendar year (such as the final season of Grimm and the first season of American Gods in 2017), it’s certainly possible that television seasons may soon rival movies in the “Long Form” category, especially those series that have season-long narrative arcs.

Sometimes, Hugo voters write to the Hugo administrators to ask about the eligibility of certain works. Often they get a response with a firm decision, but not always. In one of this year’s Hugo nomination reports, the administrators noted that:

Before nominations closed on 17 March, we were asked about the eligibility of
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
Maresi by Maria Turtschaninof
Humanity’s Future: The Next 25,000 Years by Tom Kando and
Clade by James Bradley.
In each case we made no determination, explaining that specific rulings on eligibility would be made only after the votes in each category had been counted for the final ballot.

The Hugo judges reserve the right to move nomination votes around categories if deemed acceptable. As this year’s Hugo supplementary information noted, numerous works were nominated in the wrong categories (for example, some fiction works were nominated in the incorrect length category), so the nomination ballots were moved around. Based on the Hugo Administrator Decisions, the administrators have put a lot of thought and effort into making sure that the wishes of the nominees have been honored as well as possible, even when certain writings may not have a universally accepted title. Similarly, anyone uncertain as to the length of a fiction work (and unwilling to count tens of thousands of words to make sure) can take comfort in the fact that the Hugo Administrators “will generally move your nominations into the correct category if you have them wrong.”

The “Best Fan Artist” and “Best Fan Writer” Hugo categories can raise some uncomfortable questions. To be eligible in this field, the potential nominee has to create works of art or writing without being paid for them. Some of the “Best Fan Artist” and “Best Fan Writer” winners are professionals who have made significant amounts of money for their work, but they won the award for various pieces for which they received no financial compensation. These days, many professional writers and artists have blogs where they post work that they wrote for free, as do lots of fans who discuss their favorite works or post their fiction without hope of payment. The problem is that sometimes Hugo voters can’t tell who makes money for their work and who doesn’t. There are plenty of websites where writers post essays or stories or artwork, but it’s not always obvious who gets paid for their work and does it for free. Some major news sources don’t pay for work, but since many people aren’t aware of this, many potential nominees may go unrecognized because voters don’t know that they are eligible for the Fan awards. About the only way to be sure is to get in touch with a potential nominee and ask, “So… did you receive any money for that?”

Another issue is that some voters were not aware that certain works are eligible. This year, there was some controversy over the nomination of the movie Hidden Figures in the “Long Form” dramatic category, as it could be considered science fact rather than science fiction, as it is based on real people and true events. The Hugo Administrators addressed this by writing:

The eligibility of Hidden Figures in this category was queried; it was suggested that as “non-fiction,” it belonged rather to Best Related Work. We determined that this is, frankly, ridiculous.

In the first place, Hidden Figures is not a non-fictional documentary, but a dramatized reconstruction of historical events, as have been many other other Best Dramatic Presentation finalists through the years – most recently, two finalists for Short Form in 2014 were about the production of Doctor Who, one of them similarly a dramatized reconstruction of historical events (the other briefly featuring this year’s Hugo Administrator in a crowd scene).

In the second place, even if Hidden Figures had been a non-fictional documentary, it would still have been eligible in this category. A non-fiction finalist won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1970 (the TV coverage of Apollo 11) and there was a non-fiction finalist in Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form as recently as 2012 (The Drink Tank’s Hugo acceptance speech).

We noticed some references to “the Apollo 13 exception,” as if some special allowance had been made in that and other cases. There was and is no special allowance, just implementation of the rules as they are written.

In the light of these pronouncements, it will be interesting to see if science fact will play a larger role in the Dramatic Presentation Hugos in the future. The television miniseries Genius, about the life of Albert Einstein, could be eligible, as might the upcoming movie The Current War, about the historical battle over which electrical system would triumph. One may wonder in the future if an episode of NOVA or some similar informational television series might make it to the ballot in the future.

Indeed, many voters are unaware that not all dramatic presentations have to be filmed. This year, the music album Splendor & Misery by Clipping was nominated in the “Short Form” category. Stage plays and musicals might also be considered, which further widens the potential field of nominees, though the audience for stage performances may be much more limited as opposed to television and film. In 2017, the Broadway musicals Groundhog Day and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could conceivably be placed under consideration in the “Long Form” category.

Not only that, but some programs that are generally classified in other genres may be considered for Hugos. Crime dramas that rely on science to help the detection process (often fictionalized science) could be included. The Saturn Awards, which recognize sci-fi, fantasy, and horror on film and television, awarded CSI their Best Network Television Series Saturn in 2004 (in a tie with Angel). The Hugo website refers to the Saturn Awards as a reference point for valid nominations, so crime dramas featuring science, or alternate history/forensic crime drama/steampunk series like Murdoch Mysteries might also be considered. With the new rule stating that no TV series can produce more than two nominees on the final ballot, it’s possible that many more unexpected or heretofore unrecognized television shows may be recognized in the future, but it all depends if fans draw attention to certain shows or not.

Ultimately, the future of the Hugos and all comparable awards depend on the fans and how they choose to bring their preferred nominees to the attention of their peers. Differences over how to do so have caused serious rifts amongst the Hugo voters and the broader fandom community. In the next article in this series, the prospect of de-escalation of tensions and reconciliation amongst parties in conflict will be addressed.

Coming up in Part Eight of this series– Is Reconciliation Possible?

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