No Cheers, No Gowns, No Skiffy Paper Crowns (But Thanks Anyway)
2015 was the closest I came to shuttering this blog and hanging up my shingle in quite some time. Last year saw the death of many fine blogs and the most frequent reason given seems to have been overwhelming indifference to whatever it was they had to say. I don’t have this problem: I publish stuff online because I enjoy the process of structuring my thoughts, shaping my prose and clicking ‘send’ before moving on to the next project. I have no problem with not being read, but I evidently have a problem with being appreciated.
Early last year, one of my pieces was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association’s award for best non-fiction. I haven’t really mentioned or acknowledged this until now as I found the entire experience profoundly unsettling.
When I received word that my piece had been nominated, my first instinct was to decline the nomination. I’m not a very competitive person and the last time I was up for ‘winning’ something it was a prize at school and I found the whole thing rather embarrassing. I told my wife that I was planning on turning the nomination down and she pointed out that people had obviously wanted to recognise my output and that I would probably wind up regretting the decision if I turned the nomination down. I can see why she made those arguments and I can sort of see why I listened to them, but I think that first impulse was probably the right one.
The initial sources of anxiety were the mundane practicalities of actually receiving the award as a physical object, should I happen to wind up winning. The BSFA’s award admin explained that the BSFA could receive the award on my behalf and I stupidly waved this possibility away… I could attend an Eastercon! I could attend an Eastercon. I could… suddenly remember that I find talking to strangers incredibly tiring and conventions to be a truly unique combination of boring and intimidating.
What I should have done at this point was re-contact the awards admin and explain that having someone receive the award on my behalf would be lovely-thank-you but rather than behaving like a normal human being, I got worried. The worry only increased when I realised that I didn’t know anyone who was going to be attending that year’s Eastercon. Well, I did… but not well enough to ask them to receive an award on my behalf, which is a big ask. Not ‘Can you pick me up from the airport?’-big or even ‘Guess who’s moving to a new flat up seventeen flights of stairs!’-big but ‘Can you help me dispose of the body’-big.
Had I not been up against a thoroughly excellent piece of fan-writing, a great collection of critical essays, a NASA employee and wonderful critic writing about one of my favourite writers and an eminence grise of British genre criticism, I might actually have had some sort of panic attack but I hunkered down, kept my mouth shut and happily finished dead last in the final vote.
Unfortunately, the anxiety did not end there as I quickly became worried about the significance of my nomination. Setting aside the maelstrom of social anxiety unleashed by what should have been a ‘nice thing’, I really struggled to reconcile my appearance on the ballot with what I understood to be my position relative to the British science fiction scene.
Six or seven years ago I would have delighted in the nomination, endured Eastercon, and earnestly hoped for victory. However, since then, I have retreated from regular genre reviewing, stopped contributing to online publications, published a series of critical pieces about genre culture, disentangled myself from most genre-related conversations and generally managed to insult, anger, disappoint or alienate most of the people with whom I’ve had regular contact in genre culture. Why nominate me for an award now, why not seven years ago when I was still devoted to all of this? Why not one year ago when I was engaging with fan history and looking into the discourse surrounding genre institutions? Why nominate an absurdly long and cynical rant when the bulk of my Future Interrupted output had been more positive, better reasoned, and better expressed? Was it some kind of weird going-away present? Had I been unwittingly adopted by some unseen UK equivalent of the Sad Puppies? What about the people who have served the genre community for years without any hint of recognition? What about the people who were, are, and always will be better at this type of stuff than I am? Why me?
In truth, it was never about me. The reasons for my nomination were far more mundane than those slithering around the inside of my skull: The pool of people who nominate for the BSFA non-fiction award is famously tiny and last year’s most significant piece of non-fiction – Adam Roberts’ insanely brilliant essay collection Sibilant Fricative – had been excluded from the ballot on questionable grounds. Small nominating pool + The elimination of one big fish + A general shrinkage in the number of people swimming the waters of British genre criticism meant that my piece wound up sneaking onto the ballot.
2015 is over and 2016 promises yet more battles in the endless war for social validation. As the cycle begins anew, my experiences have left me completely and utterly baffled as to why people would go out of their way to drum up support in the hope of securing nominations. I understand neither the yearning for awards nor the urge to denounce and decry those who would question my worthiness. I can no more understand this mind-set than I can wag my tail… I don’t even know what mental levers people operate in order to summon those urges and feel that dopamine rush.
Rather than encouraging me to turn my attention back to science fiction and maybe get back into the habit of reviewing the books I read, my nomination left me completely devoid of motivation, reluctant to say much of anything in public and hyper-aware of my own tenuous relationship to the culture and institutions that had produced the nomination. I eventually worked through these feelings, but I found it really interesting that while some people have wound up becoming so invested in the awards process that they experience negative feelings upon failing to secure nomination, I came very close to quitting criticism because I had accidentally been nominated for an award. Two psychological principles helped me to make sense of my experience:
I – Back in the late-1960s and early-1970s, a team of psychologists working out of Stanford University decided to study people’s willingness to defer gratification. They tested it by presenting children with a marshmallow, cookie or other-sweet-thing and told them not to eat it. If the child managed to refrain from eating the treat for fifteen minutes then the experimenters would let them eat not only the first marshmallow but the second one as well. These studies proved hugely influential and psychologists spent decades tying the ability to defer gratification not only to greater success at school and work, but also to the ability to manage one’s weight and retain a normal BMI. However, a 2012 study performed by the University of Rochester suggested that the original studies might not have been testing a willingness to defer gratification so much as a willingness to trust grown-ups. When experimenters noticeably broke promises to children before presenting them with their first present, children were significantly less likely to wait around on the off chance of receiving a second. As the abstract for the more recent study puts it:
Thus, wait-times on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks may not only reflect differences in self-control abilities, but also beliefs about the stability of the world.
In other words, if you grow up with shitty parents and a chaotic home life, then you’re less likely to wait for the second marshmallow but you’re also less likely to play ball with the institutions that will govern your life. Why put in the work at school when there’s no guarantee that it’ll pay off? Why go the extra mile at work when the credit for your work could just as easily be claimed by someone else? Why forego eating that second slice of cake when chances are that you won’t see another one for ages? My experience of rewards has always been that their allocation is arbitrary and their deployment linked to something profoundly unpleasant like a trip to the dentist, an afternoon spent going out of my mind with boredom in the home of a parent’s friend, or an attempt to purchase good will after an excess of selfishness, anger and/or alcohol. Genre culture is a profoundly middle-class milieu and it is easy to imagine that bookish, middle-class adults were once bookish, middle-class children whose parents used presents and praise to encourage rather than purchase forgiveness.
II –In the early 1970s, Edward L. Deci brought together a group of subjects with an interest in puzzle-solving. Half the group were not paid at all while the other half were paid only on the second of three days. What researchers found was that, despite professing an interest in puzzle-solving, the paid group only worked through their break times on the days when they were being paid. Psychologists explain this effect by suggesting that the introduction of money shifted the subjects from a mind-set in which they relied upon their intrinsic love of the activity to a mind-set in which they were motivated purely by extrinsic means. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the overjustification effect:
The overjustification effect occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task. The overall effect of offering a reward for a previously unrewarded activity is a shift to extrinsic motivation and the undermining of pre-existing intrinsic motivation. Once rewards are no longer offered, interest in the activity is lost; prior intrinsic motivation does not return, and extrinsic rewards must be continuously offered as motivation to sustain the activity.
I’ve long suspected that a similar effect is at the root of the madness that currently surrounds the Hugo Awards. People start writing as a hobby and soon the hobby starts to feel like a job. Science fiction writing is an activity that comes with many of the trappings of full-time employment: The hours spent chained to a desktop PC, attending conferences, networking and the perpetual need for self-promotion. However, while writing science fiction stories may feel like a job, it seldom pays as much as even the shittiest of day jobs. Bind the performance of professionalism to the lack of pay and you have a perfect mechanism for replacing intrinsic motivations with extrinsic ones. However, unlike the students who could take their lunch breaks and refuse to do puzzles, people who have built their identities around certain activities are reluctant to step away once everything turns to shit. Experimental subjects who were locked into a lab and forced to solve puzzles forever might well start to demand proper pay and when that pay was not forthcoming, they might well start to obsess over who gets the desk near the window, who gets to try the new games first, and who gets fitted for a paper crown amidst the applause of uncomfortably dressed people who are already thinking about how they’re going to get back to the airport.
I don’t try to make money from the stuff I write and I don’t try to elicit praise either. A decade on the internet has taught me that the only rewards you are certain to receive are indifference and hostility. I write for myself and on my own terms because intrinsic motivations are the only ones I trust. All it took was a statistical variation in the operations of a venerable social machine and my connection to why I write was completely derailed.
Obviously, none of this was anyone’s fault… Genre culture has a completely uncritical attitude to awards and (until last summer’s Hugo awards) it was vanishingly rare for anyone to turn down a nomination for reasons other than wanting less successful writers to have their moment in the sun. Genre culture expresses itself through the language of awards and the BSFA membership’s message of appreciation was received and (with some difficulty) processed. I still don’t know what to make of my nomination — whether it mattered or whether it was an accident — but I’m always grateful for the opportunity to learn something new about myself… even if it is confirmation that while I’m always happy to hear that someone liked my stuff, I really do write for myself.