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Don’t Vote For Me

January 11, 2017

The New Year has imposed itself as such things are prone to do… The movement from one calendar year to another may be abstract and arbitrary but our lives are shaped by institutions and institutions exist to make the arbitrary and abstract appear concrete and unavoidable.

Like most cultural scenes, the world of literary science fiction is shaped by its institutions. Genre institutions can do any number of things but they are most evident when they are publicising, administering, and awarding prizes for what the charitably-inclined might refer to as ‘cultural excellence’. A year in genre culture is a year in genre awards and a year in genre awards is a year spent actively campaigning for what little validation can be extracted from a cultural space where the provision of content massively outstrips the desire to engage with said content.

What this means in practice is that every year begins with an ungainly scramble for visibility as hundreds of aspiring authors try to get out their personal votes. These visibility campaigns may start on a bashful and self-deprecating note but the pitch soon rises, growing steadily more grasping and unpleasant until finally reaching the level of demented screaming in the run-up to the annual distribution of fish heads known as the Hugo Awards, at which point the voices collapse either into silence or disgruntled muttering before beginning afresh the following December.

The cycle begins in earnest with the opening of the Hugo nominations period but the year’s first tangible chunk of ego-boo is usually the shortlist for the awards handed out by the British Science Fiction Association. For reasons that doubtless made sense to someone at the time, the process for generating BSFA award shortlists has now changed meaning that people are now expected to nominate for a longlist as well as a shortlist. My piece on the history of the New Weird has made it onto the non-fiction longlist and while I am grateful to everyone who took the time to nominate my piece, I would be even more grateful if it progressed no further as I have decided to decline any and all future award nominations.


 

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There are a number of reasons why I have decided to opt out of the awards cycle but most of them boil down to the fact that I have no desire to be elevated above my fellow fans.

One of the things that originally drew me to genre culture was its egalitarian ethos. Unlike most cultural spheres in which the ‘talent’ was kept safely insulated from the great unwashed, genre culture claimed that all fans were created equal and so maintained no obvious structural divides between those who were paid to produce genre culture and those who paid to consume it.

Obviously, much of genre culture’s egalitarianism has turned out to be a set of self-aggrandising fantasies deployed as a distraction from genre culture’s systemic problems with racism and sexism. Even setting those questions aside, the well-connected of genre culture have always stuck together and worked behind the scenes to engineer better treatment for themselves than that meted out to the people who lack social capital or professional connections. To be honest, the only real change between now and the period when I first started engaging with fandom is that many of fandom’s hidden pathways to prominence have been made public in the name of inclusivity. Thus, rather than a culture that frowns upon open campaigning and turns a blind-eye to the fact that the same old names keep turning up on award shortlists, we have a culture where everyone actively campaigns for awards and turns a blind-eye to the fact that the same old names keep turning up on award shortlists.

Rather than undermining nepotism and influence-peddling, forcing genre culture’s shadier practices out into the open has served primarily to legitimise those practices as well as the individualistic ethics that are used to justify their deployment.

Never the laid-back utopia dreamed up by First Fandom, genre culture has slowly been transformed into a howling snake-pit of ambition, deceit, and betrayal: Fandom is a way of life that involves using a variety of assumed names to smear, denounce, and torment your commercial rivals. Fandom is a way of life that involves sucking up to the well-connected in order to secure positions of responsibility that are then used to exert pressure on the powerless. Fandom is a way of life that expects the great unwashed to foot the bill for institutions that serve primarily to further elevate the already well-connected and well-liked. In fandom we congratulate our friends whilst wishing death and dismemberment upon our enemies.

Symbolism is all about context and while different awards are always going to mean different things to different people but I cannot reconcile my understanding of my place in the grand scheme of things with benefiting from a process that elevates the few at the expense of the many. I have no desire to be elevated above anyone else and so I intend to decline all future nominations.

 

***

 

I remember back in the mid-2000s when the BSFA was struggling to pull together enough nominations to produce a working shortlist for its non-fiction award. At the time, people discussed the possibility of turning the category into a semi-juried award as a way of solving the problem. I remember being quite intrigued by the idea at the time but someone (I forget who) pointed out that the only people qualified to serve as jurors were the people who tended to wind up on the shortlist anyway and so it would be impossible for the award to avoid becoming an enormous institutionalised conflict of interest.

At the time this made me incredibly sad.

Back then, I not only took my critical output quite seriously, I also made a special effort to read around the subject and deepen my theoretical understanding of the field. Back then, I saw myself not only as a potential award-nominee but also as a potential juror and yet here was someone claiming that I did not and could not exist. In fairness… if you actually look at the kind of shortlists the BSFA non-fiction award was generating back in the mid-2000s, it’s pretty clear that genre criticism was already a mostly-closed shop as the only shortlists the award was capable of producing were ones featuring the same small coterie of people (many of whom continue to appear on shortlists).

The reason I still think back to that exchange is that time has evidently been kind and I have started to find my way onto short- and longlists simply by virtue of having stuck around. It’s not just that the pool of potential nominees was pretty small to begin with, it’s that the last few years have seen a sizeable chunk of genre commentators lose their nerves, shutter their blogs, move into professional roles, or generally decide to devote their spare time to spaces less viscerally unpleasant than those remaining to genre culture.

Simply stated, I would not have turned up on two successive shortlists and one longlist if the world of genre commentary was working as it should… Not only is the world filled with people who have more interesting ideas about more interesting subjects, they also tend to have opinions that inspire those around them and encourage them to come up with opinions of their own. I enjoy the work I do and intend to continue doing it but it isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, which is what good criticism and commentary should do.

I have stuck around long enough to become a part of the furniture and if I must be furniture then I would rather that someone stuck me in an attic. Frankly, the place is too small for a sodding great dining table and people need the room to dance.

Don’t nominate me, nominate people who would not only value the encouragement but also use their moment in the Sun to shine a light on fresh ideas and perspectives. If you’re shortlisting people simply because they’ve been cluttering up the place for the best part of a decade then you’re shortlisting the wrong people. Please don’t vote for me, vote for someone else. Ideally someone I’ve never heard of before.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2017 12:10 pm

    Yes, and no.

    Like you, I am conflicted about awards. It is nice to be recognised, it is sad when good work goes unrecognised. I like the fact that awards are one of our best ways of recognising what is deserving of recognition. I hate the fact that awards too often go to the undeserving.

    I just don’t think that unilaterally withdrawing from the process like this is the right answer. I remember a time when a certain famous artist, let us say X, declared that his work would no longer be eligible for the Hugo Award; for the next few years the winner of the Best Artist Hugo was commonly known as the Best Artist after X. In those circumstances withdrawing from the Hugo looked like an act of supreme arrogance.

    You may not intend your withdrawal to look like hubris, but you have no control over how it is seen by others.

    The other way that a withdrawal from the award process can appear is as a form of self doubt: I don’t really think my work is good enough for an award, therefore to spare myself the humiliation of not making the shortlist I shall pre-emptively withdraw it.

    Again, that is almost certainly not your intention, but it is how it can appear.

    For the record, I also have a piece on the BSFA long list. Also for the record, I do not for a moment expect that it will progress to the shortlist. But I have no intention of withdrawing it, because I do not believe that it is my decision to make. Once a piece is published it is out of my hands. I have no control over, I have no wish to control, how it is read or how it is regarded. Every time I have been shortlisted for an award it has come as a surprise, that is probably as it should be, but I have never considered withdrawing a work from consideration. It is not my place to say what other people can and cannot consider worthy of an award, and by withdrawing a work I would be actively interfering in their decision. In the end I feel I have no say in the matter.

    I will not campaign for the award, I will not urge or beg people to vote for it. It is very possible that I won’t even vote myself. And if I did vote, I would be inclined to vote against all those who do actively campaign. But that is all beside the point. The fate of that piece of work is now out of my hands, and I prefer to keep it that way. I would be pleased if I won, because I was pleased with what I wrote; but I would not be disappointed if I lost.

    None of which is to say that awards are or are not a good thing in and of themselves. It is not to support awards in abstract.

    Yes, in many cases your criticisms of awards are absolutely valid. I support those criticisms, I have often made the same arguments myself. But not in every case. Juried awards would be a perfect example of the elite rewarding the elite, as you suggest. Yet there are juried awards that I have some involvement with (I would not presume to speak for any other) that have clearly not supported the elite. The Campbell Memorial Award last year went to a book that, so far as I could tell, hadn’t even been reviewed in the sf press. Pretty much the same happened with the Clarke Award when it went to Jeff Noon’s Vurt. Elites can recognise the talented unknown.

    As for popular vote awards, we all know of attempts to manipulate them, usually without any success in the final ballot. We all know of authors who logroll shamelessly at nomination time (it is distasteful to us, I suspect it is distasteful to many of them though it is probably a consequence of publishers offloading much of the responsibility for publicity onto the author), but I have yet to see convincing evidence that it makes a significant difference in terms of what gets onto the ballot.

    Awards are flawed and should be reformed. In fact, since there are far too many of them, I think a lot of awards should be scrapped. But I don’t think I would be prepared to do without them completely, at least not without some replacement.You make a great thing of egalitarianism, but do you mean by that that there should be no way to recognise and encourage the good, the talented, the quality? I would love to find a way of doing that which is not as deformed and as liable to gross error as awards, but until I can work out what that would be, I prefer to advocate reform of what we’ve got rather than turning my back on it and just walking away.

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  2. January 11, 2017 2:29 pm

    Hi Paul,

    I appreciate both the intent and the gesture associated with my nominations. Genre culture has precisely zero critical distance from the process of singling people out for praise and so I recognise and appreciate the urge to ‘do something nice’ for me.

    The problem is that I am just not comfortable with it. I wasn’t comfortable the first time it happened, I wasn’t comfortable the second time it happened, and I’m really not comfortable now. Some people crave and value the recognition but I simply do not.

    You say that self-doubt may well have played a role in my decision to pre-emptively withdraw and I suspect you’re probably right. I’ve learned to live with being ignored and getting negative feedback by acquiring an indifference to what genre culture thinks of me. I didn’t quit when authors came after me, I didn’t quit when the angry Rotarians of the WSFS came after me, and I didn’t quit when people started accusing me of things that made absolutely no sense either in context or without. I learned to protect myself from the negative feedback associated with writing about genre-related stuff and one side-effect of that is that I tend to take positive feedback with a similarly-sized pinch of salt. Doubtless, if I possessed more ego, vanity, or self-confidence then these kinds of psychological contortions wouldn’t be necessary and I could happily enjoy an award nomination but that’s not who I am and that’s not how I feel.

    You also say that a pre-emptive withdrawal from future consideration could be viewed as hubris. Well… so what? As you say, people are going to think what they want and if the recent history of genre culture teaches us anything it’s that reason, evidence, and fair-mindedness pose no barriers when it comes to people getting publicly dragged. People who want to think I’m an arrogant piece of shit are probably going to do so regardless of whether or not I’m on a shortlist and, given how being on a shortlist makes me feel, I’d rather not be thought a piece of shit AND have to endure the waves of anxiety that accompany the nomination process.

    That being said, if people did want to understand my motivations they ask me, read this comment, or read the expression of dyspeptic ambivalence I produced this time last year:

    https://ruthlessculture.com/2016/01/01/no-cheers-no-gowns-no-skiffy-paper-crowns-but-thanks-anyway/

    The whole process makes me feel incredibly anxious and uncomfortable and I would rather not participate. Others are free to do as they like but I don’t want to feel the way I feel when I get nominated for awards.

    Are you sure it was an artist associated with the argument that withdrawing oneself from consideration harmed awards as it sounds to me a lot like the David Langford defence… Problem with that argument is that it only held water because Langford was the only universally-known person writing for fanzines. I don’t buy the defence at all and think that his refusal to step down did real harm to the Best Fan-Writer Hugo but even if I did think that the defence worked, it wouldn’t apply in this case as nobody would notice my absence from an award ballot and nobody would leap to the conclusion that an award was somehow less legitimate as a result of my absence. That really would be hubris.

    My decision to pre-emptively withdraw from future awards consideration is purely about how I feel. I don’t like what awards have come to symbolise, I don’t like the culture of self-advancement that surrounds them, and I don’t feel comfortable participating in that process. Other people — yourself included — are going to feel differently about the process and are *obviously* free to do as they wish. I’m not comfortable with the process, everyone else’s mileage is going to vary and reasonable people should be able to disagree.

    I have a good deal of time for juried awards. I think they generally do a good job of cutting through the popularity contests and status wars. I also think that handing awards out to authors is a fairly useful thing as it a) drives discussion towards certain books and b) serves a professional purpose in that award-winning authors can negotiate better contracts for more ambitious books etc etc etc.

    This being said, I am really not sure what purpose a popular non-fiction award is supposed to serve at this point… You know as well as I do that — unlike fiction — there are no tangible rungs on the ladder for genre non-fiction. I guess a professional academic might be able to parlay a genre non-fiction award into a pay raise or a deal with a small-press publisher but I don’t think non-fiction awards enable capitalist advancement for non-fiction writers in the way that they do for writers of fiction. Given that there’s no greasy poll to climb, I’m not sure why we’ve created an institution that values the higher ground. One reason I’m not comfortable being placed in any sort of critical hierarchy is that criticism is about a conversation between different people. You don’t promote the art of conversation by suggesting that some people are particularly worthy of your attention.

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  3. January 13, 2017 6:55 pm

    Congratulations on another fine essay–or rather two, as I also have in mind “Nothing Beside Remains.”

    I respect your position here regarding awards for science fiction criticism (“cultural space where the provision of content massively outstrips the desire to engage with said content”–too true), and understand your disagreement with its questionable rationale, and many failings in realizing even that. Still, isn’t criticism always suggesting that some are particularly worthy of attention–often just by pointedly citing some critic?

    Incidentally, I must admit that I hadn’t got around to your article on the history of the New Weird until recently–in fact, until you wrote this post, so for me, at least, it served a useful purpose, as the piece struck me as worthwhile, even while I disagreed with a good deal of it (e.g. I’ve long inclined to the view that there are genuine, deep cultural changes working against SF–went over all that again recently in The End of Science Fiction?), and was depressed by much of the rest (e.g. your meticulous recounting of old Internet debates confirming my fears about how many removes the field’s concerns have become from engagement with the contemporary world). This thread is probably an inappropriate place to go into all that in any depth (it’s about the blog post, and anyway, you’ve already seen a lot of what I have to say about these matters), but there were three points in it on which I would appreciate some clarification, because I suspect they are true, and because I’m curious to find out more about them.

    1. Your statement that “contemporary estimates suggest that Fantasy titles now outsell Science Fiction titles by a factor of somewhere between three and ten.” Which estimates?
    2. Your mention of “an increasingly prominent class divide between professionals and fans”–class being almost never mentioned in these discussions, important as it is. In what terms did you understand this side of the issue?
    3. Your remark on the predominance of apologist and spin-doctor in the conversation, the tendency to legitimize accomplished facts rather than really work things out. Clearly they’re not altogether new–but was it always this bad? And if it has got worse, does that reflect a decadence within the field?

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  4. January 15, 2017 2:36 pm

    Hi Nader :-)

    Sorry about the slow response.

    Sure… a lot of criticism is about evaluative judgements but I don’t think it follows from that that people should be singled out in the way that awards tend to do. In an ideal world, the basic unit of criticism would be the conversation rather than the monologue and I feel slightly silly being singled out for my monologues when they tend not to spark much conversation. There are people out there writing posts that get people thinking and talking… that’s what good criticism must be about. Particularly at a time when the genre community is seeing less and less value in critics and reviewers.

    I much enjoyed the End of Science Fiction BTW — Your output over the years has always been really thought-provoking and necessary.

    Regarding your three questions:

    1 – I admit… those numbers are back-of-a-fag-packet. I read a load of interviews with publishers and they would generally throw 3 or 5 to 1 around as the ratio of fantasy to SF. Then I happened to mention that number on twitter and someone in publishing mentioned that it was (at times) closer to 10-to-1.

    Having done a bit of digging… the closest I can get to hard numbers are a PW piece from a little while ago and that suggests the number was closer to 2-to-1 in 2014 and that’s without counting YA at all.

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/65387-the-hot-and-cold-categories-of-2014.html

    In truth, I suspect the number varies quite a bit with fantasy systematically outselling SF since at least the 1970s. I can imagine the point where genre imprints were producing literary SF while grimdark epic fantasy and HArry Potter were flying off the shelves would have put the numbers closer to 10 to 1 but it’s difficult to say. Happy to asterix those numbers.

    2 – I was waiting for someone to pull me up on the class thing as I’m still working these ideas over in my own head. In short, I think that ‘fan’ is no longer an attractive identity for people entering the field… they would rather be seen as writers and aspiring professionals. This shift in how people in genre culture see themselves has resulted in people talking about fans and professionals in increasingly different terms.

    You see that difference emerge at times when people express puzzlement about having fans on convention panels but it’s also present in a lot of recent scandals where the (often unspoken) take home was that writers need to be protected from fans. That subtext was present in the case of the worldcon grandee who sexually harassed a female author only for fans to close ranks around him and it was also present in the case of the author who had spent several years writing very hostile reviews under a different assumed name.

    Given that the labels ‘fan’ and ‘author’ represent two quite different identities in genre space and that those two identities have different sets of material interests, I think it makes sense to think of the balance of power between fans and professionals in terms similar to that of a Marxist class dynamic.

    3 – If you’re referring to the stuff from the New Weird piece about how the criticism that tends to get notice is invariably re-active and following the money then I suspect that things have always been this way as a) genre culture has never had much time for independent critics and b) authors who write in this way inevitably do so in order to sell people on their own ideas and approaches to writing. Taken together, these aspects combine to make it almost impossible to start a conversation without there being a flow of money and attention to which one could become attached. Genre culture finds critics useful when it comes to providing narratives to justify existing commercial realities… otherwise we’re just there to sell books :-)

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  5. January 15, 2017 4:43 pm

    Thanks for the kind words about The End of Science Fiction–and my output more generally:)
    And for answering my questions.
    I’ve been thinking more about the class element in authorship myself, and have certainly appreciated your earlier posts about the matter (your response to the Kathleen Hale episode was particularly useful), while I will of course look forward with particular interest to what you write about these matters in the future.

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