Don’t Vote For Me
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.
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.