Has the tide turned for fan writers at the Hugos?
At this year’s Hugo Awards, author and blogger Kameron Hurley dominated the fandom categories. First she won Best Fan Writer, before going on to win Best Related Work for her brilliant and widely-shared blog post We Have Always Fought: Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative.
Even in a normal year, this double win would be worth talking about. But this year’s Fan Writer shortlist was interesting in itself, showing a drastic change from the category’s five-decade love affair with a predominantly male demographic of fanzine writers.
Until very recently, a surprising number of nominees still came from print zines that were distributed via mailing list, a medium that peaked before some of this year’s finalists were even born. This sudden recognition of Internet-based writers marks a turning point in who is deemed worthy of a Hugo nomination.
The belated move from print to Internet can partly be explained by the way the Hugos are selected.
Awarded annually at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), the Hugos are shortlisted and then voted on by Worldcon members. And who pays for Worldcon memberships? The obvious answer is sci-fi and fantasy fans, but at least half of the people showing up for the full five days of WorldCon 2014 looked as if they were nearing—or already past—retirement age.
From what I could see, younger fans were more likely to buy day passes, or were skipping WorldCon in favor of conventions that focus more on media fandom than on books and academic panels: DragonCon, Emerald City, and San Diego Comic-Con. So with Worldcon looking increasingly like Oldcon, it’s perhaps not a huge surprise that it took until 2014 for bloggers to receive this level of widespread recognition at the Hugos.
For major categories like Best Novel, the winner tends to reflect the opinion of the community at large, and can be hugely influential for the writer’s career. However, categories like Fan Writer and Fan Artist are left blank on many ballots, either because people don’t recognize the nominees or because they just don’t care.
More than 10,000 people paid for Worldcon memberships this year, but Hugo nominations close in April and the final vote closes in July. You have to be paid up well in advance to have your say. In the end 3,587 people submitted Hugo ballot, but less than half voted in the Fan Writer category.
This lack of interest may explain the category’s previous failure to embrace Internet fandom, and why the Fan Writer field has remained astonishingly stagnant for several decades. For example, David Langford, the publisher of sci-fi newsletter Ansible, has been nominated 31 times and won 21, with 19 straight wins from 1989 to 2007. At this point he is probably using Hugo statuettes as doorstops and paperweights.
As well as the sudden switch from print to Internet publishing, this year’s Fan Writer award was the first to shortlist more women than men since 1974. Along with Kameron Hurley, the ballot included Mark Oshiro of Mark Reads/Mark Watches (the only person to receive a previous nomination), blogger and Tor.com columnist Liz Bourke, author and critic Foz Meadows, and reviewer and essayist Abigail Nussbaum.
The Best Fanzine category saw a similar shakeup, with most of the shortlist taken up by blogs: Elitist Book Reviews, Pornokitsch, The Book Smugglers, and A Dribble of Ink, which went on to win the award. Astonishingly, this is the first year the category was not dominated by fanzines that are distributed in PDF or mailed out in print format.
This year’s fan writing shortlists were the first in a long while to feel truly representative of what fans are actually reading. However, we’ve yet to see any fanfiction writers get through to the Hugo ballot, even though plenty of fanfics reach a far wider audience than traditional “fan writers” ever do.
One of the most surprising things I learned at WorldCon is that a high proportion of attendees are still resistant to the idea of Internet fandom. I went to several panels where audience members and panelists bemoaned the impersonal nature of the Internet, or spoke about how “difficult” it was to engage with fandom online. Many seemed borderline unaware of the vibrant community of fans making friends on Twitter all around them, and viewed blogging as a way to shout hopelessly into the void.
My overall impression wasn’t that these people disliked the Internet, but that much of Worldcon fandom didn’t understand how social media worked, didn’t realize that people could make friends online, and was bafflingly unaware of Internet fan culture as a whole. To put things into perspective here, George R. R. Martin, who is 65 years old, has been blogging and talking to fans on Livejournal since 2005. It’s not necessarily a matter of age, but of attitude.
To the tens of thousands of Doctor Who and Star Trek fans who have been using the Internet for decades, or to the Millennials whose only fandom experience is online, this stolidly anti-Internet attitude comes across as downright surreal. This year’s Fan Writer shortlist is a welcome sign that at long last, the sci-fi establishment has been dragged into the present day.
But Kameron Hurley’s double Hugo win isn’t just good news for Internet fandom, it’s also good news for fans who take a more progressive stance in their criticism of speculative fiction.
Hurley’s We Have Always Fought is a perfect illustration of the kind of writing that resonates with the Twitter/Tumblr/Tor.com generation. It’s an eloquent example of a genre that has long been popular in online media criticism: well-informed feminist anger. In this case, an essay about the inaccurate belief that women historically had no place in battle, and how this belief has influenced sexist stereotypes in speculative fiction.
“Half the world is full of women,” she wrote, “but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.”
And so, with this call for writers and fans to be more critical of sexist assumptions in their writing, Hurley went on to beat several strong contenders for Best Related Work, a category that can include anything from essay collections to podcasts to the infrastructure of the fanfic site Archive of our Own.
In one of her acceptance speeches, Hurley said, “Fans and pros write for all sorts of reasons, chief among them being love. I write for free online out of love, passion, and often, rage. Rage that the very stories I love punch me in the face.”
“It was this rage, I thought, that would preclude me from ever being nominated for a Hugo. Science fiction does not like change. Creators don’t like being called on their BS. But in looking out at my fellow nominees, whose own work I admire so much, I suspect it is this rage, and this desire for positive change, that is fueling our future.”
With the nomination of so many fan writers who publicly criticize geek culture, the fandom side of the Hugos has seen a decidedly progressive turn. Just look at Foz Meadows, who writes articles with titles like Sex, Desire and Fan Fiction. And of course there’s the fact that none of the five shortlisted writers are white men, which is completely unprecedented in any Hugo category, ever. The fact that they all got this far in the same year speaks volumes about the changing attitude at Worldcon.
To the majority of fans who either don’t attend WorldCon or are in other sections of fandom (for example, the thousands of fans who are passionate about superhero comics, Orphan Black and Doctor Who, but don’t read much hard sci-fi literature), the Hugo results are little more than a vaguely interesting headline on io9. They may not even know that the fan categories exist, which is probably why Noelle Stevenson—arguably the most famous fan artist on Tumblr—has never been shortlisted. Ditto the many fanfic authors whose readership is in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.
The nomination of people like Kameron Hurley and Mark Oshiro (who started off with reviews of Twilight and Harry Potter—not exactly classic Hugo fare) will hopefully make the Hugos seem more relevant to modern-day fandom, and vice versa.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect the last year more women than men were nominated in the Fan Writer category.
Illustration by Jason Reed