The best overview yet of the Hugo Awards controversy

Author Eric Flint has done a bang-up job of summarizing and synthesizing the Hugo Awards controversy.  Here’s an excerpt.

What I’m going to be dealing with in this essay is a reality that is now at least tacitly recognized by most professional authors—and stated bluntly on occasion by editors and publishers. That’s the growing divergence between the public’s perception of fantasy and science fiction and the perception of the much smaller group of people who vote for literary awards and write literary reviews for the major F&SF magazines. There was a time in fantasy and science fiction when the public’s assessment of the field’s various authors and the assessment of its “inner circles” was, if not identical, very closely related. But that time is far behind us.

. . .

What’s involved here is essentially a literary analog to genetic drift. Biologists have long known that the role played by pure chance in evolution is greater in a small population than a larger one. The same thing happens in the arts, especially those arts which have a huge mass audience. The attitudes of the much smaller group or groups of in-crowds who hand out awards or do critical reviews are mostly influenced by other members of their in-crowd, not by the tastes of the mass audience. Over time, just by happenstance if nothing else, their views start drifting apart from those of the mass audience.

This is by no means peculiar to F&SF. In just about every field of literary or artistic endeavor—hell, just plain hobbies, when you get down to it—you tend to get a division between the interests and concerns of the mass audience involved in that field and the much smaller inner circles of aficionados.

Forget high-faluting literature, for a moment. Consider…


Hundreds of millions of people own dogs. If you ask those people what constitutes a “good dog,” you will get a range of answers but they will mostly focus on a dog’s behavior toward the humans they deal with.

But now go to a dog show, attended by the comparatively tiny number of people who are hobbyists when it comes to breeding and raising dogs. Most of the criteria by which Dog X or Dog Y gets chosen as “best dog of show” are going to be criteria that the average dog-owner around the world thinks are esoteric at best and often downright silly or even grossly wrong-headed.

. . .

What the mass audience wants, first and foremost—and this has been true and invariant since the Sumerians and the epic of Gilgamesh—is a good story. Period.

“Tell me a good story.” Thazzit.

But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”

Eventually, form gets increasingly elevated over content. “Originality” for its own sake, something which the mass audience cares very little about—and neither did Homer or Shakespeare—becomes elevated to a preposterous status. And what withers away, at least to some degree, is a good sense of what skills are involved in forging a story in the first place.

There’s much more at the link.  Go read the whole thing for the best article yet on the subject.  It’s long, but well worth the expenditure of time for those interested in the field.

(I might add that Eric Flint is an excellent example of one who’s trying with might and main to avoid becoming polarized or one-sided.  He’s a card-carrying socialist and trade union activist.  I’m a political centrist with libertarian tendencies and conservative morals.  However, I suspect he and I would get along just fine over a beer and a steak, because neither of us would be out to get the other at all.  We’d be talking and listening with mutual respect . . . something that’s been sadly lacking among all too many commenters in the Hugo brouhaha.)



  1. Excellent article! And, Yep, I think I would have a great time talking with him as well, despite his being a socialist.

    I have only the vaguest of notions that there is some controversy regarding some science fiction awards. I am shocked – Shocked! To discover that politics may play a part in who gets awards.Overall, I don't pay any attention to awards because they always seem so tainted with personal biases and other human failings the award doesn't seem to mean much. Always nice to have my cynical observations validated by someone in the know.

  2. Bingo!

    I have refrained from saying much about this tempest in a teapot because I didn't want to inadvertently cause any hurt feelings towards people I respect and admire. But the fact of the matter is – and as is very well explained in Eric Flint's essay – is that outside of the few serious authors of SF & Fantasy, nobody really gives shit about the Hugo award.

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