An open letter to the WSFS about unintended consequences

ETA: I missed that there’s been a new development since I started writing this; the folks putting forward the proposal are dropping the novelette clause. Still not liking the “saga” portion of the proposal either, for the reasons I’ve said here and which Scalzi said in his post, but at least the proposal isn’t actively harmful anymore.


Whoa. Did you guys think this through?

No, seriously. Beyond whether “The Wheel of Time” could get a Hugo, or whether you, personally, like short fiction or not. Did you consider how proposal B.1.3 looks, both within and outside SFFdom? What message it sends about WSFS priorities?

Consider the context. In a year when there’s been intense mainstream-media coverage of an attempt to ideologically tarnish the Hugo Awards, effectively making them less representative of the genre’s current dynamism and way more representative of racist white guys’ vanity publishing, this proposal compounds that problem. Let me break down how this looks to people outside of the WSFS process.

The “sagas” proposal privileges not just established authors as John Scalzi notes, but established successful white male authors. Systemic bigotry being what it will, it’s tougher for people from underrepresented groups to survive in this area, let alone thrive in the way that a multipart series would indicate. We need rooms of our own, so to speak. We’re writing from perspectives that tend to break away from the “comfort food” factor that sagas satisfy, of sprawling, rugged power fantasies set in strangely Middle-Americanish futures and carefully cropped medieval Europes. When we do find publishers for (or self-pub) our works, they get less buzz — from professional reviews to the endless “Best SFF of the year” lists composed entirely of white male authors. It’s hard enough to start a career under these conditions, or to sell any single book, but selling well enough to manage a second, or a third, or however many books it takes to get up to 400,000 words, is something that happens only for writers who are very, very fortunate.

(And yeah, I’m well aware that I rank among the fortunate; the Inheritance Trilogy probably would qualify for this “sagas” category.* The Broken Earth might, though I’m only halfway through the second book now so it’s too soon to tell. But notice how few other women of color are successfully writing multipart epic fantasy. Trust me; that’s not because we’re incapable of imagining stories of epic struggle.)

And then there’s the novelettes clause. Scalzi covers a lot of reasons why this is an absolutely terrible idea, and I agree with all of those. But in addition, as C. C. Finlay has also pointed out, the novelette category has until lately been a good entry point for new and underrepresented writers to gain recognition. Why? For all the reasons “sagas” privileges established successful white guys, basically: short fiction must rely (usually) on quality rather than preexisting financial success to prove itself; it requires a much lower investment of free time to write; and short fiction in general is less about comfort food than challenging the reader with new ideas and perspectives. The competition is actually more fierce for short fiction than it would be for sagas; there are more markets willing to publish novelettes than there are publishers willing to grind out multiparters, and the short fiction markets pump out multiple stories, multiple times per year. It’s just that fewer of the barriers that make it hard for non-white non-men to compete exist here. Women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups usually do pretty well when they’re working with a level playing field.

So let’s review. In a year when misogynists, white supremacists, and homophobes have already managed to use the Hugos to advance their own interests, along comes this proposal making it easier for privileged white men to gain recognition, at the direct expense of the marginalized. I’m going to assume it’s an unintended consequence that this proposal effectively reinforces the Puppies’ efforts; there’s been no reason to think that anyone on the WSFS is anything other than professionally neutral on the matter. Until now.

So, c’mon ya’ll. Did you really think this through? Is this the best time for B.1.3? Are you really willing to throw short fiction under the bus just to give bestsellers another accolade? Do you mean to throw a level playing field under the bus, to give more affirmative action to successful white men?

Think about that again, please. Seriously. Think about it again.


* Some of my readers asked whether the Inheritance Trilogy could be nominated for a Hugo, same as the Wheel of Time, especially with a new novella published in 2014 making it “complete”. I told them no, because I thought it was wrong for the same work to be nominated again when parts had already been nominated for Best Novel in previous years. But I could have pushed the issue.

I’m unable to go to Sasquan this year, but I bought a voting membership. If you’re actually going, plan to attend the Business Meeting. Might want to bring popcorn.

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18 Responses »

  1. I thinkth eremoval of the novelette category is something that stems from conversations that have been ongoing for some years. -I honestly think SFWA and the Hugos are if not the only ones using the category, the ones keeping it alive. Here in Europe the fans I see commenting on “novelette” seem to agree it is redundant.
    I do understand your objection to the category being removed though. But I think it is just a coincidence it coincides with this years slates. (At least I have heard nothing to the contrary. I could be wrong though…And I wouldn’t be surprised if it was part of the “culture war” that has been transported to SFF.)

    The saga thing…feels like catering to a subset of fans that like specific authors and not SFF in general. Can’t really see it making the Hugos more relevant, or more inclusive.

  2. Is there some Hugo rule establishing a maximum total number of categories for awards? If not, WHY do they need to delete a category to add “Sagas”? Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to allow a whole series like “Wheel Of Time” to compete in the same category as stand-alone novels, so I can see the reasoning behind adding the “Saga” category… but I see NO valid reason to delete a short-fiction category.

    Also finding myself annoyed at the whole “Well, EVERYone’s welcome to come to the Business Meeting and vote!” chorus when they schedule the Business Meetings at times when Dealers are WORKING… :-(

  3. WSFS is the wrong party to address (or, at least, to blame). The proposal was submitted by six people: Warren Buff, Jared Dashoff, William Lawhorn, Michael Lee, Pablo Vasquez, and Ben Yalow. Once they do that, WSFS has no choice but to put it on the agenda for the business meeting. It doesn’t mean that anyone besides those six people support the idea.

  4. I agree. This really does seem to me to be the solution to a problem that only exists in the minds of a sub-set of devoted fans who feel strongly that their _favorite_ series is being unfairly denied Hugos just because no individual volume is Hugo-worthy. Which, um…seems like a pretty fair indication that it shouldn’t get Hugos, then. :)

    I feel like “Best Saga” is an attempt to limit the playing field down to the extent that someone like Jim Butcher or Laurell K Hamilton can get a Hugo (or at least a nomination) simply because they’re bound to have a year where there aren’t enough contenders to fill out the ballot. It doesn’t feel like a necessary change to me.

    So yeah, tl;dr: I agree with you!

  5. They’re going to resubmit the proposal without the clause removing the Novelette category: http://file770.com/?p=23294

  6. Oh please, don’t let them set up a category that is aimed largely at successful, presumably commercial series. So many are workmanlike, not inspiring. A friend once memorably described LKH’s Meredith series as colour-coded elf pron, because you cannot tell the male characters apart except by the colours associated with them.

    Mind you, if they enforce a rule that you have to complete the series to qualify, it might at least end the trend for endless soap-opera series, which seem to have taken over from that thing where SF authors all seemed to aim to commit trilogy.

    H

  7. Keep in mind that that this is just a proposal, and not realistically the final word on anything. My involvement was much more that I support two Novel or longer length categories – and one of those reasons is that I think an additional novel length award will be good for YA or other longer works to be more likely to get nominated & win.

    Am I surprised that there are issues with the existing (and already planned to be revised) proposal? Not at all! That’s why the WSFS process is the slow process it is, precisely to get that feedback. Can’t make changes without making actionable suggestions, even flawed imperfect ones.

    (And the Inheritance Trilogy is absolutely the kind of work I would like to see in a hypothetical Best Saga.)

  8. I dunno, I think the Best Saga thing is redundant–plenty of novels in series have actually won awards (and even more have been nominated) as Best Novel of their year. And while I understand the appeal of rewarding a series that cumulatively is better than the sum of its parts, I think that sort of thing is better addressed by an occasional We Have To Mention This Series award or a Lifetime Achievement By This Particular Series-Writing Author award. Because, really, as John Seavey says above, most of the time the fact that no individual book in a series has won an award is an indication that the books aren’t award-worthy.

  9. I think what the 9,000 (and rising) members of WSFS have mainly learned this year is that everyone with a political agenda feels entitled to use the Hugo Awards as a platform for namecalling them.

  10. Weirdmage, I get that it wasn’t intentional. Which is why I wrote this — to point out a consequence that the drafters of that proposal, and anyone thinking about voting on it as it was, might not have considered.

    And I disagree on the redundancy of the novelette category. Might as well say novellas are redundant with novels, and so on. The point of having multiple short fiction categories is to give the core of the genre its due, and not have that overshadowed by the superstar novels and/or Hollywood awards. Reducing the number of short categories suggests that short fiction isn’t as important to SFF as it has historically been. Do you think that’s true?

  11. Steven, I tend to assume, from my own time working in similar orgs, that there’s support for a proposal beyond just its signatories.

  12. Too Many Jens, thanks for the heads-up! I started this post this morning, then stuff caught fire in another part of life and I had to put that out. By the time I hit “post” it was obsolete. Oh, internet.

  13. Michael, if someone nominated the Inheritance Trilogy for this category, I would refuse the nomination. I’ve had two bites at that apple. Not fair to bite again. And besides, I might write more in that series. Nothing I’ve ever written is “done” ’til I’m dead… and I don’t want to wait ’til I’m dead for an award. :)

  14. Mike, that’s a hard statement to parse. Everyone has a political agenda. :) But yes, I have seen rather a lot of abuse directed toward the WSFS membership this year. This whole thing is a bigass mess. Thanks for chronicling it.

  15. > Reducing the number of short categories suggests that short fiction isn’t as important to SFF as it has historically been. Do you think that’s true?

    I think that’s true, although I’m going to see if I can find some facts to back up my instincts…

    I think there’s more short fiction around nowadays, simply because everyone can be a publisher, but the idea that you have to pay your dues by publishing short fiction is gone. The ideas-based hard SF story isn’t as popular as it used to be (quite rightly. They were often infodumptastic) and, although Kindle self-publishing makes the novella more viable, I don’t think we’re there yet.

    Among people I know, I don’t know anyone who read short SF&F fiction, except short fiction writers. Everyone I know who is a casual SF&F fan reads big blockbuster series like the Dresden Files or Peter F. Hamilton. If I can get an agent with a novel, why would I write shorts? Short fiction is harder to write.

    In addition, I’ve been told that my novel has to warrant a series to attract an agent. Even if a second book never gets written… Once you’ve done the world-building for a series, writing standalone shorts feels a lot of effort for little reward.

  16. Vivienne,

    Ah, but I wasn’t talking about authors paying their dues to break in. I talked about importance.

    Here’s the thing — I used to believe there was no point to short fiction, either. I didn’t read it, didn’t write it. Had already written several novels (most terrible, because teenager) by the time I went off to Viable Paradise and talked to a bunch of pros about how to become a pro. They didn’t try to sell me on the idea of using short fiction to break in, because I didn’t care. (You’re right; it’s not necessary.) What they did sell me on was the idea that learning to write short fiction would make me a better novel writer. That got my interest.

    So I experimented — for one year, I subscribed to F&SF, and studied what I read there. Read Realms of Fantasy and Strange Horizons too; liked those better. I joined Critters.org, and spent awhile just reading stories, seeing which ones caught my eye and which ones didn’t. I joined a writing group, which forced me to write shorts, and started doing it from scratch.

    And my instructors were right. Learning how to write short fiction forced me to master worldbuilding, not just do it — I learned how to quickly figure out what mattered and what didn’t, how to get to the point of divergence fast, how to draw readers in to a world that had absolutely no relationship to the world they knew. I learned how to hook readers within the first paragraph. I learned how to write faster, at “professional speed”, which has been invaluable now that I’m a pro and my life has become one book per year. -_- I learned to be ruthless about self-editing, dumping whole characters and plotlines if I needed to. If you can cut 5000 words from a 10,000 word story, then you can easily scrap an entire novel and start over if you need to — which I did, with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (which had already been written once at that point). Which landed me a six-figure book deal.

    Yes, short fiction is harder to write. You’ll have to become a better writer to do it. Problem?

    Learning to write shorts also taught me something crucially important: what the boundaries of SFF are. See, novels are safe. Since they’re a much greater investment of the writer’s time, and the publisher’s money, it’s much, much harder to find anything in novels that really tests the limits of what’s acceptable for style, for characters… and ideas, sure, but that’s actually the least of the flexibility that’s possible. Understanding this is why I could write an epic fantasy set in ancient Egypt with magic based on Jungian dream theory. Learning to write shorts made it a lot easier for me to abandon formula and say “fuck it, I do what I want.” And understanding how safe novels tend to be made me realize one of the reasons why I kept seeing the same kinds of protagonists over and over, the same plot arcs, the same kinds of covers.

    You can get published by writing what’s safe. But do you really want to? (Some do. Nothing wrong with that. I didn’t.)

    Also, please don’t rely solely on personal anecdata re who’s reading this stuff. It’s easy to figure out: go to the Escape Artist podcast forums (they get more listeners than all three Big Three combined) and look at the conversations there. Or look at one of the other short story online market’s comments sections, like Tor.com. Some of those people are writers, sure, but most are just readers. They’re not necessarily a representative sample; they’re the most passionate readers, or the ones most affected by a given story. But there are plenty of them.

  17. Nora,

    Wow! Thank you for the long comprehensive reply! :)

    Thanks for the hat tip for the Escape Artist too. I’ll head over there.

    I’ll definitely rethink my approach, although I (personally) think my fiction has some problems that writing shorts can’t solve. I’m a journalist first and a fictioneer second. Hooking the reader in line one isn’t a problem. Capturing their heart and creating an ’emotional arc’ is more of a challenge… :D

    My problem with short SFF fiction (and I know this isn’t wholly true) is that it is seen as a training ground. I know people who write nothing but shorts, but most people seem to move onto novels. I don’t know whether that’s why I’ve found the Hugo-winning short fiction [that I’ve read] mediocre the last few years (including pre-Puppy), but it’s a theory.

    Thanks again for taking the time to respond in such detail. Lots of food for thought.

    Vee

  18. Short fiction is absolutely important. I have no idea what percentage of SFF fans read short fiction, but popularity isn’t the same thing as importance. It’s not just about author training, either. Short fiction is fundamentally different than long-form. Shorts = stepping stones to longs makes about as much sense as YA = stepping stone to adult fiction. (And I would say that at least a third of the authors of shorts I’ve read recently have novel credits to their names, so I don’t think it’s usually a matter of “moving on” from shorts to novels. Lots of authors do both things.)

    I’ve been reading a lot from Lightspeed and Beneath Ceaseless Skies lately. There are some really mind-blowing pieces over there. Short fiction markets are not only able to publish more experimental styles/ideas/voices, they (for the most part) demand such. Safe/traditional stuff doesn’t get much (or any) airtime in the markets I tend to read.

    And yes, shorts are a lower time investment for authors, but they’re also lower investment for readers. I’d never pick up a whole novel about military cyborgs, but I was quite content to spend half an hour on “Influence Isolated, Make Peace” by John Chu. Plus, it’s in Lightspeed, so I know up front that it won’t be run-of-the-mill military SF.

    Honestly fans who only read the “blockbuster” novels are really cheating themselves. SFWA should be giving more TLC to the obscure-but-high-quality stuff, not less. IMHO.

    And, good grief, “sagas” do NOT need more attention. Just no. I mean isn’t an important purpose of awards to give readers a generally-agreed-upon recommended reading list? No one needs a body of SFF pros to recommend WoT or Dark Tower to them.