YA: Bad for the Hugo?

Mark Bartlett’s Mataglap SF publishes interesting, well-written reviews. I would have enjoyed his highly-readable critique of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book even more if he had not led off with this lightning bolt:

The most disturbing statistic from this year’s Hugo ballot is that 3 of the 5 novel nominees were marketed as YA books, with the voters passing up hard SF heavyweights like Baxter, MacLeod, Bear, Egan, Haldeman and Banks in favor of more lightweight fare. Is this cause for concern?

Count me as one Hugo voter who didn’t get the memo banning “lightweight fare” from competition. A lot of people didn’t get it and have been carelessly nominating things like Little Fuzzy, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers for years.

Maybe Bartlett doesn’t believe a YA marketing strategy automatically makes a novel an inferior brand of literature, though readers could be pardoned for interpreting his comment in that way. The notion of categorical inferiority in the world of literature isn’t alien to fandom (slash fiction!), though people still blush to admit they have judged a book by its cover – or its advertising.

Advertising especially, because marketing evolves even when the story remains the same. By the time I started reading sf in the mid-1960s, Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit – Will Travel and Andre Norton’s Witch World were being offered as juvenile or YA fare. Yet Heinlein’s Hugo-nominated 1959 novel originally had appeared in F&SF, the raised-pinky literary prozine, and Norton’s 1963 novel, another Hugo nominee, started life as an Ace mass-market paperback.

Does Bartlett really have a problem with YA and so-called “lightweight fare,” or was he reaching for words to express the same complaint Gregory Benford has voiced about Hugo voters who didn’t seem (to him) to be rewarding intellectually challenging science fiction with nominations for the Best Novel Hugo. After counting off the fantasy novels that had recently won the Hugo, Benford’s letter in File 770 #146 continued:

I don’t think it’s an accident that fantasy novels dominate a market that once was plainly that of Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and Phil Dick. I think it’s to the detriment of the total society, because science fiction, for decades really, has been the canary in the mine shaft for the advanced nations, to tell us what to worry about up ahead. Phil Dick was a genius at this. He could see the implications of the technologies, and what they would lead to, and people’s responses to them. But now, most of the readership is running away from these problems, perhaps terrified by them, in order to pretend that they’re really wielding swords in defense of the king, or something– which horrified people like Isaac Asimov. He saw this as just an old intellectual cowardice.

I know Benford is disappointed that I don’t share his alarm about the field, even though I do share his lack of enthusiasm for a few of the award nominees. If nobody at all was writing the kind of story he admires, then I’d be alarmed. (I wonder if he liked last year’s Hugo-nominee Halting State, by Charles Stross, which met my need for entertaining cautionary tales.) However, I’d hate to surrender the chief virtue of the Hugos  – that fans give them to works they actually like, rather than works they’re supposed to like. (Isn’t that what the Nebulas are for?)

5 thoughts on “YA: Bad for the Hugo?

  1. Great stuff today Mike – if I weren’t so tired I’d probably have a few comments. So – YAY for the changes to the long list and boo for people in a ghetto trying to ghettoize one of their own…probably more later!

  2. Count me as one Hugo voter who didn’t get the memo banning “lightweight fare” from competition.

    Can’t we draw a distinction between a supposed legalistic claim that something ought not to be allowed to get a nomination, and a personal expression of regret that it did?

  3. DB – Do you not agree that Bartlett’s wording goes beyond saying he personally feels disturbed, and asserts that his readers should feel the same based on his statistic? The idea that anyone is supposed to be “disturbed” by how a Hugo-nominated novel was advertised is only worthy of satire. However, Bartlett may have been reaching for a grander idea, which is why I spent the balance of the post respectfully considering what else he might have had in mind.

  4. I’d think pretty poorly of my opinions if I didn’t hope that other people shared them, if I wasn’t willing to expostulate in their defense.

    Your larger point is that “lighter” fiction has always been well-regarded in SF, and that’s true. But from Bartlett’s POV all that proves is that there’s no Golden Age of All-Serious All-the-Time SF to hark back to. (There were a lot of mighty serious novels in the early 50s, but this was also the heyday of the Hoka stories – I believe it was James Blish (as William Atheling Jr.) who found them unspeakably bad.)

    Your final observation, that the Hugos go to the works fans like, not to the ones they’re supposed to like, only moves the question. Why don’t they like heavier work? Baxter, MacLeod, Bear, Egan, Haldeman and Banks are not exactly recondite authors of limited appeal.

    What I’d say to Bartlett is not that “lighter” works are also legitimate, but that there have been plenty of Hugo ballots, even in recent years, filled with the kind of large, heavy, serious SF he evidently prefers.

  5. I used to sell “children’s books” exclusively at both a large national chain and also a small independent book store.

    I would argue designating YA as “lightweight fare”. YA novels often deals with tough topics, and have to do it in a delicate and nuanced way. I am not going to say that there aren’t brainless YA novels, but I can say the same for much of what I find in the modern day science fiction/fantasy section.

    I have read some excellent YA speculative fiction – both science fiction and fantasy. This year one of the books I recommended to everyone I knew was YA. Funny enough it is up for a Hugo . . .

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