Whyte: Comments on the 2022 Hugo Awards Study Committee Report

By Nicholas Whyte: Way back in 2017, my then Deputy Hugo Administrator and I proposed that a study committee should be set up by the WSFS Business Meeting to revise the Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist categories, which are difficult to understand and hugely out of date. The Business Meeting amended our resolution, with our consent, to create a Hugo Award Study Committee (HASC) with a broad remit to “study revisions to Article 3 (Hugo Awards) of the WSFS Constitution, including any such proposals for amending Article 3 as may be referred to it by the Business Meeting or suggested by others; [and] make recommendations, which may include proposing constitutional amendments, to the 2018 Business Meeting.”

In the last five years, the HASC has changed precisely two words of the Constitution. (Since you asked: adding the words “or Comic” to the title of the “Best Graphic Story” category.) The HASC’s defenders will complain that we had two years of pandemic, and that the committee switched to Discord rather than email only this year, and that there are lots of proposals this year. But the fact remains that so far the practical impact has been slower than I imagined when I first proposed the Committee.

There is now a detailed report of its activities in the last year and proposals for the coming WSFS Business meeting in Chicago. (Pages 56-77 of the Business Meeting agenda., with individual proposals discussed on pages 33 to 44.) Individual areas are broken out into separate headings with a named set of subcommittee members and a Chair and Sub-Chair. I am one of the signatories to the report, but I have also several dissents, as I will explain below.

My first point of dissent is in the introduction. Unfortunately, I did not feel that discussion was always respectful or effective, and it felt at times like a closed group of people which should have found a better way of reaching out to wider fandom. I do not think that the Committee’s mandate should be extended for another year, and if it is, I would like to see new leadership. The first draft of the report called for the current Chair to continue, but after much wrangling, that recommendation was deleted by a formal majority vote of the Committee. I am grateful to the current leadership for their work, but I think a change of tone will be healthy. Volunteers interested in facilitating inclusive and constructive discussions will be very welcome. (Assuming that the Business Meeting ignores my advice and renews the Committee; more on that later.)

Going through the subcommittees:

BEST RELATED WORK

Here the HASC makes no recommendations, and I agree. I certainly prefer when this category goes to prose non-fiction commentary, but I can’t find it in my heart to say that the voters got it wrong in the last three years when they chose other things. (Archive Of Our Own, Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech, and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf translation.) And if we carved off non-fiction prose into its own category, as some would prefer, I don’t really think that there is enough other material to reliably populate an “everything else” category.

BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION

Here the HASC also makes no recommendations, and I also agree. Any further split will mean an increase in the number of Hugo categories, to honour winners who do not always show a lot of interest in our process. The discussion did not really seem to reflect the proposals I have seen from wider fandom.

BEST AUDIOBOOK

Here the HASC again makes no recommendations, and again I agree. For any new Hugo category proposal, I would like to see evidence (1) that it’s responding to the demands of a significant market share of fandom, (2) that it’s redressing an injustice in the current set-up for works loved by fans which are not getting on the ballot in existing categories, and (3) that it would be an appropriate thing for Hugo voters to vote on. I don’t see a problem here with the third of these criteria, but there is no clear case for the first two.

This was business referred to the HASC by the 2021 Business Meeting. It would have been preferable to give the Audiobook proposal a clean death in 2021, rather than sentence it to suffocation by committee.

BEST GAME OR INTERACTIVE WORK

A new Hugo category is proposed. I think this is very good, and despite my general dislike of new categories, it clearly meets my three criteria above (that it’s responding to the demands of a significant market share of fandom, that it’s redressing an injustice in the current set-up for works loved by fans which are not getting on the ballot in existing categories, and that it would be an appropriate thing for Hugo voters to vote on). This is something that both fans and the wider public can get excited about. Procedurally, it should be noted that this was largely the work of one activist supported by an ad hoc committee, refined by discussion with HASC members.

BEST SERIES

This is one of three discussions where the HASC seriously lost its way. Best Series very narrowly survived an attempt to sunset it in 2021 by 35 votes to 30. The report declares, contra all evidence other than wishful thinking, that the “fundamental problem” with the category is “the possibility of a work being nominated for both Best Novel/Novella/ Novelette/Short Story and for Best Series (as a component), leading to reduced chances for other works to be nominated or win”, and therefore proposes two amendments.

The first of these amendments disqualifies from Best Series any series any of whose component parts has ever won a Hugo in any written category. The second makes it against the rules for the same material to appear on the same year’s ballot both on its own and as part of a series.

The immediate impact of both of these amendments will be to increase headaches for Hugo administrators, who will have to disqualify popular works that people have actually voted for, just because the 2021-22 Best Series subcommittee thinks that voters have been Doing It Wrong. There will also be some interesting judgment calls about exactly what works fall into or out of a particular series.

Both amendments also decrease the pool of eligible nominees by eliminating the ones that are too popular or too long-running. If either of these is passed, when the statistics come out and it becomes clear which nominees have been disqualified, it’s not the 2021-22 Best Series subcommittee who will get the blame, it will be that year’s administrators.

Cards on the table: I opposed the creation of Best Series at the time, and I’d have voted to kill it if I’d been in DC last year, and I’ll vote to kill it again if I ever get a chance. But this is not the moment to re-hash those arguments; we are where we are, and I would prefer that if we are to have a Best Series award at all, voters get to decide what works they want to honour, with no more intrusion from the rules than is strictly necessary. Both amendments should be rejected.

BEST PROFESSIONAL ARTIST AND BEST FAN ARTIST

This is the bit that I wrote, with much welcome input from others, on an issue that was core to the founding of the Committee and has been referred back more than once by WSFS Business Meetings. The old definitions of the Artist categories are very out of date. Professional Artist basically means “Illustrator”. “Fan Artist” has a long list of eligible venues for publication which however is not exhaustive. I have had some pushback that the proposed Fan Artist amendment does not explicitly mention fanzines or conventions; the fact is that categories that are defined by place of publication or display will always run the risk of becoming outdated. So we have looked instead at the economics.

The proposal is to define Fan Art as art that is not produced for professional profit, and Professional Art as art that is produced for professional profit. If you’ve done three or more pieces of art in the last year that weren’t paid for at the time (might have been sold subsequently), then you will be eligible for Best Fan Artist. If you’ve done three or more pieces of art in the last year that were paid for at the time, then you will be eligible for Best Professional Artist. And if you’ve done both, you will be eligible for both. Selling your fan art after it’s been first displayed at a convention doesn’t make you eligible for Pro Artist in itself, because it was created for the convention, not directly for sale.

We went back and forth on this quite a bit, but the artist community indicated that they were happy with where we ended up. I am sure that it is capable of further refinement, but it’s a huge step forward from the status quo. The proposal opens up both categories to artists who were previously excluded, and decreases the burden on Hugo administrators to make tricky eligibility calls. (Or, for instance, to try and explain the concept of Semiprozines to artists who speak no English and have no connection to Worldcon fandom.) It will continue to be possible that an artist could qualify in both categories. I for one can live with that, if it is what fans choose to vote for.

FAN VS PRO

I did not understand this discussion, and I still don’t. It was supposedly driven by an incorrect perception that for the Artist categories, “at the root of the issue is a lack in the Constitution of a single definition for ‘Professional’, ‘Non-Professional’, or ‘Fan’.” I did not pay too much attention to the internal discussion, as I didn’t see the point of it, and also we were told that no new constitutional amendment on this would be formally proposed by the HASC.

Then suddenly at the last moment it turned out that such an amendment had been proposed by the HASC leadership, without the HASC as a whole being informed that this was happening. This proposal in particular went down like a lead balloon in some quarters of fandom, and the way it was handled was not appreciated by a number of HASC members, including me.

A minority opinion has been posted in the HASC report, expressing the entirely correct view that this should never have been proposed without wider community consultation. (In fact, the minority is rather close to being a majority.) I agree with most of it, and have co-signed, with a caveat: I am not certain that the problem (if there is one) should be addressed in this way at all, i.e. with a global definition of Fan and Pro. My instinct is that, if changes are needed, it may be better to do that category by category, as is proposed with Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist.

Even if this or something similar is passed, the specific definitions in the Best Artist categories (both as they currently are, and if my proposed amendments are passed) will take precedence for those categories, as will any other specific definitions elsewhere; and that nullified the supposed basis for the whole discussion.

THRESHOLDS

This is the third category where the HASC seriously lost the run of itself. Two amendments are proposed, and I have signed a minority report opposing both. The current rule is that the total first preference vote for finalists in a particular category is less than 25% of the whole Hugo poll, that category is No Awarded. The first proposed amendment changes that to the lesser of 25% or 200 votes.

To have a 25% threshold makes the lower-participation categories very vulnerable to a future year when loads of people join Worldcon to vote for the previous year’s howling commercial success in Best Novel or Best Dramatic Presentation, and nothing else. As for the 200 votes option, I am leery of hardwiring numerical thresholds into the constitution, given that it will take two years to change if we turn out to have got the wrong number.

Really, it would be better (as others outside the HASC have proposed, and as the minority report recommends) to simply abolish the threshold. It has never been used. No Award has on occasion won the preference ballot, most recently in 2018; and there is also a provision that if a majority of voters prefer No Award to the candidate which would otherwise have won, the category is No Awarded. The threshold is superfluous to those provisions, and brings unnecessary risk.

The second and final proposed amendment sets conditions under which the Business Meeting would consider the abolition of low-participation Hugo categories. I simply don’t think it is appropriate for the Constitution to direct and potentially constrain future Business Meetings in that way. If the point ever comes that we need to abolish a category, we’ll know it without the constitution telling us so. I’ll have more to say on that once this year’s award cycle is over.

CONTINUATION

As I said at the start, I do not think that the Hugo Awards Study Committee should be continued. Despite five years of existence, no new proposals have emerged on Best Related Work, Best Dramatic Presentation, or Best Audiobook, and those discussions should now return to the wider community. Good proposals have been made this year on Best Game / Interactive Work and (cough) the Best Artist categories, but bad proposals have been made on Best Series (two of them!), thresholds (another two!), and the supposed need to hardwire definitions of Fan and Pro into the constitution (proposed without the approval of Committee members).

The risk of establishing a separate Study Committee for a body like WSFS is that a few vocal participants will use it to promote their own hobby-horses, and present them to the Business Meeting with the veneer of committee support. There’s no easy way to prevent this, in what is, after all, a volunteer body. Appointing new leadership will be helpful, but is probably not sufficient.

I believe that it would be better to disband the Study Committee, now that the job has been done on Best Game and the Artist categories (and, years ago, the title change to “Best Graphic Story or Comic”). In future the Business Meeting can and should set up ad hoc specialist groups to look at particular issues as required, just as it has done in the past, without the overthinking that has happened recently as a result of silo-ing the discussion, and with more openness to stakeholders outside the Business Meeting itself.

22 thoughts on “Whyte: Comments on the 2022 Hugo Awards Study Committee Report

  1. I strongly agree with Whyte here on most fronts. The whole “Best Related work” category is a farrago, but how to divide that baby, I am not sure myself.

  2. I agree with much of the detail of what Nicholas says here — and we have co-signed several of the minority reports. Unlike him, however, I do think there is merit in principle in having a study committee for the Hugos, because I think we need to move to a future where the Business Meeting is primarily ushering through proposals which have been well-worked through community proposal, development and consultation. I think that the HASC could in theory be a great tool for making this happen. It isn’t yet.

  3. If it continues, I would like to see the HASC reach out more to folks who are WSFS members, don’t always attend business meetings, but have knowledge about the SF/F field and Fandom and how different changes impact the categories. One of the things that was so frustrating for many of us this year was the creators of the Fan vs. Pro changes seemed to not understand how Semiprozines operate and how their changes would impact the category. To the best of my knowledge, none of us who run these markets were consulted at all.

  4. May I suggest that the necessity of a Hugo Award Study Committee is currently unclear, and that perhaps we need to form a committee to examine the issue?

    The WSFS Business Meeting should create a Committee to Study The Necessity of Having a Hugo Award Study Committee, and ask them to present a report on the matter at the 2029 Worldcon.

  5. I would have liked a proposal to get rid of the “everything else” from Best Related Work and instead turned it into category that helped extend the knowledge about the SFF-field through books, exhibitions, documentaries and more. Speeches can be nice, but that doesn’t mean I think they need awards.

    If the Study Committee hasn’t dared to touch the Best Editor categories in five years, then I can’t see any reason for it to continue. Just disband it.

  6. I am going to leave aside the main content here and only point out the following:

    The Committee is easy to join (be a WSFS member, have a Discord account, reach out to any of the publicly named Committee members for an invite).
    The Committee’s discussions for the year have been archived and can be publicly reviewed at any time by any current or future Committee member.

  7. @Hampus Eckerman

    Speeches can be nice, but that doesn’t mean I think they need awards.

    “XXX can be nice, but it doesn’t mean it needs an award” should be the watchwords of any future Hugo Study Committee. (I think video gamers are looking for a Hugo much more than the Hugos are looking for video gamers, for example.)

  8. The problem with Discord as a means of doing HASC work is that it is a poorly-accessible interface for people with some kinds of visual processing issues. In addition, the discussions become one long series of posts in a narrow window, which (even with the Search function) makes it difficult to go back and find specific discussions. It also has a really poor functionality for sending external notifications of new posts.

    If the HASC continues, I’d like to see it use a format that is more accessible to a wider audience.

  9. @JJ:

    Given that Usenet is dead, mailing lists get basically zero traffic, and in-person meetings are implausible at best, what would you suggest as an alternative?

  10. Michael Damian Thomas seems to think that WSFS is an organization with members, whereas it’s just the membership of the current Worldcon. No meetings; no membership cards; no separate existence.

    The Worldcon is changing—not evolving!—into an alien thing, no longer based in or relevant to the Fandom that created it. Not a thing I am looking forward to.

    OTOH, I think we’re all going to be extinct in a few decades, so what’s the point…

  11. I think a moderated Reddit community most closely resembles the newsgroups I used to frequent. It is asyncrhonous, can have threaded comments on different topics, and allows links to other threads.

  12. Michael Damian Thomas seems to think that the original effect on Semiprozines (which, basically, would prevent anything from being eligible for the category at all) is because the drafters (hi) were unaware of how semirprozines work.

    Actually, I got involved with WSFS back when I was volunteering for NYRSF, which might have been nominated for semiprozine a few times. In fact, having any effect at all on semiprozine was an oversight; obviously semiprozines aren’t compatible with a model of fan work matching “if you sell it or pay people it’s pro”.

    Ultimately the purpose of that measure is a rabbit hole around trying to disentangle the fan vs pro model (excluding semiprozine, which by design sits on a border) from the concept of a publisher. The question is, how do you maintain the idea that a given creator can work on both fan and pro works in a given year, and also adapt to the current model where professional work may not be going through anything resembling a publisher at all. (which….it’s kind of ludicrous that the current definition of “professional artist” excludes any fine artist whose work is sold in galleries but isn’t coming out from publishers at all.)

    More, how do you handle this across media, particularly if WSFS elects to create other fan categories — like, say, the “fan dramatic presentation” that has been discussed a few times? Do all professional dramatic presentations get issued by professional publishers?

    You might reasonably disagree with the solution HASC came up with (in fact, I do; it was an acceptable compromise but other groups could reaosnably come up with something else), but the question is valid.

    WRT the validity of the committee itself, honestly there’s no real power that WSFS committees have beyond the power that any Worldcon member has, other than -maybe- a sense from WSFS that multiple people have worked on an issue before it was presented. Regardless of whether there’s an official subcommittee between conventions, fans will discuss issues and problems they have with how Worldcon and how the Hugos funciton, and try to work together to draft solutions.

    The question is, do we want some known places people can gather together to work on these ideas, maybe with some institutional knowledge so that past mistakes can be avoided? Or is it better to have this happen in a vacuum every time, with every group to an extent trying to reinvent the wheel?

    Discord, this year, was massive upgrade in dialogue and ability to remain active over previous solutions (which mostly involved email), and in keeping multiple threads separate rather than making them a confusing mess. (both from previous iterations of this committee and also other committees I’ve worked on, like YA and Best Series). On a net where almost everything happens on email or on a specific private website, using discord instead (particularly in a year where many, many more people started using discord as a social area of choice and staying logged into Discord all the time) was a significant improvement over either.

  13. Since I am being gatekeeped about what I know and don’t know about processes, I very much know what WSFS is, I’ve been on a Worldcon staff in the WSFS section, I’ve attended a SMOFcon, been at Business Meetings, been on numerous other convention concoms, and have even read a copy a Robert’s Rules of Order. 🙂

    I also am friends or friendly with most of the Hugo Admins of the last decade, and nobody reached out to me or to others about this. The information that HASC was still taking members wasn’t exactly being trumpeted anywhere. And as I said before, the members of HASC weren’t talking to anybody who might be effected by the changes, and who might be able to better explain how things work for those categories, and why there would be certain unintended consequences.

    I am not at all against looking at the Hugo Categories and making changes. But I do think that getting community input is important before a problematic proposed change is made public and further creates bad feelings between Worldcons and SFF Fandom and creators.

  14. Michael Damian Thomas seems to think that WSFS is an organization with members, whereas it’s just the membership of the current Worldcon.

    A lot of people join every Worldcon.

    These people could be described as members of the WSFS, despite it offering no way to be members other than by joining every Worldcon.

    Sincerely,

    Rogers Cadenhead
    WSFS member since 2008

  15. Michael, again, nobody was talking to semi-pro because nobody wanted to modify how semipro worked (not on this iteration, anyway. There -are- certainly people out there who want to mess with semi-prozine, but I don’t have a strong sense of what their complaint is–aside from a concern that at this point semi-prozine might be largely identical to magazine” which may or may not be accurate and, yes, really would benefit to being workshopped around the community).

    But in general the idea that “nobody was talking to members of the relevant SFF communities” just doesn’t make any sense. The current volunteers on HASC are members of the relevant sff communities. There are, of course, many members of sff creator communities that weren’t at the table, but that will always be the case, because in the end, you can’t get any work done if you listen to everyone all at once.

    The core complaint seems to be one of lack of transparency, which is valid, but remember please that this is the second year we’ve been doing this, and the first year that (due to discord) things actually moved at a pretty solid clip; usually, like most WSFS subcommitttes, all the work gets done at rapid pace weeks before the deadline.

    If people want the group to stick around (with, perhaps, more people volunteering and diversifiying the field a bit), then maybe it would make sense for the group to develop some “semi-permanent committee” facilities, like a progress blog and a permanent web presence, so people can notice that, say, we’re working on a redefinition of the fan/pro divide, shaking up the editor categories, or changing the split on the BDP categories, and decide that -now- they are suddenly interested in the work the committee is doing.

    But while that’s a worthwhile endeavour, it’s not something a committee that only expects to be around for another month is going to do–not least because very few people are going to want to actively pay attention to the procedings of a non-permanent committee (unless, say, they make a sufficient screw-up that suddenly, -now- everyone cares about what they’re doing, at least for a few weeks).

  16. With regards.to the Fan Art / Professional Art category proposals, I can see that the intention is good (particularly from Nicholas’s remarks above clarifying that work created for a con but later sold is fan art). I do have some concerns about the actual wording of the proposal however. (Full disclosure: as a nominee in the fan art category.I do have a stake in this.)

    My reading (which may be wrong!) is that in this proposal a fan artist is anyone who isn’t a professional, including those who simply post art online, and a professional is defined by work that was:

    created as i) work for
    hire, ii) on paid commission, or iii) for sale (either directly or via a paywall-
    like structure).

    “Created as” is carrying a lot of weight here, as there is an implicit need to determine the intent behind creating the work. Was it created for the purpose of being sold, or merely sold as an afterthought or fringe benefit. A lot of fannish art is listed for sale on Etsy, for example, but that doesn’t make it professional by any normal definition. That’s quite hard to prove in some cases where it didn’t debut at a con but only on a website somewhere.

    “Paid commission” is also ambiguous as some fan artists do occasionally take paid commissions. For a professional artist paid commissions are a side-gig to other paying work, but for some fan artists it may be the only time they sell anything. (Then again, some high profile fan artists may make a tidy living out of non-stop commissions, in which case maybe they’re ‘professional’?)

    The wording also talks about “a body of work” which leaves me confused as to whether the determination is made on a piece by piece basis or for the whole body of work in total. I assume you would look at the pieces submitted as ‘eligible’ and ask, piece by piece, was this paid work, and exclude any that are wrong for the particular category?

    Also the wording about fan art being in essence anything that wasn’t professional ( “did not qualify for Best Professional Artist”) only appears in the final clause about “one or more collaborators”, so as written seems to only qualify collaborative work? Or does “one or more” collaborators mean that it applies to solo work too?

    I don’t really know how to resolve these things which are.partly.about how these changes are intended versus how the wording might potentially.be.interpreted in practice.

    The risk is that we circle back to having to define how central the payment/sale was to the purpose of creating each work. Perhaps it partly comes down to the “first displayed” aspect i.e. if we take my ‘Shipbuilding Over Glasgow’ it was created as non-professional unpaid art and first used in that capacity, but later sold as prints. Even “first displayed” would have to be applied cautiously as many professional comic artists might put their cover art or prep work on social media ahead of the comic first being published, but that doesn’t mean it was fan work.

    Or perhaps thinking more about the person than the work in saying “is this person doing unambiguously professional art in which case none of their art is fan art” and vice versa. (Which is effectively what the.rules say now?) Speaking personally, I would prefer professional artists to NOT be eligible in the fan art category by definition as otherwise they are likely to dominate the fan art category because of a few fringe bits of personal output. However that I suppose is a more subjective point of view…

  17. There is nothing wrong with a fan artist having a career as a professional artist. It doesn’t make them not a fan, or not a fan artist.

    I think the proposal is very clear. If a work is done as work-for-hire, commissioned, or offered for sale first, it is professional. Otherwise, it is fan art. The definition of “body of work” is also very clearly spelled out as at least three works first displayed in the eligible year. This makes it very easy to see how an artist can qualify for both Best Fan Artist and Best Professional Artist. Just have at least three works in each category.

  18. Folowing my comment on the initial post here on File 770 on this subject, I reached out, as there was no reply on File 770 to my concern.
    So I did the seek consensus thing.

    While I was pleasantly engaged with, by persons involved, ultimately it was fruitless, and had no response to the simple straight questions I asked about this proposal, which were:

    1) Have you engaged with fan artists on this matter?
    2) have you engaged with fanzine editors
    and con publications teams?

    As I view these as stakeholders in this matter. Right? maybe?
    The fan artists are definitely the priority, but it is unclear what the ‘Artist Community’ means and I got no response to those questions. Into that vacuum, one can only speculate.

    I have now spoken to people I consider prominent Fan Artists, who were not engaged with.

    Fan Artists who provide art for free for fan activities really deserve our appreciation, and if we are going to start changing the categories, that recognises their great work, they should be engaged with, meaningfully.

    I continue to fail to understand why fan art created for Convention Publications ,Fanzine or Fan Publication is not set out o help understanding.

    It’s fanac at the point of use.
    It’s fan art.

  19. @James Bacon: Nicholas Whyte wrote that there should be more openness to stakeholders. I think we can agree all around on that.

    Convention publications and fanzines are dear to my heart, but they are not the only thing, and I don’t want to limit what fan artists may do. I just think there should be an award specifically for non-commercial art work because of the many ways it enriches the community.

  20. @James Bacon @Tom Becker. If the only criterion for fan art (and presumably fan writing) is that it’s work created without pay, with no requirement for there to be some engagement with fandom, we have finally discarded the entire original concept of the Fan Hugos, which was to recognize contributions to fandom, not just creating art or writing as a hobby.
    If contributing to fanzines and convention publications is now irrelevant, I’d be in favor of scrapping the fan Hugos altogether.

  21. Pingback: Chicon 8, the 2022 Hugos and the Business Meeting | From the Heart of Europe

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