Your 15 Bytes of Fame

Like a passenger liner when the gawkers rush to one side of the deck, the internet tilted toward Aidan Moher’s A Dribble of Ink blog the day he posted the 2011 Hugo nominees along with several pithy comments.

What he said about the fan nominees touched a few raw nerves:

Maybe I’m exposing my ignorance here, but beyond StarShipSofa, I haven’t heard of a damn one, nor am I familiar with any of the writers. My beef, obviously, is the lack of presence of blogs, bloggers and online writers. Where’re the Nialls (Harrison and Alexander)? Where’s Abigail Nussbaum or Adam Whitehead? No nod for SF Signal? Really?

Three of our Best Fan Writer nominees, James Davis Nicoll, Steven H Silver and Chris Garcia weighed in (this sentence wants to end “all on the same electric day” as they say in “Seventy-Six Trombones,” and I find myself powerless to prevent it.)

It’s a good rule of thumb that if people rush to defend something then that thing probably needs a defense. Which is to say, since the fans behind the Hugo rules changes explicitly claimed they were throwing open the gates to electronically-distributed fanac it’s reasonable to ask whether it worked. Bloggers James Nicoll and Frederik Pohl made their first appearances as finalists in the Best Fan Writer category last year, but Nicoll is the only blogger nominated this year (though Silver and Garcia are widely represented online in other ways). And why has the list of Best Fanzine nominees changed only slightly faster than the faces on Mount Rushmore? Keep that question in mind, it’s a good one, I’ll return to it in the next post.

A Hearing Problem: But I’ll begin where Moher began, with his provocative declaration “I haven’t heard of a damn one” of the nominees (besides last year’s Best Fanzine winner.)

Don’t most fans begin by using awards shortlists to find more of the kind of stories we like? After I read all the Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Aldiss etc. on the library shelves, if I had money to buy books I’d look for writers identified as Hugo and Nebula Award winners, treating that as a seal of approval for the ones I didn’t already know. A lot of readers have done that.    

Yet once we come to regard ourselves as veterans of the sf field, something changes. We are less likely to welcome the Hugos and Nebulas as an introduction to unfamiliar talents and more likely to judge the shortlists on the basis of whether they validate our subjective opinions about the writers we already know.

This is no less true in the fan categories. When something we’ve never heard of gets nominated for an award in a field we purport to follow, that’s now considered an offense instead of an opportunity.

I’ve had these feelings myself. In 2008 Pixel took second place in the Fanzine Activity Achievement Awards. What? I’d never heard of it! However, I knew better than to get on my high horse and announce, “Dang it, I’ve never even heard of Pixel!” Fannish fanzines comprise a much smaller universe than the internet, much too small for anybody who purports to be a follower to get away with that sort of thing. Instead I said nothing and remedied my ignorance by reading all 15 issues at eFanzines. Dave Burton’s Pixel was, indeed, one of the very best fanzines, filled with excellent writing by Dave Locke, Eric Mayer and others. But for my need to supply a bad example here, I’d never have mentioned such a hideous gap in my knowledge of the field.

Isn’t it a better idea, when something that’s never been on our radar gets nominated for a top award, to call in the radar repairman? At least try to take it in stride.

There are still between 100 and 200 fanzines produced in magazine format by sf fans. There are probably twice that many blogs that deal with literary sf and fandom (I’m counting those by pro writers but not the media-focused and commercial ones). Very few fans have time to keep up with the whole universe of zines or blogs, let alone both. Unless someone is putting in that work, what can it really mean if he or she has never heard of an award nominee?

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34 thoughts on “Your 15 Bytes of Fame

  1. On the whole, I think the answer to your question, “are the new rules working,” would have to be no. I say that not because the new rules produce the effect I desire, but becasue they actually seem to please NOBODY.

    One the one hand, traditional paper oriented fan activities are being pressured and the fear is that the much larger blogophere will eliminate it from the running entirely.

    On the other hand, clearly the blogosphere isn’t happy with the situation either. Few of their luminaries have broken *into* the ghetto yet — to revise an expression. Considering the size of the blogosphere, they might well be right to expect three of the four nominations in any fan category, if not all four.

    How to please both communities with one category? You can’t. Do I need to spell out the rest?

  2. Am I the only one who remembers that it wasn’t too many years ago that people were complaining that only fanzine and fan writing that happened on paper were “real” and that any fanzines distributed electronically (by e-mail or web site) or that appeared online “shouldn’t count”? What we’re seeing here is another verse of the same song. Going back farther into the past, remember people complaining about professionally-printed fanzines being “unfair” to real honest-to-Roscoe mimeographed fanzines? This argument that medium is more important than message isn’t new; it just gets a new coat of paint every few years as technology progresses.

    If anything, the complaints from both sides of the aisle here suggest to me that, like most compromises, this one doesn’t make anyone really happy. But hard-liners should, in my opinion, take care, because the most likely results of any digging in of heels is for everyone to lose.

  3. @Kevin: Do you feel some need for the narrative to read that way? The vast majority of magazine-formatted fanzines are published electronically, no paper copies at all. Who can you point to in 2011 who doesn’t think that “counts”?

  4. Rules are *all about* form, aren’t they? Otherwise,why are there Hugo categories for Best Novel and Best Short Story? What’s the difference except length, and why should that matter.

    Why a category for best film (dramatic presentation if you insist) and best novel, when the only difference is that one is on paper and the other projected on a screen?

    It seems to me that Kevin’s argument is just that old fandom is small and unimportant and should get out of the way of big important fandom that Kevin is more interested in.

    If the medium doesn’t matter, I’ve voting to hold the next Worldccon on the U.S.S. Nimitz. An aircraft carrier is a city, isn’t it?

  5. There’s a lot of bitterness and whining and “I’m so out of touch, but it’s their fault!” going around, and you’re right, much of it misses the point.

    The Hugo ballot gets me looking at works and people I might not have considered before, and if I’m smart I look for content and quality first. Hey, I might learn something.

    I can honestly look at Munroe’s work not have to care whether or not he’s really a pro. His cartoons are funny but his stylized cartoony primitive art, well, it’s not Rotsler, the gold standard for stylized cartoony primitive art, and every other nominee in the category has done more and better art for fan communities. Good comedy scripter, sure, but best artist? Behind “No Award.”

    I can honestly look at Starship Sofa and say that, you know, I love podcasts but sitting down and listening to them doesn’t fit into my life (and if it did, that space would be filled by Radio Free Skaro, Podshock, the Ood Cast and numerous other brilliant Doctor Who podcasts that are the core of modern Who fandom). It’s written words on a page or screen that I’m going to make time for. I won’t vote it a preference, but I’m not going to no-award it.

    I can read James Nicoll’s livejournal. It’s got that mix of genre and inane and obsession that’s consistent with a lot of classic perzines. Not sure I will vote any preference for him, but his work reads to me as “fanwriter.”

    I can watch “Fuck Me Ray Bradbury” and go “Oh my god, that’s crass, but brilliant!” I’m not sure I can vote it #1, because I think there’s so much right with “Vincent and the Doctor,” but oh, it’s so tempting. And, yes, I can understand that for some (many?) people, it may just be too crass.

    In spite of being a horrible nominator in the fiction categories, I can sit down and read the nominees and vote in every one, and find some writers I just haven’t had the opportunity to read before in the process.

    Nitpicking and analyzing the rules while this is all happening is just gravy.

  6. Mike,
    I think the only people who are qualified to say things like: “this doesn’t belong in the Hugo Awards” or “How the heck did that get in here” are those who have already won a Hugo within the category being questioned.
    (You know, like Starship Troopers: Only vets get the vote.)

    If that continues to reinforce old-world thinking, stifles creativity, frustrates new kids on the block and makes everyone miserable, well then – welcome to the real world!

  7. I never heard of Aidan Moher or most of the other bloggers who are mentioned. Fandom has gotten to be a very big place. I have always been interested in what I call “fanzine fandom” which revolves largely around fanzines. Aidan should, at least, realize that even as recently as the seventies and eighties when I was publishing, there was no such a thing as a blog or a podcast. It was fanzines all the way down.

    I am not an authority of fan history but my impression is that fandom began back in the thirties with fanzines. The fannish Big Bang spewed out paper, and mimeo and hecto ink. In the beginning fanzine fandom was fandom. And when the Hugos were invented that was still the case, so naturally the awards reflect categories which make sense for a fandom that is all fanzines.

    Over the years fan activity has expanded in all directions and fanzine fandom is today only a small part of fandom. Some old timers would like to think that fanzine fandom is still the vital core of fandom but that is only true in the sense that much of fandom sprang from fanzine fandom.
    You could trace certain varieties of fandom back to a common origin. Do blogs and podcasts owe their existence to fanzine fandom in any way or did they spring directly out of people’s interest in science fiction?

    At any rate, my interest still centers on fanzines, and it doesn’t bother me a bit if others want to concentrate on blogs, or Star Trek, or costuming or filking or whatever, not does it bother me that those with different interests don’t feel inclined to pay their respects to fanzines. (Actually given the state of fanzine fandom compared to how it once was maybe “paying their respects” is exactly the right phrase!)

    Probably the Hugos should be expanded to recognize the new variety we have today rather than trying to cram everything into slots designed for what has become a small part of fandom.

    But bloggers should take some time to look into the origins of the Hugos before complaining about them. One of the main attractions of sf, for me, is that it looks at the whole picture, the past as well as the present. It doesn’t simply take what we see now for granted but wants to know the meanings of things, what’s behind it all. So Aidan ought to have guessed that, as with most mysteries of the universe, there is a reason why these fanzine fans he never heard of show on Hugo ballots! Apparently he failed to look into it. It isn’t so bad that he displayed his ignorance — we are all, initially, ignorant about lots of things. But for a science fiction reader to display a lack of curiosity…well, that’s different.

  8. Taral:

    Rules are *all about* form, aren’t they? Otherwise,why are there Hugo categories for Best Novel and Best Short Story? What’s the difference except length, and why should that matter.

    Failed analogy: We don’t have a “Best Short Story published on pieces of paper only” versus “Best Short Story published online” versus “Best Short Story issued as an audiobook” distinction.

    The length distinctions (in the prose and dramatic categories) are analogous to weight categories in boxing — a light flyweight and a cruiserweight boxer are both participating in the same sport, but wouldn’t be competing against each other.

    While Mike has ridiculed me for it, I still remember that it’s not been very long ago that people seriously proposed that we needed a separate category for “e-zines” to distinguish them from “real” fanzines. Somewhere along the way, that argument became essentially moot, and most (probably not all, but any rump hard core of “paper or nothing” types simply gave up up the field).

    Why a category for best film (dramatic presentation if you insist) and best novel, when the only difference is that one is on paper and the other projected on a screen?

    Now here you may have something. The question here is whether the form is sufficiently different between the two as to make it a completely different kind of work. We as a society have reached a consensus that dramatic works are sufficiently different from prose that they require separate categories. The proper argument here is that a podcast (or other audio/video work) is sufficiently different from a “printed” (including electronically printed and distributed) publication that they can’t be meaningfully compared to each other. That may well be the case. But if it is, where does the distinction actually fall?

    I think there’s a reasonably good case to be made that periodical publications consisting of words and pictures, whether published on paper or electronically, are as different from podcasts (video/audio productions) that they shouldn’t be competing against each other. We don’t make a radio play based on a short story compete against that short story in Best Short Story.

    If there is such a consensus, there then becomes a completely separate argument as to whether there are sufficient podcasts and the like that would be in the sights of the likely electorate to make for a big enough field. Like any other category, you need not just five likely candidates, but a sufficiently large field that it’s an honor to be nominated, not just “oh, well, we had to fill up five slots, so we put you in there.”

  9. Steven H Silver made the point that there are no awards where print competes against presentation. Journalism awards have papers in a different categroy from television news as an example. I looked into it and the closest thing I’ve found are awards like the Peabody where it’s more freeform.

    I think there are more than enough good PodCasts to fill a category all it’s own. They have two categories where they live now, so it would be nice to get it down to a single one!

  10. Chris:

    If you think you can come up with a way to define it that won’t make things worse, I’ll help you propose a completely new category for podcasts that splits them out of Best Fanzine. Be prepared to argue about why adding a category for podcasts doesn’t somehow cheapen Best Novel. (The Hugo Anti-Proliferation argument, whose logical extension is that there should be at most Four categories: the four prose fiction categories.)

  11. Breakin’ ’em out of both Fanzine and best related makes sense.

    The key isn’t to argue to change anyone’s minds, it’s to make sure the the folks with the open minds get the chance to vote (ie. let’s get on the Popular Ratification thing first!)

  12. Chris:

    I’m at anyone’s disposal for parliamentary draftsmanship. Are you saying you want me to draw up Popular Ratification and that you want to propose it to this year’s BM (where, if passed, it would have to be ratified by the Chicon 7 BM)?

  13. Well yeah, I’ve bene waiting for someone to out forward a proposal so I can jump on-board, though I don’t think I’m the guy to propose. My credibility is shot!

  14. @Chris and Kevin: At the two of you because you brought this thought to mind, not that either of you is thinking this way. Somebody has to decide — are we giving awards to toasters or toast? Must we create a Hugo category for every technology because the fannish consensus is broken, and the new rules governing the existing categories are so inadequate that neither voters nor Hugo administrators can say with authority that something doesn’t belong, for example, in Best Fanzine? It seems like we’re going backwards in a circle — in the past decade the rules were changed to acknowledge that all kinds of traditional fanac was happening online, not just on paper, allowing electronically-distributed examples to fit within existing categories — that we were honoring the toast (the content), not the toaster (the technological format).

    Considered from the viewpoint of the toaster, however, I also don’t think that a fanzine is technologically more difficult to define than a graphic novel — two-dimensional words and pictures in each case. Blogs and websites that incorporate video and audio, technologies long associated with dramatic presentation and related works, ought to be filtered out. Whether they warrant their own Hugo category should depend on fans’ demand for such a category, because it won’t work to invent it merely as a political substitute for the correct decision, writing a properly descriptive WSFS contitutional definition of the Best Fanzine category.

  15. Mike:

    You raise excellent points. Right now, the (admittedly somewhat strained) definition of Fanzine is in the “toast” category, with the assumption that both traditional printed (and electronically distributed, e.g. PDFs on web sites and such) fanzines and non-print media (e.g. podcasts) are all types of bread. I admit to not having a strong feeling one way or the other about whether non-print media should be filtered out of “fanzine,” but I know that the current wording is there as a response to complaints that the fanzine category was “out of touch” with “modern” fanac.

  16. Chris and Kevin, There has been a discussion about proposing a Best Podcast Hugo at Reno this year, although I haven’t seen any final language for the proposal. And as far as Chris’s comment “I think there are more than enough good PodCasts to fill a category all it’s own,” I’d point out that over on SF Site’s news page, I just posted a call for nominations for the sixth annual Parsec Awards, which are being given out for podcasts in 15 categories.

  17. Steven:

    The challenge here isn’t so much as to whether or not there are lots of podcasts, but whether or not there are sufficient numbers that likely voters will nominate. This isn’t a trivial distinction. Look at the failed Best Computer Game trial. There are plenty of games out there, but very few voting Worldcon members must have played them, because there weren’t enough nominations to justify the category proceeding to the final ballot. And yet just a few days ago I had a go-around with someone scoffing that he can’t take the Hugos seriously because they don’t have a Best Computer Game category when there are lots and lots of games out there so obviously there would be lots on the ballot.

  18. When is a difference a difference?

    There’s little point to going back to the beginning of this discussion, seeing how its moved on, but…

    In essense, all I see you saying is that the difference in media I give as example is a *different* sort of difference that doesn’t matter. Oh, that’s not a differtence in colour, it’s a difference in shape, so they *are* the same. That’s not even a good semantic argument; it’s more like an excuse.

    By the way, I do apologize for making the argument personal in any way. I shouldn’t have said that you believe in Big, Important Fandom or anything like that. I have no idea what you believe, and it isn’t germane.

    What I was getting at, fundamentally, was that fandom has been changing, slowly at first, and now much more quickly and I don’t think there is as much connectivity between the past and the present as there once was. Most fans are probably as unaware of Walt Willis or TAFF as they are of the second possessive plural of “fan” in Tibetan. And in your comments what I saw was a bland acceptance of this. Oh well, the fans think a podcast or sock-puppet show is a fanzine, so it is.

    In later comments, you seem to indicate that if fandom thinks differently, and the rules are changed, your own idea of what a fanzine is will change with it.

  19. Taral:

    While I’ll agree with you that “most fans” don’t necessarily know their fan history, I think I’m one of those who does. Knowing one’s history doesn’t mean being a slave to it or demanding that the present be a preserved-in-amber version of it. What I’m saying is that, in general, we need to adapt with changing times or else shut things down and go home and hide under the bed.

    Now I’m also aware of people in fandom who say, “Good! Disband everything since it’s not all the same way it was when I was young and All Was Right With the World.” Unlike people who really do want Worldcon to die when they do, I’d like to think that Worldcon and fandom are bigger than any of the individuals who participate in it.

    Times change, and people’s perceptions of what’s important change. I consider myself a moderate, actually, standing between the “preserved in amber” and the “only things created in the last ten minutes matter” crowds. It’s no wonder that I’m sometimes perceived simultaneously as a bomb-throwing lunatic (see my draft wording for Popular Ratification, which I’m sure will horrify most of the Usual Suspects of WSFS) and a crusty out-of-touch conservative (probably to the write of the post that started this discussion.

    I want to keep working to keep what I think is our preeminent award relevant to today’s times, while not completely losing touch with our past. That sometimes means we have to experiment with different things to see what actually works (and sometimes making mistakes), and it almost always mean needing to compromise. I know that compromise seems to be a dirty word these days of “my way is the One True Way,” but I’m going to keep at it as long as I can. It would possibly be more comforting to hold to one extreme position or the other, since it gives one more certainty, but I guess I’m just funny that way.

  20. “All well in good if you look at “fandom” as no one thing in particular, and if it is just an elusive, abstraction like a neighborhood, football team or clan that you are expected to remain loyal to, regardless of how it changes, grows or evolves. But, if fandom becomes a born-again-movement, a business or a film festival, why should I care about it? Once it is no longer what interests me, what use could I have for fandom? I’ve been arguing about the Hugos for some time now precisely to keep some part of fandom as the thing that initially interested me. The rest of you can have the whole Worldcon, the other Hugo categories, media exposure, whatever you want… just leave us the damn Fan Hugos, can’t you? Is that too much to ask? If fandom has to change into something that I don’t give a rat’s ass about in order to survive… then I’m just as happy if it doesn’t survive. Kill the fan Hugos, or change them, it’s the same to me.

    I imagine your concept of fandom isn’t threatened by the changes we see happening — more power to you. But they make fandom meaningless to me, and from what I hear among many of the greyheads, meaningless to a lot of them too. If the future lies elsewhere, swell for the future. I don’t imagine you’ll come crying to me when The Warhammer Version 2.1 for Cell Phones wins Best Dramatic Presentation or something like that. I won’t be listening.

    Maybe I’ll go on writing and drawing for zines, but fandom is close to a state where I may no longer be able to call myself a fan.”

  21. Taral:

    Well, yes, if it mutates in the way you say, then yes, I wouldn’t be interested in it. But I don’t think it will, so including absurd extremes isn’t terribly meaningful. And “fandom” is more to me than “about 200 people who all have known each other since they were teenagers and are now old curmudgeons who sit around complaining about how much better things were in the Good Old Days. It includes a lot of things — including your work BTW, which I like very much and for which I keep nominating you for Hugo Awards and encouraging others to do so as well — but it also includes things that I might not personally like but that I think are fellow travelers worthy of inclusion, not disdain. To that extent, I think I’m very much part of Big Tent Fandom. You see, if Fandom had taken the exclusionary approach 27 years ago when I attended my first convention (the 1984 Worldcon), it wouldn’t have let me in and wouldn’t have attracted me in the first place. (No doubt some people would like that scenario.) I feel obliged to not try to slam the door behind me, that’s all.

  22. No doubt, time will make fools of us all. When we look back and see how wrong we were… somehow I can’t complete that sentence.

  23. Michael:

    I’ve heard this before, and it’s a superficially attractive thought, but the podcast works thus far nominated elsewhere aren’t dramatic presentations. Do you not think people would complain if, say, a documentary about the space program — not a docu-drama like the movie Apollo 13 — were nominated in one of the Best Dramatic Presentation categories? This goes back to the “is it the medium or the message” argument. We don’t say that a printed fanzine should be in one of the written-fiction categories because it has words on paper (or the electronic equivalent thereof).

    BTW, if a podcast was of a dramatized work, I would have no problem at all with it being in one of the BDP categories.

    To those people objecting to podcasts being in Best Fanzine: If the authors produced a “printed” publication that had the same words (say, arranged as a transcript of what appears in the podcasts), would that be acceptable to you? Would you complain so loudly about StarShipSofa: The Transcripts being nominated?

  24. My feeling is more that the skill set to publish a fanzine and the skillset to produce a podcast are completely different. It would be like having a category for best news magazine and having the nominees be Newsweek, Us News and World Report, Time, The Economist, and 60 Minutes. One of those clearly doesn’t belong in the category. And if 60 Minutes published the transcripts, I still don’t think it would belong in the category.

  25. Steven:

    That’s a reasonable argument. The question once again becomes whether there is sufficient support for some sort of category that includes fan-produced non-dramatic podcasts to get it passed and let Best Fanzine get back to being solely “print” works. (I put scare quotes around “print” because we appear to consider PDF and the like to be “print” even though it doesn’t require ink-on-paper, and I certainly wouldn’t want any redefinition to accidentally ban every electronically-published fanzine from the category.) Even _naming_ the category could be a challenge, I reckon. Is “Best Fan Podcast” sufficient, or does it open yet another can of parliamentary worms?

  26. Steven, Kevin…

    I can see a category for “Best Fancast” for audio and video periodicals of a fannish nature. Since we’re talking about A/V parallels to fanzines, the other qualifications should be lifted directly from the fanzine rule.

  27. There are lots of things that are fanac or SF and for which we don’t have Hugos. We no longer have a Hugo for Best Professional Magazine, or for Best Critic, or Best Webdite, although these categories have existed in the past. We can say that podcasts are not fanzines without being required to provide a podcast category for them to belong to. We don’t have best fannish t-shirt collection either, though t-shirts exist and are fannish, and I’d nominate Seth Breidbart in this category at the drop of a hat.

    It seems to me that for a category to exist there need to be at least 10 good nominees every year, so it isn’t always the same things. This is why best pro magazine wouldn’t be a good category, and why best semi-pro has been under reconsideration recently. I’m not a fan of podcasts — I like reading, not listening. I have listened to Wolfe and Strahan’s podcast and it’s pretty good. But I have no idea whether there are lots of high quality fannish podcasts. I think this would be a useful question to ask of people who both like podcasts and care about the Hugos, before thinking about instituting another category.

  28. Jo:

    I think this may be a case where, like Semiprozine (where threatening to kill it seems to have actually breathed more life into it as more publications came to light) there is a lot more stuff going on out there than “traditional” fandom may have realized. Now there is a practical consideration, like the one I raised about Best Video Game: it doesn’t matter how many worthy works there are out there if few members of Worldcon pay attention to them sufficiently to nominate them.

    Here, the burden of proof must fall upon whoever decides to propose such a change to show that there’s a sufficiently broad field of potential fannish works that have a plausible chance of being nominated without the field being so diffuse that nothing will get more than a handful of nominations. (Short Story being the most recent victim of work diffusion. See the show notes for the podcast (*ahem*) that I, Cheryl, and John DeNardo did a few days ago for some interesting statistical analysis about nominee diffusion and both “depth” (number of people nominating, indicating interest) and “breadth” (number of unique works nominated, indicating variety of potential candidates). Best Dramatic Presentation, for instance, appears to be what you might call “deep” (lots of nominations) and “narrow” (relatively few unique works nominated). A category that is likely to be both shallow (few nominations) and narrow (few works) isn’t likely to be considered viable.

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