The Hugo Award As Cultural Object
“[T]he Hugo Awards do not belong to only those who voted for them. If they want them to be awards for the genre(s), then they need to be open to criticism from those who do not, or will not, involve themselves in the process.” – Ian Sales
I had hoped to come up with a more evocative title for this week’s column, but this one gets right to the point. In the comments for last week’s column a number of people pointed out that my discourse on the Hugos’ place within the fantastic literary field of production was incomplete. I had suspected this when I wrote it, and given the response to that column, I will try to expand on that piece this week and next week, and at least provisionally lay out more ideas in greater detail. This time around, I want to talk about the Awards themselves, as cultural objects with assorted relational values and as a focus for struggles of meaning (and thus of their value) within fantastika.
The Hugos are actually three sorts of cultural object: material item, symbolic cultural asset, and organizational product. The iconic chrome rocket trophy is presented to all winners, and generally only the base of the physical award changes from year to year, providing a sleek, polished link between the new awardee and the idealized lineage of SF that the Hugos stand for; it is a tangible object that confers the award’s values directly to the awardee and their work. As asset (and thus an object of contention with power and convertible value), the award has a number of meanings, which I will discuss presently. But that aspect is inseparable from the fact that the Hugos are also the enterprise of a peculiar organization and are produced by a different group of participants in the field each year; that is, the current Worldcon committee. The Hugos are overseen by the World Science Fiction Society, which “is really just a framework for the individual Worldcons — it has no officers and no permanent organization” except for two committees: the Mark Protection Committee and its Marketing Subcommittee.
We need to bear this in mind because the explicitly articulated significance of the Awards comes first from this organization and its members maintain the system that reproduces this significance and thus the awards’ value as assets. According to the official website they are “science fiction’s most prestigious award.” There isn’t much elaboration on that. The more obvious value judgment is contained in the names of the categories, which are all “Best”. This designation is elaborated upon in the website’s FAQ: the Hugos “are awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy”. So we have three descriptors that are directly applied to the awards: “prestigious”, “Best”, and “for excellence”.
These descriptors are not just given authenticity by invocation of the organization, but by the symbolic capital it accumulates through its primary activity, which is to arrange and regulate a process of nominating and voting for candidates for the awards and then ceremonially presenting them to the winners, all of which take place in the highly-charged social milieu of Worldcon. While the pool of voters is extremely limited (to those who purchase a supporting or attending membership to the upcoming Worldcon), this group essentially stands in for all of the participants in the literary field of production through the voting system. The Hugos are promoted (and to a large extent received) as a catholic honor for the field: the prestige is generalized and attached to the author and their work through the bestowing of the title “Best” to them. There are no specifics that determine the substantive criteria for a work’s nominations other than subjective notions of “excellence,” which is a vague and problematic designation.
This is the where the cultural value of the Awards is both reified by privileged participants and simultaneously opened to contention. The nomination and voting process filters a field of subjective opinions with no clear criteria to condense nominations to the point where a single work in each category “wins” and is then affirmed as the acme of artistic achievement in the genre. But the subjective criteria clash with the substantial symbolic capital the awards have due to their history, their ritualized annual reaffirmation, and their mode of selection. When this disjuncture is combined with the growth of the literary field in both diversity and sheer volume of artistic productions, more and more opportunities for critique and to query what the value of the award is and who deserves it in a shifting social environment are created. The Hugo, as a pinnacle of achievement that can draw social capital (more visibility, more connections with fans and professionals, a more prestigious social position in the field overall), cultural capital (a place in the formal history of the field, a presumed higher value of the author’s works, more attention to future endeavors), and even potentially economic capital, becomes not just an exemplar of the field and the individual, but also a focal point for debating the relations it has across the field.
Participants in the field are aware of the paradox; as Cheryl Morgan put it in a 2009 Mind Meld on this topic “As a popular vote award, the Hugos will never represent those parts of the genre that are not widely popular.” Critical perspectives are not new to the Hugos. As David Hartwell wrote in 1996 (discussing changes in the SF field):
“[I]f you look, for instance, at the Hugo Awards, they have become more centrist. It is my opinion that in some recent years none [emphasis his] of the best science fiction novels of the year have been nominated for a Hugo. None. [....] I could not make this assertion had there not been a significant gap developing in the past twenty years between what adult readers perceive as distinguished works of SF and what is popular and commercially successful.”
With changes in the field not only continuing but proliferating, criticism becomes inevitable, and objects of continuous value like the Hugos become more open to debate.
As the quotation from Kat Howard demonstrates, however, there is stiff resistance to criticism of the Hugos. For some, they have a sacred sort of value that reflects on the entire field. In a sense, to criticize the Hugos is to criticize the field. In recent years, as debates on the awards play out in social media venues, the sacrosant value of the awards is reflected in the defensive tone some take to criticism. Some see them as unassailable, while others see the criticism as a character flaw. For example, as one online commenter noted: “What is for sure though is, no matter how much things improve, there will ALWAYS be fen willing to nitpick and flyspeck the results. ALWAYS.” This is an opinion that arises throughout the awards discourse, and the discourse within the field in general. But no one ever seems to ask why there is all of this nitpicking and grousing and [insert derogatory adjective here]. What some see are just cheap, baseless, biased attacks on a hallowed tradition and a symbol that represents the qualities of the field and, by extension, its participants.
The problem is that most of the criticism is ad hoc and directed at an item of great symbolic value. The criticism can be characterized as facetious because once the Awards are given they cannot be easily taken away, and the system that creates them depends on that being the case. Also, criticizing after the fact creates a few levels of disgruntled response: from voters who put their own cultural (and economic) capital into the process; from those who enjoyed the books and are pleased to see them honored; and from those who see any questioning of these valuable things as troublesome, even if the critique is about a particular choice and not the awards themselves. In a sense, awards cannot be an object of a debate that alters their imprimatur of recognition; criticisms of specific awardees are seen as an attack on the system that produces them and the abstracted value of the awards, what they represent as avatars of the field and the prestige they bestow on awardees.
Criticism is seen as unproductive, if not obnoxious, at this point because the ritual of granting the award has been accomplished and the value of the awards in general passed on to specific people and works. The ideas of the Hugos as constituting a lineage of greatness in the field, as a reward from the field to those selected by a concentrated elite, and as a historical symbol that accrues esteem and symbolic capital mean that any invocation of them invokes a social relationship to them and in some way endeavors to draw some symbolic capital from them. This further means that the defense of them is often brusque and static to protect the investment in them and to maintain their power in the field.
The latest example of this is John Scalzi’s generalized response to critiques of this year’s awards. After a dismissive “meh” regarding the “kvetching” and a jab at potential elitism in some critics’ responses, he concluded:
“Point is, yes, people are bitching about the Hugo results. When do they not? Let everyone have their fun and we’ll all meet back here next year for more of the same.”
I think the last sentence here exemplifies the assumed ubiquitous and impervious value of the awards. All criticism is play, not to be taken seriously, and without addressing any of it is trivialized as “fun.” It is so powerless and petty that it is all just “bitching” about something that we all know is incontestable, creating an assumption that everyone can and should forget the criticizing and continue with the tradition unblemished by any successful linkage to probing evaluations, personal reflections, or interrogations. In this and his Twitter exchange with Damien Walter over his characterization of the critics, the sense was that any attempt to criticize the awards could never be more than complaining because of the very nature of the awards as providers of symbolic capital in several forms that must be reproduced as immutable to continue holding and dispensing that capital.
Which leads us to the question of why this is so, which I will endeavor to explicate next week…
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