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

“No day is an appropriate day to try and cast tarnish on the shiny rocketship trophies.” – Kat Howard (via Strange Horizons)

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…

13 thoughts on “The Hugo Award As Cultural Object”

  1. Another great column, John.

    As I wote in my most recent Wayward Time Traveler column, I don’t necessarily look at the Hugos as the “best” for the very reason that there is no objective criteria to warrant such a judgment. As an individual, I may consider some of the winners the “best” of what I’ve read in a given year. But I think the most objective judgement that can be applied to the Hugos (I say most objective) is that they represent an example of works that members of the World Science Fiction convention deem important in a given year. And that does have some value both inside and outside the genre.

    As far as the bickering and cirticisning of the award goes, I do believe that comes with the territory. I’m a baseball fan and I point to the All Star game as an example of this. Fans bicker over who gets voted onto the All Star team all the time. It is a tradition of the sport. “It’s a popularity contest!” you’ll hear some people say, for instance. And in the All Star game, there are some objective measures that can be used, like player stats, to determine who deserved to be an All Star–and yet those objective measures are often ignored.

    Science fiction fans have been contentious since the modern dawn of the genre. It’s in our blood. When the bickering is good-natured, as it is for the most part in baseball, I don’t have a problem with it. When it turns unnecessarily mean-spriited or personal, well, I think that just reflects poorly on us.

    (Wow, did I really beat Paul in commenting first!?) ;-)


  2. Jaime:

    Paul did comment first, but his comment got stuck in moderator limbo somehow :-(.

    It’s true that we don’t all subscribe equally to the idea of the Hugos as the “best” personally, but the awards’ prestige and value remain powerful. The objective notion that you describe makes sense to me, but that is not how they are perceived and how they are related to within the field. They are the field’s most prestigious award, and there is a lot of affect and symbolic capital bound to them. They are cultural markers, boundary creators, taste assertions, etc. And despite a growing variety of opinions about them, they remain so. To me that means they have a constitutive role and are a robust engine of social power within the field. That’s why I find them so compelling to examine and try to analyze; they’re durable, historically anchored, and consistently reproduced by the field by many participants.

    Criticism can be helpful or it can be corrosive, depending on the individual’s intentions and their manner of argument. Certainly SF fandom has a long and sometimes ignoble history of arguing, snarking, and speculating about every aspect of the literature and the field. I think it is a social phenomenon and not inherently natural, but arises from inevitable contentions in social relations. We each have an idea in our head of what society is, of what different symbols and ojects signify, and of how to get along with others while fulfilling our own wants and needs. And with highly valuable social things like the Hugos, there is always contention, and I think the last two decades have increased that, leading to some useful queries but also to negative applications, as Cheryl Morgan’s step-back today sadly demonstrates. We could really do with less of that, and I wish that more folks would speak out when that happens.

    On a lighter note, I now want to make up an SFnal definition for “cirticisning.”

  3. Paul: It’s sad to see someone who has done so much for the field get passive-aggressively sidelined like that. I saw the political drama with the Mark Protection Committee from a distance, but I did not know about the rest. That doesn’t even sound like crtique, really, just mean-spirited innuendo and asshattery. It makes me wonder what the people saying that stuff had at stake, or what they were trying to assuage in themselves.

  4. There is basic disagreement with the results: “I think BookX didn’t deserve the award.”

    There is criticism of the electorate: “The voters are idiots.”

    I don’t really have a problem with either of those positions. Scalzi is right, there will always be people who don’t like the results, and people will grouse every year. Frankly, there are several nominees and winners I wasn’t thrilled with this year (fewer than usual, surprisingly).

    Hartwell and Cheryl are right, the selection process drives towards a popular and centrist result. It’s not the Hugo Award for the Best Dense and Inaccessible Work Nobody But a Tiny Selection Committee and Jury Understood. (And, yes, I thought The Dervish House was a writing tour-de-force deserving of this year’s Best Novel award, but I thought that Feed and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms were also deserving and more accessible.)

    WSFS, Worldcon and the Hugos are a DIY party. They’ve been so for over half a century, and, yes, many of us are interested in maintaing that status quo (although many of us are also interested in increasing participation, which is too radical for some folks). You get out of them what you put into them. Even if you participate, you nominate and vote, you may find in the end the results don’t validate your tastes.

    The bitterness about the process, particularly from people who refuse to get involved, bothers me. But, in the end, I think that activists in the Hugo Award arena (like Scalzi, who started the Hugo Voter Packet initiative, or myself, who helped move a new Hugo category through the business meeting process, or the people who changed the rules so supporting memberships can be sold at lower costs) have a right to ignore the bitter whining. We’ve invested our time and effort to make things better, not to tear things down.

  5. Image-wise, I don’t think you can watch the Hugo ceremony this year and not think of it as an inbred thing that isn’t *of the world*. It is not inclusive. It seems to have no awareness that people all over the world are watching it. Someone who isn’t ensconced in the Hugo mindset has to create a ceremony next year that isn’t…whatever this was this year…*and mean it*.


  6. The question is, Jeff, accepting that premise, how best to counteract that.

    Is it a matter of what is nominated? Expanding the voter electorate?  Opening up the con committee?  

    Has it been always thus?  Have the Hugos always been so insular and “inbred”, but modern communications and technology have made it more starkly and bluntly so?





  7. Paul wrote: “Opening up the con committee?”

    Please elucidate..your phrasing makes it sound like the concom is a secret cabal.

    In fact, Chicon is currently looking for volunteers to join the concom and staff for next year’s worldcon.  We’re very open about it and are looking to talk to anyone interested in helping out. You needn’t even live in Chicago to join the concom.  Many of our division heads are scattered throughout the country from Massachusetts to Seattle to Louisiana.

    The Hugo Awards Ceremony will be run by people in the Events Division, which is being headed by Yvonne and Pierre Pettinger, although I don’t believe they’ve selected the person/people who will be heading that particular function yet.

  8. Hi Steven,

    I resisted the urge to do a Venn diagram.  However…

    The pool of genre readers>>Hugo voters>>Hugo Nominators>>True-Fen/Con Committee.

    And yes, while the committee is looking for volunteers as you say, I think the perception, at least mine anyway, is that the committee is only for the hardcore readers who have the disposable time and energy to devote to it.  So it gets left to the few.

    Heck, getting people to nominate or even vote for the awards is difficult. Cheryl Morgan and SF Signal did good work in trying to get more people to do both in a series of podcasts about the awards, but its an uphill climb. Inertia is a powerful, powerful force.

    And so, a small pool of people in the genre community have a large effect on the Hugo awards. But given the perception of the importance of the Hugo awards as opposed to other genre awards, there is a big mismatch here. 

    It’s like the Academy Awards, only even more so.



  9. Paul,

    There are several jobs at a Worldcon that don’t take up a lot of time, some are at-con only, some are finished before the con.  One of the committee jobs I did for Renovation (and will be handling for Chicon) is compiling the In Memoriam list, something which could, theoretically, be done in just a couple of hours.  There are other, similar committee jobs as well.

    So, while some, perhaps even most, jobs take a considerable amount to time and energy, there are others that do not.  And many of the people who work on cons are anything but hardcore readers. In fact, many read very little SF/F, working on cons for the sense of community.

  10. At one point I thought the Hugos meant something…but as I have gone along in life either my taste or the voter’s taste has drifted.

    Now I rarely pay attention to who wins, or is even nominated.


    ps- Since Vandemeer ragged on the ceremony I watched it. I didnt see it as “inbred”, corny as hell, yes, but not really inbred…they really need to hire some writers…err…err…blah, you know what I mean.

    But what do I know, I am just a fan and consumer of the genre.

  11. Thanks for the read and the link, but I disagree with your characterization of my quoted statement:

    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 fannish trait is not a character flaw, it’s a character benefit.  What one quickly learns in fandom is that there will always be kvetching BECAUSE IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH (at least in one fen’s mind), not because there’s necessarily an inherent problem.  What we end up with is “not allowing perfect to become the enemy of getting the job done”.

    I see this as an admirable (if admittedly annoying) characteristic of fandom. Everyone striving for perfection (yes, sometimes at odds with each other, often even many, many odds) and then the clock runs out, reset, start all over (but not from scratch).

    I think Scalzi was acknowledging the same thing in his quote above.

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