Apr 172015

220px-Eric_FlintEric Flint just wrote a long post where he expounds on what he believes is causing the divide between mass audiences and WorldCon voters. And, as has been pointed out by numerous people by now, it is not politics (as the Puppies initially claimed… and still do?)

It is, in fact, very long. However it is very insightful, and makes very good points, and has a really neat solution proposed at the end. In the interest of getting to the chase, I am snipping out the parts I personally thought were the most interesting and pasting them below (And even then it’s still kinda long). Please note that ALL OF THIS IS THE WORDS OF ERIC FLINT. I do not have the talent or insight to write this, and I do not want to claim any credit for his work. Please go check out his original post, or buy some of his books, or something. :)

Due to massive changes in the market for F&SF the structure of the major awards no longer bears any relationship to the real world in which professional authors live and work.

Three out of four awards are given for short fiction. Forty or fifty years ago, that made perfect sense. It was an accurate reflection of the reality of the field for working authors. Today, F&SF is overwhelmingly a novel market. Short fiction doesn’t generate more than 1% or 2% of all income for writers. And even measured in terms of readership, short fiction doesn’t account for more than 5% of the market.

To make the situation still worse, the official rules for both the Hugo and Nebula define a “novel” as any story more than 40,000 words long. Half a century ago, that was reasonable. The average length of an SF novel was between 40,000 and 60,000 words. But today that definition is simply laughable. Every professional author and editor in our field knows perfectly well that no major publisher, outside of the YA market, will accept a “novel” manuscript that’s less than 80,000 words long—and they usually want between 90-120,000 words.

Then, it gets worse. Because the market today isn’t simply a novel market. It’s become predominantly a market that wants long series, not stand-alone novels. And the existing award structure is very poorly designed to handle long series. About the only way it can do it is by—quite artificially, in most cases—cutting one book out of a series and pretending for the moment that it’s a “this year only” quasi-stand alone story.

That can be done with some series, which are designed by their authors to consist of stories that are only somewhat loosely connected. But other series are quite different. To name just one example, the current situation with David Weber’s long-running Honor Harrington series is that no fewer than three novels are running more or less simultaneously with each other, with the action of the various characters penetrating from one story to the other—and, just to put the icing on the cake, a number of the major characters were first developed in short fiction published in one or another of the anthologies that are part of the series, and some of them by authors other than Weber himself. Trying to separate any of these out as “best this or that of Year X” would be an exercise in futility.

And never mind that Weber is doing something well enough that the Honor Harrington series is one of the very few purely SF series that regularly makes the New York Times bestseller list. His narrative structure doesn’t match what the awards are comfortable with, so to hell with him. And to hell with what the mass audience thinks.

The end result is the ever-growing division you see today between those authors whom the mass audience perceives as the major authors in F&SF and those authors whom the comparatively tiny but socially prestigious award-voting and critical in-crowds consider major authors. It’s a division which is getting worse, not better, as time goes on.

This is by no means peculiar to F&SF. In just about every field of literary or artistic endeavor—hell, just plain hobbies, when you get down to it—you tend to get a division between the interests and concerns of the mass audience involved in that field and the much smaller inner circles of aficionados.

I think of it as the movie reviewer’s syndrome. I noticed many years ago that almost all movie reviewers will automatically deduct at least one point from their rating of a movie if it contains a car chase. Why? Well, it’s not hard to understand. Seeing three or four or five movies a week the way they do, they get sick and tired of car chases.

But the average movie-goer doesn’t watch new movies four times a week. For them, movies are a relatively occasional experience—and, what the hell, car chases are kinda fun.
What you get with literature, including any and all forms of genre fiction, is the following division:

What the mass audience wants, first and foremost is a good story. Period.

But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”

To put it another way, every successful author has to master two skills which, although related, are still quite distinct: they have to be good story-tellers; and they have to be good writers.

Of those two skills, being a terrific story-teller but a journeyman writer will win you a mass audience, and is likely to keep it. On the flip side, being a journeyman story-teller but a terrific wordsmith will win you critical plaudits but won’t usually get you much in the way of an audience.

I can tell you that under the existing category of “novel” there are at least four different types of stories each of which pose as many separate challenges and require as many varied sets of skills as the differences between writing a short story, a novelette and a novella.
Those are:

1) Short novels. Stories from about 40,000 to 80,000 words.

2) Full length stand-alone novels.

3) Mega-novels. These are stories which are actually a single “novel” in the sense that they are based on an integrated story arch, but which are so long that for practical and commercial reasons they have to be published in multiple volumes. Probably the classic instance in our field is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It is usually called a “trilogy,” but it is in fact a single novel.

An example from my own work would be the six-volume Belisarius “series,” which is really just one great big novel.

4) Series, properly speaking. These are stories which share a common setting and usually a common set of characters, but do not possess a single story arch.

Just to make things more complicated, there is really quite a big difference between two kinds of series: the traditional “beads on a string” series, which proceed as Volumes 1, 2, 3, etc., and the more complex kind of series where the stories branch off from each other, often run parallel to each other, and can’t be neatly assigned to any clear and definite chronological sequence.

I’ve worked in both kinds, and they really do require different skill sets, although of course there’s a lot of overlap. (My Trail of Glory series is a “beads on a string” type series. My 1632 series and Joe’s World series are of the more complex “branching bush” type.)

So what are we supposed to do? Scrap the existing best novel award for four or possibly even five different awards?

And if that seems excessive, contemplate this:

As long as we’re considering solving award problems by expanding the number of awards, let us not overlook the still more long-standing problem that comedy is always lumped in with dramatic story-telling even though everybody who knows anything about stories know perfectly well that:

—comedy is really, really hard to do well;

—and it never gets any critical respect.

That’s partly what explains the preposterous fact that Terry Pratchett got so few nominations in his entire career. And it’s also the reason that the Golden Globe movie awards, unlike the Oscars, make a distinction between comedic films and dramatic films.
I can see it already…

We’d have seven different literary awards instead of four, and then duplicate each of them for comedic treatment for a total of fourteen awards handed out every year.

Somehow, that strikes me as more than a little goofy.

But I personally think the best solution, if there is one at all, is to scrap the whole existing set-up. Of all the awards handed out for literary merit, the only ones that seems to maintain any sort of ongoing more-or-less objective relationship to the real world are those given out for often broadly-defined achievement. They’re not awards given out for “best XYZ of year ABC.” Instead, they are achievement awards handed out for a body of work, that may be anchored to something specific but takes other considerations into account, and perhaps most importantly is not tied to an annual cycle.

That allows such awards to adapt to changes in the market (or the equivalent in other fields), not to be forced into making snap judgments—and, perhaps most important of all, allows the voters to consider the ongoing and cumulative impact of an author’s work rather than artificially dividing it up between Works 1, 2, 3, etc., etc.

It is simply not the case that every author’s importance to the field can be gauged in terms of this or that specific story, matched up against all other stories in the year it came out. In the case of many authors, even though they may never have written any single work that anyone (including themselves) would consider “the best whatever” of Year ABC, they manage to produce a body of work over many years that, taken as a whole, often outshines—even dwarfs—the overall body of work of authors who might have won annual awards fairly regularly.

All that said, I think the likelihood that either the Hugo or the Nebula will be scrapped in favor of general achievement awards is probably indistinguishable from zero. These things tend to develop a tremendous institutional inertia. If such an award started with a very large and prestigious body of sponsors, it might have a chance of getting off the ground, I suppose. My problem is that, deep down inside, a little voice is whispering to me….

Oh, great. Just what the world needs. Another goddam award that nobody pays any attention to except the people who voted for it.

  4 Responses to “Eric Flint’s Proposed Solution”

  1. Well, it depends what you mean by politics. Sad Puppies 1 and 2 were party-political, Left vs Right, D vs R, but SP3’s stated goals was getting good works onto the ballot that wouldn’t normally have a chance, regardless of the author’s politics. In other words, not party politics, but ingroup-outgroup politics, or Elite Literati vs Populist politics. I’d imagine that Eric Flint is the kind of author they’re thinking of. Very popular 163x series, but no recognition. Socialist, but so what?!

    Note that Flint’s article provides evidence that this is a problem.

    Part of the Sad Puppies campaign was to bridge the divide between Worldcon and mass SF/F fans by getting those fans involved in Worldcon via supporting memberships and the like. Given that they’re fans of SF/F, why shouldn’t they be?

    • >Part of the Sad Puppies campaign was to bridge the divide between Worldcon and mass SF/F fans by getting those fans involved in Worldcon via supporting memberships and the like. Given that they’re fans of SF/F, why shouldn’t they be?

      That is a fine and noble goal. If that was all there was to it, there would be far fewer complaints. But SP3 was not merely getting more fans involved in worldcon, it was three guys picking a slate of nominees and recruiting lots of people to vote that slate. In terms of sheer numbers, yes, more people are involved. But it’s far less inclusive because rather than this being a conversation among all SF fans, it is a declaration by three men. If they continue this effort they may as well just give out their own “Brad, Larry, and Vox Day Awards” rather than call them the Hugos.

  2. Reading various discussions, there seems to be some equivocation regarding the term “slate”. It can be taken in two ways. The first is “blind slate” voting, where the three headed Coraysen announce a slate, and voters vote the slate without reading the works and coming to a judgement about them. I agree this is wrong.
    The second is “suggested slate” voting, where various people announce recommendations or suggestions, then the voters go and read the works, and, if they find them worthy, nominate them. I really can’t see what’s wrong with this.

    There was a back and forth between BT/LC and Mike Glyer of File770 during the nomination process, which agrees with the above. Glyer: If people have read a story on Sad Puppies 3, another list, or nobody’s list at all, and loved it — then their opinion is as good as any other voter’s

    I’ll tell you where I’m coming from. I was planning on only voting for the finals until I saw that flowchart, but I thought, why not?! So I made some nominations, some of those were from their recommendations, some weren’t, and some of them made the ballot – I was 2 of 2 in the related works category.

    I believed that I was “taking part in the conversation”, but if you’re correct and it’s a declaration of three men, then that implies that I’m a mindless follower of Coraysen.

    So, in summary, I’m rather confused…

    • The original list of Hugo nominees this year was almost a Xerox of the Puppies Slate, which strongly implies that most of the Puppies were voting solid slate, or extremely close to it. I suspect that for most of the non-novel categories, most people weren’t widely read. Short fiction doesn’t have the draw that long-running series do, and there’s so much of it that it’s hard to read a lot of it. I assume that many people read the recommendations, said “Yeah, that’s pretty good” and went along with the nomination without having read many/any shorts outside of those 5 nominees. While this isn’t *malicious*, it does have the effect of creating block-votes for the slate.

      Also, an interesting note on the Novel nominations: Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies were split on one of the novels. Sad Puppies included Trial By Fire rather than Chaplain’s War, Rabid Puppies was the opposite. Of the original Hugo nominations, the Puppies got all four of the novels that they agreed on and put on both lists, but neither of the ones they disagreed on. This strongly suggests that they split the vote, and as a result neither one received a nomination. This also implies that if all the Puppies simply read whatever they wanted and voted however they liked, they would be just as fractured and many-voiced as the majority of the WorldCon goers. They would have a voice in the process, but it would be the same voice as everyone else has, and would sway things just a little bit, in proportion to how many of them there were. It was only when a slate was introduced that focused everyone with similar taste on 4 specific novels that the Puppy’s voices were amplified and they could shout everyone else down. That is the whole problem with slates. That is why everyone dislikes them.

      Also, please can people stop saying that I say anyone is a mindless follower of anyone? Unity is strength, it’s often much harder than being fractious, and I don’t denigrate anyone for having the skill and presence of mind to coordinate like that. If anything, that dedication earns my admiration, not my scorn.

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