Friday, September 2, 2011

An elaboration

Discussion continues over this year's response to the Hugo Awards. I think this is a good thing, especially when it is done in a thoughtful and incisive manner. But since I'm being used as a pull quote in the debate, I thought I would elaborate a bit on my thoughts on criticism and awards.

First, I want to be clear that I'm not taking back what I wrote - I do believe that ex post facto criticism of the winners as winners is the most unhelpful response to the Hugo Awards. (Or indeed any awards.) Complaining about other people's choices once the votes are in changes nothing.

Now, if you're complaining for the sake of complaining, well, you've picked your poison and I wish you joy of it. But if you're complaining for the sake of the awards, or the genre, there are other, more effective, ways to do things.

Because - and here's the elaboration - I don't think that  the awards are or ought to be immune from criticism, and I certainly don't think works of literature (and for "works of literature" please include any of the other categories and forms of media) in the field are or ought to be immune from criticism. Vigorous discussion of whether certain categories should exist, or whether they should be better defined, helps the field by asking it to think seriously about what should be rewarded. Well-articulated discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of published works - both those nominated for awards and those that aren't - helps the field define what it values.

The Hugos, as they stand, are a popular vote for "best." The pool of voters varies from year to year, is self-selecting, and required only to pay a membership fee. "Best" is undefined - it can mean "sold the most copies" or "got the best reviews" or "was written by my favorite author" or "represents the direction I think the field should be going in" or "well, it's better than the rest of this crap." I don't think a popular vote on best is ever going to make everyone happy, and I think that's fine. I don't think best can be objectively defined, nor do I think it is possible (or a good idea) to set a minimum standard for education in the field for voters.

But I do think we come closer to seeing what is worth rewarding if people feel free to engage critically with the field. I think we ought to publicly speak about the strengths and weaknesses of what we are reading. I think it's good, and important, to point out when a book gets its research wrong, or is racist, or has no women characters, or no women characters who aren't there for the hero to have sex with. Even, and maybe especially, when these sorts of things happen in books that are big in the field. Because if we can't point out our own flaws, who will believe us when we sing our own praises? More important, if we can't point out our own flaws, how will we ever become better?

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