Awards season began a few weeks ago, followed almost immediately by the debate about author eligibility posts for specific awards. The Hugo Awards have been at the center of this debate, as one award that authors can encourage their fans to participate in, while additionally promoting their eligible work. There is a pervasive idea that I haven't seen examined carefully that the mere existence of an author eligibility post for an award might result in their fans flooding the nomination form in a seething, frothing mass of boot-licking acquiescence rather than critical engagement. Whether from a simple bibliography or a more thorough post with a list of eligible items and what each piece is eligible for, it all seems to insinuate that fans don't know their own minds.
The idea that author eligibility posts mean fans will immediately join the process to boost up authors based on their personalities, or a past beloved book probably happens, but certainly not among the fans I know in the three years I've done this. This insinuation that the majority of fans can't tell the difference between an announcement and a greedy grab for nominations is bad enough. Worse is suggesting we simply don't care, and would nominate an author whether we liked the work or not. Fans aren't uncritical minions. Also, a lot of us are fairly money-savvy. The monetary barrier to entry for the Hugo exists and can't be so easily brushed aside, not in a community in which less than a year ago we engaged in a debate about how Worldcon and all related memberships were growing too costly. The Hugo Awards aren't an online poll where authors can send their fans for easy votes. The money halts at least some of the momentum.
I disagree that even among the most dedicated fan communities we're too dumbfounded by cult of personality to separate appreciation of a work from the appreciation of an artist and fall into voting for people rather than work. We do, actually, get the distinction. We aren't so foolish as to believe an eligibility post is anything but a "for your consideration" tool. I think that a fan blindly joining up to nominate or vote for an author can and does certainly happen, but I'm not convinced that author eligibility posts would have an appreciable effect on the professional prose categories at all, since it probably happens without eligibility posts even now by well-meaning fans who just really like an author. Those categories are beloved by hundreds of fans; attempts to game them aren't going to be easy.
It's no surprise that after considering the issue, I came down on the side of eligibility posts. I grew up in spaces where if you wanted to be read and to see people recommend your work so more fans might read that work, you talked about it when and where you could. You couldn't assume someone would see it just by sticking it in an archive or sharing a link on a Livejournal community. You couldn't assume fans would remember it six months down the road when someone decided to write an introduction to the fandom to get their friends into it with them. You had to put it in front of their face, hope they chose it out of everything else on offer, and hope they liked it enough to share across their own social group. Sometimes, you had to say "I made this!" Self-promotion was a huge fact of fannish life for me. Even though in my circles there was certainly anxiety and self-perpetuated handwringing over the act of self-promotion, as long as you weren't annoying, you wouldn't get any grief engaging in the act.
The Hugo Awards are different, tangled together with money, a vague sheen of literary merit, and the very small slice of fandom that decides the history of an award with so much cultural capital. Yet the principles of self-promotion I learned in my other fandoms still apply. What author self-promotion allows me, a new and young SF fan, and other people outside SF's very small community to do is have a wider view of a growing field at a very low cost to our time, which is already stretched very thin. It does this especially in Hugo categories I'm still learning about, such as the short fiction categories, which I will likely never have time to properly follow.
But it's not only about the author letting the Internet know they're eligible for an award and effectively asking for a nomination (should those fans like their work). It's so much more complex than that. It's also about demystifying a process that so many people really don't understand they can take part in, either because they're new to the community or it's never been presented to them at the right time.
Every Worldcon volunteer does their very, very best, but our culture is so noisy and only getting more so, and, let's face it, people are facing a lot of other shiny distractions. Do we want as many voices as possible? Or do we only want the right voices and potential participants gathered the right way?
The benefit of eligibility posts is that they help build the Hugo nominating and voting body in positive, negative, brilliant, frustrating, malicious, creative, and sure, even destructive ways. Make the body bigger and there are more diverse voices which can lead directly to more diverse short lists in the future. But there's no way to get the benefits of people engaging critically and block the people that would abuse the process for their own ends (authors and fans included). An author may make an eligibility post and win twenty or thirty new members. If ten of those vote blindly, are the other twenty worth it? I would argue that yes, they are. Even if only five of them ever participated again it would be worth it. I feel that way because I didn't even know this process was open to me five years ago. Sometimes, it's just letting someone know it's there. Authors so often speak directly to their fans. So why not?
An author tells a fan they're eligible, and sure, that fan could nominate the author on something other than the author's eligible work, but they could nominate other stuff, too. Maybe they, like me, get invested, start to care about the process, participation, and the history of the fandom because they see someone they admire who cares about it. But first, you have to tell them. They have to learn.
The author can be the catalyst. There's a personal connection between author and fan: the author cared about the process, so the fan cared, as well. And certainly there can be other catalysts: fans talking about their nominations and bringing in other fans, but that's not a wide practice yet, and we're kidding ourselves if we think our tiny SF blogging community is genuinely far-reaching enough to touch that many people who don't already know. And instead of saying "all self-promotion for fan-voted awards is bad," isn't there a happy medium somewhere?
This isn't only about women being nervous about promoting ourselves in a culture where we’re repeatedly told to be humble about our achievements, but about creating a culture where confidence isn't arrogance, where sharing our accomplishments and our work for a fan-owned award isn't inherently negative. It can have both potentially negative and potentially positive consequences. Positioning participation in the award process by authors as inherently negative creates a difficult dynamic both for the authors who want to share the process for the award and for the fans, like me, who find it beneficial. For those who are less confident or new, it can become a form a gatekeeping that has no impact on those who would engage regardless, and a massive impact on those of us trained to listen when people say not to speak, and to feel guilty for even feeling like we might be able to do so. Gatekeeping isn't only about shutting someone out, but instead also about making people already inside feel ashamed of themselves so they quit speaking at all. It's a shame because for my social group, that silence is a loss, as we've found every eligibility post we've seen this year to be nothing but helpful and eye-opening to the richness of our community and the amount of written SF that's so widely available for us to sample and expand our perspectives with.
Do authors trust their fans to make a decision to take part not simply to uplift them, but to perhaps enrich the field itself, instead? I hope they choose to do so. I'm so idealistic. I like to trust people. I like to believe that the majority of people participate in good faith. I like to think that the people who would abuse the process wouldn't have that much luck anyway, because so many other people care.
Not every work by the authors who choose to make eligibility posts are the best, but that's subjective anyway, and not for us as individuals or any author who wrote a post this year to decide. It's for the body to decide. The body is a seething mass of contradictions, dreams, complaints, and hope for the future of the award. It's both one thing and many things all at once. It's me, it's you, it's us, and so I'm always going to believe that allowing people a voice is better than asking for people to be silent. We'll never speak with one voice, but we can create a space in which everyone can speak, is encouraged to speak with pride for what they've done in positive ways, and isn't scared or humiliated or shamed by doing so.
I also believe as a body we are savvy to abuse of the system and that there will be, at the least, social consequences for those who publicly abuse the process and who encourage their fans to abuse the process. And I'm in the group that doesn't believe author eligibility posts by themselves abuse the process—it's all too new, too different, and the Internet's changing fan awards in ways we can't fathom yet. Maybe the practice will ruin everything, and in that case, I'm sorry in advance for being on the team that destroys science fiction. But hey, it might not have an effect at all. Most likely, it will have results somewhere in the middle we can't even guess at right now.
Are author eligibility posts worth it if they introduce new people to what we're doing here? If they introduce people to what we're building so they can join in?
I'd really like to think so.