Critics aren’t your best friends, they’re your only friends

John Scalzi made a strange defence of the Hugo awards recently on his blog, that made me a little sad:

I do think there’s a core of commenters whose problem internalizing that other people have other tastes is overlaid with a more-than-mild contempt for fandom, i.e., “Oh, fandom. You’ve shown again why you can’t be trusted to pick awards, you smelly, chunky people of common tastes, you.” Fandom does what fandom does with folks like that: it ignores them, which I think is generally the correct response to such wholly unwarranted condescension.

I tried asking John on Twitter what these condescending critiques were, but he was reluctant to give any examples. I think the sound John interprets as condescension is more like a sigh of disappointment. Which will soon be replaced with the soundless vacuum of complete disinterest, because when people stop paying attention they rarely bother to even condescend to you any more.

It took me a little thought to realise why it made me sad. It’s because I am one of those people who has already stopped paying attention. I barely noticed either the Hugos or Nebulas this year. Even the teacup storm around the mormon whale rape story largely passed me by until a friend pointed it out some weeks after the fact. It’s not a deliberate shunning, it’s just that there are a lot of fascinating things in the world and neither the Hugos or Nebulas rated highly among them this year.

There’s a great scene in the film Others People money where Danny DeVito, as a ruthless corporate raider, gives a speech to the investors in the steel mill he is seeking to buy and dismantle. The business is being held together by sentiment and nostalgia for times past, which DeVito’s character brutally dispells with the now classic line “I’m not your best friend, I’m your only friend.” As far as I can see the critics of the Hugo and Nebula awards are among its best friends, because they’re among the last people who can even be bothered to pay attention to the things.

I haven’t been one of those critics. And given that I failed to even remember the awards existed this year, I may not be best placed to assess whether the criticism is valid. But there certainly seem to have been some serious problems. This year SFs major awards seemed to be decided by a few completely partisan factions of fans. That may well have been the case in previous years. That only makes it worse. Some of the writing that won awards was laughably and offensively bad. It’s hardly surprising that people take neither the field nor its awards seriously when writing that bad is held up as exemplar. As the awards managed to generate next to no publicity outside the echo chamber of fandom, so it’s hard to see what commercial purpose they serve. And the fact that none of this is actually surprising? Again, not good.

All of those seem like quite valid criticisms to me, that should be addressed. So I would be interested to know which are the invalid criticisms that should be ignored.

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10 thoughts on “Critics aren’t your best friends, they’re your only friends”

  1. There’s very little that’s been awarded in the last 20 years that would hold up in comparison to the brilliance that was the 60s and 70s.

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  2. That sound is neither condescension nor disappointment but alienation.

    SF Fandom is an affinity group and many of its institutions were created at a time when the realities of technology, culture and geography meant that if you wanted to talk to people about written SF then you went to places like Worldcon and if you wanted to write SF you joined the SFWA. Because of this, the Hugo and Nebula awards carry a good deal of cachet.

    Fast forward forty years and we live in a world where it is easy to talk to other people with an interest in SF: All you need to do is set up a twitter account or a blog and away you go. Because talking about SF no longer requires these big centralising institutions, the field has fragmented into dozens of more-or-less interconnected tribes. Many of whom have never been to a Worldcon.

    Despite the fundamental structure of the field having changed, the concentrations of social capital in the older sections of the fan community mean that venerable awards like the Hugos and the Nebulas still carry a good deal of cachet. Cachet completely disconnected from their capacity to represent a more and more disjointed and multicultural field.

    The sound that Scalzi is hearing is the tiny groan emitted by every science fiction fan who looks at the Hugos and sees no connection to their experience of either the genre or the field.

    When challenged on the increasing self-marginalisation of the Hugos, defenders (such as Scalzi) speak of bitterness, condescension and jealousy but the truth is far simpler: The Hugos have made no effect to keep up with changes in the field and so they are becoming increasingly irrelevant with every passing year.

    The tragedy of this is that the Hugos are a social institution created before many of us were born. They were nurtured by a generation of fans and passed along to those who came after them as an act of trust. Great institutions are never owned by the generation that controls them, they are simply held in trust. By failing to update the awards, retreating behind bureaucratic barriers and shouting down anyone who complains, the current generation have done their best to destroy something that should have been held in trust for the fans of tomorrow.

    I am neither condescending nor disappointed. I am disgusted.

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  3. The Hugos reflect the convention and more so than ever this year which saw the highest vote ever.

    So while I am not always thrilled with the choices, almost all the criticisms here are the wrong ones.

    Also: nothing good in 20 years? Ted Chiang and Susanna Clarke come to mind among many others.

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    1. I’m perfectly willing to accept that every criticism of the Hugos has a reasonable rebuttle. What I don’t accept is that those criticisms are innately condescending, which is John Scalzi’s stated position.

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  4. This is a recurring argument that I have with people who think I should quit the Catholic church. It applies to SF fandom, too. If those who truly seek high quality literature in their science fiction drop out of fandom as a result, then, increasingly fandom will become hackery. The best response to this phenomenon, in my opinion, is to bring your views with you into the fan community. There aren’t usually more than 1,000 votes at Worldcon, and even fewer nominations. You and your readership should join, nominate and vote. You should use your column to promote great literature to those who can and will nominate/vote.

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