The report on the Hugo Awards Study Committee report

Way back in 2017, my then Deputy Hugo Administrator and I proposed that a study committee should be set up by the WSFS Business Meeting to revise the Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist categories, which are difficult to understand and hugely out of date. The Business Meeting amended our resolution, with our consent, to create a Hugo Award Study Committee (HASC) with a broad remit to “study revisions to Article 3 (Hugo Awards) of the WSFS Constitution, including any such proposals for amending Article 3 as may be referred to it by the Business Meeting or suggested by others; [and] make recommendations, which may include proposing constitutional amendments, to the 2018 Business Meeting.”

In the last five years, the HASC has changed precisely two words of the Constitution. (Since you asked: adding the words “or Comic” to the title of the “Best Graphic Story” category.) The HASC’s defenders will complain that we had two years of pandemic, and that the committee switched to Discord rather than email only this year, and that there are lots of proposals this year. But the fact remains that so far the practical impact has been slower than I imagined when I first proposed the Committee.

There is now a detailed report of its activities in the last year and proposals for the coming WSFS Business meeting in Chicago. (Pages 56-77 of the Business Meeting agenda., with individual proposals discussed on pages 33 to 44.) Individual areas are broken out into separate headings with a named set of subcommittee members and a Chair and Sub-Chair. I am one of the signatories to the report, but I have also several dissents, as I will explain below.

My first point of dissent is in the introduction. Unfortunately, I did not feel that discussion was always respectful or effective, and it felt at times like a closed group of people which should have found a better way of reaching out to wider fandom. I do not think that the Committee’s mandate should be extended for another year, and if it is, I would like to see new leadership. The first draft of the report called for the current Chair to continue, but after much wrangling, that recommendation was deleted by a formal majority vote of the Committee. I am grateful to the current leadership for their work, but I think a change of tone will be healthy. Volunteers interested in facilitating inclusive and constructive discussions will be very welcome. (Assuming that the Business Meeting ignores my advice and renews the Committee; more on that later.)

Going through the subcommittees:

Best Related Work

Here the HASC makes no recommendations, and I agree. I certainly prefer when this category goes to prose non-fiction commentary, but I can’t find it in my heart to say that the voters got it wrong in the last three years when they chose other things. (Archive Of Our Own, Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech, and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf translation.) And if we carved off non-fiction prose into its own category, as some would prefer, I don’t really think that there is enough other material to reliably populate an “everything else” category.

Best Dramatic Presentation

Here the HASC also makes no recommendations, and I also agree. Any further split will mean an increase in the number of Hugo categories, to honour winners who do not always show a lot of interest in our process. The discussion did not really seem to reflect the proposals I have seen from wider fandom.

Best Audiobook

Here the HASC again makes no recommendations, and again I agree. For any new Hugo category proposal, I would like to see evidence 1) that it’s responding to the demands of a significant market share of fandom, 2) that it’s redressing an injustice in the current set-up for works loved by fans which are not getting on the ballot in existing categories, and 3) that it would be an appropriate thing for Hugo voters to vote on. I don’t see a problem here with the third of these criteria, but there is no clear case for the first two.

This was business referred to the HASC by the 2021 Business Meeting. It would have been preferable to give the Audiobook proposal a clean death in 2021, rather than sentence it to suffocation by committee.

Best Game or Interactive Work

A new Hugo category is proposed. I think this is very good, and despite my general dislike of new categories, it clearly meets my three criteria above (that it’s responding to the demands of a significant market share of fandom, that it’s redressing an injustice in the current set-up for works loved by fans which are not getting on the ballot in existing categories, and that it would be an appropriate thing for Hugo voters to vote on). This is something that both fans and the wider public can get excited about. Procedurally, it should be noted that this was largely the work of one activist supported by an ad hoc committee, refined by discussion with HASC members.

Best Series

This is one of three discussions where the HASC seriously lost its way. Best Series very narrowly survived an attempt to sunset it in 2021 by 35 votes to 30. The report declares, contra all evidence other than wishful thinking, that the “fundamental problem” with the category is “the possibility of a work being nominated for both Best Novel/Novella/ Novelette/Short Story and for Best Series (as a component), leading to reduced chances for other works to be nominated or win”, and therefore proposes two amendments.

The first of these amendments disqualifies from Best Series any series any of whose component parts has ever won a Hugo in any written category. The second makes it against the rules for the same material to appear on the same year’s ballot both on its own and as part of a series.

The immediate impact of both of these amendments will be to increase headaches for Hugo administrators, who will have to disqualify popular works that people have actually voted for, just because the 2021-22 Best Series subcommittee thinks that voters have been Doing It Wrong. There will also be some interesting judgement calls about exactly what works fall into or out of a particular series.

Both amendments also decrease the pool of eligible nominees by eliminating the ones that are too popular or too long-running. If either of these is passed, when the statistics come out and it becomes clear which nominees have been disqualified, it’s not the 2021-22 Best Series subcommittee who will get the blame, it will be that year’s administrators.

Cards on the table: I opposed the creation of Best Series at the time, and I’d have voted to kill it if I’d been in DC last year, and I’ll vote to kill it again if I ever get a chance. But this is not the moment to re-hash those arguments; we are where we are, and I would prefer that if we are to have a Best Series award at all, voters get to decide what works they want to honour, with no more intrusion from the rules than is strictly necessary. Both amendments should be rejected.

Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist

This is the bit that I wrote, with much welcome input from others, on an issue that was core to the founding of the Committee and has been referred back more than once by WSFS Business Meetings. The old definitions of the Artist categories are very out of date. Professional Artist basically means “Illustrator”. “Fan Artist” has a long list of eligible venues for publication which however is not exhaustive. I have had some pushback that the proposed Fan Artist amendment does not explicitly mention fanzines or conventions; the fact is that categories that are defined by place of publication or display will always run the risk of becoming outdated. So we have looked instead at the economics.

The proposal is to define Fan Art as art that is not produced for professional profit, and Professional Art as art that is produced for professional profit. If you’ve done three or more pieces of art in the last year that weren’t paid for at the time (might have been sold subsequently), then you will be eligible for Best Fan Artist. If you’ve done three or more pieces of art in the last year that were paid for at the time, then you will be eligible for Best Professional Artist. And if you’ve done both, you will be eligible for both. Selling your fan art after it’s been first displayed at a convention doesn’t make you eligible for Pro Artist in itself, because it was created for the convention, not directly for sale.

We went back and forth on this quite a bit, but the artist community indicated that they were happy with where we ended up. I am sure that it is capable of further refinement, but it’s a huge step forward from the status quo. The proposal opens up both categories to artists who were previously excluded, and decreases the burden on Hugo administrators to make tricky eligibility calls. (Or, for instance, to try and explain the concept of Semiprozines to artists who speak no English and have no connection to Worldcon fandom.) It will continue to be possible that an artist could qualify in both categories. I for one can live with that, if it is what fans choose to vote for.

Fan vs Pro

I did not understand this discussion, and I still don’t. It was supposedly driven by an incorrect perception that for the Artist categories, “at the root of the issue is a lack in the Constitution of a single definition for ‘Professional’, ‘Non-Professional’, or ‘Fan’.” I did not pay too much attention to the internal discussion, as I didn’t see the point of it, and also we were told that no new constitutional amendment on this would be formally proposed by the HASC.

Then suddenly at the last moment it turned out that such an amendment had been proposed by the HASC leadership, without the HASC as a whole being informed that this was happening. This proposal in particular went down like a lead balloon in some quarters of fandom, and the way it was handled was not appreciated by a number of HASC members, including me.

A minority opinion has been posted in the HASC report, expressing the entirely correct view that this should never have been proposed without wider community consultation. (In fact, the minority is rather close to being a majority.) I agree with most of it, and have co-signed, with a caveat: I am not certain that the problem (if there is one) should be addressed in this way at all, ie with a global definition of Fan and Pro. My instinct is that, if changes are needed, it may be better to do that category by category, as is proposed with Best Professional Artist and Best Fan Artist.

Even if this or something similar is passed, the specific definitions in the Best Artist categories (both as they currently are, and if my proposed amendments are passed) will take precedence for those categories, as will any other specific definitions elsewhere; and that nullified the supposed basis for the whole discussion.

Thresholds

This is the third category where the HASC seriously lost the run of itself. Two amendments are proposed, and I have signed a minority report opposing both. The current rule is that the total first preference vote for finalists in a particular category is less than 25% of the whole Hugo poll, that category is No Awarded. The first proposed amendment changes that to the lesser of 25% or 200 votes.

To have a 25% threshold makes the lower-participation categories very vulnerable to a future year when loads of people join Worldcon to vote for the previous year’s howling commercial success in Best Novel or Best Dramatic Presentation, and nothing else. As for the 200 votes option, I am leery of hardwiring numerical thresholds into the constitution, given that it will take two years to change if we turn out to have got the wrong number.

Really, it would be better (as others outside the HASC have proposed, and as the minority report recommends) to simply abolish the threshold. It has never been used. No Award has on occasion won the preference ballot, most recently in 2018; and there is also a provision that if a majority of voters prefer No Award to the candidate which would otherwise have won, the category is No Awarded. The threshold is superfluous to those provisions, and brings unnecessary risk.

The second and final proposed amendment sets conditions under which the Business Meeting would consider the abolition of low-participation Hugo categories. I simply don’t think it is appropriate for the Constitution to direct and potentially constrain future Business Meetings in that way. If the point ever comes that we need to abolish a category, we’ll know it without the constitution telling us so. I’ll have more to say on that once this year’s award cycle is over.

Continuation

As I said at the start, I do not think that the Hugo Awards Study Committee should be continued. Despite five years of existence, no new proposals have emerged on Best Related Work, Best Dramatic Presentation, or Best Audiobook, and those discussions should now return to the wider community. Good proposals have been made this year on Best Game / Interactive Work and (cough) the Best Artist categories, but bad proposals have been made on Best Series (two of them!), thresholds (another two!), and the supposed need to hardwire definitions of Fan and Pro into the constitution (proposed without the approval of Committee members).

The risk of establishing a separate Study Committee for a body like WSFS is that a few vocal participants will use it to promote their own hobby-horses, and present them to the Business Meeting with the veneer of committee support. There’s no easy way to prevent this, in what is, after all, a volunteer body. Appointing new leadership will be helpful, but is probably not sufficient.

I believe that it would be better to disband the Study Committee, now that the job has been done on Best Game and the Artist categories (and, years ago, the title change to “Best Graphic Story or Comic”). In future the Business Meeting can and should set up ad hoc specialist groups to look at particular issues as required, just as it has done in the past, without the overthinking that has happened recently as a result of silo-ing the discussion, and with more openness to stakeholders outside the Business Meeting itself.

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