When I wrote about my Preliminary Thoughts on the Hugo Awards, I did mean what the title implied: those were my preliminary thoughts. Not quite a snap decision, but without yet having read deeply into the short list of nominees. I mentioned at the time that I wished to follow what John Scalzi had said about judging the individual works on their own merits. It made sense to me and still does. Regardless of how a particular story is viewed to have on the ballot, and regardless of one's personal views of any author who has a story on the ballot, the story is on the ballot. If we are to do honest justice to the process, to respect the award, we should fairly evaluate the story and the story alone and then compare that to the other stories nominated in a particular category. That makes sense to me.
Since then, however, I have read more and more commentaries on the nominees and the more I have read, the more I have had to think about - to the point that I am writing this in an effort to work out my own thoughts.
There are a couple of controversies which have come out of this year's Hugo short list. The first seems to me to be the lesser controversy. For the past several years, Larry Correia has been running a small campaign to get himself and others of his esteem nominated for a Hugo Award. This year it began with a comic he drew, it continued with several update posts, and ended with the slate of who he was nominating with his membership. Not a huge deal, ultimately, though it has been construed that Correia has been exhorting his readers to purchase memberships and follow his lead in nominating that particular lineup. One author, Vox Day, likewise endorsed what Correia was doing, and then added his own recommendations.
While I feel there is a subtle difference between this and authors simply listing what works they have that are eligible, where the difference is in the tone and the explicit goal of Correia, I concede that the difference may not be much more than semantics. While it may be considered unseemly to talk about how much one wants an award or to campaign for such, because the cost of a supporting membership to Worldcon is relatively low and so few people actually nominate, it doesn't take all that many nominating votes to make the final ballot. All it takes if 5% of the vote, and to be in the top five (except for ties) of those receiving nominations. In the of the Novelette category, there were 728 ballot submitted, so a minimum of 36 or 37 nominations is all that is required (depending on rounding). A motivated group of fans could (and did) easily secure enough nominations to place their choices on the ballot. Hopefully, that motivated group is also acting with integrity and selecting only those they felt were truly the best. But, that is almost besides the point. In the corner of the internet which I sit, that is coming across poorly, but I see it as less of an issue because this was also a possibility based on how the rules are set up.
The real issue and controversy at hand is that of Vox Day and his nomination. This is less so because of the relative quality of the story, and much more so about the quality of the man. Vox Day is the pseudonym for Theodore Beale. I missed this when it went down in mid 2013 when I was much less plugged in to what was going on inside this genre that I love, but the abbreviated version is that N.K. Jemisin was Guest of Honor at Continuum in Australia and she gave a powerful speech dealing with racism and in which she also called out, not by name, Theodore Beale for being "a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole." Amal El-Mohtar details the response Beale, writing as Vox Day, had for Jemisin. It was disgusting and it was racist. El-Mohtar called for the expulsion of Beale from the SFWA, something which eventually occurred. Foz Meadows had an angry, but well reasoned (in my opinion) response to Vox Day.
There were numerous other responses to this, as there tends to be, but to a large point, the story would have ended there except that in part due to the mobilization of the fans of Larry Correia and Vox Day, a story by Vox Day is on this year's Hugo ballot.
This is where the conversation changes. This is where I have run into a number of essays which have led to my confronting my opinions on evaluating based on merit. Rachel Acks writes "There is a point at which I can no longer separate the art from the living artist. I cannot escape the fact that my support of their art, however miniscule in relative scale it may be, implicates me in what they then use their platform to do and say. It makes me complicit, if only peripherally, in the harm they choose to do." Rose Lemberg, however, takes a different perspective than Acks, though both end up in the same place,
It is my opinion that such conciliatory voices from prominent personae who are 1) power brokers in our communities and 2) considerably less marginalized than the diverse fans and authors they are championing – are not helping the cause of marginalized and othered Diversity Age authors and fans. In these statements there is often an embedded tone argument, an entreaty to Diversity Age fans to play nice with people who explicitly or implicitly dehumanize and more yet, threaten violence against them. Such conciliatory language from power brokers suggests story lines for the whole community to align with – storylines whose buzzwords are “reason,” “respectability,” and “merit.”Natalie Luhrs, who after expressing her opinion that Correia and Day gamed the spirit of the awards with how they ended up on the ballot was attacked in the comments of her blog, had this to say in a follow up post:
After that, there was an insistence from both the trolls and other parties that I should judge the nominated works on their merits alone. These works do not exist in a vacuum and the context in which they are produced is, for me, relevant. The personal is political. I am not going to waste my time reading books written by people who hold me, my friends, and my family in contempt–and Larry Correia and Vox Day do. They have made this abundantly clear through their own discourse as well as through the discourse they allow and encourage to flourish in their comments.All of this is reasonable. All of this makes sense. It is also a personal decision because I want to extend this a little bit beyond Vox Day and into a more general thought. Also, I believe where a line is drawn will depend both on the reader as well as on who the writer is and how the two intersect. How much does who the artist is matter in our enjoyment or appreciation of the art? How much should it matter? Does time and distance matter?
Can we watch a Woody Allen movie knowing the credible accusations of molestation against him? Do we view Annie Hall or Manhattan differently, or do they remain major works of art? Does it change how view his new work? Is Ender's Game a lesser work because Orson Scott Card is openly homophobic? Rachel Acks can no longer read Card's work, despite having admired it deeply before she learned of his homophobia. Does reading a particular work suggest support for the personal views of the artist even if those views are not evident in the work itself? Does it matter if the artist is still living?
I don't have a good answer to those questions. I can still read and recommend Ender's Game even though I abhor Card's stance on homosexuality. I often do not think about Card the man when I read his book, I just enjoy the book. But then, am I expressing tacit support for Card the man when I support Ender's Game?
Vox Day is only the latest in this conversation, the latest bigot to make the rounds into my small corner of the world and show a contemptible side of humanity. I understand what Acks and Lemberg and Luhrs and so many others are saying about taking ownership of what we want the Hugos to be about, and that regardless of the relative merits of his story, if we are able to separate our personal thoughts of the author from the story and find the story to be of sufficiently high quality to move to the top our ballots, what, if anything, does it say about the Hugo Awards and this small part of science fiction and fantasy fandom that would recognize that author who was removed from the SFWA because of the combination of the ugly things he said and the way he used SFWA social media to broadcast those words. Can we, in considering the winners, separate that a worthy story may have won from the fact that an unworthy person won?
Does it matter who creates the art?
Am I writing from a place of privilege when I ask that question? I am a heterosexual cisgendered white male. I am not a writer, and I don't have a professional stake in this. I feel that I am a member of one small part of a larger community, and I want to think through this, but my perspective will always be shaped by who I am and where I sit, and that perspective can be significantly and substantially different because there are all sorts of things that I just don't have to deal with in my life. My privilege.
The only possible answer that I have, which is not much an answer at all, is that the individual must decide what is acceptable and if they are able to separate art from the artist and in what circumstances they are able to do so. It is a completely valid position to take that, in the case of Vox Day, the hate is too virulent and it cannot be tolerated and that any art is irrevocably lessened by the who the artist is. Or, in the case of Woody Allen, Orson Scott Card, or anyone else.
Examining art is ultimately a personal act and if it has long been my opinion that half of reading and interpreting a story is in what the reader brings to the table, then part of what the reader brings to the table is how they view the artist and in many cases, it cannot be separated. Nor should it be.
I do still plan to analyze each story and novel as they are presented (as much as what I do could be construed as analyzing), but I fully accept and understand that others are not able to nor find it desirable to consider the art without also considering the artist. What I don't know is if, in this case, I will be able to do so myself.
It is possible that I will read the nominated story from Vox Day and find that it is so good that I would need to find a new way to talk about it, to figure out how to get across that the story is utterly brilliant that I expect it will still be read in fifty years and will be included in anthologies covering the best science fiction stories ever written. It's possible, but right now I am stuck in the position that no matter how I may feel about the story in the future, what I know about how the man conducts himself online and, as such, in public, is sodisgusting, offputting, and worthy of censure that I am finding it difficult to reconcile the idea of merit as fully independent from the artist. On the other hand, perhaps it won't matter in the end. The only way to find out is to try.