Thursday, April 24, 2014

On Merit, Awards, and What We Read

Since the Hugo Award nominees were announced on Saturday, I have read whatever I came across that talked about the nominees. I love the conversation and getting the pulse of what people are thinking and saying about the awards. This isn't specific to the Hugo Awards, I do it for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, I pay attention to other non-genre awards, and I plan to get more involved in reading about one or two other annual awards.  This is what I'm interested in.

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.


Unknown said...

Vox Day's story is dreck.

Joe said...

I don't necessarily have high expectations (or medium expectations), but it'll be a couple of months before I attempt to read it.

Daniel B. said...

I think you've talked yourself so far into a corner you've lost the whole idea of how Hugo's are nominated. It's a selection by fans. Any author who has a fan base could get on there. To complain because some end up doing that have different politics than you is a bit disingenuous. The only solution? Change the Hugo nomination process to a panel rather than just self selection by fans.

yamamanama said...

Vox Day's story is the worst thing nominated for an award.

Joe said...

Daniel: I had been considering writing a post to follow this one that broke out how nominations work, just in case there are some readers coming here who weren't sure about the nominations.

I do think I may have talked myself into a corner in terms of how I want to deal with certain nominees, but I do understand how the nominating process works.

What I'm struggling with is what to do with the nominees once they make it onto the ballot, especially when negative aspects of the author's personality comes to become more important than the story itself.

I have little problem with, specifically, how Correia and Day made the ballot. It isn't substantially different than what has happened with any number of writers over the history of the award.

Anonymous said...

Can Roman Polanski do good art?

Woody Allen's accusations are silly and false. It tells us more about the accusors than it does about Woody. His art is a sometimes thing. Some is funny, other parts are crap. That is art. Even Homer doth nod.

Joe said...

Anon: I'm not willing to say that the accusations against Woody Allen are silly and false. I think that Dylan Farrow is telling the truth.

Woody Allen can still make art, though. So can Roman Polanski. It can even be good art.

But, knowing what we know, is it art that we want to consume? Do we want to support those artists? Can we appreciate that art without considering the artist?

Unknown said...

It's a tough, tough call. As macabre a joke as it is to make, well, life's so much easier when the artists in question are dead. >.>

I realized we have a parallel to this issue we can consider: professional sports stars involved in domestic violence, sexual assault, and other criminal behavior (eg: Michael Vick). Recently there have been cases again and again of horrific behavior by college and high school players that gets swept under the rug because they have such "bright futures." I know it's something that makes a lot of people furious.

Now obviously, this is not a perfect parallel because neither VD nor OSC have done anything criminal; they're just terrible people. But it's still the notion of turning a blind eye to someone's destructive behavior because they are very good at what they do.

Still mulling that half-formed example over, but there it is.

Aquinas Dad said...

Lead in-
Communism is an socio-political ideology that has led directly to the deaths of millions and indirectly to the deaths over 100 million people in the 20th Century. Communism is tied to one the most oppressive, murderous, tyrannical regimes in history.
Person in Question-
China Mieville. An avowed, exuberant Communist, member of a Communist Party that openly called for violent struggle, and founder of another openly Communist political party there can be no denial in any way that he fully embraces the most destructive political concept known to history.
The honest question-
Are you aware of anyone complaining when he was nominated for a Hugo?

Joe said...

Rachel: I stumbled across that example on twitter earlier this morning. I don't remember off hand if that was you who presented it there, or if it was someone else, but it did make me stop and think.

I'm still thinking.

While I agree that Michael Vick isn't a perfect analogy because of exactly what you said, I have been unable to support Vick at all (in whatever minimal way I actually "support" athletes) and I have been very glad that he wasn't signed by the Vikings a few years ago. I have the same problems with Ben Roethlisberger, because even though he wasn't convicted, I believe he did sexually assault those women and that he should be in jail.

Vick, on the other hand, (I do like this example), was convicted and served his sentence. So, what do we do there? He is viewed as having paid his debt, such as it is, and while I don't want him within five miles of a dog, maybe there has been actual reform for his actions and possibly his beliefs.

But OSC and VD and so many others who have very hateful views? It's easy to not support people who have committed actual crimes, it gets stickier when they're alive and being ugly and hateful - but potentially produce quality work.

Do you remember when Michael Jackson died and, after he was gone, it was finally okay to play his music on the radio. It was like this big release came from everyone and now that he wasn't potentially still messing with children, we could appreciate again that his music, especially from the 80's was just really damn good. You are so right that life is easier when the artists are dead.

Joe said...

Aquinas Dad: Off hand, I don't remember any complaints when Mieville was nominated for or won the Hugo. Depending on the year, I might not have been paying attention, but I don't remember any issues cropping up with his political views. At least not where I read, anyway.

My guess, for part of this, is that there is enough distance from the immediate effects of communism to the actual readers who are doing the nominating and discussing the works. Or, because there could be some sympathy to the more "pure" aspects of communism that were never actually realized when applied in the real world.

I'm absolutely not trying to derail this into a conversation about communism, I'm just throwing out ideas on why it may not have been discussed and argued about in regards to Mieville.

My other thought is that, to the best of my knowledge, Mieville hasn't actively attacked other writers or used the SFWA social media accounts to transmit those attacks. That, more than anything else, is part of the issue with this year's awards.

Aquinas Dad said...

OK, Vox Day attacked another writer using SFWA social media, sure. And he claims, then and now, he responded in kind because her criticism of him was also on SFWA media. Let's move past that.
Let's talk about Correia; was he expelled from the SFWA? Has he done more to get on the Hugo ballot than, oh, Scalzi did last year or has been doing for all their writers for years?
And even if he did are we really in a position where we are even *debating* if blocking someone for an award on writing based on their *religion* isn't the actual practice of discrimination?!

Joe said...

I don't have a real problem with Correia. The more I think about it, his pushing of a ballot is only a small step beyond folks saying "hey, here's what I wrote that is eligible" and "hey, here's some stuff that I like that I'm going to nominate and that I think should be considered".

Sure, he did a bit more active campaigning than I have personally seen others do - which isn't to say that others don't campaign, it's just that again, who I follow online is limited so I don't see all of what goes on.

It is, to that point, not at all different than what happened on with Leigh pushing Wheel of Time as a single "novel" (which is still weird to me.

I'm not specifically aware of what Scalzi did last year, though I would assume he campaigned for a Redshirts nomination / win? I do follow his blog, I just don't remember anything - because it clearly slid past my brain.

I think that most of the disgust and anger is coming towards Day, and less so Correia, though he is a bit more right wing in your face than others (which isn't really much different than left wing in your face). I don't know anything else about the man, and I haven't seen quotes of Correia saying anything heinous as I have of Day. It's just that the association of the entire slate with Day is tainting almost everyone on that slate.

At least, that's my perspective. I have no interaction with any of them and I don't follow their blogs (nor do I plan to, but there's plenty I don't follow from authors I have read for years).

Farseer2 said...

My take on this is that I love good storytelling so much that I don't let an idiot get between me and a good story, even if the idiot happens to be the author.

Having said that, I think you should do what you think is right and what works for you. Don't let anyone tell you that your opinions are worth less than anybody else's, because that's just not true, no matter how white or male you happen to be. Sure, we all have our own perspectives, and no perspective is perfect, but our perspective and values is what we have and we should make the best we can with it.

Give that stories a chance or don't, whatever your conscience is happier with. No need to agonize about it.

Aquinas Dad said...

It is complicated, isn't it? As a devout Catholic should I boycott all who oppose my religion? Heaven knows I face direct persecution for holding my beliefs and not hiding them. Since I face persecution do I do the same back? Do I judge a work by who wrote it rather than what is in it, especially before I have read it? Mark Twain was a bitter misanthrope, but many of his works are funny. Does his attitude make them less funny? Does his virulent anti-Catholicism put him out of my reach since he hated all I believe?

Joe said...

Or, is it easier because Mark Twain is dead and he doesn't have anything new to say and hate on your religion?

Is it harder if the author is alive and actively spewing words you find abhorrent about things that you value?

I think having the author alive can make it harder. Not in all circumstances, and it will depend on where your line is and if the author in question has crossed it.

You wouldn't be wrong for boycotting the work of artists whose views oppose yours or, more specifically, are actively attacking your views. That's the choice we make.