I missed most of the kefuffle over the proposed Best Saga Hugo this weekend as I was busy being an apprentice SMOF having volunteered to help revitalise Holland’s oldest sff fan organisation. What happened was basically that a group of fans, inspired by Eric Flint’s thoughts on expanding the Hugos, proposed adding a Best Saga category for multiple volume books/series as well as eliminate the novelette category. People objected strongly to the second part and were somewhat skeptical of the first and the proposers reacted by amending their proposal to omit the axing of novelettes. All in all a great example of how fandom is supposed to work: debated out in the open, with people listening to justified, constructive criticism and acting on it.
The best criticism I read of the original proposal, though unfortunately published after it had already changed and slightly misaimed, was in N. K. Jemisin’s open letter to the WSFS about unintended consequences:
the novelette category has until lately been a good entry point for new and underrepresented writers to gain recognition. Why? For all the reasons “sagas” privileges established successful white guys, basically: short fiction must rely (usually) on quality rather than preexisting financial success to prove itself; it requires a much lower investment of free time to write; and short fiction in general is less about comfort food than challenging the reader with new ideas and perspectives. The competition is actually more fierce for short fiction than it would be for sagas; there are more markets willing to publish novelettes than there are publishers willing to grind out multiparters, and the short fiction markets pump out multiple stories, multiple times per year. It’s just that fewer of the barriers that make it hard for non-white non-men to compete exist here. Women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups usually do pretty well when they’re working with a level playing field.
Which got me thinking about privilege in fandom generally and the WSFS in particular, in the way its decision making processes are set up. As you know Bob, there’s always been this tension about Worldcon and the Hugos especially of having this ideal of being representative of all of fandom and the reality that only those that have and spent the money, time and effort to get involved in Worldcon, either supporting or attending get to vote. For the Hugos itself this is relatively straightforward and with a fairly low barrier to entry: forty bucks gets you voting rights plus the Voting Packet.
Where it gets awkward is with the site selection process for future Worldcons. You have pay a site selection fee (which also doubles as a supporting membership for whichever con wins) and you have to sent in a paper ballot, rather than being able to vote online. That’s somewhat of a disadvantage for lazy slobs like me.
Far worse is the business meeting. Any member can make proposals, but to defend and vote on them you have to attend Worldcon. And since any proposal needs to be affirmed by the next con as well, you have to do this at least twice. Which is rather a huge barrier to entry, overcome only by those with the time and money to spent two years or longer on it, or of course those who are so deeply involved with Worldcon that this isn’t a huge sacrifice for them.
And I don’t want to knock those people, nor Worldcon. There are good reasons why the current Worldcon structure was set up and these barriers just an unfortunate side effect, not as far as I know a deliberate attempt to exclude people. But the effect is the same and it does make it harder for those without the means to chase Worldcon each year to get involved.