Jenny's Library

Award Eligibility and What Makes A Reader

Posted on: January 13, 2014

The arguments against authors listing which of their works are eligible for awards confuse the hell out of me.

I’m sure a certain amount of that is me not understanding where the people making such arguments are coming from, but I also feel like there’s a lot of assumptions in many of those arguments about how people come to be Readers of the genre.  Not people who simply read books in the genre, but people who read enough and care enough that they would be willing to pay money to vote on an award.  So this post isn’t so much an argument for authors doing anything in particular as it is an attempt to banish those assumptions.

Point the First:

To say that “speculative fiction has always had a very permeable barrier between fan and pro” (as Martin Lewis does in his post on the topic)  is not only understating the case, but describes the dynamic in a way that does nothing to illuminate how fan-author interactions actually work in a world in which the internet exists.

I’ve mentioned before that the internet is the reason that I started reading science fiction and fantasy again, after having stopped in my teens.

This is an exaggeration, of course, as I never really stopped reading speculative fiction entirely.  What actually happened is that it ceased to be the bulk of what I read, and instead became something I occasionally read, often with a significant amount of caution.  The reason for this being that every bookstore that I walked into was happy to promote works by male authors that wrote about manly men who did manly things (which tended to include treating women like shit), and appeared utterly oblivious to the fact that women read and wrote in this genre as well. Even worse, as I transitioned from children’s books to adult books, it became increasingly difficult to avoid stumbling across books that, quite frankly, were deeply NOT FUN because of the way they depicted gender and adult relationships.  A problem made worse by the way that female writers were marginalized by the publishers and bookstores, because, in the absence of any sort of feminist analysis in reviews and promotional materials, my best bet at avoiding those books was to look for the female authors that were so hard to find.

It’s also more accurate to say that the internet is how I began to find adult speculative fiction.  I was working in a bookstore and reading all kinds of teen and middle grade speculative fiction when I first began seriously using the internet as a tool for finding books.  This was back in the mid oughts, when people outside of young adult literature were beginning to notice that young adult fiction had really taken off.  Right in the middle of Harry Potter Midnight Magic Parties (I worked two of them).

What’s is true and important about this story is that despite always being a reader, despite having read The Lord of the Rings in elementary school, despite reading middle grade and young adult speculative fiction at the time, I didn’t start looking for adult speculative fiction on purpose. I stumbled across it.

I’d just began watching Criminal Minds, of all things, having caught some episodes in reruns over the summer.  Curious to see if anyone else had thought about how the show played with gender, I typed a few words into google and stumbled across Elizabeth Bear’s livejournal.  I started out reading her posts about Criminal Minds, and ended up reading her books.  I also found other people to talk about books with!  People who listened to what I said and didn’t try to tell me that what I really needed to do was read [author that I’ve tried and whose books left me feeling slightly ill]. It was amazing and, I have to admit, slightly life-changing.

What’s is true and important about this story is that I found Bear’s books because she talked about them, not because other people did.

I found joy in reading adult speculative fiction again because that barrier that Lewis mentioned is permeable, not despite it.  My first experiences with discussing adult speculative fiction in a way that did not make me feel small or silenced involved authors discussing their own works.  So this idea that authors discussing their own works taints the discussion by definition is not one that I understand.  It can certainly happen – and does happen often. But I also honestly cannot imagine finding speculative fiction nearly as interesting without having access to essays and posts and tweets about it – about their own work even – by women like Amal El-Mohtar, Kate Elliot, Kameron Hurley, Sylvia Kelso, Lois McMaster Bujold, N.K. Jemison…and well, you get the idea.

Now, I’m not saying this dynamic doesn’t change at all when one is talking about awards – the power differential matters a lot more, for starters – I’m just trying to explain why “awards are for readers and not authors” is not an argument that makes sense to me.  Not just because these aren’t clear distinctions, but because my experience has been that my options as a reader are improved when authors have more options as well.

Point the Second:

Anyone who thinks that every author who posts an eligibility list is “lobbying for awards” (as Martin Lewis calls it) or “self-pimpage” (as Adam Roberts does*) doesn’t understand how imposter syndrome works.  (I’m guessing they also aren’t reading the twitter feeds of the women who are talking about this.)  I can’t think of a time that I’ve submitted my art somewhere because I thought it was the best or expected it to get chosen.  I submit it for the same reason I attempted rock climbing and hiking Angel’s Landing, even though I knew I’d chicken out of both: because there’s more value in failing than there is in never trying.

My guess is that for a lot of the authors making these posts – women in particular – they are not so much about trying to convince readers to nominate and vote for them as it is an attempt to remind readers who are about to get busy talking about all the usual names that they still exist and would you please remember to read me too?  They are lobbying for themselves, yes, but it would be more accurate to say that they are lobbying to be read and discussed, to be considered rather than forgotten.

You can see this dynamic happening in the discussions on twitter, where an author will say something about not being sure about if they should put up such a post, and other people – readers and writers both, and often women – will rush in to encourage them to do so.  The value of those posts is as much in that exchange as it is in the posts themselves.

Point the Third:

To me, Amal El-Mohtar’s argument about diversity isn’t really about who is getting nominated for this specific round of the Hugos, etc.  It’s about how people see themselves and the choices they make because of that.

I tried out for the soccer team my first year of college, despite being far too out of shape to have a chance. On the first day, when we were doing timed laps and I was not only the last person in, but struggling to make it to the end of the run long after everyone else was done, the rest of the women trying out began cheering me on.  One of the senior team members jogged back onto to track and ran the rest of the way with me, making sure I didn’t give up.  I didn’t make the soccer team.  I didn’t even make it to the end of try-outs.  But I carried that moment with me for the rest of my time at school. The knowledge that the women around me wanted me to do well kept me going far beyond that one run.

Roberts may see people in an arms race and trying to “level the playing field.”  I see people helping each other, affirming that they want others to do well.

This discussion isn’t just about authors, either. It’s also about readers like me. And whether the books I read and like deserve to be part of the discussion, to be considered or not.  About whether my opinions have merit, or whether I should leave the serious discussions to the people that can be more “objective.”  To the people who were part of the discussions back in the good old days when awards were about merit – and I didn’t even bother reading adult speculative fiction because I had no idea how to find books that didn’t insult me.

Conclusion:

There’s been a lot of changes to publishing in the last few decades, and I don’t doubt that their impact on awards hasn’t been entirely positive.  The problem is that these changes have been also useful for a lot of readers like myself.  There seems to me to be a lot of focus on judging authors actions in reaction to these changes rather than actually looking at the system as a whole.  There also seem to be a lot of potentially good arguments about wanting to focus on literature being sidetracked by the assumption that the status quo is neutral. Not to mention the implication that those of us who appreciate reminders, or can’t devote enough time to keep track of this all by ourselves, are somehow polluting the process by participating. Which leaves me feeling like I’m being told it would have been better if I’d never joined the discussion – and a lot of other people whom I disagree with, but who I suspect have good ideas, sounding rather defeated.

It would be nice if we could move the discussion past this, but I admit that I’m not sure how to do that.**

*Am I the only one who went O.o at that phrasing?  Perhaps it’s just the experience of coming to this as a woman, and therefore as someone who runs the risk of being called a “whore” in the literal sense, but that…was really not the way to convince the people who are in favor of eligibility posts that you aren’t being blind to how differing experience and privilege affects how people approach this issue.

** I do want to give props to the people who have put together the Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) tumblr.  I don’t think that I’m ever going to be against artists talking about their own work in their own space, but as a reader and fan this kind of project is really what I find to be most useful.  It’s also a good example of how focusing only on what authors should and shouldn’t do is really limiting our discussion – and consequently our solutions as well.

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5 Responses to "Award Eligibility and What Makes A Reader"

You’re not “the only person who went O.o” at the term “self-pimpage.” I would be just as happy to see the verb “to pimp” permanently retired as a term for any of the communications being discussed here. Lots of people use it do describe their own self-promotional communications, often (I think) in order to signal that they’re okay with making a little fun of themselves. But what actual pimps do is coercive and ugly and has no resemblance to what we’re actually talking about here.

Responding just to the pimping comment–I can kind of see the rationale behind it, in that there tends to be a reaction in certain quarters of “my art is pure and untouched by the evils of money!” It’s certainly in Lewis’s post. And on a certain level I understand that, but then you get into art being free territory pretty quickly, and that gets squicky and problematic. Plus, as you pointed out, it really doesn’t convince me that the person using that terms understands how privilege and gender affect experiences in art-making and publishing, as well as personal life.

There does seem to be some class and cultural issues going on (as a friend has pointed out). And I think some of what I’m reacting to is what you mention – the undercurrent that true artists don’t worry about money. Which isn’t really a choice that’s available to everyone.

In fact, as I was typing this up yesterday there was a discussion in my TL on twitter about the Golden Globes and this same topic. Initially it was about the lack of diversity in those awards. And there were people saying things like “what did you expect” and that all these awards were silly and rigged anyway. And then a lot of people began eloquently arguing back that these awards have a real impact on what kinds of roles actors of color are able to get. That being recognized for her work – or not – is going to have a huge impact on Lupita Nyong’o’s career in particular – in a way that goes beyond they way that being labeled a breakout star has impacted Jennifer Lawrence. Because there will always be at least some roles for pretty white girls, but Lupita Nyong’o winning could have literally meant more roles actually being written for black actresses.

[…] – There’s been an ongoing conversation about SFF eligibility lists that I’ve been only halfway paying attention to, but then I read <a href="http://amalelmohtar.com/2014/01/09/of-awards-eligibility-lists-and-unbearable-smugness/"Amal El-Mohtar's post on the subject and it is brilliant. “No hand-wringing or tut-tutting about reading widely or behaving with dignity or integrity or what have you is going to end the practice of brash, confident people telling other people, often and obnoxiously, to vote for them. But, crucially, the hand-wringing and tut-tutting does have an effect: it discourages the people who already feel silenced and uncomfortable from ever talking about or taking pride in their achievements.” Jenny, of Jenny’s Library, also has a thoughtful response. […]

[…] Jenny’s Library, Jenny Gadget has a thoughtful response to Martin Lewis and explains how writers talking about their own works on the internet helped her find speculative […]

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