How To Hugo Vote

Vox Day is once again performing a valuable service to science fiction fandom by handing the fascists enough rope with which to hang themselves. This iteration involves him and Larry Correia getting themselves nominated for a Hugo by the perfectly ordinary means of (a) having a lot of fans and (b) mentioning that they would like to be on the Hugo ballot. Many other authors have gotten their names on the ballot this way.

The only thing that’s new about this is that Vox does it while being outspoken about having Incorrect Opinions, and so, predictably, there’s a lot of concern trolling about issues that were never important before concerning the ethics of mentioning one’s technical elligibility for an award to his fans in a public forum like a blog. And so we get a parade of excuses for excluding entries for their authors’ politics rather than their literary merit.

For example, here’s Patrick Nielsen Hayden:

I also think it’s fine to ignore and not read a work when you have adequate reason to believe it will just make you unhappy. For that matter, I think it’s fine to ignore and not read something because the author has called for harm to you or to people you care about. Art and politics can’t ever be completely separated. As a general rule of thumb, when we think our approach to something is politics-free, that generally means the politics are so normative as to be invisible.

That’s all very well, and I largely agree with the main points: art and politics can’t ever be entirely separated, and you shouldn’t waste time reading things that are just going to make you unhappy. But true though these things may be, the conclusion that Hayden is trying to draw – i.e one or both of "It is morally OK for me to refuse to read and consider on its literary merits an item on the Hugo ballot merely because I disagree with the author’s politics" or "It is logically impossible for me or anyone to read the candidates on the ballot in the objective way that is being asked for" – simply doesn’t follow from these premises.

Let’s start with the idea that art and politics can’t ever be entirely separated. That’s true, and while it’s not completely irrelevant to the point Hayden is trying to establish it is largely so – and that’s because works of fiction are not straightforward political essays. For one thing, no one is actually asking any Hugo reader to "entirely" separate his politics from his reading of work, all that is in fact being asked is that prior knowledge of the politics of the author not be used to dismiss works out of hand. A work should be judged on its own merits as a literary whole. Politics will be a factor in that judgement – as in, one of many if the judgement is rendered properly. No one asked you to ignore the author’s politics to the extent that they show up in the work, but if that’s your only criterion of judgement, and especially if you’re applying the criterion without having even opened the book in question, you’re doing it wrong. For another thing, there is rarely a one-to-one mapping between an author’s political outlook and his fiction in fiction of any quality. And let me just repeat the "of any quality" for emphasis, because of course there is plenty of fiction that is mere propaganda, and I’m totally OK with someone reading a work, deciding that it’s doing nothing but trying to manipulate the reader unfairly into adopting a certain point of view, and dismissing it for that reason. Of course, you’d have to, you know, read a little bit of it to know, but alright, if a writer has a general pattern of writing "that way," then sure, don’t waste your time. I’ve skipped every Oliver Stone release since JFK for that reason – the man only ever makes base propaganda. No, I mean "of quality." For any honestly-written novel or shortstory, the politics of the author don’t tend to get transparently mapped onto the work in any case. In good literature, the author’s politics merely color the perspective; they don’t stop him from doing an honest examination of a complex issue. Prominent example: by all accounts Tolstoy set out to write Anna Karenina as an indictment of women; Anna was meant to be shown as weak and conniving. In the finished product, of course, she’s quite sympathetic. The process of writing opened Tolstoy to a perspective he hadn’t fully considered, and he came to appreciate that at least that character in that situation didn’t really have a choice but to leave her husband and look for love with Vronsky instead. Novels, in the end, aren’t political essays, which is why it isn’t uncommon to read novels by people whose politics you despise and nevertheless find them meaningful and uplifting. It really, you know, depends on the author. Yes, there are H.G. Wells in the world who simply write their politics. If you don’t want a socialist worldview shoved down your throat, don’t read Wells! But for every Wells there are hundreds of Tolstoys and Hemingways – people who have a firm political outlook but put their craft first, who don’t write mere propaganda. Their politics will make an appearance, but not in the straightforward way that would alienate dissenters. A Francoist can read For Whom the Bell Tolls and learn something about life.

Now about the idea that you shouldn’t waste time reading books that make you unhappy. Well, that’s true. And yet, reading for the Hugo is a job. You don’t read the Hugo packet in the same way that you read for fun. OK, granted, it’s not the Nebula, and so it’s more about enjoyment than literary merit, in the end. Nevertheless, if you’ve signed up to be a judge on the ballot, you’re sort of obligated to read things you wouldn’t normally read. It’s the same way that, once you don a cop’s uniform, you’re sort of obligated to try to look past your normal prejudices about who is guilty and who isn’t in the course of doing your job. When you’re a lay citizen, by all means feel free to cross the street to avoid someon who strikes you as "criminal." It’s arguably mean and prejudiced, but you have that luxury precisely because you’re a civilian. As a cop, you don’t. You can’t assume someone is guilty just because he looks the part because if the Rule of Law means anything it means that you’re not legally guilty until someone proves it beyond a reasonable doubt. Same thing with the Hugo. If you pay your dues and apply for the voting packet, you’re committing yourself to a standard that’s somewhere above your spare time reading. You don’t get the luxury of deciding, a priori, that something is a bad novel, and especially not just because the author doesn’t agree with your politics!

So yeah, politics and art can never be entirely separated. Fortunately, you don’t have to entirely separate them to cast an honest Hugo vote – all you gotta do is extend the benefit of the doubt. And yeah, you generally shouldn’t read things that you know are going to make you unhappy – but by the same token, if you’re not willing to risk being made unhappy by something then maybe you should recuse yourself from Hugo voting.

Hayden is, of course, trying to make excuses for what he knows is bad behavior. The man is an editor, fer chrissakes, he well knows the difference between reading professionally and reading for fun. I post this merely so that other people who might not have seen through the deception initially can know it for what it is.

One general question I have for the Hugo committee: now that we live in the digital age, why not distribute the packet as eBooks with the author’s name removed? That way, people can’t simply vote by byline.

Personally, I think the Hugo committee should consider disqualifying Patrick Nielsen Hayden and everyone else who has posted these statements on their blogs in public. It doesn’t solve the problem – plenty of others who said nothing in public will still be allowed to vote – but it does send a strong message about what the standards for voting are meant to be. Alternatively, it would be nice for the Hugo committee to directly condemn these kinds of statements. They’ve sort of done that by affirming that everything on the ballot is there fair and square and asking people to be objective – but I personally think they should go a step further and mention Hayden, Narayan, Jericho and various others by name.

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