But once a year, like clockwork, the Fan Hugo short list comes out and somehow I can never quite avoid seeing it. When I do see it, I increasingly find a bunch of total strangers who’ve not visibly participated in fandom, and I see red all over again. I will inevitably be told that the failing is in me, that were I to educate myself, I would discover their merit. As often as not, whatever merit is involved, what I actually discover are more neo-pros doing nothing remotely to do with fandom as we know it, or if they do, only in pursuit of making money off us.

Ulrika O’Brien on profiteering [emphasis added].

So it’s extremely no secret that I am… not a fan of the Hugo Awards as they currently exist,1 meaning any time Hugo-adjacent wank bubbles up from the pits of the internet I am totally all the fuck over them! This one is today’s! More under the cut because hoo boy. Long wank is lo-oo-ong!


So first off, O’Brien’s piece is… A Thing, and quotations-are-not-endorsement, and so on.2 That being said, I do think this section in particular hits on a point of huge contention and discomfort in fandom, and particularly in SFF fandom, which is notoriously tiny and incestuous and has a very blurred line between fans and creators.

As someone who’s Been There, Failed That, there absolutely is a predatory level of commercialization in both pro SFF and its adjacent SFF fandom; it’s basically expected of pro authors nowadays that you’ll cultivate a parasocial relationship with a “fanbase” who you can then mercilessly market to and who’ll mercilessly market (unpaid) for you.3 And this absolutely 100% includes encouraging quid pro quo style relationships between established pros and up-and-comers in the “you do me a solid now I’ll give you a blurb later” sense. Whether or not you think this is inherently bad is up to you, but it’s definitely A Thing and it’s something I found extremely confronting in my own (ahem) “career”, coming to it from oldskool transformative works fandom which has historically been averse to a culture of nakedly commercialized relationships.4 All that, plus the whole being-Australian-tall-poppy-syndrome cultural baggage, means there are, to me, quite noticeable trends in US specfic re. who seems to succeed versus who is extremely good at manufacturing themselves into a saleable commercial brand. As far as how this maps onto the Cultural Wars™; no “side” is immune to this, though the us-versus-them atmosphere in general does leave the ground fertile for exploitation. Buying a book or voting for an individual is no longer just a personal or aesthetic choice; it’s a tangible manifestation of the Manichean battle over politics and society as a whole! You don’t want to be on the Wrong Side, do you? You don’t want to let Them win… right?

And, like. As someone who, actually… honestly doesn’t want Them™ to win… Yeah, kinda? But, also… maybe there are limits to that, and maybe “not destroying the entire institution that underpins the battlefield” is, like. One of those. Just maybe. Or at least if it is, be fucking honest about that. Maybe some institutions deserve to be destroyed, and maybe the Hugo Awards are one of them.5

Maybe it’s time everyone owned up to where all this is really going.

That being said, I do side-eye the “doing nothing remotely to do with fandom as we know it” part of O’Brien’s piece, specifically because often what people in the more recent Hugos fan categories are known for doing is online. Which, at least in theory, opens the awards up more to people who won’t be recognizable to parochial American fans whose main fannish experience is attending small-town national cons. Which, y’know. Is a good thing. I mean. In theory. Assuming the categories actually shake out like that.6 Because it should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t so here it is, for those of us outside of the universe of aforementioned small-town US cons, most of the “important fans” mentioned by people like O’Brien are just as “ni kulturni” as O’Brien apparently finds the current crop of nominees. The Australian SFF fandom scene has its own crop of people, for example, who’d I think are more than worthy of recognition here and basically never are.7 How are they more or less “kulturni” than the I-totally-had-to-Google-these-people O’Brien mentions? Even coming from the also-very-US-based transformative works fandom and seeing, like, no one and nothing I recognized in the Hugos fan categories was a shock, particularly given how the Hugos bills itself versus how many people actually participate in it, and particularly particularly when compared to the transformative and media fandoms.8 This is actually one of the things about the Hugos I think has gotten better and more representative in the last few years, not less, precisely because it’s moved into more international territory.

But I digress.

The actual point here is that I actually do think the issue of who is a “fan” and who is a pro—and what, exactly, those designations mean in this our content-flooded capitalist hellhole—is kind of complicated, and worth a lot more honest discussion than it’s currently getting. Specifically because this is a systemic issue; it’s about market capital, i.e. the publishing industry, learning to exploit spaces traditionally thought of by their participants as being outside of that. Of course, basically no one nowadays seems to be able to discuss anything through that lens—especially since, in this particular instance, the best glass to use happens to come from that most dreaded of American bogeymen, i.e. Marxism—hence we get all this tedious finger-pointing at individuals and associated cult-of-personality Twitter fighting. Which… wow. Where have we ever seen that used before?

Cui bono, and all of that.

Since I mentioned it above, it’s worth pointing out transformative works fandom is also going through this same pain, specifically as “oldskool” style fans culturally clash with younger groups of fans who’ve grown up with Ko-Fi and Patreon—as well as exceptionally shitty prospects re. IRL jobs and debt—and see no problem with, for example, writing fic on commission. Which was pretty much the most taboo thing you could possibly have done in Ye Oldene Dayes. I actually do think the way fandom has been discussing this issue, while far from perfect, is miles ahead of the garbage coming out of SFF fandom; see this, this, this, and this for a primer for example. For the most part, people involved in the transformative fandom version of this wank share a rough political alignment and none of this involves anyone’s professional careers, meaning the conversations that come out of it are far less Manichean and far more insightful and honest about the systems at work.

Which, spoiler alert: the systems are capitalism. Specifically, the cultivation and commodification of fannish identities for profit, and how that impacts fan communities as well as professional ones. It’s something that goes on in transformative fandom and media fandom and, yes, it goes on in small-con SFF Hugo Awards fandom and—again, spoiler alert—all the interpersonal slap fights on Twitter aren’t going to do shit but make it all worse for all bar the tiny handful of players at the top who’re the ones using it to make all the money.

Which, yanno. Is maybe, just maybe, kinda the point.

  1. Which, incidentally, makes me exactly one of the “fan culture outsiders” O’Brien rants about later on in the article. []
  2. See also previous footnote. []
  3. The naff PR term for these are “street teams”, incidentally. []
  4. For those of you about to jump in, Ace Attorney style, just give me one sec to get back to it below? []
  5. Full disclosure, and probably no surprise, I would not actually be averse to this outcome, particularly if it were replaced by an actual world award. []
  6. The answer seems to be “sort of”, although nominees still tend to be extremely limited to creators who are both, a) in US, Canada, the UK, and/or Australia, and b) primarily creating for US-based audiences, i.e. they’re discussing American media and fandom, creating art for US-based publications, and so on. []
  7. The one exception: podcasts. Apparently we do well in that category. Go us! []
  8. See also: Lodestar wank. See also: the fact that the Lodestar is even freakin’ called that. []