Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

January 13, 2015

Hug a Critic (Or Nominate them for an Award)

Clavis Aurea is, by the way, eligible for the Hugos’ Best Related Work. And me for Best Fan Writer!

A lot of ink has been spilled, by me as much as anyone, about the genre ghetto. The mainstream publishing industry pointedly ignores genre in all those spaces it considers respectable, like newspaper reviews, literary awards, and adult conversations. Meanwhile, genre fandom often resists analysis and criticism from mainstream culture, insisting that their corner of literature has its own rules and standards that a “non-fan” can’t understand merely by reading a genre book. There are a lot of shots lobbed about high culture and low, the people versus the establishment, fans versus experts.

And yet there is more self-aware crossover now between literary fiction and genre fiction than there has ever been, in the short fiction markets in particular. The golden age of pulps might have passed on, but in its place is an incredibly fecund culture of online literary ‘zines with expressly speculative mandates. When I stopped reading fantasy fiction fifteen years ago, we were still in the age of Locus, Asimov’s, and Realms of Fantasy. When I returned a couple of years ago, most of these glossies were dead, but the internet was teeming with stranger things, more experimental things. The internet had this effect on everybody over that fifteen-year period: anybody can publish anything, so they do. Fringe projects abound, but there’s a difference in SpecFic:

It pays.

Literary SpecFic isn’t the fringe. It’s an increasingly sustainable share of the short fiction market with a demanding, critical audience willing to pay for the product. In no small part because of the precedent set by the pay rates of the old pulps (and the writer’s unions that sprang up around them,) literary short fiction markets with genre flavours now pay more and more reliably than most “mainstream” literary markets, a distinction you can see in the talent they attract. (These inroads have been less marked in novel-length works: there, a literary SpecFic work is still likely to be marketed and branded as “literary”, downplaying the genre aspects of the work.)

The overtly hybrid form is being led by short fiction. SpecFic short fiction is good. It is important. And it is all but invisible to the mainstream.

A year ago, there was a lot of talk on Twitter about a need for more serious criticism of this fiction. Not only is there more material being released than your average reader can sort through, but much of it is complex material that benefits from a close read. Critics help to sort and decode, to lead the conversation.

There were (and are) some phenomenal critical sources, like Strange Horizons and The Cascadia Subduction Zone, but these focused primarily on full-length works, including anthologies. Other places – Tangent Online, Fantasy Literature, and Locus Online – covered short fiction in brief; overviews without much analysis. There was a need for regular, ongoing, critical coverage of the wealth of material coming out of the periodicals.

As it turns out, there was a need for a lot of regular, ongoing critical coverage of this material. Once the spores took root, short fiction review columns popped up like mushrooms in October. I like to think of 2014 as the beginning of a new critical era in genre fiction. Now we have Amal El-Mohtar’s Rich and Strange up at Tor.com, K. Tempest Bradford covers short fiction at io9. Fantastic Stories of the Imagination has Gillian Daniels and just a couple of months ago, Nerds of a Feather started a “Taster’s Guide” to a flight of interesting short fiction each month.

And, of course, I have maintained Clavis Aurea now for over a year.

In a recent Twitter discussion about award eligibility, Niall Harrison (Strange Horizon‘s editorial force) pointed out that while critics are technically eligible for the Hugo Awards’ Best Fan Writer, “…it’s a poor fit and almost never happens.” Individual essays occasionally get nods (such as last year’s winner, “We Have Always Fought” by Kameron Hurley,) but it is hard to define a critic’s body of work as a whole. You could perhaps nominate their blog or a single, standout column. Critics have not, historically, had their own brands the same way fiction writers do.

I believe this year is different. The same ‘zines who have raised the bar for quality SpecFic short fiction are housing and branding critics with definable, nominate-able bodies of critical work.

I would love to see this trend recognized in this year’s awards season. Literary criticism in genre isn’t new, but it is newly normalized. There is a new critical culture. We’re showing that genre isn’t a ghetto: it’s a metropolis.

You are eligible to nominate for the 2015 Hugo Awards if you were a member of Loncon 3, a member of Sasquan, or the 2016 Worldcon, MidAmericon 2. The nomination period opens January 31, 2015. You will be able to nominate up to five people or works in each category.

Critics and their works are generally eligible for both Best Fan Writer and Best Related Work. You could nominate the critic (say, Amal El-Mohtar) as Fan Writer, and their column or blog (say, Rich and Strange) for Best Related Work.

Let me rephrase that. You should nominate a critic for Best Fan Writer, and their body of work for Best Related Work. I hope very much that you will consider nominating me and my column, Clavis Aurea.

Critics are a vital part of the literary landscape and they work hard. As literary SpecFic continues to push boundaries, reach new audiences, and gain new respectability, these critics will have had no small part in the shaping of the genre. That’s a role that deserves to be recognized on the ballot.

Hug a critic!


Next week, I’ll be laying out my own choices for the categories I intend to nominate in! Stay tuned!

6 thoughts on “Hug a Critic (Or Nominate them for an Award)”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    Interesting that, with the exception of Nerds of a Feather, all of the critics you recommend are professional authors.

    Also interesting that none of the columns you mention are critical either in the sense of including negative reviews or in the sense that they pull stories apart in order to discuss what works and what doesn’t. They do a pretty good job of signal boosting individual stories but I would say that that was a curatorial role rather than an explicitly critical one.

    There are people in the field who function solely or primarily as critics but they rarely register in the fan writer category. Historically, that category went to writers whose work appeared in traditional fanzines but when the field entered a period of decline, the award got stuck on David Langford until it lost all credibility. By the time people outside of the traditional fanzines took an interest in the award, authors had started to maintain blogs and so the award now invariably goes to a visible and popular professional writer who also produces non-fiction.

    I have long been on the opinion that the fan writer award was an opportunity for a community that already hands out a *lot* of professional awards to celebrate the work of someone who contributes to the field despite having no professional ties to it. However, I now realise that it is completely pointless to nominate someone (like Abigail Nussbaum, Liz Bourke or Paul Kincaid) who is not a professional writer with all of the increased status and visibility that that position entails.

    Having said that, if the fan award is to go to professional writers who use their increased visibility and status to draw people’s attention to promote other people’s work then the columns you mention are definitely fit for purpose 🙂

    1. Charlotte says:

      I think this speaks to the inadequacy (sorry, Hugo) of the award categories. What Hugo needs is a “Best Nonfiction” award, but Best Fan Writer is what we have. So we’re stuck trying to wedge absolutely everything into a category which was once intended for “just” fans. But the same conversation I quoted above with Niall Harrison also warned against bringing up “the redesigning-Hugo-categories-conversation-of-doooom!” 😉

      Both Abigail and Liz were cited there as being who deserve better recognition, but there has been (historically) difficulty defining what they do in terms of a body of work. People don’t always look at the byline on a piece, but they might know what blog they are at (or what newspaper they are reading.)

      I think the overlap between writer and critic is less about promotion of an author’s fiction writing, and more about the economics of trying to make a living as a writer. Authors have to freelance a bit to make ends meet. And every critic wants to write a novel. 😉 This is the case even in mainstream literature. Alberto Manguel, George Steiner, E.B. White, even Julia Kristeva all dabbled in novel-writing, with mixed results. 😉 Maybe when SFF has grown a little further, some of our author-critics will hit their stride and find a living solely with the criticism, rather than the opportunistic hybridity we’ve been forced into!

    2. As someone who’s been posting about SFF short fiction and poetry on a semi-daily basis since 2011, this is my perspective:

      Fans are a lot more interested in recommendations than critical reviews. I switched from critical reviews to recommendations about a year ago and have not regretted it. Fan response has been a lot stronger, while I also don’t experience the hostility from authors that I used to experience. (Yes, some people do not take it well when you criticize their stories. Some even send over their friends to gang up on you.)

      When I started, I was a professionally published author in Hungarian, but not in English (now I am). I needed a lot of courage to start sending work to pro venues in English.

      I started to review work in English because of Shweta Narayan’s campaign to get Hugo memberships for multiply marginalized people. I got a membership and one of the conditions was to post about my reading, so I did. I just thought it would be fun, I didn’t really think it over. 😀 At that point there were almost no short SFF reviews besides Tilton and Tangent Online, both of which had a very few different perspective from mine.

      I didn’t stop posting after I used my membership 🙂 I ended up focusing specifically on diverse authors after about a year or so, because I read a lot of work by majority people that I found very derivative and boring at best, and actively offensive at worst. I just wanted to read work I’d have a higher chance of enjoying, and also to promote people who are less promoted in general. (Now there are a lot more people doing this, as Charlotte said above – I’m very glad!)

      Re: my own Hugo voting, I always try to promote fan writers who are not eligible in other categories, but this year I haven’t finished assembling my ballot yet, so I can’t offer my list. I’m working on it 🙂

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