Kevin J. Maroney (womzilla) wrote,
Kevin J. Maroney

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Saving the Semiprozine

Last year, at Denvention, the WSFA voted to eliminate the Best Semiprozine Hugo. A second vote will be held this year--probably at the Saturday session of the Worldcon Business Meeting, 10 AM--to ratify or rescind the earlier vote. I encourage everyone who reads this and is attending Worldcon to attend and vote your conscience.

Before I put in my own comments, let me point to Neil Clarke's Save the Semiprozine Hugo blog/website, especially the four summary posts here, here, here, and here.

Here's my take on it.

As most of you know, for the last 170 issues--er, months--I have been one of the managing editors of The New York Review of Science Fiction, a monthly magazine of science fiction and fantasy reviews, scholarship, reminiscence, and silliness. We're somewhere on the borderline between a fanzine and a professional review journal--borderline because we pay our contributors, though not our staff.

(This latter has come as quite a surprise to many people, who assume that David Hartwell and I at least draw a small salary from NYRSF. Quite the contrary--when I started work on the magazine, staff were not even paid for writing reviews and essays, though non-staff contributors were. It took me several years of badgering the more-senior staff to get that policy changed--almost purely altruistically, I hasten to add, since I don't regularly contribute articles or reviews, but there have always been staffers who do.)

For the last twenty-five years, there has been a Hugo Awards category for magazines like this, magazines that "live in a nebulous area between the non-paying amateur fanzines and the high-paying professional magazines"--the Best Semiprozine Award. The definition for magazines in this category was always somewhat awkward, but was designed to strip out news magazines (especially Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle) from the Best Fanzine category and also acknowledge the work of small-press professional fiction magazines (among the nominees the first year was Whispers, one of the best horror magazines ever, and other nominees have included Crank!, Interzone, Tomorrow Science Fiction, and Pulphouse). And then there were the critical magazines--Fantasy Newsletter/Fantasy Review in the first few years, NYRSF later, and in recent years nominations for Emerald City, Third Alternative, and Anisble, moved there from fanzine by request of its creator, Dave Langford.)

I think that the Best Semiprozine Award is valuable, and I would prefer that it continue to exist.

The main arguments against the award are:

1) there isn't a really strong field of nominees beyond the "five magazines which get nominated every year";
2) the same magazines get nominated every year; and
3) Locus wins (almost) every year.

The combination of these elements (2) and 3) in particular) supposedly mean it's not "an honor to be nominated".

First, let me address this directly: I feel honored. Thank you. I will continue to feel honored for the past nominations even if the award goes away. Thank you all who have voted for NYRSF over the years. I can't say that enough.

Let us discuss what major purposes an award serves:

1. It is a guide to good works.
2. It is an encouragement to others to produce good works.

Does the Best Semiprozine Hugo do these two things? I would say it does.

The magazines which qualify for Best Semiprozine are generally qualitatively different from either the pro fiction magazines and from the fanzines.

Anyone who uses the Hugos as a guideline to what's worthwhile in the science fiction field will immediately find Locus. That's a good thing. Before long, they'll probably find Ansible, Interzone, and NYRSF. Obviously, I'm happy whenever that happens--Ansible and Interzone are great magazines. Then, after they discover those, they'll find Weird Tales and Clarkeworld and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and discover that there's a whole huge world of f&sf magazines that they've never heard of. (Would the award be even more useful if the nominations list be more varied? Yes, but that doesn't mean it isn't valuable as is.)

Does the Hugo encourage good work? I can't speak for everyone, but I can answer for myself: Yes. I spend 40+ hours per month working on NYRSF--weekly meetings, monthly Work Weekends, plus additional production hours (formatting manuscripts, marking corrections, all those endless things)--for free; David does even more, and there are a floating group of a dozen other people who contribute substantially month after month to keep us going. The Hugo nomination that we receive--all receive--every year is one of the most concrete statements we receive telling us that we're doing not just something right, but something that other people value. Oh, there's other feedback--it's not like we're going to suddenly close down the magazine if the Semiprozine Hugo goes away--but the recognition granted by the award is tremendously valuable to us. And for new nominees--like Clarkesworld--the award nomination by itself is a huge boost in visibility, in respect, and in confidence. That's worth preserving, and extending.

As to the variety question:

In the last six years, 10 magazines have been nominated for the Best Semiprozine: Locus (6 times), NYRSF (6), Interzone (6), Anisible (5), Third Alternative (2), and Emerald City, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Helix SF, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Weird Tales (1 time each). That's a strong list of nominees--each of these is doing something none of the others is.

The fact that Anisible--which has an online circulation in the thousands, and consistently very high quality content by the man who won 19 straight Best Fan Writer awards--can fall off the nominations in favor of small-press magazines like Clarkesworld and Weird Tales--proves that no one can take their nomination for granted. Again, all the magazines work hard for their nominations, and getting on the ballot is a real honor.

Finally, "the Locus problem" in specific.

I agree that the fact that the Best Semiprozine nominations pool is dominated by a small number of magazines is a problem. But these are not problems unique to the Best Semiprozine Award. There are two broad categories of Hugo awards: awards granted to a specific work (Novel, Short Story, Dramatic Presentation, and so forth) and the awards given to a person or an institution for a body of work over a year--Professional Editor (Long Form and Short Form), Fanzine, Fan Writer, Fanzine, Fan Artist, and Professional Artist. The "body of work" awards are dominated by the same people year in and year out--but no one is talking about eliminating those categories. (Best Editor was recently split in two categories, which has stirred up the nominations and winners significantly; before that, it was won by the same excellent editor fifteen times in a seventeen year stretch.) If Locus wins almost every year, and you think that's a problem, how can you not have the same problem with Dave Langford winning Best Fan Writer nineteen years in a row?

Warren Buff at File770 has compiled the numbers that demonstrate that in the last ten years, Best Semiprozine has had around as many different nominees (12) as Best Fanzine (13), Best Fan Writer (12), Best Professional Artist (15), and Best Fan Artist (10).

I myself favor a systemic change to how eligibility for these categories is determined. I have proposed, but never seriously followed up on, the idea of allowing a person or institution to win a "body of work" category a maximum of three times before being permanently retired from nomination in the category, but other options are also possible--temporary ineligibilities and a strong tradition of voluntary withdrawal from a category are the two widest discussed. I'm sure clever people can come up with others if there's sufficient will--and creating this type of deliberate pot-stirring seems to me a much better approach to this condition than eliminating entire awards.

In the specific case of Locus, I'm happy to see it nominated every year, for as long as the editors want it to be and for as long as the voters want it to be eligible. The Semiprozine category was created with Locus in mind, so I think it's perfectly apt for it to be nominated.

In summary:

The Best Semiprozine Hugo serves good purposes. The arguments against it, while not trivial, are not compelling, and mostly seem to be addressing perceived problems that either don't exist or are better handled in other, more targeted, ways. Save the Semiprozine Hugo!

(This has been an emphatically unpaid public announcement.)

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