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Kevin J. Maroney [userpic]

Saving the Semiprozine

August 2nd, 2009 (10:24 pm)
current mood: semi-pro
current song: "La Marseillaise", Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle

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.)


(Deleted comment)
Posted by: Kevin J. Maroney (womzilla)
Posted at: August 3rd, 2009 11:46 am (UTC)

"If you did the three-and-out to Best Editor, you'd still have a strong slate of editors decade after decade. If you did three-and-out to Best Artist, you'd still have a strong slate of artists likewise. If you did three-and-out for Best Semiprozine, you'd end up with pretty weak tea after ten years."

I don't think the evidence supports any part of that statement. If you eliminate Locus, NYRSF, Ansible, and Interzone, in the last decade you still have Third Alternative, Emerald City, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Helix SF, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Weird Tales from the last five years. This is a strong lineup of two critical 'zines and four strong small-press fiction magazines, all of which are worthy of attention and which would benefit from it. (Okay, Emerald City and Helix have both shut down--which argues for making the nominations available more quickly.)

"Anyway, I think the larger point is that 'Semiprozine' is a terribly awkward word that sounds like category-gerrymandering, and awards shouldn't be sliced so thin."

So do you think

a) Locus, Ansible, and NYRSF should be competing head-to-head with fanzines; or

b) the fact that NYRSF pays an honorarium to its contributors means that it is so different in kind from a fanzine that it shouldn't be competing in the Hugos at all?

Those really are the only two choices on the table. (Well, it's possible from your statement that you'd support some sort of new category for small-press magazines that was defined more elegantly than the Semiprozine, but it doesn't seem like that's what you're pushing for.)

As Neil Clarke said in one of the linked summary essays, the editors of small press fiction magazines have no hope of competing with the pro magazine editors, even if they deserve it--*book editors* couldn't compete with the pro magazine editors for attention. The entire "body of work" model strongly weighs towards the most familiar names, year after year after year, and I think that rather sucks.

Posted by: Carol Kennedy (cakmpls)
Posted at: August 3rd, 2009 12:31 pm (UTC)

I have no dog in this fight, so I won't comment on the main topic.

seem to be addressing perceived problems that either don't exist or are better handled in other, more targeted, ways.

Doesn't that, unfortunately, describe about 90% of supposed problem-solving done by the human race?

Posted by: The Dread Champion (bigscary)
Posted at: August 3rd, 2009 01:13 pm (UTC)

With the essential collapse of the "high-paying" (hahahahahahahaah) professional SF mag, the rise of the internet, I would think the most honest thing would be to just call them "Magazones". Someone's getting paid, after all, there's a structure beyond "Let's Put on a Periodical, I've Got a Barn We Can Use (for Printing)!", and honestly, in this fallen age, Locus or NYRSF can certainly complete with F&SF, Asimov's, etc.

Hell, the criteria, looking carefully at them, are hilariously pre-internet. PRINT circulation?

Posted by: Ninebelow (ninebelow)
Posted at: August 4th, 2009 10:26 am (UTC)

Indeed. The meaningful difference between, say, Asimov's, Locus and Interzone is not at all clear. (Well, there is a meaningful difference but not along the lines the Hugo is interested in.)

Posted by: Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee)
Posted at: August 4th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
Business Meeting

Minor neep: Although functionally it works the way you say, the vote at Anticipation is not to "rescind" the change first passed last year, merely to ratify it, yes or no. "Rescind" implies that the change is part of the constitution, which it is not. No changes apply to the WSFS Constitution until after they get majorities at two consecutive Worldcons. I tend to use "first passage" and "ratification" myself.

Thanks for calling further attention to this matter. Anyone with questions about Business Meeting procedure is welcome to ask me about it. We have a panel on Thursday afternoon about how the Business Meeting works for the benefit of people who are new to the "Town Meeting" that governs the Society.

Posted by: Kevin J. Maroney (womzilla)
Posted at: August 5th, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)

I actually did know the distinction, but "ratify" and "rescind" made such a natural pairing that I went with the imprecision. As you say, the practical difference is microscopic. Heck, I don't even know what would happen if the Business Meeting got canceled (say, because of a meteor strike)--I guess the first passage would await ratification until the next time the Business Meeting could be held?

Posted by: Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee)
Posted at: August 5th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)
Business Meeting

Interesting academic question. The actual words in the Constitution are "...to the extent that such motion is ratified by a simple majority at the Business Meeting of the subsequent Worldcon." Although it's never been tested, it suggests that if the following year's Worldcon doesn't happen, then action would hold fire until the following year, but if the following year's Worldcon happens but no Business Meeting was held, all constitutional amendments pending ratification would die and have to start over.

I do rather hope we never have to test this one.

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