Hugo’s for academics?

I’ve meant to chase this for awhile because it is an odd idea that has an element of plausibility.

You’ll find from time to time in Puppydom a claim that people are chasing Hugo Awards because of their academic career i.e. that a lot of winners are people employed in higher education, presumably in the area of English Literature or creative writing, who by gaining awards can further their ACADEMIC career. Now, for all I know, this may even be true in the wider world of literature – but the term ‘publish or perish’ in academia in every other field refers to the need to get academic papers published in high impact journals to ensure that your impact rating his high enough NOT writing novels.

So, what-the-heck-do-I-know, there may be oodles of University lecturers and post-docs desperately hustling for a Hugo award under the belief that will get them tenure. I’m an empiricist, so what I’d like to see is THIS ACTUALLY HAVING AN IMPACT ON THE AWARDS. If it doesn’t, then the question becomes irrelevant. Put another way: where are the academics?

To Wikipedia!

I’ll do the 2017 Best Novel nominees first – because I already know there is at least one academic in there.

  • Ada Palmer: Yes! An actual academic at the University of Chicago. Yeah, but her discipline is history, specifically Renaissance history. A *science-fiction* award isn’t going to harm her career but it is not by itself going to further a career in  Renaissance history academia.
  • N.K.Jemisin: Now a full-time author but her other career was as a psychological counsellor.
  • Yoon Ha Lee: According to Wikipedia: “He has worked as an analyst for an energy market intelligence company, done web design, and taught mathematics.”
  • Cixin Liu: Wikipedia: “Liu received technical training from North China University of Water Conservancy and Electric Power, graduating in 1988. He has worked as a computer engineer for a power plant located in Yangquan, Shanxi.”
  • Becky Chambers: Has less biographical information available on Wikipedia. Going elsewhere says: “Becky Chambers was raised in California as the progeny of an astrobiology educator, an aerospace engineer, and an Apollo-era rocket scientist. An inevitable space enthusiast, she made the obvious choice of studying performing arts. After a few years in theatre administration, she shifted her focus toward writing.” No mention of an academic career.
  • Charlie Jane Anders: Professional writer, event organiser, journalist. Again, not actively employed in academia.

So only one confirmed academic and they are a historian rather than in literature.

Let’s go back further to 2013. I won’t repeat nominees.

  • Jim Butcher: Professional writer. I don’t see another career in his bio.
  • Neal Stephenson: His parents were academics (engineering, physics). He is a Professional writer. I don’t see another career in his bio.
  • Ann Leckie. Professional writer. Wikipedia cites that she was a ‘stay-at-home mother’ when she first drafted Ancillary Justice.
  • Naomi Novik: Wikipedia says “She studied English Literature at Brown University and holds a master’s degree in Computer Science from Columbia University. She participated in the design and development of the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide until she discovered that she preferred writing to game design.”
  • Kevin J. Anderson: Wikipedia says “For 12 years Anderson worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he met fellow writers Rebecca Moesta and Doug Beason. Anderson would later marry Moesta, and frequently coauthors novels with both her and Beason.”
  • Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison: Wikipedia doesn’t list a career other than author but does say: “In 2004 she earned a PhD in English literature, specialising in Renaissance Drama and writing her dissertation on ghosts in English Renaissance revenge tragedy.[3] She double-majored in Classics and Literature (a cross-departmental program between French, English, and Comparative Literature) in college.”
  • Brandon Sanderson: Wikipedia says “Sanderson worked as an editor for the semi-professional magazine Leading Edge while attending school at Brigham Young University, where he now periodically teaches creative writing.” Sanderson is a professional writer but this is the closest we’ve got so far to a nominee with a connection between their writing career and academia.
  • Larry Correia: Professional writer. A former accountant and business owner.
  • Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant: Aside from writing and filking and everything else, I don’t see in her bios what another kind of career she has had. Doesn’t seem to be also fitting in a professorship somewhere.
  • Charles Stross: Wikipedia again – “Between 1994 and 2004, he was also an active writer for the magazine Computer Shopper and was responsible for the monthly Linux column. He stopped writing for the magazine to devote more time to novels.”
  • Saladin Ahmed: According to this link “Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit and raised in a working-class Arab American enclave in Dearborn, Michigan. He has racked up a number of achievements as a poet and a short story writer (including nominations for the Nebula and Campbell awards), and has taught writing at universities and colleges for over ten years.” So, a sort of hit like Sanderson?
  • Lois McMaster Bujold: Her writing career dominates the bios I’ve seen. No obvious second career as an academic.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson: Professional writer. Wikipedia says “In 1978 Robinson moved to Davis, California to take a break from his graduate studies at UC San Diego. During this time he worked as a bookseller for Orpheus Books. He also taught freshman composition and other courses at the University of California, Davis. In 1982 Robinson earned a PhD in English from the UC San Diego. His initial PhD advisor was a literary critic and Marxist scholar, Fredric Jameson, who told Robinson to read works by Philip K. Dick. Jameson described Dick to Robinson as “the greatest living American writer.” Robinson’s doctoral thesis, The Novels of Philip K. Dick, was published in 1984 and a hardcover version was published by UMI Research Press.”
  • John Scalzi: Professional writer and former journalist.

So, the closest hits are Brandon Sanderson, Saladin Ahmed and Kim Stanley Robinson but none of those appears to be actively pursuing an academic career. Now before somebody says that maybe a whole bunch of the people above whose other careers aren’t discussed in Wikipedia may ACTUALLY be academics…well, sure *maybe* but…that would be completely at odds with the ‘publish or perish’ theory. Academics SPRUIK their academic work, they aren’t shy about it precisely because of ‘publish or perish’.

Now, *maybe* I’ll get more hits for academics chasing Hugos in short fiction but I’ll save that for another day. As far as novels go, nominees tend to be professional writers, a small number of whom have done some teaching of creative writing. The ones with active academic careers are rare and that career tends to be as unrelated as the careers of non-academics. Less obvious is that work that involves WRITING seems to be a thing for previous careers but it needn’t be fiction or academic.

[Update: I’ve run through Hugo Short Story nominees as well now, going back several additional years because of the Puppy griefing in recent times. Some authors appear above, others don’t have much in the way of bios. However, of 49 writers I looked at I could only find THREE with direct evidence some academic work in the field of English Literature/Writing. Of those:

  • Rachel Swirsky: “Swirsky taught undergraduate science fiction and fantasy writing while a teaching assistant at The University of Iowa”
  • Sofia Samatar: “In 2013, Samatar joined the California State University Channel Islands’ faculty as an Assistant Professor of English. She taught writing and literature, and also established the institution’s first Arabic class. In the fall of 2016, she joined the faculty of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.”
  • Kij Johnson: “She joined the University of Kansas English Department as Assistant Professor of Fiction Writing in Fall 2012, where she is associate director of the The Center for the Study of Science Fiction.”

Now, more generally in fandom, comment sections, blogs etc I’ve met people who teach literature or courses on SFF etc. I should also add that the academic study of literature is a fine pursuit and not to be sneered at. However, I’m not seeing any particular over-representation of academics in Hugo nominations. OK, yes, 2 out of 49 is higher than the general population proportion of English lit Assitant professors but given we are looking at specifically an award in LITERATURE, that figure looks like LESS than I would expect not more.]



  1. philsandifer

    It’s also worth noting that unless an academic were employed in creative writing, frankly, nobody on their promotion and tenure committee would care that much about a Hugo. The attitude would roughly be “well I’m glad your non-academic book did well, but where are your peer-reviewed publications?”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Lurkertype

    Genre writing is looked down upon in academia. Barbara Mertz used “Elizabeth Peters” when writing her popular mysteries in Egypt b/c she had a PhD in Egyptology and wrote a couple serious Egyptian history books and was involved in various srs bzness Egyptian things at U of Chicago. She wrote gothic/supernatural thrillers under “Barbara Michaels”.

    There was another famous mystery writer (I can’t remember) who always wrote under a pen name b/c she was a very srs bzness academic in an English dept. of some Ivy League(?) university and she had to keep it quiet. Nobody knew for years.

    So if there’s that much stigma against writing mystery, there’s probably even more against sci-fi. It’s not likely to help you in academia at all, and might actually hurt you. Better you should publish something in literary journals.

    Now if you turned up with a Pulitzer, that would help, but most academics don’t even know what a Hugo or Nebula are.

    KSR hasn’t taught since he got his PhD, I don’t think. He writes and does environmental stuff. He’s an expert on John Muir. Looks like Swirsky also only taught while getting her degree, and that’s because it’s what grad students are for.

    Academia: another thing Puppies blather about but don’t understand AT ALL.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Lurkertype

        I’m sure it’s better than it was, but “that crazy sci-fi stuff” is still the red headed stepchild of English departments, way behind lit’rary, though ahead of romance which doesn’t even get a look in. It *miiight* help you get tenure if you’re strictly an SF/F prof, but likely not much more than just getting the thing published.

        Kij Johnson’s still an Assistant Professor, which means she hasn’t gotten tenure yet even though she has nominations and wins and is in The Center For. They could let her go any time.

        So it shows no sign of paying off for the one winner we know teaches the stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

      • sojournerstrange

        I suppose it’s more than five years ago now, but I still remember speaking to an MFA student who was absolutely adamant that SFF *by definition* had no literary value. That is, he opined that if a work has any literary value, it does not “count” as SFF/genre.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Cora

      Another example is Mary Bly, who’s a Professor of English and daughter of two noted literary writers. She had to write Regency romances under the pen name Eloisa James and only “came out” as a romance writer when she got tenure and genre writing could no longer harm her career.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lurkertype

        Oh, she’s was the one I was thinking of! Not mystery, romance. But she is from a srz bzness lit’rary tradition, like I said. She’s got degrees from Oxford and Yale.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Kat Goodwin

    That’s hilarious. No, a Hugo does not get you jack squat in academia, even for creative writing. It’s a popular vote award for a genre convention, not even a jury prize. It might help a tiny bit if you’re teaching SFF creative writing specifically in the U.S., but that’s not a typical academic career and they are perfectly happy to hire writers for that who haven’t won major genre awards for those positions. Quite a lot of SF authors and some fantasy authors have taught writing or literature at one time or another — Tim Powers has taught creative writing quite a long time, Maureen McHugh used to teach it and literature, and of course there’s been a number of scientists writing SF or SFF while also teaching science at universities (or history, etc.) Adam Roberts teaches literature and creative writing at the University of London as his day job. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. taught at university for awhile, after he was famous.

    But the only prizes that are going to help you with an academic career are the really big “literary” prizes like the National Book Award in the U.S., the Booker Mann Award, the Pulitzer, etc. — big jury prizes that put some academics on their judging panels. (Although if you’re winning those awards, that then have large cash prizes, you probably aren’t regularly in academia but concentrating on a writing career.) A Hugo or a Nebula means nothing in academia. SFF is studied as literature, people do dissertations on it, SFF writers get asked to give guest lectures, etc., but specific prizes for it are seen as simply popular commercial competitions. And for literature profs, fiction writing isn’t necessarily an asset. You’re supposed to be analyzing fiction and culture instead, writing non-fiction, etc.

    Maybe they are getting confused with people doing M.F.A. degrees where they’d write a novel as their master thesis. But that’s not an academic career — it’s a writing career, usually. And a Hugo wouldn’t help you there either.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Mark

    Adam Roberts springs to mind, as a genuine academic who writes novels. He’s not done too badly in terms of UK awards notice, but he hardly could be said to court it.


  5. Johan P

    If it were true that “people are chasing Hugo Awards because of their academic career”, the “Related Work”-category ought to be dominated by articles in academic journals. Instead, that’s completely absent – or at least I haven’t noticed any in the years I’ve paid attention or when looking at older finalist lists. There’s some popularized non-fiction but no “real” academic work.

    As for fiction category finalists:
    Nnedi Okorafor is “an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University at Buffalo (SUNY)” per Wikipedia. That’s probably as close as you can get to someone who might get a career boost with a Hugo.

    I think I’ve seen Alyssa Wong talk about “my students”, but she graduated with an MFA this year so either I’m wrong or it’s at most teaching undergrads during her master work.

    Kameron Hurley’s dayjob is as a copywriter, not in academics. I mention her as she has been open in saying her Hugo helped her writing career, but she’s made no such claims about her dayjob.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cora

      Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy was the closest Best Related Work came to a true academic work. And she promptly lost to John Scalzi’s greatest hits.


  6. katster

    Yeah. I’d add Turtledove and Greg Benford to the list of academics, but the former is a professor of Byzantine history, and the latter’s a physicist.


  7. Nina A

    Sarah Monette has been a professor, although not recently. Alyssa has taught at the university level, but I don’t think is now. Seanan’s pre writing career was not in academia.