That Beam piece has certainly got people talking about the Hugo Fan Writer category, which is a positive development. I’ve been musing here about the nature of the category for some time and I’d like to focus on something which I think might help clarify an issue.
Firstly though, I don’t want anybody to infer from this post that I think any current finalists or past finalists were illegitimate because of where some of their work was posted. That is not the case as far as I’m concerned. On the other hand that doesn’t mean we can’t think about how the category should be in the future and what rule change may help facilitate that.
Secondly, this is not intended to be a case of Tor-bashing. Non-fiction essays at Tor.com are the example that people keep discussing, so it would be disingenuous not to talk about Tor. However, I must add that I like what Tor.com is doing as a site and also it is doing good work in terms of promoting a diverse range of views and voices.
Last year I wrote about how I wouldn’t want to see a kind of strictly amateur rule applied to fan writing. The simplest way of delimiting the boundary between professional and fan writing would be simply to apply a rule that if the writer is paid then it doesn’t count. I think the negative consequences of such a rule these days would hurt the category more than help. I’m a cis-het financially stable man with a long commute each day and access to cheap portable internet: writing this blog is a hobby that I can indulge in because of social and economic advantages that I have. Patreons etc are ways that help enable not just others like myself but also a broader range of voices to engage with fandom and cover the costs of doing so.
Having said all that…the current rules don’t adequately distinguish between commercial venues for writing and non-commercial ones. The distinction in the rules is focused on availability to readers, which made sense in a world of fanzines, semi-prozines and professional magazines. It doesn’t make sense in a world where there are major publications that are free at source.
Put another way: technically Damien Walter’s former columns in The Guardian on science-fiction related issues would technically be eligible for Best Fan Writer but are not something that people would really think of as being specifically FAN writing even though any specific piece fits the general model of fan writing in terms of content.
So is there a way we can make a distinction between Tor.com or say Barnes & Noble blog or similar commercial venues that publish non-fiction essays that otherwise might be seen as fan-writing?
I’d contend that it isn’t any of the following:
- Payments to the writer
- Costs to the consumer (I.e. that it is free to read doesn’t make it fannish anymore than an essay behind a Patreon pay-wall makes the essay non-fannish)
- The content of the post (OK in some cases, the content might make a piece none fanwriting but not in general)
So what’s the big critical distinction? EDITORS. Is the content commercially curated? Is somebody paid to pick who and what is being published? That’s the big distinction and it really is what matters.
Again: this is not a dig at Tor.com or anybody writing for them. However, there is a big difference between work that is being put out for its own sake and work being put out as part of a commercial operation in terms of whether it is fan-work or not. The difference isn’t in content but in control, who gets to pick.
To go back to the Damien Walters example (and I’m not trying to pick on him either but he’s a handy example), there’s other ways we could exclude his former Guardian column as an example of fan writing (e.g. The Guardian isn’t a SFF outlet as such) but I think the key element is the control (even if it is light) that the newspaper would have over the column. The same is true of Tor.com or Barnes & Noble. I doubt there is much, if any, interference from higher management in terms of particular essays but it is still curated content with the wider purpose of further the interests of a commercial organisation.
Of course, we can’t avoid commercial organisations in our capitalist world. Pull the camera outwards and I’m beholden to some degree to a commercial organisation (WordPress) to have a blog but otherwise I’m more or less a free agent.
So here is a rule change I’d very tentatively suggest:
3.3.16: Best Fan Writer. Any person whose writing has appeared in semiprozines or fanzines or in generally available electronic media THAT IS NOT PROFESSIONALLY EDITED OR PROFESSIONALLY CURATED during the previous calendar year.
Does that work? Or is it to vague still?