Gemmell vs. Gernsback

_41941602_gemmellrex_203300 I was indulging one of my vices (reading other people’s blogs, Sarah Hoyt’s in this case) and noticed in the comments a quote from a different blog.  That particular quote had some disparaging thing to say about the Gemmell Awards.  I’m not going to bother linking to the quoted blog because I’m not directly responding to the argument there, which concerned the number of white male authors nominated for awards, specifically the Hugos.  I will quote the relevant passage, because it’s representative of a pretty common attitude.  It also kicked off a train of thought that should be addressed.  Namely, the how relevant the Hugos are compared to the Gemmells.

The Gemmell Awards are named after David Gemmell and focus on heroic fantasy.  The Hugo Awards are named in honor of Hugo Gernsback, who published the first magazine devoted entirely to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  The Gemmell Awards specialize in heroic fantasy, while the Hugos encompass the entire sff field.

Hugo Gernsback (1884–1967) magazine publisher

Huog Gernsback

Here’s the quote:

“Why not just let the works speak for themselves?”

The issue is that when we let the works speak for themselves, we wind up with the Gemmell Awards: 70,000 votes (several orders of magnitudes greater than the Hugos), and every single nominee for Best Novel is a White Dude.  Every best debut novel is a dude, most of them white.

Of course these comments are totally bogus.  I’ll explain why in a second.  But it got me to thinking, always a dangerous thing.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, in addition to the shortlist for the Gemmell Awards, the shortlist for  the Hugo Awards, was announced recently.  And the internet has been having a major hissy fit ever since.

To summarize (and if you want more info on something, google it; I’m not putting in that many links and things keep evolving): for a few years now there have been various concerns voiced over the Hugo Awards.  There has been a great outcry that too many of the nominees are white, straight, and male, and not enough of them are nonwhite, female, and/or LGBT.  Others say that the awards have degenerated into a self-congratulatory clique, to wit, that the same handful of names keep getting nominated (and often winning).  Some authors believe there is a political bias in that most of the repeat nominees tend to be left of center politically, in some cases quite left.  There’s also been a bit of back and forth over whether authors should campaign for nominations.

This year Larry Correia suggested a slate of candidates (who tend to be to the right of center, in some cases quite right) across several award categories.  Almost all of them made the final ballot, including Correia.  Among these is Vox Day, who was ejected from SFWA last year.  Accusations of ballot stuffing and threats of voting No Award before voting for any of Correia’s list have abounded.  (The voting for the Hugos is such that you can rank the nominees, with No Award being allowed at any place in the rankings.)

It was against this background that the quote I used was made.

Now here’s the thing about both the Hugos and the Gemmells.  They are fan-based awards, in which fans vote on the winners.  In other words, despite all the rhetoric flung about regarding literary quality, at the end of the day they’re both popularity contests.  The awards are determined by which works the fans liked the best, not which are most deserving/progressive/diverse/someothercriteria.


David Gemmell Legend Award Trophy 2012 Photo courtesy David Gemmell Awards

I’m not sure if the person I’ve quoted is using hyperbole or not.  The words read as though they should be taken at face value,, which raises issues.  For starters, not all of the best debut nominees have been men.  Elspeth Cooper and Helen Lowe were both on the short list for debut novel 2 years ago, and Lowe won.  The author also appears to be unaware or chooses to ignore that the publishers nominate works for the long list, and fan votes determine first the shortlist and then the winners.

But that’s not really what I want to focus on.  It’s the attitude that popular works are for some reason not as important as works that aren’t as popular or commercially successful.

For years the supporters of the Hugos have touted them as being the most important award in science fiction and fantasy.  But is that really still the case?

To vote in the Gemmell Awards, you have to  care enough to vote.  That’s it.  No fee, no membership requirement.  Just vote.  You can join as a member of the Gemmell Awards if you like, but that isn’t required.

How do you become a member?  You sign up online at the Gemmell Awards website.  It’s free.  And the whole purpose of signing up is to vote on the several different awards.  As I’m typing these words, the David Gemmell Awards have 2162 members.  (Membership allows one to request a review copy of one of the titles on the longlist when it’s announced.)

To vote in the Hugo Awards, one must purchase a membership for that year’s Worldcon, either supporting or attending.  This costs money.  So a barrier is automatically thrown up that will prevent some people from participating.  Defenders of this system say it helps prevent ballot stuffing because only those who care about the Hugos will vote.

The Hugo FAQ says “If voting were free people might go around hassling their friends, or even random strangers, to vote for them. Because there is a small barrier they are much less inclined to do so.”  I’m not sure this is the case.  While the pool of potential voters may be reduced, there is nothing to prevent lobbying for votes within the paying membership of the convention.  In fact I am pretty sure this year’s awards slate shows how easy it is to campaign for votes.

I have no problem with requiring a membership or fee to participate in an award selection process.  It does introduce a filter (cost) which will somewhat limit the number of votes.  Some claim that this practice has resulted in the Hugos representing the selection of regular attendees of Worldcon, and since most fans never attend a Worldcon, the Hugos don’t necessarily represent the views of the fans.  And that may very well be true.

Let’s do some math, shall we?  I promise it won’t hurt.

Ignore for now the bit in the quote about 70,000 votes.  I’m not sure where that number came from; no source was given.  I’ve been unable to locate a number, and the Gemmell Awards haven’t responded to my inquiries.


2013 Hugo Award Design Victor Villafranca Photo courtesy of Kevin Standlee

Using the numbers reported by the respective conventions, let’s look at the number of eligible ballots cast for the last three years.  Last year’s Worldcon, Lone Star Con 3, had 1838 eligible ballots cast.  At Chicon 7 in 2012, there were 1922 ballots, and at Renovation (2011), 2100 ballots.  As you can see the trend for the last few years is downward.  I couldn’t quickly find numbers for the Hugo Awards several years preceding Renovation, (not all of the conventions had websites) so I don’t know if this is a statistical fluke or indicative of a longer term trend.  If someone could point me to the data, I’d appreciate it.

Loncon is reporting the number of nominations is higher than usual, so I suspect the number of ballots cast for this year’s Hugos will be up.  Possibly quite up.

The Gemmell Awards don’t have several orders of magnitude more ballots that the Hugos, however, even if the 70,000 figure quoted is accurate.  (For the math impaired, an order of magnitude is 10x.)  Twenty thousand ballots would be roughly an order of magnitude greater that recent numbers of Hugo ballots.  Two hundred thousand would be two orders of magnitude.  Seventy thousand, while more than an order of magnitude, is closer to one order than two, and certainly less than several.

The Hugos were first given in 1953.  None were given in 1954, but since 1955, they’ve been awarded every year.  Yes, some people live and die by them, at least figuratively, and once upon a time winning a Hugo really meant something.  Asimov, Heinlein, Anderson, Ellison, Silverberg, and Willis have all won, and to be included in that group is an honor.

The Gemmell Awards were first given in 2009.  Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the 70,000 is essentially correct.  I find this interesting since the Hugos cover all subgenres of science fiction and fantasy while the Gemmells only cover heroic fantasy (epic fantasy, S&S, and anything related).

Looking at this data, I have to ask: Just how relevant to the field are the Hugos anymore?  Do they really represent the best the field has to offer, or only reflect the tastes of a subset of fans?

Attendance at Worldcons is nothing like attendance at some conventions such as Comic-Con (130,000) or Dragon Con (52,000).    There was a time when the main convention in fandom was Worldcon.  But the field has grown, and fandom has grown along with it.  As elements of sf and fantasy, along with fandom, have become more mainstream (Big Bang Theory, anyone?), new blood has entered fandom.  Those new fans have their own passions and interests.  This is a good thing.  Let me repeat, this is a good thing.

But that growth will bring change.  Worldcon doesn’t appear to have changed much.  The attendance numbers seem to reflect that. The conventions that have the widest appeal (i.e., attendance) embrace all aspects of the field: written, movie, gaming, tie-in, etc.  While Worldcon does recognize, and through the Hugos honor, film sf, it’s main focus is written sf and fantasy.

I would argue that the things that are the most popular are in many ways the most important because those are the things that will determine the short term and often long term directions of the field as different components of the field embrace or react to those things that are popular.  This is as true of fan favorites as it is of anything else.

Worldcon isn’t even as big a draw for the pros as it used to be.  I attended last year’s Worldcon.  While talking to a long time friend who is a member of SFWA, I commented that I was expecting a bigger crowd.  The response I got was that the crowd was down, followed by a comment that even some of the board members were at a different con.

Also, in the dealer’s room, I spoke to the publisher of Galaxy’s Edge, the sf magazine Mike Resnick edits.  I’d only met Mike once before, and I was hoping to get a chance to visit with him.  For the first time in years, Mike wasn’t there.  He had accepted an invitation to a different convention.  (I don’t remember which convention it was, nor do I remember the one referenced in the previous paragraph. They may or may not have been the same.)

These two stories are anecdotal, but they illustrate a change in the field.  The implications of this are that Worldcon isn’t as major a convention as it once was.  It will always a be a prominent convention, but in terms of how many fans it reaches, it’s not the main convention anymore.

That affects the awards as well.  Remember, the winners of both the Gemmells and the Hugos are determined by popular vote.  Both are important awards, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.  Judging by the numbers of participants in the voting and current trends, the David Gemmell Awards seem to be at least as significant as the Hugos.  I won’t be surprised if that’s a trend that continues.

7 thoughts on “Gemmell vs. Gernsback

  1. Paul

    “It’s a major award!”

    It’s a leg lamp.

    Because I read more heroic fantasy / sword-&-sorcery than scifi/epic, the Gemmell awards hold far more weight for me. I think people in interested in the sub-genre are not the type to stuff ballot boxes. Most I know genuinely care about the sub-genre and improving its reputation.

    Then again, if we consider s-&-s to be the dark child of fantasy, like rock’n’roll and metal, then doing what we do, and not caring what anybody else thinks, is more important than any award. (There is still a part of me that believes a Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame goes against the spirit of rock’n’roll, ya know?)

    Sometimes getting on the podium and pounding your fist is absolutely necessary. These days, it seems to happen constantly and unnecessarily – especially via the Internet.

    If you don’t like the Hugo system, if you don’t like the Gemmell system, it’s a free country. Go and establish your own awards with a voting/membership system that works for you.

    1. Keith West Post author

      “It’s a leg lamp.” ROTFLMAO

      You raise some good points, Paul, and I agree with every one of them. Especially your point about not caring what anybody else thinks. I mean, what would Conan’s attitude about awards be? Probably something along the lines of “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” Although I suspect he would appreciate a Gemmell award for its usefulness.

      I read for enjoyment, not to have my consciousness raised. My preferred reading in fantasy is heroic/S&S, and I make no apologies about it. There’s very little science fiction published these days that I would read, but if a good space opera or space-oriented hard science novel comes out, I’ll grab it. Otherwise, I’ve decided life is too short to waste reading stuff I don’t like.

      And you bring up something with your suggestion about establishing your own awards. It seems everyone is doing that these days. There are so many awards given that they’re almost meaningless outside of small circles.

  2. Woelf Dietrich

    I think I’m going to start following your blog. Good post, thanks.

    I’ll be honest, I don’t get the complaints. So it’s now wrong for people to vote for what they like? No thanks. I’ll read what I want and vote for whom I want. There is more honesty in doing it like that than the other way.

    I’ve only recently discovered Gemmell’s books and I’m surprised that I haven’t heard of him before. I’m making up for it though, I’ve read three of his books so far this year, including Legend, and will be working my way down the rest of the list. I like fantasy, epic and heroic–probably more heroic because I grew up on Conan and Tarzan and a host of other pulpy heroes, etc.–and I read them because that is what I identify with and what gives me the most fun.

    Again, thank you for a sobering post.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Woelf, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you got something out of the post. I agree with you about reading what I want and voting for what I want. The pulpy is stuff is fun, which is the whole point of reading for pleasure.

  3. Jim Cornelius

    Awards… pffft. So much outrage and panty-wadding over so little. Bear in mind that Kramer vs. Kramer beat out Apocalypse Now in every Academy Award category back in 1979. Yeah, I know. What would Conan do is always a valid question. My musical hero, Waylon Jennings, despised awards. His kids picked up his CMA lifetime achievement award “because it meant something to them.” Waylon didn’t bother to show.

    Need I bring up Milli Vanilli?

    I realize that being able to stamp XXX-Award-winning on a cover helps sales, but awards really shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Jim, there are so many awards these days that almost anyone can claim to have written something award winning. And I’m not sure being able to slap those words on a cover has much impact on sales. I’ve heard a number of authors say winning one of the major awards didn’t do a thing for their sales.

  4. Pingback: Gemmell vs. Gernsback, Round II | Adventures Fantastic

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