The shortlists for the Hugo Awards were announced ten days ago and were controversial for a number of reasons, not least the surprise appearance of Vox Day in the ‘best novelette’ category for Opera Vita Aeterna. Vox Day rode in there on the popular vote as a result of Larry Correia posting a suggested voting slate to his readers, which was in turn based on the idea that right wing writers are ostracised by the SFF community and under-represented in award lists, which was in turn based on a perceived split between ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ SFF, which in turn plays on the arguments about misogyny, racism and inclusivity within the community, which in turn … but come on now, we bore ourselves to tears, and we stop. You know all this.
The point about Vox Day is this. He’s a sexist who believes women shouldn’t work but should stay home and have kids, that there’s no such thing as marital rape, and that women shouldn’t have the right to vote. He’s a racist who believes ‘vibrants’, immigration and multiculturism signal the decline of civilisation. He’s a homophobe. To give him his due, I also think he’s intelligent, generally articulate, and perhaps not quite as extreme as some of his detractors suggest (as in some of the more awful stuff is taken a little bit out of context), but let’s be clear: most people, including me, wouldn’t want him anywhere near their party. Probably.
But anyway: he is at the party. So what happens next?
It has been pointed out that voting on the shortlist allows for ‘No Award’ to be placed above an individual writer on the ballot. Some people have pointed this out in a faux-innocent, oh-my-what-can-I-possibly-be-saying? manner (which actually strikes me as oh-my-that’s-more-than-a-little-fucking-weak), while other people have been explicit about their intention to make sure Day comes in not just last on the list but behind the option of no award being given at all. Regardless, it’s not a protest vote based on the low literary quality of the novelette in question. It’s a political action motivated by a dislike of the author’s beliefs and published views.
There has been some debate as to whether this is fair. There has been talk to the effect that a work should be judged on its own merits rather than with reference to its author. It has been suggested that voters should be evaluating the novelette as though they were scientists and the work a point of data in some kind of imaginary double-blind trial. That they should attempt to form an unbiased opinion of the text, irrespective of their feelings about Vox Day or his politics.
This, I feel, is bullshit. For a number of reasons.
For one, most of the people I’ve personally seen suggesting this have been straight white males, to whom the majority of Day’s attacks are basically toothless. All right, he might call you a gamma rabbit, or some equivalent stupid shit, but that hardly has the same impact on you as being on the receiving end of racism, sexism or homophobia, where the effects have real-world repercussions, and are long-lived, and extend far beyond the parameters of a blog post in Day’s little corner of the sad-sack manosphere. For example, when he argues that women shouldn’t be able to vote, or that there’s no such thing as marital rape, he’s not directly insulting, belittling or threatening me. So maybe I can ignore that when I’m judging his story. Would I suggest that a woman who actually is being insulted, belittled and threatened discount all that and read Day’s story impartially? No, I would not. It would be too easy for me to say.
Secondly, it’s very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to judge art separately from politics. After all, a story is basically an idea or series of ideas or world view communicated obliquely through a string of narrative events. Unless a writer is faking it, their politics will be there to some extent, and whether a reader agrees with it will automatically colour their evaluation of the text, because a reader inevitably brings their own politics to the story. Likewise, knowledge of a writer’s politics invites different readings of the text. When you know about the writer, you’re not just being invited in through the front door anymore. Knowledge of their background opens windows, so you can peer in at the story from fresh angles and find new meanings.
Take Day’s novelette. Read superficially, it’s the story of the unlikely friendship that develops between a human priest and a long-lived elf, as the latter attempts to understand the religion of the former. Many of Day’s defenders suggested this was hardly the work of a racist, and on first reading I agreed: the writing itself was clunky (first draft stuff, although nothing a redraft or editor couldn’t have helped enormously with), and the story more than a little meh, but I found nothing overtly offensive in there. And yet, knowing Vox Day is a fundamentalist Christian with racist views, that initial reading is undermined. The elf has no soul; it is othered from the human characters; it inadvertently brings ruin and murder on the abbey; even with its powerful magic, it is still confused by and drawn to the religion of the priests as though it senses a superiority there … and so on. What is really going on here?
In other words, you can read a text in isolation, but why should you? That reading won’t be any more correct or definitive, will it?
Thirdly and finally, you might be more compelled to judge the work and not the author’s politics if you were on, say, the jury for an award that was attempting to find a ‘best’ work, where ‘best’ was defined in some way. The Hugos calls its awards ‘best this’ and ‘best that’, but of course it’s a popular vote with certain constraints, and so the awards are basically for popularity, or for a bunch of nebulous interpretations of ‘best’. Best book. Most popular book. Best story where you like the author’s blog. Best of a bad bunch. Best author you’ve actually heard of. Best haircut. Best author who isn’t a disgusting fucking bigot. And so on.
And you know, they’re all perfectly valid reasons for voting, because that’s all that’s happening here. I suggested earlier that most people wouldn’t want Vox Day at their party, and then doubted myself, because clearly at least a handful of people did up until now. So what happens next? Voting happens next. And voting is a political act. Does that need repeating? It really shouldn’t. Voting is always a political act.