Thursday, 15 September 2022

The Gordian Knot of Fan Vs. Pro

Wilson Tucker was a superb author whose prose almost earned him the very first Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1953. His Long Loud Silence — one of the most unflinching and depressing looks at the future of war — came in second to Alfred Bester’s Demolished Man.
Should Tucker have recused
himself from consideration
when he was shortlisted
for the Hugo for best Fan Writer
in 1970? We would suggest not.
(Image via File 770)

But his accomplishments as a professional writer were often overshadowed by his contributions to fandom. He coined the term “Space Opera,” and helped develop the fanzine culture that continues to enrich the genre. He was Fan Guest of Honour at two Worldcons: 1948 in Toronto and 1967 in New York.

In a very real way, Tucker is the case example of a dilemma that has bedeviled those arguing about Hugo Awards rules: the question of fan versus pro, and, specifically, what works should qualify for fan Hugos. Given his output as an author, Wilson Tucker was a pro. Given his contributions to fandom, Wilson Tucker was a fan. But should these roles be viewed as complementary or binary for the purpose of community recognition? And should there be clear guidelines about who counts as a “fan”?

These questions have reared their head in the wake of Worldcon 2022 at which three out of the four fan Hugos were presented to industry professionals. We want to stress that, in our opinion, all of these finalists and Hugo winners are worthy of recognition — in particular we were glad to see Lee Moyer win a long-overdue first Hugo Award. Questions of what a “fan” work is shouldn’t distract from the quality of these projects.

But it is still worth talking about why questions about “Fan Vs. Pro” arise, and hopefully forestall any hasty and ill-considered changes to the WSFS constitution.

This debate has a long history. While it’s clear that “Fan” and “Pro” are not antonyms, there’s reason to suggest that “fan” might be interpreted as being synonymous with “amateur” or “non-professional.”

The category now called “Fanzine” is the second-longest running Hugo category, having been awarded on no fewer than 75 occasions (only Novel has been recognized more often). But for the first quarter century the award existed, it was called the Hugo for best Amateur Magazine, and the distinction was explicit that this was a non-professional award.

From the very beginning, there were questions about what counted as amateur (or “fan” work), and what counted as professional. The first recorded constitution of the World Science Fiction Society from 1963 sets out the fanzine category as a “generally available non-professional magazine devoted to science fiction, fantasy or related subject.” That constitution’s primary author George Scithers noted in a 1964 edition of Yandro that non-professional was not defined, but added “I think the terms are well-enough understood to be clear.”

All the existing fan categories were hived off from Amateur Publication / Fanzine. First with fan writer and fan artist recognizing those who contributed to fanzines, then with fancast as a new medium of fanzine. They all derive from the same tradition of amateur publications.

Just three years after the Scithers constitution was introduced, Jack Gaughan showed just how unclear the existing language could be, winning both the fan artist and professional artist Hugo Awards in a single evening. There was an outcry over this — why have two separate categories if the same body of work could win both? A clause was quickly added to the constitution to prevent this from happening again, but the language did not seek to clarify what was Fan and what was Pro, rather stating that “Anyone whose name appears on the final ballot for a given year under the professional artist category will not be eligible for the fan artist award for that year.”
In the unlikely event that this blog ever generated more
than $500 a month in revenue via crowdfunding, we would
recuse ourselves from the fan categories. To be clear,
we do not plan to profit from our fan writing, and instead
of ever having a Patreon we would encourage you
to support Trans Lifeline, Planned Parenthood,
the EFF, Wikipedia, or the ACLU.
(Image licensed via Shutterstock.)

Over the years, this question has resurfaced fairly regularly. Questions were raised over John Scalzi winning best fan writer in the same year that his novel The Last Colony was on the ballot. Two years later there was some slight grumbling about Fred Pohl — at that time one of only 25 authors to have won three professional prose Hugos — winning for best fan writer.

So in this context, a well-intentioned but problematic proposal (“An Aristotelian Solution to Fan vs Pro”) brought forward to this year’s business meeting provided an attempt to parse out this question. The Hugo Awards Study Committee suggested that language be added to the constitution laying out strict guidelines about the commercial purposes or uses of artistic works and fan writing. Though this proposal was soundly defeated at the 2022 WSFS business meeting, the subsequent Hugo Awards ceremony featured three of the four “fan” categories going to creators who are full-time professionals within the field. In some cases, the fanworks in question were also commercially successful.

The Hugo Study Committee suggested commercial activity as a means to determine what constitutes professional works, and thus which creators are non-professional. For example, it would be difficult to call an online publication “amateur” if it has a Patreon page that collects upwards of $1,000 per month. But there are more problematic scenarios. What about fan artists who sell a handful of print-on-demand T-Shirts based on their works? They might make enough from these sales to buy a Starbucks coffee every other week… should that prevent them from being recognized in a fan Hugo category?

Attempts to set a bright-line test to determine category correctness are doomed. Should there be a rule to parse out which creators can call themselves “Fans,” it would inevitably fail. No creator who works for both payment and fandom does so in isolation of the other.

To further complicate this question, authorship is a profession which operates in a reputation economy in which an individual author’s future earnings are contingent on the public awareness and appreciation of that person’s works. As such, any publishing activity or communication to the public by an author whose living depends on sales can be seen as promotional activity, and therefore could be interpreted as “professional,” even if they never earn a dime directly from that output. When examining the question under this lens, the work may be fannish, or it may be professional, and the only difference is motivation. Let us say very clearly here that it should never be the job of anyone in fandom to police or attempt to interpret the motivation of creators. 
Alexei Panshin recused himself from the fan
categories after winning best fan writer. Lady
Business recused themselves after winning best
fanzine. It's a courageous decision to make.
(Photo by Jay Klein via Calisphere)

There is no easy solution to this dilemma, no set of rules that will ever be able to parse out what should be considered as fannish activity from that which is not. When it comes to what should count as fan works, we should avoid the temptation to take the same approach that United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart took on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

As America has seen with the selective enforcement of obscenity tests, any determination based on a gut feeling will be overly influenced by the unconscious prejudices of those in power. For example if the Hugo Admins or a motivated block of voters took it upon themselves to selectively determine what was appropriate to be a “fan” work in any given year, it’s likely that such decisions would disprivilege the already marginalized — not through ill intent, but due to subconscious factors.

So where does this leave us?

Perhaps the best solution is not to change the rules at all, but rather to foster existing cultural norms that encourage us all to ask ourselves whether or not we are appropriate for the categories we are shortlisted in.

These categories have sometimes recognized pros for their fannish endeavours, but have continued to mostly recognize non-professional amateurs who have contributed to fandom. As long as nobody Langfords a category, the fan Hugos will be just fine.

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