Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Awards Part 2: What the Ursas Do Wrong

This is probably going to be a shorter list than you might expect, and the items on it might surprise you. Again, these are just my opinions.

  • Conflicts of Interest. Personally, my biggest problem with the Ursas is that the staff are occasionally involved in nominated works, and refuse to step back from the process when that happens. Their comment on that is “there’s nobody else to do this job,” on which I call shenanigans. In a fandom of at minimum 50,000 people, if you cannot find one spare person to fill any role, then it’s because you haven’t tried. Most awards are conducted by bodies uninvolved with the nominated works. I recognize that we are a small fandom, but keeping creators out of the voting process shouldn’t even be a question.
  • Publicity. The Ursas do an atrocious job (better in the last couple years, but still terrible) of letting people know they exist. The winners the last few years have been broken by Twitter, an LJ post from a con-goer who attended the awards ceremony, or not at all until two days later when the Ursas finally decided to post them.
  • Transparency. The Hugos post complete breakdowns of their votes. From the Ursas, we get “over 1300 voters cast ballots” (citation below) without any information about individual categories. Other people cite smaller numbers of ballots, in the low hundreds. In the early days of the Ursas, I believe this was done to hide the fact that there were a small number of ballots cast. If they really are seeing over a thousand ballots, then why not show the breakdowns?

A lot of people use the term “legitimacy” to complain about the Ursas (as in “lack of”), either because they don’t like the choices, or because they don’t like the process, but the fact is that “legitimacy” is the wrong word to use. The Ursas have never concealed what they do, and there has never (to my knowledge) been any doubt cast on the workings behind the awards. As far as the legitimacy of the Ursa winners as representative of the fandom, well, take a look at some of the numbers around the awards the Ursas were modeled after, the Hugos and Nebulas:

1094 ballots were cast in the 2010 Hugo Awards (http://www.aussiecon4.org/hugoawards/files/2010HugoVotingReport.pdf, though it should also be remembered that at domestic WorldCons the voter totals are probably higher); I couldn’t find numbers for the Nebulas, but it’s restricted to SFWA members, and sfwa.org lists their membership at around 1,500. According to the Ursa Major Livejournal Community, “over 1300” voters cast ballots in the awards (http://ursamajorawards.livejournal.com/5990.html).

So despite wildly varying estimates of the size of the furry fandom, and generally accepted consensus that furry < F/SF (by the numbers, not as a denoter of quality or anything), the Ursas get about the same raw numbers—and therefore, one would assume, a higher percentage—as the more prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards. And the Hugo and Nebulas are—wait for it—awarded by popular vote (the Nebulas are popular vote from a smaller group, people who have published science fiction or fantasy, but they’re still not juried).

But, you say, nobody complains about the Hugos and Nebulas the way they do about the Ursas! Ah, if you said that then you just aren’t listening. Witness: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2011/08/25/late-hugo-notes/. Relevant excerpt: There’s always post-Hugo kvetching, for the same reason there’s pre-Hugo kvetching, which is, people like to kvetch, and/or they have a hard time internalizing that their own tastes are not in fact an objective standard of quality. I do think there’s a core of commenters whose problem internalizing that other people have other tastes is overlaid with a more-than-mild contempt for fandom, i.e., “Oh, fandom. You’ve shown again why you can’t be trusted to pick awards, you smelly, chunky people of common tastes, you.” Fandom does what fandom does with folks like that: it ignores them, which I think is generally the correct response to such wholly unwarranted condescension.”

Sound familiar? Yeah. More on that in the next part.

What The Ursas Do Right

Many people would snarkily answer “nothing” to this category, but the fact remains that the Ursas get a lot of things right, and anyone looking to set up their own award would do well to examine those things and put a lot of thought into them. As with everything on this blog, these are solely my opinions.

  • They continue to exist. The importance of this one cannot be overstated. In a fandom where most of the community’s services are run on love and devotion, a run of five years doing the same thing is already enough to set you apart from the pack. The Ursas have been around for ten. They come around every year, they operate in more or less the same way, and they announce their results every spring. They’re reliable, and that means they have a history, and that means they have weight. They have a constant core of people who put in the work every year to make the awards happen, and that’s harder to make happen than you might think.
  • They stick to their guns. The Ursa Major board decided at the outset what kind of award they were going to be. They handle most complaints about the Ursas without panic, without sea changes in the face of public opinion, with the kind of calm assurance that this is what they’ve chosen and these responses are an expected result of that. They can distinguish between people honestly complaining about flaws in their process (few) and people unhappy with the results (many). That said…
  • They adopt change when necessary. New awards are added as the board sees the need for them, to reflect the changing nature of the fandom—not always as quickly as the fandom might like, but they usually get there. And in response to the nomination of Softpaw magazine, the board did attach a new clause to the Ursas last year that gave them the right to exclude any publication for “obscenity.” To my personal tastes, that’s a bit uncomfortably vague, but the board promised restraint and so far (in one year) has held to that promise.
  • They do exactly what they say they do. Apart from perhaps a little hyperbole in proclaiming their winners the “best” in furry fandom rather than the “most popular” (a forgivable marketing statement, I think), the Ursas promise winners by popular vote and they deliver.
  • They don’t discriminate. Anything is eligible. You get enough nominations, you’ll get your work on the ballot (pending the board’s review for “obscenity,” as noted above, but there were some adult works in the 2010 awards that were not flagged, so they aren’t going nuts with the censorship as some people feared and some people hoped they would). The point is that the works are truly chosen by the community at large—the board has no say in what goes on the ballot. They just count the votes.

Those are the big things.  The Ursa process has been improved over the years and is necessarily clunky to prevent robotic ballot-stuffing. Their voting system is functional enough to do what it needs to. And despite the complaints, they have amassed a pretty good record (if you look at the nominations) of standout furry fiction over the past decade.

On Awards

It’s award season again, in the furry fandom and the science fiction community, so it seems like a good time to post some thoughts I have been working on about the Ursa Major awards (furry fandom’s longest-running awards) and the yearly debate/attempt to institute an alternative. So the posts will be in four parts:

* What the Ursas do right

* What the Ursas do wrong

* The considerable obstacles to an alternative (this one is long and might end up being two posts)

* My own proposed solution

Basically these posts come from me having gone through these debates with different groups many many times over the past several years.

I’ll post the first one later today, and then one a (week)day for the rest of them, and I’ll link the entries back to this post once they go up.