On Writing, Awards, and Audiences

I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time, and it’s so overdue that there seems to be no point in posting it now. Except that I don’t really have an audience here; the almost-empty bar graph I see in my analytics proves that it’s mostly my wife who reads this (hello, wife). And with no audience, there’s no need to maintain any sense of current-news relevancy.

So, it’s dusk outside, and the rain is pelting down with its asymmetrical pitter-patter. A robin is dancing in the wind above my backyard, and I can’t write a damn word of the story I’ve been working on. So clearly it’s time for a blog post.

I’m going to try writing my way toward this topic, this monstrosity that the Hugo Awards have become. I don’t know that I have anything new to add (in fact, I’m sure I don’t), but I need to work through some of these ideas, and what’s better than a nearly audience-less blog for that?

I’m going to be attending the Yale Writer’s Conference this year. It’s a four-day workshop run by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about going. I’d applied to Odyssey as well, but I was waitlisted there (which is its own kind of success given how many applications they get). Either way, I’m stoked to be going because this will be an opportunity to put my stuff out there and see how it affects people I’ve never really met. It’ll be a chance to form a connection with someone else (or, really, multiple someone elses) through writing, but it will also be a chance to shape myself and my words with someone else in mind. Writing seems to me to be about some sort of Sisyphean attempt at fully inhabiting the head of another person. We put ourselves in workshops and attend MFA programs and send our work to friends and enemies and listen to feedback (after hating the feedback, then disliking the feedback, then ignoring the feedback, then accepting the feedback) and push ourselves to see the world as those around us see it, to better understand ourselves and our world through the perspective of others. And this is a noble endeavor. Maybe the noblest. It’s so easy to spend your life inside your own head; the word around us encourages it even (lots of people have said this already, I just can’t remember any specific folks off the top of my head). Default setting is to see reality as bending itself around you, the wrongs of the world are wrong for you, the rights of the world are right for you. Or me. Or us. Whatever. The point is that it’s easy to exist comfortably as ourselves.

But writing and reading fight back against that, and they always have. Literature is the point around which we orbit, it’s the telephone line between you and a stranger, it’s the thing that makes connections across time and space and between self and other. And it’s always been like this, regardless of genre or writer or time period. Leaving aside talk of politics and ideology and agenda, literature is, has been, and always will be a place of pushing, of asking us to get outside ourselves and consider someone else. This doesn’t preclude comfort and it doesn’t negate the possibility of conservative politics or self-identification in the act of reading. But it does suggest that even those things are necessarily progressive, that even snuggling in with a good book about someone of exactly the same race/sex/gender/age/political persuasion as you is still an act of imaginative and ontological growth. And I would also suggest that any attempt to stifle that growth, to eschew the inherently progressive nature of literature, misunderstands the text and is the fault of the reader and not the product of the text.

So what the fuck does this have to do with awards? That’s the real question. The Sad/Rabid Puppies folks are fighting for something they believe in, and I can respect that completely. I think so many of us have missed what this conversation is really about. We’re not talking about inclusive or exclusive communities, and we’re not really talking about awards here, not in any specific terms. What we’re talking about is what kind of literature we want to award, what kind of literature we want to support. It seems to me the argument from the Puppies campaign has to do with fighting back against a perceived arbitrariness in the Hugo’s support of liberal politics in literature. One has to only look at the justification for Affirmative Action to understand the importance of rewarding the inclusion of marginalized voices/peoples in a conversation.

But beyond that, we need to understand that this is what literature has always done. The easy example is this: the novel as a form is all about being novel, which means that experimentation and progression have to be happening, are in fact part of the fabric of this thing’s DNA. It seems to me that the way we award the stuff we read says a whole lot about where we hope literature goes, which is to say that awards are aspirational in nature. They are us looking outside what we’ve already read in the hopes that we can better see the spaces further outside of ourselves.

Or maybe they aren’t. Maybe they’re about maintaining a status quo. Maybe they’re about stagnating literature in the hopes of returning to an illusory golden age. Maybe they’re about fighting back against the inclusion of new voices who, because of a lack of representation, have never, until this point, felt the opportunity to include themselves in our literary discussions.

Maybe awards are about that stuff. But I sure as hell hope not.

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