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Arts & Culture

Criticism Of 2020 Hugo Awards Spotlights A Lack Of Inclusivity In Literary Fiction World

From left to right, author George R. R. Martin (Courtesy of Nutopia/PBS), the Hugo Awards logo (est. 1953), and author Jeannette Ng (Courtesy of Dee Siu).
Courtesy photos
From left to right, author George R. R. Martin (Courtesy of Nutopia/PBS), the Hugo Awards logo (est. 1953), and author Jeannette Ng (Courtesy of Dee Siu).

Since 1953, the Hugo Awards have celebrated the work of some of the most visionary creators in science fiction and fantasy literature. The 2020 awards, held on Aug. 1, however, received some criticism, especially toward the host of the ceremony, “Game of Thrones” author George R. R. Martin.

He was criticized for mispronouncing the names of some of the nominees of color.

With 2020 seeing the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, leading to many conversations about inclusivity, Martin’s mispronunciations have taken on a deeper meaning.

“The backlash is absolutely justified,” said Hugo award winner and British fantasy author Jeanette Ng. “But I am sometimes frustrated that it gets reduced down to an anger about him mispronouncing names rather than this deeper tension between competing visions of the genre and the award...Whilst the mispronunciations matter, they are ultimately a symptom of that deeper disconnect of what the [awards are meant to do].”

Ng won a Hugo in the “Best Related Work” category for “2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech,” in which she criticized the award’s namesake literary figure, John Campbell, for his fascist attitudes and editorial gatekeeping. It was not long after that the award name was changed to the “Astounding Award for Best New Writer,” a reference to the SciFi magazine Campbell edited.

Ng isn’t the only one speaking up about the lack of inclusivity in the genre. Fellow Hugo winner R. F. Kuang, a Chinese-American writer, recounted in her acceptance speech the sexual harassment and racist microaggressions she has faced.

“If I had known all of that when I went into the industry, I don’t know if I would have done it,” Kuang said.

Representation is needed just as much behind the scenes, Ng said.

“I'm increasingly of the opinion that the faces on the cover matter far less than who is doing the writing," she said. "We need not just support for writers of color but editors and publicists and cover artists.”

For a genre that prides itself on breaking through to new frontiers, it’s history of gatekeeping can seem to undercut its very mission. Striving for a truly inclusive and equitable genre starts with people like her, Ng said.

“We sometimes like to think that we can create a sanctuary away from the injustices," she said. "But it really just isn’t the case… A fandom [cannot] by itself undo all the injustices of the world.”

Ultimately, Ng wants to deliver a message of hope — to strive to be better, to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and to see that positive change is realized.

Both ConZealand, which hosted the Hugo Awards, and George R. R. Martin, apologized for the mispronunciations that occurred during the ceremony.