Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2007 : Guest Editorial

Guest Editorial by Frank Wu, Three-Time Hugo Award-winning Artist.


Standing Down



This essay is incredibly hard to write. I don’t want to be misunderstood, to come across as churlish, arrogant, calculating or ungrateful.

Deep breath.

Here we go.

Having won three Hugo Awards for Best Fan Artist, in three of the last four years, I have decided that – should I be nominated – I will decline the nomination next year.

I found this a surprisingly complex decision, requiring an entire essay to explain.

This year’s Hugo ceremonies and the attendant celebrations were an incredible Happening, which I experienced by proxy. The Awards were given at the first World Science Fiction Convention in Japan, which was just too far and too expensive and too crazy for me to attend.

In my place stood my pals Daniel Spector and Kelly Buehler, armed with a large cardboard cut-out of my face and an acceptance speech in Japanese.

My big head got to meet Star Trek’s George Takei, who was hosting the ceremony. After Daniel and Kelly accepted my award to much applause, they wandered off to the room parties. They figured I would want to thank each and every Japanese fan personally. They were right. And the reaction when they entered a party with my trophy and cardboard simulacrum was stunning. Sixty or seventy Japanese fans exploded in screaming and cheering that author Jay Lake compared to Beatlemania. They all wanted to touch the trophy – which was decorated with the Japanese superhero Ultraman – as if it were a sacred object. Daniel told them in Japanese, “Frank Wu loves you!” and handled out badge ribbons declaring so in English. The fans responded by serenading Daniel and Kelly with the theme from the Ultraman TV show. Jay summed up: “It was the sweetest and most intense fan reaction I’ve ever seen to anything, of epic proportions.”

I wish I could have been there.

Instead I was home in California, repeatedly checking email, voicemail and blogosphere for word about who won. I stayed up all night, waiting for the results. They finally came at 4:30 in the morning and I screamed out because no one could hear me. Then I went outside, as it was the night of the Aurigid meteor shower, and saw a shooting star overhead.

It was beautiful.

Winning a Hugo Award had been a life-long dream for me, an incredible honor, a thrill-ride, a true blessing from God and man.

When I was a kid curled up in the library stacks, I would see “Hugo Winner” on the cover my favorite books. I never thought I’d actually win one, let alone three.

So why give up the chance to win more?

In a word, history.

The Hugo Awards are so precious because of their long history. They’re been given every year (except one) since 1953. That makes them the longest-running science-fiction awards around. If you follow the Hugos, you see landmarks of the genre. The greatest writers have all won them, usually more than one: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Ellison, Willis, Gaiman, Vinge. (True, not every great work has won, but most of the major mountains are marked with Hugos. )

To paraphrase Raiders of the Lost Ark, we are just passing through history, but the Hugos are history. To put this in more perspective, about 230 people (writers, editors, artists and publishers) have won Hugos, which represents some 0.00000023% of all the people who’ve ever walked the face of the Earth.

Curiously, though, in addition to the long and glorious history of the giving and receiving of Hugos, there is a long and odd parallel history of people refusing nominations (or, once, the award itself).

Harlan Ellison, that curmudgeon for the ages, was probably the first to decline a Hugo nom, which he did in 1968 for Best Fan Writer. He’d already won a Hugo and a Nebula for “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” Perhaps he believed that a pro could not also be a fan. This was an issue which resurfaced this year, when John Scalzi (a pro for his various novel sales) almost won the Hugo for best fan writer.

Robert Silverberg withdrew one novel from the 1972 ballot, so it wouldn’t compete with a second on the ballot. Didn’t matter, as he lost to Philip Jose Farmer anyway.

Lester del Rey refused a posthumous Hugo for Judy-Lynn del Rey for Best Editor in 1986. He said it was a sympathy vote and if she’d earned a Hugo, they should have given it to her when she was still alive.

Artist Michael Whelan withdrew from the ballot in 1987. He’d won every year from 1980 to 1986 and apparently didn’t want to be too greedy.

Fan Artists Brad Foster and Teddy Harvia both withdrew their noms in 1997. Apparently, they were trying to clear the path for fellow nominee Bill Rotsler, who would pick up his Hugo and then pass away a month later.

Ted Chiang declined his nom for “Liking What You See: A Documentary” in 2003 because he felt that it didn’t represent his best work.

Terry Pratchett declined a Hugo nom in 2005 for Going Postal. It would have been his first (and long-overdue) nom for Best Novel. But he decided that he wanted to enjoy Worldcon and not be “a bag of nerves with a blood pressure of 200/95.”

Neil Gaiman, already with three Hugos under his belt, declined a nom for the novel Anansi Boys in 2006, noting that “it just felt right to say no thank you, this time.”

Finally, this year, after accepting his second consecutive Hugo for Best Professional Artist, Donato Giancola withdrew his name from next year’s balloting, calling on all other previous winners to do the same.

Thus, everyone has a different reason for withdrawing. Each is valid, and each possibly opaque to the outsider.

So why would I reject such a great honor from my peers?

To take Tom Petty out of context: “If you’re in the public eye, give someone else a try.”

My category – Best Fan Artist – has completely ossified. Over the last five years, the slate of nominees has been completely the same. Brad Foster, Teddy Harvia, Sue Mason, Steve Stiles, and I have all appeared together on the ballot. For each of the last five years. In contrast, in that same time period, 19 different writers have appeared on the Best Novel ballot. People, there are way more than five excellent fan artists working today!

Withdrawing from nomination will break the logjam. I think of all these great artists out there – Alan F. Beck, Taral Wayne, Dan Steffan, Marc Shirmeister, Alexis Gilliland, Stu Shiffman. All do excellent work, and each deserves to be nominated and have a chance to win.

It’s been suggested to me that another way to get myself out of the way is to move up a weight class to the “Professional Artist” category. What is a “Fan Artist”, anyway? Historically speaking, a fan artist is someone who does art for fanzines (for nothing) or semi-professional magazines (for next to nothing). A “Professional” is someone who earns gobs and gobs of money for doing covers for big-name publishers of books and magazines. (There has been some doinkery with the definitions lately, but I speak of historical definitions here.)

I simply haven’t had enough (or recent enough) professional sales to justify being in the pro category.

A caveat that was suggested to me is the idea of “only because” Hugo Awards. Dave Langford has won some 27 (!) Hugos for fan writer and fanzine/semi-prozine. He’s very good at what he does. A competitor of his once said that she didn’t want him to withdraw – rather she wanted to beat him on his own terms. Her concern was that there are “only because” Hugos, which are won only because so-and-so withdrew, or only because it was a sympathy vote, or only because the Worldcon was held in someone’s backyard, thus giving him a “homefield advantage.”

My response is that I don’t want to be an “only because” winner. I see my current work becoming a bit stale and repetitive. (How many times can I draw Dragons Attacking or Dinosaurs Playing Guitar before I run out of ideas?)

The hard fact is that I’m tired of doing art. I’ve been feeling burnt out for a couple years now. This is why I spent much of the last two years working in a different medium: animation, specifically my Guidolon the Giant Space Chicken project. I’m sick of doing art, and I’m afraid that it will show.

And that people will keep giving me awards, based on the dim memory of some better pieces I may or may not have done in the past. Or because they’re in the habit of voting for me.

What I really want to do – at least for now – is write. I was two nominations short of making the ballot for Best Fan Writer this year, presumably for articles I wrote on my blog and for Chris Garcia’s fanzine The Drink Tank.

And I’ve had two fiction sales.

And my third paid fiction publication – and, yes, this is a plug – is the story “Love and Death in the Time of Monsters.” That appears on this very website in this issue, and I hope you like it.

I have a ton of story ideas. One about “smarty ants.” One drawing a parallel between the rebirth of rock-n-roll with the Beatles and the restoration of the Empire in Asimov’s Foundation books. Several about race relations. As Dylan sang, “I got a head full of ideas and it’s driving me insane.”

And I’ll never get to writing these if people keep asking me to do art, which is what happens when you keep accepting awards for your art.


Ultimately, if I decline the nomination I’ll be a better “creative person,” painting only when my own soul leads me, not because of a commission or social compunction.

If I stop accepting awards for my art, I’ll be a better artist.

And that, most of all, is why I’m standing down next year.

— Frank Wu




Editorial © 2007 Frank Wu.
All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press


Copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted.


Art Director: Bonnie Brunish

One Response to Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2007 : Guest Editorial

  1. Pingback: Declined Hugo and Nebula and other SFF Nominations | Chaos Horizon

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