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Jonathan Ross and the Hugo awards: why was he forced out by science fiction's self-appointed gatekeepers?

A Twitter campaign forced Jonathan Ross to pull out of hosting an awards ceremony for science fiction books. Was it purely a reaction to his controversial jokes - or were some people more concerned with keeping SFF "pure"?

Jonathan Ross and his wife Jane Goldman, a former Hugo Award winner. Photo: Getty
Jonathan Ross and his wife Jane Goldman, a former Hugo Award winner. Photo: Getty

The Hugo awards: have you heard of them? Until Saturday morning, if you didn’t have “SFF geek” or “SFF author” in your Twitter bio then it was probably a no. The Hugo award is a vaguely dildo-shaped silver rocketship awarded to the authors of the best science fiction and fantasy (SFF) works in the previous year. Past winners include Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, J.K. Rowling, Michael Chabon, George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman – and the list of those who had to do “Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars Every Single Time” smiles is no less impressive. The awards have taken place every year bar one, since 1953.

On Saturday morning it was announced that Jonathan Ross would host this year’s ceremony at Loncon 3. By Saturday afternoon you might have heard of the Hugos, but not for the reasons that would have led you to finding new books, new authors, and new ideas. Bleeding Cool have a round up of what happened on Twitter: hurtful names were flung, people were “crying”, and the (vocal contingent of) the SFF community became a childish clubhouse hurling abuse from a crack in the door because they thought he would be mean to them if they let him in. They thought he would make fat jokes, be rude to women, disrespect the community and – as punishment not only for previous gaffes but for gaffes not yet made – he didn’t deserve the honour. Jonathan Ross resigned from his post after being called various words your office internet is likely to block and wished everybody a lovely convention. It was horrific to watch.

So what happened?

Four-time Hugo award-winner and past committee member Cheryl Morgan says while there is no simple answer to this, an obvious contributing factor is that convention committees tend to be fractious (they are volunteers, after all). Allegedly, the Chairs took the decision to invite Ross without consulting their colleagues. That is in contrast to the 2004 awards where Guests of Honour and the host were discussed amongst the entire committee (on which Morgan served) and members had to option to veto any suggestion for whatever reason. The theory was that if one person objected so much to seeing a certain person’s face peeping over the podium that they were willing to cast a veto, it was likely that option would make other people mad too.

Had this happened with the 2014 awards, someone on the committee probably would have vetoed before the idea was even put to Jonathan Ross himself and Twitter would have spent the past weekend complaining about something non-Hugo-related instead, as usual. As Morgan says: “If you are going to involve someone potentially controversial, you need to be sure that you have the support of the bulk of your team.” Telling (not asking) the rest of the committee that someone they may or may not like is going to host the awards when it’s too late for them to do anything about it equals a PR catastrophe. If opinions won’t be heard by those whose job it is to hear them, people will rant on Twitter. It’s what we do now.

There’s also a cultural shift at work here: books like Game of Thrones mean that even people who would ordinarily avoid the SFF section of the bookshop (always the most well-organised part of any bookshop, and I’ll eat my face if you prove me wrong) are now interested in the same stuff that SFF convention-goers are. “Parts of SFF fandom are still very defensive about their relationship with the outside world and would rather their community stay small and overlooked,” said Morgan. “Some people appear to have been concerned at the level of publicity that Ross's presence would generate. Others were insistent that high profile jobs at the convention should only be given to people with a long track record in the community.”

But Jonathan Ross does have a long track record in the community.

Everybody in Britain who has ever picked up a paper has seen Ross labelled as controversial in the past – the curious can read the entire chapter devoted to it on his Wikipedia page, or trawl through hundreds of Daily Mail articles hounding the guy – but these are by no means things that would make him a bad host, a bad person, or a bad fit for the SFF community: he is part of it. Ross has been part of SFF since he began. He reads comics, he now writes comics, and his wife, Jane Goldman, has won a Hugo herself. As fantasy author Sarah Pinborough put it: “If the genre is a community, then he has earned his place within it.”

Pinborough, who evidently sat on Twitter all day wearing an expression similar to my own, adds: “The material which seemed to ignite this backlash – which involved people calling him a misogynist and more personal insults – was based on an article written in the Mirror in 2008 and much relies on context and personal opinion of humour. Many of those – primarily Americans – who jumped on the bandwagon deriding him admitted they had not even heard of him until yesterday. I wonder if they were some of the same people who called Lynn Shepherd out for writing a piece about JK Rowling without having read Rowling . . . and if so, whether they have seen the irony yet.”

In 2007, when writer (and Hugo award winner/host) Neil Gaiman took Ross to the Eisner Awards at the San Diego Comic Con – the comic book industry’s version of the Oscars – nobody knew who he was there either. “He was just some English guy I dragged up on stage with me,” says Gaiman. He was so good that Jackie Estrada, the awards administrator, asked him back to host the whole event himself. (Heads up for anyone who missed that internet video: to celebrate the Eisners, Ross snogged Gaiman on stage Britney/Madonna MTV Awards-style and Gaiman’s face turned colours previously only described in Lovecraft stories. All footage of the event is shaky because it was so funny. You can see Gaiman and Ross talk about it at last year’s Eisners, where Ross was hosting, again.)

At Loncon’s request, Gaiman asked Ross to take the stage at this year’s Hugos. “I think Jonathan would have been an excellent host,” he told me. “One of the things Jonathan is great at is making a room full of people feel comfortable. To be a Hugo host you need to be genuine, funny, respectful – and he is respectful, while still being cheeky. Jonathan would do it better than I did. And he agreed to do it for free because he is SFF family.”

Despite this, a vocal contingent resorted to petty name-calling on the Internet. Does calling someone a “grating fatuous bellend” not count as bullying if your subject is famous? I call bullshit. Does saying horrible things about someone because you think they might possibly say horrible things about you make you the better person? In this tirade about insults and slights, nasty bullies with little self-awareness recast themselves as the victim.

“What was peculiar about the attacks was they had constructed an ad hominem straw man to attack, who was sexist, sizeist, hates women and likes making everyone feel bad,” said Gaiman. “It doesn’t bear any resemblance to Jonathan. While he has occasionally said things that make you go ‘Oh god, your mouth opened and that thing came out’, he is a consummate professional.”

(Regarding the “sizeist” accusation, here’s what Ross’ teenage daughter Honey Kinny tweeted to Seanan McGuire, the most vocal of the Twitter pitchfork mob: “I was horrified by your outrageous and unfounded assumption that my father would ever comment negatively on a woman’s body. I’m Jonathan’s overweight daughter and assure you that there are few men more kind & sensitive towards women’s body issues.” When I emailed asking McGuire to pinpoint a moment in which Ross had ever made a fat joke, I got no reply.)

 

Publisher and long-time SFF editor Jo Fletcher was appalled by the behaviour on Twitter. “Of course everyone has a right to his or her opinion, but when did that right give us carte blanche to fill the Twittersphere – and indeed, the Internet as a whole – with such vilification?," she wrote. "I do understand that some people feel very deeply that Ross was not a good choice to host the Hugos. I can see people are deeply offended by things he has done – but even more scarily, they are offended by things he is alleged to have done, which is not at all the same thing.”

Damning him for things he has allegedly done and might possibly be about to do but had not yet done? It’s all a bit Minority Report.

“They’re my people,” said Gaiman. “And it does make me feel slightly ashamed of my tribe.”

Business-wise, what the genre has lost in losing Ross is pretty much incalculable. If he had hosted, and had tweeted about hosting, he would probably have also tweeted a congratulations or two which would have brought publicity to the winning book itself and the awards in general. Because while the Hugo is a big deal within the community, they are still for the most part in-house kudos that don’t tend to translate into book sales. Says Fletcher: “I've had several Hugo-winning authors (at different publishing houses), so maybe I've just been unlucky that sales were not affected one jot, but I doubt it. Everyone knows the Oscars, and the Brits, and the Costa. No one outside the genre community knows what the Hugos are. When someone like Neil Gaiman wins, then other people say, 'what's a Hugo then'? But that doesn't happen very often. Whether Jonathan Ross was the right presenter or not is open to debate; we'll now never know. But he would have brought a great deal of mainstream attention to the award, and I can't believe that would have been a bad thing.”

Ewa Scibor-Rylska, a former SFF bookseller for Waterstones, spent years trying to translate awards success and nominations into actual sales, but it never worked. The local genre community will find the books anyway, but new readers (Ewa called them “normal”; in comic shops we call them “civilians”) rely on word of mouth. “The shop would have probably seen more business from Ross tweeting than from the awards themselves. I don't know how likely Ross' involvement would have made it a bigger, more open prize, but it would only have helped. He's mainstream. There's no miracle prize in SFF that does better than people with 3m followers tweeting/broadcasting positively about a title.”

We will never known what positive effect Jonathan Ross might have had on the public perception of the genre or book sales, because he was rudely kicked out of the ghetto. Jo Fletcher summed it up perfectly when she said: “Disagreeing with someone does not give us licence to start viciously attacking them. We of all people should know how powerful words are.”

 

Hayley Campbell is the author of a forthcoming biography of Neil Gaiman. Find her on Twitter: @hayleycampbelly