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Booknotes: Gang aft a’gley

Technically Jan. 25 was Burns Night, when Scotsmen and literature nerds throw dinner parties on the birthday of poet Robert Burnes. It’s traditional to play bagpipe music, recite the Selkirk Grace, serve haggis, drink scotch, and other Scottish-type things.

I’ve never actually attended a Burns Night, but my local coffeehouse is hosting one on Sunday and I am hoping to attend. Uh, without trying the haggis. Look, I know what’s in it. Just pass me the scotch.

• It’s a day ending in Y, and therefore there must be a controversy in the book world. This week it’s the Hugos, which are being held in Chendgu, China for the first time in history. That’s not the controversy – yet – nor is it the Hugo nominees precisely. There were some surprises, but now they have released the voting statistics for the Hugo nominees and it seems that R.F. Kuang, Xiran Jay Zhao and Neil Gaiman were ruled ineligible for no reason given, either to the authors themselves or to the voters. “The only statement from the administration team that I can share is the one that I already have –  after we reviewed the constitution and the rules we must follow, we determined the work was not eligible.” That’s literally the response administrator Dave McCarty gave to Gaiman. He did specify that the Chinese government didn’t have anything to do with it. Okay. 

There’s some jerkoffs making nasty videos about Gaiman over it, which I’m not linking. But a lot of folks have added that “awards don’t mean anything.” I respectfully disagree. As one who won a regional award early in my career, it meant a great deal. True, you’ve never heard of my award, but I get to put “award-winning author” before my name forever. More than that, when the banquet was over, I went back to my hotel room, sat on the edge of the bed, then kicked my heels in the air and giggled and repeated over and over, “I am not fooling myself. I am not a fraud. I am a WRITER.” In the subsequent years it and other awards have served as selling points as well as affirmation that my work has value, bringing others to consider my work who might have drifted on by without that award.

Mr. Gaiman et al don’t need that affirmation. And none of us actually write for awards. But arbitrarily kicking authors off a list without explanation renders the award meaningless. If you can stack the deck by excluding people at random, your award is a popularity contest. Awards show what we as a society deem valuable in our art – I’m looking at you, Oscars – and what we choose to exclude matters as much as what we choose to honor. 

• Speaking of plans gang aft a’gley, we have Mr. J.D. Barker, a New York Times bestseller and Stoker nominee, who apparently reached out to young female BookTok reviewers “suggesting” that if they did videos promoting his book NUDE, he would pay them. But they’re supposed to send the videos to him first for review, so I guess if they didn’t make the cut, he gets free book porn? Barker blamed his PR firm – which he owns. See the original TikTokker calling him out here, and his response where he says it was all a mistake and he’s very sorry. I could detail all the ways this is bad, but do I really have to? “Sorry” doesn’t quite cover “what the hell were you thinking in the first place?” 

• This week in AI Hell: After mass disgust at the people who used AI to create Zombie George Carlin and also used AI to “write” a script for a “comedy” special without asking or compensating his family, they’re suing. This could very well be a bellwether case to establish precedent that you can’t arbitrarily dig people out of the grave and make them perform like marionettes, even if AI gets good enough to make it passable. 

And now, some closing words from Rabbie Burns.

Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine – no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s plough-share drives elate,
Full on thy bloom,
Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight,
Shall by thy doom.

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