As the host of this year’s remote, digital-only Hugo Awards, noted author and procrastinator George R. R. Martin was tasked with being the voice of the ceremony, guiding viewers through the pre-produced segments highlighting the work of this year’s nominees and winners. Though the Hugos didn’t suffer from any of the technical difficulties that plagued San Diego Comic-Con, Martin’s hosting and some of the statements he made during the ceremony created some waves.
Among this year’s Hugo winners were the late writer H.P. Lovecraft, who was a known white supremacist, and the late editor John W. Campbell, a vocal proponent of slavery. Both were posthumously awarded Retro Hugos for their contributions to the sci-fi genre, and outside of simply bestowing upon them the awards, Martin also seemed keen to talk about Campbell’s work in particular. This was an odd decision considering the Hugo Awards’ recent decision to rename the “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer” to the “Astounding Award for Best New Writer” in 2019 following writer Jeanette Ng calling out Campbell’s views and the Hugos’ choice to associate its brand with him.
Martin was also called out for mispronouncing the names of a number of award winners, including this year’s Astounding Award recipient Rebecca Kuang, who used her acceptance speech to explain how the mispronunciation of one’s name is one of the many kinds of microaggressions that people of color have to deal with on a daily basis.
“You will be pigeonholed, you will be miscategorized, you will be lumped in with other authors of color whose work doesn’t remotely resemble yours,” Kuang said, describing warnings she would give to writers of color just getting into the industry. “Chances are very high that you will be sexually harassed at conventions or the targets of racist microaggressions or very often just overt racism. People will mispronounce your name repeatedly and in public, even people who are on your publishing team.”
In response to the criticisms of his hosting—a number of people have described it overall as racist—Martin took to the comment section of sci-fi blog File 770 to comment rather than his often used personal blog. He said that while CoNZealand, the organization hosting the larger WorldCon event that produces the Hugos, asked him to rerecord three of his segments (he said he complied with their request on two and re-did them live), it wasn’t because of his erroneous pronunciations, but rather to address some technical issues. Martin also emphasized that he wasn’t provided with phonetic pronunciations of everyone’s names before he recorded his segments.
“Last night at the event I was handed sealed envelopes with the names of the winners, and there were phonetic pronunciations for SOME (by no means all) of the names of those winners on the cards, which I had a second or two to digest before reading them out,” Martin wrote. “I probably got some of those wrong as well. Pronunciation has never been my strong suit. I even mispronounce the name of my own characters at times (witness some of my interviews).”
After repeating that he wasn’t given a list of how to pronounce every winner’s name, Martin finally got around to apologizing with a pat “I’m sorry. That was never my intent,” before continuing on with a lengthy musing about his favorite previous toastmasters whose styles he tried to bring to this year’s Hugos. Curiously, Martin’s statement—which came after CoNZealand’s posted its own apology to its website the day before—didn’t acknowledge the issue people took with his decision to specifically spotlight Campbell’s work while not acknowledging the Hugo’s attempt at distancing itself from the editor.
“We apologise for the mispronunciations of names, and any disrespect implied,” CoNZealand’s statement read. “Phonetic guidelines were made available to us, and we did not overcome the challenges we faced. As Chairs, we accept full responsibility for this. The Chairs also made the decision to provide an agnostic platform for all the participants, and did not place restrictions on any speech or presentations.”
While it’s good that this year’s slate of Hugo winners featured a diverse array of voices from a variety of different backgrounds, situations like this in which white, established members of the old guard still occupy industry spaces in a way that makes them feel unwelcoming are a problem that needs to be addressed. Martin might not have meant to make people feel uncomfortable or disrespected with the things he said, but in a space where professionals who all work with the written word are gathering to celebrate one another, the things people say and how they say them take on a particular significance. People like Martin would do well to bear that in mind, both out of respect for others, and so as not to step on proverbial rakes like this.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified File 770, a multiple award winner of Hugos for Best Fanzine, as being affiliated with “the Hugos’ official website.” io9 regrets the error.
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