The Hugo Awards: an Apology

In the last couple of days I've received emails and Facebook messages from a few people who were offended by my Hugo Awards routine about 'Smofs' and Smurfs.  (Basically, I compared them in ways unflattering to 'Smofs' in terms of diversity, then used the term Smof as an expletive, like the Smurfs use their name.  To repeat the jokes here would be to repeat the offence.)

I initially reacted by thinking 'a comedy routine has to stand alone, I can't offer notes and caveats', but swiftly realised that wasn't good enough.  Then I moved to explaining on Twitter how much I hate the  *word* (or acronym) Smof.  It stands for 'Secret Master of Fandom' and is used as a synonym for 'con runner' or 'Hugo organiser'.  It's right up there with 'mundane' as one of those ancient SF fandom terms that's actually offensive.  (It was always meant to be a joke, but it could only really be one if those concerned were immensely public in their doings and at the bottom of the social order.)  I told myself that that was what that part of my routine had been about, the word, not the people who identify with that word.  I did indeed begin that section of my speech by saying 'Smofs' did 'lovely' work for the genre community.

But I think after that point I went astray.  I think I broke two rules which I hold other people to, and it's taken me days of searching my conscience to realise that.

Firstly, I always say that when someone tells you they're offended, they're not lying.  One has to deal with the offence one has caused as real, and not regard such complaints as ill-conceived or somehow 'wrong'. Many 'smofs' have written to me in support, saying they felt gently teased, that it was all in good fun, but the ones for whom it felt like a personal insult don't deserve to have their feelings ignored.  One reaction is as 'true' as the other.

Secondly, while I'm sure there are those among the ranks of 'Smofs' who deserve a little satire, I'm also sure there are those who absolutely do not.  My error was to tar them all with the same brush, to not be precise, but instead to hurt a range of people through the term they identify with.  'Things are complicated' as our heroes said in Knight and Squire.  I don't like it when other groups are made into folk devils, but there I was doing it.  It's terrifyingly easy and tempting to follow the crowd and go for that sort of laugh.  It's also a very bad thing to do.

One might say that most groups turned into folk devils are at the bottom of their systems of social power, and that here I was attacking upwards, as one might mock the government or the local council.  But I don't like it, and have said so, when the folk devil thing happens even there.  I go on about 'Tories', but I really shouldn't, not in general, when I have friends on the right as well as on the left.  I don't like to hear 'bankers' as a general insult, even when I think that many within that group have ruined my country and others, because I think we all know that that term also must include some wonderful people.  (I'm only comparing 'Smofs' to these groups in terms of them being wielders of social power in their subcultures, not in terms of ethics.)

Most awful to me was the realisation, yesterday, that among those I'd offended were some of my hosts at LoneStarCon 3.  I regard this as shameful on my part.  They didn't reveal how they felt at the time because I was their guest, and they were continuing the immense hospitality they'd offered me throughout.  They only told me about their feelings when I asked them.  I can't underline enough how devastated I was to hear that.  As I said at their closing ceremony, it was this convention that restored some of my faith in the Worldcon movement, that reminded me of all that I liked about it.  Their care for me was wonderful, and I so desperately don't want to have repaid that by hurting them.  It never occurred to me that they'd see themselves as included in what I was satirising.  That they did is a failure on my part, not theirs.

So, I'd like to offer an unreserved public apology to those who were offended.  I'm not using those modern weasel words 'if any offence was caused'.  I understand what I did to you, I know the offence was real, and I apologise utterly.  I should have taken a lot more care.  I'm terribly sorry.

(While we're at it, on a completely different topic, I really should have included Genevieve Valentine in the list of 'writers, editors, bloggers and activists' that I mentioned during the ceremony.  In that case I simply forgot.  Again I'm very sorry for the lack of care.)

My aim for that evening was that everyone would leave the auditorium happy.  I failed in that at the same moment as I failed to live up to my own ethical standards.

24 Response to "The Hugo Awards: an Apology"

  • Eva Whitley Says:

    Very classy, sir!

    My late husband is credited with inventing that term, and I actually like hearing it, it makes it seem like he's still with us.

  • Lis Carey Says:

    Nobly done, and as Eva says, very classy.

  • Unknown Says:

    While I personally did not take offense to the comments, I know that many did, and I appreciate you making the effort to apologize. Thank you for being honest and direct in your apology and not trying to hide behind "well, I didn't mean it that way," or other such phrases.

    I greatly enjoyed meeting you and working with you, and I hope that since some of your faith in Worldcon has been restored that I will see you at future Worldcons.

  • Anonymous Says:

    Thank you, Paul.

    While I took no great offense at your words, I know that some did, and I appreciate that you are considering their feelings, as well.


  • Kevin Standlee Says:


    While I laughed at your speech, and I'm clearly a conrunner and a SMOF myself, I could feel the edge in it as well, although I wasn't offended.

    What does trouble me -- and you have nothing to do with it -- is that so many people have lost track of the original joke in the term "Secret Masters of Fandom," to the point where they don't realize that the real secret is that they aren't secret and they're not really masters; they're just the people doing the work. I was sort of hoping that making such high profile jokes on the term might help us "reclaim" the term.

    I thought it was a funny speech.

  • Anonymous Says:

    I was at the Hugo's and was insulted by your jokes about SMOFs. I have worked for years lobbying for childcare into conventions, a young persons programme catering for teenagers, nagging and cajoling fellow conrunners and SMOFs alike to go out and reach out to other commnities to balance our community in gender, race, cultures and age to round us out as a mature community - something akin to Iain Banks culture. While you sir stand on the sidelines and make snide remarks. Why not join us in outreach and programme content? Then you can make you jokes!

  • Papa Smof Says:

    I enjoyed the speech and found it reasonably funny for the HUGOs.

    Speaking as a SMOF, I was not only amused, but it also served as a timely reminder not to take ourselves too seriously.

    Those who like to be in control, like to get stuff done and have no sense of humor are a danger in any community, and have been a growing force in Fandom in growing years.

    Thank you for sparking the debate and making it easier to remind the grim and self-important what it's all about.

  • Elaine M Brennan Says:

    Thank you.

    In many ways, what SMOF stands for is "those who care about, understand, and do the deep-down time-consuming nitty-gritty pain-in-the-ass work and details that attendees don't know about or notice but that are essential to the smooth running of a convention". It's a whole lot easier to say "smofs" though ...

    (I'm not going to go into many well-deserved criticisms of certain behaviors that are characteristic of certain smofs ... that's a topic for a different conversation.

  • Anonymous Says:

    Maybe we need to take up a collection to buy a sense of humor for these poor souls so obviously in need.

    You did just what I'd hope from a toastmaster/M.C. - to lighten the mood in a ceremony that can otherwise get a bit tedious.

    The jokes were not hateful, snide, or even serious - just funny, and I enjoyed them.

  • Jill Eastlake Says:

    Paul - clearly you offended more people than I thought - but you didn't offend me at all. A sense of humor is required in life. Many people forget to laugh at themselves. This thread proves the rule.

    I loved working with you on the Masquerade. You did a great job and were clearly wanting to be the best you could be throughout the rehearsals and the show, your first exposure to the Masquerade. Your comments forced us, the committee, to improve our process. This is a VERY GOOD THING! I hope that you take the opportunity to MC more Masquerades.

    The fact that you were comfortable enough with the committee and on stage to speak your mind and make comments was very encouraging. I would definitely work with you again. That comfort leads sometimes to a bit of over-confidence, and then the line is crossed and your tongue got ahead of your mind - thus these comments where you couldn't see reactions from the audience (those lights on the stage) and continued unknowingly into the abyss.

    Yes, many don't like the Smurfs, as you would expect, and don't like being compared to them.

    I'm looking forward to seeing you next year in London. With much friendship. You done great, and I personally respect you stepping up to try to correct a mistake.

    Jill Eastlake
    40+ years a SMOF

  • James Bacon Says:

    I think the Anonymous poster must be oblivious to the fact that you have actually donated many hundreds (thousands?) of comics and GN's to the last number of Worldcons. Both in Reno and Chicago, and by default San Antonio. These were specifically for Childrens and Teen programme/space or in this years case, Teens who swung by for interesting activities.

    Also, I think you do participate, and I know you have been on 'comics for kids' panels, at Worldcon(Reno).

    I think it is only fair, that that incorrect implied assertion is corrected. James Bacon.

  • Opty1 Says:

    It takes a real man to apologize. This went beyond that sir. I did not know you before(though I had heard good things) I enjoyed the Hugo ceremony immensely as I told you.

    I can understand why some may be offended, but to ignore your sincere apology and demand more of you from behind anonymous like the poster just above at 623a is shameful in my opinion.

    If Paul can stand up for his mistake, you could be gracious enough to at least accept it.

    Paul, you are the man. Well done.

  • Petréa Mitchell Says:

    Hello. I wasn't there for your speech, and after seeing the complaints online, I decided to not watch it for the sake of my blood pressure. But I'm here to tell you, since someone ought to, that your post has been mentioned on a mailing list for con-runners. So you may rest assured that it has reached its intended audience.

  • JaniceG Says:

    Greetings! In addition to issuing this handsome apology, I hope you will consider perhaps speaking to people on the other side of this issue and the other fannish issue that you alluded to in your speech as well. I am sure you want to be fair to both sides and to take/affirm a stand only after you have reviewed all sides of the issues.

  • Didi Chanoch Says:

    You, sir, remain a class act.

  • firebat58 Says:

    Personally I thought it funny in the extreme. I realize and appreciate the work that goes on behind the scenes. But those that take themselves so seriously as to complain that they were slighted by an extremely funny comedy routine just prove the point that they should SMOF themselves. Paul Cornell is a class act and should have been made to feel a need for apology.

  • grayconnections Says:

    A class act, indeed.

    I enjoyed the humor you brought to the Hugos, and your obvious commitment to making the evening enjoyable for everyone.

    From the perspective of a non-SMOF in the audience, thank you for being a caring, introspective person who isn't afraid to own up to a mistake when you became aware your actions hurt others (even when done inadvertently).

    I hope you emcee future Worldcon events. I will look for your name on the program.

    Janet Freeman-Daily

  • Sean Wright Says:

    I missed the speech. A nice apology (heartfelt and honest).

  • Mr.SFTV Says:

    I certainly didn't take offense to the jokes that I heard (in between the transmission interruptions) As has been noted, some SMOFS do take themselves too seriously and anyone who took offense probably falls into that category.

    And has been noted by others, Paul has definitely gone above and beyond in doing charitable things for worldcon and many, many other venues.

  • JOhn Says:

    Paul, I loved your performance as MOC at the Hugo Awards. I thought you were witty, well spoken, and very entertaining. Although I am a huge fan of SF, I am not a huge fan of award shows... and you really helped keep this year's Hugo ceremony light and entertaining. Bravo!

    I read your apology and it was very classy. Now, I feel the "offended" Smofs should apologize to YOU for tainting your 2013 Hugo experience in this way. In my opinion it is totally ridiculous to expect people to walk on eggshells in this manner to protect their insecurities. I say smof'em if they can't take a joke ;)

    They should be thanking you instead of chastising you.

  • Anonymous Says:

    I love that Eva's husband, Jack L. Chalker invented the word after noticing that while he was up all night socializing in the con suite the ice bucket somehow miraculously stayed full, and he called the people responsible, "the secret masters of fandom." The joke came to mean anyone volunteering their time to make cons and fan groups happen. Those who take either the words secret or masters seriously are completely missing the joke and the fact that fandom is above most things about fun. And when the people taking those words seriously are indeed smofs, well they probably need a little ridicule.

    Grant K

  • Adrienne Foster Says:

    I wasn't offended by your speech at the Hugos, but I fully accept your heartfelt apology.

    For those who don't understand why some of the SMOFs were so upset over Paul's teasing, conrunners have been facing a lot of unbalanced criticism over the past year. Is it so hard to figure out why they're touchy about any form of criticism at the moment? Their only goal is to provide an inspirational function for people in this community to meet. Instead, they have been accused of manipulating the Hugos, setting a stage for sexual harrassment, sexism and racism.

    These people are unpaid volunteers who make event planning their hobbies. Without them, there would be no Worldcon, San Diego Comic Con, DragonCon, animé cons, etc. If they decide it's not worth it, these functions would either cease to exist or become much more expensive to attend because staff would have to be hired.

    So thank you, Paul, for having the grace to consider those who were upset.

  • endymionsouth Says:

    A classy apology. Unneeded here. If others really needed it, case closed.

    I'd respectfully point out it was Robert A. Heinlein who wrote that when one was as the receiving end of a joke or caricature the objective was to laugh harder than anyone else.

  • Lyz Ellis Says:

    Paul, I am saddened to discover that folks were offended by your humorous speech. I was not offended but I greatly appreciate your apology nonetheless. It takes pluck to omit one’s mistakes and true grit to do so publically and with such authenticity. Reading it reminded me of the importance of repairing strained relationships whether the damage was intentional or not.

    Your wit greatly enlivened the atmosphere at the con and breathed a much needed air of levity to the ceremonies which was not substantively diminished by one backfired joke. If the lighting had allowed, you would have seen a room generally full of ear-to-ear smiles all the way to the back row. Your speeches rejuvenated me and enriched my experience--which was otherwise a disorienting mixture of both great and lousy events. Thank you.