My Thoughts On An Award I Shall Never Win

Hugo Award


Currently my Facebook timeline is almost exclusively comprised of discussions of the controversy surrounding the 2015 Hugo awards. Many of my friends are professional writers of speculative fiction, and the criteria for Hugo nomination and balloting significantly affects various aspects of the marketability of their work. “Hugo-nominated” or “Hugo Winner” on the cover of a book does, at least according to anecdotal data, improve sales. At a minimum, it is an indicator of having earned the approval of fans and peers, and can keep future works out of the slush pile. For a number of reasons, ranging from personal pride to professional and financial success, the Hugos matter to a number of my friends.

I don’t have the same visceral connection to the Hugos. My work as a fiction editor is purely avocational. To say that I am bit player would be to vastly over-state my significance in the world of speculative fiction. My connections in that world have allowed me to make friendships that I cherish, and, simply through virtue of those friendships, I get to contribute to the genre in small ways, but I am not in danger of doing work worthy of a Hugo nomination any time in the near future, the far future, or in an alternate one.

Consequently, I have been loathe to weigh in on the debate, letting my friends who actually have Hugo nominations or awards carry their respective banners.  I’ve watched much of the debate unfold on social media, as my friends rapidly balkanized into increasingly hostile camps. Although (as anyone who has read my writings on progressive issues here would likely know) my sympathies instinctively lie with the priorities of those termed “Social Justice Warriors” by their opponents, one of the leaders of the “Sad Puppies,” is someone whom I consider both a friend and a brother-in-arms. Consequently, I have tried my best to give a fair hearing to the Puppies’ concerns.

As I understand those concerns, and stating them in the most charitable fashion I can, they are essentially threefold and interrelated:

  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general (with the exception of Baen) privilege literary criteria over popularity in a way that increasingly isolates awards and publicity away from works that are widely appreciated by fans but are neither esoteric, nor sophisticated, nor avant garde.
  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general, have established a litmus test of progressive ideals. Works that advocate views contrary to those ideals (or even works that are simply written by self-described social conservatives) are excluded from awards and general approbation by the elites who control the nominations and the public discourse.
  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general, have become so enamored with pushing the boundaries in areas of sex, gender, sexuality, social structure, economics, and morality that works of inferior literary quality gain awards and accolades over skillfully-crafted works that maintain a more traditional or conservative worldview.

I do not want to invalidate any of these concerns. They are all questions worth asking. How should we weigh popularity versus literary merit? Should there be a litmus test regarding worldview, and if so, what should it be? Is there any value in novelty, and to what degree should it compensate for a lack of skill or craft?

Unfortunately, the conversation rapidly moved away from these specific concerns to ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments on both sides. Some folks have gone out of their way to try and be even-handed, and I think Jim C. Hines is an example. Nonetheless, the rhetoric has become extraordinarily strong. My personal bias is that the rhetoric from the Puppies (even ignoring the justifiably-ignored language from Vox Day and the Rabid Puppies) has been disproportionately vitriolic, particularly when it has mocked an overall emphasis on inclusiveness by many leading writers. On the other hand, those with whom I am genuinely sympathetic have made a number of ad hominem attacks on the Puppies, and those have included direct or indirect accusations of racism, sexism, Nazi-like or even neo-Nazi fascism, and homophobia.

Ultimately, the conflict became one of personality rather than literary merit. The Puppies proposed a slate that, while not uniformly “conservative” or reactionary, represented their desire to have their voice clearly heard after years of feeling marginalized by those whom they considered to be out-of-touch elites. That slate was categorically and overwhelmingly rejected by the voters – not because of the strengths or weaknesses of the individual works – but because of the personality and politics of the people who had proposed it. The 2015 Hugos essentially became a contest to determine whose public rhetoric was more popular, at least among those who paid their $40 to Worldcon.

Frankly, the Sad Puppies should not have been surprised by the outcome. People who buy and read books, in any genre, are more educated than the general public, and – right or wrong – the progressive social values that many of the Sad Puppies publicly reject on their blogs and in their writings are in the ascendant, especially among college-educated folks in the English-speaking world. Not unreasonably, the Sad Puppies feel like a vilified and mocked minority for the same reason social conservatives in the general public feel like one – because, in many settings, they are. No matter how successful their books, a group of authors who toss around words like “sodomy” and “Marxist” as if they are testifying for the prosecution at a McCarthy hearing is unlikely to hold much sway in any broad group of educated Westerners, much less in speculative fiction fandom. In fact, to the contrary, if they aggressively push a particular agenda (or slate), it is likely to be overwhelmingly defeated – not on its merits – but because of the beliefs of the people pushing it.

That is exactly what happened. The responses from both sides were predictable. Those who opposed the Sad Puppies slate were thrilled to have an unambiguous, categorical rejection of the values and priorities the Sad Puppies are reputed to represent (or, at the very least, how they represented them). Those who had put forth the slate saw it as a clear demonstration that the tolerance and inclusiveness of the progressive intelligentsia does not encompass social conservatives, and that progressives are willing to punish women if they are in any way associated with a socially conservative agenda. The Sad Puppies think that the bias, myopia, and elitism of the speculative fiction field has been revealed, and that the fans will consequently revolt. Their opponents think that the inclusive and progressive character of twenty-first century SF has been made clear, and that the fans will be relieved.

I suspect that both camps are in parts right and wrong. Some fans, and some writers, will be aggrieved and feel marginalized. Others will feel validated. The Sad Puppies showed that, no matter what they say, their political views (and, admittedly, the vitriol with which they present them) make it unlikely that they will be treated impartially. Their opponents demonstrated incontrovertibly that, right now, the heart of fandom is progressive and inclusive.

I’m not sure how any of this helps the industry or the genre. Just because my side “won” doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the value of thoughtfully-articulated voices presenting a loyal dissent. If, no matter what the other side says, we cannot listen to what they have to say because of all of the ways in which they are “obviously” wrong, how will we ever hear the things that they have to say that are right? How can we move forward in a way that makes speculative fiction fandom, and SF publishing, as broadly representative of the interests of readers and the politics of writers as possible?

Step one, I think, is moving away from slates and treating the Hugos as a battleground. Perhaps this is easy for me to say, since I know I will never win one, but I think it is abundantly clear that this conflict did not change anyone’s mind, did not broaden the tent of SF at all, and did not establish a framework for dialogue. The agenda of the Sad Puppies is a minority one. The more actively and forcefully they push it, the more aggressively their peers and the genre’s fans will push back. The slate-stacking strategy failed everyone.

What might help is establishing open and honest conversations – with clear rules against strawmen and ad hominem attacks – around the three Puppy concerns I placed in bullets, above. The conversation around popular pulp versus literary art has a long history in speculative fiction, and it is no more likely to be resolved in SF than it is in cinema or television or general literature. That doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it. Should we give equal weight to David Gemmell, Jack McDevitt, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Gene Wolfe? I dearly love them all, but is the writing of one inherently superior to the others because of popularity, or accessibility, or literary sophistication?

We should also look at the books we read and tell others to read.  Are there litmus tests? I know I have several. I don’t recommend books, even by authors I love, even by ones who are friends, if they contain graphic rape. Lev Grossman is a kind man with a style that makes me weep with envy, but I won’t go near The Magician King. On the other hand, despite my socialist politics, I still recommend Modesitt’s Recluce books, even though I think he’s trying to subtly convert me to capitalism. Surely most of us have litmus tests of one kind or another. Let’s be honest about them, and let our colleagues tell us what we’re missing out on as a result.

Let’s also put some thought into the value, and peril, of novelty. Speculative fiction thrives on pushing, challenging, and redrawing boundaries. It is the genre of limitless horizons, of finding new questions, of challenging old answers. Consequently, I think we should recognize that sometimes it is worth celebrating when someone does something new, and does it well. Ann Leckie’s treatment of gender drove me nuts in Ancillary Justice, but I loved the questions it raised for me when I thought about why it drove me nuts. In addition, she told a darn fine story, and told it well. There is enormous value in introducing a new idea in a way that gets people talking and asking questions. We should not lose site of that. But writing is also a discipline that is inherently conscious of history and tradition, and doubly so in a genre that explicitly builds on ancient, mythic structures. There are people reading speculative fiction who lead deeply conventional lives, and who love how those old stories reinforce their conventionality. Do they deserve a voice as well? At what point does our love of ingenuity silence them? Is it better to innovate, or to excel in craft? Are they mutually exclusive goals?

My admittedly biased answers to these questions are obvious throughout, but I genuinely do not want those to be the only answers out there. The 2015 Hugos are done. We have all hurled every conceivable insult at each other, and no one’s mind has been changed. If we are to reach the full potential of this wonderfully complex and thought-provoking genre, we should put mechanisms in place to have clear, thoughtful, honest dialogue about these and other related questions. Moderated panels, moderated online discussions, festschrifts, point-counterpoint editorials from those willing to eschew ad hominem rhetoric – surely these and other media can help us find ways to hear each other, understand each other, and continue the unending process of redefining the genre in ways that will keep it relevant, challenging, and just beyond the horizon for generations to come.

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