Puppies and Hugos Summary

So, over at “Whatever”, John Scalzi has made a post linking to a summary of the whole “Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies” thing around the Hugo Awards from 2015 and 2016 (and yes a bit before and a bit after that).  I was, of course, aware of all of that and rather ticked off by it, and it inspired a number of posts here around that time beyond the assessment of the 2016 awards that I linked to above, including assessing a number of older works of science fiction after that to see if I felt that the new and great ones that the advocates were crowing about were in fact better than the older ones that the Puppies purportedly wanted to bring back into Hugo contention.  But for me, personally, the biggest impact was to essentially say “A pox on both your houses!”, although when I assessed whether the historic win of N.K. Jemisin in 2018 was a win for the Puppies or for the Social Justice side I did think that the Puppies had a better claim to the win because it was unlikely, to say the least, that her winning three years in a row was primarily due to the quality of the works, even if I hadn’t read the first book and found it mediocre at best.  Which, then, means I’m a bit bemused by Scalzi’s assertion that it’s obvious that his side — which is not the Puppy side — won and that the Puppies completely lost.  Since one of their main goals was to show that the Hugos were political, speaking as someone relatively neutral I really do think they managed to do that, and I no longer trust the Hugo Awards as an assessment of what is worth consuming and, in fact, don’t trust anyone’s assessment of that, which means that instead of the controversy encouraging me to embrace modern science fiction I’ve pretty much retreated to re-reading the old stuff and am now actively ignoring these sorts of things instead of simply ignorantly ignoring them.

Then again, Scalzi’s perspective — and that of the long series he links to — are from the inside of the specific sci-fi fandom that they are a part of, and so it lacks the perspective of people like me.  So different perspectives might well have different ideas and opinions on what went on.  On top of that, Scalzi does seem to quite often not really realize the implications of what he says, so let me look at a couple of things from it to show that things might not be as clear as he thinks it is.

The first is over, well, whether they failed or not:

There are reasons for that, but I think the largest part has to do with the fact that the Pups, simply and bluntly, failed at every level that was important for their movement. The bifurcated goals of the Pups were to champion science fiction with a certain political/cultural point of view (i.e., largely white, largely conservative), and to destroy the Hugos by flooding the nominations with crap. They did neither very well. Toward the former, the material they slated was largely not very good, and with respect to the latter, the Hugos both still persist and remain a premier award in the field.

Uh, this is a bit of a mischaracterization of their goals.  They wanted to champion works that they considered good but that weren’t getting a fair shot, and as part of that prove that the Hugos were already implicitly politicized by trying to make the politicization obvious.  So the nomination of joke entries — which would be the only ones that they would have considered crap — was to show that utter crap could get nominated for non-quality reasons, and then also to provide a dividing line between reasonably respectable choices and ones that weren’t so that if their opponents decided to simply vote down everything they recommended they could show that they weren’t doing it on the basis of quality but on the basis of politics.  If the credibility of the award was going to be destroyed, then, it would be because their opponents refused to distinguish between quality works that deserved to be nominated even if they didn’t deserve to win and works that were legitimately crap.  And it is important to note here that what ticked me off about the whole thing was their refusal to make that distinction.  When you No-Award a Dresden Files book, that’s a pretty clear indication that it’s not quality of writing that’s making the decision.  Even if it was a weak entry, it would be at least reasonably good.

(And I can say that because when I did my assessment of the Best Novel category in 2016 I refused to No-Award anything, even “Seveneves” which I personally hated, although that one was close.  Of the three that the Puppies might dislike, I would never have No-Awarded them even though in terms of quality I found them lacking.  There were almost certainly — I have to hope — better works available in that year, but they were what ended up on the ballot and given that to me it always seemed invalid to declare that they didn’t deserve an award.  The nomination process guaranteed that pretty much everyone would find some work on the list that they thought didn’t deserve an award more than something that was left off of it, but the implicit agreement is that you sucked that up and voted for the best that was available, and No-Awarding breaks that implicit agreement).

I’m also curious if the Hugos really are “a premier award in the field”, or what that even means.  I know that I’m ignoring them, and I don’t know how many people outside of the regular group are paying attention to it.  It’s certainly the case that the Puppies don’t seem excessively concerned about it anymore (many of them had already moved on the Dragon Awards as per the very summary Scalzi links).  Given the mainstream attention paid to it — which is how I was reminded that the things existed and got drawn into this — you’d think they’d have picked up some new fans if at least their side was doing what was considered to be the right thing, and no one ever talks about that being the case.  Is it the case that the Hugos reflect fandom at all?  Note that Scalzi himself casts some doubt on that while trying to demonstrate that they are still relevant:

Meanwhile the Hugos have been doing perfectly well, with excellent finalists and winners in most categories, and a wider and more diverse range of authors and creators. Nor are these works or creators obscure, either to fans or the general public; of the six Best Novel finalists for the current year, four are New York Times bestsellers (and commensurately bestsellers on other lists as well), and the authors of the two that are not, have won Hugos and other awards before. The Best Series finalists add a couple more bestsellers and award winners to that stack as well. The Hugos reflect what they are assumed to reflect: What’s interesting, and to varying degrees popular, in the larger field of the genre.

Well, here’s the list for Best Novel:

  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery / Saga Press / Solaris)
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Harrow The Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com)
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tor.com)
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
  • The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books / Solaris)

I recognize two of the names.  I presume those are the ones who have one before, which might imply that Jemisin’s is not a bestseller.  But even that argument is odd, because he’s appealing to the sales figures, but during the big kerfuffle whenever the Puppies talked about sales people insisted that it wasn’t about sales, but about quality, which I noted at the time meant that using a vote mechanism didn’t make sense if that’s what you wanted.  But I’ll also note that the Dragon Awards — which, as noted above, many of the Puppies gravitated towards — doesn’t have a lot of overlap with that list.  Well, okay, it does, but it’s hard to see because the Dragon Awards splits that category out into far more categories and so a number of the novels appear on one of those lists instead of all together, but as far as I can tell even with that expansion only three of the six appear on their list.  This might mean that the “a premier award” is doing a lot of work, because it’s hard to see from the perspective of someone like me how the Dragon Awards aren’t a better resource for what’s interesting and popular in the field of science fiction, just looking at the format alone.

And Scalzi kinda shoots himself in the foot later talking about the impact of the controversy on the various players:

(The latter, incidentally, is important to note; the Pup nonsense really was inside pool and few people not deeply committed to the genre knew much about it. Almost no one in the larger world would (or does) know or care much about an internecine struggle involving the mechanics of a genre award. Bestselling writers are so because they can draw in readers outside of the relatively small base of established SF/F fandom. They weren’t going to be substantially hurt by the Pup antics.)

So, what happened there wasn’t going to matter much to the various players because, basically most readers of SF/F didn’t care about the awards.  Huh.  Really puts that “a premier award” line in perspective, doesn’t it?

But let me go back to the idea that the Puppies lost:

Their strategy was bad because it was addressing a problem that largely did not exist and was arrived at in a backward fashion, and their tactics were bad because they exploited loopholes and antagonized everyone who was not part of their clique, activating thousands of dormant Hugo voters against them. They were routed through a simple mechanism for which they had not accounted (“No Award”), and once their slating tactic was blunted by a nomination rule change, they flounced entirely.

I’ve read the entire summary up to this point, and it doesn’t seem like the flounce was due to the tactic being blunted — they’d had success at the nomination level with new tactics — but mostly as noted a switch to the Dragon Awards and a lack of interest by the person who had been nominated to take over at least Sad Puppies afterwards.  Also, after 2016 everyone on both sides had bigger fish to fry.  And the summary notes that they did anticipate the move and I personally noted that for me, at least, the “No Award” mechanism is what ticked me off about his side and led me to create a number of rants about the situation.  Even if Scalzi’s side “won”, that their own tactics ticked off at least some neutrals would mean that it wasn’t a route.  Only from Scalzi’s perspective can he see that as a clear win, and to be blunt they would have had at least as strong a victory if not a stronger one if all they had done was play fair, and then changed the rules to make slates harder to do.  But instead they didn’t play fair, broke the implicit agreement of the awards, and then changed the rules anyway.

 If the Pups have shown us anything, it’s that you can’t simply brigade questionable material to success. There has to be quality there.

This was in a section talking more about sales, but I have to note here that I read all of the best novel candidates from 2016 and noted that the Hugo Awards from that year — especially the ones touted by people on Scalzi’s side — proved the opposite, as they were explicitly brigaded and yet didn’t really have quality there.

Again, Scalzi kinda proves his opponents right talking about how the genre had moved past the Puppies:

What the Pups missed (or, if they did not miss, at least severely misunderstood) was who is acquiring genre work these days and who is buying it. Hint: it’s not all straight white dudes, and indeed, it may not even be majority straight white dudes anymore. The legions of associate-to-senior editors in publishing right now and in the last decade are more diverse than they’ve ever been, less white, less male, more queer… and with a hellaciously passionate work ethic and a damn fine eye for material. They didn’t necessarily come up through “traditional” science fiction. Lots of them came up through YA or from other genres, and developed their own personal canon of works that may or may not have included “classic” SF work. When they bought work, they didn’t just buy for the audience that SF/F books were assumed to address. They bought for the audience they wanted to bring into the field. They did it in book publishing, and in short fiction publishing as well.

Remember, one of their big complaints was about gatekeeping, with the traditional audiences and works being rejected in favour of these new ones.  Scalzi here explicitly says that, yes, that’s exactly what they are doing, and deliberately so.  They are ignoring works that would appeal to the old and existing audience in the hopes of attracting the audience that they want.  While I haven’t analyzed science fiction books on this score, I know that for comic books and TV shows and movies doing this has not been a clear success.  What has happened a lot of the time is that the existing audience gets alienated and the new audience doesn’t materialize, so overall sales and the like go down.  So I’d need some evidence before I agree with Scalzi’s take here:

The Pups liked to assert, without much in the way of evidence, that “New York Publishing” was and still is on its way out (which would not be great for them, as the major publisher in the Pup space, based in North Carolina as it is, nevertheless is distributed and put into stores through a New York publisher). Someone should have told that to New York publishing, particularly its science fiction and fantasy imprints; they’re doing just fine. And not only fine: they’re minting more bestsellers and bringing in more readers to the genre and being a larger part of the cultural conversation than they have done before. Likewise, short fiction publishing features more diverse material and storytelling than ever before. Genre literature is finally catching up to where the genre is in other media, in terms of popularity and influence — in large part, I would argue, because the doors are open wide to a larger base of readers and writers.

We have heard from lots of sources that traditional publishing has indeed been struggling and is facing great challenges.  So it isn’t clear that their prediction is all that wrong, especially since Scalzi gives no evidence that they have higher sales than before, as best sellers do not mean better numbers overall.  And the whole “larger part of the culture conversation” is a meaningless statement that is also unevidenced.  Scalzi wants to argue that not only did things not go badly for this new direction, but instead things are going really, really well, but he doesn’t give me any reason to think that’s true, and especially that it’s true for the things he thinks are really good and that the Hugos are capturing (with, again, three of the six not making the expanded list of the Dragon Awards, and at least one of those being one of their favourites).  So I am not really willing to grant him this without more evidence.  And certainly not willing to think that the works have actually gotten better since the time I wept for science fiction and fantasy.

Yes, yes, but what about the straight white man? Is there a place for him in the science fiction literary culture now? I mean, yes (waves), and even if you consider my straight white male credentials suspicious in some way, there are plenty of other examples — including the Pups themselves, who again are still publishing away, albeit in some cases not with the notability they felt they were entitled to. We straight white dudes show up in bestseller and award lists, still. We just share them more now.

Well, if the people choosing what gets published are, as Scalzi asserts, selecting against the traditional straight white male demographic and audience, then there is less of place for them in science fiction and it isn’t because that stuff is not quality or not wanted, because as Scalzi himself noted they are selecting based on perceived and preferred audience, not on sales.  So pointing to himself isn’t a good example, especially since I doubt he’d characterize his works as aiming at that straight white male audience.  And it doesn’t help his case to argue that people who felt they were and at times objectively were pushed out of traditional publishing are still publishing and being successful as they publish outside of the traditional mechanisms, for two reasons.  First, it shows that there is no place for them inside traditional publishing despite them being marketable.  Second, it shows that those works are marketable, which means that traditional publishing should probably be more open to them than Scalzi himself insists they are.  Again, Scalzi ends up arguing against his own point.

And finally:

Which is not to say that the Pups were (or are!) uniformly mediocre writers. Some of them had gotten on to finalist lists on their own steam with their stories and prose, and got decent-to-glowing reviews for their work, and of course sold from all right to very well indeed. But fundamentally the Pup movement was about resentment: Resentment about not winning awards. Resentment about sharing the genre with others. Resentment about having to compete, and being outcompeted. Resentment that had they started their careers 20 years earlier, they might have had more acclaim and baubles. Resentment that says that if you can’t have the success you want, exactly how you want it, then you are entitled to make sure no one else has it either; that you would rather burn something to the ground than to have someone else get it.

No, the big push was over having works that would have been good enough to win them awards but if anyone tried to nominate them or vote for them to win having others scream and yell about them due to their politics, but then deny that politics had any role in them not getting awards.  Essentially, they felt that the system was getting more and more unfair and that it would be better to turn it down than keep that unfair system in place.  And considering that they have had more success with Dragon Awards than with Hugos, that doesn’t seem like an incorrect claim.  And if it isn’t incorrect, then it’s not about entitlement.  No matter how much Scalzi insists that it is.

One Response to “Puppies and Hugos Summary”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    “Scalzi accidentally proved his opponents right” is more or less an apt summary of his entire career to date.

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