Monday, April 13, 2015

Literary Tastes

In the previous two posts, I (Aaron) tried to avoid comparing the Sad Puppies' literary tastes to the mainstream Hugo voters' tastes. Because to me, that's not what this is about. If I personally had gotten to select the Sad Puppies slate (instead of my horribly misguided friend Brad Torgersen), so that it was filled with stories I love, I would still hate the deliberate manipulation of the process, using bloc voting for a slate so that the wishes of maybe 200 voters completely trump the preferences of some 2,000 people.

But the truth is, literary tastes do come into the issue. For one thing, my literary tastes form part of the reason why the Hugos are so meaningful to me, and why the disruption of the Hugos is so offensive. Also, literary tastes play a big role in the Sad Puppies' complaints about the Hugo Awards. They are flat-out wrong, because they simply fail to appreciate the fact that most Hugo voters have different tastes than they do.

The Sad Puppies complain that the Hugo voters have moved away from fun, action-oriented fiction in favor of literary fiction with liberal messages, preferably written by women or minorities. George R.R. Martin thoroughly debunked that here: Where's the Beef? Martin walked through a number of recent Hugo ballots, showing how there was no shortage of action-adventure, no shortage of conservative writers (including both Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen, pre-Sad Puppies), and no shortage of white males. Larry Correia has done a very thorough response to George R.R. Martin's Puppygates posts, but he did not attempt to respond to Martin's specifics on this point; instead, he asserted in very general terms that Martin was like an Eskimo telling him how many different kinds of snow there are. The analogy is silly, as Martin demonstrated:
Come on. Really? Look at the LoneStarCon ballot, the last before the Sad Puppies really began to have an impact. John Scalzi and Lois McMaster Bujold. Indistinguishable from one another? Can't tell Brandon Sanderson from Saladin Ahmed? Jake Lake and Kim Stanley Robinson? Ken Liu and Pat Cadigan, identical snowflakes? How about the editors? Stanley Schmidt of ANALOG and Sheila Williams of ASIMOV's, do you imagine they had the same taste, published the same stories? In long form editor, you had Toni Weisskopf, a Puppy favorite, against Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who your Puppies love to hate, with Sheila Gilbert of DAW thrown in as well, plus Lou Anders and Liza Gorinsky. All just snow? I mean, if you say so... but I see a feast there, a table laid out with all sorts of different meats and fruits and cheeses. Diversity all over the place.
The Sad Puppies say the Hugo Awards used to be much better, with a lot more fun adventure fiction and a lot less literary and ideological work. Matthew David Surridge has analyzed that assertion in great detail and argues very convincingly that it isn't so. The Hugos always rewarded fiction addressing ideological concerns with literary flair.

Really, the most the Puppies can legitimately say is that there are authors they admire who haven't made the ballot in the past and that they don't care for some works that have made the ballot, e.g., John Scalzi's Redshirts and "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love," by Rachel Swirsky. From which evidence they conclude that certain groups have been bloc voting in Hugo nominees (which, you have to admit, would be a really shitty thing to do, huh?) and they roundly denounce the Hugos as out of step with most readers' preferences. (The irony of trying to make the Hugos more democratic by getting 200 people to vote in a slate chosen by 3 people so as completely to nullify the preferences of 2,000 people is lost on them.)

Incredibly, it seems not to have occurred to the Sad Puppies that the majority of Hugo voters simply may have slightly different tastes than they do.

Now, let me drop my blogosphere-mandated veneer of cynicism and say this directly and earnestly: overall, Hugo voters have incredibly good tastes.

When I first educated myself on science fiction and fantasy in the 1970s and 1980s, the Hugo Awards were by far my most reliable guide to the best work of the past. They led me to the classics like Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, "Flowers for Algernon," The Man in the High Castle, "The Star," "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and so many more, and to great new work like Startide Rising, Ender's Game, Hyperion, Neuromancer, "Speech Sounds," "Sandkings," etc. etc. etc.

Sure, there are other awards, other places to go for recommendations, but the Hugos were always the most reliable, and I'll tell you why. There is a spectrum in what to appreciate in literature that runs from popular entertainment to more challenging, literary work. In my view, just following what sells the best pushes you too far to the former, while the mainstream critical press and juried awards and even the Nebulas run too far to the latter. However, because they're voted on by fans, but (call me an elitist if you want) a particularly knowledgeable, discerning segment of fans, the Hugos routinely hit the sweet spot in between.

And so, year after year, when I come across a brilliant novel or story that's fun to read but also thought-provoking, that stays in my mind long after I've read it, it's uncanny how often that story ends up on the Hugo shortlist the next year. Not every time, but more often than not, even if the author is not terribly well-known. I discover a superb new writer, Paolo Bacigalupi or Aliette de Bodard or Catherynne M. Valente or Daniel Abraham, and within a couple years he or she is popping up all over the Hugo ballot. I stumble across a wonderful story like "Movement" by Nancy Fulda or "Ray of Light" by Brad Torgersen or "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" by Kij Johnson or Eric James Stone's "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" or Rachel Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape," and the next year there it is on the ballot (regardless of the author's politics). Even when it wasn't published as science fiction, like Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, my fellow fans find it with me.

Conversely, when I get to the nominees I hadn't previously read, some don't knock my socks off and occasionally there's a turkey, but many are simply brilliant. Without the Hugo Award shortlists, I would not have discovered "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" or "The Paper Menagerie" or "Hell Is the Absence of God" or The City and the City or "The Empire of Ice Cream" or "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" or a host of other amazing works that have changed and enriched my life.

I might have read something brilliant like those stories among the Hugo nominees this year. Instead three men decided to dictate that I read Kevin J. Anderson and Jim Butcher (good, successful writers who, as far as I can tell, are not particularly interested in writing the kind of work I'm talking about) and five stories by John C. Wright. None of the 18 (out of 20) fiction nominees stuffed onto the ballot by the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies would have made a legitimate Hugo ballot, because——according to the tastes of some 90% of the Hugo voters——there was better, more award-worthy work published last year. But the Puppies took that decision away from the majority of the voters, to score some asinine political point.

I am sure I agree with a lot of the Puppies' political views, and probably regularly vote with them in political elections (cuz those are, y'know, supposed to be about politics). But when it comes to the Hugo Awards, the Sad/Rabid Puppies are a small minority who believe they know better than all the rest of us voters what's good for us and feel justified in overriding our tastes and imposing their views on us without our consent. In other words, they're a bunch of damn liberals.

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