Having come up with that nifty albeit long-winded title, I’m tempted to just write “see above” and take a nap. Mission accomplished…
Sadly, some people need to be convinced that “inevitable” means “not evitable.”
You don’t think there’s such a word as “evitable”? Tch. Of course there is! If there weren’t, how could anything be in-evitable? “Evitable” derives from the Latin evitare (“to avoid). It’s an adjective that means capable of being avoided; avoidable. In essence, what the Sad Puppies are arguing is that if people follow their lead, the tendency of the Hugo Awards to be slanted in favor of what are generally called “literary” qualities can be avoided.
No, sorry, it can’t. You have as much chance of eliminating the tendency of a literary award to be tilted in favor of literary factors as you have of doing any of the following:
Getting a fashion competition to award first place to blue jeans and a sweatshirt. But they’re so comfortable! And people wear them all the time—including those God damned probably-a-bunch-of-pinkos (PABOPs) when they’re not putting on a public show.
Getting a dog show to award “best dog of show” to an unpedigreed mutt. But he’s such a good dog! Friendly, great with kids, never growls at anybody except people trying to break into the house and then—hooweeeeee!—watch the bastards run for their lives. And they gave the award to that—that—look at the damn thing! Its skull is narrower than a high-heeled shoe! God damn pointy-headed effete asinine retards (PHEARs).
Getting a gourmet cooking competition to award first place to a dish consisting of a cheeseburger and fries. But almost everybody eats cheeseburgers and fries! Try setting up a chain of escargots-and-tofu restaurants and see how fast you go bankrupt! This is pure snobbery, what it is. God damn highbrow elitist stuffed shirt icky abominable nabobs (HESSIANs).
Shall I go on? And on… and on…
What the Sad Puppies can’t seem to grasp is that any sort of award contest is automatically going to be biased in favor of whatever qualities those people who pay attention to the award—which always involves some effort and some expense—are prone to considering important. Getting infuriated because the tastes and preferences of that relatively small and self-selected pool of voters don’t match those of the population as a whole is just silly.
Of course they don’t match.
Most people who eat food—that’s everybody who isn’t dead or on a feeding tube—don’t eat expensive gourmet food except on occasion. But everybody who attends a gourmet tasting does so only in order to eat gourmet food.
The same is true with wine tasting, flower arranging, art shows—you name it, and if it involves a relatively small and self-selected portion of the populations of all people who drink wine or like flowers or look at art from time to time, their tastes and preferences will diverge at least to a degree from those of the mass audience. If that weren’t true, then the entire population (of people who drink wine or like flowers or look at art from time to time) would be participating also.
But they don’t. Most people who like flowers don’t attend flower shows. Most people who drink wine don’t attend wine tasting events. Most people who enjoy art from time to time don’t habituate art galleries and only go to museums on occasion.
That’s the way it is. Complaining about it is as pointless as complaining about the tides or the 23½ degree inclination of the Earth’s axis with respect to the plane of its orbit.
Of the roughly five million people in the United States who regularly read fantasy and science fiction, only a tiny percentage—considerably less than one percent—will ever attend a Worldcon or take out a supporting membership in order to vote on the Hugo awards. In fact, the majority of people who do attend Worldcons don’t vote on the Hugos.
It is both time-consuming and expensive to attend a Worldcon, especially if you don’t live in the city where it’s being held. And even if you just want to vote for the Hugos you have to pony up $40, which is not a trivial amount of money for most people.
What that means is that the people who do vote on the Hugos have a real interest in doing so. Whereas the great majority of F&SF readers simply don’t care if their favorite authors do or don’t get awards. Why should they care? Their reading choices are not determined by the awards in the first place.
Let me give a personal example from outside the field of fantasy and science fiction. In addition to F&SF, I also read mysteries from time to time. Among my favorite authors are Robert Parker, Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard.
The mystery genre, like fantasy and science fiction, has its own set of prestigious awards. The mystery genre has a ton of awards, in fact, way more than F&SF does. Among them are:
- The Edgar Awards
- The Crime Writer Association (CWA) Dagger Awards
- The Nero Award
- The Shamus Awards
- The Anthony Awards
- The Macavity Awards
- The Agatha Awards
- The Hammett Prize
Which of the above awards, if any, have been won by Robert Parker, Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard?
I don’t know. I don’t have a clue. I have not the foggiest idea.
Because I don’t care. It doesn’t matter whether any of these three authors has won any awards. If I discovered that none of them had won any awards that would not change my opinion of them one eeny-teeny-weeny itsy-bitsy little tiny bit. What do I care what some people somewhere else have decided is or isn’t good mystery fiction?
That is how the vast majority of people who read fantasy and science fiction feel about our own genre’s awards. They simply don’t care.
Do. Not. Care.
Pay. No. Attention.
Couldn’t. Care. Less.
So why should an author who sells well enough to make a living at it care whether his or her particular audience is one that pays much (if any) attention to the Hugo awards? Maybe they do, but more likely they don’t.
I think the reason some people get befuddled by this is because they suffer from one of two misconceptions. Or both, often enough.
The first misconception is that the voters who choose the Hugo award winners are in some sense a representative sample of the F&SF readership as a whole. To put it another way, some people seem to think that the (relatively very small) Hugo voting population is an accurate reflection of the reading tastes and opinions of the F&SF audience as a whole. But that’s not true.
More precisely, it’s only partially true. To some degree, of course, there is certainly an overlap. Very rarely if ever is a Hugo award, at least for the most popular category of “Best Novel,” handed out to a novel that almost no one except for Worldcon attendees has heard of. But it remains true that the preferences of Hugo-voters overlap with or are representative of those of the mass audience only to a degree.
That should be obvious to anyone. The two most popular fantasy series over the past two decades have been Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, completed by Brandon Sanderson, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Jordan never won a Hugo and neither did Sanderson, for his work on that series. (He did win a Hugo for an unrelated novella.) George R. R. Martin has won a Hugo four times, but those were all given for his short fiction and mostly predate his big fantasy series. Various volumes in the Song of Ice and Fire did get nominated for the Hugo, but none of them won.
On the science fiction side of our field, probably the most popular purely-SF series of the past two decades has been David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. Weber has never won a Hugo. In fact, he’s never been nominated for one. This, despite the fact that there are two annual SF conventions devoted specifically to the Harrington series, which between them draw close to a thousand attendees. If a significant percentage of those people also attended Worldcon, Weber would be winning Hugo awards regularly. But there’s just not much overlap between the two groups of readers.
So it goes. That disconnect existed even in the “good old days”—remember that Andre Norton, Hal Clement, Richard Matheson, Fred Saberhagen, James H. Schmitz and A. E. Van Vogt never won a Hugo award—and it’s gotten considerably more pronounced in the modern era.
The second misconception is perhaps even worse, because it tends to be shared by the people who do vote on the Hugos. That’s the notion that, while Hugo voters may not be representative of the mass audience, they do represent the opinions of the “elite” of the F&SF audience. To put it another way, theirs is the “best” opinion.
Uh, well, no. It isn’t. Or more precisely, it’s only an “elite” opinion in certain rather narrow ways.
It is true, overall, that people who attend Worldcons and vote on Hugos regularly have a better and more in-depth knowledge of the F&SF genre than any equivalently-sized group of people who gather anywhere in the world to discuss the matter and register their opinions. But in what sense does this also represent a better gauge of literature as a whole? (Or call it “story-telling” if the term “literature” makes you uncomfortable.)
Simply put, it doesn’t. In some ways, it’s even a handicap. Fans of F&SF who are devoted enough to undertake the time and expense of attending Worldcons are often—not all, not even most, but it’s still true of plenty of them—a tad on the obsessive side. They read a ton of F&SF and… not much else.
This was driven home to me a few years ago when I got into an argument with some F&SF fans online on the subject of what does or does not constitute a good gauge of the quality of an author’s work. I advanced the—to me, anyway—blindingly obvious criterion that the only thing that really mattered in the long run was which authors were still being read half a century or a century after their work was published. And I also made the point that popularity was usually a better indicator of whose work was going to survive than awards were.
Not a perfect gauge, certainly—the phenomenon of flash-in-the-pan literary success goes back for centuries. To name one example, in her heyday the writer known as “Ouida” (the pen name for the British novelist Maria Louise Ramé, who died in 1908) was extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that Puccini began working on an opera based on one of her stories. Eventually, he lost interest but the opera was finished by Mascagni.
Today, she is barely remembered at all. Only a few of her books are still in print, and those mostly in electronic or used paper editions. Nevertheless, popularity is not meaningless—especially when it maintains itself over time.
My critics were outraged by my opinion and one of them took it upon himself to prove me wrong by posting online the Publisher’s Weekly list of the most popular books of the year 1950.
Triumphantly, he pointed out that he’d only heard of one of the ten authors. The others, he said, had sunk into obscurity.
Here’s the list:
- The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson
- Joy Street, by Frances Parkinson Keyes
- Across the River and into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway
- The Wall, by John Hersey
- Star Money, by Kathleen Winsor
- The Parasites, by Daphne du Maurier
- Floodtide, by Frank Yerby
- Jubilee Trail, by Gwen Bristow
- The Adventurer, by Mika Waltari
- The Disenchanted, by Budd Schulberg
I’d say I was astonished, but I wasn’t astonished at all. His attitude was what I expected. A lot of F&SF fans are oblivious to the Big Wide World of literature. He’d “never heard” of John Hersey, Daphne du Maurier, Budd Schulberg…
Gah. I’d heard of most of them. The only three who weren’t familiar to me were Robinson, Winsor and Bristow. Which is not surprising—I looked them up—because all of them had only one or two well-known books and they’d long since faded away by the time I started reading widely in the mid-1960s and thereafter. I’d read something by five of them—Hemingway, Hersey, Du Maurier, Yerby and Schulberg, and although I’d never read Waltari I had seen a movie based on one of his books. (The Egyptian, starring Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Peter Ustinov.)
Before anyone puts up an outraged post to the effect that lots of F&SF fans are widely read, spare yourself the effort. I know that. But plenty of them aren’t—and they inevitably have an influence on the collective opinion of fandom as it is registered in Hugo award voting.
Years ago, early in my career as an author, a very well-established and popular author said to me: “The best way for a writer to starve to death is to listen to what the fans tell you.” The comment wasn’t a sneer at fans, mind you. The author liked fans and attended plenty of conventions. She was simply making the point that the tastes and opinions of SF fandom do not track those of the mass audience all that well.
Nor are they necessarily better. Never lose sight of that when you assess what Hugo awards do and do not represent. What they are is simply the recorded opinions of F&SF’s assembled fandom—that portion of it which attends a Worldcon or buys a supporting membership—at any given time.
To win a Hugo, or even to be nominated, is certainly an honor for an author in our field. But that’s all it is—an honor. It’s not a gauge of anything objective, it does not necessarily reflect anything beyond the opinion of that (relatively tiny) slice of the mass audience for fantasy and science fiction, and it certainly does not determine anything about the worth of an author’s work. The only thing that will make that determination, in the long run, is whether an author’s work survives over time.
The Hugo voters, in their wisdom or lack thereof, decided that Christopher Anvil, Hal Clement, L. Sprague de Camp, Richard Matheson, Andre Norton, Fred Saberhagen, James H. Schmitz, A.E. Van Vogt and Jack Williamson were not very noteworthy. Of those nine authors, five of them are now in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and two out of the other four—Anvil and Schmitz—have had their complete works reissued in modern editions. (Full disclosure: Okay, fine, I’m the one who edited those reissues—but they sold pretty damn well for reissue volumes.)
Quite clearly, the Hugo voters were… ah, mistaken. (That sounds more dignified than “full of crap.”) Those are not the only times that Hugo voters have been…. ah, mistaken. They certainly won’t be the last, either. In this, the Hugos are like all awards. You win some, you lose some, so to speak.
What I’ve never been able to understand about the Sad Puppies—and still don’t, after all the wrangling—is why they care in the first place. Nothing in their stance makes any sense to me at all.
To begin with, they have nothing but contempt for Hugo voters, as they have expressed repeatedly. In Brad Torgensen’s own words, “the field of SF/F is a thoroughly progressive playhouse”—and that’s the main beef he and Larry Correia and their supporters have with what they view as the F&SF establishment. That being the case, I have no idea why they care what Hugo voters think in the first place.
The presumption I’m left with, since there seems to be no other explanation, is that somewhere in the darkest and most insecure recesses of their psyches, the Sad Puppies have this gnawing feeling that the Hugos really do confer some sort of worth or dignity upon their work, even though they insist the Hugo voters are a pack of progressive scoundrels. (And they really are scoundrels, too. “Puppy-kickers,” no less.)
I am a “progressive”—on the far left side of that label, to boot—and I do not have any animus against Hugo voters. And yet I don’t look to them to provide me with any sort of affirmation for the value or lack thereof of my work as an author. They have their opinion, to which they are absolutely entitled—and I have mine.
Guess which one of those two opinions really matters to me? Unlike the Sad Puppies, I am simply not ego-challenged. I understand full well that people who vote on literary awards will, taken as a whole if not each and every one, tend to look on the issues involved differently than I will. That is true by definition. If I did agree with them, I wouldn’t be writing the kind of stories I write in the first place. I’d be trying to write stories that line up closer with the attitudes of Hugo voters.
How would I do that? How the hell should I know? Which word in I don’t care what Hugo voters think causes people—especially the Sad Puppies, who really do seem to care—the most trouble?
In the nature of things, for instance, fans who vote on awards for science fiction and fantasy works will tend to place an emphasis on originality and innovation, whether of style, narrative structure, or content. (Not all of them, of course. But enough will to affect the voting.) But those are things I just don’t care much about.
With a few exceptions, none of my stories is particularly innovative. My focus—not surprisingly, given my history as a political activist and historian—is on the content of the stories, especially what you might call the social ethics and virtues depicted and promoted. (I try my best not to be preachy about it, but I do have a viewpoint and it is reflected in my stories.) Those are the things I care about, and care about passionately.
My first novel, Mother of Demons, is an adventure story in the course of which my own (very positive, indeed heroic) view of how one should look upon human history is explicated. But the plot itself—humans crash-land and are marooned on a planet inhabited by intelligent aliens at a lower stage of technical and social development—is not innovative at all.
The Belisarius series, which I co-authored with David Drake, is a combination of time travel, alternate history and military SF. I dare say it’s a dandy story, but the underlying point is an examination of what it means to be “human” in the first place. Is “humanity” ultimately defined by genetics or it is, in the end, defined by deeds? Is the human race shaped by its heritage alone, or does it shape itself in the course of time? David and I came down firmly on the anti-genetic-determination side of that debate.
But there’s nothing especially “innovative” about the story. It does not advance the frontiers of F&SF (so to speak) one little bit. It uses well-established and existing tropes, it does not explore new ones. That’s because what I care about is the story itself, not how it’s told or what it develops that is new and different. Trying to do that, in fact, would probably just have weakened the story.
The same is true for the work I’m best known for. The 1632 series began with my novel 1632, whose central theme—yeah, sure, there’s plenty of action and no fewer than four romances, but there is a point to the damn book—is the critical importance of democracy and egalitarianism to the emergence of any sort of just society. The series that sprang from it continues to explore those themes in various ways.
I could go on, but that’s enough. My point is that what concerns me has very little to do with what are usually considered “literary” qualities. And what is true of me is true of any number of authors. The subjects that interest us the most and that we feel strongly about telling stories around are often not the issues that are of most interest to people who vote on the Hugos or other awards.
So be it. There are no hard feelings on my part. Why should there be?
In the end, the demand of the Sad Puppies is self-defeating. What they want, essentially, is for a literary award to stop being a literary award and become a “good story as we define it” award.
Sorry, but that’s not going to happen. The only way it could happen would be for the attendees at Worldcons—or at least a whole lot of supporting members—to be comprised of Sad Puppy fans and enthusiasts. The problem is that the sort of people who are most inclined to enjoy Sad Puppyish stories are the ones who are not very inclined at all to spend the time and effort to attend a Worldcon. Whereas the sort of people who are inclined to attend Worldcons and vote on Hugos are the sort of people who really do care about literary issues.
Remember what I said about the Honor Harrington fans? Every year, close to a thousand of them spend the time and money to attend a convention devoted entirely to Weber’s popular series. If those same people poured into the Worldcons and voted as a bloc, they’d run the Hugos year after year after year.
But they’re not going to, because they don’t care that much—insofar as any of them care at all.
One final point. The Sad Puppies seem to feel there’s something deeply unfair about the fact that literary awards are tilted in favor of literary criteria. But I don’t. My feeling is this: the tilt is not only inevitable, it is also justified. The fact that I am focused almost entirely on story-telling in my own writing does not mean I am oblivious to the fact that literature has many sides to it—and in the final analysis, F&SF is not a “genre.” It is a branch of literature.
Innovation is important, whether or not I’m personally inclined in that direction. Narrative experimentation is worthwhile, whether or not I usually avoid it. The same is true for all aspects of literary fiction.
I said the following, in my first essay on this subject:
To put it another way, every successful author has to master two skills which, although related, are still quite distinct: they have to be good story-tellers; and they have to be good writers.
Of those two skills, being a terrific story-teller but a journeyman writer will win you a mass audience, and is likely to keep it. On the flip side, being a journeyman story-teller but a terrific wordsmith will win you critical plaudits but won’t usually get you much in the way of an audience.
I’m an author whose principal—indeed, almost exclusive—interest is in story-telling, not literary technique. And I’m good at it. What this means is that I get awarded at least twice a year when my royalty payments arrive. In the end, I think there’s something a little mean-spirited—or a little piggy, let’s say—about authors who sell well but envy other authors the awards they receive and covet the awards for themselves.
I mean, for Pete’s sake, what’s wrong with authors who may not sell that well getting an award from time to time? How is this doing me any harm at all? Or any of the Sad Puppies, for all their constant griping and grousing?
To me, it seems a reasonable and fair way to even things out a little. And the operative term is a little, trust me. If you could resurrect the shades of Andre Norton and the other great-but-unawarded authors of our history and ask them “would you trade your long years of being able to write full-time for a bunch of shiny rockets on a shelf?” I can guarantee what their answer would be, one and all.
Are you crazy? We were writers and we got to do what we wanted to do, for years—for decades, most of us. We wrote. And wrote, and wrote, and wrote. That’s enough. That’s more than enough.
All right, I’m done. This will be my past essay on the subject of the Hugo controversy, although I may respond to something that comes up from time to time. I’ve got a novel to finish.
I will be attending Worldcon this year, by the way. I hadn’t planned to, but given the way I got drawn into this fracas I eventually decided I ought to show up. Having given everyone else my opinion—at length—on what they ought to do, it seemed incumbent on me to put my money where my mouth was. (Figuratively speaking.)
(for the other posts on the Hugo controversy, visit the Hugo Controversy category.)