I would have to imagine that the… two? three? of you who read this blog are already familiar with the “Sad Puppies” campaign, but if you’re not, a brief overview. Some rabidly conservative SF authors felt that too few of the “right” works were getting nominated for, much less winning, Hugo awards. To combat this perceived discrepancy, these authors banded together to create the “Sad Puppies”, a full voting slate of middling-at-best stories, novels, etc. And if you don’t vote for them, you see, puppies will be sad. I am not entirely sure they grasp the criteria by which one judges a “best of” category, as Sad Puppy Co-Founder and noted idiot, Larry Correia, wrote a blog post which dismissed all contenders for a Hugo except himself and Robert Jordan. He then went on to express his worry that Jordan might beat him on the grounds of word count, and length of composition time. Both of which are terribly important in determining which of two works is better.
But now I turn to the current inanity of self-described “token liberal” Brad Torgerson. A few disclaimers: I have not read any of Torgerson’s work (nor will I if the depth and breadth of imagination found in the following blog post is in any way typical of his output), nor did I scour his archives looking for any sort of numerical support for his claims. It might exist, but I doubt it. Let’s begin, shall we?
“One thing that’s become apparent during this third go-around of SAD PUPPIES, are the many and divided opinions on why the Hugo awards are broken. Much of this conversation is simply a continuation of the debate held during (and in the wake of) Loncon 3. Depending on who you ask, the Hugos are broken because they are either too insular (this is part of the SAD PUPPIES theory) or too easily manipulated by outside voting blocs (the “fandom purist” theory) or because “fandom” itself is still too white, too straight, and too cisnormative (Call this the “Grievance Studies theory”) or even that the Hugos spend too much time dwelling on popular works, at the expense of real literature (the “pinky-in-the-air snob theory”) or that “fandom” simply falls into predictable ruts, and is easily swayed by sparkly bellwethers, such as the Nebulas.”
Hoo boy! We’re only one paragraph in! I’ll take this opportunity to discuss the many and divided opinions cited by Torgerson.
The first one- the Hugos are too insular. Perhaps. Torgerson has another blog post which features a brightly-colored Venn diagram which purports to show the relatively small overlap between the Hugo elites and the vast majority of SF fandom. I will limit myself to saying that I could also create an unsupported diagram which illustrates the vanishingly small overlap between Torgerson’s essay and critical thought, but I don’t want to waste the time.
The second- the Hugos are too easily manipulated by outside voting blocs. I can’t help but notice that there is no mention of this theory as the bedrock of the Sad Puppies mission statement. I find this omission incredibly odd, as the entire point of the Sad Puppies is to sway the Hugo voting by use of an outside voting bloc. Again, Torgerson provides no evidence to support this contention.
The third- the “Grievance Studies” theory. The sheer unmitigated gall of any of the almost overwhelmingly white cisnormative male members of the Sad Puppies referring to the claim that people who resemble them are overwhelmingly represented in SF fandom as “Grievance Studies” is staggering in its arrogance, self-ignorance, and stupidity.
The fourth- the snob theory. Yes. Oh, this makes sense. Certainly the best example of a genre should also be the most popular example of that genre.
The fifth- fandom is predictable and easily distracted. I think perhaps the best thing about Torgerson’s post is that he ignores all of these theories in favor of the hobby horse he’d like to ride. No discussion of the contradictions or parallels between any of these, no mention of how credible he finds them (well, no explicit mention). He simply lists them and moves on.
I do not wish to replicate Torgerson’s mistake, but that’s not the point of my blog post. I will say that any halfwit with an axe to grind can make unsubstantiated claims and then move on.
“I want to introduce another theory. One that others have spoken of before I call it the “Unreliable packaging” theory. And it’s afflicting not just the Hugos, but the SF/F literary field as a whole. As witnessed by (yet another spate of) declining SF/F sales at the bookstores.”
Torgerson here links to a blog post which quotes Publisher’s Weekly numbers for 2014- this blog post. https://chaoshorizon.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/publishers-weeklys-annual-fantasyscience-fiction-print-sales-numbers/
Looks grim, eh? SF down 7%, F down 13%, eBooks sales flat… I guess I really did cut back last year *rimshot*. Here’s what I don’t know- I don’t know whether this is a reflection of an overall downturn in book sales, I don’t know whether there was a spike in 2013, I don’t know whether anybody bothered to cross-check against video game sales as they attract a similar demographic and tend to cost two to three times as much as a new hardback. I don’t know whether the spike in YA purchases explains the drop in adult fiction. I do know that Torgerson blames the whole thing on “unreliable packaging” without more substantiation than an essay by Kristen Kathryn Rusch from 2004. In her essay, Rusch complains about the lack of “Gosh Wow” SF, and informs her readers that she reads fiction (not just genre fiction, BUT ALL FICTION) to escape. I have no fucking patience for this kind of bullshit. If you can’t find fluff in a bookstore, go reread something or write it your damn self. 90-95% of the genre is light entertainment (in all fairness that is an estimate on my part) and if you don’t feel that fiction should be challenging you can have my pity or my contempt, depending on my mood. In the interest of full disclosure, I was wearing my “Ulysses” t-shirt when I wrote the foregoing, so I may have been feeling my oats/glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sammitch.
But I digress, and should return to castigating the primary object of my scorn. Torgerson, if he has not hitherto impressed you, is about to embark on one of the most singularly puerile extended metaphors it has ever been my displeasure to read. I remind you that I taught six sections of Freshmen Comp; you have been warned.
“Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.”
HOHO! “Nutty Nuggets!” What delightfully irreverent wit! I remember being one of these readers for around 20 years. Then I got bored. But don’t let me keep you from enjoying the rest of this pablum.
“Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else. Still cereal, sure. But not Nutty Nuggets. Not wanting to waste money, you eat the different cereal anyway. You find the experience is not what you remembered it should be, when you ate actual Nutty Nuggets. You walk away from the experience somewhat disappointed. What the hell happened to Nutty Nuggets? Did the factory change the formula or the manufacturing process? Maybe you just got a bad box.”
Anyone remember New Coke? Remember how Coke changed Coke and then marketed it as an entirely new product? Do you know that there are Cheerios and a different brand called “Honey Nut Cheerios”?! Torgerson’s analogy is rapidly approaching its breaking point.
“So you go back to the store again, to buy another box of good old delicious and reliable Nutty Nuggets! Again, you discover (upon returning home) that the contents of your Nutty Nuggets box are not Nutty Nuggets. The contents are something different. Maybe similar to Nutty Nuggets, but not Nutty Nuggets. Nor are the contents like they were, with the prior box. You dutifully chomp them down, but even adding a spoonful of sugar doesn’t make the experience better. In fact, this time, the taste is that much worse.”
I am not sure what a “a spoonful of sugar” is in this case. Perhaps John Ringo diddling himself with a gun while moaning “All the women… love… conservatives. THEY LOVE CONSERVATIIIIIIIIIIIVES!”
“Two bad boxes in a row? Must have been a bad shipment!Return to the store. Buy another box. Bam. It’s not Nutty Nuggets. This time, you add bananas, sugar, and berries. This only makes up for the deficit a little bit.Return to the store again for yet another box. Yup. It says NUTTY NUGGETS proudly on the packaging. You are sure in your heart that you love and adore Nutty Nuggets! And yet, the magic is gone. This is not the cereal you first fell in love with. The box may say NUTTY NUGGETS but you won’t be fooled any longer. Nutty Nuggets are dead. Or at least they are no longer of any interest to you.So, you reluctantly turn to another brand. Maybe Freaky Flakes or Crunchy Bits? You give up on Nutty Nuggets, and you let some other cereal woo your taste buds. A cereal that is reliably what it claims to be on the outside of the box.”
Argument by analogy only works if the analogy coheres, and Torgerson’s fails miserably. Why doesn’t the hapless shopper ever once read the ingredients to discover what’s different? Or, more to the point, why doesn’t the shopper READ THE BACK OF THE BOOK?! OR LOOK UP A REVIEW ONLINE?! OR READ THE AMAZON DESCRIPTION?! Torgerson’s entire premise largely rests on the assumption that SF readers buy books solely based on cover art, and not say, on author or description. Further, he assumes that SF readers are incapable of determining whether a book will interest them without purchasing and reading it. My own experiences with the doubtable Larry Correia and the Baen Free Library seem to disprove that. Torgerson also ignores the role of the publisher in this farce. Publishers no longer have large profit margins, if they ever did. Publishers lose money if their books are returned. It is not in the publishers’ interest to package product in such a way as to shrink their customer base.
“That’s what’s happened to Science Fiction & Fantasy literature. A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.”
Is it, Brad? Is that what happened? Quick question- and I realize this is all anecdotal evidence- but have any of you picked up any books with covers like those Torgerson describes only to find something other than what you expected?
Nor have I. Although in some cases I have found recycled libertarian garbage (Terry Goodkind) or more-than-usually-misogynistic power fantasies (Robert Newcomb).
“These days, you can’t be sure. The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?”
Oh shit! Social commentary in Science Fiction?! How dare they?! How things have changed since H.G. Wells wrote his… oh. Um. Well, I. Um. Birth of the genre? Really? How about that. Let me reiterate that Torgerson calls himself the “token liberal”. That fact bears repeating in light of the complaints he makes about content.
“There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?”
WE CAN’T USE ESCAPIST LITERATURE TO EXAMINE OUR OWN CULTURAL BIASES/PREDJUDICES/ASSUMPTIONS! Good guy dragons! My God! Such a thing has never happened before except in “The Reluctant Dragon”. Oh, and “The Guardians of the Flame” series by noted conservative Joel Roberson. And that one thing with Strabo in the third “Magic Kingdom for Sale” book. And mostly the entire “Dragon and the George”. And the movie version, “Flight of Dragons”.
“A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.”
In what sense, Bradley? I think you probably enjoy “Gor”.
“Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.”
Can’t be both, I guess. I mean it’s not like there were any armies that had gay people in them. *COUGHSACREDBANDOFTHEBESCOUGH* Yeah, I mean it would take a Monstrous Regiment of writers to come up with a book that could cover a war story and transgender issues. Who would ever do such a thing?!
“Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.”
Sai Mieville, I think that’s a shot at you.
“Do you see what I am trying to say here?”
Yes, Brad, yes I do. I do not know in what sense you are liberal, but I feel that you are working with a definition different than the one we use to describe progressives in the current political climate. Why, Brad, why did you not complain of fiction used to (barely) veil right-wing screeds about the perfection of the Iraq War, the absolute necessity of one of Bush’s cabinet picks, and the slow, loving fellation of the S.S. (all examples found in John Ringo’s books). If you don’t like message in your fiction, why are you only complaining about liberal messages? Especially points of view which have hitherto been largely ignored or silenced by the SF/F community?
“Our once reliable packaging has too often defrauded our readership. It’s as true with the Hugos as it is with the larger genre as a whole. Our readers wanted Nutty Nuggets because (for decades) Nutty Nuggets is what we gave them. Maybe some differences here and there, but nothing so outrageously different as to make our readers look at the cover and say, ‘What the hell is this crap??'”
Allow me to translate: “#notallmen, may I play devil’s advocate, WHY AREN’T STRAIGHT WHITE MEN THE ONLY PEOPLE WRITING ANYMORE, M’LADY?!”
“Note that this is not nearly as much of a problem for movies and television. You can still (mostly) rely on movies and television to give you what you want. Video games as well. The packaging matches the experience, and the experience matches the packaging. The studios (motion picture as well as game development) understand that an unhappy audience is an audience which spends its money elsewhere. And so the studios don’t usually devote a lot of time to re-inventing the contents of the package simply for the sake of novelty, or to score a political point, or to push some agenda. Films and television which attempt this — a kind of subversive switcheroo — are liable to crash and burn at the box office, as often as not.”
Oh, by all means, sir, the creative-bankruptcy of big-budget Hollywood is definitely, DEFINITELY, what you want to reference to support your argument. While you’re at it, why not point to the poisonous hellpit that is mainstream video game production/fandom as an example of “the right way to do things.” Right. They crash and burn. “District 9”, “The West Wing”, quite a lot of Joss Whedon’s work, and even “ASOIAF” by some lights. Well researched, Torgerson, my fedora is off to you.
“When people want and expect Nutty Nuggets, and you fail to deliver . . .Yet SF/F literature seems almost permanently stuck on the subversive switcheroo. If we’re going to do a Tolkien-type fantasy, this time we’ll make the Orcs the heroes, and Gondor will be the bad guys. Space opera? Our plucky underdogs will be transgender socialists trying to fight the evil galactic corporations. War? The troops are fighting for evil, not good, and only realize it at the end. Planetary colonization? The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims. Yadda yadda yadda.”
I’m sorry, what books are you reading again? Where is the massive publishing tidal wave of counterculture SF that is driving faithful readers away in droves? Why are repetition and stagnation only problems now, rather than 20-30 years ago? Did you read SF/F then? Were you even alive then? Did you not notice that many of those books simply swapped out names and races? Did the mass-Tolkienification of the entire fantasy genre somehow escape your notice? I’m sorry, I forgot. That was just jim-dandy when publishers only released stuff that you wanted to read. Now that things are slightly more inclusive, your sense of privilege has been compromised and you want your generic pulps back.
“Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?”
Really? Because that’s exactly what you’re saying. And just to be sure, are you arguing for the removal of any social commentary from the genre? I want to be sure that you’re telling me that SF shouldn’t really cover any of that because people aren’t interested.
“We’ve been burning our audience (more and more) since the late 1990s. Too many people kept getting box after box of Nutty Nuggets, and walking away disappointed. Because the Nutty Nuggets they grew to love in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, were not the same Nutty Nuggets being proffered in the 2000s, and beyond.”
Late 1990s… late 1990s. Hmmm. What large cultural shift occurred in the late 1990s? What could possibly have happened that might have provided yet another distraction from books? Golly, I can’t think of a SINGLE. DAMNED. THING.
“This is not an irreversible trend. But we’re pretty deep into the unraveling, and there may not be enough cohesive force to keep SF/F tied together as a whole. The field may simply blow apart entirely, like a supernova. The different pieces spinning off into the universe, leaving a dead neutron core (or even a singularity) in its place. No more identifiable SCIENCE FICTION. Just SF-flavored war fiction, or SF-romance, or SF-mysteries, or Fantasy-flavored cop dramas, etc. The center (as the saying goes) may not hold.”
HORRORS! Can you imagine?! SF-mysteries (Asimov)! SF-Flavored war fiction (Drake, Weber, Cook, possibly all WH40K licensed fic)! SF-Romance (Bujold)! Fantasy-flavored cop dramas (Too many to name). How, Bradley, how will these be unidentifiable as SF? Do you need phallic spaceships, Ming the Merciless, and heaving, objectified bosoms to make the genre work for you? Did you realize when you quoted the “Star Trek” tagline that you were referencing a series which did little else but make social commentary? I think not. I think you actually are as dumb as your blog post and your professional affiliations indicate. If readers like you are falling off in droves, then good riddance. Fandom could use some fresh ideas from writers and enthusiasts with even the slightest glimmer of critical faculty. I’m sure you’ll find contentment arguing that Howard and Lovecraft were not racist because they were “products of their time”.
P.S. And it’s “The center cannot hold”, you mouth-breathing cretin. “Cannot hold.” It is not a saying; it’s a poem. Go read it before you quote- oh, wait, you won’t. It doesn’t have ray guns.