A Few Thoughts on the Sad Puppies

“Don’t say that he’s hypocritical. Rather, say that he’s apolitical.” -Tom Lehrer

Let me start by saying: I don’t have any role in the Hugo Awards, other than as one of thousands of other voters. But I do have friends who are far more involved, including folks on the Sad Puppy and Rabid Puppy awards slates that dominated this year. I’m not going to summarize the controversy here; it’s pretty easy to find the news if you Google a bit. Thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words have been written on the topic since the awards slates were announced– many written by folks far more eloquent than me. I suggest George R. R. Martin’s blog as a possible starting point.

But I did want to chime in on a few things I haven’t heard anywhere else, and hopefully by writing them out, to at least satisfy myself, even if no one else reads or cares.

If I look at the recent Hugo Awards from my limited perspective, I do actually think some of the Sad Puppies might have a point, in terms of desiring a wider list of names on the Hugo ballot. Several names show up over and over again, year after year, and I can’t help but wonder– is it because they’re writing the best fiction, or just established and popular in the community? Probably some of both. The Hugo Awards, like every other award, is very much a popularity contest, and I can sympathize with some of the Sad Puppies who may feel like they’re never part of that “in crowd” that gets consistently nominated for awards. It’s easy to feel excluded, and I even felt it on behalf of some of my friends, of all political stripes, who lost nominations (or lost the awards) in favor of the same familiar faces.

Personally, I’d love to see more diversity on the Hugo ballot, but I’d probably disagree with them on what nature that diversity should take. The Sad Puppies want more works that are entertaining, rollicking adventures, regardless of who wrote them or what their politics are, and I’m actually inclined to believe them on that– or, at least, I believe that they believe it. But where they see a conspiracy of SJWs keeping people out, I simply… don’t. I just see the basic tendency of folks to nominate well-known, popular names who are (through their own efforts, by virtue of their audience, or their general involvement in the community) good at getting some buzz going around their stories. And I’m all for getting some lesser-known names recognized amidst the buzz.

But I heartily disagree with the SPs on how and why that should be done. I am, likely, one of those dirty SJWs that Torgersen and his compatriots consider to have contaminated the Hugos, and apparently, society in general. (I never got my membership invite to the secret cabal meetings– maybe I just wasn’t important enough.) You can review my recent blog posts to see that social justice is something I think about a lot, both because it’s an intellectually interesting subject and because it directly affects a lot of people I care about.

So needless to say, I can’t help but take some personal umbrage when the Sad Puppies rant against the evil SJWs destroying the world… and for all that Torgersen claims to be apolitical, he’s sure willing to accept the help of the far right Rabid Puppies in getting his way. He even nominated some of their works himself. But hey, it’s all about being apolitical, right?

Torgersen has certainly claimed so. In his various posts on the subject, he yearns for a time in which science fiction wasn’t so darn political and full of messaging. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out by many people, that time didn’t really exist– the best works in the science fiction & fantasy field have usually had something to say about the state of the real world. For all its adventure-y talk about “where no man has gone before,” Star Trek was also quite progressive for its time– it portrayed a futuristic utopia in which humanity had largely solved its social problems and had united to explore the stars. It portrayed a mixed-race crew who treated each other as equals, and even occasionally kissed on-screen.

Those of us who view such messages and commentary as an important part of the genre are likely to reward and vote for works that we see as doing it well– which may be where some of the Sad Puppies’ beef comes in. For them, they don’t want messaging, but a lack of it (or a conservative message), and are disappointed to be in the minority. But even a lack of message is still a message– as I will get to shortly.

For all the SPs claim that they merely want a world where works are judged on merit, not the views of the author or what they say on society, there are a few major problems with that:

-For all of SF&F history, the merit of a work has been inextricably linked to whether or not it has anything to say about the reality of the human condition– be it social, cultural, political, historical, or otherwise.

-Even if we get past that, the ability to focus purely on the work and ignore the motivations of the author is undeniably a factor of privilege. Is a queer or trans person really supposed to read John C. Wright’s work and ignore the fact that he has called for their extermination? Is a black person supposed to read Vox Day’s work and ignore the fact that he clearly thinks of black people as subhuman? On a slightly milder level, should a gay man in a happy marriage read Orson Scott Card and not worry about his politics?

I don’t know– sometimes it’s a tough call. I will say that I’ve read several of Larry Correia’s books, including the first Monster Hunter novel and Hard Times, and enjoyed them both. But I think there’s a difference between someone whose politics you disagree with and someone who attacks your very identity, calls for your extermination, says you shouldn’t be educated, or actively works to deny your legal rights. That crosses the line from the political to the personal. I don’t have a problem with reading books by people whose politics I disagree with. I do have a problem reading books by people who actively hate my good friends– and yes, I would lump Vox Day, John C. Wright, and possibly even OSC in that category.

Brad Torgersen will never have to read anyone’s work who has called for the extermination of straight white males. Even if someone who’s seriously said such a thing is out there, I suspect he wouldn’t touch their work with a ten foot pole. In fact, even among people who’ve said much milder things about straight white males (like John Scalzi, who suggests they have a bit of privilege in life, or K. Tempest Bradford, who suggested not reading their books for a while) the reaction from the right-wing has been a huge amount of vitriol and reactionary screaming about SJWs. And I’ve seen countless comments and posts promising never to buy Scalzi’s books– just for a few relatively mild progressive politics. And then many of those same folks turn around and expect LGBT folk and their allies to give John C. Wright’s work a fair and impartial reading? What a fucking joke.

My biggest issue with the Sad Puppies (the moderate ones, anyway) is they have no ability or desire to see or understand the privileged positions they’re operating from, a position in which their cultural identity, and world view, and nostalgia, is very much the mainstream default. Note, I’m not saying their politics– that’s clearly far more contentious– I’m saying cultural identity. Brad Torgersen yearns for those good ol’ apolitical thrillers in which dashing heroes rescued beautiful damsels in distress– which seemingly NO CLUE AT ALL how much those books really do say, culturally and politically, to anyone with even the slightest bit of awareness about the effect of gender stereotypes in the real world.

But this is symptomatic of something else I see a lot from the sad puppies and their like– a steadfast, almost pathological refusal to deal with (or even acknowledge the existence of) any of the larger forces that still affect minorities in our culture and society. Someone can put together a concrete list of 15 Reasons We Still Need Feminism in 2015, but any talk about sexism in society or SF&F will be met by the Sad Puppies with fingers in the ears and a cry of “Stop calling me sexist!” It’s as if they cannot differentiate between conscious sexism/racism/homophobia in individual interactions, and sexism/racism/homophobia as larger (and often unconscious) forces at play in society (for examples of this re: sexism, see the link in the previous sentence, particularly items #5, 6, 9, 11, and 16).

So a nice pulpy novel in which the strong masculine hero rescues the beautiful damsel in distress may be seen as apolitical, or message-less, by folks like Torgersen, who see it as fluffy entertainment (largely because it fits their cultural norm), but for those of us for whom it doesn’t fit our cultural norm, it’s not message-less at all. Torgersen doesn’t yearn for the days of apolitical sci-fi; he yearns for fiction that fits his cultural worldview, that doesn’t challenge him. And while there’s certainly room for escapist fun, what is escapist fun to Torgersen may be deeply sexist to someone who’s fought against those gender roles all their life.

But wait, a Sad Puppy might cry, there are women and socialists on the slate, too! Yes there are… and they’re all either Torgersen’s friends, or people who wrote & edited stories that don’t challenge his cultural default. In Torgersen’s world, and the Sad Puppies’ world, there is of course room for stories by minorities! As long as they conform to a particular worldview or are at least “apolitical” (i.e. subscribe to Torgersen’s cultural default)– anything else would likely be considered too preachy or literary for his and his followers’ tastes.

In this affair, I feel sorriest for the innocent people Torgersen dragged into this– folks like Annie Bellet, who agreed to be on Torgersen’s slate, after accepting his word that Vox Day was not involved. Only wait– it turns out that Vox Day is very heavily involved, and I suspect Torgersen is happy to have the man’s help. After all, the presence of VD in both editing categories– and three John C. Wright stories in the Best Novella category– suggest it wasn’t the Sad Puppies at all, but their uber-right wing compatriots the Rabid Puppies, who provided the bulk of the numbers to make Sad Puppies such a successful campaign. Torgersen and Correia’s handling of the reactionary right wing reminds me of politicians trying to harness the strength of the Tea Party without being contaminated by them in the general elections– it’s morally dubious, insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved, and usually a failure.

The ringleaders are happy to drag in women and other minorities into their little Sad Puppies campaign, using them as human shields to insulate themselves from charges of bigotry while tapping the strength of the rabid reactionaries who are openly bigoted and proud of it– that, possibly more than anything else, is my biggest complaint about the Sad Puppies. It’s not just hypocritical, it insults our intelligence, and is deeply unfair to the people you claim to be supporting and certainly never asked to be human shields. You can’t just sweep politics under the rug by claiming that it doesn’t matter to your effort– clearly it matters to a major portion of your base.

The mere fact that Torgersen and Correia can even pretend to ignore the politics of people like Vox Day, John C. Wright, and their ilk is a factor of their own privilege– namely, that they’re not the target of those racist and homophobic rants. For those of us who are, or care deeply about those of our friends who are, it’s not just about their politics, it’s about their hatred of the people we love.

Maybe the Sad Puppies should have a new slogan, in the vein of Fox News on the Simpsons: “Not bigoted, but #1 with bigots.”