On Legitimacy, Academia, and the Hugos (or, Someone Needs to Take a Class)


If you’ve been following the Hugo Awards fiasco, you might have come across Philip Sandifer’s fascinating analysis of Theodore Beale / Vox Day, his followers, and the Hugos.  Sandifer has since become a minor target within the Sad / Rabid Puppies discussion, but not so much for what he actually said as for who he declares himself to be:  an educated man.  Why would this matter in a conversation about the Hugo Awards?  What is so offensive about being a PhD in English (or any other individual with a PhD in the humanities)?

As someone who is roughly a year away from acquiring a PhD in English, I find this blatant anti-academic stance rather perplexing if isolated to the science fiction and fantasy world.  After all, so many of our greatest writers were academics — mostly in the sciences, but occasionally in the humanities.  But once I think about the wider culture — in this case, U.S. culture — it becomes abundantly clear:  it’s anti-intellectual posturing.  The U.S. has always had a strong anti-intellectual perspective, but in recent years that has reached alarming levels, with mountains of outright derision lobbed at those who are identified as intellectuals — especially academics in the humanities.  And as an academic, I still struggle with how to respond to this derisive viewpoint.  How do you convince people who already view intellectuals (and academia) with contempt that there is value to be had among the intellectuals (and academics)?  That’s a question to answer another time.
All of this leads me to R. Scott Bakker’s recent post on the Hugos.  In particular, I’m interested in Bakker’s conclusion, since the majority of his post has little to do with academia, except insofar as he demonstrates a significant dislike for us (we’re fools and clowns, apparently, for believing we can teach critical thinking).  That dislike also seems to extend to Sandifer, though I’ll admit that it’s difficult to parse posturing or rejection of ideas from actual dislike (and, hell, they may not be that different anyway).  Sandifer is a necessary starting point here, because what Sandifer argues about the effects of the Sad / Rabid Puppies (and Beale in particular) on the Hugo Awards can be boiled down to “damaging the Hugo Awards” and “damaging the value of fandom by infected it with bile.”  To this argument, Bakker eventually concludes the following:

And let’s suppose that the real problem facing the arts community lies in the impact of technology on cultural and political groupishness, on the way the internet and preference-parsing algorithms continue to ratchet buyers and sellers into ever more intricately tuned relationships. Let’s suppose, just for instance, that so-called literary works no longer reach dissenting audiences, and so only serve to reinforce the values of readers… 

That precious few of us are being challenged anymore—at least not by writing.

The communicative habitat of the human being is changing more radically than at any time in history, period. The old modes of literary dissemination are dead or dying, and with them all the simplistic assumptions of our literary past. If writing that matters is writing that challenges, the writing that matters most has to be writing that avoids the ‘preference funnel,’ writing that falls into the hands of those who can be outraged. The only writing that matters, in other words, is writing that manages to span significant ingroup boundaries. 

If this is the case, then Beale has merely shown us that science fiction and fantasy actually matter, that as a writer, your voice can still reach people who can (and likely will) be offended… as well as swayed, unsettled, or any of the things Humanities clowns claim writing should do.

There are a number of problems here.  First, Bakker assumes (or wants us to assume) that the so called “literary works” aren’t reaching audiences.  This is easy to refute by looking at the mountains of so called “literary writers” whose works appear on bestseller lists or are invited to give talks in performance halls fit for a thousand or more people.  The challenging works of the “literary” form are already reaching audiences.  Salman Rushdie, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Karen Russell, and on and on and on and on.  This is, after all, what we are concerned with, no?  Challenges to our literary and personal sensibilities.  Within science fiction and fantasy, that becomes much more difficult to measure.  What constitutes “reaching an audience”?  Bestseller lists?  OK.  If so, then we might as well assume that sf/f is utterly stagnant, since its most compelling and memorable work isn’t hitting those lists, which is a problem too complicated to explore here.

I am, of course, setting aside the reality that “literary” doesn’t exist in any realistic grouping.  As a genre, it is even less well-defined than science fiction, which at least has identifiable traditions.

What I will say is this:  while Bakker seems to view people like me as clowns, we do have a significant hand in what continues to be discussed as “significant” in the sf/f field.  What I teach when I teach a science fiction class influences what thousands of everyday people think of when they think “science fiction and fantasy.”  There are thousands and thousands of teachers just like me, and thanks to a massive shift in public and academic interests, we’re now teaching sf/f more than we used to.

And what I teach isn’t going to be the repetitive, stagnant sf/f of today.  Why would I teach an sf/f adventure novel from 2005 which offers nothing new when I can teach its more compelling predecessor from 1895?  When I teach my space opera course in the fall, I’m not going to teach contemporary works which read like E. E. “Doc” Smith.  I’m going to teach Smith.  I’m not going to teach Heinlein pastiches.  I’m going to teach Heinlein.  And when it comes to the contemporary writers I want to explore, it will be Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee, Tobias Buckell, and so on and so forth.  And I don’t feel any shame in saying that this class will be amazing.

Second, Bakker seems to confuse what Beale / Day does as an online troll and moral thug with what Beale / Day writes OR what the Sad / Rabid Puppies have repeatedly claimed they wish would make a come back.  If Beale / Day challenges us, it is not because his fiction does so, as may be the case for Rushdie, Mitchell, or Atwood (or Delany, Butler, and Le Guin); it is because the ideas he espouses are a reminder that our community doesn’t have clear boundaries to keep out the undesirable (and perhaps for good reason).  Bakker does address this in his final paragraph (see below), but the initial framing isn’t about Beale’s ideas so much as his literary output.

But the Sad / Rabid Puppies aren’t asking for literature that “challenges.”  Rather, they’re asking for the opposite.  Time and again, they’ve espoused a desire for the return of the Golden Age of sf/f — a Golden Age that has been repeatedly rejected as a fantasy.  They want adventure and entertainment, not stories about complicated human subjects.  They want repetition, simplification, and routine.  They want reduction.  This is not a call for “challenging literature.”  It is precisely the opposite.  Bakker misunderstands the literary roots of this so called “war.”  It’s not simply about diversity, but about the very quality of sf/f as a progressive medium:  a field that is always exploring the possibilities, the “what if.”  That sf/f can be entertaining and adventurous is a given; it always capable of this and always will be.  But reducing quality arguments about sf/f to a single rubric does the field a disservice.

That’s what slate voting does:  it pits one groupthink against another.  That there was no groupthink outside of the Sad / Rabid Puppies miniverse this year is significant because it demonstrates the danger of one viewpoint controlling a semi-public award.  The irony of the Sad / Rabid Puppies campaign is that the very thing they have harped on for years only applies to themselves.  They are the problem they misapply to the nebulous non-entity they claim has taken over sf/f.

Bakker ends his essay with the following:

‘Legitimacy,’ Sandifer says. Legitimacy for whom? For the likeminded—who else? But that, my well-educated friend, is the sound-proofed legitimacy of the Booker, or the National Book Awards—which is to say, the legitimacy of the irrelevant, the socially inert. The last thing this accelerating world needs is more ingroup ejaculate. The fact that Beale managed to pull this little coup is proof positive that science fiction and fantasy matter, that we dwell in a rare corner of culture where the battle of ideas is for… fucking… real.

I’m not sure what Bakker has against the Booker or the National Book Awards.  These are perfectly decent awards serving a particular viewpoint of literature.  They are no more or no less legitimate than any other award, I suppose.  Given that Sandifer never mentions these awards in his essay (I checked), it seems odd that these would come up at all.  In fact, the only awards Sandifer ever mentions are the Hugo Awards and the MTV Movie Awards, both popular awards of a kind.  And it’s obvious from Sandifer’s post that he loves the award.  A stuffy humanities teacher loves the Hugos.  My god!  If you don’t believe me, you can just read Sandifer’s anger about this year’s slate voting fiasco for what it is — love:

Fuck you for making me feel that way. Fuck you for the way you’ve brought this thing that I love, this celebration of great science fiction, to a point where it is full of the sort of mean and hateful desires that seem to animate you. Fuck you for dragging us all down to your sorry level. Fuck you for being so odious that we have to go there. 

Sandifer certainly has his own tastes and interests.  I do, too.  And as it turns out, we don’t entirely agree, which is perfectly fine.  Two educated smarty pants academics who don’t agree!  My god!

The point I’m poorly trying to make here is that Bakker’s assumption about Sandifer’s (and other anti-Sad / Rabid Puppies) motives or interests is a false one.  To be frank, I have never felt the need to conform to everyone else’s tastes.  I still didn’t much care for some of the non-Puppy short fiction on last year’s ballot, and I know many other who didn’t.  And so long as we’re not running about screaming to high heaven about how much we hate X, nobody seems particularly bothered.  We’re allowed to like different things.  It’s OK.  Really.  We’re an ingroup, I suppose, but hardly one that is bound to enjoy all the same things.  If we were bound in such a way — as the political messaging implies about the Sad / Rabid Puppies — the ballot would have looked very different this year.  Of course, by “we” I mean a nebulous non-entity, since I can’t for the life of me figure out who the “we” actually is.  But I will continue to use it here anyway.

As one can imagine, we all didn’t agree.  There was no groupthink.  There was a sea of people who might like some of the same things, but who didn’t come to a natural consensus about much of anything.  If we could see the long list going all the way down to everything that got 1 or 2 votes, I bet the Hugo Awards would look like a grab bag of different opinions about the quality of sf/f.  Bakker might think we are all likeminded, but he would be wrong.  We might care about the same political issues (many of us, anyway), but to assume we are likeminded is to suggest that we don’t care about quality, or that we don’t debate amongst ourselves.  I don’t know anyone who shares my point of view who doesn’t care about the quality of a work.  I’m sure some exist who pick works because it fills in a checkbox, but they’re hardly taking over sf/f anytime soon.

No.  Taking over sf/f is someone else’s game.  And they’re doing a smashing job thus far.  That it has so thoroughly backfired probably didn’t come as a huge surprise to the Sad / Rabid Puppies.  When you deliberately piss in everyone’s cereal, what do you expect?  Balloons and a party?  I think not.

The irony here is that the real challenge occurring in sf/f isn’t coming from the Sad / Rabid Puppies side.  They might think they’re challenging some imaginary status quo, but in reality, they are a reactionary group.  And what they are reacting to is quite clear:  sf/f doing what it does best.  The Hugo Awards have not only begun recognizing more diverse writers, but they have also begun to recognize sf/f that pushes against the actual boundaries of our society in a more concentrated fashion — against racial constructs, sexism, gender norms, etc.  This is actually one of the most exciting times to be a scholar (let alone an sf/f fan).  And as Sandifer says, this isn’t going to stop.  Even if the Hugo Awards are forever mired in political nonsense, people will still write the kinds of stories that challenge us.

Good.  I, for one, can’t wait to read every bit of it.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

27 thoughts on “On Legitimacy, Academia, and the Hugos (or, Someone Needs to Take a Class)

  1. Bakker, from my experience, has a scientist-trained disdain for literary theory and literary criticism in all of its forms. I'm not saying that anyone with that mindset and tools rejects literary criticism and theory but a fair number do. Bakker falls into that camp.

  2. Lotta straw, here, which is unfortunate. My argument is rather obviously about a problematic consequence of education, not education. Also, ingroup members disagreeing on details is neither surprising nor relevant. The disagreements that matter are the ones that get you kicked off the team. One way to discover whether you're prone to ingroup thinking is to be sensitive to the degree you use identifications to do your argumentative work for you. So for instance, if you find yourself saying things like, 'I know the type,' then you are almost certainly using identification to leverage flattering conclusions.

    Because odds are, you don't. In my case, I have an MA in theory and criticism.

    My argument about technology driving cultural balkanization is definitely one that can be challenged, I'm just not sure how anything you say manages to do so. It seems to me that you need to argue that male right wingers regularly purchase 'literary mainstream' books, not that literary authors are regularly bestsellers. A big fat ingroup is, if anything, more problematic than a small one.

    • I'm assuming your first paragraph is mostly in response to Paul's comment. My statement about "I know the type" is based on that information, which appears to be false. In which case, it does not apply specifically to you. So be it.

      To your last paragraph:

      1) I don't know how you could determine one way or another who reads mainstream literary bestsellers without conducting a survey. It is probably true that less-conservative people enjoy mainstream literary works, but that would be based on my own experience, which is hardly representative of the nation (being an academic and all). It also seems to me to be irrelevant, since it is unlikely that even a large group of liberals are homogeneous. The larger that pool, the more likelihood that it is diverse.

      And, frankly, I don't know how you can determine that literary mainstream readers are just one thing and not another — how you can know that readers of James Patterson are not also readers of David Mitchel or Salman Rushdie. Seems to me that the larger a group we are talking about, the less likely it is to be an "ingroup" in the sense that you mean (i.e., of irrelevant taste). You weren't talking about "big ingroups that aren't really ingroups," but niche groups whose tastes are not just irrelevant, but also necessarily stagnant because of that irrelevancy. A bestseller, by dint of being spread across a wider canvas through sales, would seem to counter that notion.

    • I actually have been conducting informal surveys for decades, polling audiences on their political inclinations. The homogeneity of 'literary' and 'academic' venues is almost UTTERLY complete. Genre audiences, on the other hand, tend to be quite heterogenous. I encourage you to do the same, beginning with your PhD confreres. My guess is that they're liberal or Marxist, that they bemoan the way Corporate America is dumbing down the masses, and so on. My guess it that it's only your classrooms connecting you to potential outgroup competitors.

      Otherwise, it is a fact that connections between buyers and sellers are getting more and more tight. The effects of this process on cultural balkanization is something that is being widely studied with reference to news sources, for instance. But you should really check out the larger article I cite backing the claim before waving hands to make it go away. Your thesis, after all – 'Literary authors are reliably reaching outgroup readers' – requires no less evidence than mine!

      And since your thesis reflects the status quo dogma, I'm only to happy to accept a draw. I need only be POSSIBLY right to trouble the institution of letters.

      But I actually linked and referenced quite a few different sources, regarding tribalism/groupishness, as well as self-serving biases, none of which you seem to be familiar with. So it's kind of hard to think you actually care about evidence all that much.

      When I was English grad student, I thought myself exceptional. I thought I was teaching students how to think 'critically,' even though I could only give vague, ill-formed answers to the question of what critical thinking actually was. I've rowed in your boat for years, every bit as convinced as you that I was exceptional by association, that I had somehow escaped the tyranny of mass consumer culture. I blamed the rightward drift on faceless, corporate entities, the machinations of capital, and not the contempt for mass culture inculcated in countless thousands of classrooms. We should be convincing our brightest to turn their back on the likeminded and to reach out, shouldn't we?

      Now I think you're buying into a antiquated, self-serving institution that actually exacerbates the problems it claims to solve. Every year, I think it becomes a little more clear. It's all fresh to you still, but the serial disappointments and ambient hypocrisy will become clear to you soon enough.

      Think of it this way: if progressive literature has been so fantastically successful, then why do the polls show Americans becoming more conservative with the passing of the years? How long do we cling to the write-to-each-other strategy before we take the very real science of ingroup dynamics seriously?

      Maybe the next 20 years will be better… I thinks it's pretty clearly time to move on.

    • Multiple comments incoming:

      What do you mean by "the homogeneity of literary and academic venues is almost utterly complete"?

      While it is true that many of my professors and colleagues are liberal, it is not true that the majority of them are Marxists. I've found that even among those who enjoy using Marxist literary theory (a fairly broad field) aren't necessarily Marxists. That said, I have a problem with using "liberal" and "conservative" as simple binaries here, since the assumption is that by dint of being "liberal," the values they share are necessarily the same (and vice versa). And I've found that to be untrue on almost every level. I don't see anything specific to being liberal or conservative that makes literary appreciation of the sort we are discussing here impossible or unlikely. Indeed, among my colleagues, many of them are conservative (though rarely far right for reasons I could speculate on, but won't here) or to the right of me by a significant margin. It's not the majority, certainly, but I don't think academia is nearly as owned by the liberals and Marxists as suggested here.

      And as it turns out, the people I meet in my classrooms, while perhaps more diverse in the aggregate, also bemoan the way Corporate America is dumbing down the masses (or something related to that claim), even though many of them are, upon further inspection, conservative. I've even taught classes where a huge chunk were unabashed conservatives, but who also might be rejected by today's Republican party as RINOs simply because their views on guns slightly differ from that of the NRA. And I've met liberals who are as pro-gun as those same individuals.

      And having attended enough academic conferences of the more pop-culture form and the more rigid academic form, I just don't have any experience with the reductive view you've presented, except insofar as creative writing programs are concerned (my university is opposed to all genre fiction, which often means that it is rarely involved with the English dept. because it is too conservative in terms of its literary values…and if you asked me whether that dept. is churning out anything of note, I'd probably say "not much.")

    • #2

      "When I was English grad student, I thought myself exceptional. I thought I was teaching students how to think 'critically,' even though I could only give vague, ill-formed answers to the question of what critical thinking actually was. I've rowed in your boat for years, every bit as convinced as you that I was exceptional by association, that I had somehow escaped the tyranny of mass consumer culture. I blamed the rightward drift on faceless, corporate entities, the machinations of capital, and not the contempt for mass culture inculcated in countless thousands of classrooms. We should be convincing our brightest to turn their back on the likeminded and to reach out, shouldn't we?"

      I don't know where you went to school, but none of this describes my experience of grad school or as a teacher. I have no trouble teaching my students to think critically (usually by "doing" rather than by "describing"), and my classes often play around in all sorts of literary camps, from the mass culture / pop culture side to the canonical "literature" side. My colleagues in the department teach Jonathan Franzen and Suzanne Collins. They teach courses on Jules Verne or Space Opera (well, that's me in the fall), Russian revolutionary literature and young adult dystopia, and on and on and on. I don't actually have an issue with mass consumer culture because, as is clear from my podcast, I embrace it as much as the literary, and my classes are a reflection of that. Maybe I'm just fortunate to be at a university which embraces so many different camps. And having, as I noted above, been a number of academic conferences across the country in the past 5+ years, this seems to be the trend. I'm a regularly attendee of the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, which is quite literally a magical sea of the most critical analysis and the positive pop-culture / mass consumer culture joyfests one comes to expect of broader fandom (mediated through academic writing, of course, because one could hardly call a paper crying "squeeeee" an academic paper :P).

      I guess we just have drastically different experiences of academic, for which I am grateful.

      "Now I think you're buying into a antiquated, self-serving institution that actually exacerbates the problems it claims to solve. Every year, I think it becomes a little more clear. It's all fresh to you still, but the serial disappointments and ambient hypocrisy will become clear to you soon enough."

      I have huge problems with the university system, but they have little to do with what I'm teaching. They have everything to do with how the university is run, how teachers are treated, and how the legislature influences the structure of the university as an institution of learning (which is not, I think it's fair to say, an adequate description of what public universities are anymore). But given what my students have told me time and again, even the ones who aren't English majors and never will be, I'm apparently doing a good job. Hell, I turned one of my students into an English major a year ago by giving her tons of Philip K. Dick to read (and more just recently).

    • "Think of it this way: if progressive literature has been so fantastically successful, then why do the polls show Americans becoming more conservative with the passing of the years? How long do we cling to the write-to-each-other strategy before we take the very real science of ingroup dynamics seriously?"

      I suppose that depends on what you mean by "becoming more conservative" and on what you believe the purpose of literature to be or its impact on the political views of the general public. I don't know if literature could solve any of these problems just by being "progressive" or even by being written to the general public (how you do that is unclear to me).

      To your last question, I have a story, which I hope will apply: about 4 years ago, I attended (and presented at) the PCA / ACA conference (wherever it was). The keynote gave a speech to a room of around 500 people (maybe more), most of them younger academics (grad students and even a couple dozen undergrads). In his speech, he remarked that science fiction studies, and English studies in general, needs to do a better job of reaching non-academic audiences, especially given that what we're doing is connected to things they regularly consume (sf/f, mass consumer culture, and pop culture). He explained that too often, we rely on academic prose that turns off non-academic audiences (rightly so) and that we would be wise to start finding ways to write about our work for venues more amenable to the general public. Most of the younger scholars thought this was a great idea (and why not? A lot of us younger folks actually want our work to be read because we're stuck in an institution which constantly tells us that we're not doing anything of value). The older scholars, however, were audibly unhappy with him, and upon further inspection, I found out that this had to do with a brewing mini-"conflict" between older academia and its "older" models of engagement and a newer generation which uses social media and has more interest in popular culture and engaging in that arena (as well as pure academia).

      This is something that has already begun to upset sub-fields of English academia. Children's literature studies, for example, has been completely redesigned from an old model that privileged understanding literature's engagement with the child (by way of doing — hard to explain, so I won't unless you want me to). And I do think that there is a surge of change within academia towards a much more varied set of interests. Not universally, of course. Some institutions are very conservative in terms of what they allow to be studied (and how). But it is happening, in part because the old models just don't work anymore. They nee to be revitalized by introducing new methods.

      And that's partly why I'm working with a colleague using social media data analysis (we're doing a Hugo thing right now, in fact). That's why I think collaboration is essential to academic work. That's why I think what I do is of value, because I see it every semester when I teach a class on science fiction or dystopia or whatever. My classes fill up. My students engage. We have a blast. We learn a lot (me included).

      I hope all of this makes sense, but do feel free to comment again. I appreciate the discussion here.

      Maybe the next 20 years will be better… I thinks it's pretty clearly time to move on.

    • So you agree that genre both reaches out and connects. But you trust that 'literature' does as well, even though you have no evidence of this. Like Beale, you have a pretty optimistic impression of yourself and your impact and the institutions you identify with. You find the bureaucracies problematic (like Beale), but you have no doubt the value system is sound (again like Beale). You accost your audiences with a wide variety of interpretative tactics (like Beale), and even though they all serve your personal political agenda (again, like Beale), you think that diversity counts for something (again, like Beale). You think your own pedagogic activity in no way contributes to your society's social ills (like Beale), that you are doing your bit to make the world a better place (again, like Beale).

      So what is the difference between you and Beale? Pragmatically, at least, you both look quite similar. What makes the 'critical thinking' you teach truly critical, as opposed to his faux critical thinking? Where and how does your institution criticize and revise its own values? Does it take care to hire genuine critics such as myself, or does it write them off (the way all institutions do) as outgroup bozos, as one of 'them'?

      More importantly, what science do you and your colleagues use to back up your account of 'critical thinking'? Or are you all just winging it?

      Your department doesn't sound much different than mine, 20 years back, except that genre is perhaps accorded a more prominent role (you have to get those butts in seats, now, for funding). The only difference I can see is that you genuinely believe in it, take genuine pride in belonging to such a distinguished and enlightened order… the way any ingroup soldier should.

      But if you and your institution is so successful, how do you explain the phenomena of conservative creep? Even conservative commentators are astounded how the Great Recession actually seems to have served right wing interests.

    • Mr. Bakker,

      This is the point where we part company. I am happy to have a discussion with you about my perspectives of academia, even if you disagree. I'm even happy to defend what I do and its value. But I will not participate in a discussion with someone who makes a disingenuous (and fallacious) comparison between myself and a someone like Beale. The comparison, however rhetorical, is offensive and, frankly, unnecessarily rude.

      Have a good day.

    • It's a free country. You're free to do as you please.

      As I explained, I am not going to play this game with you. If you want to address what I actually said, that's fine, but if what you want to do is insult me in my own space by comparing me to Beale and then assume my unwillingness to play that game makes me unwilling to be self-critical even after I provided an in-depth explanation of my position, even one where I admitted many faults with the world of academia…well, OK, but that is projection on your part, not mine.

      You chose this route, not me. And I choose not to participate in it for what will be fairly obvious reasons at this point.

    • I could identify a few occasions (and perhaps even persistancies) where I could compare my own behaviour to Beale's. It's a fairly unpleasant parallel to draw but I could see a few. But as you say, being human does that. Live and learn.

      Given I don't want to be like him, instead of insult I'd consider someone elses observations I might be headed that way. Granted, sometimes some people would say that just to be disruptive and bullying (ironically making them the greater Beale). But not all people would, I think. So it's not always an insult. Though when it is or isn't is a hard call to make, I guess.

    • Callan,

      I understand what you're suggesting here. Sure, we could always see strange parallels between ourselves and bad people. But I also think it perfectly rational to take offense at what amounts to an absurd comparison, especially when that comparison is to an individual whose ideological positions lead him to understandably unsavory perspectives on the world. There's a clear difference, I hope.

      It's also wildly disingenuous to toss out that comparison when far less offensive ones could be made (or where simply engaging with what was actually written would be just as effective).

    • Hi Shaun,

      I'll apply it to myself again – if I had wandered into some similar behaviour as Beale, but it was deemed automatically offensive for anyone to tell me I was acting similar to him, then no one would tell me that. Atleast for me, it's not an absurd proposition I could end up repeating some part of Beales problematic behaviour.

      For me, if I made such a comparison an automatically offensive thing to say, then I've entered an echo chamber where no one will tell me where I've strayed/where such a comparison is apt.

      As I said before, sometimes someone might make a comparison simply to attack – and who is giving feedback of a genuine problem vs someone just attacking? That's a hard call to make.

      But to treat it as if it can only ever be offensive – that's the start of an echo chamber. Atleast for myself, I can't afford to treat such feedback as only ever being offensive (sure, some people might use it to attack. But I can't afford to think all people saying it would always be as an offence)

    • I don't assume all comparisons with unsavory characters are necessarily offensive and shouldn't be considered. In this case, however, the comparison is disingenuous at best. It's a rhetorical tactic to force me to defend myself against someone I clearly share very little with, since the conclusions we both draw on a variety of matters are quite different.

      There's no valid reason to bring Beale into this conversation, nor to force me to defend myself against such a comparison. As I said above: I will address actual responses to what I wrote, but I will not sit around and play someone else's rhetorical games in my own comments.

  3. I don't think anything in Bakker's post warrants "first, Bakker assumes (or wants us to assume) that the so called 'literary works' aren't reaching audiences." He does question whether 'literary works' reach 'dissenting' audiences. It might be the case that The Satanic Verses changed some minds about the Prophet Muhammad and it might be the case that The Handmaid's Tale changed some minds about patriarchy and about abortion. I think most of us would be hard pressed to name a recent novel that had as big an impact on as big an issue as Uncle Tom's Cabin had on the slavery debate. I think it's fair to ask whether novels are having any impact on the great political and social debates of the 21st century, and if not why not.

    • Hi Michael. Thanks for the comment.

      It may be that I severely misread. Being human does that 😛

      That said, I tend to be hesitant to suggest that any individual work is "influential" or "significant" in any sense but the immediate (specifically, for works which are fairly new). Even Shakespeare's influence or importance wasn't fully understood until centuries after his death (assuming, of course, he wrote those plays — :P). So comparing Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is not only a significant work of American literature and profoundly influential on American lit, to a more recent novel's influence seems unfair. Let's take David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (British, I know, but stick with me). It's true that Cloud Atlas has had some kind of influence. It's well-recognized. It was turned into a movie. There are mountains of papers written on it in academic circles. It has mountains of reviews. Lots of people read that book. But can we honestly say that Cloud Atlas has had the same influence as, say, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (or, to pick a British example, Rudyard Kipling's Kim)?

      What we can say about a novel like The Satanic Verses is that its impact was significant *now.* Maybe it will have an impact on the growth of literature over time, but for now, we can only talk about the controversy sparked by the novel and the fact that for a time (and still today), general culture was talking about that book and its author. It might have the impact of a Kipling or Hemingway, or it might not. I don't know how we can say that until we've had sufficient distance (50 years, say). After all, so many of the truly enduring classics are older than 30 years. But certainly, Satanic Verses did have a massive impact on the political and social debate over radical Islam (or the sub-debates surrounding it).

      That said, I do take your point that one has to wonder where the literature that disrupts our contemporary culture is hiding. Because you're probably right that so few works of lit are actually upsetting the applecart like Satanic Verses or Uncle Tom's Cabin or Beckett's Waiting for Godot or Nabokov's Lolita or Atwood's Handmaid's Tale and so on and so forth.

    • I think fifty years is about the right amount of time to sort the wheat from the chaff. My concern is that there might be issues about which we don't have fifty years. Regarding the connection between buyers and sellers if you buy an Emperor CD from Amazon they recommend Dimmu Borgir or Satyricon or Darkthrone. Wouldn't it be cool if you bought a black metal record and Amazon recommended an Andy McKee record or anything but something that's almost the same thing you just bought? Businesses aren't in the business of expanding your horizons. I don't buy books from Amazon but I suspect the same rule applies. If you buy a book from Amazon they recommend books like it. As Amazon (and Google and Apple/ITunes) create better and better algorithms to guess what you might like based on their Big Data records of previous customer transactions people who use those services become less and less likely to be exposed to new things that are not like their old things.

    • 50 years is probably good. I also think it's worth noting that what is considered "influential" or "significant" in 50 years might not be considered as such in 100. Literature is kinda fickle like that 😛

      You're probably right that businesses aren't interested in expanding your horizons (generally). That may be different depending on the business. For example, some of my favorite independent bookstores (one of them the monstrous Powell's) has introduced me to all kinds of stuff I might have missed otherwise.

      Amazon, however, is a very different beast; I don't know why it makes the recommendations it does. You'd think a more effective system would be one that allows more flexibility. For example, wouldn't it be cool if they gave you a slider bar where you could tell the system to recommend things "exactly like what I already like" or "similar, but diverse and wide-reaching." The slider would determine the sensitivity. I would love that. And I imagine a lot of people would, because who wants to read the same damn thing every single time if it's all so "samey." Maybe there's a really great thriller you're missing because you're only reading one set of authors over and over…

      That said, book recs on Amazon are a little more varied, but I think that's largely because there are so many damn books. The recs aren't always that useful, though, but I'm a weirdo.

    • I suppose that depends on what we mean when we say "literary" and which audiences those works are intended to reach. I'm not convinced the idea is true, especially given that something like The Satanic Verses did, in fact, reach many audiences who would not have read it before the controversy. But that's probably more a product of the controversy than anything else.

      Bakker's claim in the comments above is that bestselling literary work is simply reaching a larger version of an ingroup. I also don't buy this because it assumes that a larger ingroup is homogeneous.

    • If we're talking about Theo Beale's followers, does the satanic verses really apply to them as something they would have read – and something from 27 years ago? Some of them weren't even born at that point!

      And are you saying that larger ingroup who buy literary works includes people like Beale's rabid followers? Is that the range of diversity and lack of homogeneity you're refering to?

      At a guess, if you wrote up a list of works you'd call literary and we polled Beale followers about which of them they owned, I think it'd be fairly consistantly none of them. But who knows, maybe if the poll was run most of them would own such literary works. What would you say had attracted them to buying these books?

      Even if the larger ingroup isn't homongeneous, do you think it really includes extremists like the sort who call for acid attacks on feminists?

    • I have no idea if Beale's followers read things like The Satanic Verses. If they do not, I fail to see how that is the fault of Rushdie or his publishers. You can't force someone to read something they don't want to read…except in school, I suppose.

      That said, my issue with these ideas about larger "ingroups" is that it necessitates we accept hard-line homogeneity: that these groups share the same values, etc. etc. etc. So when we say "liberals like X," it washes away all the differences shared within that group. We might all agree on Y, but some of us disagree about Z, and so on.

      So even if we accept the proposition that challenging literary fiction is only reaching a very large liberal audience, that doesn't really tell us much except that those readers are "liberal," which could mean many different things — Marxists, Leninists, Southern Democrats, N.E. Democrats, Bernie-style socialists, California liberals, Colorado liberals, old school Republicans, the various forms of "liberal" in Europe, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

      And there are extremists in these groups. Or people perceived as extremists. They might not be the same as, say Beale, who, as you say, calls for acid attacks on feminists, but they would certainly hold views most of us would reject, I imagine.

      I hope that makes sense. I'm on a grading binge at the moment, so feel free to challenge or question if not.

    • You can't force someone to read something they don't want to read

      But you can take what they do read and subvert it.

      So even if we accept the proposition that challenging literary fiction is only reaching a very large liberal audience, that doesn't really tell us much except that those readers are "liberal," which could mean many different things — Marxists, Leninists, Southern Democrats, N.E. Democrats, Bernie-style socialists, California liberals, Colorado liberals, old school Republicans, the various forms of "liberal" in Europe, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

      If there's more of them than in Beale's following or overall they hold more sway than Beale's, then fair enough.

      I could be wrong but I suspect by sheer numbers that Beales following/those who are similarly inclined are the the greater number.

    • You would be wrong that Beales' following is the greater number. There have been several posts analyzing the Hugo voting stats; his numbers are big enough to control the nomination ballot via slate voting, but they are unlikely to sway the whole of Worldcon, which is overwhelmingly to the left of Beale (by a mile).

      There aren't that many people who are actually inclined towards Beales' perspective. His group is a fringe Christian dominionist group. If they were they greater number, they would have greater political control. They don't.

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