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.
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.