A Night at the Culture War

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Last night, I had a front-row seat to one of the biggest controversies in the history of fandom. Okay, it wasn’t actually the front row. It was maybe like the nineteenth row? Whatever, I was at the Hugos.

If you follow me online, you know that I normally stay the hell out of culture wars, even on my personal Facebook page or in casual conversation. I avoid these internet opinion skirmishes for two reasons: First, I don’t think being an author/semi-public persona is at all the same as being qualified to give a smart, measured, and intelligent opinion on every subject.

Second, many times these conflicts are built entirely on the notion of outrage, the engine that drives the controversy train. A specific incident happens, people get upset and yell about it online, then other people share and comment and retweet and send threatening messages, and then the whole thing just builds and builds until…nothing. The outrage peters off, until there’s something new to be upset about, and the whole cycle starts again. Remember Rachel Dolezal? Cecil the Lion? Ashley Madison? Our internet-based society tends to seize on these specific episodes of cultural importance and explode them with commentary until they no longer have meaning. Then we get bored and move onto the next thing. That’s right, folks: the controversy train is a train to nowhere.

Therefore, I usually choose not to feed this system with my outrage. Today, however, is the rare exception. I’d like to talk about the Hugos, because a) I believe what happened and the fallout truly matter, b) it’s specifically related to my professional field, and c) I was there.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the gaming of the Hugos voting system, here’s a pretty comprehensive (if slightly condescending) article that goes through the history. Or, here’s the abbreviated version, and I’ll be as fair as I can: in recent years, a group of authors calling themselves the Sad Puppies* have complained that the Hugo Awards for science fiction have gotten too focused on obscure works with liberal agendas, instead of awarding books that are well-plotted, enjoyable, and successful. When it came time to choose this year’s nominees, the Sad Puppies —who all have quite an online following —chose a list of these more “fun” stories and encouraged their own fans to nominate them, which they did.

But as it happened, the Puppies-approved list was mostly white, and mostly male.

Because of this, a second, equally vocal group calling itself the “Social Justice Warriors” has accused the (white, male, straight) Puppies of being racist, sexist, and homophobic. They encouraged the Hugo voters (anyone can vote for $40, although it costs more to have a full membership and actually attend the ceremony) to shut out the Puppy nominees. And last night was the actual award ceremony, where the “SJW vs the Puppies” controversy finally came to a head.

Here’s what happened in a nutshell: SJW won, and the Puppies declared it their own victory.
The SJW managed to only award non-Puppy-approved nominees. In the categories where ALL the nominees came from the Puppy list, the members elected not to give out an award at all, which is something you can do. Then the Sad Puppies claimed that the shutout did what they wanted all along: proved that the system was broken. The Puppies supporters argued that the SJW, who claimed to be fighting for inclusion, had just excluded many great authors from the awards, just as the Puppies said they were doing all along.

Still with me? It’s complicated, but here’s what you need to know about the outcome: Both sides won, but everybody lost. The one thing we can now say for sure about the situation is that the Hugos are not fair or apolitical, and that’s a hit that we’re all going to have to take—not just Puppies or SJW but all fans and creators everywhere.

Where do I stand in all of this? It’s a complicated question, but I definitely don’t consider myself with either the Sad Puppies or the SJW. In my own personal life, I really enjoy reading exactly the kind of books the Sad Puppies advocate. I do think they deserve attention for being well-plotted and enjoyable. But I also recognize the importance and relevance of drawing attention to the works that deserve it for reasons other than fun. The books that the SJW advocate are important not because of how many people read them, or how much fun they are, but because they provide thoughtful and important commentary on our culture and society.

So I suppose you could say that I agree with both perspectives, but I disagree with the ways in which these two sides behaved during this mess. At the same time, though, if I put myself in their shoes, I’m not sure what I would have done differently. Yes, the Puppies could have found another way to try to get more attention for their books, but would anything else have led to this much public discussion? And the SJW could have ignored the Puppies entirely and voted only for who they thought should win from the list of nominees, but then doesn’t that give the Sad Puppies power that they shouldn’t have? Isn’t allowing someone else to game the system every bit as unfair as gaming it yourself?

One thing I know for certain: there are a lot of people who got screwed over in this mess. There are writers and artists who should have been nominated but weren’t because of Puppy domination. There are deserving writers and artists who were shut out of the awards just because the Puppies decided to back them. There were any number of people, from hosts to volunteers, who worked hard to put on a good, fair show for all of us and would up with a political mess. And there are many generations of Hugo voters, attendees, and observers who have seen their long-beloved award get tarnished by controversy, possibly forever. It’s not fair, or right, for either faction to let these folks get caught in the crossfire, but it happened anyway.

If there’s any chance of salvaging the Hugo Awards, what probably needs to happen next is a major sit-down between the Sad Puppies and the Hugo Committee—or possibly a splinter group of the committee specifically designated to solve this mess. Maybe they should create a special, Campbell-style award for a work that contributes to the overall betterment of society and inclusion (and possibly an award or two for best works in translation). Maybe they need a rule that no one can pressure others on how to vote, only on what to read. Maybe they should scrap the Hugos entirely and replace them with the Connie Willis Awards, with a brand-new set of rules, requirements, and guidelines. I don’t know. But I think a sit-down is important, because for once, it would be really nice if internet outrage culture led to real, valuable social change that satisfied both sides of the issue. After all, we’ve had so much discourse on this already —what’s a little more?

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One Comment

  1. Excellent commentary, very fair and well reasoned. Many thanks. I’ve tracked this controversy as well, but like you, tend to stay away from stuff like this.

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