A Detailed Explanation

A Detailed Explanation

Hugo Award Black GateThis is going to come out at some point, so I might as well say it here and now: I declined a Hugo nomination for this year’s Best Fan Writer award. I think it’s only fair to the people who voted for me to say why. Be warned, this is going to take a while. (And long-time readers of mine around these parts know that coming from me, that really means something.)

Firstly, given the nature of this post and the scrutiny that surrounds a major award, I should probably introduce myself. Hi. I’m Matthew David Surridge, a Montreal-area writer. I had a couple of longish short stories published a few years ago, one in the paper version of Black Gate and one at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I’ve been fighting some minor but debilitating illnesses for a while which have kept me from writing fiction, but luckily reading and thinking about books is still within my power, and so I’ve been blogging here at Blackgate.com since 2010.

I mostly write about books I’ve recently enjoyed. In 2014, that included posts about surrealist Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet, Elizabeth Hand’s Bride of Frankenstein tie-in novel Pandora’s Bride, a collection of short stories by Violet Paget AKA Vernon Lee, Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the medieval tales in the Gesta Romanorum, Mary Gentle’s The Black Opera, Stella Gemmell’s The City, V.E. Schwab’s Vicious, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Jan Morris’ wonderful Hav, Phyllis Ann Karr’s Wildraith’s Last Battle, Steven Bauer’s Satyrday, the Harlan Ellison–edited shared-world anthology Medea, Pat Murphy’s three ‘Max Merriwell’ novels (There And Back Again, Wild Angel, and Adventures in Time and Space With Max Merriwell), Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel Lolly Willowes, E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros and Zimiamvia trilogy, and Patricia A. McKillip’s The Changeling Sea. I also often write about comics, and last year I discussed the Steve Ditko/Wally Wood/Paul Levitz run of Stalker from the 1970s; the first volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Hugo-winning Saga; Alan Moore, Antony Johnston, and Facundo Percio’s Fashion Beast; and Sage Stossel’s Starling.

I also wrote about going to a local sf book sale, attending a stop on Peter S. Beagle’s Last Unicorn tour, and seeing a stage adaptation of Spider Robinson’s “God is an Iron.” Other posts compared three different iterations of Locus’ Best All-Time Fantasy Novels list from across the decades, and used a recent version of Scooby-Doo to muse about the way intellectual properties and pop culture are reborn across decades and generations. Two posts about my city’s heroes discussed, in one case, the nature of myth and the career of Montreal Canadiens great Jean Béliveau, and in the other, Bernie Mireault’s comic The Jam (along with mention of Montreal’s queer radical feminist real-life super-hero Lightstep).

One of the things I’m happiest to have blogged about last year was Montreal’s Fantasia film festival. Fantasia focuses on genre films from around the world, particularly Asia, and I was able to cover 39 of the 160 features they hosted. That link takes you to the first of 19 posts, which discusses a showing of Ghost in the Shell, and ends with a set of links to other posts in the series.

All told, I’m pretty pleased with the year I had at Black Gate. So why did I refuse the Hugo nomination?

There are three reasons, which all derive from one source. In mid-February, researching an article for another site — an article that in the end never got written — I stumbled on the Hugo slate put forward by Brad Torgersen for the Sad Puppies 3 campaign. At which time I found that I was one of the names suggested for Best Fan Writer. I later found that Vox Day had also suggested me as a part of his Rabid Puppies slate. This all quite surprised me, as to the best of my knowledge I’ve never spoken, electronically or otherwise, with Torgersen; nor for that matter with Larry Correia, who originated the first two Sad Puppies campaigns. Vox Day used to write for Black Gate, and he and I occasionally had vigorous debates in the comments of our posts; we also had a brief e-mail exchange about the time he stopped writing here, but that was years ago. So, again, I was quite surprised to find myself on the two Puppy slates.

Had anybody contacted me to explain the thinking behind the Puppy campaign and ask if I wanted me to be on the slate, I would have politely refused. In retrospect, I certainly should have sent everybody involved e-mails asking to be withdrawn from the Puppy lists in February. I want to sincerely apologise to everybody involved with both Puppy campaigns for not taking action at that time; and while I’m at it, I’ll also apologise to the Hugo organisers for letting things go as far as they did.

Why didn’t I get in touch with Torgersen or Vox Day in February? Quite honestly, I expected nothing to come of my inclusion on those lists. Having seen a complete list of the Hugo voting results for 2014, I knew I wasn’t in the running for an award last year, and I didn’t think they’d be able to mobilise enough voters to put me on the ballot. I was wrong, and the Puppies clearly have more reach than I, with my limited understanding of the sf field, had then understood. Again, my apologies all around.

Given some of the discussions I’ve seen about the Puppy slates, I should make something clear: my reasons for declining the nomination, and saying I should have asked to be withdrawn from the slate beforehand, don’t have anything to do with anyone’s political orientations. In fact, I’m honestly impressed with the Puppy voters’ willingness to step outside their usual politics. My understanding is that most of the people involved in the Sad Puppies campaigns are right-wing Americans, whereas I’m a left-wing Canadian and therefore to a right-wing American probably indistinguishable from Karl Marx (I suppose the beard doesn’t help). I don’t know that I made any particular political statement in my posts last year, but I certainly wasn’t trying to hide any of my attitudes. I will say that Vox Day has said things that I find appalling — and I’m thinking here of his comments about N.K. Jemisin — but people who say things I find appalling still have a right to read my work, to enjoy it if they can, and even to nominate me for the Hugos if they meet the other requirements for voting. Obviously the same thing applies generally to people who have different political views than I do.

My discomfort with being put forward on the Puppy slates come from three aspects of the way Torgersen described the thinking and goals of the Sad Puppy project in his blog posts about the campaign. I couldn’t find a statement by Vox Day outlining exactly what he wanted from his Rabid Puppies, but the post where he introduced the slate seemed to imply he had the same general aims as Torgersen; I’ve therefore assumed he’s in broad agreement with Torgersen’s statements about the principles of the Sad Puppies.

Having said that I disagree with these principles, I think it’s only polite to outline where and why. I regret that what follows is exceptionally long and pedantic. But finding myself in public disagreement with someone, I think it’s best to be as precise as possible in stating where that disagreement lies. And many of these issues are complex, and deeply interlinked one with another.

Since the Hugos and the Puppy campaigns are in one way or another very important to very many people, and because the discussion surrounding them has already become very heated, I want to emphasise before I begin that none of this is meant to disparage Torgersen or any other individual. But there are enough places where I disagree strongly with Torgersen’s assessment of some aspect of the speculative fiction field that I feel it would be inappropriate of me to accept an award nomination based on what he’s had to say about the Sad Puppies slate. (And, again, the same for accepting a nomination as a result of the Rabid Puppies campaign, assuming that it’s in general agreement with Torgersen.)

In explaining why I turned down the award, I feel a responsibility to be as fair and as clear as I can. To be as fair as I can I’ve tried to explain myself as completely as I can, over-explaining rather than risk under-explaining. And to be as clear as I can I’ve tried to structure my various interrelated points of disagreement as precisely as I can. So here are numbered headings keyed to the three main points and many sub-points I feel I need to explain:

I) Aesthetics

A) Ideology and SF

i) Ideology in the history of SF
ii) Ideology in recent Hugo-winning novels
iii) Ideology in the eye of the reader
iv) The value of ideology

B) The ‘literary’

i) The ‘literary’ in the history of SF
ii) The ‘literary’ in recent Hugo-winning novels
iii) The ‘literary’ in non-Hugo-winning SF
iv) The value of the ‘literary’

II) Awards and Popularity

A) General reflections on sales and the Hugos

i) Are the Hugos actually not rewarding best-sellers?
ii) Should awards and sales be correlated?

B) Problems with sales as a measure of quality

i) Marketing and distribution
ii) Granularity and unpredictable responses
iii) The historical record of sales

C) The use of awards

i) Awards as supporting and encouraging writers
ii) Awards as recognition
iii) Awards as presentation of a field to the outside world

III) Worldcon and Fandom

A) Worldcon and the sf community

i) Worldcon and the larger media world
ii) Worldcon’s size and the Hugos
iii) Other awards

B) The nature of fandom

i) The definition of a fan
ii) The nature of the Fan Writer award
iii) I am not a fan
iv) Controversy in fandom

I) Aesthetics

Torgersen makes a number of statements regarding speculative fiction that I disagree with, and puts forward aspirations for the field that I can’t share. I’m going to give some quotations from his posts, and then try to specify where I disagree. Starting with some lines from the January 7 post where he announces he’ll be running a Sad Puppies 3 campaign:

In the last decade we’ve seen Hugo voting skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works. Some of these literary pieces barely have any science fictional or fantastic content in them. Likewise, we’ve seen the Hugo voting skew ideological, as Worldcon and fandom alike have tended to use the Hugos as an affirmative action award: giving Hugos because a writer or artist is (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) or because a given work features (insert underrepresented minority or victim group here) characters.

From a January 16 post dealing with the fallout of the announcement:

In other words, while the big consumer world is at the theater gobbling up the latest Avengers movie, “fandom” is giving “science fiction’s most prestigious award” to stories and books that bore the crap out of the people at the theater: books and stories long on “literary” elements (for all definitions of “literary” that entail: what college hairshirts are fawning over this decade) while being entirely too short on the very elements that made Science Fiction and Fantasy exciting and fun in the first place!


… the voting body of “fandom” have tended to go in the opposite direction [in their choices for the Hugos]: niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might best be called visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun. The kind of child-like enjoyment that comes easily and naturally when you don’t have to crawl so far into your brain (or your navel) that you lose sight of the forest for the trees.

SAD PUPPIES simply holds its collective hand out — standing athwart “fandom” history — and yells, “Stop!”

Then from a February 4 post reflecting on the campaign, Torgersen states that the sf field is engaging in misleading advertising, presenting books with covers that suggest traditional adventure while actually being something else:

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.

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?

To summarise: as Torgersen sees it, speculative fiction has moved from a literature of excitement and adventure to a literature of politics and … well … ‘literariness,’ I guess. I have to admit that “what college hairshirts are fawning over this decade” strikes me as a bit of a vague definition, especially as I’m not sure how hairshirts relate to colleges — college students inflicting suffering on themselves by reading unpleasant texts, maybe? Anyway, I’m going to assume that by ‘literariness’ Torgersen means some combination of ‘aspiring to profound examination of profound themes’ and ‘experimental in structure and/or style.’ Similarly, from the first quote above, I understand ‘ideological’ to refer to politics, both in the sense of the left-right continuum and in the sense of identity politics. So in general in what follows I’m going to use ‘ideology’ as a synonym for ‘politics.’ Let’s get into where I disagree.


I.A) Ideology and science fiction

I.A.i) Ideology in the history of science fiction

The first issue I have with Torgersen’s assessment of SF is his implicit argument that the field used to be apolitical: that “what made the field attractive in the first place” had nothing to do with any ideology. My reading of science fiction is that it’s been explicitly political right from the start. The American pulp tradition began with Hugo Gernsback, who wanted to publish a magazine of ‘scientifiction’ stories because, among other reasons, he wanted to promote science and scientific progress. That’s a political aim: he wanted to change society, and he wanted to change it in a specific way through his specific actions. And, to give him credit, he succeeded; any number people have become scientists in part because of the genre that Gernsback first identified.

Later, John W. Campbell’s approach to story was (however unconsciously) shaped by his approach to race and politics. Here’s Isaac Asimov, in the first volume of his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green:

[Campbell] was a devout believer in the inequality of man and felt that the inequality could be detected by outer signs such as skin and hair coloring. Though he treated all men kindly and decently in his personal life, and although in his treatment of me, for instance, I never detected any trace of anti-Semitic feelings, the fact is that, in theory, he felt that people of northwestern European extraction were the best human beings.

In science fiction, this translated itself into the Campbellesque thesis that Earthmen (all of whom, in the ideal Campbell story, resembled people of northwestern European extraction) were superior to all other intelligent races — even when the others seemed more intelligent on the surface. It was because I broke this rule that he rejected “Half-Breed.” It was because he saw an opportunity to demonstrate this rule that he was interested in “Homo Sol.”

My point here isn’t that a white man in the 1940s was racist; the point is that, in the estimation of one of his writers, that set of attitudes shaped his estimation, however unconsciously, of the stories pitched to him. He accepted some stories and rejected others based on his ideology. What I’m arguing is: the Golden Age of science fiction, which I understand Torgersen to be saying was a part of “the stuff which originally made the field attractive,” was shaped by ideology and politics as much as any other age, including this one. One can of course argue that it was a different ideology (or set of ideologies) and different politics than what we see today. But that’s a different argument than Torgersen’s making.
So that’s my first point of disagreement: I think SF, and really any literature, has always, explicitly or implicitly, knowingly or unknowingly, had some sort of ideology behind it.

I.A.ii) Ideology in recent Hugo-winning novels

Which leads directly to my next point. Looking over the list of past Hugo-winning novels — the category I feel I know the most about, if only in relative terms — I don’t see that books which have won or been nominated in the last ten years are appreciably more ideological than books which have won or been nominated in any other ten-year stretch.
Some of that may have to do with the way I approach the books (more on this in 1.A.iv, below). I look at Heinlein, in particular, as fundamentally a political writer concerned (speaking generally) with issues of liberty and society — others will disagree, but all my life I’ve generally found the core of his books have less to do with the narratives than with his political beliefs. This is more true in some books, less so in others. But it’s what I find when I read him.
Similarly, take a look at something like H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy (nominated 1963), which I loved as a young teenager. It’s about a man in conflict with a corporation — specifically, a business trying to declare native life on an alien planet to be non-sapient so it can better exploit the planet. That would strike me as a political theme, and I assume it would strike Torgersen as such also: among his list of “subversive switcheroos” he gave on February 4, he mentions “Planetary colonization [stories in which] The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims.” Which to me is essentially Little Fuzzy.

Beyond that, though, I don’t know how to describe writers like Kurt Vonnegut (nominated 1960, 1964, and 1970) and Ursula Le Guin (won 1970, nominated 1972, won 1975) as anything other than political. Or Samuel Delany. Or William Gibson. Or Kim Stanley Robinson.

Of course there are many writers less explicitly concerned with politics on the Hugo ballots of past decades. But it seems to me that there are also certainly a lot of works from the past ten years which are equally inexplicit about their politics. I don’t think Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is fundamentally political. Or The Graveyard Book. Or His Majesty’s Dragon. I suppose you could argue that A Feast For Crows and The Winds of Winter have a general political outlook in how they depict struggles for power and tensions in various societies, but that outlook didn’t strike me as particularly obtrusive in the way or to the extent that Heinlein’s politics seem to me to inflect his writing.
So I want to mark this down as another general area where I disagree with him and the Puppy campaigns: I don’t think the Hugos have become any more political over time.

I.A.iii) Ideology in the eye of the reader

Now, by this point I think it’s clear enough that Torgersen and I have some very different opinions about the books we’ve read. I look at something like Ancillary Justice, and it doesn’t seem to me to be a terribly political text; there are some general reflections on imperialism and hierarchy, but it didn’t seem as interested in critiquing society as, say, The Diamond Age — or Dune, for that matter. Or, I would argue, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. As I said, and I assume Torgersen would disagree, Heinlein’s novels seem to me to be more concerned with politics and ideology than storytelling. I make no claims about what was on Heinlein’s mind, or what his aims were, or what he was conscious of. All I have is the text, and what the text suggests to me. Different readers read different books differently. And any text can be read as making an ideological point.

Which is, I think, my main disagreement with Torgersen’s point about ideology. ‘Ideology’ isn’t an objective constant. It’s something that varies with different readers — and sometimes with different readings by the same readers. A text can, and almost certainly will, strike some readers more than others as overtly ideological. And, as a reader, sometimes you go back and find more politics in a text that you remember; occasionally there even seems to be less.
So there are three tightly related points of disagreement I want to get at here. One: I don’t think it’s possible to find a text that can’t be read as having some kind of political dimension. Two: I think if you do see a text without a political dimension, odds are that the politics are still there and they just happen to be invisible to you — maybe because you’re unfamiliar with them, or maybe because they seem so obvious to you they don’t register as politics. Three: I find a politically-aware reading of a book is usually more rewarding than an apolitical reading, because it’s adding a level of complexity to the text — it’s finding another level of meaning.

Let me give an example to illustrate some of what I mean about politics being invisible. Back around the year 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Here’s a passage from the Dungeon Master’s Guide discussing how common the game rules assume magic is in a campaign world: “Spellcasters may be fairly rare in the big picture, but they’re common enough that when Uncle Rufus falls off the back of the wagon, [common people] could take him to the temple to have the priests heal the wound (although the average peasant probably couldn’t afford the price.)” I remember reaching that sentence and stopping for a minute, puzzled why presumably–good-aligned clerics would be charging peasants for healing which, in the game, is effectively a renewable resource. And the only conclusion I could come to was that this was a function of the book being written by Americans, who were used to a for-profit medical system. As a Canadian, I’ve lived my whole life not having to pay for, basically, healing. So what I’d found was an artifact of a specific political sensibility; the authors weren’t aware of it, but it left me as a reader briefly confused.

I’m not necessarily saying the authors would have been better to have a different example — though, if they were looking for sales outside of the US, maybe they would have, and then also maybe the logic of the game should have led them to wonder why priests charge money. My point is that I suspect this was something that was invisible to the writers. I think it was a blind spot that they didn’t know existed, and I think that sort of thing is always going to happen. There’s always going to be, let’s say, the ideology writers don’t see.

I suspect there’s some of that going on in Torgersen’s discussion of classic SF as (implicitly) apolitical. At any rate, as I said way back up in I.A.i, I don’t agree with that assessment. My favorite SF as a kid was Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, and I specifically liked it because of the cosmic view of politics it presented: politics as history, politics as pattern, politics as inevitable. It’s a vision, I suppose, that suggests it’s futile to stand athwart history and yell ‘stop,’ as Torgersen says the Sad Puppies want to do. To each their own; but I don’t have any interest in trying to stop history.

I.A.iv) The value of ideology

So if any text can be read ideologically, is Torgersen right to complain about current Hugo winners having different politics than classic SF? Let’s agree for the sake of the discussion that there are broadly different political sensibilities between the past and present texts. Does he therefore have a point in calling for a return to the old sensibilities?

Well, it’s probably not too terribly surprising that I don’t think so. I don’t believe that it’s a bad thing for contemporary Hugo-winning novels to have different politics from past winners. I don’t just mean that I generally prefer contemporary ideology to past ideology; I mean that in society overall I’d expect changes in politics from era to era, that I’d expect that change to be reflected in the art created in the different eras, and also that, in broad terms, I’d expect the art which best addresses its era to be more widely recognized, as measured either in sales or in awards. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but a general observation of why certain genres or subgenres may gain or lose popularity over time, and why a given book may get more critical notice than another book of roughly equal artistic accomplishment.

Here’s an example of what I mean: we can agree that cyberpunk was a pretty popular 80s SF phenomenon, right? It borrowed from and inspired fashions, jargon, and attitudes. It exemplified, particularly in William Gibson’s work, an iconoclastic attitude to old-school science fiction, and suggested a different kind of relationship with technology. And it also included a lot of adventure, violence, and excitement. I’d also say it reflects the ideologies of its age. The paranoia of the late Cold War. The prevalence of new information technologies. The increasing power of corporate interests. All that sort of thing. Fair?

Because if so, then what we’re seeing is a political sensibility that’s different from the golden age, one engaged with the concerns of its time. And one that was also popular, echoed (sometimes after a gap of years) in movies and TV shows and any number of other places — which I’m saying is because it had a different ideology from John W. Campbell, or the original Star Trek, or the New Wave. It was dealing with what was in the air. And did well by it, in sales and awards.

I’m trying to give an example here of a phenomenon which would seem to conflict with Torgersen’s argument that the field should return to ideologies of an earlier time. What I’m saying is that art speaks to its era and is also informed by that era. I don’t think that’s a problem. I think that’s a sign of health.

There are two questions I should address before moving on, I think. First, can it be argued that the ideology of classic SF has become more relevant of late? It does seem to me that as American culture has become more militarised over the past dozen years of war, military science fiction (which I understand Torgersen and Correia write) might become more resonant to an American audience. On the other hand, some of us aren’t American. Maybe more to the point, that doesn’t mean that an older ideology necessarily will or ought to be resurrected unchanged. A different zeitgeist would seem to demand different artistic responses, even if it has some similarities to previous zeitgeists. I don’t know that it’s possible for the Puppies to hold “its collective hands out” and yell stop; and if it is possible, it’s not clear to me that it’s desirable.

Which brings up the second question: granted that Hugo winners are broadly concerned with political issues, then is the ideology Torgersen identifies in recent books — concerned with “racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex” — really speaking to its time? For what it’s worth, it seems so to me, as a white male; broadly speaking, my impression is that issues of identity politics and social justice are increasingly prominent in North American society. But that’s beside the point I really want to make here, which is: I think any society will have internal tensions over gender roles and the position of minorities, and, given that, it’s healthy for people in that society to address those tensions and be mindful of them. And I think art — using a broad definition of ‘art,’ specifically including ‘pop culture entertainment’ — is a particularly worthwhile way in which to do that. I don’t mean that I think all art must be or should be explicitly concerned with these issues. But I think it’s clear that art that does so is speaking to the time and culture out of which it was produced.

I think that art which tries to better represent the experience of women and minority groups is good to have. I think it’s good for society in general that it exists, and generally good that more and different points of view are represented in art. I think it’s good for me as a reader that I can find books which are teaching me new things. And I think that art which tries to present varied experiences and varied sensibilities is likely to be better art, in that it will have a deeper sense of the complexity of the world, and I think complexity is usually valuable in art.

So what I’m saying is that the ideology that Torgersen says Sad Puppies are set up to oppose is an ideology that I value and that I think speaks directly to the current era. Torgersen is of the opinion that this ideology is leading to declining sales. This strikes me as a matter of interpretation; at any rate, I’m skeptical. On February 18 Torgersen linked to a blog post discussing Publisher’s Weekly’s annual BookScan-based sales figures, and those figures do show science fiction sales down by 7% and fantasy fiction down by 13% — but also show juvenile science fiction and fantasy increased by 38%. Look at the actual PW chart, and you see that’s the healthiest rise in any category of book, fiction or nonfiction, adult or juvenile. Moreover, the drop in science fiction and fantasy doesn’t seem too out of whack with other adult fiction genres: romance down 11%, action/adventure down 15%, general fiction down 8%. All these figures don’t count ebook sales, which is a problem, and the PW article doesn’t get precise in terms of individual titles or authors. It’s impossible to tell whether specific book series have been recategorised from year to year, or whether the drops or rises have to do with what bestselling novelists published a book during the year — I’d think that if, say, The Winds of Winter comes out this year, the fantasy category’s likely to end up looking pretty healthy in next year’s recap, whatever else happens. At any rate, however the figures are interpreted, it seems odd to me that genre publishers, who are capitalist entities, would push material that didn’t sell.

(For more about the Bookscan figures, albeit from a comics perspective, I’d draw your attention here, here, and particularly here. Comics retailer Brian Hibbs examines the Bookscan data each year to see what it has to say about the comics field, and that last link goes to his analysis of last year’s figures. As I say, it focuses on comics, but does flag some of the issues with what Bookscan says. Note, for example, that Bookscan has consistently classed the prose anthology The Bloody Crown of Conan as comics, and considered some books in the Dork Diary series as comics but not others, while comics like The Complete Persepolis and Maus are classed as ‘memoir.’ It’s reasonable to wonder how much that sort of thing affects the science-fiction and fantasy categories. Also note these figures don’t include sales of e-books, or sales through most specialty stores, which are sales channels perhaps particularly relevant to speculative fiction.)

Certainly I don’t think Togersen’s examples of ‘ideological’ plots — troops fighting for evil, invading humans versus righteous native aliens — are unpopular with the mass audience. Admittedly I’m not a James Cameron fan and so haven’t seen Avatar, but my understanding is that it is precisely a story about invading humans and righteous alien natives. Meanwhile, the first Avengers movie shows connections between the ostensibly-heroic SHIELD and the evil Hydra which are expanded on in later Marvel films (no spoilers here!) until we learn that SHIELD troops were fighting for the bad guys all along. Those are the two biggest-grossing movies in film history; so the “subversive switcheroo” plots seem to do pretty well by the mass audiences the Puppies are concerned with.

In any event, this marks my last point of disagreement with Torgersen about ideology. Now to move on to more substantive issues.

(Well, except for a couple of quick parenthetical points. First, I wanted to go back to something I quoted from Torgersen up above. Specifically, he asked: “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?” I wanted to say that I thought his use of “To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before!” was a little odd. First, of course, the phrase is most famous for its use in Star Trek, which was a TV show all about social issues. Secondly, the original version of the quote used in the original Star Trek series was “where no man has gone before.” Which means Torgersen is actually using a line that was changed — for Star Trek: The Next Generation — specifically and consciously in a way that addressed sexism. In other words, out of a recognition of a changed political sensibility.)

(Second, I also feel I should address Torgersen’s suggestion that there’s an element of “affirmative action” in the Hugo Award, because it seems to me an especially weighty and indeed inflammatory claim. But all I can say is that I don’t know what he bases it on. Personally, I don’t see it in the novel list, at least. I wish he’d been more specific, because absent a supporting argument it seems more like a piece of rhetoric; indeed, a piece of ideology.)


I.A) A quick recap

So my disagreements with the Puppies so far:

I.A.i: I think SF has always had ideology behind it;
I.A.ii: and that there’s no appreciable increase in ideology in recent Hugo novels;
I.A.iii: and that it’s better to read a text ideologically than not, because ideology is always there;
I.A.iv: and that, in the end, the current ideology Torgersen finds in SF is more important to me personally and to the culture at large than past ideology.

Moving on, then, to a section which is probably more important to me but which ought to be simpler to explain:


I.B) The ‘literary’

To start with, I’d refer any readers still with me (and God bless each and every one of you) back to the working definition I’m using of ‘literary.’ And let me also at this point apologize for the continued use of quotes around ‘literary.’ I tried dropping them, but the result seemed to me to be worse; I think there’s some use in having an implicit reminder that we’re dealing with a specific value of the word ‘literary,’ and one that I’m really just guessing at, as well.

Anyway, on January 7 Torgersen said: “In the last decade we’ve seen Hugo voting skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works.” On January 16, he said that since “SF/F has exploded popularly,” which seems to mean in the years since Star Wars, “the voting body of ‘fandom’ have tended to go in the opposite direction: niche, academic, overtly to the Left in ideology and flavor, and ultimately lacking what might best be called visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun.”

I don’t agree with these assessments. I don’t think that’s an accurate description of the Hugos over time. Now, I freely admit he may have a better understanding than I do insofar as I’m reacting primarily to the list of books that have nominated and won Best Novel. So an assessment of the Hugos based on short fiction might provide a different look. But I think the Best Novel category is so fundamentally at odds with what he’s saying it goes some distance to disproving his point.

I.B.i) The ‘literary’ in the history of SF

And the first specific point of disagreement — what I want to establish here — is that having the Hugos reward literary fiction is no new thing. I think the very first book ever to win Best Novel, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, is fairly experimental in its approach. Bester does odd things with names and typography, and uses a variety of techniques to represent telepathy, and for that matter grapples (successfully or not) with Freudian theory. I like the book a lot, largely because of these kinds of devices.

Still, you could argue that the structure of the book is relatively traditional. Fair to say, though, that Kurt Vonnegut’s books aren’t? I honestly have no idea what ‘literary’ can be said to mean if it doesn’t include The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five. Among other early Hugo honorees that I’ve read, I note Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a book he wrote by consulting the I Ching, and R.A. Lafferty’s Past Master, a book that is frankly like little else I know. Going on through the list (and I’m looking here for books and writers I’ve read) I see people like Delany and Le Guin, I see Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron which tried to replicate the experience of TV in prose, I see things like Silverberg’s Dying Inside which are about as far away from the sensibility of adventure and excitement Torgersen puts forward as I can imagine.

Of course there are more purely adventure-oriented books on the nomination lists as well. What I’m saying is that it’s incorrect to say that the Hugos are more ‘literary’ now than they were when they nominated John Crowley’s brilliant Little, Big. Or when they nominated three of the five books of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Or when they nominated the first two books of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion sequence.

I.B.ii) The ‘literary’ in recent Hugo-winning novels

So how does this compare to novels that have won or been nominated for the Hugo in the last ten years? Torgersen characterizes these books as ones that “skew more and more toward literary (as opposed to entertainment) works,” “books that bore the crap out of the people at the theater,” and books “ultimately lacking what might best be called visceral, gut-level, swashbuckling fun.” Among the books this refers to are A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons, His Majesty’s Dragon, The Graveyard Book, Throne of the Crescent Moon, and The Wheel of Time. (Although, in fairness, that last one was highly controversial.) I’d have to say that all those books are much more about visceral fun than boring people.

For what it’s worth, I’ve read about a third of the books nominated for a Hugo over the last ten years (plus I’ve read other books by some of the nominated authors). I’d like to think that’s a passing familiarity with the relevant texts. Personally, I don’t see the list as featuring, on the whole, especially ‘literary’ books. There are some, sure — among those I’ve read, I’d mention Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Among Others, maybe River of Gods; while among those I haven’t The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The Windup Girl look particularly promising to me. But so far as I can tell, the overall list is no more ‘literary’ than the Hugos have been for most of their history.

So: I disagree with the Sad Puppies that the Hugos have become more ‘literary,’ or indeed can be said to be especially ‘literary’ at all.

I.B.iii) The ‘literary’ in non-Hugo-winning SF

Is that fair, though? Could it be that the Hugos are actually rewarding the most self-consciously literary works that qualify for the award? Are there other novels that count as speculative fiction, that could have been nominated for a Hugo, and are more experimental, more innovative — more literary?

In my opinion, yeah, sure. Looking quickly at some of my favorite novels of the past ten years with some kind of fantastic aspect to them (and which weren’t also nominated for a Hugo), I come up with the following:

Peter Ackroyd’s The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, The Fall of Troy, and Three Brothers, Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, John Crowley’s Lord Byron’s Novel and Endless Things, Hal Duncan’s Ink and Vellum (which I’ve called quaint, but quaint in a very traditional high-modernist way), Minister Faust’s The Alchemists of Kush, Felix Gilman’s Thunderer, Gears of the City, and Rise of Ransom City, Greer Gilman’s Cloud & Ashes (I’ve said it before, but this is the best fantasy novel of the twenty-first century that I’ve read), Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed, Helen Oyeyemi’s White is For Witching, Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, Iain Sinclair’s Dining on Stones, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War, No Present Like Time, and The Modern World, and Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and Finch.

It’s a ramshackle list. I’m behind in reading a number of those writers. There are other writers whose earlier works I’ve read, like M. John Harrison, but whose recent books I’ve not caught up on. But I’d be happy to see any of those books receive a major award, and depending on the mood I’m in I might add some other favorites — Leah Bobet’s Above, Lydia Millet’s O Pure and Radiant Heart, Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, Wu Ming-yi’s The Man With the Compound Eyes, any number of recent books by Gene Wolfe. My point is that most or all of these books seem to me to take chances on style and structure, to be experimental and formally ambitious, and generally to take chances with language, irony, and character. More so on average, I think, than the books that I’ve read which have been nominated for the Best Novel Hugo (again, on average). And if I as a single reader can list off the top of my head a number of ‘literary’ speculative fiction novels that haven’t been recognized by the Hugos, then there must be a lot more and a lot more radical ones also out there. Which means there are a lot that didn’t make it onto the Hugo ballot.

So: I don’t agree that the Hugos are going out of their way to find and reward particularly academic or highly ‘literary’ novels.

I.B.iv) The value of the ‘literary’

And let me be clear about this: not only do I disagree with Torgersen that the Hugos are too ‘literary,’ for me personally the awards aren’t ‘literary’ enough. I by no means advocate to change them — they obviously reflect what the voters want, and that’s fine. My point here is that I disagree with the Puppies about the value and importance of the qualities Torgersen’s calling ‘literary.’

People who’ve read my writing here know that I like a lot of adventure fiction quite a bit. I’ve written enough about Robert E. Howard, early Marvel comics, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth — I’ve even written about Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and a D&D webcomic drawn in stick-figures. But personally I generally prefer complex fiction, ‘literary’ fiction if you must, that also has a strong plot and perhaps even some adventure element.

There are any number of examples on the list above. Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris books. Felix Gilman’s novels. Greer Gilman’s Cloud & Ashes. Brian Catling’s The Vorrh. Steph Swainston’s Castle novels. I think John Crowley’s Little, Big is the greatest post-Tolkien fantasy I’ve ever read; and in addition to being cunningly-structured and elegantly written, it has a very strong plot. I think that these books, among many others, are wonderful precisely because they’re formally experimental, thematically complex, and also great stories. The Puppies seem to imply that the ‘literary’ and the adventurous can’t co-exist. I disagree with that.

But, given the choice between the two, I prefer what we’re calling ‘literary.’ I don’t scorn what Torgersen calls “child-like enjoyment” by any means. But at the end of the day, for good or ill, I’m not a child. And as an adult I prefer material that speaks to me on an adult level. Other people, of course, will have different perceptions of what constitutes ‘adult,’ and the value thereof; and that’s fine. But it’s also true that “fun” and even “the very elements that made Science Fiction and Fantasy exciting and fun in the first place” are going to be very different for different people. My sense of what’s “fun” seems to be extremely different from Torgersen’s.

I like a book that experiments. I like a book that takes chances. I like a book that does something different, a book that challenges my idea of what a novel can be. The sense I get from Torgersen is that the Puppies don’t.

Personally, I find that for a book to evoke the oft-spoken-of ‘sense of wonder’ in science fiction and fantasy, there needs to be some kind of really strong prose. The better and more daring the prose, the stronger the sense of wonder is likely to be. The style, in other words, mimics and fosters the feel of the extraordinary.

(One example I particularly want to mention of a relatively traditional space-opera adventure married to incredibly baroque prose is John Clute’s Appleseed. That’s a book I find incredibly valuable. And there’s no way it could have had the same impact on me if it hadn’t been written in the way it was.)

So: I cannot agree with the Puppy sense of what is valuable in fiction. And I think it’s fair to say that this on its own is an insurmountable barrier to me accepting an award nomination after being placed on their slate of candidates.


I.B) A quick recap

So let’s add these disagreements to the previous bunch:

I.B.i: I think that the Hugos have a long track record of rewarding ‘literary’ novels;
I.B.ii: I don’t think that the Hugos have become more ‘literary’ at all (and suspect they may have become less so);
I.B.iii: there are other and arguably more ‘literary’ novels that the Hugos could have rewarded in the last ten years;
I.B.iv: and, most importantly, the ‘literary’ matters to me, even more than the adventurous and exciting, and I do not want to be part of a campaign that doesn’t value the experimental and the ambitious.

So that’s the first set of disagreements I have with Torgersen and the Sad Puppies, concerning aesthetics. Let’s move on to discussing the nature of awards.


II) The Role of Awards

In laying out the principles of the Sad Puppy campaigns Torgersen raises some points about the Hugo awards, and those points in turn seem to raise broader issues about the nature of literary awards in general. I’ll be talking specifically about the Hugos in section III, but here I want to address some disagreements I have with what he implies about how awards should be handed out, and their connection to overall sales.

Let me start off by again going back to Torgersen’s posts. Specifically, I’d like to start by noting the passages I quoted above from his January 16 post (regarding The Avengers). Also, I want to bring up these words, from January 7:

Which may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with actual sales success on the open market. And that was Correia’s original point: if the Hugos really are the preeminent award in SF/F how come the Hugos so often ignore works and people who are, in fact, successful ambassadors of the genre to the consumer world at large?

That’s a fair question. Torgersen’s saying that there is no good answer to it, which undermines the value of the Hugos. I don’t agree. I think there are very good reasons why awards, especially awards considered to be particularly prestigious, may well go to works that don’t sell very well or in general aren’t popular.


II.A) General reflections on sales and the Hugos

II.A.i) Are the Hugos actually not rewarding best-sellers?

Before getting into the nature of awards, it’s worth asking if it’s accurate to say that the Hugos “ignore works and people who are… successful ambassadors of the genre to the consumer world at large?” It is true, as Torgersen says elsewhere in his January 16 post, that there are no video game categories; and, given the range of media the Hugos have chosen to recognize, it would seem logical to add one or more categories dealing with games. But I don’t see how that can be brought about by putting forward candidates for existing categories.

On the other hand, in that same post Torgersen specifically refers to The Avengers as an example of something popular with “the big consumer world.” The Avengers actually won the 2013 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form). Avatar, the only genre movie to make more money worldwide than The Avengers (without adjusting for inflation), was nominated for the same award in 2010. So I’m not immediately convinced Torgersen’s characterization of the Hugos is accurate when it comes to mass media. When it comes to books, though, is it any better?

Frankly, once again the results seem mixed. Firstly, it’s true that some very popular names are missing from the lists of Hugo-nominated novels. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books are nowhere on the lists. Neither are any of the books in Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. If the Puppies think those books or series should have received Hugos, then fair enough. I do find it a little surprising that they didn’t have Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Own Heart’s Blood on their slate. I frankly know little about it, but I know it was published last year, I know it hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list, I know it’s the latest in her Outlander series, I know the series involves time travel (and was partly inspired by Doctor Who), and I know that it’s been turned into a successful TV series as well as a graphic novel and a musical. So Gabaldon, as I type this Amazon’s top-ranked author in “Books>Science Fiction&Fantasy>Fantasy,” is clearly one of the genre’s ambassadors to “the big consumer world.”

Moving on, I note that Stephen King hasn’t made the final nomination list since 1982, when he won for Danse Macabre; he was also nominated for 1977’s Carrie. You could argue what this shows either way, I think. He hasn’t been recognized in the past ten years, but then also not for the twenty years before that. And I note the ISFDB does say 11/22/63 received some votes but finished below the threshold for nomination.

Certainly when I go beyond that it seems to me bestselling writers do get rewarded by the Hugos. Both of the Song of Ice and Fire novels George R.R. Martin’s released in the last ten years were nominated. Neil Gaiman won for The Graveyard Book, and declined nominations for Anansi Boys and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And for all the controversy around the Wheel of Time nomination, well, there it is.

So I’m not sure the Hugos really are that unrepresentative of the mass audience. To tell the truth, though, that’s more of a side issue.

II.A.ii) Should awards and sales be correlated?

In general, I don’t think it makes much sense for awards to go to the biggest-selling work of art in a given category. To start with, what would be the point? Bestsellers already have a reward: high sales, which in turn are usually accompanied by money.

But more to the point, if sales determine awards, why bother handing out awards at all? Look at a generally-accepted source of sales data, and whoever’s at the top gets to be called the winner. Having a ceremony and a shortlist and so forth would be essentially useless.

So I disagree with the general idea that awards should go to whatever is most popular with a mass audience. And I want to note that the Sad Puppies seem to disagree as well. Nominating me for an award makes no sense, in that my work is not on the whole especially popular (weary readers will have a good idea why if they have followed me this far, presumably with the help of coffee, possibly some maps, and maybe a ten-foot pole, rope, and a pony named Bill).

At any rate, is it fair to suggest that sales are a reliable measure of quality?


II.B) Problems with sales as a measure of quality

Well, as you might guess from the section header, I don’t think so. Let me put quickly put forward a couple of reasons why. (I know this will all seem obvious to many, but if you’ve come this far, you’ll have noticed that I really am trying to err on the side of thoroughness.)

II.B.i) Marketing and distribution

To start with, it should be obvious that commercial success isn’t purely determined by quality. It’s determined by a host of factors, including marketing and distribution: will people who might be interested in the given work hear about it? And will they be able to find the thing they want in the format they want it?

Of course the internet makes it easier to hear about things and to buy things; it also makes it easier to pirate things. And ‘easier’ doesn’t mean ‘not difficult.’ If somebody’s never heard of a book, they’re not going to buy it. And whether they’ve heard of it depends on a host of factors — how widely reviewed it is, how much advertising the publisher invests in it, how prominent a place booksellers give it in their stores, all sorts of things. For that matter, even the question of how long an author’s been writing comes into play; somebody who’s been writing in a field for decades will have built up a readership base which a younger writer may not be able to match. And then there are things like tie-in novels — how much is a sale in that case due to the book itself, and how much to a fan buying the book for the franchise label?

My argument here is that it’s wrong to say that the free market will determine a book’s quality, because there isn’t a level playing field.

II.B.ii) Granularity and unpredictable responses

I think another thing to bear in mind about sales in general is that they’re not terribly granular, which is amplified by the consumer’s own inability to know how they’ll respond to any given work.

To the latter issue first: say you buy two books which look similar, and which you think you’ll like equally. Then once you read them, you find the first book is much better than you thought, while the second is much worse. You had no idea that would be the result that you bought them — but you paid for both. The money you put down doesn’t indicate your knowledgeable opinion on the quality of the actual books. It just indicates how good a job the packaging did.

Now imagine that time passes. Maybe the first book loses its shine; maybe you read widely and find out it’s less innovative than you thought, maybe your tastes change, maybe it just doesn’t grow with you as you age. Maybe the second book sticks in your head. You go back to it, and find it’s a lot better than you realized; on a second reading, you see what it’s actually doing. You would have had no idea that this would happen when you bought the books. Just as you had no idea which one you’d actually enjoy at once, and which would grow on you.

Of course it’s true that no third party, whether an award or a reviewer, will be able to determine those things any better than you yourself. The point I’m trying to make is that the complex and varied reactions a reader has to a work of art are not well summarized by the yes/no option of buying a book or not.

Buying a book is an all-or-nothing choice, and once it’s done, it’s done. Two books can be the same price, but you might read one only once, and enjoy it but never come back to it; while the second might touch you deeply and turn your life around. Economically, the transaction’s the same. Which is why I say sales aren’t a very granular metric.

And why I don’t think popularity is a satisfactory representation of the power of a book.

II.B.iii) The historical record of sales

So much for theory. I’d maintain that in the long run, sales haven’t done a terribly good job of selecting work that lasts over the years. You can go back as far as you like, or at least as far as the emergence of something like a modern bookselling marketplace; I don’t think Byron was a better poet than Blake, Shelley, or Keats. I personally prefer Ann Radcliffe’s novels to Jane Austen’s, but I’m well aware that’s an extremely eccentric reaction, and that Austen’s novels have become vastly more important to the culture at large.

Here’s a list of Publisher Weekly’s list of the top ten bestselling novels in the United States for the years 1910 through 1919. I recognise a few names on it — Robert Chambers, Zane Grey, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Gene Stratton-Porter, Booth Tarkington. But with the possible exception of Grey, I don’t know how many of the titles by which they’re represented are actually read today. There’s one book by Joseph Conrad (out of five he published during the decade), and of course Winston Churchill’s well-known for other reasons. (April 5 edit: Bubblee1 in comments has kindly corrected my ignorance of the fact that the bestselling novelist Winston Churchill was a different person from the British statesman, though that Winston Churchill did write a novel as well as several volumes of journalism and history. Bublee1 gives a fun link to their correspondence.) But on the whole it’s not a terribly inspiring list. No James Joyce, no D.H. Lawrence, no Willa Cather.

You can repeat the same exercise with any other decade on which we’ve had enough time to gain perspective. I picked 1910 to 1919 because it’s a hundred years ago, but to my mind 1920 to 1929 is even worse for the best-sellers. John Galsworthy pops up, Sinclair Lewis regularly tops the charts, Rafael Sabatini has his charms, and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is still read. Now consider that just among the American writers of that decade who don’t appear on the bestseller lists you’ve got Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, and William Faulker, to say nothing of the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. (And, for that matter, Hope Mirrlees’ great fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist.)

Perhaps the odd thing is how even some things that went on to become vastly popular didn’t hit the bestseller lists. Some of the characters that first appeared in novels between 1910 and 1930 include Tarzan, Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Zorro. And then there’s Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+, which helped develop the idea of ‘scientifiction.’ Paradoxically, vast popularity at time of publication doesn’t really seem to measure lasting importance to popular culture.

At any rate, my point is that I don’t see that popularity, measured by sales, is a good way of measuring the lasting value of a work.


II.C) The use of awards

If sales and popularity can’t reliably detect (or predict) lasting importance — quality — can awards? Well, no, not infallibly. Any given award might make some good choices, of course, and one way awards build their prestige is by identifying works that are in the long run at least memorable. Most, though not all, of the Hugo-winning novels seem to have lasted well, for example. But it’s reasonable to wonder if awards might have other uses. Here are some that occur to me. (They’ll all be obvious to many people, but as I say, I’m aiming at completeness here.)

II.C.i) Awards as supporting and encouraging writers

As said in the header: a group that presents an award may choose to do so in order to support writers from a certain area or in a certain field. I used to write for a community newspaper, and I noticed that every writer who came to speak at the local library had some kind of award to their name — ‘special award from the Saskatchewan Critics Circle,’ say. Nothing wrong or insidious there: what it means is that some critics in Saskatchewan wanted to promote local writing, and gave out prizes to reward people within their community.

In a broad sense, that seems to me to be what the Hugos do: reward people who write in the speculative fiction field. The Sad Puppies may disagree with how that field is defined, but I’ll be dealing with that sort of thing in section III. So let’s move on.

II.C.ii) Awards as recognition

Similarly, an award-granting body may select works for an award as a way of highlighting or recognizing some specific aspect of their field. The award becomes symbolic recognition, whether of an artistic tradition or of something new: new elements or techniques or you-name-it. That can be particularly useful as the market on its own might overlook those things; so in this way an award can be an important step in the movement of some new thing from the fringe to the center.

II.C.iii) Awards as presentation of a field to the outside world

Awards have a use in presenting a given field to those not previously invested in the field. Selecting books for a certain award tells readers what books are important for the field at large. My understanding is that this is part of the Sad Puppies’ argument with the Hugos; they dislike the books being presented to outsiders as science fiction. In and of itself that’s a reasonable point for debate, but as should be clear by now, I don’t think replacing the Hugos with the market, or giving the market greater influence on the Hugos (as Torgersen seems broadly to be suggesting), is any kind of practical step forward.


II) A quick recap

So my disagreements here:

II.A.i-ii) I don’t think the Hugos are all that unrepresentative of the mass audience, and I don’t think it’s useful for awards to closely reflect sales;
II.B.i-iii) marketing and distribution ensure that books aren’t competing in a level playing field, and consumers paying for a book can’t know ahead of time whether or how much they’ll like it, so past bestseller lists haven’t succeeded in determining the books that would have value in the long run;
II.C.i-iii) while, on the other hand, awards not connected to sales have a number of useful purposes — to support and encourage writers, to recognize new artistic trends, and to present certain aspects of a field to the outside world.

Or, to sum up the summing up: I don’t agree with Torgersen regarding the role of awards, or that they should be related to sales and popularity.


III: Worldcon and Fandom

My last area of disagreement is, ah, actually a bit more complicated than the other two (readers, if there are any of you left, I am so sorry. I am so so sorry). It has to do with Torgersen’s assessment of the sf field, and the Puppies’ desire to change fandom and Worldcon. And, ultimately, with their willingness to involve me in their struggle.

Once again, let’s look at what Torgersen has to say about fandom. Starting with his January 16 post:

RULE #3: thou shalt not publicly criticize Worldcon or “fandom” proper. Even though “fandom” (as an actual, coherent label for a specific body of people) hasn’t been applicable since the 1970s, nor has Worldcon actually represented the largest gathering of the largest body of consumer fans. …


… From the 1930s to the 1970s you could probably say that, yes, the group of people attending World Science Fiction Convention were the “core” of the consumer audience, and could actually carry on a coherent conversation about “the state of the art” in Science Fiction & Fantasy. The genre(s) had not exploded yet, on the popular cultural landscape. Star Wars and Judy-Lynn del Rey had not happened yet. The enterprise was not “big” the way it is BIG now. But as soon as the genre(s) did go BIG, the “center” was lost. As I pointed out last year (“Wence Fandom“) this isn’t your grandfather’s SF/F anymore. The Venn diagram of FANS is a crazy pastiche, and not all of the circles overlap with one another. There are people coming into “fandom” blissfully unaware of “fandom” as it existed from the 1930s, until Stars Wars and Judy-Lynn del Rey overturned everything. They are comic book enthusiasts, or as often as not, comic book movie enthusiasts. They are video game players. They are people who fell in love with SF/F on the small and the big screen. They know absolutely nothing of the Futurians, nor of SMOFs, nor of the arcane and occasionally turbulent contest of personalities that rumbled through written SF in the 1950s and 1960s: Campbellians vs. New Wave.


III.A) Worldcon and the sf community

III.A.i) Worldcon and the larger media world

Let me start off by acknowledging that Torgersen’s absolutely right that there are a lot of fans who aren’t involved in ‘traditional’ fandom, and aren’t involved with Worldcon. I will question his timeline slightly, in that I think the phenomenon of SF bleeding through into the mass media began earlier — a look at both the Wikipedia and Fanlore pages on Star Trek conventions shows that within three years of the first Trek conventions being organised, they were dwarfing Worldcon. I think, though, that outside of Trek, people were slow to identify as ‘fans’ until recently. My recollection, as someone who was born in 1973 and grew up through the 80s, is that people I knew who went to see Star Wars in theaters or even regularly watched Star Trek: The Next Generation tended to view these things as one-off activities, unconnected with any larger concept of ‘fandom.’

Which, in fairness, could be a part of Torgersen’s point. Fans were developing without a place in the traditional ecosystem of ‘fandom,’ and so never identified themselves as ‘fans.’ I’m somewhat sympathetic to this, as somebody who grew up reading and watching SF without having any particular desire to go to conventions or get involved in fan activities. (When I did join a fanzine in the early 90s, it was a comics APA.) But what does the existence of these fans really mean for Worldcon?

This is a big question that has a number of sides to it. Let me begin here by looking at whether those fans are necessarily prospective members for Worldcon. What is Worldcon to them that they might be interested? Is it actually serving their interest?

What I mean is that Worldcon, in my limited experience (I went to the 2009 convention), is primarily focused on books. People who are fans of movies, TV, and games are not necessarily reading books — they may be, of course, but they’re not necessarily reading books. If Worldcon’s primarily aimed at readers, then by extension these fans aren’t necessarily the primary audience for a Worldcon.

The Hugos started as a literary prize that later began presenting awards for accomplishments in other media. My understanding is that they’re still largely seen, in the SF field and outside it, as mainly literary awards. I may well be wrong. But as somebody who pays attention to the North American comics field, I can say that while comics news sites report on who gets the Hugo for Best Graphic Story, it’s not really a major story in the way that the field’s own awards are. I don’t think that’s particularly wrong. But if the Hugos are mainly a prize for literary works, I would assume people who have limited interest in literary works would have limited interest in the Hugos, just as they would have limited interest in a convention aimed at discussing literature.

Of course there are likely to be gamers, movie-watchers, and so on who are also readers and who may be lacking a venue to talk about books with like-minded people. And for those people the Puppy campaigns might be useful, if the campaigns talked about the virtues of book-oriented conventions and got the word out about them. I have to admit I’m not sure that’s what happening. And I’m not sure that the concept of book-oriented conventions is really that unknown to people at large.

Torgersen talks about “consumer fans” in that post from January 16, which does seem like a different set of people from “book fans.” If I’m right, about that and about the nature of Worldcon, then what he and the Puppies are really aiming at is a transformation of the nature of Worldcon — away from a focus on books and toward the broader media world. As I say, I’ve only been to Worldcon once, and I’m not particularly planning to go in the future, so I’m certainly not going to say he’s wrong to want to change a convention he’s more invested in than I am; it’s not my community, and so not my place to have a particular opinion. That said, I will admit as a reader my general opinion is that it’d be a pity if an event that focussed on books lost that focus and became another media convention.

There’s a February 18 post by Torgersen that may be relevant here, in which he compared the sizes of Worldcon and the San Diego Comic-Con over time. I’m not sure that’s a great comparison; for example, my understanding is that the people who put Worldcon together are different every year, while the San Diego team is basically constant. And I think there’s a good argument that the comics industry was undergoing an evolution of its own in the 1980s and 1990s that played into the development of Comic-Con. But let’s assume Comic-Con and Worldcan are comparable. I think the question then has to become: does the Worldcon membership want their convention to become Comic-Con?

I’ve never been to Comic-Con. But, as I say, I do follow the comics field reasonably closely. And I can say that I’ve seen an awful lot of people express some deeply conflicted feelings about the size of Comic-Con. It seems to me that there’s a widespread sense that the con’s focus on other media has tended to overshadow comics.

To expand on that a little: There’s a convention in Montreal, the Montreal Comiccon, which as you can see has “comic” in its name. I’ve never been. I was in town last year, looked at the list of events and panels … and felt that as a comics fan, it’s just not worth my while. All the guests and events had to do with TV and movies. I think there were three panels relating to comics over the course of a weekend. The convention was actually better described as a general media expo.

I don’t really see what the point is of Worldcon going that route. Partly, as I said, because I like the idea of conventions about books going on in the world, even when I’m not attending them. And partly because Comic-Con already exists, and Dragoncon already exists, and I don’t see the point of re-creating them.

Still, this is somewhat beside the point. It’s just my opinion, and as I say, Worldcon is only marginally more relevant to me as a con-goer than Comic-Con or Dragoncon. What I want to establish here, and what I think the Puppies would agree with, is: the Puppy campaigns are trying to bring about a major change in the way Worldcon is run. That’s fine for them. To the extent I understand what they want, I disagree with it. And as somebody who doesn’t go to cons, I don’t see how it’s appropriate for me to be involved in this discussion.

III.A.ii) Worldcon’s size and the Hugos

Before expanding further on that last point, I want to look at a couple of issues the Puppy campaigns suggest about the Hugos. I wrote about awards in general up in section II. How about the Hugos in particular? Are the Puppies right that the small size of Worldcon relative to the total SF-consuming audience is a problem for the Hugos?

I’ve tried to phrase that as neutrally as I can, but it seems to me an odd question. So it’s possible I’m not understanding what they’re getting at. But my answer is: Worldcon gives awards to what Worldcon wants to give awards to. If the material Worldcon gives awards to does not match one’s own opinion of what is best in the field, then, well, one may lose respect for those awards. If that opinion is shared more broadly, then the award in question loses prestige. Is this a problem?

My only guess is that the Hugos really matter to the Puppies; they want it to be (as, on January 16, Torgersen quoted the Hugo web site as saying) “science fiction’s most prestigious award.” And they have specific ideas for where it falls short and how that’s to be remedied. All that’s fair enough, though as I’ve said, to the extent I understand those ideas, I disagree with them. Again, though, the crucial point is that I don’t appreciate being dragged into their attempt to change an institution in a field that is not mine.

III.A.iii) Other awards

And then another point: assuming the Puppies are correct about the Hugos being unrepresentative of the field in general, is that really something that needs to be fixed? By which I mean: SF awards that can be voted on by the general public already exist. Reddit’s Fantasy subreddit has an annual award sometimes called the Stabbies, which is voted on by redditors. Anyone can vote on the Gemmell Awards. Anyone can vote on the Locus Awards, though subscribers’ ballots count double.

These are the kind of awards the Puppies say they want, directly representative of readers as a whole. Now, if they’re right about the Hugos becoming less relevant as a result of the small size of Worldcon, then it seems to me that the corollary will be that these awards will become correspondingly more relevant. Why not try to win them, then? Why not put the effort of the Puppies as a whole into publicising these awards, and building them up? Or indeed, why not create an award of their own? It seems like that’d be easier than attempting to reform an institution that has a long history of doing things differently.


II.A) A quick recap

III.A.i) I don’t see any particular value in making Worldcon more like Comic-Con, and as someone who doesn’t go to conventions I don’t feel it’s right for me to be involved in that sort of argument either way;
III.A.ii) I don’t see that the size of Worldcon in and of itself calls the validity of the Hugos into question, and again don’t feel that’s my argument to make;
III.A.iii) and I don’t understand why the Puppies are focussed on the Hugos instead of the other SF awards that are already open to a wide electorate.


III.B) The nature of fandom

III.B.i) The definition of a fan

Let’s now go back to the issue of fandom, and why I feel it’s wrong for me to be involved in these arguments within fandom. And let me start by seeing if I can figure out some definitions of what a fan is. I suspect there are at least three different usable definitions.

One, a fan could be said to be anyone who enjoys anything with a science-fictional or fantastic element across all media, especially if they deliberately seek out that element. That seems to be the definition Torgersen’s using in his posts, at least most of the time.

Two, a fan of speculative fiction writing is someone who enjoys just that, and seeks out books, magazines, and speculative fiction writing. Simple enough. You could argue that I’m in this class, though I have some issues with that (I’ll get into that below, in III.B.iii).

Three, ‘fan’ in the sense of ‘fandom’ and ‘fan-run conventions’ can mean people who enjoy speculative fiction (fans in the first two senses), who also try to get together with like-minded souls and put on events specifically dealing with their interests. In other words, ‘fandom’ here is ‘people who create a certain community, and put time and money and effort into maintaining that community.’

It seems to me that Torgersen’s arguing that the third kind of fan has to open up the communities they’ve built to the first type of fan. I don’t know what the barriers actually are, and I don’t know what he’s reacting to; it seems to me as though simply choosing to get involved in the community of the third type of fan makes you the third type of fan. Another quote from the January 16 post:

“Science fiction’s most prestigious award” lacks prestige, precisely because it’s an award for a “small” crowd with “small” tastes. The vast (and I do mean vast) majority of SF/F consumers don’t know about the Hugo, or if they do know about the Hugo, they don’t care about the Hugo. Or even (worse) the Hugo has come to mean something negative.

It’s a little unclear to me why it’s so bad that people don’t know or care about the Hugos; as I said, if the Hugos are so irrelevant, they’ll fade away and be replaced with better awards. But what strikes me is that if there is a consistent small crowd that selects the Hugos, then that’s because they’ve put the time and money and effort into putting Worldcons together and administering the awards. The reason the Hugos exist in the first place is specifically because of these people.

They’re not my community, and their award doesn’t usually match my sensibilities; but they are who they are. I don’t see where it’s right for me to come into their community and tell them how to run their affairs. It’s different for Torgersen, and I suppose many of the Puppy leaders — they go to cons, and they actually are in the community already. They are the third type of fans, and I suppose they want to increase the size of their community. I’m not a part of that community, I don’t want to be, and I don’t want to get dragged into a debate that has nothing to do with me. Which from my perspective is what’s happened, thanks to the Puppies.

In any event, I want to establish here that there is a community of fans who hold Worldcons and present Hugos. That should be easy enough to agree on. I further want to establish that the Puppies want to change the nature of that community. Again, I think that’s pretty clear. Given these things, I want to say again that I’m not a part of the community the Puppies want to change. Nor am I a part of any alternative community that the Puppies have developed. I therefore feel strongly that this debate is not one with which I should be concerned, and not one into which I should have been brought.

III.B.ii) The nature of the fan writer award

Before going on to talk about my personal relationship to fandom, under whatever definition, I want to talk about the specific Hugo for which the Puppies had suggested me: the Best Fan Writer Hugo. I can well understand that all these many, many words seem like an excessive statement for me to make about an award that’s really not at the top of the slate. But I feel it’s important for me to be as clear and complete as possible because so far as I can see, this is an award that specifically derives from the idea of fandom, and is especially relevant to it.

Obviously the award doesn’t necessarily go to people writing specifically about fans, and can go to people who write general criticism of various works or aspects of speculative fiction. What I’m saying is that the fan awards (I’m thinking specifically of Best Fan Writer and Best Fanzine) place that writing within a continuum of ‘fannish’ discourse. Change the nominees and you change the discourse. Which presumably will affect the way the community understands itself.

You could probably make similar arguments for any of the Hugos, but I think there’s a level where the Fan awards are particularly important in terms of the fan community (some Googling on the topic turned up impassioned debate from 2013, when there was a movement to eliminate the Fan Hugos). As I’ve said, I understand that the Puppies want to make various changes in the community, and presumably the people they want nominated for the various Fan Hugos reflect that. But I don’t know what the Puppies think these awards should be recognising. I don’t know how they think my writing is supposed to fit into their sense of what is good ‘fan writing.’

Personally, to judge by the names I’m familiar with among the previous nominees for the Fan Hugos, I think the awards are a way for fans to say something about all three kinds of fandom, from the largest and most diffuse to the narrowest and most con-specific. I think the Fan Hugos are the fan community reflecting on itself and, potentially at least, engaging critically with itself. I think fans put work into maintaining a community, and probably ought to have an award to recognise the writing they do as part of that. And I think nominating me for a Fan Writer award was a dreadful mistake, because I’m really not interested in joining any kind of fandom, and have nothing to say about it.

III.B.iii) I am not a fan

As I said up above (III.A.i), I grew up not particularly wanting to go to a science fiction convention. I understood they existed, I had a general sense of what went on at them, and I’d occasionally read anecdotes from cons in the editorial matter of some short-fiction anthology or other. I appreciated that they had a value, in that they brought people within the field together, sparking ideas and new projects. And I understood that some presented awards, like the Hugos. But, not wanting to go to a convention, it never occurred to me that I should have a say in determining who got those awards. Why should it? I wasn’t going to the conventions that presented the awards, I wasn’t supporting the community with my time or money, so what right did I have to help determine the awards?

The idea of community is important to me for a number of reasons. So I respect the idea of fandom communities even though I don’t feel a part of them. But at the same time, I clearly don’t feel a part of fandom. And I think that’s fine. Speculative fiction is a fairly strong interest of mine — every morning I check two different SF web sites, this one and SF Signal’s daily links. But then I also check a couple of different metal websites, three different hockey sites (even in the offseason), and any number of comics sites.

I have friends and acquaintances who are very much a part of fandom, and some who are part of the field professionally. Because I know them I have a strong sense of how important the field is to many people, and how important the Hugos are. I’m not a part of that, and I have no particular desire to be.

I’m happy writing here at Black Gate, and I’m happy being a part of the Black Gate community. I’m happy reading science fiction and fantasy fiction — which I define very broadly, as anything with the fantastic in it (technically, so far as I’m concerned science fiction is a kind of fantasy). But I’m also happy reading other kinds of fiction, and happy reading non-fiction with no kind of SF element. I don’t feel a need to be a part of any kind of community based on my preferences in reading or in entertainment generally.

I don’t typically put time, money, or effort into conventions, for example, or into any kind of broader fannish community. Like I say, I have nothing against those communities. But I don’t want to be enrolled in them, because a responsible community member has to support and help maintain their community in some tangible way — again, with time, money, or effort — and my resources at this point are basically spoken for.

I’ll go further: I appreciate the fact that cons exist, even though I don’t go to them. I appreciate things like the Hugos that come out of fan communities. I appreciate the critical mass of fans who support at least some of the fiction that deeply affects me as a non-fan reader. As I say, I respect the existence of fandom. But nobody asked me whether I wanted to become a part of it; and I don’t. Nobody asked me whether I wanted to take sides in a dispute within fandom; and I don’t want that, either.

III.B.iv) Controversy in fandom

When I say ‘dispute’ or ‘controversy,’ I should probably be clear that I’m not just reacting to the debates that have gone on over the past few days. I’m reacting to the fact that Torgersen and the Puppies knew that their campaign was going to cause a stir and be controversial. Even before the Puppy slate was put together, Torgersen wrote on January 16:

If SAD PUPPIES happens to make a few people cry a Grinchy boo-hoo-hoo along the way, and if we give the Hyper-Progressive Pissypants Club (HPPC) heartburn because we’re ruining things by trying to get the larger SF/F consumer world involved . . . well, that’s just a cross we’re prepared to bear — with a large cup of soda in one hand, and a big bucket of theater popcorn in the other.

And on February 7 he wrote:

Sorry, folks. I know it sucks having the cage rattled. If I thought some (necessary) freshening of the air (at Hugo awards time) was possible via less confrontational means, I’d happily go that route. But after 5 years of observing how this dog and pony show operates, I’ve concluded that there really isn’t a “nice” way to do this. We (the SP3) can either sit on our hands and pretend the broken thing is not broken — carrying on the with the status quo — or we can speak up; and take the heat.

In case it isn’t clear already: I have no interest in annoying people I do not know for the sake of a cause that isn’t mine, and with which I mostly disagree.

Now, later on the February 7 post Torgersen writes:

For myself, and despite what some of my detractors may claim, I can say without reservation that I am not out to destroy fandom, nor the Hugos, nor do I wish to be an arsonist. In fact, I have argued (within the SP3 brain trust) that being arsonists is a terrible idea. I’d like to see reform, versus destruction.

That sounds more moderate, but again, I’m not involved with what he wants to reform. I have no interest or stake in reform, destruction, or the status quo. Quite honestly, I feel like I’ve been conscripted into a foreign war in which I have absolutely no stake; and conscription has historically not gone over well with Montrealers, whether in a good cause or not.

Torgersen and the Puppies want to engage a certain fan community in an argument. That’s their call. To me it seems to be an argument with no bearing whatsoever on my life.

I have tried to research this debate. I have put in what I think is a good faith effort to understand what the Puppies and the Hugo traditionalists both think. And this essay is in some way an attempt to respond to what I’ve learned. But it has become very clear to me that there’s a limit to what I can know. Everybody else involved in this debate seems to have a greater first-hand knowledge of the personalities involved than I do. Certainly Torgersen and most of the Puppies seem to have greater personal knowledge of cons and at least some fan personalities than I do — which, as I’ve said, is not at all difficult. And I think that both the Puppies and the Hugo defenders have got histories behind them, histories of interactions with each other and histories of dealings with the field, which I don’t have and don’t know anything about.

I’ve written at such length because I thought fairness demanded it, and also because I feel I’ve become involved in an argument whose dimensions I do not and can not grasp. So I’ve laid out as far as I can what I know, what I think I know, what I don’t understand, what I believe, and why I believe the things I do. I don’t know how much fairer I can be.


III.B) A quick recap

III.B.i) I’m not a part of fandom as it currently is, nor of any alternative Puppy-built fandom, and the argument between the two is not mine;
III.B.ii) I don’t know how the Puppies see my writing as belonging to any kind of Fan Writing tradition, and as I’m not a part of fandom it makes no sense to me for the Puppies to put me forward for a Fan Writer award;
III.B.iii) while I respect fandom, I have no desire to be a part of it;
III.B.iv) and I have absolutely no interest in getting pulled into a dispute within it.


And to bring it all together:

I think SF has always had ideology behind it; and that there’s no appreciable increase in ideology in recent Hugo novels; and that it’s better to read a text ideologically than not, because ideology is always there; and that, in the end, the current ideology Torgersen finds in SF is more important to me personally and to the culture at large than past ideology. I think that the Hugos have a long track record of rewarding ‘literary’ novels; I don’t think that the Hugos have become more ‘literary’ at all (and suspect they may have become less so); there are other and arguably more ‘literary’ novels that the Hugos could have rewarded in the last ten years; and, most importantly, the ‘literary’ matters to me, even more than the adventurous and exciting, and I do not want to be part of a campaign that doesn’t value the experimental and the ambitious.

I don’t think the Hugos are all that unrepresentative of the mass audience, and I don’t think it’s useful for awards to closely reflect sales; marketing and distribution ensure that books aren’t competing in a level playing field, and consumers paying for a book can’t know ahead of time whether or how much they’ll like it, so past bestseller lists haven’t succeeded in determining the books that would have value in the long run; while, on the other hand, awards not connected to sales have a number of useful purposes — to support and encourage writers, to recognise new artistic trends, and to present certain aspects of a field to the outside world.

I don’t see any particular value in making Worldcon more like Comic-Con, and as someone who doesn’t go to conventions I don’t feel it’s right for me to be involved in that sort of argument either way; I don’t see that the size of Worldcon in and of itself calls the validity of the Hugos into question, and again don’t feel that’s my argument to make; and I don’t understand why the Puppies are focussed on the Hugos instead of the other SF awards that are already open to a wide electorate. I’m not a part of fandom as it currently is, nor of any alternative Puppy-built fandom, and the argument between the two is not mine; I don’t know how the Puppies see my writing as belong to any kind of Fan Writing tradition, and as I’m not a part of fandom it makes no sense to me for the Puppies to put me forward for a Fan Writer award; while I respect fandom, I have no desire to be a part of it; and I have absolutely no interest in getting pulled into a dispute within it.


Add that all up, and I think it’s clear how extensively I disagree with the Puppy campaigns, and why I don’t want an award nomination that primarily comes from being placed on their slates. I should have investigated the situation more thoroughly in February when I found out that I was on those slates, and I should have asked to be removed then. Again, I extend my apologies to everyone for not doing so at that time.

A few concluding points:

Firstly, I want to say that while I appreciate anyone finding value in my work, I would like to ask that people refrain from voting for me as ‘Best Fan Writer’ in future Hugos. More broadly, I would like to ask that people assembling future Hugo slates not include my name in any category. That goes for Sad Puppies 4 (and future iterations), and it goes for any anti-Puppy slate that also might be put forward.

I understand there’s a slippery slope involved in asking not to be put on a ‘slate.’ Is there a difference between somebody putting forward their personal Hugo ballot and putting forward a slate? Well, I think so. I think at least in this case the differences are, one, is the person putting the ballot forward requesting that others vote the same way, and two, is there a desire in putting the ballot forward to have a major effect on the speculative fiction field as a whole. If the answer to one or both questions is ‘yes,’ I would prefer not to be involved.

Secondly, on a personal level, this whole sequence of events is working directly against the Puppies’ stated intentions. Torgersen’s consistently written about wanting to bring more people into ‘fandom,’ however it’s defined. For me, the net result of the Puppy activities has been to alienate me from fandom and the speculative fiction world. It’s not an absolute alienation, of course; I’ll still be writing here at Black Gate. But involving me in a controversial campaign without asking is not something that I find particularly welcoming, to say the least.

Frankly, it’s lucky I found out about the Puppies putting me on their slate before I found out I’d been nominated. Imagine if I hadn’t. I’d have had no reason not to accept the nomination. And in the long run that would have been embarrassing for everyone.

Finally, I understand that when somebody outside a community takes a stance that can be perceived as repudiating one faction within that community, opposing factions are likely to celebrate. I think that’s unfortunate. I cannot stress enough how much I’ve done what I’ve done because I don’t want to take sides in a dispute that is not mine. I can only say that if what I have said and done has any effect on the discussion going forward, I hope that effect will be to make the discussion one of ideas and not of personalities — that this all may move the controversy, however slightly, away from insults and toward constructive talk. I don’t say I think that will happen; but it’d be nice if it did.

Thanks for reading.


A postscript: I’d like for people who want to respond to me to do so as much as possible here at Black Gate, in the comments section of this post. I’d rather not run around to a half-dozen different blogs, much less try to maintain a half-dozen different conversations at once, so I’ll only be responding here. And, if there’s one thing that’s become clear to me in researching this topic, it’s that feelings run high on this whole subject, so, while it should go without saying: please be polite to other commentators, and if you can find it in yourself, be generous as well, and don’t assume that people who disagree with you are necessarily a mix of stupid and evil.

I know you all know this, but sometimes reminders are helpful, right?

Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. You can buy his first collection of essays, looking at some fantasy novels of the twenty-first century, here. His second collection, looking at some fantasy from the twentieth century, is here. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.

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Wow, that is a long post.

As a sad puppier who nominated you because I thought you deserved it, I am a bit disappointed.

Though I can understand how one might want avoid the griefing from the intolerant voices in the field that would accompany being associated with the sad puppies.


BTW when I say “associated” I mean it as connected in the barest tangential way, not as a co-conspirator.

I personally think the attacks people have gotten for simply being “on the slate” are ridiculous.

Rich Horton

I haven’t finished yet, Matthew … not surprising, eh?

Anyway, I agree largely with your points (so far) … Certainly I am puzzled by the argument that the Hugos are getting particularly more literary and also more political than in the past. About the same, I’d say.

I have a few quibbles … I don’t think American SF was in the past as “right wing” as you suggest … Campbell was, perhaps, but there was plenty of much more left wing stuff. In fact, just as today, the field was pretty diverse politically. (It was pretty white and male, though.)

You are another of many many people I respect who liked Steph Swainstons’s novels … I will again offer a dissenting vote … she tried some interesting stuff, but her writing, especially her prose, but also her plotting and characters, just wasn’t up to the challenge. I don’t know where she’s gone the past few years, though.

There are only 4 novels, properly speaking, in THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. THE URTH OF THE NEW SUN is a pendant. But that’s true nitpicking!

More perhaps later …

Thanks for this! I’d have been happy to see you on the nomination list, though I understand your reasons for declining. And I’m thrilled to see Black Gate get a fanzine nomination, I think some of the best fannish writing around is published here.



I stayed till the end!

It wasn’t too much at all, considering the ground you had to cover. I think you covered it well.

I also think you presented some excellent points that I hope those nominating for the Hugo Awards heed in 2016.


Matthew, I originally suggested you because you are, in my opinion, the best blogger at Black Gate and one of the two or three best observers writing in Fantasy and Science Fiction today. I neither knew about your politics before nor do I care about them now.

It’s that simple. I respect your decision to decline the nomination; you weren’t the only SP-supported writer to do so.

As for people’s opinions on slates and so forth, all I can say is that I respect everyone’s right to feel however they like about them. We didn’t break the rules, we don’t make the rules, we merely play by them.

[…] Also of interest, Matthew David Surridge, who also gotten a nomination thanks to the Sad Puppies slate, declined it. At long length, he talks about it at Black Gate. […]

Rich Horton

Theo, can I make one suggestion? The Hugos are not supposed to be a game that anyone is playing to win. The implication that you think there’s a “we” who presumably has to defeat a “they” is profoundly disturbing.

Did you vote for the 5 (or fewer) best stories you read last year in each category? If so, I have no complaints.

But I suspect some people thought they were playing a “game” by the “rules” in voting for not the 5 best stories they read, but the 5 stories that had been agreed (perhaps informally) to be a slate, that would then have the best chance to “win”.

It is that sort of attitude that I perceive to have been held by some that disturbs me. By all means disagree with my personal taste … last year, for example, the Hugo short story ballot had no stories I personally nominated, and only one that even appeared on my long list (and by long I mean like 50 stories long) of “good” stories. So clearly the Hugo nominators (as a group) were not in synch with my taste. So be it. (Though I reserve the right to complain.)


I think that I disagreed with about everything that you just posted. That said, I wish that you had accepted the nomination. I can’t think of anyone more deserving of a little rocket ship for putting pen to paper. It was for stuff like yours that the ‘Best Fan Writer’ Hugo was made.

I think that it says a lot about the quality and even-handedness of your writing, when people from three such different political spectrums (I’m a down-the-middle independent, Brad is right-wing and Day is so far right-wing that he’s on the part of the map that’s labeled ‘Here be Dragons’)feel that you (a left-wing Canadian Commie)produce work worthy of a Hugo.

[…] between unpacking my books today, I’ve been following the various discussions about what to do about the Hugo voting this year and how to address the deeply conservative, […]


This is going to sound totally random, as it relates to little known ephemera in early 20th century authors and not the main points of your (excellent) post.

In II.B.iii) The historical record of sales

You state “and of course Winston Churchill’s well-known for other reasons.”

Which is true, but that isn’t the Winston Churchill who is on the best seller list.

There are in fact two of them, for clarity Winston Spencer Churchill wrote several books but only one novel, was perceived as being instrumental in winning the second world war and gave a speech about “blood and sweat and toil and tears”

Winston Churchill, who wrote A Far Country, was a bestselling US writer with 13 novels to his credit. he knew and corresponded with Winston Spencer Churchill (though they were not related)

There is an excerpt of thier letters on John Finnemore’s blog post here. http://johnfinnemore.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/two-of-kind.html

I’m pointing this out because I found Winston Spencer Churchill’s letter about their name problem and Winston Churchill’s response to it hilarious.



I found your work when someone linked to the SP slate. I wouldn’t be reading what you wrote if not for that.

I absolutely agree that you should feel free to decline any award offered to you (although I am in much less agreement about being able to stop other people from nominating you. That’s their choice, not yours.)

If your writing remains as good this year as it was last year, then (barring the heavens opening and gifting the intrawebs with a score of better writers on SF/F) I’m very likely to nominate you again, regardless of you being on anyone’s slate. I will also shift my tiny weight of voice towards convincing others to read you as well.

I’m not sure how that would be any different than this year with the SP campaign, and I expect that you may well decline such a (hypothetical) nomination (as would be your right.) But by pointing to you, I am better able to describe what I want in terms of SF/F writing, and hopefully motivate others to attempt to match you. (Which, again, not sure how this is any different than the SP.)

Finally – and my apologies for blabbering on – a tip of the hat to you, for your gracious and well-spoken decline.

Jackson Kuhl

“It seems to me that an artist needs no formal recognition whatsoever. He works primarily to please himself, and if he manages to do so he has sufficient reward. … I simply can’t imagine any man of dignity accepting Pulitzer Prizes, honorary degrees or other such fripperies. Nine-tenths of them go to obvious quacks.”

— H.L. Mencken, 1946

[…] multiple statements to the contrary by organizers and supporters of the Sad and Rabid Puppy slates, is a thing that happened), but the default position for those works will be below No Award.  Nominees who were aware of and […]

[…] * The 2015 Hugo nominees have been announced, and they’re a mess. The Hugo Awards Were Always Political. But Now They’re Only Political. A Note About the Hugo Nominations This Year. The Puppy-Free Hugo Award Voter’s Guide. “Why I Declined a Hugo Award Nomination.” […]

[…] Sad Puppy slate member Matthew David Surridge on why he turned down his nomination. […]

[…] at Black Gate (An excellent on-line fantasy magazine, by the way. Add it to your Feedly stream.) Matthew David Surrage discusses, at length, how it felt to be added to the Sad Puppy slate and receive a nomination because of […]


We can agree to disagree; haven’t read anything of yours yet, but you seem like a nice bloke.
What I also find appalling is the attempted blacklisting / namecalling of several find authors BECAUSE they were name on the SP list; you have noted that you hardly fit their “political” profile, so the only reason you could have been nominated is that the SP crew found that you wrote good, entertaining SF. Hardly a crime, is it?
Yet I read comments on ios9 (who censored mine) that indicate several individuals who “sadly” would not vote for a given candidate because they were nominated by SP! In other words, those people were discriminating against talented, capable writers because they SHARED their political positions but were nominated by the “opposition”! Does that sound reasonable, helpful or even sane (how is denying someone an award earned by their ability and therefore denying them publicity, sales and income from that award a good)?
Refuse, if you feel you must; choose whatever form of atonement will get you back in the good graces of those who just rejected you. I may read you anyway, just from reading this post. But I still will not buy lectures disguised as SF just to be trendy in the SJW camp.


Bah, I can spell; above should have “fine” authors and “named on the SP list;” probably more, but not worth beating on about.

[…] In related news, Black Gate, which was not included in the Sad Puppies slate but was part of Rabid Puppies, received its first Hugo nomination this year. We were not informed of our inclusion, and only found about it after we were contacted by the Sasquan awards committee last week. Black Gate blogger Matthew David Surridge, who found himself in a similar situation when he received a nomination as a result of being listed on both slates, discussed the reasons he declined the nomination here yesterday, in his lengthy article A Detailed Explanation. […]

[…] This VERY classy, VERY well thought out, complete, detailed and engaging read by one who was on a vo… […]

[…] “A Detailed Explanation” – April 4 […]

[…] that you know what’s going on and have chosen a side. The best I’ve found so far is Matthew David Surridge explaining why he declined a nomination (for Best Fan Writer): it’s not disinterested, of course, but he works hard to explain and document the opinions […]

Wild Ape

Let me get this straight, you turned down a Hugo nomination because you were on the Sad Puppy list?

I hope to say in the spirit of “being generous” that you might feel as though you were dragged into a fight not your own but soldiers never fight their own battles, they end up fighting someone elses. You could have accepted the nomination and explained your research on the topic, then, you could have said the same thing in as neutral a tone as you did here. Instead you gave a lengthy point by point refusal and destroyed the opportunity to build a BRIDGE between the two camps. You say that you want to have, “a discussion of ideas and not personalities”.

Fine but you will probably get neither.

You are a victim of a new form of McCarthyism, welcome to the club. I find it ironic that those who supposedly stand up for tolerance and free speech are trying to shut down and shut out people using free speech for the reason that they simply do not agree with their form of free speech (ie, right wing world views). Guilt by association of these same views, or god forbid you affirm these views, or you accept support from the people who hold these views can get you in a world of public humility.

But you stood up against those tyrannical Sad Puppies who dared to put you up for that Hugo. And now people paint you as a right wing nut job. Hopefully the Puppies haven’t sullied your rep too much. If they have it will be tough to fight accusations of being a racist, homophobe, war on women chauvinist, not to mention a flat earth believer, and a gun toting Nazi killer who doesn’t think anyone’s life matters but a white man’s. You will have to convince them that you stand for “true” tolerance and free speech. Good luck.

I deeply regret the trouble I’ve caused you in voting for you. I meant to enhance your career, not ruin it. I don’t like to monkey with any man’s life. I give you my word that I will NEVER do that again to you.

I may be blunt sir and ungenerous, but you had a golden opportunity to heal, to lead,and to enlighten. I hope you get the opportunity to do so again. Have you considered what theo said? Just because your politics might be left wing doesn’t mean that the Sad Puppies don’t recognize talent. You are lucky to appeal to both camps. Your talent whether or not you like your public likes what you do.


[…] Against the SJWs” rhetoric. If you’re interested in people’s actual reasons, Matthew David Surridge has a long and thoughtful post about why he declined to be on the slate. Dave Creek’s reasons for declining are on […]


Confession time: I haven’t read it all yet, but something caught my eye. It pointed out that you are indeed Canadian, and so a product of your culture. I’m American, and that flavors my perception.

That said, let me point out that just because a resource is renewable does not mean it can’t be restricted at the time it is needed. For the gravely injured (wounded if you prefer) it is the current scarcity that matters, not some later time when the resource is available again. Then keep in mind the fact that the need for medical assistance will always be greater than the availability, and that is not going to change any time in the new future.

One more thing; you are a fan writer, suffer.

Tom Crippen

“If I’d accepted it, I’d have had to try to explain why I’d done something I didn’t believe in …”

Those are words to respect, sir. And congratulations on all the people who have stepped forward to recognize what you’ve been doing here.


Let me just say that I read several of the authors proposed on the slate, and while their presence on the list will not keep me from enjoying them, I was saddened they were drawn into this without being asked. I find your decision to refuse the nomination a rather courageous gesture, right in line with the grand tradition of heroic fantasy. I admire your stand, and your willingness to turn down possible accolades for moral reasons. It is in hopes that more people will make decisions such as this, that I try to get as many people as I can to read fantasy.

I was a Black Gate reader before, but I’m proud to be one today.

[…] thing is too big and too complex for me have worked through with any coherence yet, but over at Black Gate, Matthew David Surridge has a very smart and very thorough response to some of the key arguments […]

[…] * The 2015 Hugo nominees have been announced, and they’re a mess. The Hugo Awards Were Always Political. But Now They’re Only Political. A Note About the Hugo Nominations This Year. The Puppy-Free Hugo Award Voter’s Guide. The Biggest Little SF Publisher you never heard of declares war. “Why I Declined a Hugo Award Nomination.” […]

[…] also to Matthew David Surridge who withdrew from consideration for Best Fan Writer once he became aware that he was on the slate. […]

[…] “A Detailed Explanation” – Matthew Surridge […]


Just found this through a link in the comments on Making Light.

I think my son and I had the pleasure of meeting you at the last Farthing Party — we both thoroughly enjoyed the reading you did from Elliot S. Maggin’s Superman novel. Or is my memory failing me?

This was an enjoyable read from my perspective as someone becoming better acquainted with your third group of fandom later in life. Thanks for taking the time to go into as much detail as you did — very informative.


Thank you for this long post; frankly, I have been outside the loop of this *and* GamerGate because I am that life-long reader of SciFi who has never gone to Cons, although many of my friends have and so…Oh, I could name drop but why? But I appreciate this because I finally understand what is going on here.

But this finally affects me personally, since a dear friend of mine is one of the non-puppy Hugo Nominated artists. And she is just sickened over this, and here is WHY.

These Sick Puppies do not see, nor apparently care about, all the wonderful artists and writers who pour their life blood into these works, many of whom are making their living by this Art.

Since this is an award that is based on the work of said artist/writer DURING THAT YEAR, then next year, the same works cannot be considered. The best and brightest doing their best work for this year are completely dismissed. And this is done by some arrogant guys who want to prove a point; who want their way, and want to get their little bit of attention to their narrow point of view.

For one thing, the pervasive attitude that that artists and creative people shouldn’t worry about making a living, or that they don’t DESERVE to make a good living at their Art, just chaps my hide.

Finally, as Chuck Weddig quoted author Alyssa Wong in his excellent blog post on this same issue:

“Those crying out against diversity in SFF are howling into the void, and ultimately, they will be soundlessly swallowed up and forgotten.”

But I sorrow for the brilliant artists and writers whose amazing work is sullied, discounted and discarded by this ridiculous movement.

Thank you for your clarity and your words making some sense of this bullshit.

[…] I know at least two of these people hold ideological views closer to my own than to those of the Sad Puppy brigade, which makes them odd slate candidates. And it can be argued that they didn’t realize quite what they were getting themselves into. But they did know they were being put forward as part of the SP3 slate, and they agreed to be put forward. That means they agreed to two things that sit poorly with me: first, to gaming the Hugo voting system, and second, to lending their names to a credo that is at odds with their own ideologies. […]


Thank you for this thoughtful post. As a SFF fan (and writer), I’ve kept away from most of this drama and have only come to understand recently what’s been happening in the SFF community. I don’t want to make comments about diversity; those have been tackled by others far-more eloquent than I. And if they haven’t struck a chord in those who are against diversity by now, there is little chance they ever will. Which makes me sad.

I’ll never forget the first time I picked up a SFF book—a short story collection by Ray Bradbury. How it opened my eyes to possibilities and challenged me to think in new ways. To push the limits of my own expectations, thoughts, and ideas.

As a kid, I was bullied. I was the geek. The goofy kid. The one who read those Ray Bradbury books. I was an outcast. SFF gave me an “in” to new worlds and new universes. Have some people forgotten this? That SFF was about the underdog, the quiet ones, the crazy ones, the ones that society gave up on? The downtrodden? The diamonds in the rough that only needed to be given a chance to save the world?

It’s like the collective heart of SFF is being crushed by people who have forgotten what this genre means. Especially to those who struggle to be heard, to those who want to find their voices.

I’m okay giving everyone a voice: race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, religion, non-religion.

The SFF community I thought I knew would too.

[…] how this situation seems to her to affect it. (Also worth reading are Matthew David Surridge’s quite long but beautifully comprehensive reaction to being nominated via one of these slates and how he declined the nomination, and Sarah Chorn’s […]

[…] David Sturridge, who incited down a assignment for Best Fan Writer’s Award, wrote a extensive reason as to because he disagreed with Torgersen’s views. […]

Kerstan Szczepanski

As always Matthew, a wonderful post. Your insightful analysis and thoughtful articulation thereof, is what makes you hands down the best fantasy essayist SFF has posting today. You are deserving of recognition and greater readership, and of a Hugo, but I completely understand your request to be removed as you have explained here.

Regardless, I can only hope that your essays will get more notice, for Fantasy and Science Fiction can and will only benefit as a result.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x