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Adam Link, Kerfufflebot; or, Scalzi Over the Brown Rainbow

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

Internet kerfuffles almost inevitably become incestuous loops of recursion and fail–and, if not, they’re hardly any fun at all. But John Scalzi’s response to Adam Roberts’ complaint about this year’s Hugo slate at least led me to do one thing: I ordered Roberts’ Gradisil, which I’ve been meaning to read for some time.

The rest of my reaction is sort of a-plague-on-both-your-houses-ish. I cannot take seriously complaints about a shortlist from people who could have participated in shaping it but did not. This is not an original observation: it was made by a number of people on Roberts’ blog, on Scalzi’s blog and elsewhere. And when it arises, someone always replies, “Oh, I’ve heard that before.” As if that were some kind of answer. You have heard it before because it is true. No one listens to people who sing the blues without paying their dues.

[Meta-kvetchery abounds beyond the jump.]


_____

Almost as ridiculous is the response, “I did participate, but it made no difference.” It’s like any political process: participation does not guarantee the desired result. People will persist in having their own ideas in spite of the overridingly important fact that you have yours, and sometimes you’ll be outvoted. However, taking action is more likely to have an impact on events than sitting around while others act and then whining about what they’ve done.

And participation certainly earns you a right to complain with righteous fervor. As a voter for many losing candidates over the years and decades, I can attest to the value of complaining as a coping mechanism–though not as a foundation for future success. A voter-drive among like-minded people is more likely to be productive. The Hugo-voting group is not large and it should be easy to affect it.

Scalzi’s reaction is almost equally gloomifying, partly because it’s so… reactionary. Scalzi shows signs of becoming an Institution, and in his response to Roberts the natural ill-temper of a writer scorned seemed to be salted with the crankiness of a Great One whose pedestal had been jostled by a Lesser One. He let rip with the fecal analogies, gave Roberts ironically kind advice about how not to increase his sales and scorned him as an academic a couple times.

It’s pretty gross. Painting someone in the spectrum of the brown rainbow will normally stain the would-be artist more than the subject, and the question of whether Roberts is really alienating potential readers is more open than Scalzi seems to suppose; there’s some discussion of that here. But, because it’s all about me, what I want to address here is the use of academia as a slur. It’s a childishly ad hominem insult, and only dickheads use them.

Almost everyone who writes has a supportive spouse, a day-job, or both. The fact that Roberts has a day-job as an academic doesn’t give his pronouncements any special weight, but it doesn’t invalidate them either. If Roberts had shrieked, “I, in my authority as an English professor of English literature, being in England, pronounce these works unclean and unworthy. They shall be… cast OUT. So let it be written; so let it be done,” then I would say no scorn heaped upon him could be too scornful. But that’s not what he does; he says that the works suck and says why he thinks so.

The form and timing of his saying so make the act somewhat futile, and his conclusions are subject to direct challenge (as John Picacio generously does here on behalf of his fellow-nominees for the “pro artist” award), but sneering at his day-job is an irrelevant appeal to anti-intellectualism. Any writer who does that is sawing off the branch he’s standing on.

7 Comments »

  1. Thank you! Anybody who wants to keep his or her books in print, or see them get back into print after they’ve fallen out, had better hope for friendly academics to come along and start assigning them to undergrads.

    Alice Walker may be the person who went looking for Zora Neale Hurston, but without hundreds of professors following Walker’s lead and assigning Hurston’s books to their students, those books would have stayed lost.

    The assumption that we in the genres ought to meet academic hostility with hostility is outdated. The best of our forebears are getting welcomed into the canon just fine on their merits, and some of us will, too. Any genre writer who has a favorite forebear who’s being unjustly neglected is free to pull an Alice Walker. Geek culture is pervasive now, and there are plenty of fanboys and fangirls with tenured gigs who care what genre writers have to say. Being pissy at them because of anti-genre assumptions that were common among their long-retired mentors helps no one.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - July 23, 2009 12:37 am

  2. Absolutely. Genuine, committed academics are really (and always were) just a tweedy and specialized variety of geek. And nowadays there’s more overlap between geeky communities than there ever was.

    I have a sense that some people (I’m not talking about Scalzi, but the attitude shows up a bit in the comment sections of the two posts linked above) are working out their hostility toward the Prof. Schmeckenfrauzer who gave them a C- in Interpretive Dance or something, and they can’t distinguish between any academic and that one (or those ones) who made them feel bad. A little tweed is like a red flag to them; they can’t help but charge at it. Those people are more to be pitied than censured, I guess. But I prefer to censure them.

    Comment by James Enge - July 23, 2009 5:04 am

  3. Nicely done, James.

    When I ran the SF Site, we had an annual Top Ten list every year (and the site still does). Administering that list taught me a great deal about both the inherent value of awards, and their entirely fickle nature. If I were more of a cynic I might dismiss them outright; instead I cling to the opinion that awards, and especially major awards, serve a valuable purpose: they are a wonderfully effective marketing tool for the genre.

    I for one can’t read a decent Top Ten list without scurrying off to add a title or two to my Amazon Wish List, even today. Regardless of how effectively the lists draw attention to books of actual value (and I often remain fairly cynical about that), they help SELL books, and that’s crucially important, especially today.

    Are they selling the RIGHT books? Well, of course. They’re selling the books that bring money to publishers and authors and keep our industry thriving, and they’re introducing readers to books that they might not otherwise have tried. And they’re doing both of those things outside the means by which they’re usually done – through expensive marketing campaigns that usual favor excusively best selling authors.

    By those measures alone, the Hugo Award short list does a tremendous service. Expecting it to also be a perfect arbiter of taste seems like it’s asking a lot. I’ve learned to be content with the Hugo lists as they are, and it’s brought me more peace and contentment. :)

    – John

    Comment by John ONeill - July 23, 2009 1:13 pm

  4. I’m not too familiar with how the Hugo folks select their books. I’ve only followed the Nobel Prize for a while, and they only consult academics, critics, and other authors for their lists. Reason I bring this up is because Scalzi kept saying things along the lines of “we loved” the books or something like that, reinforcing the notion that Roberts is boo-hooing the people’s books.

    How does the Hugo nominate its books? If it’s anything like the Nobel prize, readers are never once consulted! I’ve had a beef with the Nobel comittee for some ten years now, and I’ve got a feeling it might be the same with the Hugo.

    Comment by Gabe - July 23, 2009 10:19 pm

  5. Hey John–

    Thanks! Praise from a master is indeed gratifying. I know what you mean about award lists–they may not be absolutely “correct” in establishing the 12.4 best books about android beekeepers in the last 2.7 years (or whatever their specific mandate is). But they can point people in a direction–suggest work to potential readers that they haven’t thought of–introduce readers to a genre or new corners of a genre. So they’re more like search-engine results than a seal of approval; they give you something to sift through.

    Hey Gabe–

    The Hugos are totally fan-nominated and voted. Anyone can buy a supporting membership to WorldCon and cast their vote, even if they’re not going to attend the convention itself. (More specific info is online at the World SF Society website.) So Scalzi is right about this: Roberts is deliberately slagging fandom (or at least the section of it that participates in the Hugo process).

    Comment by James Enge - July 24, 2009 12:29 am

  6. […] Adam Link, Kerfufflebot; or, Scalzi Over the Brown Rainbow || Black Gate.com (SF,Hugo,HugoAward) […]

    Pingback by fritz freiheit.com blog ยป Link dump - July 24, 2009 3:44 pm

  7. […] was quite interested in James Enge’s previous post on the recent discourse about the Hugo Awards List by Adam Roberts and John Scalzi. It’s a […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » On the problem of literary awards - July 26, 2009 10:19 am


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