Hugos, Sad Puppies and the Political Theory Problem

 

Science Fiction and Fantasy Books for Sale

Do Gatekeepers keep the Barbarians beyond the walls?  Or do they keep the Sheep inside? Or put another way, what point a Gatekeeper without a Gate?  Cathy Young at Real Clear Politics notes:

The latest pitched battle in science fiction is not between space pirates and alien monsters but between fandom factions, with the Hugo Awards as the battlefield. Depending on where you stand, this fight pits either forces of progress against reactionary barbarians or the elitist establishment against anti-authoritarian rebels. The progressive elites have decisively won this round; but was it a pyrrhic victory? One thing is certain: this culture war is here to stay.

This year’s Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy (SFF) were dominated by drama, reported by venues as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and Wired magazine. As I understand it, a group of SFF writers and fans—tongue-in-cheek dubbing themselves the “Sad Puppies” since they were sad at the state of the awards—voted as a bloc on nominations of not-so politically-correct (PC) writers this year.  The progressive bloc, that had nominated nominations and awards the last few years (and who were dubbed “Social Justice Warriors, SJWs) were not amused, and urged voters to award “No Award” in all categories.  And that’s what happened, mostly.

So who won?  Some say the SJWs won when “Noa Ward” took the night.  Others say the more radical “Rabid Puppies” won when the voters ‘burned their own house down’, giving no awards rather than choose among the nominees.  Nobody much says the “Sad Puppies” won, other than the fact they wrote the agenda for an awards ceremony that was about the authors, not their works.

And why should I care?

I’m not a die-hard SFF fan.  I listen to Americana music and keep track of some folky music blogs.  I read public policy and economics non-fiction, flavored by classics in western fiction from Louis L’Amour or Wallace Stegner.  Ivan Doig is about as radical I get.  But I do occasionally go on a SFF jag—last winter I spent a lot of time with Diana Gabaldon‘s Outlander historical time-travel novels, and George R.R. Martin‘s Game of Thrones dysfunctional medieval-ish fantasy world.*  (Hint: Outlander > GoT)

I came to these series late.  I heard their TV buzz, yes, but I didn’t pick the books up until more than one friend/relation made a personal recommendation.  I guess you could say in my backward way, I read these authors Despite their renown.  And despite their awards.

Traditionally, awards and reviews have been a good way to recognize quality artistic material, but also for consumers as a way to choose among the variety of material available.  When you face a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf at the local bookstore) or page-upon-page at Amazon), how do you choose?  At my local bookstore, the paperback HBO tie-in is obvious on name-recognition alone.  On the far side is a local author, who signed the book, so that’s interesting.  Between them, Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, translated from the Chinese in hard-cover, with a “Hugo Award Winner” tab prominently displayed.  And a thiner little novel with a “Recommended by Staff” tab.

How do we choose?

I’m interested in the story—the author’s reputation is an indication if they are skilled at their craft, but I don’t really care if they are white, brown or blue, who they sleep with or what their politics are.  I mean, Hemingway was a jerk, but we still read his stories today because they are good.  So in the year of “Noa Ward” from the PC voters, does the Hugo Award recognize a quality story worth $30 on a budget?  Or does it bless a PC storyline I’m not at all interested in?  I’m not a Puppy, I’m not an anti-Puppy, I just want to spend my limited time and funds on good content.  So I skipped the Hugo to browse the staff selection—a more-trusted intermediary.  And I’ll likely check my local library before my next binge reading session, as an even-more-trusted intermediary.

The digital revolution was predicted to empower those authors whose writings had been marginalized, shut out of mainstream publishing, to overthrow the old monastic self-selecting order of cultural gatekeepers (meaning professional critics). Thus would critical faculties be sharpened and democratized. Digital platforms would crack open the cloistered and solipsistic world of academe, bypass the old presses and performing-arts spaces, and unleash a new era of cultural commerce. With smart machines there would be smarter people.
—Steve Wasserman, In Defense of Difficulty

The idea of the intermediary has be thinking more generally of political economy, moral philosophy and public-choice theory.  So much of life comes down to how we choose among limited resources.  There are only so many hours in a day, to work or to read, to produce or to consume or to volunteer for the betterment of mankind.  The Internet was supposed to eliminate intermediaries, to allow all manner of artists and producers to skip the middle-man and interact directly with consumers.  And it has.  And it hasn’t.  For every direct-purchase I make (music mostly, but humor me) I’m finding I just don’t have time to evaluate all the other opportunities available.  So it seems with the demise of trusted editors and middle managers, I rely even More on what trusted intermediaries I can find.

Sadly, groups like the Hugos basing awards on “diverse” authors rather than the “quality” of their works—choosing sides in the culture wars—speaks for itself.  I’ll devote my time elsewhere.


 * G.R.R. Martin is quite vested in the Hugo Awards and has made interesting commentary on the Puppies and his own alternate Alfie awards.

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