Readers, Conventions, and Sad/Rabid Puppies

One thing I’ve discovered over the years as an author is that most people don’t really read books as much as they claim they do, and that, except for the comparatively rare devoted readers, any conversation about publishing and books lasts less than five minutes with most people, no matter how educated or intelligent they are. But as my wife reminds me, the same is true about her profession – voice and opera. When I went back to my college reunion last month [the first and possibly the last reunion I will attend], a number of my classmates made kind remarks about the number of books I had written and published… and in less than a few minutes the conversation was elsewhere – and these men were all high-paid and respected professionals. Interestingly enough, perhaps one of the best conversations I had was with the one who’d become a professional guide and bush pilot in Alaska. But then, only a handful of all of them have ever read science fiction or fantasy.

I suspect other authors, especially F&SF authors, run into the same situations, and I have no doubt that devoted readers have the same problem. Why else would so many flock to conventions? And why else would so many F&SF readers take off weekends and sometimes even a week to mix with other readers and professionals and would-be professionals in the field? [As a side note, this casual disregard for the written word is possibly why those individuals who are not F&SF readers join book-reading clubs, because that may be the only alternative for them.]

Some of the most involved F&SF readers do feel incredibly strongly, as evidenced by the furor over the Sad/Rabid Puppies slate voting for the Hugo awards, strongly enough that a number of those involved even reject suggestions that some moderation just might be in order, all of which reminds me of the ancient political furor over Barry Goldwater’s 1964 declaration that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And… moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

The problem in both politics and the current Sad/Rabid Puppies kerfuffle is that each side’s assumptions behind the words differ. Conservatives view “liberty” and “justice” in terms of property, while liberals focus on human rights. I’d like to think that moderates realize that both property and human rights are essential to a functioning society.

Likewise in the F&SF kerfuffle, it seems to me that the Sad/Rabid Puppies tend to focus more extensively, at times almost exclusively, on the importance of action, storyline, and individual worth and action, while the more “liberal” side insists that the context of the society/world in which storylines exist should play a far greater role, and that no functional future society should be racially/culturally unidimensional. The Sad/Rabid Puppies appear to believe that the other side wants to continue using the Hugo awards to reward works and individuals that further their goals, while the “liberal” side believes that the Sad/Rabid Puppies want to wrench the awards back to representing the male, patriarchal U.S. culture of the 1950s. That’s an oversimplification, since each group has individuals who don’t fit those definitions, but I think it captures the gist of the conflict.

The sad problem is that the unspoken simplistic assumptions on each side ignore their commonalities, and the fact that, for F&SF to continue as a vital form, elements of both sides need to be represented and that neither should “dominate” the awards. Of course, since the politicians and all too many voters haven’t been able to comprehend this concept, why should mere readers and authors?

13 thoughts on “Readers, Conventions, and Sad/Rabid Puppies”

  1. Thom says:

    If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that if you’re a moderate you catch it from both sides. Or, to quote Mr. Miyagi from the (original) Karate Kid, “Walk middle of road? Squish. Like grape.”

  2. Chris says:

    Usually I ignore the Hugo awards–largely because it has been pretty rare (at least, over the last twenty years) for the nominees to align with my personal reading tastes–but the back and forth this year has gotten me to pay attention. Unfortunately, it’s also turned me off from the field. In the past, I’ve usually switched between fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and historical fiction, but all of the brouhaha has convinced me to stick to mystery and historical fiction for awhile. I doubt that my absence will be noticed and I’m not interested in changing anyone’s mind, but I do wonder how many other readers have had a similar reaction.

    Also, I agree with Thom about being a moderate. It’s the one spot where everyone’s convinced you’re wrong, they just don’t agree on where my errors lie. C’est l’avis.

  3. Thank you for writing the most succinct post I have yet seen to capture the gist of the Sad Puppies / anti-Puppies furor. Next time someone asks me what has gotten people so worked up, I’ll send them here.

    As one of the squished grapes despairing of the excesses of both sides, I fear the conflict will only prolong for years with increasing bitterness.

    It seems to me that one of the similarities between the Sad Puppy supporters and the anti-Puppies is that each side’s most strident advocates are confident that the ‘other lot’ are an increasingly irrelevant faction cut off from the mainstream of science fiction readership. They can’t both be right.

    I recently looked into the sales figures for adult science fiction, and estimate that what some would call ‘outsider’ SF publishers (self-publishers, 47 North and Baen) make about half of all adult SF book sales. Buying a book from one of these sources doesn’t necessarily say anything about whether a reader is pro, anti, or neutral on Sad Puppies or any other issue. However, I suspect the more vocal Sad Puppies supporters would claim the readers of these ‘outsider’ publishers to be their natural supporters.

    Whether this is true or not isn’t the issue. The belief that it is true, bolstered by evidence of the huge sales from these three sources, will fuel this dispute for years.

    Would that it were otherwise, but I don’t see matters calming down.

  4. David says:

    Like you have said in a previous post, the actual number of voters for the Hugo Awards is ridiculously small. Which makes the whole controversy funny, since its only a small amount of rabid supporters on each side who are seriously involved. I would apply Sayre’s law here. “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

  5. Jason says:

    I think your divide as to what each side sees as “liberty and justice” is a bit simplistic. As a conservative, property, although a very important right to me, is only one of many. To me, to feel like a free human, I need at a minimum property rights(i.e. no high taxes, extremely minimal regulation), the right to self defense, and the right to have the traditions and culture of my society remain intact. This last is especially important to my humanity. If someone does not like the traditions and culture of a society, they should leave it, not try to change it. To try to change it is an assault upon those people in that society who value tradition, and is one of the most vile acts of the modern leftist.

    1. Any attempt to summarize all aspects of such issues will be somewhat simplistic, as I noted. I would also note that the traditions and culture of the United States have changed greatly since its founding. We no longer permit slavery, and we don’t disenfranchise women, for example. In practice and under the Constitution, the people of this nation have the right to peaceful change under law. You may not agree with that change, but if the majority does, then that is their right. You may regard some aspects of change as an assault on your beliefs, but those who seek change may see your beliefs as an assault upon theirs.

    2. Ryan Jackson says:

      Trying to find a way to put this simply without potentially offending…

      Jason, did you root for the Rebel Holders in Arms-Commander and see Saryn and Zeldyan as the villain protagonists?

  6. Alison says:

    I enjoy science fiction in part because it can give insight into our current society and trends. Even more importantly, it can portray people and societies that we are not usually exposed to; writers can experiment with ideas that illustrate the whole range of this varied and unusual galaxy through their imagination. Unfortunately, if readers only read and support writers who support their own narrow point of view, we lose that diversity that can challenge our preconceptions. Personally I wish the Hugos just focused on great writers.

  7. Eric Ashley says:

    Poul Anderson, Kevin J. Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Aaron Allston, Piers Anthony….
    Ben Bova, Greg Bear, Terry Brooks, Bob Blink…
    Arthur C. Clarke
    Stephen Donaldson, Doug Dandridge, David Drake…

    Thats about sixty-five books there, and I’ve met David Drake. And I’m sure there are way more I’ve forgotten among the first letters of the alphabet.

    As to the Top Ten which I included you in…

    Vernor Vinge for Marooned and A Fire Upon the Deep
    Lars Walker for Wolftime and Erling’s Year
    The General series by Drake and S.M. Stirling
    Niven and Pournelle for Mote
    L.E. Modestit, Jr. for its hard to say. Your straight SF is lesser, and there are a few that are lesser, but you are very consistent.
    Jim Butcher for Dresden Files
    Brandon Sanderson for his metals books, which I haven’t read all of them.
    Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
    Poul Anderson for The Time Patrol
    Terry Pratchett for Discworld

    Composing that list was not as easy as I’d thought, and its not wholly accurate.

    I do like LOTR, but I found The Dark is Rising to be kinda pathetic. And mayhap The Deed of Paksennarrion and Dies the Fire belongs on that list ahead of others.

  8. B. Durbin says:

    As a reader who has no skin in the game, the level of fury is what astonished me. I mean, I saw the setup (being as I have some favorite authors on the Sad Puppy side) and then I saw the bomb (being as I have some favorite authors on the anti side).

    I mean, I saw phrases like “the death of the Hugo Award” and the equivalent of “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” slung around. Just off-the-wall vitriol.

    And you know what I wanted to say (but have been kind of afraid to, lest I get squished like grape)?

    “The Hugo has survived many things. It gave _Science Made Stupid_ the award for Best Non-Fiction Book. (It was good, but “non-fiction” for a parody humor book?) It nominated, as someone said, something that closely resembled soft-core porn. Heck, someone’s award acceptance speech was nominated, specifically using a ‘flood the nominations’ tactic. CALM DOWN ALREADY.”

    Anyway. I’m doing the only sane thing, which is to read or view the selections, and voting on the merits as determined by me, and not sallying into the fray. Except to note that Worldcon is probably laughing all the way to the bank, as they should.

    I hope member totals reach an all-time high this year, and keep growing. If it takes controversy to do that, well, I’ll hold my nose and hope for the best. But I won’t add to the stink.

  9. Avery Abernethy says:

    Mr. Modesitt:
    I appreciate the tone & temper of your remarks. I’ve bought (in hardcover due to allergies) everything from the Recluse & Imager series. I can send a emailed photo of my 2 shelves of your hardbacks if you disbelieve my claim.

    I’ve become very angry at the intemperate remarks of multiple Tor editors. I voted in the Hugos this year for the first time. I voted because I just became aware that I could vote this year. I also voted because I have disliked pretty much every Hugo winner in the last decade. I cannot imagine Heinlein winning a Hugo today.

    I hate giving money to people who hold me in contempt or hold and proudly proclaim outright falsehoods about people in their profession.

    Outside of your works and a few independents, in the last 10 years I’ve mostly been buying Baen or other non-Tor books. Not by design, but by what I’ve liked.

    When your contract with Tor is up, I would request that you consider signing with a different publisher. It is your business decision and not mine. But I could not in good conscience continue to work with editors who publically insult their readers and managers who neither rebuke nor terminate the employment of people who insult paying customers.

    And again, I appreciate the reasonable tone of your remarks. One can disagree without being a jerk.

  10. Swampyankee says:

    One of the problems I had with the whole “sad/rabid puppy” kerfuffle is that one of its leaders is a virulent and stentorious racist.

    The other is that I think that harkening back to the heroic sf/f of the past is nostalgia for characters struggling to achieve one dimensionality, simplistic plots, and a world where only the right sort of people count.

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