“No Award”: The Hugo Awards, Sad Puppies, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy Literature

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By: Chris Chan

Part One: What’s Happening With the Hugos?


This is the first of a series of articles, serving as an overview of one of the biggest controversies to divide fans of science fiction and fantasy in recent years. It’s the story of clashing perspectives and strong opinions, and how literature and fandom can both unite and divide. It is the hope of this author that these articles can serve as a means of building bridges and mending fences. However, given the vitriolic emotions in some quarters, this may be too optimistic a hope.

The Hugo Awards are meant to celebrate high-quality science fiction and fantasy writing, and since 1953, they’ve honored many works by celebrated writers, ranging from Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, to Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling. As with every creative award, from the Nobel Prize for Literature, to the Pulitzer Prize, to the Oscars and any other comparable prize, not every winner can please everybody. Some people are bound to loathe a winning work beloved by many, and countless amazing works have been snubbed of their well-deserved recognition.

Over the past five years, a group of writers and fans known as the Sad Puppies have expressed their displeasure with many of the Hugo winners and nominees, contending that political opinions, affiliations, and connections have trumped writing quality and storytelling skill in recent years, and that an “in-crowd” of people connected to the Hugos has exercised too much control over the nominees. In response, the Sad Puppies have made an effort to suggest new nominees, and in recent years they have shown a remarkable level of success over the content of the nominee slate.

The description of the Sad Puppies and their influence on the Hugos in many mass media outlets has been scathing. The Sad Puppies organizers have been dubbed bigots, sexists, and all sorts of vile names by opponents and critics. It is the contention of these articles that the attacks on the characters of the Sad Puppies writers has been slanderous.

Several prominent authors involved with the Sad Puppies have graciously consented to interviews: Sarah A. Hoyt, Amanda S. Green, Brad Torgersen, and John C. Wright. All of them insist that the common media narrative ascribing malicious intent to the Sad Puppies is defamatory. The Sad Puppies are not motivated by bigotry, but out of love for the genre, a desire to reshape the debate over what constitutes quality literature, and a desire to give works that they really appreciate the recognition that they believe is deserved.

Green explains, “One of the goals of Sad Puppies has always been to promote books (as well as short stories, films, etc.) that entertain. We want our fans to know there are alternatives out there, titles that will take them on flights of imagination where they can forget their troubles at work, etc., and just have fun.” Hoyt concurs, noting that, “Fun does not need to be vacuous or light… It does, however, need to be interesting and to draw the reader in. It does not and should not either be a dense and impenetrable forest of pretty words or (more likely) a barely disguised political pamphlet.” This speaks to the heart of the artistic and stylistic debate that propels the Sad Puppies: what is the purpose of science fiction, fantasy, and literature in general? What constitutes “good” or “bad” literature?

This is a debate that extends far beyond the Sad Puppies, the Hugos, and literature in general. Many genres, such as the mystery genre, have been having similar conversations for years. How do we know what great literature is? Is it what we like, what certain artists think we need, or is there something else at play here? Are social and class issues at work in attempts to divide quality writing from the also-rans? Torgersen believes so, saying that, “Really, the bottom line is that Sad Puppies dared to speak openly all the things which many people had been saying quietly (and often behind closed doors) for years: that [science fiction/fantasy] had become too obsessed with ‘literary’ credibility in contemporary literature circles.” Wright takes further issue with some of the pre-Sad Puppies Hugo Nominees, stating that, “The running joke was that this one-sided voting for dull and inferior but politically correct works and authors was the prime cause of sadness in big-eyed puppies. From this the slogan and the name of the movement began.”

Now, honest people can have genuine differences of opinion over the evaluation of literary merit, and it’s possible to dislike a work without malicious intent or bigotry-based motives. Matters of taste and ideology are central to this controversy. As we will see in future installments in this series, different people have different perspectives on the Hugos in recent years, and though certain contrasting reactions are equally valid, some narratives of this story have more validity than others. “Neo-Nazis Take Over Hugo Awards” is a much more eye-catching headline than “Science Fiction Writers Disagree Over What Constitutes Quality Writing,” but the latter is infinitely more based in reality than the former.

In this series of essays, numerous aspects of the Sad Puppies and the Hugos will be discussed. In order to properly start this narrative, an introduction to the Hugos is necessary.

What are the Hugo Awards?


The Hugo Awards are prizes that are given for achievements in writing in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. The Hugos are overseen by the World Science Fiction Convention, or “Worldcon,” and are named after Hugo Gernsback, a leading figure in the development and popularization of science fiction. The Hugo trophy is in the shape of a rocket, though the base of the statue changes from year to year. Though the categories have changed somewhat over time, at present there are 15 categories: Best Novel (over 40,000 words), Best Novella (17,500-40,000 words), Best Novelette (7,500-17,500 words), Best Short Story (under 7,500 words), Best Related Work (a non-fiction or critical piece of writing), Best Graphic Story, Best Dramatic Presentation [a movie, play, computer game, television episode, or other form of entertainment over ninety minutes long] (Long Form), Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form), Best Editor (Long Form), Best Editor (Short Form), Best Professional Artist, Best Semiprozine, Best Fanzine, Best Fancast, Best Fan Writer, and Best Fan Artist, along with the John W. Campbell Writer for Best New Writer.

Unlike many other awards, the Hugos are nominated and voted on by the fans. Anybody who pays the necessary fee can submit nominations and vote for a winner. Other writing awards, like the Edgar Awards for crime writing, have a review panel looking over and evaluating submitted works, selecting their top picks, and then the voting members pick from the choices the judges have chosen as the best of the year.

Every awards nomination process has pros and cons. If a panel of judges serves as the gatekeepers to the awards, then the preferences of a small group determines the nominees, and the opinions of the judges may not reflect the broader tastes of other fans and the general public. When the general public submits nominees (as the Hugos does – at least amongst those members of the public that choose to be voters) there are really only three ways for a work to get a nomination. The first way is to be very popular. Bestsellers and authors with a broad fan base are far more likely to get nominated because more people have read and liked them. It’s hard to be nominated when very few people know about you. This means that obscure writers and works printed in publications with small circulations have far less chance of gaining recognition. The second way to get a nomination is to organize. If enough fans get together to draw attention to writings and authors they consider deserving, then such a grassroots movement can tip the scales, especially when in many cases only a few dozen fans are necessary in order to get a nomination for a Hugo. As we will see later, the Sad Puppies have used this method in order to gain recognition for their preferred works. The third way to get a nomination is to be very lucky, and that somehow sufficient numbers of people have read your work, liked it, and independently decided to put you up for a nomination. This can happen, but it’s not nearly as reliable as the first two methods.

Five years ago, Larry Correia, the creator of the Monster Hunter International series, expressed his belief that the Hugo Awards were overlooking some high-quality works and authors, and that certain works were nominated mainly for the philosophical and political perspectives expressed in them. This was – and is – a highly controversial opinion. As Wright notes, “When Mr. Correia complained in print of this one-sidedness, he was savagely attacked and called a liar.” Regardless of the disagreement over the point, Correia decided to try and shake up the nominations, and in 2013, he suggested that his fans nominate some works that he believed to be interesting, well-written, and deserving of celebration. The Hugo Awards haven’t been the same since.

Coming up in Part Two of this series – A short history of the Sad Puppies at the Hugos


    13 Comments

  1. Virgil SammsMay 26th, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    “When Mr. Correia complained in print of this one-sidedness, he was savagely attacked and called a liar.”

    Citation please, or it didn’t happen. Who made these attacks, and when?

    “Correia decided to try and shake up the nominations, and in 2013, he suggested that his fans nominate some works that he believed to be interesting, well-written, and deserving of celebration.”

    According to Correia at the time, this was not his only motivation. He suggested that fans nominate his own “Monster Hunter Legion” for best novel, “because I am selfish and entirely motivated by spite.”
    http://monsterhunternation.com/2013/02/28/hugo-nominating-there-is-only-ten-days-left/

  2. steve davidsonMay 28th, 2017 at 4:50 am

    what a load of unabashed hooey.

    Congrats for some excellent propaganda.

    Where to start? The general public does not pay a fee to vote…individuals purchase a membership in the World Science Fiction Society. Privileges of membership include attending Worldcon, receiving publications, nominating and/or voting for awards, attending e business meeting, voting for the con’s location in comng years.

    The Hugos are NOT a “popular award”, they’re an award given out by the members of an organization.

    The puppies engaged in behavior that has been culturally taboo in SF fandom since the beginning of time…you don’t organize and block vote…you vote for yourself. The results…every single puppy finalist bar one has been rejected by the members and voted below No Award, meaning that No Award received more final votes than the finalist. (And btw, before you run you BS in the No Award thing…it has always been an option on the ballot.)

    The puppies are a bunch of folks, largely associated with alt-right movement, who are attempting to pervert the award to favor themselves and their chosen political ideology. Because fandom runs itself on logic and long established community ideals, it has taken a number of years to effectively counter the puppy bs, but by this time next year, we’ll probably have seen the last of it shuffled off to wherever bad ideas go.

  3. Greg HullenderMay 28th, 2017 at 8:40 am

    You mention that “The second way to get a nomination is to organize,” but you don’t report the fact that this was almost never done and was broadly considered unsporting. When the Puppies chose to go that route, even though it was entirely within the rules, they were taking a path no one had taken since the Scientologists tried to get L. Ron Hubbard a Hugo in 1987. In 1987, the fans expressed their displeasure by voting Hubbard’s “Black Genesis” below No Award, and for many years, no one else tried it. Not publicly, at least.

    Larry correctly pointed out that the nomination system had a huge hole in it, although I don’t think he realized just how huge that hole was outside of the Best-Novel category. Even with the ~100 people he had in 2014, he could have had over 60% of the nominations, if he’d targeted all the categories. (Here’s my analysis.) Of course 2015 showed just how broken the system was, when 10% of the nominators chose 80% of the finalists (and could have have over 90% if they’d played their cards right).

    Regardless of the merits of the Puppy’s case, Larry was dead right that the nominating system was deeply flawed and depended on an honor system among nominators. What he didn’t anticipate was a) how vulnerable the system was to slates and b) how much opposition there was to using that tactic–especially when it allowed a minority to sweep all the finalists in multiple categories. These are key factors in the story.

  4. Lela BuisMay 28th, 2017 at 11:17 am

    Actually, there wouldn’t be any men on the Hugo ballot at all this year without Vox Day’s activism. I hope you take that into account in your review.

  5. Bruce AMay 28th, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    That’s right, back before the Sad Puppies, the only attempt to game the nominations was by the Scientologists, and they only did it for a single book. The Sad Puppies took it further and provided a handy dandy list of 1-5 suggested nominees per category, most of them by the authors who post at the Mad Genius Club website. Since the Worldcon membership is a diverse group it only took about 100-200 people all voting the same list to overwhelm the the rest of the membership. I can hardly wait until you explain how Ted Beale, aka Vox Day, hijacked the Sad Puppies slate with his own Rabid Puppies slate by replacing several Sad Puppies choices with stuff published by his vanity press, Castalia House, or some that were chosen to “make the SJW heads explode”. His gamergate synchophants managed to overwhelm the Sad Puppies choices, proving the Sad Puppies irrelevant. I wait with anticipation to see how you try to explain that the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies slates were a good thing, especially since it appears that some Rabid Puppy slate choices might have received more nominations than actual sales. Self-serving slates like either Puppies slate don’t fix the problem of “overlooked high-quality works” not getting enough nominations to be finalists, it replaces well-received works with self-serving over-hyped works of inferior quality. Having read the Puppies nominated works for the last few years, I have no qualms about voting no award above nearly all of their nominations.

  6. SusanJune 6th, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    My word, this is an incredibly hostile and self-righteous group.

    A) Cites for hostile responses.

    How about George R R Martin? http://grrm.livejournal.com/417521.html

    Larry’s response to GRRM:
    http://monsterhunternation.com/2015/04/09/a-response-to-george-r-r-martin-from-the-author-who-started-sad-puppies/

    B) Larry’s original post. Please note that it is very tongue in cheek and funny.
    https://larrycorreia.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/how-to-get-correia-nominated-for-a-hugo/

    There are links to the other posts up to the Hugos. Just google Larry’s name and Sad Puppies.

    The smug attitudes of the above commenters are perfect examples of what is wrong with the Hugos. And as someone who has been a reader of sf/f since about 8 years of age, it has been disheartening to see what it has become. I watched video of the Hugos for the first couple of years of Sad Puppies and it was sad, as in, heartbreaking. Voters didn’t read the books. They were so incensed that someone who had written entertaining, thought provoking stories without checking off all the politically correct boxes that they even refused to vote. I borrowed books on the list from my library. I couldn’t figure out why some of them were nominated, much less published. I could have made a bingo card from the little boxes. Take a look at the photos of the winners. There are a LOT of white faces in it, predominantly male.
    It was heart breaking to see the beahviours and responss from some fairly influential writers that I had once admired. It was sickening. Childish, egotistical, rude and incredibly ugly.

    This article is well done and I look forward to reading the series.
    Rabid Puppies -it was denounced and repudiated by the Sad Puppies folks.

  7. RokesmithJune 6th, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    Right, it was never done before, despite people like Harlan Ellison talking about it, or the very open (and still easily found online) posts like John Scalzi’s “Award Pimpage” posts from many years.

    Here’s 2011, just at random.

    http:// whatever.scalzi.com /2011/01/03/the-2011-award-pimpage-post/

  8. Greg HullenderJune 8th, 2017 at 7:06 am

    The Scalzi article identifies which of the author’s eligible works he thinks were award-worthy, and he urges people to read them and consider nominating them. That’s completely fair game. I think most authors do the same thing. What was not cool was urging people to vote for a list of works without reading them.

    A big part of the story is the disconnect between people who think the Hugos should be about the quality of the works nominated and the ones who think they should be about the people. In posts from Puppies, I almost never see any attempt to praise the content of the stories they nominated. (Remember that my focus is short fiction.) Instead, they go on and on about the authors, praising their character, their politics, their abilities, and their history.

    What the final voting showed was that fans voted for content over people every time. Vox Day even conducted an experiment to that effect, naming some mainstream works on his 2016 slate to “prove” that fans would mindlessly vote anything he proposed under No Award. Nope. Fans had no trouble telling the difference between quality and crap. The sole exception was What Price Humanity?, by David VanDyke, which was a quality work that still got voted under No Award in 2016 owing to its association with Castalia House.

  9. Greg HullenderJune 8th, 2017 at 7:40 am

    @Susan. Thanks for that link to Larry’s original post. For some reason, I had had trouble finding it. It contains this critical observation from him:

    “And here’s the kicker, it doesn’t take very many votes for something to actually get nominated! I was shocked how few it was. . . . In the smaller categories, like Best Fanzine . . . , it only takes like 30 votes! In best novel, the biggest, baddest award, it only takes like 100…”

    This is what made the entire thing possible. Trying to make a large group of people pick a small set of finalists from a huge set of potential nominees is really hard. Sad Puppies 4 found that out the hard way. I’m told Brad Torgersen tried the same thing for Sad Puppies 3 before he gave up and created a curated list instead. Even though you may have thousands of people making nominations, their votes are spread over so many works that even the top ones just get 100 or so votes. (For the Hugos, it tends to scale with square-root of N, so to double votes for the #1 position you need four times as many voters.)

    Historically, the minor categories functioned because only people who really knew something about them bothered to nominate. This system was terribly vulnerable to abuse, as Larry pointed out, but the threat of a No Award in the final vote tended to keep people honest.

    Also, the Sad Puppies pointedly refused to denounce the Rabid Puppies. They made one or two weak statements insisting they weren’t the same group (despite the similar logos and overlapping slates), but they consistently insisted that it would be wrong for them to denounce Vox Day or the Rabid Puppies.

    Anyway, the Rabid Puppies outnumbered the Sad ones 2-1 in their first year and replaced them almost entirely in the second year. I think it’s fair to say that the Rabid leadership and the Sad leadership were two different groups of people with at least slightly different ideas who were competing for the attention of a single group of Puppies. In that content, the Rabids won hands down.

  10. Brad R. TorgersenJune 10th, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    The hilarious part about the whole “The Puppies never even read what they voted for!” argument, is that the people making it were perfectly fine seeing the Nielsen-Haydens use TORs media apparatus to cyber-blast an all-points bulletin to the Social Justice Zealot universe—thus guaranteeing at least 500 (or more) activist-scabs arrived for voting.

    None of the activist-scabs read anything. They merely knew they were fighting Pure Evil. Because Salon, Slate, Arthur Chu, Briana Wu, Kameron Hurley, and John Scalzi are NEVER WRONG, EVER!

    (laughter)

    Dear disciples of Trufandom: to quote Kipling, Tommy sees.

    You can’t put this thing back in the box. You unleashed the CHORFholes. You were in such a hurry to “win” you did not realize how this whole fracas would resonate out into the wider universe.

    HINT: the wider universe is allowed to make up its own mind.

  11. Brad R. TorgersenJune 10th, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    “The puppies engaged in behavior that has been culturally taboo in SF fandom since the beginning of time…you don’t organize and block vote…” — Steve Davidson

    And yet, Steve, that is precisely what the anti-Puppies did. To “prove” that block votes are “bad” the opponents of Sad Puppies engaged in fandom’s all-time greatest block vote, ever.

    To “prove” that they “support women” the anti-Puppies trashed the most-voted women editors in the history of the award.

    Always, the opponents of the Puppies seemed determined to be their own best exemplars, of the worst behavior they claimed to be agitating against.

    Again, Tommy sees.

  12. Greg HullenderJune 14th, 2017 at 8:57 am

    Brad, you chose the Sad Puppy nominees for short fiction for the 2015 Hugos (Sasquan). With the sole exception of “The Journeyman: In the Stone House,” these works were simply poorly written. They had unnatural dialogue, intrusive narrators, purple prose, and/or bad science. At least one had no plot at all. Several (including Journeyman) were fragments of longer stories and were almost unreadable in isolation. (“Championship B’tok” for example, or “Flow,” which simply ends in the middle of the action.)

    Going into 2015, I know a lot of people hadn’t made up their minds. (I talked to several at Sasquan.) Sure, the “inside baseball” people had really strong feelings, but others thought, “well, why didn’t more people nominate stories if they cared so much?” Lots and lots of people who voted in the Hugos–most, I’d wager–actually did read the stories. It’s what people like George R.R. Martin were telling us to do, after all. To read each story and vote on it on its own merits–regardless of what we thought of the writer or of how it got nominated.

    And that’s what sank your boat.

    If you had genuinely picked “good stories, well-told,” as you had promised, we’d be living in a very different world. We might still have seen No Award in some of the other categories, but not in the fiction categories. (It’s a real pity “Tuesday’s with Molekesh the Destroyer” was disqualified, since it was genuinely award-worthy, and it would have been a good test of people’s principles.) Instead, people who actually read the finalists were angry, and we were angry with good reason. We were expecting fish and bread, but you gave us snakes and stones. After that, it’s not a surprise that many people then went straight down the list and voted all of your nominees under No Award. I disapprove of that, but I certainly understand it, and I understand why, after 2015, they weren’t willing to give any puppy nominees a chance at all.

    You had one shot at convincing people that there really were lots of excellent works that just never got nominated, and you blew it.

    It is indeed true that some of the most vocal opponent of the Puppies have been hypocritical in a variety of ways, and they can be very loud and visible, but there are only a handful of them, and I think you overestimate their influence compared to people like Mr. Martin. But the biggest influencer of all was you, yourself. You ought to take responsibility for that.

  13. FenJuly 16th, 2017 at 2:51 am

    The set of commenters above Susan are woefully dishonest. But I thank them for exemplifying Correria’s point.

    Short version: on one side you have a bunch of SJWs who want to award Hugos based on whether the author’s skin color, or whether his protagonist is a Black lesbian handicapped transexual fighting Teh Patriarchy.

    On the other side, you have a bunch of people who think the Hugo should be awarded based on merit.

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