The Hugo Awards – “No Award” Part VI: Ideology, Ideas, and Speculative Fiction

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By: Chris Chan

This is the sixth in a series of articles. For Part I, please see here. For Part II, please see here. For Part III, please see here. For Part IV, please see here. For Part V, please see here.

The Hugo Awards are meant to celebrate the best in science fiction and fantasy writing. As the Sad Puppies controversies have illuminated, different people have wide-ranging opinions as to what constitutes quality prose. The scores of previous commentators on the Hugos have voiced a wide variety of opinions on the recent Hugo winners, nominees, and Puppy recommendations. As stated in an earlier article, tastes are subjective. Readers can honestly disagree on the merits of a work, but people often have reasons for disliking a certain work – some people may be put off by a character, a plot twist, prose style, or any combination of factors. The purpose of this article to outline some of the aesthetic and ideological underpinnings of the literary tastes behind some of the most vocal members of the Sad Puppies.

When Larry Correia sowed the seeds that led to the full-fledged Sad Puppies movement, one of the stated reasons for his displeasure at many of the recent sci-fi/fantasy award-nominated works in recent years was that he considered them preachy “message fiction.” It’s a common complaint in many genres – often, some critics and fans argue that a certain work’s moral, political argument, or theme is presented in a heavy-handed way. Such criticisms extend far beyond the sci-fi/fantasy genres. Most years, films with deliberate messages on all sorts of topics (though not necessarily all sorts of viewpoints) are nominated for Oscars. Film critics respond to such movies in different ways – sometimes critics cheer a film for mirroring their personal beliefs, or conversely, deride a film because they disagree with the moral. Some movies are so heavy-handed with their editorializing that even the most sympathetic viewers are put off by it. That is one reason for the polarized responses to the films and television shows of Stanley Kramer, Norman Lear, and Aaron Sorkin (just to name a few, there are any more examples) – the messages in their productions are often front and center, and viewers can feel confirmed in their beliefs, patronizingly hectored, persuaded, or put off by the works.

Indeed, there’s nothing inherently wrong with an artistic work promoting a message or moral or position. One of the world’s most famous and influential works of message fiction, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is widely credited with turning untold numbers of readers against slavery by its often-brutal depictions of slave life. President Abraham Lincoln recognized the influential power of the work, famously greeting Stowe by declaring, “So this is the little lady who made this great war.” The French writer Flaubert was displeased by Stowe’s constant moralizing (though not by the actual moral), once remarking, “Does one have to make observations about slavery? Depict it; that’s enough…An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are all examples of fiction containing strong messages on various subjects, and they are justly classics taught in schools around America. Message fiction can be a powerful force for good – and ill, depending on what’s being promoted – but what happens if a story feels more like an editorial than a work of fiction, or if one side of the political spectrum is favored by awards, critics, and publishers over the other?

Indeed, there are many critics and readers who enjoy it if the books they read promote messages that reflect their personal beliefs. There are pundits who prefer that their reading material displays – to use an oft-utilized phrase – a “social conscience.” Towards the start of the Puppies saga, Correia quipped that, “The fact that I write unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic annoys the literati to no end. When I got nominated for the Campbell, the literati message-fic crowd had a conniption fit. A European snob reviewer actually wrote, ‘If Larry Correia wins the Campbell, it will END WRITING FOREVER.’”

There is a long history of critics and scholars arguing that fiction must be “serious” in order to be “great,” and there is an equally lengthy history of dissenters who believe that the entertainment value of a work is just as important. G.K. Chesterton, the author of the Father Brown mysteries and scores of other works in multiple genres, penned the essay “A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls” in 1901 (a penny dreadful was a serialized work of fiction, often containing adventure tales or shocking crimes, and each inexpensively printed edition cost just one penny – an affordable form of entertainment in Victorian era Britain). In that essay, Chesterton noted that the penny dreadfuls tapped into deep-seated needs for entertainment, imagination, and diversion, and that the critics who denounced such fictions as wastes of time were deficiently versed in their knowledge of human nature and tastes. Furthermore, Chesterton rejected the idea that the penny dreadfuls were immoral due to their depictions of crime and violence, because the overarching themes of the penny dreadfuls were actually profoundly moral, whereas the so-called “higher critics” were at the time debating and denigrating the concept of morality altogether. In contrast, so-called “serious” works, featuring pessimism, nihilism, libertinism, and explicit content, could arguably have a far more harmful impact on their readers than the penny dreadfuls, Chesterton argues.

John C. Wright voices themes and arguments comparable to Chesterton’s. Attacking the “message fiction” trend, Wright explains in an interview that, “Now, a story told merely to act as a vehicle for self-righteous self-praise is mind-numbingly dull. A tale told by an unskilled wordsmith of average intelligence attempting to mimic genius by reciting popular political shibboleths can encompass no creative thought, since it is primarily imitative of something the imitator does not understand.” Such an approach is, in Wright’s view, both morally and artistically deficient, and the rot is spreading. Wright further contends that, “Not just written science fiction, but films and shows and comic books are continually suffering spiritual degradation, castration of manhood, and lobotomy of common sense, defenestration of sound storytelling.”

As for the critics who celebrate the trend of message fiction, Wright declares that, “To them, as are all things, science fiction stories are a tool of social engineering. The stories are not to be published and read for the sake of entertainment, enjoyment, and edification. They are to serve as instruments of propaganda… and for self-righteous self-congratulation.” In his advice to up-and-coming authors, Wright exhorts would-be writers to “Adopt the correct motive for writing: myself, I write to please heaven. I have no interest in pleasing Uncle Screwtape [the demonic corruptor of souls featured in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters] or any of his minions and thralls, knowing or unknowing, here on earth. To wring the cold smile from a dead-eyed fanatic that hates my civilization, my nation, my faith, my family and my life is not one of my goals and should not be yours.”

Now, the critical opinions of those connected to Sad Puppies are not universally shared, and a full analysis of the counter-opinions, rebuttals, diverging concurring opinions, and alternative viewpoints regarding what constitutes quality literature, critical trends, and so forth, could fill several volumes, and indeed, a civil debate over literary values and standards has the potential to provide a fruitful understanding of tastes and what leads people to approve of some literary works and reject others. The breadth and depth of the critical opinions regarding the current state of literature demonstrate the complexities of the debates over what should constitute “the best of the year.” Overwhelmingly, the public statements of the major figures connected to the Sad Puppies stress their personal criticisms and personal dislikes for past Hugo nominees on thematic and content grounds. It is important to understand the personal opinions of some of the leading figures connected to Sad Puppies in order to explain the mindsets of those involved and the reasons why they believe that alternative creative works of fiction deserve to be recognized by major awards.

Mr. Wright’s wife, who writes under the name L. Jagi Lamplighter, is a regular contributor to the blog SuperversiveSF, which seeks to provide a counterpoint to perceived literary trends of moral nihilism, despair, and ugliness posing as realism in fiction. (SuperversiveSF was a Hugo nominee for Best Fanzine in 2016, and was on the 2016 Rabid Puppies recommended list.) An overview of the definition and goals of a “superversive” approach to literature can be found here. In her essay “First They Came for the Oscars,” she theorizes about the reasons why in recent years, the choices of the Academy Awards seem to diverge so sharply from the general viewing public, and then applies the conclusions of her Oscars analysis to the Hugos.

She writes:

“The Academy Awards are voted on by…the Academy For Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. These are serious professionals who care about the business. This means they watch LOTS of movies.
Lots. Scads, even.

And, like reviewers, who often pan movies audiences love, they begin to put a higher and higher value on originality.

Because they’ve seen it before. They want something new.

Also, they like things that are creative because they build on other things, things only they have seen. This movie harkens back in a clever way to one from fifty years ago. That impresses someone who has seen both movies.

It doesn’t do jack for the public.

So, the insular quality of the voting audience has, over the years, made the Oscars go from topical to trivial.

And good movies go by unnoticed and unremarked upon…except in the box office…

So…what about the Hugos?

Same thing happened.

Hugos used to go to the big, commercially successful books everyone loved. (Like The Martian. I think we all agree…on both sides of the great Hugo divide…that The Martian would have deserved the Best Novel award this year, had it been eligible.) …

There were winners people still love today, such as Dune and Lord of Light. And winners that, nowadays, I alone still remember and like, such as And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal).
But back then, there was a regular corollary between the books that won and the books that were selling to general fandom.

Nowadays, the Hugos seem to have gone the way of the Academy Awards—being awarded by a relatively small group of fans who have read it all. So they look for very different things in a book than the general reading public.

There is nothing wrong with this….

But a vote from a small crowd of fans is not the same as a vote from a large one.”

Brad R. Torgersen goes in a similar direction as he talks about how many prominent people in science fiction and fantasy are trying to merge the genre into highbrow literature, and argues that the publishing industry is leaving a big portion of fandom behind, and dismissing some of the more entertaining features of the genre that gave it a loyal fan base in the past. He argues,
“The disheartening part is watching SF/F abandon the very aspects of itself, which made it soar in the 1970s and 1980s. TOR [a leading sci-fi/fantasy publisher] especially has several powerful people working on the inside to slowly strip the SF/F “stain” away from the books it publishes lately. So that TOR’s SF/F books can go be on the “important” book shelves with the mainstream contemporary literary fiction, and nobody will know the difference… The problem with this approach is that it’s been tried before, in the form of the New Wave. It didn’t work commercially, and it won’t work now. SF/F does best when it does not try to hide what it is. The motion picture industry more or less gets this right. But the traditional publishing industry, with TOR at the pinnacle, seems determined to get it all wrong. Which is a disservice to both authors, and fans. But then, many SF/F “fans” these days don’t seem interested in the genre, beyond using it as a political platform for sloganeering and policy-pushing, where various forms of social unhappiness are concerned. Thus more and more authors, fans, and books, are written either partially or wholly with political hot-button arguments about sexuality, gender, and ethnicity in mind.” Torgersen’s opinions have sparked controversy when he has expressed them on his blog, and if a polite and respectful dialogue over the aforementioned issues of science fiction and fantasy going “highbrow,” publishers’ promotional tactics, and the reactions of the broader public to the changes in the field.

This leads to a major issue in genre literature: the concept of “literary “gentrification.” There are many self-styled “highbrow” writers who have written in the fields of crime or science fiction, who claim that their approaches, which subvert standard tropes of the genres or supposedly elevate works through stylistic and thematic additions, who claim that they are taking a “lowbrow” genre and raising into it into “a respectable form of literature,” as the great detective story writer Dorothy L. Sayers once commented, possibly in reference to the lengthening, increased thematic exploration, and deeper characterization of her later mystery novels.

The battles over how to define quality literature are fierce, and expand way beyond the Hugos. They cover all genres, and the battlegrounds are academic departments, journals, online forums, and reading groups. Whatever one’s opinion of what constitutes great writing may be, enthusiastic fans may want to promote works and trends they love, and perhaps also try to marginalize stories and attitudes they despise. This form of active fandom has been shaping the Hugo nominations over the past several years.

Coming up in Part Seven of this series – What is a Nominator to Do?


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