The Sad Puppies vs. the Hugo Awards OR Being in the Crossfire in the Fight for Significance


It’s easy to be intimidated by mean people. See through their mask. Underneath is an insecure and unhappy person. They are alienated from others because they are alienated from themselves.

Have compassion for them. Not pity, not condemning, not fear, but compassion. Feel for their suffering. Identify with their core humanity. You might be able to influence them for the good. You might not. Either way your compassion frees you from their destructiveness. And if you would like to help them change, compassion gives you a chance to succeed.

-from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book Happiness,p.179

I’ve already talked about Toxic Fear, the extreme Us vs. Them mentality in our nation that begun in during the Obama administration, and that has been greatly exacerbated during the Trump administration, all in relation to the WorldCon implosion and redemption, particularly given THIS and THAT point of view.

However, it was the quote from Rabbi Pliskin this morning that gave me a different perspective on Sad Puppies vs. the Hugo Awards thing.

Part of the inspiration for crafting this essay comes from fellow blogger Joy Pixley’s report of her attending WorldCon 76. She had a pretty good time, and in my discussions with her, she didn’t see any (or at least not much) evidence of bias at WorldCon. However, she did notice a number of Christians and religious Jews in attendance, and no one mobbed, beat, harassed, or otherwise attacked them for their faiths.

Now speaking of bias, it seems female authors swept the Hugo Awards for the second year in a row. Interesting, and statistically a little unlikely, but as I said before, the Hugo Awards are absolutely not designed to be fair and objective.

I know that sounds harsh, but really, only a tiny handful of people are able to nominate works for the Hugos and then vote on them. Click the link to learn more.

That means, while the Sad Puppies attempted, for good or for ill, to “unbias” the awards, or at least force the bias in a different direction so that more conservative, religious, authors and works would be considered, it was never going to work because of the nature of the Hugos and WorldCon itself.

Rabbi Pliskin nailed it in defining the thoughts and feelings behind both the Sad Puppies and that element of people within the Cons who oppose them. Both are vying for significance and both are fearful of losing or never acquiring it. I have that feeling myself as a white, male, conservative, religious, old man who wants to publish SF/F tales that people will buy, read, and enjoy. Will I be shut out?

Maybe not as much as I once thought.

Women swept the Hugos for the second year in a row. Why? Were their stories objectively that much better than male writers across the board? Possibly, but remember, the Hugos aren’t objective. They can’t be. Ever. The pool of voters is too narrow and not representative of the wider body of SF/F readers. If that pool of voters felt on a visceral level or even a conscious, intellectual level, that women were too often discriminated against in such awards and in SF/F authoring, they may choose to bias for female authors.

Obviously, I can’t prove that, but given the aforementioned implosion of WorldCon, it’s a reasonable hypothesis. SF/F authors who are women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, or other disadvantaged populations historically have experienced a lack of significance generally (either real or perceived) in this venue.

As the bias of WorldCons, the Hugos, and the wider world of SF/F Cons shifts to balance what they may perceive as historic social injustice, then male, white, Christian, conservative, authors may experience the threat of a lack of significance, the feeling that we’re being edged out of the market.

Two populations of SF/F authors who feel the threat of a lack of significance. Something has to be done. So they go to war.

What about the rest of us? I’m not sure I am part of “the rest of us.” I think Joy Pixley is, though I don’t know her except online, so I may not have a true perception of her. After all, I’m in that potentially marginalized group of old, white, religious men, so maybe I should feel threatened.

What’s the alternative?

Ideally, the two “warring” populations and their allies, should sit down at the same table over coffee or beer and hash things out. Are they really all rabid, vengeful social justice warriors dedicated to wiping out religious, conservative males, and are we all rabid, racist Nazis dedicated to keeping the SF/F genre all to ourselves because of our so called “white privilege?”

For most of us, probably not, but perhaps there are a few running around out there.

But as long as neither side beats their swords into plowshares, then the war will go on and on and on.

[EDIT: I removed the paragraph about Israel vs. Arab terrorists because as ProclaimLiberty rightly pointed out, the analogy didn’t really fit]

But if one side doesn’t stop hostilities, the other side feels like laying down their weapons is the moral equivalent of suicide. You have to trust the other side not to rip you to shreds if you’re the first to offer an olive branch.

In other words, if the “SJWs” stop attacking the “Nazis,” then the Nazis will win and horrible things (real or imagined) will happen.

If the “Nazis” stop attacking the “SJWs,” then the SJWs will win and horrible things (real or imagined) will happen.

What a perfectly twisted little conundrum.

I’m in no position to tell anyone else what to do with their lives, who to love, who to fear, who to hate, or how to act, but I am in control of my own life. I have free will.

So I’m going to meditate on Rabbi Pliskin’s words relative to my being human in general and a writer in specific, and see where that leads me.

Yes, there will always be people who hate me because of who I am, but maybe they’re a small, vocal minority who can and should be ignored.

And yes, I know I’m probably going to piss off a lot of people on both sides of the aisle with this one, but as the proverbial baseball umpire often says, “I calls ’em as I sees ’em.”

Oh, I intended to write this for Tale Weaver – #185 – Phobias – 23rd August, but their word count limit is 500-600, and mine is well over 1100.

By the way, the fear of alienation or lack of significance maps closest to Autophobia.

23 thoughts on “The Sad Puppies vs. the Hugo Awards OR Being in the Crossfire in the Fight for Significance

  1. You make some very good points, James, and I appreciate your taking a measured view of what is clearly a contentious topic to many.

    I’m having a hard time finding numbers online about this year’s votes, but let me suggest some issues. Looking over the slate of nominees this year, it’s pretty clear why women won the awards: almost all the nominees were women in every category except novel, where it was split half and half. Even if everyone voted purely on merit at that point, women would win more awards.

    So, how did the nominations end up with so many women? I agree that part of it could be both male and female readers deliberately trying to give more voice and recognition to female writers, especially those of marginalized groups, to make up for the (quite blatant) discrimination they have faced and still do face. But I’d like to posit two other possible factors. First, studies show that women read a lot more fiction than men do, across the board. I can’t find statistics on this for SFF specifically, but clearly the days when SF was only for men are in the past, and fantasy appears even more receptive to female readers and writers. So it makes sense that more nominee voters might be female, and like anyone, they’re drawn to characters and stories they can relate to, which may be more likely to be written by people like themselves. This is a bias, to be sure, but not an invidious one, I’d say.

    Second, women may *care* more about making sure female writers get nominated, and as we see in our political elections, the side that cares most is more likely to get out and vote in the primaries. This could help explain the gender equality in the novel category. Perhaps men and/or the older generation of Hugo attendees (which was more male than the current generation, and more focused on SF) put more value on the novel category, and care less about novelettes and short stories. It’s certainly possible that they voted on the novel nominees and didn’t bother to nominate in other categories, whereas younger attendees and women nominated in the other categories as well. This would help explain what got nominated: three SF novels written by men, two SF novels written by women, and one fantasy novel written by a woman. And even this one fantasy book had a distinct SF element to it, I noted. (The other categories were more evenly divided between SF and fantasy, although SF still dominated.) If a third or even a quarter of the voters tend to favor fantasy, and the others are all split between the five SF books, then the odds were in favor of the single fantasy option winning, separate from any gender bias. (Of course, the same author won the last two years, with the previous books in the series, which I’m currently reading and being blown away by. N.K. Jemisin writes beautiful and exciting prose, with deeply written characters and interesting, fresh SFF elements to her worldbuilding, and to my mind, she deserves every award out there.)

    I should clarify here that I haven’t read any of the novels in question, but I assume that they are all excellent, as past Hugo nominees have been, and as other books I’ve read by the same authors have been. At this level of greatness, you’re forced to nitpick to choose one “best” over the others, so it comes down to fairly subjective opinions. As you say, the Hugos never claimed to be objective, but then, I don’t know how any book award ever could be. Even if the voting pool were perfectly representative of the body of SFF readers, each person’s vote will still be subjective. But then, if we only cared about being fair, we’d skip the voting altogether and just look at whose books sold the most, because isn’t that representative? Oh wait, that’s not fair either, because it’s biased toward people with greater marketing budgets, while much higher quality books may never get featured in articles or mentioned in ads. Plus, we don’t know how well the buyers actually liked the books (given that Goodreads and Amazon reviews aren’t representative either). So what *would* be a fair and objective way of determining this year’s best SFF novel? Beats me.

    All of that said, what I see is that the “old guard” was used to having this world all to themselves, and they liked it that way (and why wouldn’t they?). But like any such group, either you get an influx of new, younger people, whose very presence changes the group, or you peter off into obscurity and the group dies with you. The shift causes growing pains on both sides, which I empathize with, but I wish everyone involved could learn to be more civil and kind about it.


    • I put a ton of links into this essay rather than rewrite a bunch of previous material, but one had to do with why voting is restricted to a few thousand people who are attending the con and who have paid the fee for this year’s membership. Also, I can only presume, they’d have to read a large amount of new SF/F novels and stories, and see a bunch of TV shows and movies to legitimately vote, but you’re right, in the end, it all comes down to whether or not you subjectively liked the works in question.

      I’m not being critical, just describing the limitations of the award, which when I found out, frankly surprised me. The awards don’t necessarily reflect the sales success of these works, but being able to put “Hugo Nominated,” “Hugo Finalist,” or “Hugo Award Winning,” will likely pump up sales. No matter what, not everyone will win and not everyone’s works will be nominated. I can see how that can chafe if you think the Hugos are biased, but in fact, they are biased based on WorldCon paid attendees. As long as that’s clearly understood, there’s nothing to be done.

      I’d be delighted just to write a story or book that sold well and had good Amazon reviews (although there’s a ton of controversy about how or if Amazon reviews can also be “gamed”).

      However, the main point of this article is that as human beings, we all struggle to be significant, and an unfortunate side effect is that if groups feel they are competing for a limited amount of “attention,” things can get ugly. I’d like to hope there’s another way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the Hugo site does a good job of explaining why only members get to vote, on their FAQ page:
        It’s not a perfect system, but it solves some problems with other systems, and I can’t think of any other voting system that would be better. Certainly I wouldn’t want to use sales as an indicator of ratings, given how many books I’ve purchased and then not liked, and you can’t use Amazon or Goodreads ratings, given the self-selection bias of the raters. Or do you want to rely on the “literary experts make all the decisions” that’s used for most other awards? At least this way, the actual readers have a say.

        I’m curious about whether most voters are diligent about reading everything, or if there’s an understanding that not everyone reads all the entries (but that it evens out in the end). In any case, it’s not actually that much to read: six novels, six novellas (which are about half the length of a novel), plus six novelettes and six short stories (the latter two are usually published in SFF magazines, but the Hugos makes them available to voting members who don’t subscribe to those magazines). So that’s the equivalent of about 10 books. I’ve read 28 books and 4 novellas so far this year (and one of those books was Ulysses, which slowed me down considerably), along with a large number of short stories and novelettes in print and online magazines. That’s less than many of my “serious” reader friends. If you’re really a SFF fan and a reader, 10 novels’ worth of Hugo award nominees shouldn’t be hard to squeeze in — although it helps if you’ve been doing it a while, because otherwise you might have to go back and read books 1 and 2 in order to get to Hugo-nominated book 3. And the idea of the Hugos is that it’s the serious SFF fans and readers who are voting, so that seems reasonable to me. I would be more worried about voting for the TV shows and movies, except that I don’t actually care about who wins those, and given that none of the winners showed up to accept their awards, it looks like they don’t either.


      • Wow. You read a lot. Part of the problem, at least for me, is that all of those Hugo nominees are brand new books unlikely to be found in a public library. My wife has promised to be very unhappy with me if I spend a lot of money on books, particularly since I’m currently underemployed and funds are a bit tight. I also don’t feel that I *have* to only read new SF/F books. For instance, I’m currently reading a book published in 2005 called Contest by Australian author Matthew Reilly, and yes, it’s a library book. That’s how I ended up reading (and reviewing) Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale. I’ve been criticized on twitter for not being a “fan” because of my choices. I guess I don’t make “the cut” because I don’t fit the profile, alas.


      • Having to buy the hardcover books is definitely a hardship, I agree, and one of the reasons I don’t have all the novels on the list. Several of the novellas and the winning novel were already available in paperback, which helps, but that’s still more costly than the library.

        I’m not sure I count as a diehard SFF fan either, since many of the books I read aren’t SFF (and some aren’t even fiction). But I think that’s the point of the Hugo awards — that they’re decided by diehard fans who don’t think it’s a burden to “have to” read all the latest greatest SFF. And because they read so much, I trust their judgement on which SFF books, novelettes, etc. are best more than I would someone who only reads five books a year but happened to read one that’s on the list. That said, I decry anyone who decries anyone else for not being the “right kind” of fan. That kind of judgmentalism is petty and juvenile.


      • Again: disagreeing with you is not the same as disagreeing with a rabbi you quoted — when you (and someone else) added your own two cents or more of judgmentalism.


  2. While I appreciated your accurate representation of the one-sided conflict of Arabs attacking, Israelis defending, which would end if the Arab attackers simply stopped attacking, it seemed to me that you lost the value of that illustration when you tried to extend it to some sort of analogy with SJWs vs. “Nazis”, where both sides initiate attacks and thus neither will stop or lay down their verbal weapons. Neither fit your illustration of defenders who do not initiate unprovoked attacks, nor did you offer some more fitting illustration of a two-sided conflict requiring a different sort of negotiation or arbitration. There is, no doubt, also need for clearer analysis of the conflicting issues and the merits and demerits thereof, in any of these cases.


    • Upon reflection, that bothered me, too, but my grandkids arrived so I needed to get away from the computer and take them to the water park. I’ve got a bit of a break now, but not long enough to do any significant editing. You do bring up a good point, as always.


  3. I think its sad when politics takes over anything and rational thought goes out the window. Thanks for adding your thoughts today James, I tend to think if we narrow the perceptions of anything, in any form of the arts, aren’t we depriving our writer and more so our audiences of advances in thinking and method of expression?


    • Michael, I suspect if we were to examine other aspects of the arts or other human endeavors which, in our innocence, we believe are totally benign and even beneficial, we would discover the same human difficulties. Perhaps, sometimes ignorance really is bliss. However, ignorance, or in this case wearing a blindfold while crossing a mine field, can lead to horrible results. I started writing on this topic a month or more ago with too little information, and I’ve regretted it. Hopefully, my eyes are beginning to open. I think there’s still a lot for me to learn, and based on some behavior I saw on twitter a few minutes ago, there are indeed people on both sides of the aisle who are waging an active war of words.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a son who as an artist has attracted his fair share of criticism over the years. When he started his work was in black and white and had a very Australian indigenous look about it. Many in the indigenous art world thought he was ripping off indigenous artists. We are not indigenous and have never claimed to be but for a while his work received a lot of negative criticism. Then one day he changed his work to blue and white. It has been amazing the response. In recent years he has exhibited all round Australia, in parts of Asia and in the US. His work sells, and he is one of the lucky ones who can make a living from his art. I hope you achieve success with your writing, I think persevering in the face of adversity is a sign of your commitment and dedication. Best wishes James.


  4. Actually, the Sad Puppies pretty much shut everything down after their fourth round, two years ago. They proved their point (A subtle one missed was that every year they actually took the suggestions their opponents made, “If you only did this, it would be different.” and it wasn’t.). Everything going wrong with the Hugos since then have nothing to do with the puppies, except for perhaps fighting with their shadow.

    Statistically, others have analyzed the data from Publisher’s Weekly and found that if anything publishing is biased TOWARDS female authors. Although there is a larger pool of submissions from male authors, their rejection rate is much much higher. That there is a supermajority of female editors in Publishing may or may not have something to do with that.

    Another interesting statistic, now that the voting results have been released, is that there were fewer total votes cast for Best Novel than there were “No Award” votes cast in 2015. Same in other categories. Which brings up the question, where did all those voters go?


  5. What about the rest of us? I’m not sure I am part of “the rest of us.”
    If you enjoy SF/F in any medium, as a reader, viewer, writer, then you are “the rest of us.” You do not have to a TruFen, or Fan (capitol letter) to be a fan of the genre. Anyone who tries to say otherwise is a snob.

    For what it is worth: Sad Puppies has not been active in two years. All of the lead Puppies have moved on to other things – like writing good stroies. Larry Corriea ran it for two years in an effort to prove a bias. Brad Torgersen ran it for one year (SP- III) trying desperately to promote works that were good stories, not just nominated for what the author and/or character was. Kate Paulk ran it the last year (SP- IV). Kate’s SPIV was one of the most open recommendation lists I’ve ever seen. She took suggestions from anyone who wanted to add a title then posted a tally at the end. Sad Puppies V never happened. Sarah Hoyt was going to run it but life got in the way. There is no more Official Sad Puppies.

    The other group was Rabid Puppies. They were not part of Sad Puppies – ever. Their agenda was completely different. For the most part, the membership in the groups did not overlap.

    In all my years as a SF fan I had never known how the Hugos were nominated and voted on. I knew it had something to do with WorldCon and figured it was something that I, a normal fan, could never partake in. It was through Brad’s SPIII that I learned: All you have to do is registers on the website, pay a “nominal” fee for a “Supporting Membership” and bingo you can nominate and vote. (Why oh why was this not common knowledge?)

    Just food for thought: Everyone still railing at Sad Puppies is railing at ghosts.


    • And now there’s Comicsgate which seems to possess the same dynamic. The really disturbing part is that relative to both the Sad Puppies and Comicsgate, the pundits on the other side of the aisle, the more vocal ones at least, think that the whole purpose is to keep SF/F and comic books in the sole possession of conservative, white, religious males, yet the people I’ve talked to who are involved say their intent is only to make sure that our voice isn’t edged out. In some sense, we’re the more inclusive folks, not the anti-Sad Puppies (for lack of a better term) since we want to include *everyone*.

      Liked by 1 person

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