Thoughts on the “Debarkle”
Australian blogger and science fiction genre commentator Camestros Felapton (not their real name, the pen name is taken from logical syllogisms) has taken it upon themselves to write a fairly exhaustive history of the Sad/Rabid Puppy mess in science fiction lit, calling it “Debarkle” and posting it up on their site on a chapter by chapter basis (you can find it here). It’s still being written but as a practical matter it’s beginning to wind down, as the current installments cover the era where the Pups had stopped actively trying to game the Hugo Awards and had mostly dissolved as an ongoing concern. It’s far enough along that I feel all right looking back at the events recorded in a retrospective fashion without worrying too much about new information popping up.
I’m not going to review “Debarkle” in detail here; suffice to say I think it’s reasonably accurate though with a distinct point of view, a well-sourced but somewhat scattershot retelling of events, and as someone who pops up in the narrative relatively frequently (indeed, there are a couple of chapters about me and my work), it’s interesting to see how I come across from the outside. But reading the history as it’s come along has prompted a few of my own thoughts about the events the narrative covers, and their aftermath. Note well that these thoughts will only be interesting to the extent you both know and care about the events under discussion, and I will assume people reading will know what’s being discussed. Also, these thoughts of mine are in no particular order.
1. It really does seem like so long ago now. The nonsense the Sad/Rabid Puppies (henceforth to be referred to as “the Pups”) perpetrated is largely contained in the years of 2014 – 2016, and while that’s not actually all that long ago — a mere five years since MidAmericon II, where new Hugo nomination rules were ratified to minimize slate nominating, and NK Jemisin won the first of her three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards — it feels like a distant memory now, a kind of “oh, yeah, that happened,” sort of event.
There are reasons for that, but I think the largest part has to do with the fact that the Pups, simply and bluntly, failed at every level that was important for their movement. The bifurcated goals of the Pups were to champion science fiction with a certain political/cultural point of view (i.e., largely white, largely conservative), and to destroy the Hugos by flooding the nominations with crap. They did neither very well. Toward the former, the material they slated was largely not very good, and with respect to the latter, the Hugos both still persist and remain a premier award in the field.
Their strategy was bad because it was addressing a problem that largely did not exist and was arrived at in a backward fashion, and their tactics were bad because they exploited loopholes and antagonized everyone who was not part of their clique, activating thousands of dormant Hugo voters against them. They were routed through a simple mechanism for which they had not accounted (“No Award”), and once their slating tactic was blunted by a nomination rule change, they flounced entirely.
When your only track record is that of complete failure, it’s not surprising you don’t have much of an impact. Meanwhile the Hugos have been doing perfectly well, with excellent finalists and winners in most categories, and a wider and more diverse range of authors and creators. Nor are these works or creators obscure, either to fans or the general public; of the six Best Novel finalists for the current year, four are New York Times bestsellers (and commensurately bestsellers on other lists as well), and the authors of the two that are not, have won Hugos and other awards before. The Best Series finalists add a couple more bestsellers and award winners to that stack as well. The Hugos reflect what they are assumed to reflect: What’s interesting, and to varying degrees popular, in the larger field of the genre.
Basically, the post-Pup era has been a golden one for the genre and the award they tried to brigade, and that’s a much more interesting narrative.
2. The authors The Pups put on their enemies lists have done pretty well. This is correlative, not causative, to be sure — nothing the Pups did had much to do with these authors’ critical and commercial successes, and indeed those successes are to some degree why these authors were on the enemies list to begin with — but it’s certainly interesting.
Among the several authors who qualify in this category, I’ll mention two: Me and NK Jemisin. We were particularly favorite targets of the various strains of Pups, who liked to declare that we were nowhere as popular as we were made out to be, that various politically correct forces in publishing and fandom were responsible for our successes, that the fix was in regardless of whatever tripe we published, that our actual sales numbers were terrible, and so on. Along with that was a lot bigoted nonsense; the Pups spent a fair amount of time attempting to devalue my masculinity (among other things it was simultaneously hinted that I was gay and dominated by my wife, which is a nice trick if I do say so myself), and the nonsense I got was nothing compared to what was aimed at Jemisin, a black woman.
Fast forward to 2021 and… well, I’m certainly doing just fine these days, in terms of sales, awards and career opportunities. As for Jemisin, she’s inarguably the most important speculative fiction writer of her generation (note: I’m in her generation), a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and currently writing scripts for the upcoming big studio adaptation of her Broken Earth trilogy. Oh, and both of us are Hugo finalists this year. Now, sure, the Powers That Be may have simply decided to really go all in on faking our respective successes over the last half decade, but the simpler explanation is that, rather than being propped up by The Politically Correct Man, we’re actually good at what we do and we’re savvy enough, business-wise, to catch a wave swelling beneath us. If the Pups have shown us anything, it’s that you can’t simply brigade questionable material to success. There has to be quality there.
3. The Pups have largely not benefitted commercially from their actions. During the course of the Pup nonsense, I was made aware that at least some of the industriousness of a couple of the prime movers was the belief that the noise and controversy of their actions would help drive sales, perhaps through curiosity about the work and perhaps out of the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Some of the more obscure Pups hoped to become less obscure, and the ones who were already comfortable perhaps thought they might move up a rung or two on the ladder.
And, five years later… not really? The best case scenario sees the most popular Pups more or less at the same level of sales and popularity as they were when the nonsense started; they were not hurt by it because they already had their fan bases, contracts and distribution, and their fan base was either sympathetic to their Pup positions, or didn’t know and/or care.
(The latter, incidentally, is important to note; the Pup nonsense really was inside pool and few people not deeply committed to the genre knew much about it. Almost no one in the larger world would (or does) know or care much about an internecine struggle involving the mechanics of a genre award. Bestselling writers are so because they can draw in readers outside of the relatively small base of established SF/F fandom. They weren’t going to be substantially hurt by the Pup antics.)
With that said, the relatively small base of established SF/F fandom can be important for new, struggling and midlist authors, and “new, struggling and midlist authors” describes a fair number of the Pups. I don’t think those authors did themselves any favors alienating fandom, both in actions and in their characterization of fandom at the height of the nonsense, and (for some of the more traditionally established and published authors) by associating themselves and their personal brands with actual hateful bigots. Of the main Pups who were not bestsellers before the nonsense, none of them as far as I can see have really broken out since, in terms of sales and popularity. They’re no longer new, just midlist and/or struggling. They’re not gone — lots are still publishing — but five years on, any benefit they might have gotten from the nonsense is well over and done, and there’s not much record of any benefit.
The one silver lining, perhaps, is that as time goes on the Pup events will become even more obscure than they are today, and there will be a generation of fandom that neither knows much about it, nor care about it if they do. So they have that going for them, which is nice.
4. Even if it had succeeded, the Pup nonsense was futile; the genre had already changed. To the extent that the less malignant Pups had a strategy at all, it missed the realities of the publishing world. Even if the Hugos had lacked a “No Award” mechanism and some of their work walked away with rockets, it wouldn’t have changed what was being published in science fiction and by whom… and who was buying it. Brute-force manipulation of award results, at best, devalues the award itself. But awards, while nice and occasionally useful, aren’t actually hugely significant to the bottom line of publishing. Acquisitions and sales are.
What the Pups missed (or, if they did not miss, at least severely misunderstood) was who is acquiring genre work these days and who is buying it. Hint: it’s not all straight white dudes, and indeed, it may not even be majority straight white dudes anymore. The legions of associate-to-senior editors in publishing right now and in the last decade are more diverse than they’ve ever been, less white, less male, more queer… and with a hellaciously passionate work ethic and a damn fine eye for material. They didn’t necessarily come up through “traditional” science fiction. Lots of them came up through YA or from other genres, and developed their own personal canon of works that may or may not have included “classic” SF work. When they bought work, they didn’t just buy for the audience that SF/F books were assumed to address. They bought for the audience they wanted to bring into the field. They did it in book publishing, and in short fiction publishing as well.
And guess what? It fucking worked. The Pups liked to assert, without much in the way of evidence, that “New York Publishing” was and still is on its way out (which would not be great for them, as the major publisher in the Pup space, based in North Carolina as it is, nevertheless is distributed and put into stores through a New York publisher). Someone should have told that to New York publishing, particularly its science fiction and fantasy imprints; they’re doing just fine. And not only fine: they’re minting more bestsellers and bringing in more readers to the genre and being a larger part of the cultural conversation than they have done before. Likewise, short fiction publishing features more diverse material and storytelling than ever before. Genre literature is finally catching up to where the genre is in other media, in terms of popularity and influence — in large part, I would argue, because the doors are open wide to a larger base of readers and writers.
By the time the Pups noticed this, in their profoundly negative way (not “hey, the field has more and different people in it” but “I’m not winning awards which should be mine, for reasons, waaaaaah“), it was already too late. The more diverse associate-to-senior editors were already in place, working like hell, and their books were already selling and finding and expanding audiences. The Pups didn’t think this stuff was selling, I suspect because they certainly wouldn’t read it, which is a monumental self-own. But it was selling, and is selling, and a lot of it is terrific. And a fair amount of that terrific stuff is now on the bestseller charts and in the award finalist lists.
Yes, yes, but what about the straight white man? Is there a place for him in the science fiction literary culture now? I mean, yes (waves), and even if you consider my straight white male credentials suspicious in some way, there are plenty of other examples — including the Pups themselves, who again are still publishing away, albeit in some cases not with the notability they felt they were entitled to. We straight white dudes show up in bestseller and award lists, still. We just share them more now.
This was already happening when the Pups finally noticed. And by the time they noticed, it was already too late. The genre had changed. It wasn’t just about them anymore, or more accurately, they could no longer assume that it was just about them anymore, as they had done before.
5. The Pup movement is what entitled mediocrity looks like. Which is not to say that the Pups were (or are!) uniformly mediocre writers. Some of them had gotten on to finalist lists on their own steam with their stories and prose, and got decent-to-glowing reviews for their work, and of course sold from all right to very well indeed. But fundamentally the Pup movement was about resentment: Resentment about not winning awards. Resentment about sharing the genre with others. Resentment about having to compete, and being outcompeted. Resentment that had they started their careers 20 years earlier, they might have had more acclaim and baubles. Resentment that says that if you can’t have the success you want, exactly how you want it, then you are entitled to make sure no one else has it either; that you would rather burn something to the ground than to have someone else get it.
At the end of the day, everything about the Pup movement was “I can’t compete, I don’t want to compete, and also, I shouldn’t have to compete, the whole set-up is inherently unfair, so I’m justified in wrecking it.” And that line of thinking is the product of mediocrity, whether or not the prose in question is fine and fair. I don’t know whether that can be fixed, or whether the Pups want to fix it at this late point. Five years on, however, it doesn’t much matter.