Puppies in Stasis

Brad Torgersen writes most honest article about the Sad Puppies movement to come out of their camp

Sad puppyWhen I delivered my presentation at the Toronto SpecFic colloquium at the beginning of march, I put forward the hypothesis that when you got beyond the arguments about politics, the disputes over SFWA membership, and the arguments about literary merit at the awards, what the Sad Puppies really wanted was for SF/F/H to never change from what they believed it to once be.

And now Brad Torgersen, one of the key organizing influences behind the Sad Puppies has written this.

I have to say, as much as I might violently disagree with pretty much everything he said, and his entire premise, it’s at least more honest than I have come to expect from the Puppies. Gone are the claims of trying to de-politicize SF/F/H. Gone are the rallying cries of: “censorship!” “pink shirts!” “reds under the bed!” Gone is the defense of Vox Day’s purulent behaviour or complaints that SFWA is being unfair to the Real Men of SF/F/H.

And that’s good because what Torgersen has provided is a basis for discourse, a reason to actually engage with him and his fellow Puppies, rather than just to dismiss them out of hand as sour grapes.

And that is, in turn, good because I do think he’s misguided – and through that process of engagement perhaps some of those Puppies can be peeled away from what is largely a toxic movement.

The cereal metaphor

Torgersen describes SF/F/H as being a box of “Nutty Nuggets.” He describes himself as a fan of the taste of these hypothetical nuggets, who has, seemingly overnight, found the flavour to have transformed entirely. It’s the same package, the same brand, but it’s not the same nuggets.

He describes trying box after box: some are more like his beloved memory of cereal and some are less. But none of them are his dearly departed nuggets of nuttiness.

Now this is a flawed premise.

First off, SF/F/H was never a homogeneous brand. Even if you go aaaaallllllllll the way baaaaack to the pulps, the gulf between say, Lovecraft and Howard was vast.

But, ok, perhaps Torgersen was raised on a steady diet of Robert Howard, Doc Smith and Robert Heinlein. Does that mean that SF/F/H should never grow beyond a barbarian swinging an axe and a space ship flying past a mysterious planet?

Think for a moment on Moorcock, his Elric stories built upon the traditions of Howard (and of Tolkien) but challenged them. He interrogated the work of the people who came before him and made something new and different in the process. And Elric was a product of the 1970s!

I was born in 1979. To me, there has never been a world where SF/F/H didn’t include both Conan the Cimmerian and Elirc of Melniboné. These two diametrically opposed ideas of what sword and sorcery stories could look like were available to me, from birth and I’d be shocked if literature hadn’t evolved in the meantime.

To me, SF/F/H literature isn’t a box of cereal. It’s the Grand Magic House Buffet. Yes, there are some fried foods there that you KNOW aren’t any good for you but taste SO good. And there’s the old standards: the roast beef and bean salad of the book world. But this buffet is huge, and the chef who runs it can become easily bored. So in addition to the standards there’s an ever-changing, ever-growing abundance of dishes to try.

And so, when we get past the identity politics, when we get past the inside baseball bickering over use of SFWA accounts and how people self-select to vote for awards, when we push that all aside, what do we find?

People at the buffet of genre, who really only want to eat roast beef and bean salad, upset because they put a bit of a new confection on their plate once, didn’t like the taste, and erroneously believe that because they’ve been coming to the restaurant for umpteen billion years, that dish should be expunged and replaced with more roast beef, more bean salad. In fact, anything but roast beef and bean salad must go! The buffet must serve nothing but roast beef, bean salad.

And that’s just kind of sad.

5 thoughts on “Puppies in Stasis

  1. Speaking as someone who needs the intervention of an editor on a daily basis:

    homogenizes probably should be homogeneous
    Moorecock should be Moorcock
    Elirc of Melniborne Should be Elric of Melniboné

    Westerns went through a period of stagnation, with the side effect that it was hard for unknowns to break in. I remember hearing an interview with one of the few new western writers in the 1980s who mentioned that when he went to a writers’ convention, all the established writers assumed he was someone’s grandkid, young authors not being on their radar.

  2. It happens I am reading all of Leigh Brackett’s Solar System stories from the 1940s and they seem to have many of the features Torgeson is complaining about. Ditto Eric Frank Russell’s stuff, as well.

  3. Exactly. And that’s why I said, rather carefully that this is what the Sad Puppies believe they want. Because they’re looking for a mirage. There’s never been a world of “Nutty Nuggets” cookie cutter fiction. Genre has always been weird, wonderful and thematically diverse.

  4. It’s kind of sad that Torgerson compares genre fiction unfavorably to Hollywood movies. Hollywood has been stagnating for years because of its obsession with focus groups to determine movie content. Robert Altman was complaining in the ’80s that Hollywood didn’t realize that what people really want is something they haven’t seen before. I suspect this is doubly true of the sf/fantasy fandom.

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