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Jousting with Straw Puppies by Kate Paulk

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Jousting with Straw Puppies

by

Kate Paulk

Since the success of Sad Puppies 2 in bringing a handful of differently philosophical works onto the Hugo ballot, there has been a stream of articles, blog posts, tweets, and every possible other outlet imaginable decrying the evil of the Puppies and how the campaign is the reactionary work of a collection of redneck, white-supremacist, homophobic, Mormon men trying to keep everyone else out of the field.

Seriously? The last time I looked I don't have the equipment for that, and I'm running Sad Puppies 4.

Of course, every time someone posts a lengthy critique of Sad Puppies, it usually comes with a lovingly constructed set of Straw Puppies who are then deconstructed and proven to be just as horrible as the author set them up to be.

So it is with the latest offering from a pair of self-described feminist geeks, Annalee Horne and Natalie Luhrs. Their article can be found in Uncanny Magazine issue 7 (http://uncannymagazine.com/), for those sufficiently masochistic to wish to wade through it, and makes extensive reference to How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ.

They begin their construction of the Straw Puppies with the assertion that Sad Puppies 3 was an "attempt to take over the Hugo Awards" (which failed). To someone with little or no knowledge of Sad Puppies that bland assertion (unreferenced, of course) would probably go unchallenged. The truth is simpler: Sad Puppies 3 aimed to bring works to the Hugo ballots that would normally not be nominated. Nothing more, nothing less.

Immediately after this libel, the authors add another, claiming that "the tactics the so–called 'sad puppies' use to paint themselves as the true heirs of science fiction, bravely holding the line against the invading masses, are the very same tactics Joanna Russ ascribed to the whelk–finned Glotolog in 1983." This claim is not referenced either. The preceding sentence describing the way Russ uses the whelk-finned Glotolog to draw parallels in suppression without direct censorship is referenced.

This tactic is itself a clever little piece of misdirection, making the authors' views of the Sad Puppies appear to be so well known as to need no cites or references. In short, common knowledge, not the strawman they are setting up to dismantle.

The authors go on to imply that all Sad Puppy supporters had the same view of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (they didn't: some thought it was an excellent space opera, others thought it was decent enough but certainly not the best of the year, and others thought it stank). I'll quote a few sentences here because of the propaganda work they're doing.

"Natalie and I considered, for example, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. After it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards in 2014, it was held up as an example of everything wrong with the progress the science fiction and fantasy community has made."

Leaving aside the rather unfortunate fact that it wasn't (that honor went to "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love" for good and sufficient reason), note the assumption that the current direction of the SFF community is progress. The use of such a loaded word is a primer to aim readers at the correct Straw Puppy... ahem.... target. Note also the presumption that the current state of SFF (complete with parlous and ever-dropping sales numbers) is an improvement on all prior states. This is positioned in a way that makes it an unarguable tenet of the piece, so much so that the entire argument the authors are attempting to make falls apart if one merely assumes that the current state of SFF is exactly the same as it has been for years.

From this point, the authors make a lengthy analysis of how the "petty sniping about the book fits into the framework Russ outlined."

The first charge leveled at the Sad Puppies is that they viewed Ancillary Justice through a "Double Standard of Content" – which they define (sort of – it's not an easy thing to define) as presuming that one's personal perspective is automatically better than some other perspective when faced with a work that operates from a different perspective. That's a pretty fuzzy concept at the best of times, but it more or less comes down to a kind of "I am right and good therefore that with which I disagree must be bad and evil." Projection much, ladies?

There has been a lot of unpleasantness thrown around in the wake of the Sad Puppies campaigns, but at this stage at least 90% of the unpleasantness has come from those who are against everything the Sad Puppies say or do – those who position themselves as the guardians of the Hugos and so forth. It certainly wasn't the Sad Puppies who did their best to No Award the Hugos into oblivion. Nor was it Sad Puppies who committed actionable libel, or unleashed such vicious harassment on the Sad Puppy favored nominees that several withdrew their nominations. That honor goes to those who take the authors' view.

The authors start discussing the whole pronoun thing – and once again use loaded verbiage to paint those who disagree with their perspective as at minimum wrong, and possibly evil. Consider this comment: "There’s been a lot of sniping about this, as if the pronouns were the be–all and end–all" – the use of the word 'sniping' in itself is loaded, and many Puppy-supporters commented at the time that they were frustrated over the way so many reviews said nothing about how well or otherwise the piece was written and instead raved about the pronouns (the Tor.com puff piece ( http://www.tor.com/2014/02/18/post-binary-gender-in-sf-ancillary-justice-by-ann-leckie/ ) is a particularly egregious example). Once again the authors are projecting their biases against anyone who disagrees with them onto the Sad Puppy supporters.

The article goes on to say that one of the two authors found the "game of guess–the–gender and examine–the–bias" fun and interesting. This isn't a problem – the problem lies in the comment that immediately follows: "To someone invested in maintaining the fiction that gender biases don’t exist (or that they personally don’t hold any), the narrator’s unreliability on this point wouldn’t be an interesting intellectual challenge so much as a direct assault on their reality distortion field." The possibility that someone accustomed to English being gendered when dealing with people (and not really having an ungendered choice apart from the entirely inadequate use of them/they as a singular form) might just find the whole thing distracting at best, particularly when the characters actually do have genders English can work with, isn't even on the radar.

The assumption here, that Sad Puppy criticisms of Ancillary Justice are merely a rejection of "other perspectives than theirs" is yet more straw to the construction and still more projection, as is the entire dismissal of all criticism as false categorization.

It's easy to mock the thing with the pronouns in Ancillary Justice, because when someone wants to mock something an easily recognizable concept always works better than something more abstract like kludgy signaling or clumsy prose (in my opinion Ancillary Justice suffered from both of these, but was a reasonably competent first novel which might have enticed me to read further had the prose been less self-consciously twee). Of course, much of the mockery wasn't on the pronouns in the book so much as the way so many reviews raved about the use of pronouns and how "revolutionary" this was. Both Asimov and LeGuin did it better, and both did it in works many of the Sad Puppies have read and enjoyed. The entire false-categorization argument is nothing but projection.

Looking at another quote in the false-categorization argument: "...we’ll look at the pronouns in Ancillary Justice. By focusing on the pronouns, the sad whelkfins are able to dismiss the entire work as nothing more than a political screed against men, as turgid message fiction that doesn’t even tell a good story."

Apparently the authors have confused their criticism. The turgid message fiction was “If You Were a Dinosaur.” With Ancillary Justice there was more irritation at the focus on the pronoun thing from the likes of Tor.com and wondering why the piece was getting so much push when apart from that it was a reasonably well-done space opera with the kinds of flaws one expects from a first novel.

Arguing that the pronouns thing is being used to avoid considering "that one of the major themes of the book—of the series, actually—is colonialism and the subsequent examination and deconstruction of colonialism as a trope in genre fiction." is purely disingenuous (and note the presumption that colonialism is automatically bad – the next sentence takes the presumption that colonization of alien planets is typically seen as an unalloyed good).

I'm not going to go into the colonizing good/bad argument at this point, beyond noting that once again the authors are positioning their perspective as not merely virtuous, but the only way that moral people can possibly view things – a sin they attribute to their Straw Puppy construction. This is particularly overt in the comment: "If you’re unwilling to follow Leckie’s lead when it comes to pronouns, you certainly aren’t going to be willing to follow her into an examination of power, prejudice, and privilege, as those things strike closer to home for some readers than even pronouns."

In short, according to the authors if the idiosyncratic use of English bothers you, you are automatically going to dismiss any of the larger themes the author might choose to explore. Given the history of those who have been most vocal in opposing the Sad Puppy campaigns, this is yet another example of projection – those most likely to automatically reject anything that doesn't fit their world-view are those who proclaim themselves as Social Justice Warriors. That same group of people is also most likely to demonize anyone who disagrees with them.

The evidence, in the authors' own words: "Even when the pronouns pass their double–standard, they can still be used to reduce the work from a sweeping space opera and classic tale of revenge to a girly book about gender."

They implicitly accuse critics of the novel of hypocrisy, while praising the novel in terms that make the criticism seem ridiculous, all by focusing on the very thing that proponents of the novel praised most vocally – the pronouns. The authors then go on to demonize their imaginary Straw Puppies further: "Its actual political messages about colonialism are likewise swept aside: this book does something weird with pronouns that might make people think for three or more consecutive seconds about gender; it is therefore entirely about gender, and that means it’s really a political screed masquerading as a novel. And unlike a proper political screed (such as those written by Heinlein), this one is for girls."

This is a typical example of strawman demonization – a sweeping statement that is so far from anything that makes sense it doesn't even have the rather minor consolation of being wrong. It doesn't have enough basis in anything real for right or wrong to be relevant.

To delve into the statement a little: first there is an open statement that the book contains political messages, immediately followed by ridiculing the perceived focus on the pronoun and gender thing (a focus, remember, that was perfectly all right when the book was lauded entirely because of the pronouns). From this there is a pseudo-assertion that the critics of the book claimed it to be entirely about gender (which is not merely a lie, it's a ridiculously easily refuted one – but most of them are. This kind of thing relies on the average reader simply accepting the claims). The next leap of illogic is to claim that being entirely about gender makes the piece a political screed masquerading as a novel. Heinlein is then linked into this as a kind of "proper source" of political screeds.

In a slightly simplified format:

  1. The book has political screeds about colonialism.

  2. The book uses unusual gender pronouns therefore the book is all about gender <= Logical fallacy. There is absolutely zero reason why unusual pronoun usage would make a book all about gender. Of course, many of the gushing reviews effectively claimed that the book's use of pronouns made it all about gender – but that was all right because they were praising it.

  3. The book being supposedly all about gender makes it a political screed. <= Once again there is absolutely zero connection between the two pieces. It may well be a political screed disguised as a novel (see point 1), but said political screed has nothing to do with gender.

  4. Heinlein wrote "proper" political screeds in the Gospel according to Puppies (at least according to the authors). Honestly, I haven't read any of Heinlein's political screeds. I have read and enjoyed a number of his novels and had a mix of opinions about the political notions embedded in the ones I've read. Most of Heinlein's novels tend not to contain overt political screeds – there is a reason the technique of seamlessly embedding world-building into the narrative is called "Heinleining."

    5. Because this isn't a Heinlein political screed (whatever that looks like) and it's about gender it must be for girls <= And another huge disconnect.

This entire sequence is presented with psuedo-logical language so it looks reasonable, but when the actual statements are broken down, there is no way to get from one to the supposedly obvious conclusion. The important thing about this is that this is the entire point of the exercise. The authors are making these sweeping statements to push their views onto readers in a way that makes them seem reasonable when in fact they are at best misleading and at worst outright lies.

The next piece of textbook demonization is another typical effort: "By using False Categorization and the Double Standard of Content in tandem, whelkfins can attempt to make the argument that certain books are aesthetically displeasing to them—that they’re looking for books which confirm their biases and their place in the world instead of those that challenge them."

The phrasing here implies that the Straw Puppies are deliberately miscategorizing the book and deliberately applying a double standard, when again, the culprits are once again the authors – all to ensure that no Puppy-related anything can be acceptable. They don't stop there: they go on to accuse their Straw Puppies of willfully ignoring and distorting reality in order to dismiss any larger concerns a book might raise. I'd suggest readers take an open-minded look at the rhetoric and dialectic used by the prominent Sad Puppy figures (Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt, Brad Torgerson, and Amanda Green all come to mind – I wouldn't recommend using me as an example because I'm not in that league) and compare to the anti-Puppy rhetoric employed by (among others) the Nielsen Haydens and George R. R. Martin, or the utterly vile and hateful rhetoric used by N. K. Jemisin or K. Tempest Bradford.

It doesn't take long to see which group is more prone to distorting reality, deliberately ignoring facts, refusing to listen to or read dissenting voices – which suggests that the distorted reality is a feature of the anti-Puppy camp and the reality-based community can be found among the pro-Puppies.

Of course, even this isn't enough for the authors – they must utterly destroy their Straw Puppy by yet another sequence of completely baseless leaps of faith, a disguised accusation that Puppy supporters want to eliminate all other voices from the field (disguised because it helps with plausible deniability) and the inevitable non-binary-gender nonsense.

The lies and projection come thick and fast in the last few pages of this piece – the authors claim that the long tradition of gatekeeping and exclusion is a Puppy feature (when the mainstream of publishing is of the opinion that Stalin was uncomfortably right-wing and anything that doesn't echo the holy trinity of feminism, inclusiveness, and social justice is only going to get through if it's from a known bestseller who's been more or less grandfathered into the system), that the walls and exclusions are what Puppy supporters want – yet another easily disproved lie – and that the Sad Puppies are looking for stories that meet their political biases (yes, this is another easily disproved lie).

The language becomes more extreme as the authors move in to finish off their despised Straw Puppy: they describe their perception of the Puppy position thusly: "Those walls don’t belong in the community. The whelkfins have to constantly maintain and rebuild them as they perpetually crumble into the cesspits upon which they’re built."

The only cesspit here is the one the authors imagine – none of the Sad Puppy leaders or supporters have ever said that other views are unwanted. We have merely stated that we have been demonized for having views that differ from those of the authors – and been called liars for doing so. We have claimed that should we ever find books that we enjoy nominated for the Hugo we would be subject to a campaign of lies and demonization. We were called liars and once again proved correct.

Not once, despite the assertions of the authors, has any Sad Puppy leader said that messages they disagree with should not be published or awarded if they are of sufficient merit. The Sad Puppy campaigns have said only that story should come before message, and message should always be subordinate to story.

In summary, there is only one thing in the entire article with which I can agree, and that is not a matter of fact. The facts are so far removed from the version of events presented and implied by the authors that they are either woefully ignorant or shameless liars (and could be both). I do, however, agree whole-heartedly with their footnote: the noble chocolate chip cookie should indeed be defended vigorously against the evils of raisins.


Further references

Sad Puppies 4 - http://sadpuppies4.org/about-sp4/

Larry Correia on Sad Puppies - http://monsterhunternation.com/?s=sad+puppies

Brad Torgerson on Sad Puppies 3 - https://bradrtorgersen.wordpress.com/category/tornadoes-in-teacups/sad-puppies-3/

Mad Genius Club members on Sad Puppies - http://madgeniusclub.com/?s=sad+puppies (this includes a lot of me being sarcastic, so be warned)

Women in SF and Fantasy - http://www.womeninsciencefiction.com (the whole notion of women having been excluded withers away in the face of the information on this site – and the site is relatively new)



Kate Paulk is a transplanted Australian living in the wilds of semi-urban Pennsylvania. She has published a number of novels and shorter works, including the utterly irreverent Convention Vampire series. Kate is the Mad Genius behind Sad Puppies 4, which is already confusing people who think the Sad Puppy campaigns are all about white Mormon males excluding everyone else.