It’s easy to brand the Sad Puppies as hopeless reactionaries seeking to reverse progressive trends in SF and fantasy. Many who identify with the group bully and marginalize women, people of color, gay and trans people, or at least want them to keep those issues out of their writing.
This can be seen as part of a larger trend of using fandom as the venue for larger culture war issues, which not only strains the bonds that unites fan communities, but brings in outside attention from non-fans drawn to a media-hyped “nerd fight” (for earlier thoughts on this topic, see my column “The New Politics of Fandom”). To the extent that that is the case, their rout in this year’s Hugos is something to be celebrated.
High Anxiety. In fandom as elsewhere in American culture, a lot of this dynamic is driven by the anxiety of white men losing the presumption of authority that they had enjoyed, often without even being aware of how they benefited from it. It is uncomfortable when others point out that “the way things have always been” is not the natural order, but the result of an unfair and exclusionary system.
Of course many of the people being accused of wielding “privilege” don’t feel privileged; they’ve got their own problems, faced challenges that they couldn’t meet, maybe lost out to women or minorities in some localized way. They feel powerless and frustrated themselves, and now they are being held responsible for institutional injustices simply for liking the same kinds of stories and entertainments that they’ve always liked.
The bad behavior of some of the worst Puppies is inexcusable, but the fundamental inclinations of the group are not really so hard to understand.
The Legitimacy of Nostalgia. One of the complicated parts of this problem in fandom is the role of nostalgia. Comics fandom, for example, derives specifically from the nostalgia of a small group of enthusiasts and collectors in the early 1960s for the comics of the 1930s and 40s. The very term “Golden Age” suggests a romantic preference for the past over the present. SF fandom, ironically, has a similar backward-looking strain woven into its DNA.
The fan culture in which I came of age in the 1970s and 80s was dominated by collectors’ nostalgia, even as we focused our critical attention on current creators and new work. Exhaustive knowledge of the history of comics was the ante at the table that legitimated one’s views and taste. That was one of the major barriers to entry that kept comics culture separate from popular culture in general, and attracted the kind of obsessive, detail-oriented fans that gave credence to the nerd stereotype.
Nostalgia was, in short, at the heart of fan identity. And now it’s not.
“Kids Today Don’t Know Nuthin’!” The declining importance of nostalgia is one of the great generational dividing lines between 20th and 21st century fandom. There are all kinds of reasons for this. Information that used to be hard to come by (and thus precious) is now abundant, leading, among other things, to the trivialization of trivia as an area of fan expertise. Accessible mass-media adaptations of comics, SF and fantasy properties have supplanted the texts as authoritative sources for a great many newer fans. High quality reproductions of classic works are now so abundant that it’s hard to differentiate or focus appreciation in the same way as it was when there was a huge cost in effort and money to track down scarce original issues.
But more fundamentally, the Millennial generation is more present-oriented than GenX or the older founding groups within fandom. Young fans are far more interested in discussing new work by their peers and in looking at creative work through the lens of social, economic, and identity issues. To them, the past is not only obscure, distant and boring, it is also the site of grave injustices. They feel that far from celebrating the good old days, we should be condemning our forebears for their ignorance and insensitivity.
Yesterday vs. Tomorrow. Many of us in our 40s have waited patiently to take custody of fan traditions handed down to us by earlier generations. Boomers started young and have held on tightly to the editorships of publications, the organizing committees of big conventions and the nominating boards for major awards. Only this decade have things started to transition.
Now it seems that fan culture is skipping a generation, passing directly to younger people with fewer attachments to the past and more interest in connecting fan culture to popular and political culture. That is in many ways a healthy development.
But it is also a source of frustration for people whose aesthetic tastes and fan interests were shaped in a simpler time, and who come by their affection for traditional (and, admittedly, problematic) genre tropes innocently.
There are valid debates around the legitimacy of nostalgia within fandom, the extent to which we delegitimize older work because of contemporary politics, and the different generational attitudes toward the past, present and future. Too bad the Sad Puppies have reduced that to a political shouting match and discredited themselves with shady tactics, because a few of us Old Dogs would like to have that conversation.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.