So many people have said so many good things about the Hugo Awards debacle in the past few days. I haven’t said much myself because a) I’ve got a book to write, and b) I don’t really care. I mean, I do care about the Hugos; this is a respectable award, which as George R. R. Martin wisely points out has value because the people of Worldcon over the decades have worked their asses off to build its value. Unlike GRRM I think the contributions to that value actually go beyond Worldcon; it’s also been built up by the librarians who buy extra copies of the Hugo nominees and winners for circulation (I definitely noticed a bump after my Hugo noms), and the bookstore staff who create Hugo displays, and the reviewers who rave or rant about them. This whole mess is a sad and ridiculous appropriation of all that work, by people who for the most part haven’t spent day one on a Worldcon committee, or done anything else of the like. But this isn’t exactly the first venerable SFF institution that Those People have attempted to shit all over, so at this point I’m inured to their “inflammatory” tactics. If a toddler throws enough red-faced tantrums, you eventually learn to just corral them somewhere so they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else, read a book ’til they’re done screaming, then pick up their mess and move on.
There’s really only one point that I feel like making here, specifically about Brad Torgersen’s little “Affirmative Action” whinge (located here, thanks to many others for reading his site so I didn’t have to):
Along the way we fairly skewered the concept of literary affirmative action — that works and authors should be judged on the basis of author or character demographics and box-checking, not the audience’s enjoyment of the prose…
Others (see the Book Riot link up top for an example) have rightly pointed out the inherent bigotry of this statement. It’s pretty implicit: underrepresented writers couldn’t possibly just be good enough to have earned awards on the merits of their writing, so the only reason they’ve gotten nominated is because they’re [check a box]. Most people only mean underrepresented writers when they say things like this, note; the possibility of white male writers being nominated or awarded just because they’re white and male never seems to occur to them. So it’s certainly possible that Torgersen is also trying to snub white men here… while simultaneously gloating over the nearly all-straight-white-male ballot that he and his buddies have successfully foisted on us. Yeah. No. He means women and brown people and gay people.
But anyone who says things like this has no idea what the actual fuck “affirmative action” really is.
See, in America we often forget that the various initiatives which made up the capital-A Affirmative Action program were based on policies and procedures that have always existed for white men. That was the point, actually, to make everybody equal not by eliminating the best benefits of American society, but by spreading them around so that more than a few groups of people could enjoy them. College admissions programs that took race into consideration were designed to emulate the legacy system — which has almost entirely benefited well-off white men throughout the history of American higher education. The GI Bill, which purposefully excluded generations of black veterans until relatively recently, was the model for race-based college scholarship and financial aid programs. The pitiful, inadequate Section 8 program (made for the poor, but the poor are disproportionately people of color) was a weak counterbalance to generations of governmental American housing policy which gave free land and subsidized mortgages to middle-class white people, and which literally preyed upon everyone else. (Still does.) And so on, and so on. Capital-A Affirmative Action has been a drop in the bucket compared to the lower-case affirmative action bestowed upon het white guys since, well, colonization.
SFFdom has not been immune to this societal tendency to give straight white guys more, treat them more kindly, eagerly open doors to them that are firmly shut against others. For every John W. Campbell who openly refused to publish black or woman protagonists (and who’s got an award named after him, yeah), there were likely a few dozen other editors who did the same thing quietly — thus effectively reserving publication spots for white men, or those writing white men. White male authors get more reviews (written mostly by white male reviewers), and have a better chance of prominent ones in places like the New York Times Book Review, even though women and people of color buy more books. Women in the business side of the genre get publicly shamed for… well, existing, while white men can be sexual predators or white supremacists and still end up on awards juries or editorial staffs, unquestioned. White protagonists are proudly exhibited on book covers and in the lead roles of films, with little fear of “brownwashing”; male protagonists are rarely sidelined so that a non-male supporting character can be showcased instead; straight-white-male-centric stories, like Tarzan being the awesomest person on the African continent and endless iterations of “let’s go subdue the natives (in space)” have been granted such pride of place in this genre that for years it was nearly impossible to get widely published writing anything else. These are our legacy admits, our GI benefits (but only for some GIs), our governors standing in the schoolhouse door. This is the way it’s always been, until very very very recently.
And just as Abigail Fisher complained only about the 5 black/Latin@ students who beat her out for a seat at U of T but not the 42 white people who did the same, most people in this genre don’t notice the imbalances. They don’t realize that the massive overrepresentation of straight white men in this genre might have an artificial component; they perceive the overrepresentation as normalcy, and assume those men got there strictly on merit. Texas is majority-minority; the number of white kids who got into U of T was waaaay disproportionate to the population. But Fisher clearly believed that white people are supposed to get into good colleges, by dint of their whiteness — so even though other white kids got in with weaker scores, Fisher was only upset about the brown ones. Only those people didn’t belong. Only they “stole” something that she felt entitled to, and decided to try and take back. She saw the Affirmative Action, but not the affirmative action. (And really, there was no Affirmative Action involved in her case. She was just mediocre.)
Brad Torgersen sees Affirmative Action where only the most minimal efforts at redressing the imbalance exist. He ignores the actual affirmative action which has kept this genre — and this country — mired in a virtual caste system since its inception. But hilariously, he and his cronies have resorted to a lesser version of the very same tactics that his forbears used to defend their hoarded privileges — like enlisting the aid of violent bigots, and blatantly hamstringing processes intended to be fair.
Affirmative action has been at work in SFFdom pretty much since its inception — just not the kind that Brad Torgersen is talking about. And when the various Puppies say they want to take us all back to a golden age of history, it’s clear they haven’t actually studied history… or they might realize they’re replicating some of its ugliest episodes.
And man, sometimes Tumblr just has the best timing:
(ETA for typos, including John Campbell’s name, which I always get mixed up with Joseph Campbell’s, dammit.)