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Around the Web with Jessica Zellers

*Originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of RA News.*

Welcome to Puppygate, the cutest sounding controversy in genre fandom. The Hugos are arguably the biggest awards in science fiction and fantasy literature, with nominations and voting being driven by the fans themselves, rather than a small panel of experts -- but this year the nominations have been strongly influenced by two groups: the Sad Puppies, who at their core may have a reasonable position, and the Rabid Puppies, who are frothing at the mouth.

The Telegraph has a succinct, balanced overview of the story, but here it is in a nutshell: The Hugo Awards, like so many fiction awards, have developed a reputation for promoting social messages at the expense of good storytelling. This position is objectively impossible to verify (what constitutes a social message? What constitutes a good story?), but subjectively, there may be some truth to it. You don’t turn to the Hugos for an old-fashioned pulpy romp of a story. You turn to the Hugos for books like Ann Leckie’s debut, Ancillary Justice. Last year it won in the Best Novel category, and although the story is magnificent, it is not easy. It is too literary and too experimental to breeze through in one sitting.

"And no matter who wins a Hugo, the reader will lose."

This year’s nominees reflect a push by a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies. The Sad Puppies worked within the rules to promote traditional storytelling, according to one perspective; alternately, the Sad Puppies disobeyed the spirit of the law and stuffed the ballot with politically conservative creators, to the exclusion of almost everyone else.

Things get really ugly when you factor in the Rabid Puppies, led by Theodore Beale (writing as Vox Day), a man who publicly flaunts his misogyny, racism, and homophobia. He successfully influenced 68% of the ballot. I can understand the Sad Puppies, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them, but the Rabid Puppies hijacked an illustrious award with their poison.

Who’s the victim here? The nominees, for starters. They’ll never know if they earned a spot on the ballot due to creating the most enjoyable story or due to someone’s political agenda.

And no matter who wins a Hugo, the reader will lose. Once upon a time, you could grab a Hugo winner at random and feel confident that you were in for a good story. This year -- and probably in the future -- the Hugo Awards are tainted.

Bearing in mind that hateful people like Theodore Beale can and do influence fandom, this story should be sadly unsurprising. Brenna Clarke Gray writes about receiving threats for posting an unfavorable Goodreads review of a book. A person claiming to be the author’s publicist contacted her and threatened to retaliate in kind -- just because she had posted an honest review.

Gray’s reaction makes complete sense: she shut down her Goodreads account. Once again: who is the victim? In this case, Gray is, because she no longer feels comfortable engaging in civil discourse about books. And the reader still deals with the fallout, because Gray’s voice will now be missing from Goodreads reviews. She was bullied into silence.

Threats on Goodreads and vicious political battles for the Hugo Awards: these are two examples of crowdsourcing gone wrong. Will Kindle Scout fare better? It’s American Idol for publishing. The aspiring writer submits a finished, professionally copyedited manuscript for consideration. Ordinary readers have 30 days to browse teaser chapters and nominate books they’d like to see published. Those books that get enough votes are then published by Kindle Press. Amazon gets the rights to e-book and audiobook formats, while the writer retains rights to all other formats, including print.

Kindle Scout is still a new program, so whether it ultimately proves successful is yet to be seen. I am aware of one serious drawback, however: with e-books, there’s no way to use the gorgeous, hand-carved bookmarks from Italy. They’re beautiful enough to make a committed e-book reader come back to the world of print.

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Jessica Zellers is a Collection Development Librarian with the Mid-Continent Public Library. She has a weakness for fat Russian novels.