A Moderate Conversation Re: Sad Puppies

This essay is meant as part of my conversation with Stephanie S. , intended as moderate discussion of Fandom and the Sad Puppies. Stephanie opened the conversation, and we spoke a very little bit in the comments — mostly me asking for a few clarifications ([1] [2] [3]).

Neither Stephanie nor I represent anybody but ourselves. But we’re happy to be talking :)

The Vicious Cycle of Internet Arguments

There’s a key point to this conversation which CGP Grey summed up better than I ever could, in This Video Will Make You Angry. Go, watch.

It has the distinct advantage of being created with no connection whatsoever to the Hugos or the Puppies. But the dynamic it explains is very connected indeed: it’s about how anger and outrage spread virulently on the internet, with opinions mutating into radical forms, simplified for maximum outrage. Pretty soon the argument splits into multiple sides who no longer engage with each other at all; just stew and fume against their Awful Opponent in their separate, isolated spheres.

So to some extent, this is a sufficient answer to Stephanie’s question. Why is there so much vitriol against the Puppies? Because we’re on the internet, where it doesn’t take a whole lot to escalate an argument over Best Brand of Pasta into virtual knifings.

If you’re looking for calm, constructive dialogue, that isn’t an encouraging thought. But I hope this one is: a lot of the heat is coming from flaws of the medium, even when they seem like insurmountable differences between the individuals involved. And so understanding how these discussions go awry also means we can put in effort and have better discussions.

It’s no small effort. It means taking the care to phrase ourselves respectfully and kindly. It means exercising patience, a thick skin, and the understanding that the loudest commenters aren’t necessarily representative of their side; those keep the conversation from crashing and burning at the first sign of inevitable turbulence.

And ultimately, we’ll only to be able to engage with the people who are willing to engage as well. There will always be those who aren’t willing (and on the internet, there will be many many of those people, and they will be loud :P ). But I think talking with those who want to talk is worthwhile in its own right. So here’s my stab at that. :)

Complaints, Grievances, and the Question At Hand

Stephanie’s post listed what she sees as the core Puppy Complaints. To start things off: I would say I understand these complaints, and agree with many of them (to varying extents).

I definitely see a shift in the “focus” of the genre, even if I’d be hard-pressed to nail it down to a definition (not unreasonable, in a genre still best-defined as “what we point to when we say it”). The disproportionate influence of particular groups and fandoms has been raised and enthusiastically argued over in the past (e.g. [1] [2] [3]). And I think there’s been a lot of snubbing, condescension and ad-hominem attacks coming from non-Puppies. Which they often don’t notice, or consider justified. (Scott Alexander’s I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup springs to mind, as it so often does.)

I won’t go over the Puppy grievances one by one, but I think I can see where all of them are coming from.

Of course, the non-Puppies have grievances as well. Stephanie says what she doesn’t understand is why the non-Puppies are so angry, so unaccepting. That’s what I’m going to try to answer here.

An extremely important distinction, though: I’m not trying to convince you that the non-Puppies are right. I’m just trying to explain why the non-Puppies formed the opinions they have. What I’m really going for, at the end of all this, is for you to be able to say, “OK, I understand why the non-Puppies are so angry at the Sad Puppies, and it’s not because they’re malicious, stupid, or conspiring against us.”

I’ll also be touching on how the non-Puppy position being understandable and being accurate are two different things; on some of the ways the Sad Puppies have already demonstrated marked improvement; and on my own thoughts for improving matters further.

The argument is about intent

This is my proposition: before and beyond anything else, this argument is about intent.

When you get down to it, the non-Puppies have many, many complaints, but most of them boil down to: “We think the Sad Puppies have bad intentions.”

We can’t tell how many people nominated what; the only difference between a person who nominated the Puppy list because he sincerely loved every word of it, and a person who nominated it because “Ha ha ha suck on it SJWs” is intent. The difference between “We have read this book you admire so much and our sincere considered opinion is that: it sucks,” and “OMG it’s a book by your crowd, I bet it sucks” is one of intent. And so on.

The exact same actions are viewed entirely differently depending on what intentions one assumes. And when one assumes intent is hostile, any mistake can be interpreted as deliberate, as a sign of unforgivable flaws — and as further proof of hostility.

But that makes for a very ugly argument. For two reasons:

  1. Intent is not provable. You can guess and estimate what somebody’s intentions are, but there’s no real way to tell. Certainly without close familiarity, e.g. on opposite sides of an internet argument, understanding somebody’s intentions accurately is very difficult indeed.
  2. Intent is not uniform. The fact that a group has joined together for a common cause (or hobby!) doesn’t turn them into a like-minded monolith. Different people in a group will have different intent. It’s a handy simplification to say “That guy has bad intent, so his whole group is like that,” or “I know my intent is good, so my group must be well-intentioned.” But the fact is, any group will have a wide spectrum of intents, and you kind of need to address all of them.

And yet, we make those estimates all the time. We have to, in order to function. The non-Puppies make estimates about the Puppies, as a group; the Puppies make estimates about the non-Puppies, or the SJWs, or the WorldCon voters. The problem is that (A) we’re often not very good at making, nor revising, those estimates, and (B) we have a strong tendency to forget that they’re estimates.

Here’s the case I want to make:

  • In a case like Beale and the Rabid Puppies, the group’s intention is outright malicious. So if the non-Puppies are outraged at an incursion from that group, even if you yourself aren’t outraged, you understand where the outrage is coming from.
  • But that “justified outrage” shouldn’t apply to a group whose primary intention is acknowledging and rewarding books they love. By all rights, those should be greeted with open arms. Even if it’s, say, 90% Books-We-Love, 10% Resentment (as Stephanie sees it), they should be greeted with respect; they should get their place at the table.
  • But what if the estimate is, say, 90% Resentment, and only 10% Books-We-Love?
  • If that’s a good estimate of the proportion, of the group’s intention, then yeah, you’ve got cause to turn defensive. It looks like a malicious group (not only a malicious group, but a malicious group that doesn’t even care about the books much!).
  • Now, that estimate is admittedly quite imperfect. Intention is unknowable.
  • But it’s all you’ve got.
  • Oh, and let’s say you’ve gotten really really confident of that estimate.

Under those circumstances, does an angry, outraged response seem like something you understand? An error, perhaps, because it’s all based on a flawed, biased estimate — but a reasonable error to make?

That’s basically the case we’ve got here — the non-Puppies made an initial Estimate of Intent. And they came up with 90% Resentment.

I’m not arguing that the Sad Puppies are 90% Resentment. I’m saying they’re perceived as being 90% Resentment. That perception is what you’re really up against, whether it’s a false perception or a true one.

Errors of Perception

So I’m arguing the perception of the Puppies as 90% Resentful is the issue we need to be dealing with here. I’m going to dig into that a little.

You mentioned a variety of errors SP3 made. (SP4 has made moves to remedy many of them, which is one of the ways the non-Puppies’ initial estimate might diverge from “true” intentions. I’ll get to those.) I’m going to go through those errors really quick, and point out how they were not only “we made a mistake,” but how they actively contributed to the Puppies being perceived as so very resentful.

A. “We should’ve widened our crowd-sourcing pool.” Beyond mere questions like “how many recommendations do we need” and “is our crowd big enough,” the small pool is also a big perception problem: It creates a disconnect between the visible support and enthusiasm for a piece, and the support it actually gets in the nomination ballot.

On the internet, popular things tend to get buzz around them. There’s different types of buzz, coming from different quarters, at different volumes. The point is, when asking “Are there people expressing support for this book/story,” it’s pretty easy to track back to some unusual interest or attention; something you can point to.

There are Usual Suspects for this; typical “buzz points” for the typical Hugos — blogs, social media, reviews, recommended reading lists, etc. But even when the buzz comes from some other sphere, once the story’s up and nominated and you go looking for it, it’s pretty easy to find the buzz, wherever it was.

Now, the SP3 ballot had plenty of entries with visible popularity, but it also had many that had none. None that I could find, at any rate. “Championship B’Tok” was the first piece I read after the ballot was announced; I Googled to find other people’s reactions, and found zero positive mentions of it. Anywhere. In general, each of the short fiction categories and Best Related Work have items that got on the ballot that don’t have visible, easy-to-find support outside the very limited scope of SP3 . I’m not even talking about equivalents of “Tuesday’s With Molakesh the Destroyer,” where you see multiple commenters coming in to say how much they enjoyed the story. I’m talking about pieces that don’t have visible support and enthusiasm by name, in their own right.

Which leaves a bystander trying to guess the intent behind those nominations.

  • One possible intent is finding the story through the SP3 recommendation, enjoying it, and nominating on merit, and just not mentioning their enthusiasm anywhere visible.
  • Another possibility is nominating in order to support the slate, to support Brad and the Puppies, “to make the SJWs angry,” without thinking highly of the specific story (or even necessarily reading it).

(Despite buzz being the norm, the “Didn’t talk about it” scenario can actually make a lot of sense. A single recommendation from an influential blogger often has a big effect; in a way that is the buzz. And since the Puppies are often new nominators, not the “typical” ones we know, it makes a lot of sense that they may not express their enthusiasm in the “typical” ways. There’s a very short window, too, between SP3 and nomination; not much time for more buzz to build up.)

That’s two plausible interpretations. And again, the only real difference here is intent. As we’ve discussed, when you’re estimating intent, it’s very easy for any individual to perceive the mix as leaning to one extreme or the other. To sum up: the list coming from a single, opaque source with a very limited amount of outside suggestions, means it’s very hard for outsiders to see whether the support is for the individual works nominated, or for the whole list, in the form of an adversarial slate.

B. “We shouldn’t have called it a ‘slate.’” Well, this one is fairly obvious :) Even if we assume the very best of intentions, it’s pretty clear why people took “slate” to mean “slating tactics.”

I’ll add that there were other similar nuances of word-choice that had similar effects. Easy examples:

  • ”If you agree with our slate below — and we suspect you might” sounds a lot more like it’s treating the list as a single unit than, say, “If you find recommendations you agree with — and we suspect you’ll find many”.
  • A simple addition of something like “And if you’ve got other recommendations, tell us in the comments!”, or “And be sure to nominate and make your voice heard, whether it’s on our list or not!” could have worked wonders.

Now, criticisms like this are easy to make in retrospect. As I said in my opening, nitpicking phrasing subtleties is a sure way to misunderstand 

But at the same time, I think it’s very easy to see how plenty of people will have read the text, keyed on to points like this. Remember that the influence of reading recommendations and eligibility posts has long been a hot-button topic for the Hugos (e.g. [1] [2] [3]), so people are sensitive to this kind of thing, even if it’s just a general sense of tone. The perception they’ll form will be “slate,” not “recommendation list”; I think it’s fairly clear how they might reach that conclusion.

C. “We’ve often failed to separate our political disputes from our artistic arguments when responding to our detractors.” This is the big one.

I’ve been saying the non-Puppy Initial Estimate of Intent pretty much started out pegging the Puppies at 90% Resentment. And a lot of that is because that’s pretty much the ratio we’re seeing in the major Sad Puppy blog posts and internet interactions.

Very few posts on “Here are awesome books and stories; let’s talk about how awesome they are” (that I’ve seen). Lots and lots about how awful the SJWs are and how they’ve destroyed SF and the Hugos. I know the Sad Puppies hated “If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love” with the heat of a thousand suns, which, hey, fair enough — but comparatively, I’ve seen maybe the heat of one-tenth of a sun for the Jim Butcher novel they nominated. And so on.

Two important remarks:

  1. These are still only estimates of intent. There are a million excellent reasons why I might have seen lots of rants against SJWs and few raves for the Sad Puppy nomination picks.
  2. This argument cuts both ways. Lots of non-Puppies have expended plenty of vitriol towards the Puppies, and I have no doubt that you have seen a whole lot more of those rants and jibes than you have, say, our thoughtful meditations on the debut novels of Ken Liu and Zen Cho.

That being said, you can see why the effect on perception might be particularly strong in the case of the Sad Puppies. Because the Sad Puppies are new. A challenger, of sorts, with the rest of active WorldCon enthusiasts as the incumbent. So those blog posts and campaigning and internet interaction — they’re all people have to take the SP’s measure, to make their estimate. Those blog posts are branding, plain and simple.

And if 90% of your branding is Resentment, than 90% of your brand will be.

I don’t know if 90% Resentment is what you were going for; I don’t know if that’s what Correia or Torgersen were going for; I’m not talking about intention here — only the perception I’m seeing, the result of the branding. If the intention was to brand Sad Puppies as promoting Books They Love, then I think that branding has failed badly.

In 2015, with Torgersen in the lead, the weight was heavily on the Resentment side. Lots of talking about What We Don’t Like. About the SJWs, about the decay of the Hugos. No discussion whatsoever of the merits of the pieces he did like, the individual titles he was promoting for the Hugo.

In previous years, with Correia, Sad Puppies started out more explicitly about We-Love-Books — specifically, Correia’s books. Which is great! But Resentment was baked in heavily, with constant exhortations to “stick it to the man”, “poke the establishment in the eye,” “make literati snobs spontaneously combust with rage,” and “tick off a critic today.” Thaaaat’s a fair number of Resentment Points, right from the start.

I’m going to stress this one last time, because this is the one point I’m actually mentioning specific people: I’m saying nothing about Torgersen and Correia’s intentions. This is not an accusation, of anything.

This is a question. The question is, do you see how an observer, a fan, someone who’s already involved and enthusiastic about the Hugos, maybe someone close enough to various definition of “SJW” that he might think that’s maybe meant to be him — do you see how a person like that might look at the Puppies, and arrive at an Initial Intent Estimate of 90% Resentment?

Can you understand why that person might make that estimate, without that person being malicious, stupid, or conspiring against you?

Happily, in 2016, with SP4, the situation is looking much, much better.

Improvement in 2016

The Sad Puppies 4 campaign could have capitalized on SP3's success, used the slate tactic explicitly, and probably had even more nominating power than last time.

That’s not what they’re doing. In several different ways, they are responding to criticism, stepping away from slate tactics, and most importantly — increasing the Books-We-Love focus in a way SP3 never did.

  • SP4 is devoting months of attention and focus to recommendations, making them a substantial phase of SP4 in their own right, giving them the spotlight. In SP4, it’s easy to find a bunch of people who were enthusiastic about any particular piece, and lots of them add comments and praise to their suggestion post. This is phase devoted entirely to Books-We-Love, and for the most part, it’s Resentment-free.
  • SP4 is forfeiting slate-tactic nominating power. By promising ten items per category instead of five, SP4 is giving up a great measure of voter concentration — the primary power of slate tactics. Even better, it’s putting the spotlight back on choosing your favorites; “copying a list” isn’t an encouraged option. 
    SP4 is probably big enough that it’ll still have very high concentration around some popular nominees, and in some categories. But it’s not attempting to dominate the ballot, even though that could have been attempted directly.
  • SP4 is devoting attention (and blog posts!) to familiarity with the Hugo categories and intricacies. That’s a clear, valuable step to getting new participants involved with the Hugos, in a different and deeper way than simple “Vote for these!” lists.

These are all huge improvements. Steps that move the perception of the Sad Puppies away from focusing on the Resentment aspect, and towards focusing on Books We Love, and on participation in the Hugos as they are. That’s something I honor and appreciate. Even if there are still issues on the table (and there are), I think with these steps the Sad Puppies are trying for participation, not attack. That’s a goal I wholly support, and good cause for optimism.

Not everybody sees it that way. There’s a lot of ill-will built up. But some do. George R.R. Martin, who certainly has the non-Puppy’s respect, expressed the same appreciation and cautious optimism. The more reason we have for optimism, I hope you’ll find that the number of optimists grows :)

Moving Forward

So, I’ve said we’re locked into an internet outrage cycle. I’ve said the whole argument is about intent, even though nobody can measure intent.
And I’ve given examples of points where the Sad Puppies intent looked focused mostly on Resentment, which is what a lot of the backlash is responding to; and also examples where the Sad Puppies look much more focused on Books We Love.

Here’s where I’m going to summarize the whole big thing, and offer my own conclusions. And here’s my core observation:

When the Sad Puppies talk about what they don’t like, they mostly get backlash. When Sad Puppies post about how awful SJW’s are, or how awful a few flashpoint books or stories are, what we non-Puppies are seeing is Resentment.
When the Sad Puppies talk about what they do like, they can get respect, acceptance, and appreciation. When Sad Puppies post about books and stories that they love, then we non-Puppies see Enthusiasm For Books We Love. And that’s something the WorldCon community is, by and large, Totally Down With. That’s what the Hugos are for. Plenty of people will disagree with your taste and picks (that is also what the Hugos are for), but having your taste and making your picks is what this whole thing is all about.

(I say “can get respect, etc.,” not necessarily “will”; talking about books you love probably won’t attract the same kind of attention. And again, existing ill-will for us all to work past. On the other hand, writing a post squeeing over how awesome the latest Jim Butcher is not going to get the same kind of backlash and outrage that you’d see for a post raging over the latest Ann Leckey. And for good reason.)

None of this is surprising. Odds are good that the posts and comments that get you angry at non-Puppies are the ones where they are expressing resentment towards you, or towards a group you respect — not the posts going “Story X was awesome because — ” .

It also leads to the conclusion: talk more about awesome things you like. Which seems obvious, but is also one of those easier-said-than-done things.

The fact is, at the moment, there’s still fairly little visible Puppy effort around the actual, individual works. Just as a random example; I’ve seen at least a dozen different non-Puppy bloggers going and reviewing most or all of the Hugo Puppy ballot last year; I haven’t found any counterpart reviews in the Puppy blogosphere. Or, on the non-Puppy side of the upcoming Hugo nominations, I’m seeing lots of trading back and forth of recommendations for great reading material; for the Sad Puppies, there’s certainly SP4 itself — but are Sad Puppies sharing recommendations beyond that one particular site? Are they promoting their favorite books, encouraging other people to read them and nominate them for SP4 and for the Hugos? (I am betting there is a fair amount of this, that I just haven’t seen because it’s not in the internet sphere I swim in. Sincere request: if you can point me to Puppy-aligned books discussion, I would be extremely pleased :) )

Kary English said this back in June, and I’m repeating it now: Sad Puppies, please talk about what you love. You want to recognize books and authors and creators that are going criminally under-appreciated — that’s great! Talk about them! Sing about them! Tell us how fantastic they are! Tell us why you love them; hook us fast; reel us in. Effort you spend on this — as a group, or as individuals from within that group— is the way to be seen as a campaign of Books We Love, not of Resentment. Which makes all the difference in the world.

If the Sad Puppies already are talking about what they love — and I’d wager a good number of them are, in some form or another — then the thing to do is make that talk more visible. Make it easy to find. Help make it so when a bystander goes, ok, the Puppies say that these stories are awesome and better than those stories, then that bystander will have a really easy time understanding why.

I have no shortage of mirror criticism towards the non-Puppy side of all this; the non-Puppies have done their fair share of keeping the outrage cycle going strong.

But this point, the point about talking about what you love, is one where I know the non-Puppies shine strongly. The non-Puppy blogosphere is abuzz about the Puppies, to be sure, but at the same time, they’re also full of recommendations and reviews and podcasts and discussion of what’s awesome and why. File 770 comments may be one-sided and unwelcoming to Puppies, but they are chock-full of reading recommendations and energetic discussion, that has nothing to do with the Puppies at all. And the internet is full of Hugo enthusiasts sharing recommendations and reactions and chattering happily about all things genre.

The Sad Puppies have not, as a group, and as far as I’ve seen personally, built up this kind of energy about what they do like. (Both Correia and Torgersen have explicitly said they don’t want to talk about the pieces they’re promoting; [1] [2].) What the non-Puppies mostly get to see is what the Sad Puppies don’t like — and even that is often phrased as “We don’t like you.” This makes it easy to see where the angry reactions are coming from.

So talking about what you love would be my own suggestion. You may diagnose the situation differently; maybe reviews and recommendations aren’t what the Sad Puppies are meant to be about. Whatever the Sad Puppies are about, though, you should home in out, and figure out how to express those strengths. Figure out how the ideal Sad Puppy brand should look, and then do whatever you can to look like that.

Brand the hell out of yourselves. Because right now, your brand is perceived as being mostly about Resentment. If that’s not what you want, you’re going to need to figure out how to change it, one way or another.

Closing Thoughts

I think I very much understand why the Sad Puppies are angry at how the last couple of years have gone. I hope I’ve helped make it clearer why the non-Puppies have been angry in return.

Ultimately, anger on both sides is what’s fueling this thing on and on. I don’t want to dismiss the issues at hand; want I want is to see them de-escalated, to the point people can actually talk about them productively.

That’s a lot of why I’m writing here, and why I’m glad to have the opportunity to hold a calm, respectful discussion between the two sides. Sure, I’m writing to argue some points I believe in. But also, I want there to be more non-angry content out there — from the non-Puppy side too. I want both sides, Puppy and non-Puppy, to see that engagement is an option.

Failing that (this is, after all, The Internet, and I’m sure the comment section is going to be delightful), I’d like the moderates on both sides to see each other trying.

Thanks again, and all the best.

— Ziv