Over here in Australia, we have a radio station called Triple J (JJJ). Every year on Australia Day they have a Hottest 100 countdown where they play the top songs voted by listeners, then produce it as a CD. It's not uncommon for Australia Day to basically consist of "come over to my place and we'll have a BBQ and drink beer and listen to the Hottest 100". Triple J has a long history of giving Australian artists their "big break" and playing a wide range of music, not just mainstream popular stuff, and the Hottest 100 itself often gave exposure to bands that were otherwise barely known. Over recent years the station has become more and more popular amongst those who actively snub mainstream. Consequently, the Hottest 100 has grown to feature (or not feature) particular kinds of music that appeals to that subculture, because it's a popularity contest defined by its own audience.
This year, there was a campaign to get Taylor Swift voted #1. The regular listeners argued that her brand of pop doesn't fit the JJJ audience or the "spirit" of the competition, being to provide exposure for underdog and non-mainstream artists. Those voting for her argued that she's popular and it's a popular competition, that it was a class war between "high" and "low" culture and that the votes should be tallied fairly no matter whose nose gets out of joint with the result. Eventually the radio station disqualified her from the list, claiming that the whole campaign was to "prod hipsters for the lulz" and that it had gone too far when KFC started giving out free food to people who voted for her.
A week or two later, people stopped talking about it and everyone went on listening to whatever music they wanted.
The situation in the science fiction writing industry at the moment seems similar. The Hugo awards began with a purpose (recognising authors in a genre that was often looked down upon by the mainstream) and over time came to have their own distinctive flavour. They are, and long have been, awarded based on a public nomination and voting system, but as their audience changes, the votes reflect that. A group of writers (Sad Puppies) became upset with the flavour of writing that has dominated in recent years (what they call "message fiction", where story is claimed to be secondary to a lesson or PSA from a particular political perspective) and decided that the answer was to get more people voting for the kinds of books that they felt were more worthy and more popular. Their campaign has since been co-opted by another, more hateful group (Rabid Puppies, led by Vox Day) which turned things very ugly and political.
We could debate the merits of whether Tayor Swift deserved to be disqualified from the Hottest 100 or not, but the far more interesting question, to me anyway, is why did these kinds of campaigns start in the first place? The entire competition appeals to a particular audience. The ones voting are also the ones listening and buying the CDs. Likewise, if your book won't appeal to Hugo voters on its own, will having a "Hugo winner!" sticker on the front cover really convince them to read it?
I give you two hypothetical people, let's call them Florence and Alfred. Florence is part of the sub-group that likes so-called "message fiction" and although she's never been part of the voting process, over recent years she's realised that most Hugo winners fit the kind of fiction that she enjoys. So she keeps an eye on the nomination list and takes it to book stores with her. Alfred enjoys sci-fi but dislikes message fiction and has gradually come to realise that he should avoid Hugo winners and instead look at whatever the top 20 best-selling sci-fi writers are.
This year, Florence is going to pick up a Hugo winner that she doesn't like, and Alfred is going to avoid a book that he might have really enjoyed. That's what the Puppies have achieved. They haven't changed the nature of what is considered good writing, because good and bad are subjective terms and always have been.
It's like if I said "well, my book is mainstream literary but romance is a more popular genre, so I'm going to try to get it to the top of Amazon's romance list so that more people will buy it." I'd be forgetting that people are the ones who buy books, read books, review books and vote for books, and people all have their own individual tastes that are loosely grouped around genres, sub-genres and, in this case, awards.
The way I see it, there are 3 possible reasons for these campaigns:
1) Those voting genuinely wanted JJJ listeners to start listening to more Taylor Swift, and failed to acknowledge that you can't change audience tastes by walking into their living room and taking over the speakers. The Sad Puppies somehow thought that by getting these books to win the awards, they'd attract readers who enjoy the previous years' style of writing.
2) Those voting believed that a popular singer like Swift should be acknowledged with a popular-vote award, and rather than starting their own, it was easier/better to use an award that is already well-known. The Sad Puppies wanted these authors to win a Hugo because they feel that these authors deserve to be acknowledged for their popularity and skill, regardless of what other expectations are now attached to Hugo award winners. My guess is that this is where the Sad Puppies campaign began.
3) Trolls are trolling for attention. Those voting were more interested in exposing a flaw in the voting system, undermining any integrity of the award, and getting their name splashed all over blogs and online news media sites. They don't give a poop who wins in the end, because they know that the current audience of the awards aren't interested in what they're trying to sell. But they do know that by generating widespread attention and turning it into something political, they might appear on the radar of other like-minded people who are their target audience. And in the meantime, they get to smash something that they don't like. I suspect this is where the Rabid Puppies came along.
I don't know the views of the authors who might have been nominated and have now missed out. My guess is the attention generated by this saga may end up being positive for them. I don't know the views of authors who have now been nominated, except the couple who have publicly withdrawn their books from consideration. Again, the attention will probably lead to more sales. What I can say, however, and I think most of my writer friends will back me on this, is that it is an honour to know that a reader was touched by something you wrote. All of the writers at the centre of this controversy have the pleasure of knowing that their books are in the hands of readers who are passionate about them and recommending them to other people. Whatever happens to the Hugos from here on out, keep reading books and keep loving them.