Today is the day. It’s my daughter’s birthday, not mine, but if past years are anything to go by, today will probably be the day I get several text messages from old friends. It might be a friend who hasn’t heard from me in ages, but has been reminded by a glaring yellow poster and the letters R U OK? that they do know someone who was open about being suicidal, and maybe they should make sure they’re not thinking about killing themselves today of all days. Or it might be someone who has typed up one heartfelt message and sent it to half their address book, being prompted to check in with everyone they haven’t been able to connect with in a while. It might be a friend I confided in recently about some of the personal stresses and problems I have at the moment. I love these friends and appreciate them, truly, but I don’t know what to do with their messages.
Buckle in, because this is a long one. I’ve been stewing on this since the announcement was made last week. In the midst of a pandemic where people turned to the arts for entertainment and levity and catharsis, the government wants to make students pay more for creative arts. In the midst of worldwide protests against racial inequality and police brutality, the government wants it to be more expensive for students to study ethics, social studies and political science. As attention is drawn to a broken legal and corrections system, they want to make it more costly to study law. As many gather in the streets to protest ongoing injustice and long-term impacts of colonialism, the government wants to discourage young people from studying history. In the midst of ceased production of many regional newspapers and further funding cuts to independent media like the ABC, the government wants students to pay more for communications. There’s many reasons to be angry. But now that I’ve cooled off a little and looked closer at what exactly has been proposed, here’s eight reasons you should be opposed to these changes to university funding.
I’ve seen a lot of lies on social media in recent weeks. Covid-19 as a biological weapon. 5G towers. Wind farms. Being forced into a cashless society. Politicians didn’t say what they said. Schools are reopening next week. Even, sadly, “I have to pick up my ER doctor husband’s dead body” (be careful who you follow on Twitter). But perhaps the most persistent lie I see is phrased as a question:
A shortened version of this opinion piece appeared in The Sunday Age on 22nd July 2018.
When American writer Zinzi Clemmons accused Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz of sexual misconduct at last month’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, it was in some ways unsurprising. While we couldn’t necessarily predict who would be accused, or of what, or by whom, one thing has always been clear: the literary industry would have its #metoo moments. No profession is immune to instances of sexism and harassment.
Science-fiction definitely isn't my area of expertise, but as a writer the situation with the Hugo Awards hasn't escaped my attention. Vox Day and his homophobic, sexist, racist agenda has complicated the original issue, so I'm just going to leave that part out for now and do a comparison with another popular vote that went wrong earlier this year.
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, becauseit's a popularity contestdefined 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 bygetting 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 whoaretheir 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.
In the time since I last blogged, the following things have happened:
A sociopath became fanatical about his religion and held over a dozen people at gunpoint in Sydney for a full day. I woke up the next morning to learn that two of those people had been killed (and the gunman).
Before I went to bed that night, news had come in of a shooting at a school in Pakistan where 132 children were killed.
HSC results (for NSW students, the biggest and final exams of their high school days) were released
That list might seem odd and unrelated, and truthfully, I don’t really know how to make sense of it all together myself. How do we lead lives that swing so quickly, not only from secure to horrific, but back to joyful again? How is it that these kinds of events seem to change us, yet today I lived an entire day that was no different to a day I might have lived a year ago?
After my facebook feed was exhausted with links to “Gabrielle’s year” things, family and friends started doing another one that is meant to look like a newspaper with the “headlines” of people’s lives this year. I noticed how the number of happy headlines far outweighed the number of tragic ones, the inverse of a real newspaper. Perhaps that’s because we tend to share our happiness on social media far more readily than our sadness, or perhaps it’s because we tend to “like” and comment on things that show our friends being happy. But for me, I think it’s just because my friends and I are really lucky. We don’t send our kids to school with the very real fear that they might be shot before we see them again. When a siege happens in the city I grew up in, it takes up the entire news broadcast because we’re all horrified by the idea that that sort of thing can happen here. The enemies we’re acclimatised to are different – heart disease, dementia, domestic violence, drunk drivers.
The media described the gunman as a terrorist and an extremist, both perfectly accurate words that nonetheless might not have been used if the gunman had looked different. I read about innocent victims and ignorant racists, and thought about how innocent and ignorant might just be different spins on the same idea: uninvolved, unaware, uneducated. I was reminded again that the words we choose are powerful, not just for communicating our own views, but for subtly shaping the way other people think about the topic of conversation. As I read about that shooting in Pakistan, I learned that schools are actually a common target for the Taliban. It's an idea that seems pure evil: targeting your attacks at those who are least armed. But it's also because Malala Yousafzai is absolutely right: education is their biggest enemy. Every person whose life you change may go on to change more lives, but every life you end, just ends. Teach compassion and compassion grows exponentially. Teach nuance, teach critical thinking, teach communication.
Educate and there will be fewer gunmen.
So perhaps when I look back at the events of the past few weeks, HSC results shouldn’t stand out as the mundane or the “return to normal life”. They should be the very thing that highlights the difference between the fear and the festivity. Not because of the HSC itself, but because the students who sat it were required to communicate their ideas, to test the ideas of others, to argue without weapons and to look closely at the world around them.