Take One: The purpose of literature is to educate us morally and socially. Since the greatest threat to the moral and social order is systematic oppression of “the other”, good books therefore are ones which open our minds to the oppressed: women, minorities, gays, etc. Books which thoughtlessly reaffirm the unjust status quo are bad.
Take Two: The purpose of literature is to entertain. Books which entertain are good, books which do not entertain are bad. Therefore, promoting a boring book for the sake of its moral and social message is bad. Its badness is compounded by the fact that nothing is less entertaining than being preached at by someone convinced of his own moral and social superiority.
The discussion whether literature is good because it is moral or if literature is good because it is entertaining is older than Plato, though the idea of what qualifies as ‘moral’ has changed in recent years.
These are the battle-lines which have been drawn up around Sci-Fi’s Hugo awards the last three years. One the one hand are the moralists (or SJWs “Social Justice Warriors”), traditional World-Con voters who have making an effort to give awards to books written by minorities. On the other is the Sad Puppies movement, which has been launching drives to bring in new voters who will vote to give Hugos based only on the entertainment value of the books, rather than the identity of the author or the morally uplifting content.
The clash of visions has not been pretty. The SJWs accuse the Sad Puppies crowd of both jealousy that their own books have been overlooked for nominations, and (of course) of the unholy Trinity of evil motives: racism, sexism and homophobia. The Sad Puppies crowd for their part accuse the SJWs of making Sci-Fi boring and ideologically ridged.
I haven’t read much Sci-Fi since I was a teenager (aside from Phillip K Dick, whom I’ve only discovered as an adult) so maybe it is not my place to comment, but I’ve been following this argument because it seems to be a microcosm of a broader cultural impoverishment. I find it easy to root against the SJWs: they are shrill and self-righteous, and I tend to think their knee-jerk impulse to label all disagreement “racism-sexism-homophobia” is, in reality, a form of bullying. The Sad Puppies crowd on the other hand can be justly accused of turning the Hugo award into an overtly political contest. They are unwelcome party crashers who don’t seem sure if the party was worth crashing.
Leaving aside whether or not Sad Puppies did the right thing in crashing the Hugo Awards, here are some personal takes on the deeper question:
1) Morally and socially uplifting art vs entertaining art does not have to be a dichotomy. Ideally a good book is both, because a true representation of reality includes something of the moral structure of reality. Sometimes a book can be powerful or entertaining but less than edifying, and it is for adults to decide how to judge the moral value of their own reading. Boring art, however, is bad art. A bad book with good morals is still a bad book.
2) A book that gives a minority perspective on a culture can be valuable and educational precisely because it opens our eyes to new realities. It can also be self-righteous, cliched, or plain old false. And as valuable as a minority perspective can be, it is still just a perspective, not inherently more valuable than the majority perspective. Add to that the fact that cultural realities are always imperfect and often completely relative, and it seems like a very limited discussion indeed.
3) When cultural dialogues always and predictably end up in accusations of racism-sexism-homophobia, it is a sign of cultural impoverishment. At least, that is my suspicion. Hopefully that is a theme I’ll return to in the future.
Anyway, here are some links to blogs that have written on the subject of this year’s Hugo Awards:
Brad R. Torgerson’s blog, by the organizer of this this year’s Sad Puppies Campaign.