While reading the linked articles on Mike Glyer’s daily round-up of Puppy and Puppy-adjacent posts, I stumbled across a post by Dave Freer from February called “To Serve One Master — The Reader“.
The major thrust of the blog post is the idea that however an author intends a work to be received is secondary to how readers receive it, which… okay. This is something that it’s taken me a long time to accept as an author, but I have to say that I am in general agreement with it.
The thing is, it’s weird to see a self-professed Puppy saying this. After all, these are the same people who, whenever someone starts talking about the racist or sexist content of a work, respond with “BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE AUTHOR MEANT! YOU CAN’T KNOW WHAT’S IN THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS! YOU’RE JUST READING INTO THINGS!”
Of course, predictably, to the author of this blog post, “the reader” (also referred to as “the customer”) is a monolithic if not singular entity. “The reader” has a single set of tastes, which all authors are obliged to satisfy.
According to Dave Freer, its the people who remember what one commenter calls the “SHAZAAM!” factor of Star Trek who are Star Trek’s customers, not the people who appreciate the utopian social messages and the hope for the future, or the clever dialogue and rich characterization and interpersonal relationships, or any other aspect of the show.
According to Dave Freer, when people go to a movie that features a rich fictional culture and also laser battles, it’s the people who remember the laser battles (and only those people) that are the customers who deserve to be catered to.
Freer uses the piece to berate authors who don’t write for “the reader”/”the customer”, explicitly meaning consumers who want the sorts of things Dave Freer thinks consumers should want.
He advises writers:
Of course you can just hope they like your stuff. Or you can try and write what they want. Maybe slant it a bit in the direction that you want to communicate about. Of course if that slant fails to gain traction and overwhelms what they did want… you’ve lost. And, if they’re not a captive audience, they’ll find something they do like. … It’s really important to find out what customers want, and give it to them.
So a writer’s job is to figure out exactly what readers want to read and then give it to them? Yet when readers say they want more diverse books, or they want to read books with characters they can identify with, or they want to read books that don’t use real-life sources of trauma as set decoration, that’s “political correctness run wild” or “SJW thought police” or whatever buzzwords the Sad Puppies and their ilk want to string together today.
Why? Because the people who want to read those things aren’t readers. Only the people whose tastes and preferences are Dave Freer-approved are readers. To the Sad Puppies, an author’s job is to please the Dave Freers and William Lehmans of the world, not the K. Tempest Bradfords and David Gerrolds.
It’s really striking how often the Sad Puppies claim that “the other side” is all about dictating who is and isn’t “True Fans”, given how much of their rhetoric revolves around this kind of thing. It’s also striking how much this ideology overlaps with Gamergate.
Freer repeats a common Sad Puppy talking point, that SF/F is in some kind of death spiral because so many authors refuse to cater to “the reader”. This notion—insofar as it is based on anything—is based on the fact that in a diverse field where authors are free to write whatever they want that appeals to any audience (not just Dave Freer’s idealized concept of “the reader”), a market that would otherwise belong wholly to the lowest common denominators is instead spread out among more works.
The Puppies see this as a terrifying prospect, the end of the genre as we know it. Puppy standard-bearer Brad Torgersen, in his now-infamous “Nutty Nuggets” post (which might as well be subtitled “WHY CAN’T I JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVER?”), lamented a future where SF/F is everywhere: SF/F romances, SF/F mysteries, et cetera.
I don’t know what the problem with that is.
Science fiction everywhere?
I call that winning.
It might be—I’m not in a position to know, but it might be—that the “fracturing” of the field in terms of more diverse voices writing for more diverse audiences is making it harder for the big publishing houses to churn out big blockbusters. I don’t know. But as an independent author, I don’t see much percentage in measuring the health of the genre by the performance of the biggest players only. I’d rather measure the field’s growth in terms of how many people are reading and writing science fiction vs. how many copies the most popular books sell.