The Baen fallacy

Eric Flint is one of Baen’s old guard of authors, somebody who has been writing and editing for Baen since at least the nineties. He’s also one of the more insightful of Baen’s stable of authors, being an old lefty rather than a rightwinger, though it’s only noticeable in his fiction because his gun toting heroes defending the American way of life are unionised. Whereas a Larry Correia or Brad Torgersen show little evidence of thinking things through, acting purely on rightwing reflexes, blaming everybody else for their failures to get Hugo nominations, seeing conspiracies in the everyday actions of fandom, Flint thinks much more nuanced and sophisticated about why the Hugo Awards have failed to reward much of the sort of science fiction Baen publishes. Unlike them, he isn’t so much looking for excuses as for looking for explanations. He’s still wrong though, but he’s interestingly wrong and he provides as clear headed a defence of what I like to call the Baen fallacy as is possible:

But, sooner or later, that stops being sufficient for the in-crowds. At first, they want more than just a good story. Which, in and of itself, is fair enough. The problem is that as time goes by “more than just a good story” often starts sliding into “I really don’t care how good the story is, it’s the other stuff that really matters.”

Eventually, form gets increasingly elevated over content. “Originality” for its own sake, something which the mass audience cares very little about—and neither did Homer or Shakespeare—becomes elevated to a preposterous status. And what withers away, at least to some degree, is a good sense of what skills are involved in forging a story in the first place.

To put it another way, every successful author has to master two skills which, although related, are still quite distinct: they have to be good story-tellers; and they have to be good writers.

Of those two skills, being a terrific story-teller but a journeyman writer will win you a mass audience, and is likely to keep it. On the flip side, being a journeyman story-teller but a terrific wordsmith will win you critical plaudits but won’t usually get you much in the way of an audience.

Before I explain why Flint is largely wrong about the Hugos, I do want to acknowledge that he gets two things right, in that I mostly agree with him that a) the SFF field has become too big for any one award to keep its finger on the pulse off and b) that the way the awards are structured exacerbates this, with various categories that perhaps made more sense historically than they do now. But he goes further than that.

His idea is that the Hugo Awards have lost their relevance not just for the above two reasons, but also because the Hugo voters have become elitist and out of touch with popular tastes in science fiction, something the Puppies have also alleged, but which Flint is smart enough to know isn’t through conspiracy, but rather for perfectly natural reasons. The problem remains that this just isn’t true and doesn’t explain anything that couldn’t have been explained by his first two arguments.

If anything, the Hugo Award over the past three decades has always trended towards rewarding middlebrow books or stories; just look at that list of Best Novel winners and nominees. You can say a lot about winners like Scalzi, Willis or Jo Walton, but not that they “elevate form over content”. Even last year’s winner, Ancillary Justice is a familiar sort of space opera only enlivened by its novel use of pronouns.

Neither does his implied comparison of Hugo voters to jaded art critics hold water. Even apart from the fact the Hugo voters renew themselves each years solely through Worldcon moving cities each year, the hardcore Hugo voters are largely ordinary fans, not professional critics and even if a large portion of those are professional SFF writers, as the Nebulas have shown, this is no guarantee for enlightened tastes. If there’s any conclusion you can make about Hugo voters, it’s that by and large they like familiar sorts of SFF, ambitious but safe, by authors they already know. Also that this tendency perhaps is worse at smaller Worldcons based in the American heartland. Case in point: Scalzi’s Redshirts won when the Worldcon was held in Texas.

But there’s more wrong with Flint’s argument than that neither the Hugo track record nor its voters fit his characterisation and this is the Baen Fallacy: that idea that critically acclaimed is always and forever in conflict with popular taste, as if Dhalgren never sold a million copies. It’s a core tenent of what you might call the Baen philosophy of publishing science fiction, which leads to the idea that sales figures are the only true measure of quality and that “story telling” always trumps any other consideration. There’s also this idea that there’s this silent majority of Baen readers out there not bothering with the Hugos or much of SF fandom who are the true fans because they buy the books, and, in its pernicious form, that “elitist” fans and publishers keep them down, content to take their money but sneering at them all the time.

Course, it was Baen itself which said their readers liked their books to have the same sort of consistency and interchangeableness of Del Monte canned fruit, so who is sneering at who exactly? It fits in well with Torgersen’s idea that real fans like books that are the same as every other book they’ve read, just like their cereal. Again, it’s the supposed populist sneering at his own readers tastes and they lapping it up. But the Hugo voters are elitists?

What seems to have started as a commercial strategy by the late Jim Baen to distinguish his new publishing venture from other science fiction publishers has metastasised into a massive inferiority and persecution complex. Baen himself, conservative as he was in his politics, has never let those stand in the way of publishing both good and commercially viable science fiction and fantasy, was never under any illusion about the qualities of his bread and butter authors like Flint, Ringo or Weber. He aimed his advertising at those who just wanted a good yarn and damn the writing qualities, but his followers seem to have mistaken this advertising for reality and worse, seem to believe everybody thinks this way or lies.

But if we come back to Dhalgren, the most difficult book by one of the most literary minded writers of science fiction, who’d go on to write a series of postmodern fantasies and yet this was a million seller. In the Baen worldview, this was only possible because everybody bought it to look cool or hip or intelligent and not because they genuinely liked it. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Rather, Dhalgren is the poster child for the idea that critically acclaimed, difficult books can be bestsellers and often are. Sometimes the Hugos even recognise them.

7 Comments

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  • Dan Kauffman

    May 18, 2015 at 4:48 am

    I never thought about Del Monte but years before the internet I found myself doing a lot of waiting for new books by authors I like, one day I noticed that a lot of my books had Baen on them SO I started looking for that and tried some new authors almost years later and I have never been disappointed

  • Pam Uphoff

    May 18, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Dhalgren was published forty years ago. What have we got now that compares?

  • Martin Wisse

    May 18, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    Pam, why not take a look at my booklog for some examples?

    Dan: if it works for you, that’s great.

  • mas gramondou

    May 19, 2015 at 12:58 am

    Your mocking of the Baen Delmonte statement (and IMHO taking it out of context) suggests you are missing the point.

    Baen – uniquely amongst SF/F publishers – has a brand that means something. The only publishing houses that can equal it are Harelquin/Mills & Boon in the Roamnce genre.

    Now you can dislike that brand, mock the covers, laugh at the “dumb” readers (and authors) etc. but you are, in the process, failing to understand why there are so many people like me who buy Baen’s ebook bundle every month and have done so for years.

    Unlike the other SF/F publishers I can be pretty darn sure that, no matter the subgenre, no matter the politics of the author (if I can tell them, ditto their religion, sex, ethnic origin) or any other consideration, what I get from Baen is a novel with engaging sympathetic characters, a plot (that includes character development), some thought out backstory/worldview and some kind of satisfactory ending. For $18 a month I get 3-4 new books of that sort, plus a couple of reissues, plus one or two classics that have yet to appear as an ebook. You can’t beat it, even if it turns out that some months none of the books make it onto the “should reread” pile.

    The fact that these basic concepts seem to have evaded the rest of the mainstream publishers is, I believe, why they are seeing sales flatline to decline while Baen and Indie pubs are seeing sales go up and why IMHO awards like the Hugos, whose voters seem to have likewise lost track of the basics, have lost their reliability as a signal that “this is a worthwhile read”.

  • Steve davidson

    May 23, 2015 at 9:07 am

    Mas – seems to me that you’re complaining that Barn went for reliability and other publishers stuck with novelty….

    That how the comment strikes me, not necessarily what I think the publishers are actually doing.

  • Russell Purkey

    August 11, 2015 at 2:57 pm

    While I read your post I can’t get your point.
    BAEN has consistently been my go to for a good read.
    Does it make Hugo’s? I actually do not care.
    What makes a HUGO Story? After reading the requirements to get nominated I find them stupid in the extreme. No book released the year of the Hugo is going to have been read by many. Make it the year prior and you may have something.
    Personally I cannot afford hardback books in the quantity I read. I am down to ebooks for the majority of my reading, Favorites will get a paperback on my shelf for re-reading. VERY few get Hardback copies on my wall. Example: I got copies of Crystal Singer, Killashandra and Crystal Line in the last few years to give a delay point. Yes, those were published from the 70’s thru the 90’s. I didn’t get hardbacks of any of them until the 2010’s.
    Thus: Are the Hugo voters out of touch / elitist? By my point of view – Probably. By most readers point of view in todays economy? Probably.
    Do the categories need updated or the HUGO’s split up into genre’s? Absolutely.
    So nothing I read can be on the HUGO list the year I read it. A few are past Hugo winners. And I don’t find them to be all that different than most of my reading.
    Now back on point: Jim Baen actively promoted new authors and good solid Science Fiction. I find that Almost All my favorite authors are currently published by BAEN books.
    Most of those authors are relatively new except David Weber. And I have a lot of David’s books. Also a lot of John Ringo’s books as he is my current go-to for a good exciting read with realistic military action. I also follow a couple series done by Larry Correa. Is is proper accurate, ect? I don’t expect it, He is writing SCIENCE FICTION. It is not going to all fit in current science but should be plausible. Do I know everything that is real in the world? Not Possible. Thus his Monster Hunter series is Possible in my world.
    Having never read or even heard of dhalgren prior to your post, I cannot relate to it.
    However I can fondly recall many good books written by various authors, most of whom never got a HUGO.

    however, Your main thrust is Jim Baen.
    I find his legacy to be solid and excellent reading.
    I find your “fallacy” to be something you see that I do not see. So you enjoy your point of view and I will enjoy mine.

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