How a Self-Published Writer of Gay Erotica Beat Sci-Fi’s Sad Puppies at their Own Game
And What it Taught Me About Pushing through Writer's Block
When I was a little kid, my mother would come into the bedroom I shared with two of my sisters each night and read us a book before we slept. Inevitably, a minor fight would erupt over whose bed beside which Mom would sit; after the aggression subsided, we’d all settle in for a story. My favorites were Grimm’s Fairytales, that vast compendium of dark forests, glowering wolves, and lost little girls.
Lately, I’ve realized that the story I loved best, “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” is an oddly perfect way to understand the difficulties of my own life—which include a recent, nearly shattering bout of writer’s block—and the difficulties of the lives of other writers. In particular, it’s a key to understanding an emotionally fraught and slightly dirty-minded political battle that has played out among writers of science fiction and fantasy, a band of insanely ineffective far-right protestors, and the author of a unique brand of erotic fiction known as “Tinglers.”
The plot of “The Elves and the Shoemaker” is simple. A poor shoemaker has been having such a rough time that he’s run out of money. One day, he realizes he has enough leather left for just one more pair of shoes. That night, filled with self-recriminations, he lays out the leather in preparation for the next—his very last—day of work. In the morning, as if by a miracle, a fine pair of shoes stands in place of the leather. That day, a girl comes into the shop, tries on the shoes, and finds they are a perfect fit. The money she pays is enough for the shoemaker to help a starving man, and also buy leather for two more pairs of shoes. The next morning, those leather pieces have been turned into shoes as sumptuous as the last pair. Again, they’re perfect for happy customers, and now there is enough money to help out two people in need and buy leather for four more pairs of shoes.
Intrigued by their shift in fortune, the shoemaker and his wife decide to stay up and see what is happening. As they peak from behind a door, they see two tiny rag-clad elves running into their shop at midnight. Together, the little men cut and sew the leather into fine shoes, singing while they work.
Heartened by their help, the shoemaker vows to make shoes again himself. The next night, he and his wife don’t lay out leather pieces. In their place, they set out a gift: two new suits the shoemaker’s wife has handmade for the elves. That night, the elves sing in gratitude for the fine new clothes, put them on, and run out the door, never to return.
The shoemaker strikes out on his own, selling shoes made by human hands from elfin design. With his mojo restored, he and his wife live happily ever after.
* * * *
Question: If you could pick a single writer to make an effective, compassionate statement about identity politics to a divided literary community, who would you pick? Would it be a schizophrenic, autistic person who’d authored an e-book called Space Raptor Butt Invasion?
For years, writers and fans of science fiction and fantasy have been confronting that first question. And inadvertently, at the behest of right-wing trolls, the answer to the second question has recently become yes.
For a genre focused on futuristic imaginings, science fiction and fantasy writing can be surprisingly backward-looking and reactionary. Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian-American woman whose work focuses on Africa, has received acclaim, but writers like her are rare. In 2015, science fiction publications let black writers contribute less than two percent of all published stories. The exclusion extends to the fictional realm: a genre that routinely depicts mythical beings and wild alterations of the human form often inexplicably fails to depict nonwhite human beings.
The issue hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2009, science fiction and fantasy fans initiated a massive, controversial discussion of race—which was later termed RaceFail, a name intended to capture its eventual outcome. In the years since, some writers and fans have steadily pressed for the inclusion of marginalized groups.
But social justice has its opponents, too. In the past few years, a right-wing group of sci-fi fans called “the Sad Puppies” have formed to attempt to reinforce the dominance of white males in the genre. More recently, an extremist offshoot called “the Rabid Puppies” have amped up attempts to upset the anti-racist people they call “social justice warriors.” One of their most attention-grabbing methods involves trolling the Hugo Awards.
The Hugos are among the most prestigious of science fiction and fantasy writing awards, in part because the entire community selects the nominees and winners. In 2016, for the second year in a row, the Puppies deliberately gamed the nomination process to, in essence, throw a racist fit. They promoted a series of politically motivated nominations that included some of the Puppies themselves (such as their ostensible leader, a 48-year-old man named Theodore Beale who likes to call himself “Vox Day,” and sometimes “Supreme Dark Lord,” for some reason). In addition, they nominated some well-known white-guy science fiction and fantasy writers—a kind of filler intended to eliminate opportunities for minorities—and added in a few prank candidates. The overall statement was clear: if white men couldn’t dominate the awards, they wouldn’t be awarded properly at all.
To some degree, their efforts worked; Vox Day and his collaborators secured a few nominations for themselves. But several of the people they’d nominated without their knowledge soon dropped out, to permit more legitimate entrants to take their places. More importantly, one candidate put forward by the Rabid Puppies threw them a bigger curveball than they’d thrown him.
His name? Chuck Tingle.
“Chuck Tingle” is the nom de plume of a Billings, Montana, writer who produces a unique brand of self-published e-books. His stories—he calls them “Tinglers”—are eccentric gay porn packed with bizarre references to dinosaurs, unicorns, and outer space, along with copious uses of the term “buckaroos.” They range from the abstract (Gay T-Rex Law Firm Executive Boner) to the politically up-to-the-minute (Slammed In The Butt By Domald Tromp’s Attempt To Avoid Accusations Of Plagiarism By Removing All Facts Or Concrete Plans From His Republican National Convention Speech) to the exceptionally high-concept (Pounded in the Butt by My Own Butt, which is not to be confused with its sequel and the third in the series).
While Tingle’s work is often politicized and topical, its connection to the mainstream of any genre is tenuous at best. The Rabid Puppies’ nomination was a clear act of trolling.
That said, if they thought they were getting over on someone—well, let’s see what Tingle has to say about it via the website therabidpuppies.com, which he now controls:
“Hello my name is Chuck Tingle (worlds greatest author). Sometimes devilmen are so busy planning scoundrel attacks they forget to REGISTER important website names. this is… good because it makes it easy for BUDS WHO KNOW LOVE IS REAL to prove love (all). please understand this is website [sic] to take DARK MAGIC and replace with REAL LOVE for all who kiss the sky.”
The site also includes an image of a shirtless Channing Tatum, plus links for donations to the Crash Override Network, which works to assist victims of online abuse (of the sort that Rapid Puppies themselves might commit, one imagines), and the Billings Public Library, which is in Tingle’s hometown. Tingle also added a plug for author N.K. Jemisin, who was nominated for a Hugo for her novel The Fifth Season.
Perhaps such a progressive response isn’t a surprise from a guy who wrote Bernie Sanders fan fiction and a book laughingly titled Oppressed in the Butt by My Inclusive Holiday Coffee Cups. Whatever the case, the Puppies found themselves outgunned. Even before the awards ceremony, victory was clearly Tingle’s.
* * * *
Lately, I have been suffering a spate of writer’s block so intense that it seems unstoppable. It began last summer, first as a slowness, an inability to write at the speed of a normal professional journalist. After battling my way through the latter half of a large project this February, I thought it might get better, I guess as a byproduct of my relief at having that work squared away. Instead, it got worse. By mid-April, I mostly stopped pitching new articles, realizing after a particularly paralytic week that meeting deadlines had become nearly impossible.
Since then, I’ve moved to working on more personal creative nonfiction projects, but found these increasingly difficult, too. It was as though my ability to create structure had fallen apart. I could write for hours, but only willy-nilly, never pulling words into patterns that made my point clear. I felt a deepening confusion.
These days, I find writing even that much almost impossible. In the past, my relationship with words has felt so lush and fast-moving that I wasn’t writing so much as pouring words out of my head. Then, the trick was to find a way to type fast enough to keep up with the flow of my thoughts. Now I sit and stare at the computer for hours, so stressed I’m dizzy. Sometimes I cry, and not in a fun way.
This is not a matter of mere self-recrimination. I’m not psyching myself out about work that is really just fine. After battling mightily to complete one of the very last stories I pitched–and finally managing to turn it in almost a week after the deadline–I got a brief email from the editor killing the piece. He was gentle, but the critique came across: the writing wasn’t good. The structure was tenuous, the wording turgid. It was, in a word, crap.
Privately, I knew it was the best I could manage.
After months of this, I’m not even sure I’m a writer anymore. For too long, I have felt like the shoemaker before the elves came, down to his very last piece of leather, wishing desperately for help to arrive.
* * * *
If Tingle takes a novel approach to anti-racism, he’s certainly not alone in opposing it. The Hugo awards show occurred on Saturday, August 20, at a conference in Kansas City called MidAmeriCon II. It was a thoroughly nerdy, not overly formal event, the kind where winners say things like, “Well, shit… this is a good day for the space unicorn rainbow corps.” But that chill vibe was intercut with serious remarks on identity politics issues, and no one made much effort to avoid mention of the bizarre situation surrounding the event.
Early on, one presenter took time to praise an editor who “even in the controversial matters, some of which are white-hot… has been remarkably even-handed.” Later, a woman gave a brief speech about being the first-ever Filipina Hugo Award winner, and then burst into tears. Neil Gaiman, whose Puppies-nominated Sandman: Overture won Best Graphic Story, sent along a speech commenting on the oddities of the award process: “I would have withdrawn it from consideration, but even that seemed like it would have been giving the sad losers too much acknowledgement.”
The voters agreed. Rabid Puppies leader Vox Day managed to nominate himself for “Best Editor, Long-form,” as well as in a nonfiction category called “Best Related Work” (for his bizarre missive SJWs Always Lie, which features a foreword from alt-right bully Milo Yiannopoulos). He lost Best Editor to a woman named Sheila E. Gilbert, and in the latter category, the emcee simply announced, “The voters have determined there will be no award.”
Elsewhere, top awards went to women of color. A woman named Hao Jingfang won best novelette (for “Folding Beijing”), Nnedi Okorafor got best novella (for Binti), and—as promoted by Chuck Tingle—N.K. Jemisin, who is a black woman, took home the Best Novel prize for The Fifth Season.
“Only a small number of ideologues have attempted to game the Hugo Awards,” Jemisin said in her acceptance speech, adding that most people “simply want to read good stories.” She concluded with a subtle acknowledgement of all that had gone on: “Thank you, Hugo voters, for standing up for me.”
* * * *
I might not be the most qualified person to write about what’s going on in the science fiction and fantasy community right now. I don’t write fiction, and likely never will. I rarely read it, either. I’ve spent virtually no time concerned with the genre before hearing of the Hugo Awards controversy. I’ve paid even less attention to self-published gay erotica—until Chuck Tingle, that is.
And to me he has become much more than a laugh. In a way, he is something of an elf to my shoemaker. He’s the help I’ve been wishing for.
The reason I’ve nearly left writing is no mystery to me, and it might not be so different to what’s going on with writers of color in the sci-fi and fantasy world, either. About a year ago, I was working on an identity politics-related project and, in the course of that work, encountered a couple of domineering, middle-aged white men. They reacted to some mild controversy in the project with intrusive, destructive behavior, some of which caught me by surprise and left me slightly shocked. Worst of all, the situation suggested that my best efforts to continue working would end in little more than further trouble and career interruption. The situation was harsh enough to make me consider ceasing writing altogether.
A year later, I’m still hesitant. It’s not hard to want to cease communicating if your best efforts are likely to end in degradation. It’s not hard to lose your sense of purpose after someone works to undermine you. And knowing what’s wrong doesn’t necessarily mean you can just snap out of it, either.
But in the midst of that, there’s Tingle. Despite the unselfconscious strangeness of his writing style and a lack of what fancy-pants literary types might call “talent,” his work is lighthearted, good-natured, and hilarious. He’s timely and in touch with the American cultural milieu. He clearly embodies the nondiscriminatory mindset that science fiction and fantasy types now seem to favor.
And he’s prolific. Whatever else he might be doing, Chuck Tingle clearly applies the seat of his pants to a chair each day and puts words on the page, unfettered by what other people might think.
I envy him. I admire him. And although my writing is very different from his, I’ve begun to self-consciously emulate his work ethic. To me, he’s been an unexpected jolt of energy at the last possible moment, and a good example to follow forever after—just as the elves were to the shoemaker.
And just as they made it possible for the shoemaker to not leave his craft, Tingle has made it possible for me to stay in mine. His silliness had made me laugh so hard that writing has become easy again. He’s the reason I haven’t quit entirely.
I’m so grateful.
* * * *
And that goes double for Jon “Tingle.”
Eight months ago, Chuck Tingle’s son did an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. “To answer the first question that I always get, Yes, my father is very real,” Jon wrote. “He is an autistic savant, but also suffers from schizophrenia.”
Amid the outpouring of attention, this fact has gone mostly unacknowledged. Naomi Kritzer, whose “Cat Pictures Please” beat out Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion for Best Short Story at the Hugos, said from the stage, “I want to thank Chuck Tingle for his outstanding performance art, and for giving us something to talk about.” But his weirdness is not self-consciously “artistic,” per se. Chuck Tingle’s eccentric style, unique taste, and his freedom to focus on writing e-books has a lot to do with his status as a person with serious mental and neurological disabilities.
Jon’s AMA session included straightforward details of how he looks after his father, ranging from preparing his favorite spaghetti to averting Chuck’s self-harming behaviors to accepting his own resulting romantic isolation. To Jon, none of that means public delight with books like My Ass Is Haunted by the Gay Unicorn Colonel requires an apology. “Yes, he is aware of the humor in many of his titles, although he would never just come right out and say it,” Jon said on Reddit. “Dad has a hard time understanding many things, but I would not let him be the butt of some worldwide joke if I didn’t have faith that he was in on it in some way.”
* * * *
That AMA predated the Hugo Award nomination, but in a manner of speaking, Chuck Tingle is now more than in on the joke. Through this odd circumstance, he’s landed in a spot where his abnormalities are actually oddly apropos. If anything, they embody a feature of fantasy writing that rarely gets discussed.
In 1806, when the Grimm Brothers were writing “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” the Western worldview often interpreted uncommon or uncontrollable occurrences as magical, supernatural, or heaven-sent. That same pre-modern era involved a rather primitive grasp of health and psychology in general and abnormal psychology in specific. In Germany as the Grimm Brothers knew it, the literary concept of an elf—a human-like but not-quite-human being whose perspectives and behaviors often seem otherworldly, unpredictable, or strange—might have effectively been a description of people we’d now call mentally, intellectually, or neurologically disabled.
If that sounds harsh, it is. Premodern Europe didn’t hew to the human rights we’d now consider standard. (In fact, given that hunger was then a recurrent problem in Europe, the cliché that elves are unusually tiny might be a modern misunderstanding of descriptions of stunting, the impaired growth that could occur when poor families undernourished disabled children to promote their other offspring’s survival.)
But there was human kindness in these stories, too. Fables about these unusual living beings might have functioned to point out that atypical people can be the source of tremendous and unexpected good. Unlike the modern habit of defining mental and intellectual differences as problematic, this premodern approach also acknowledged atypical people as having special capabilities that “normal” folks lacked.
Perhaps Chuck Tingle is the present-day example of that age-old archetype. Maybe, in a manner of speaking, he really is an elf.
And he’s not just my elf, but perhaps also one for science fiction and fantasy writers. He more or less dropped in on them from nowhere, after all, and began merrily working to generate interest in their books amongst people who hadn’t had any before. (I, for one, wouldn’t have known anything about sci-fi if not for him.) Perhaps there’s something cosmically correct in fantasy writers benefiting from his presence, given that his life is in some way congruent with the historical origins of their genre. Maybe it’s equally fitting that, despite his loss at the Hugos, Tingle got the gift of a new story idea out of the deal.
* * * *
Of course, none of this ever could have happened without Jon.
In his own AMA this spring, Chuck Tingle said that he was “focused on proving love is real at the hugos awards [sic].”
But the AMAs of both father and son make it clear that Chuck’s books can only make it out into the world because Jon edits his drafts and manages their publication. It can’t be easy for Jon, son of a disabled, quirky father, to do this—it wouldn’t be easy for anyone. “Serious question, though,” one Redditor asked him last winter. “What’s it like to read and edit erotic fiction written by your father?”
“What is really comes down to is that I’m helping him do something he loves, and self-publishing has completely turned his world around,” Jon said. “There were a few very dark years there and now he’s happier than I’ve seen him in a long time.”
Later, he added, “It’s really touching to know that my dad, who a lot of people kind of ignored and never had much hope for, could have such a positive effect on people through laughter.”
In a way, their shared success—not only in getting an award nomination, but in making a viable professional role for a person facing challenges, thriving together as a family, and having a positive effect on the world—has proved love real. And, in this, too, I wouldn’t mind emulating the Tingles.
My nearest immediate approximation is to do what the shoemaker did: donate some of my earnings to those in need. In this, I’ll take Chuck’s advice again. Billings Public Library, Crash Override Network, here I come.
And then I’ll get back to writing. Because now I can.
Thank you, Chuck.