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Posts tagged ‘Rant’

The SFWA Bulletin, Censorship, Anonymity, and Representation


First things first: my name is Chris Gerwel, and I am not anonymous. The past several months have seen mounting controversy around The SFWA Bulletin, a quarterly trade publication published by SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), a trade group representing writers of science fiction and fantasy. This controversy centers around the field’s ongoing examination of its relationship to gender, both in the field’s works (literary and visual) and in its published rhetoric.

I won’t go into the history of the controversy, which you can review for yourself here. Instead, I’m going to briefly suspend my blogging vacation to respond to Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s most recent salvo in the latest SFWA Bulletin. You can find their complete article at the bottom of this post from Radish Reviews (preceded by some good discussion of the article as well).

I have a huge problem with Resnick/Malzberg’s attitude. I consider it regressive, out-dated, and condescending. I am married to a “lady editor”, am friends with many more, and have great friendships with many “lady writers”. But I don’t think of them as “lady [anything]”. They are editors. They are writers. They are people. When I consider their work, I do exactly that: consider their work. Nothing else matters. Not their genders, not their sexualities, not their political views, and certainly not their appearances. When, in a professional context, we consider the work of plumbers, rocket scientists, and lawyers, it is the quality and characteristics of their work which are subject to our commentary. That focus on the work itself is precisely what “professional context” implies.

What Resnick and Malzberg have forgotten is that words matter. Images matter. They are what the world sees of our work, whether in our fiction or in our behavior. The criticism that has been leveled at the SFWA Bulletin’s gratuitous “warrior woman” cover (issue #200) is not that it is bad art, but rather that its old-fashioned and highly sexualized portrayal of its subject sends a regressive and out-dated message about the genre. Resnick and Malzberg’s dialogues are being criticized for the exact same failing: that to those in the field, and to those looking at the field from outside, their words communicate an attitude towards women that is condescending, dismissive, and not representative of the field.

In their most recent article, they make two spurious claims that are inaccurate, illogical, ignorant and ultimately irrelevant:

First, their critics are not anonymous as Resnick/Malzberg claim. That is a neat little rhetorical device to sideline detractors and to gain legitimacy through victimization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass the test of truth. Criticism of Resnick/Malzberg is happening online: in blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook, and on (various) forums. Their critics are not anonymous in these venues: Our names are known and typically displayed alongside each Tweet, comment, or post. However, Resnick/Malzberg wouldn’t know that simply because they are not participating in the modern field’s discussions. Their laments about “anonymous complainers” are the logical equivalent of someone calling the civil rights movement anonymous simply because they had never ventured into Harlem. Their claim is factually incorrect, and does little more than call attention to Resnick/Malzberg’s willful ignorance of today’s field.

Second, no one is calling for their thoughts to be censored. Their bombastic claims of “censorship” and “liberal fascism” are demagoguery of the basest sort, and as someone who has personally seen the consequences of real censorship and whose family has suffered at the hands of actual fascism, I find their ignorant rhetoric extremely offensive. Kameron Hurley discusses this from a slightly different perspective very eloquently here, as well.

Nobody (that I have seen) is saying that Resnick/Malzberg cannot have or publish their views in whatever venue will take them. I’m reasonably certain that every one of their detractors would agree with Ben Franklin in saying “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If Cantankerous Cane-thumpers Weekly is willing to give Resnick and Malzberg a platform, then I’m happy for them.

What people are saying, however, is that SFWA — an organization whose mission is to “inform[s], support[s], promote[s], defend[s] and advocate[s] for [authors of science fiction, fantasy and related genres]” — should not give such regressive views a platform. That is not a call for censorship. That is a call for principle, and for the responsible fulfillment of SFWA’s fiduciary duty to ably represent and promote the interests of its membership.

Like it or not, the SFWA Bulletin is an official trade publication published by an organization representing science fiction and fantasy writers. It is one of that organization’s public voices. The words and images it contains matter. They send a message to current members, they send a message to potential members, and they send a message to future generations of writers about the values and priorities of our field.

I could criticize Resnick and Malzberg for their antediluvian attitudes until I was blue in the face. But it wouldn’t do any good. They will hold to their views, and I will hold to mine, and never the twain shall meet. But Resnick and Malzberg – and their values – are irrelevant for today’s field. The relevant question is whether such attitudes (whether espoused by Mike Resnick, Barry Malzberg, CJ Henderson, or anyone else) will benefit from the imprimatur of the field’s most significant organization.

This is a question of editorial policy, and it is one that should instead be directed at Jean Rabe (The SFWA Bulletin’s editor) and at SFWA’s Board. And it is in this that I see a light of hope: All of the SFWA board members I know are good, thoughtful, considerate, logical people. They have done and will continue to do excellent, often thankless, work on behalf of SFWA’s members and the field in general. And unlike Resnick/Malzberg, they are all active in that field’s modern forums of discussion and debate. The critics are not anonymous to them, and our concerns are being heard and listened to. In particular, I applaud Rachel Swirsky’s reasonable, considerate, respectful statements on Twitter today. I have every confidence that the SFWA Board will address these concerns in a thoughtful, considered manner.

This controversy may be considered yet another storm in a teacup, and no doubt it is. But to those of us who are either inside the teacup or hoping to board, it remains a tempest. To be clear, I am not yet a SFWA member. Some might say that fact invalidates my opinion. I disagree. I have long hoped to be a member, and I eagerly look forward to the day when I am eligible. I look forward to joining an organization that will inform me, support me, promote me, defend me, and advocate on my behalf. I hope to join an organization that will represent the kind of genre that I want to contribute to, one which has abandoned a pernicious history of discrimination and condescension.

Yes, the organization is facing a storm in a teacup. But this storm shall pass, and I have every confidence that SFWA’s Board will help the organization navigate the waves. It will take time, because such is the nature of organizations. But I genuinely believe that SFWA will get to a far better place, and it is because of that belief that my hope of joining has not wavered.

This fact notwithstanding, in the meantime, we should continue to condemn Resnick/Malzberg’s views, and we should continue to loudly proclaim:

Science Fiction and fantasy are enriched by all of our participants, regardless of gender, race, creed, sexuality, politics, eye color, hair length, or any other characteristic. Every writer and every editor deserves our respect and gratitude. Condescension and dismissal add nothing of value to the conversation, and merely show their adherents to have become irrelevant.

My name is Chris Gerwel, and I stand by these views.

A Rant on Exclusion and Genre Pedantry


The other day, I read a fascinating (and wonderfully titled) essay by Simon Spanton, Deputy Publishing Director for Gollancz, wherein he discusses speculative fiction’s relationship to mainstream literary fiction. At first, the thought of yet another volley in the interminable genre wars made me groan. But the essay – and some of the ensuing discussion in the comments – did make me think, and those thoughts have gradually grown into a rant. While Simon’s essay raises excellent questions about genre awards, I’m more inclined to rant wonder about Simon’s main point: why do speculative fiction fans bristle at the prospect of non-SF writers employing speculative devices?

The “War” is Over. We Won.

I think it is fair to say that speculative fiction has essentially won the culture wars. The devices and conventions of science fiction and fantasy have achieved a degree of mainstream popularity that couldn’t have been imagined eighty years ago. They dominate both the big and small screen, form the core of the console gaming market, and feature prominently on literary bestseller lists (whether under the aegis of an SF/F imprint or not). The fact that Samuel Delany’s “About 5,750 Words” could benefit from some updating is, I think, a testament to the success of speculative fiction’s penetration into the cultural mainstream.

Yet for some reason, when authors who do not self-identify as science fiction writers (or as fantasy writers) make use of science fictional/fantastical devices, we’re quick to look down our noses at them. We argue that they “appropriate” devices from “our” genre, that they perpetuate genre elitism, that they are ignorant of speculative fiction’s traditions, etc.

To quote Damon Knight: So what?

The first of these claims is meaningless, the second is laughably ironic, and the third is simply irrelevant.

Appropriation of Genre Devices as the Cornerstone of Literature

Appropriation of devices, structures, and conventions is the foundation of literature. Writers have been stealing each others’ tricks ever since the second story was told around a campfire. What would James Joyce’s Ulysses be without Homer’s The Odyssey? Oh, dear, I am sorry: I forget so often that it isn’t worth reading if it doesn’t have a spaceship on the spine. Ahem. Let me use a different example: would we have Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings without William Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, or H. Rider Haggard’s She? Or would Robert A. Heinlein have written The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress without the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel or Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? Would Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey have been possible without the influence of Jane Austen?

To criticize the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Niffenger, etc. for “appropriating” speculative devices is petty. Who cares if their stories feature tropes more commonly published by genre imprints? One can make the equally meaningless claim that science fiction has been “appropriating” characterization from mainstream literary fiction. Literature is always in conversation with all of the literature that came before it: every story incorporates elements from other stories, puts those elements together in new and interesting combinations, and thus gives future writers something else to appropriate. That’s the way all literature works, whether inside or outside of speculative fiction.

The Snobbery of Pedantry

When we claim that writers like Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy perpetuate the snobbish genre divide, really it’s just the pot calling the kettle black. So Atwood thinks of science fiction as “talking squids in outer space”. Why should such a reductive classification bother us?

There are as many definitions of science fiction as there are science fiction consumers, and their attitude towards the genre ranges from uncritical boosterism to generalized dismissal. Like Kipling’s tribal lays, all of those definitions – and yes, including Atwood’s – are right. Such definitions are ontological and fluid; they are a subjective amalgam of what Brian Stableford calls “fuzzy sets”.

And there is nothing to be done about them.

Yet when we get sniffy about how one or another “authority” defines our genre, all we’re really doing is throwing a pedantic temper tantrum. If we claim that Only Our definition is Right and Proper, or if we claim that Your Definition is Wrong and Evil, we are engaging in the same exclusionary discrimination that our own beloved genre has been subject to for so long. When really, that classification isn’t solely up to us.

Works get classified into genres at many stages: Their authors can self-identify with a particular literary tradition while writing the damn thing. Agents (or the authors themselves) can submit the book to a particular genre imprint. The imprint can decide the book aligns well with its category/aesthetic/list. The art management team can select a cover that adheres to a particular subset of genre aesthetics/conventions. The bookstore can shelve it in a specific section. And finally, and most importantly, the consumer crafts their own opinion as to how they think of a given book.

Atwood’s definition, my definition, and your definition are but a few of the many voices in this process. One hundred years from now, a literary critic will be able to better judge the genre classification of The Handmaid’s Tale. History, context, and critical distance will all help. But, for the time being, should we wash our hands of the brilliant thematic explorations of Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale or The Time Traveler’s Wife because their authors’ definitions of genre differ from our own?

The Sin of Ignorance

Likewise, when did ignorance become a cardinal sin? As writers, we’re all guilty of a bit of hubris. We all think we’ve done something neat, something cool, something interesting. Sometimes, we even think we’re the first ones to do it. And every now and again, we’re right. But more often than not, we’re wrong. Ignorance is a common characteristic amongst our species, I’m afraid, and wearing the badge of genre is no defense against it.

So why should ignorance of genre traditions, of the myriad ways in which genre devices have been employed previously, condemn a writer? Mary Doria Russell’s ignorance of James Blish’s A Case of Conscience when writing The Sparrow does nothing to detract from the latter’s beauty or power. To generally condemn a writer – regardless of the genre they identify with – for their ignorance strikes me as arbitrary, and perhaps more importantly, as critically vapid.

It is critically interesting to compare Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road to George Stewart’s Earth Abides, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even David Brin’s The Postman. Such an examination is specific, and can be critically meaningful. It can give us insight into meaning, metaphor, aesthetics, and structure. In such a comparison, McCarthy may even be deemed to be unoriginal, or uninteresting, or dull (I wouldn’t necessarily agree, but critics’ opinions will vary). Such an analysis would be critically valid, a meaningful contribution to the exploration of literature. But to generalize McCarthy as ignorant of the post-apocalyptic tradition and on that basis to dismiss his work? What does that add to the critical conversation? Nothing useful. Nothing interesting.

Genre is Not a Badge

Genre is not a badge of honor, and I say that knowing full well that I could not and would not divorce myself from my genre roots (heck, my blog’s title is a riff off of Dunsany’s classic The King of Elfland’s Daughter – I’m wedded pretty tightly to speculative fiction). Genre is “merely” a collection of aesthetic, structural, and cultural characteristics which make one creative work resemble another. Genre does not have to convey membership in any kind of subculture, although it often does. If creators wish to self-identify with a subculture or if creators, agents, publishers, or readers wish to specifically position their works within a genre, that is all to the good. They are not wrong to do so, and why should we be so churlish as to reject them for not wearing the “right” clothes?

I think that such pedantic rejection of fiction with speculative elements is short-sighted, silly, and at its heart, useless. It does nothing to broaden the popularity of speculative fiction, nothing to educate the broader public about speculative fiction’s history or aesthetics. If anything, it further solidifies long-standing cultural prejudices on both sides of the genre divide.

Writers who publish mainstream literary fiction – but do so with speculative elements – want the same things as self-proclaimed genre writers: They want to sell books. They want to exert an influence – however small – on the dialogue of letters. They want to affect readers, whether to “merely” entertain them (no mean feat) or to change their worldview. They’re all pulling in the same direction we are.

Mainstream literary fiction audiences are different from speculative fiction audiences. There is some degree of overlap, but there are enough readers in each camp who are ignorant of the other. Publishing – and the culture it speaks to and grows from – is not a zero-sum game. We gain nothing by treading on our colleagues’ heads. Instead, both speculative fiction and mainstream literary fiction benefit when we celebrate one another’s strengths, when we cross-promote to our respective audiences, when we educate one another’s audiences about the strengths of distinct literary traditions.

I am willing to bet that plenty of magical realists would love to read before the kind of crowd found at even a small genre con. And I am equally certain that plenty of speculative fiction authors would love to get critical attention from the likes of the New York Times Book Review, or the Booker Prize judges.

We should not be ashamed of our relatives in other genres, no more than they should be ashamed of us. I am buoyed by the fact that while I often see speculative fiction lovers grumble about the literary fiction camp, our prizes – in particular the Clarke and the Nebula – tend to be more open-minded. I think we could do with more of such openness, and that both genres could benefit from a greater degree of cross-pollination, for it is that cross-pollination that lies at the heart of creative progress. Speculative fiction has been trapped in an echo chamber for many, many years.

Now that we have the opportunity to branch out, why not do so?

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