#whalerape and the undeath of the author: separating the art from the artist

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

It’s a perennial problem: artists and writers, just like everyone else, can be appalling buttheads with deeply unpleasant ideas and attitudes. But do those attitudes poison their creations by association?

It’s all down to personal responses, of course. Here’s a post at ThisRecording that takes a look at the misogyny, racism and antiSemitism of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl; I was raised on Dahl’s books and loved them dearly, and I’m pretty sure my mother and my aunt – the main vectors by which Dahl’s output arrived in my world – would be just as appalled by Dahl-the-man as I am after reading that piece. But because I knew the work before I knew the man (and possibly because the work was edited to remove some of the more unpleasant subtexts), I find myself still able to draw a line between the two… though I suspect were I to re-read Dahl now, in light of the above, I’d be looking out for clues and signs of his sublimated nastiness. It’s hard to read with clean-slate innocence with that sort of knowledge hanging at the back of your brain.

Interestingly, though, this doesn’t seem to work the other way. Regular readers will know of my antipathy to archbigot and homophobe Orson Scott Card. I discovered Card’s reputation before ever reading any of his books, and as a result have read none of them (though I have read a few short stories since, which seemed only to confirm my opinions). And speaking of Mormons, habitués of the genre fandom Twittersphere may have noticed the #whalerape hashtag over the weekend, as a bunch of people (re)read this year’s Nebula winning novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. As the body and comments of the Locus Roundtable blog post about it demonstrate, opinions differ wildly as to its merits (or lack thereof), and the point of fracture seems to be along lines of attitude to religious missionary work in general, and Mormon proselytising in particular. Having seen the running commentary – not to mention discovering that Stone’s attitudes to homosexuality are in the same retrograde camp as Card’s – I’m finding myself deeply prejudiced against the guy’s work.

To be clear, I don’t think this sort of prejudice is dependent on the nature of the offence caused: I imagine that a conservative reader might be just as shocked and put off an artist by finding out they were a closet Troskyite, for instance. But I do wonder if the problem isn’t exacerbated by the new-found publicness (?) of the artist lifestyle. With writers in particular, the old model – communicating with your public primarily through one’s work, and the occasional public appearance or bit of journalism if one were of sufficient stature to get the gigs – has given way to a much more performative presence: the author as celebrity, as pundit. It’s never been easier to find out what the most minor of authors thinks about sports, politics or other ethical quandaries… though, to be fair, the same applies to people in all walks of life. We’re all celebrities now; it’s merely a matter of audience magnitude.

This all ties in with my ongoing fascination with what literature critics call the intentional fallacy, which suggests you can only judge a text on its own merits; critiquing a text on the basis of knowledge about the author’s philosophies and actions beyond those admitted of in the text itself is an act of biography rather than criticism. Part of me finds the poststructuralist undertones of the intentional fallacy appealing – the author is dead, and we can find whatever meanings we like in every text! – but I’m increasingly convinced that, as noble and high-minded a critical ideal as it may be, it simply isn’t compatible with the world we now live in. Call it “the undeath of the author”, maybe; they may not be alive within the text itself, but something of them shambles around outside its perimeter fences. Perhaps in the post-war years it was easy to assume a text could be hermetically sealed off from the world in which it was created and in which it will be read; in the hyperlinked and searchable world we now live in, the outer membrane of every text has become permeable to a lesser or greater degree – no firewall is completely hack-proof, right? – and one of the first and easiest conflations to make is that of the author’s publicly-held opinions and the meaning of their text.

All of which may seem like academic noodling (guilty as charged), but I think there’s a real issue here, too. In light of recent discussions about the comparative invisibility of women or people of colour in anthology TOCs, best-of-the-genre lists and prize nominations, this difficulty in separating art from artist becomes a more problematic thing, and damages the credibility of editors or anthologists who claim to be colour-, creed- or gender-blind when reading submissions. To flip the issue around (and demostrate the prejudices do point both ways): say I was editing an anthology, and an Eric James Stone story came over the submissions transom; I like to think I’d read it and give it as fair a chance to succeed on its own merits as anyone else’s, but I can’t in all honesty say I’d truly manage to do so. And that’s an example of a conscious prejudice, one of which I am aware and can – to a lesser or greater extent – work to minimise; what about the subconscious culturally-encoded prejudices against women, LGBTQ people and people of colour, the ones that we almost all believe we don’t have, but which we almost all do have?

(I fully count myself among that “almost all”, by the way; I’m not entirely sure I believe any of us can entirely free ourselves from culturally-encoded prejudices, but we can at least work to mitigate them once we’ve become aware of them, a process which becomes – albeit very gradually – easier over time. Much as in AA’s twelve-step program, the first step is to admit that you have a problem; that’s also the hardest step of all.)

As is probably plain (and certainly in keeping with local tradition) I don’t have any answers to this dilemma; I’m just throwing out a collection of ideas to see what other folk think about them. So, whatcha got, huh?


How others see us (literary agent edition)

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

The aspiring writers in the audience may already be aware of QueryShark. If you’re not, you should be; few things teach more effectively in a creative field like writing (in my experience at least) than having a selection of negative examples to hold up against the positives, and QueryShark offers anonymous eviscerations of query letters that’ll show you how to do it properly. Or at least how not to do it properly, which is almost as useful.

But I mention QueryShark today for a different reason, namely one of the rarer successful queries. First, here’s the query sans critique:

Part warm body, part social chameleon, fourths have become an accepted part of the commuting landscape. Every highway in the newly-invigorated Detroit is restricted to four-passenger cars, Carpools that come up short must either take surface streets through dangerous neighborhoods or hire extra riders to fill their cars.

It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash–or to end up dead. Someone is killing fourths and the only one who seems to care is burnt-out homicide cop Francis LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

LaCroix discovers the dead fourths are terrorists sabotaging the highways, causing horrific crashes. Worse, his own nephew may be involved in the plot. With both careers on the line, LaCroix needs a shot at redemption, but continuing the investigation paints a target on his family and leaves the terrorists free to strike again. Suddenly, he isn’t so sure bringing the killer to justice is the right thing to do.

Sounds interesting, right? Here’s how the writer capped it off:

TAKING THE HIGHWAY,a science fiction novel, is complete at 93,000 words.

And here the bit of the agent’s response I’m interested in:

This isn’t science fiction. And I’d STRONGLY urge you to not call it science fiction even if you think it is.  There’s a lot of room for cross-over into crime fiction here, and by calling it science fiction you might miss an agent who doesn’t handle SF but would read this.   Like…me.

OK – that book as laid out in that query is definitely science fiction, even if only by the old Damon Knight “what I point to when I say it” rule of thumb. It’s set in a speculative future, for goodness’ sake; it may be a harsh thing to say, but using a reinvigorated Detroit as your setting puts you firmly into alternate world territory.

What actually I’m interested in here is the chicken-and-egg problem that sf has with mainstream acceptance. There above is a solid query for an interesting science fictional novel… but there also is a warning that calling it such will make it harder to sell. It’s an acknowledgement of industry prejudices, in other words, and the action of an agent who wants to see a good book get bought.

But what I see here is something similar to the way in which female writers feel pressured to write under masculine pseudonyms or use their initials; it’s an invitation that says “OK, look, we think you’ve got the beans to play the game, but you can’t come in wearing that outfit; it’s not that we’ve got anything against it, but, y’know, people will look at you funny…” It’s an enablement of prejudice, in other words, though it’s being done with pure motives.

Just to be clear, this isn’t me getting out my tiny violin and serenading the poor oppressed genre; as mentioned before, I think that’s a counterproductive thing, an entrenchment in one’s own cult of ghettoised victimhood. Nor am I raging at an agent for not understanding what science fiction is, or rather what it can be. But the query response above highlights the very arbitrariness of the distinction between sf and ‘proper’ fiction: in fact, it’s a note for note replaying of the classic “it’s too good to be science fiction!” riff.

So why mention it at all? Because it makes plain that the problem is with the label, not the product. Look at the commenters saying “ooh, I don’t like sc-ifi, but I think I’d love this!” Well, y’know, maybe you would like sci-fi if you read some of it. But you’re not going to do that when it comes with a label that says “sci-fi”. Green eggs and ham, innit?

I’m increasingly starting to think that advocating for science fiction (or even genre in general) is a failed strategy. If you want to conquer that prejudice, you need to start doing it with one book at a time. If labelling your work science fiction will exclude it from a certain venue, then don’t label it; submit it without its convention badge and Beeblebear, and see what happens. Give them a chance to bounce or buy it on its own merits, rather than the connotations of a label that even we fans can’t agree on a definition for.

And then, once they’ve published it, tell all the journalists about how it’s actually a science fiction novel. You’ve got to get inside the building before you set the bomb off, you see… 😉


Silvia Moreno-Garcia explains the origins of “Biting the Snake’s Tail”

Paul Raven @ 02-02-2010

Mexico City skylineSo, did you read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest Futurismic story, “Biting the Snake’s Tail”, published here yesterday? Well, you should – go do it now.

One of the great joys of author blogs, for me at least, is getting an insight into how stories came to be – to find out what inspired them, how they progressed from initial idea to finished work. Silvia has written a post that opens a door on “Biting the Snake’s Tail”, which takes place in a near-future iteration of Mexico City:

It was two years in the making. I wrote the first half of it after dreaming two parts of it: the detective walking through the rainy streets with the dog and the murder. In the original, the murder took place at a public bath house and the victim was a gay man.

When I was a kid and there was no water (yep, this was a problem in Mexico City even years ago) for the day, we sometimes went to the public bath house in Santa Julia. This meant paying a few pesos and you got a bit of soap, some shampoo and access to a shower area. I remember we took our own towels, but towels might have been supplied at a cost. Last year, when I was in Mexico City, water issues were pretty bad. About 5 million people (a quarter of the city) was suffering from a drought and predictions for 2010 were that even the ritzy neighbourhoods would be affected. Think a third of the city without water this year, taps running dry for many days at times.

Having been lucky enough to visit Mexico City, I know it’s the sort of place where stories wait for you around every street corner. Ludicrous wealth and grinding poverty live cheek by jowl, and history howls hungrily from beneath layered and crumbling facades of modernity… much like any big city, I suppose, but they don’t come much bigger than El D. F., and that history is marbled with conflict and the struggle to survive for as long as records have been kept. [image by alex-s]

For a privileged Euro like myself, Mexico City was a real eye-opener; I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled a fair amount in my life, but few places have affected me quite so deeply. Travel is fatal to prejudice, as Mark Twain once said… I wonder if visiting new places in fiction can have the same effect? I certainly hope so – after all, as energy costs continue to increase, it’s going to be the only form of long-distance travel available to the vast majority of us… and there’s more than enough prejudice to go round.


The web =/= the mob?

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2009

Network diagram of macaque brain connectivitySeeing as how I ended up with a whole bunch of related links, I thought they might as well all fit in one post. So, your overarching thematic question is: the power of the web and social media is pretty much a given, but does it empower us in ways that are beneficial or detrimental?* [image by arenamontanus]

For a start, Bruce Sterling points to what must be the third story I’ve seen in the last year about what happens when jurors are accustomed to social media and ubiquitous information access. In a nutshell, it’s almost impossible to keep people in an informational vacuum without locking them up in a Faraday cage, or to keep them from Tweeting about a case they’re hearing… so what happens to the existing legal model of the unprejudiced jury of your peers? Pandora’s box is well and truly open; how can we develop fair trials in the information age? Expert systems instead of juries? Crowdsourced multiplex juries? Or a trial process that not only accepts but embraces its position at the centre of a media ecology based on novelty and shock?

Over in Egypt, however, the political counterculture is just starting to flex the lithe and slippery new limbs that the internet has provided it, thanks to the incumbent government’s possibly self-defeating decision to leave the internet predominantly uncensored in the hope of encouraging international trade and domestic development. Decentralised networks like Twitter are undermining the official media controls and embargoes that are the hallmark and lynch-pin of the despot… with the end result that the Egyptian government is falling back on the time-honoured (if counterproductive) methods of intimidating and threatening the loudest dissenting voices.

Meanwhile, televangelist megapastor Rick Warren caves in to public opinion and writes publically to Ugandan ministers to condemn their violent persecution of homosexuality. While it’s impossible to truly know the mind of another, I think I can safely assume that Warren would have lost no sleep over the Ugandan lynch-mobs; the bad publicity focussed on himself as a result of staying quiet, however, was simply unacceptable. A small victory for public opinion, perhaps.

But that knife cuts both ways. Remember me linking to an interview with Indian science fiction author Ashok Banker, in which he took the Western publishing industry to task for institutionalised racism, accompanied by a chorus of voices denying that any such racism existed? Well, that interview has been deleted from the World SF Blog at Banker’s request, because he and his family have been receiving death threats in response to it, through assorted social media channels. A sad story, and one that pretty much proves his initial point… as well as demonstrating that the “pure” democracy of the web can enable the primacy of hatred just as easily as justice (your postcard from Switzerland has just arrived). It all depends on which group cares enough to do the most hard work with that media lever.

And speaking of inequalities, here’s a post from a well-known figure in the copywriting blogosphere, wherein he reveals that he’s actually a she. And no, it’s not even some dramatic story of gender confusion and coming out: it’s an inside account of the glass ceiling that still exists in the Western world for women who dare to make their own way in a male domain. Long story short: after a long period of crap work, poor pay and demanding clients, she started using a male pen-name and found that everything improved drastically.

In some ways, there’s a small victory for the web here: intertube anonymity overcomes the gender boundary, saves family from poverty! But the story overall is a sad one, highlighting an institutionalised misogyny that we still perpetrate at a subconscious cultural level, even on the supposedly egalitarian plains of the internet. Worth bearing in mind next time the subject of female authors submitting stories using their initials rather than their first names comes up, and folk start saying that they’re doing themselves a disservice by doing so, eh?

[ * Obviously the answer is “both”, but I think there’s a lot of value to be gained by thinking about how these things happen. We’ve asked whether the web is an inherently democratising force here before, and the stories above seem to suggest that social media empowers the most vocal and/or powerful groups that possess the savvy and access to use them effectively. In Egypt, that appears to be the good guys (at least from my perspective); unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere. ]


Ashok Banker wants to disassemble science fiction publishing

Paul Raven @ 20-10-2009

The last year or so has been punctuated by debates on the inherent racism and sexism of genre fiction publishing, but if you thought there had been some strong opinions stated boldly before now, you should really go check out the exclusive interview with Ashok Banker at the World SF News blog.

Banker is a hugely popular and prolific writer in his home country of India, but is virtually unheard of in the West… and he doesn’t pull any punches in his assessment of the Stateside publishing industry:

I won’t mince words here: SFF publishing in the US today is the Klu Klux Klan of the publishing world. It’s anachronistically misrepresentational in its racial mix, religious mix, cultural mix. The few exceptions to the rule only prove the endemic, systemic and deeply bred bias in the field. There are even editors who claim to champion ‘coloured’ writing, by publishing anthologies that segregate non-white non-Judeo/Christian non-American authors of speculative fiction from their ‘mainstream’ genre counterparts.

[…]

For decades SFF has been accusing mainstream literary critics, readers and authors of being snobbish and denying them their due. In fact, it’s the other way around: SFF’s pathetic cries of outrage and refusal to change with the times are proof of SFF’s own snobbishness and bias. SFF is dead and rotting. Long may it stay dead! We who love the elements that make great SFF don’t need the label so Klansmen can recognize work by other Klansmen. We don’t care if our milk was drawn by brown hands, black, or white. We just want our milk!

I think the Klan metaphor is perhaps a little strong (not to mention calculated to offend), but the man has a very valid point. The easy (and lazy) response would be to call him out for jealousy, but given that Banker points out that his earnings are far higher than most US or UK writers of genre fiction, that doesn’t really hold a lot of water. Banker doesn’t need the SFF industry; the question is, does it need him?

The wider business of publishing in general doesn’t escape Banker’s ire, either:

In four words: Publish less, publish better. If publishers and editors are so obsessed with commercial viability, then why are they so out of touch with what readers are looking for? Why are publishers so surprised when the next it new sensation comes along and upsets their apple cart? Why can’t they accept and understand that readers and authors decide what sells, not editors and publishers. Why are racial, cultural, religious backgrounds relevant when signing an author? Why not just good books, period? Why not just good books that readers respond well to and want to read? Get the fuck out of your offices and get down to the streets and live. Fire your marketing departments. Hire bloggers on per-hit pay-basis. Look at frontrunners like Cory Doctorow. Think about the Long Tail. Explore free publishing as a marketing model. Get bullish on ebooks, drop the prices and tighten your belts. Reduce print runs on the big sellers, reduce your risk and stop flooding the stores with ‘product’. Tell Dan Brown to go get a life. Stop letting James Patterson use the Warner jet and chopper. Spend money on authors, not on the business of publishing and the fairyland of PR. Let readers decide what should be published and what shouldn’t – put work for free out there online and let them vote. Then, once you know what they’ve picked, go in and edit it well, package it well, do your stuff. But remember that you’re a meat-packer, you don’t build the cow, you don’t eat it. You just pack it. So pack it well, or get packing.

There’s quite a few chewy home truths in that little screed… I get the feeling this particular interview will be a hot topic for a little while.

What do you think about Banker’s assertions of endemic racism in SFF publishing, or about the state of publishing in general? Drop in a comment below – but keep it polite, OK? In line with the Futurismic comments policy, any racist or ad hominem rants will be removed, so play nice.