Archive for 2017

It’s not every day that I’m indirectly accused of ruining someone’s business, but 2017 has been a hell of a year.

On Christmas Day, I – along with many other writers in the SFF community – received an email from something called the New York Literary Magazine, informing me that I’d been nominated for their Best Story Award. For a number of reasons, both the email and the site to which it directed me pinged as fishy, not least because nominees were directed to pay a submission fee in order to be eligible for the award itself. In response, I ended up writing this Twitter thread about it. Many other writers chimed in – some of whom had paid the fee, most of whom had not – and the whole thing was quickly reported to Writer Beware as a scam, or at the very least as an operation to be wary of.

Because, at first glance, there’s quite a lot that’s wrong with the NY Literary Magazine – hereafter referred to as NYLM – and its Best Story Award, and as such, it’s worth examining those issues in more detail.

The email NYLM sent out very clearly stated that works had been “nominated” for the award, with nominees encouraged to list the nomination in their author bios. However, even once the reading fee was paid, entrants weren’t told for which of their works the nomination had been offered, or on whose recommendation. Instead, they were asked to upload the works themselves in a digital format.

The NYLM site is full of pull quotes detailing the advantages of award nominations for both would-be and established authors, framed in such a way as to suggest the quotes are about the NYLM award specifically. This is born out in the wording on the main contest page, which claims that “winning an award from our magazine gives you great credentials which will impress readers, agents, and publishers.” On investigation, these supporting quotes are easily shown to be about either awards in general or a couple of major prizes, like the Pulitzer, in particular.

ny lit contest

This same section of the website also states that the Best Story Award has “monthly winners in each category, unlike other contests which only have 1 or 3 winners per year… We accept ONLY 200 entries per month, per category. Other contests have thousands or even tens of thousands of entries. It’s like trying to win the lottery when you enter them with average chances of 1:5000. Chances of winning our Exclusively Limited-Entry contest are much higher. Your chances are 1:200.”

How many categories are there, you might ask? Eleven in total: fiction; mystery, crime & thriller; action & adventure; dystopia & apocalypse; horror & paranormal; sci-fi; fantasy; children’s stories; MG; YA; and non-fiction, memoirs and bio’s [sic].

ny lit categories

And that’s before you factor in the additional question of what type of works are eligible. The NYLM Best Story Award rules states that the contest is open to “books/stories,” and as the only categories relate to genre rather than length, the unsettling implication is that short stories, novellas and novels would all be competing in the same weight class.

ny lit rules

This is, to say the least, a staggeringly broad mandate – and as writer E.B. Brown pointed out on Twitter, the sheer manpower required to read through all such works in the allotted time period is considerable. So considerable, in fact, that I broke my normal rules and engaged in voluntary maths.

use math

Assuming the contest filled up each slot in each category each month, with no duplicate submissions – which are permitted under the rules, provided you pay an additional fee each time – then that’s 2,200 potential entries. If even half of those were full-length books as opposed to short stories, then that’s 1,100 books to read and assess PER MONTH. The usual minimum wordcount for an adult novel is 80k, with a YA work starting at around 60k, so given the muddled categories, let’s split the difference and assume these hypothetical books average out to 70k a pop. If it takes the average person about four hours to read that many words, that’s 4,400 hours total. Given that there are only 730 hours in an average month, and assuming that each reader works 12 hours in every 24, including weekends, you’d need a minimum of twelve people employed just to read those submissions alone.

Now, given the kind of operation the NYLM appears to be, I don’t for a minute believe that they sell out every slot in every category every single month. But even if, as shown, they only receive half the possible number of entries for each contest, that’s still high-volume traffic with a hard, repeating deadline. The NYLM insists that the Best Book Award is merit-based, yet I find it very hard to believe that so many judges, whether paid or unpaid, could be found each month for each category – but if they could, the NYLM site ought to tell us who they are, or at the very least give some information about how submitted works are going to be judged, especially if short stories and books are going to be in direct competition with each other.

But no such information is listed. And you know what? I’m pretty sure that’s because it’s a fucking scam.

The NYLM, however, begs to differ – and has, in fact, taken the rather extraordinary step of using its mailing list to send out an open letter that is ostensibly addressing, but in reality complaining about, the criticism to which its contest has been subjected. The whole thing is some eight pages long, and if you want to subject yourself to the entirety, I’ve made it available here.

Says the NYLM:

There have been many inaccurate accusations circling around and cyberbully attacks upon authors who were awarded our award. This has ruined our business and caused us to permanently shut down our magazine and contests.

Everyone who purchased an entry into our contest has been refunded.

After years of work on this magazine, we have had to fire our entire team of loyal, hard-working, full-time employees.

Yes, you did read that correctly: the NYLM – which, at the time of this writing, is still online – is claiming to have been so harmed by a Twitterstorm over Christmas and Boxing Day that they’ve been forced to fire their entire full-time staff. Unless those staff were solely paid for out of contest entry fees – which, granted, is not beyond the realm of possibility – and unless those fees have further been cancelled forever, this decision makes literally zero sense. If the NYLM, which repeatedly claims to be a “distinguished publication,” is a genuinely a legitimate literary outfit, then the obvious response to the accusation of scamming is greater financial transparency: show the fee structure of the company and how the employees are paid, explain what aspects of the business the submission fees support, list the qualifications of the award judges, and, if revenues still stay down over time, then make personnel changes as necessary. Firing everybody overnight because the internet got mad at a shitty, unsolicited mailout is the kind of thing nobody actually does unless they’re either completely fucking incompetent or – you guessed it – a scam company full of lying liars who never had any employees to fire in the first place.

What happened?

Regretfully, we outsourced our marketing to an Asian company to help us spread the word about our Best Story Award contest.

We believed they were experts and could help us reach authors.

It was our terrible mistake to entrust the entire marketing campaign in their hands including the marketing methods, approach, and text.

They sent out a marketing email on our behalf, from an email at nyliterarymag.org, at an unexpected time for USA time zone on Christmas.

Unfortunately, it appears they chose the wrong approach and terminology when inviting authors to our contest by telling them they were nominated instead of simply informing them of our contest and inviting them to join it.

It was our terrible mistake not to closely supervise and monitor each marketing action they did and the text they used.

Pardon my French, but that is some goddamn bullshit.

If, as this explanation implies, the NYLM is really so monumentally incompetent as to okay a global mailout on their behalf without vetting the contents, then they still deserve criticism for terrible business practice; but if they did vet the contents, then trying to pass that failure of judgement onto their contractors is skeezy in the extreme. But do I actually believe that there was a random “Asian company” involved in the marketing of NYLM’s contest in the first place? No, I do not, and for three main reasons: firstly, because it would be exceedingly simple to name that company itself, especially given the comfort with scapegoating them; secondly, because it makes little sense for a literary publication to outsource its marketing in the first place, let alone to a company with no experience in marketing to authors*, regardless of their worries about costs; and thirdly, because of what the letter says in the following paragraph.

For other businesses such as VIP Entrepreneur clubs (with ~$1,000 annual membership fees), sending a nomination email instead of an invite to join their clubs worked very well. Our marketing agency, therefore, presumed this was a good way to approach authors as well. They even thought that authors who didn’t want to/couldn’t afford the $15 entry fee to our contest would still be happy to be nominated and be able to mention it in their bio.

They did not think there would be an issue with nominating multiple authors.
Nor did they think it would annoy authors to be nominated.

We apologize to all the authors who feel they were misled by being nominated.

Look very carefully at the wording here. We are being asked to believe that this author-ignorant marketing company was astute enough in its research to know that award nominations should go in a writer’s bio for promotional purposes – the very same argument, coincidentally, that NYLM sells on their website, constantly, ad nauseum – but not the very crucial distinction between what it means to be nominated for an award versus invited to submit to a contest.

And then there’s that final telling sentence (my emphasis): “We apologize to all the authors who feel they were misled by being nominated.” Not by being invited, which they’re trying to claim was the real intent, but by being nominated. If the NYLM is truly trying to pass off the whole debacle as an act of linguistic confusion, with their “Asian company” to blame for one word (nominated) and their intentions kept pristine through use of another (invited), then it makes zero sense to continue using the two interchangeably, and especially not in a way that suggests they really did mean nominated in the first place.

So this is, of course, exactly what they proceed to do, as per the following section which addresses what the NYLM calls “inaccurate accusations.”

“They say you were nominated but have to pay to be nominated.”

Authors nominated were not required to pay anything to be nominated.
Some nominated authors posted the picture of our trophy statute they were nominated for and used it for their marketing without paying to enter our contest. They didn’t have to pay to be nominated.

I mean, honestly. “The picture of our trophy statue that they were nominated for.” Meaning, the statue that you can only win if you enter the contest, which you just tried to say was a different thing entirely to being nominated/invited, such that the “Asian company” telling authors to use nomination in their bio was a mistake.

kuzko's poison

Which is it, NYLM? Was nomination a slip of the digital tongue that got all mixed up with an invite, or does nomination entitle us to say we’ve already been selected? Either way, having admitted in the same section that yes, you used a mailing list; having doubled down on your claim that the award is truly merit-based; and having likewise included a section on your submissions page instructing authors on how to submit their manuscripts to NYLM when they pay their fees, it should be painfully fucking obvious that being nominated for the NYLM award isn’t remotely merit-based, because you haven’t seen any stories until “nominees” send them in to you, which is after their nomination.

And then comes the tale of woe (all bolding my emphasis):

For two years, we’ve been running free-to-enter poetry and short story contests and publishing free-to-read digital magazines and print anthologies. We even spent time training and monitoring 20 interns who read through thousands of free poetry submissions this summer.

We made tens of writers around the world happy… Even our interns enjoyed working for us and were grateful for all the things they learned.

Since our anthologies are free, our poetry contests are free, and submissions to our magazine are free, we needed a way to sustain our magazine for the future, which is why we launched the Best Story Award contest.

We are completely devastated and shattered from the extent of hate mail, comments, messages, tweets, lies and false accusations that were posted online which have totally blackened our name and destroyed our magazine – all based on a single email with one wrongly-worded sentence…

Worse still, it is truly horrible to see how cruel some humans can be.
Some unsuccessful, jealous authors are spending days contacting the fans of authors who won an award from us or received a book review, telling their fans lies in an attempt to ruin the author’s reputation, turn their readers against them, destroy years of their hard work to build up their careers and readership, and ruin their lives for no reason and under the guise of “saving them from a scam”…
We have closed our contest. Refunded everyone who entered.
There will be no more free-to-enter contests. No more free-to-read anthologies.
No more articles. No more anything.

We had the heartbreaking task of firing our team of loyal, hard-working employees. 10 people are now jobless after Christmas.

 I honestly can’t even.

Remember that math I did earlier, where it worked out that you’d need at least twelve people working continuous twelve-hour days to read even half the submissions the NYLM was trying to attract each month? Here, they’re saying they’ve had to fire ten full-time workers, which they’re calling their entire staff – meaning, people whose duties must also have included the creation, management and promotions for the website and its anthologies. THAT IS NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE, KAREN.

I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating: if the contest was legitimate, there was no need to fire anyone. All you needed to do was apologise for the mix-up and show some transparency! If we’re truly meant to believe that the NYLM was capable of doing everything it claimed it could with the number of employees it says it had; if it was a solvent, successful business able to take on twice as many interns as employees – if we’re truly, honestly meant to believe that everything was above board and legitimate, and that the whole thing was a big mistake, despite those several paragraphs where they made the same one over again without any outside assistance – then these business-savvy dumbfucks have just fired a two year team of literal superheroes over Christmas because of a marketing copy error and their own profound incompetence.

Or, in the alternative scenario: they are lying liars who want us to feel bad for pointing out that their scam was, in fact, a scam.

(Also: the idea that people have been “spending days” harassing authors over Christmas when this entire boondoggle is still less than 48 hours old is kind of amazing.)

I have no doubt that many of the people published by NYLM were happy to see their work in print, whether digital or in hardcopy, but that doesn’t make them a legitimate publication. At a preteen, I was over the moon when I submitted a poem to an online contest and found out it had won a place in a real printed anthology – the fact that I had to pay for my copy hardly seemed worth bothering about. It was my journalist parents who explained to me, gently, what vanity presses were, and how some people would claim to be running a contest as a way to sucker you in – you’d still get the finished product, of course; you just wouldn’t have earned anything through merit, and you’d end up paying for something which, if you were being legitimately published, you’d be entitled to for free.

While the necessary, pragmatic goal of any writer is to be paid for their work, at base, we still care deeply about whether that work is good. Scam awards like this, which claim to be “exclusive” while making the higher odds of winning a selling point – which make us think we’ve been nominated by others on the basis of ability, but which are really just clickbait to make us nominate ourselves – are designed to prey on that feeling. We want to be good. We want to succeed, and sometimes that means paying, doesn’t it? Yes, of course – but in a fair industry, that payment would net you something more meaningful and substantial than the reassurance that your odds of success are better than if you bought a lottery ticket. For that payment, we ought to know who the judges are and why they’re qualified, and we certainly shouldn’t have to pay extra to list our work as belonging to more than one genre.

If you don’t want your business called a scam – if you truly want to be taken seriously as a literary publication running a meaningful literary award – then you’d damn sure better be ready to take ownership of your errors. Passing the buck while trying to guilt strangers into feeling bad about their deployment of basic critical reasoning skills is shitty at any time; but during a major holiday, at the end of a year as treacherous and draining as 2017 has been, it’s somehow even worse.

And for everyone who’s been upset by this, or inconvenienced – or to anyone, really, who’s just had a difficult twelve months – 2018 is right around the corner. Let’s dig down and make it better for all of us.

*ETA 27 Dec 2017: The original version of this post included the line “secondly, because it makes little sense for a small English-speaking literary publication to outsource its marketing to a company based in a non-English speaking country,” which I’ve now amended to read “secondly, because it makes little sense for a literary publication to outsource its marketing in the first place, let alone to a company with no experience in marketing to authors”. I’ve made this change because it was pointed out by Aliette de Bodard that the original version was both racist and inaccurate: English is an official language in multiple Asian countries, and regardless of that status, Asian nationals can certainly be fluent in the language. This was a biased, racist lapse in thinking on my part for which I apologise unreservedly; I’m grateful to have been corrected, and will endeavour not to make similar offensive errors in the future.

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fuckery

The above opinion crossed my path today via this tumblr post. Other folks have already responded to it on Twitter and elsewhere, but I’m nonetheless moved to add my voice to that chorus.

“When did we start compromising real life for the sake of making our books “diverse”? The world is diverse, yes, but not every place is. For example, if I was writing a book that took place in my hometown IT WOULDN’T BE VERY DIVERSE. And that doesn’t make it bad/racist/sexist.”

Dear Abbie,

I don’t know where your hometown is, but when you wrote this paragraph, I imagine you were thinking of somewhere in America that’s predominantly white and Christian. While you’re correct in thinking that some places are indeed demographically whiter than others, you’re mistaking the absence of a particular type of diversity for the absence of any diversity. In this hypothetical white, Christian hometown, there will still be plenty of women. They might not have made themselves known to you, and they might not always be out, but there will still be queer people – not necessarily many, but we’ll be there. There will still be kids with ADHD, adults with diabetes, veterans with missing limbs or PTSD or both; there will still be adults over the age of 50, people of all ages with various types of depression, anxiety and mental illness; there will be cancer survivors, individuals who are are sight-impaired or need therapy animals, and all manner of other conditions. And, yes, even in this predominantly white-and-Christian setting, there will be people of colour, some of whom might have a different faith to you and some of whom might not, just as there will also be white folks who, whatever their performance of Christian cultural norms, will be agnostics or atheists in the privacy of their thoughts, or who believe fervently in God while still getting their palms or tarot or horoscopes read every fortnight. Diversity is always present, is the point; it’s just not always as clearly visible as a difference in clothes or skin colour.

I’m a fantasy writer, which means I spend a lot of time in settings of my own or others’ invention. Charitably, I’m going to assume you weren’t thinking of places like these, which can reasonably be or do anything the author wants them to be without reference to the modern world, when you complained about diversity “compromising real life,” as though diversity isn’t part of real life. You yourself have acknowledged this fact; but given that you still have a problem with it, I’m going to venture that the issue is really a failure of empathy and imagination on your part. Whether consciously or not, you’ve assumed that any setting which reminds you of your hometown – or rather, your reductive, distant view of it – must necessarily be like your hometown, and so you find diverse stories set in such places unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean they actually are: it just means you don’t know as much about what’s “normal” as you think you do.

You’re quite right to say that you, personally, will not encounter every type of person in your small corner of the world. But “small” is the operative word, here: wherever your hometown might be, the fact that it’s the basis of your personal experience doesn’t make it even vaguely representative of the world – or even America – at large.

You claim that you “love everyone” regardless of their background, and I’m sure you believe that about yourself. Here’s the thing, though: when you say you wish people would stop being “correct” and “just write books that actually… reflected the kind of thing we encounter in real life,” you’re making a big assumption about who that “we” is. There might be very few black people in your hometown, but if one of them were to write a novel based on their memories of growing up there, you likely wouldn’t recognise certain parts of their experience, not because it was “incorrect,” but because different people lead different lives. And when you claim that certain narratives are forced and unrealistic, not because the writing is badly executed, but because they don’t resemble the things you’ve encountered, that’s not an example of you loving everyone: that’s you assuming that experiences outside your own are uncomfortable, inapplicable and wrong.

Here’s something I know from my own life: when you grow up white in a predominantly white area, it’s easy to assume that everyone around you is kind of amorphously having the some sort of cultural experience. Unless someone actually sits you down in your childhood or early teens and explains how gender, class, race, religion, sexuality, disability and a whole host of other factors can radically alter your experience of the world, you’re unlikely to pick those things up on your own, because unless they relate to you personally, or to someone you care about who explains what it means, they won’t be on your radar. Even if you’re subjected to sexism, for instance, as women tend to be, it’s easy to internalise it as normal if nobody around you describes it as a negative, or if the type of femininity you’re being pushed to perform aligns with your native interests. Social barriers have a disconcerting tendency to be invisible until or unless you find yourself rammed up against them; and even then, if nobody else is outraged along with you, it’s easy to be gaslit into thinking you were mistaken.

See, the problem is that a lot of people treat Western culture as homogeneous-with-exceptions, as though Westerners of every background experience the same culture the same way unless it’s Cinco de Mayo or Chinese New Year – in which case, some people get to indulge in a little bit of extraneous personal heritage for just those two holidays, and then it’s all samey again. As such, this means that white people uncritically raised in this tradition of assumed homogeneity tend to view the decision to make a character something other than white or straight – and, often, male – as a purely cosmetic change, and therefore an unnecessary one. After all (they argue), if an Asian American and a white American teenager can experience America in roughly the same way, then why would you write about the Asian American as though it makes them different and special? Except, of course, that they’re usually not having the same experiences at all; and even if they plausibly are, the only reason to insist that the white character is a natural, apolitical default while the Asian character is forced and tokenistic is if you’re being racist.

When you grow up watching predominantly white, straight movies and reading predominantly white, straight books, it’s easy to find the transition to more diverse literature difficult. That sort of cultural conditioning can be tough to overcome, even for the people who need it most. It’s like hearing the Nutbush play and seeing people dance the Macarena – the dissonance between expectation and reality feels jarring and wrong, and if you want to follow along, you have to pay close attention instead of moving on autopilot as you usually would. But once you accept the limitations of your own experience – once you find a new rhythm – it’s like discovering a whole new genre of music to dance to; or genres, even.

Abbie, I don’t know you, and I’m doubtful you’ll ever read this. But on the offchance that you do, here’s the bottom line: an unfamiliar experience isn’t the same as an unrealistic perspective. The world is bigger than any one person, which is why we humans tell stories in the first place – to see more of the world and its possibilities than we could ever manage otherwise. And if you ever come across a story that’s so unfamiliar as to be unrelatable, before you pan it as bad outright, consider that it simply might not have been written for you. You’re no more the default audience for every book in the world than your hometown is a universal substitute for other, more diverse places, and just as you’re not obliged to like every story you read, not every story is obliged to cater to you.

Yours queerly,

Foz

 

 

When I think about the state of global politics, I often imagine how it’s going to be viewed in the future.  My reflex is to think in terms of high school history textbooks, but that phrase evokes a specific type of educational setup that already feels anachronistic – that of overpriced, physical volumes written specifically for teaching teenagers a set curriculum, rather than because they represent good historical summaries in their own right. I think about our penchant for breaking the past down into neatly labelled epochs, and wonder how long it will take for some sharp-tongued future historian to look at the self-professed Information Age, as we once optimistically termed it, examine its trajectory through the first two decades of the new millennium, and conclude that it should be more fittingly known as the Disinformation Age.

With that in mind, here’s my hot take on what a sample chapter from such a historical summary might look like:

Chapter 9: Perprofial Media, Propaganda and Power

Perprofial, adj: something which is simultaneously personal, professional and political. 

When Twitter, the first widespread micro-blogging platform, was launched in 2006, no one could have predicted that, barely eleven years later, this new perprofial medium would have irrevocably changed the political landscape. Earlier social media sites, such as Facebook, were foremost a digital extension of existing personal networks, with aspirational connections an afterthought; traditional blogging, by contrast, began as a form of mass broadcast diarising which steadily – though not without hiccups – osmosed the digital remnants of print-era journalism. But from the outset, Twitter was a platform whose users could both listen and be listened to, a sea of Janus-headed audience-performers whose fame might as easily precede that particular medium as be enabled by it, unless it was both or neither. The draw of enabling the unknown, the upcoming, the newly-minted and the long-established to all rub shoulders at the same party – or at least, to shout around each other from the variegated levels of an infinite, Escheresque ballroom – was considered just that: a draw, instead of – as it more properly was – a Brownian mob-theory engine running in 24/7 real time without anything like a Chinese wall, a fact-checker or a control group to filter the variables.

The true point at which Twitter stopped being a social media outlet and became a Trojan horse at the gates of the Fifth Estate is now a Sorites paradox. We might not be able to pinpoint the exact time and date of the transition, but such coordinates are vastly less important than the fact that the switch itself happened. What we can identify, however, is the moment when the extrajudicial nature of the power wielded by perprofial platforms became clear at a global level.

Though Donald Trump’s provocative online statements long preceded his tenure as president, and while they had consistently drawn commentary from all corners, the point at which his tweets were publicly categorised as a declaration of war by North Korean authorities was a definite Rubicon crossing. As Twitter could – and did – ban users for issuing threats of violence in violation of its Terms of Service, it was argued, then why should it allow a world leader to openly threaten war? If the “draw” of the platform was truly a democratising of the powerful and the powerless, then surely powerful figures should be held to the same standards as everyone else – or even, potentially, to more rigorous ones, given the far greater scope of the consequences afforded them by their fame.

But first, some context. At a time of resurgent global fascism and with educational institutions increasingly hampered by the anti-intellectual siege begun some sixty years earlier, when the theory of “creationism” was first pitched as a scientific alternative in American public schools, the zeitgeist was saturated with the steady repositioning of expertise as toxic to democracy. Early experiments in perprofial media, then called “reality television,” had steadily acclimated the public to the idea that personal narratives, no matter how uninformed, could be a professional undertaking – provided, of course, that they fit within an accepted sociopolitical framework, such as radical weight loss or the quest for fame. At the same time, the rise of the internet as a lawless space where anyone could create and promote their own content, regardless of its quality, created an explosion of self-serving informational feedback loops which, both intentionally and by accident, preyed on the uncritical fact-absorption of generations taught to accept that anything written down in an approved book – of which the screen was seemingly just a faster, more convenient extension – was necessarily true.

The commensurate decline of print-based journalism was the final nail in the coffin. To combat the sharp loss of revenue necessitated by a jump from an industry financed by a cornered market, lavish advertising revenue and a locked-in pay-per-issue model to the still-nebulous vagaries of digital journalism, where paid professional content existent on the same apparent footing as free amateur blogging, corners were cut. Specialists and sub-editors were let go, journalists were alternately asked or forced to become jacks of all trades, and content was recycled across multiple outlets. All of these changes were drastic enough to be noticeable even to the uninitiated; even so, the situation might still have been salvageable if not for the fact that, in looking to compete in this new environment, the bulk of traditional outlets made the mistake of assuming that the many digital amateurs of the blogsphere were, in aggregate, equivalent to their old nemesis, the tabloid press.

Scandal-sheets are a tradition as old as print journalism, with plenty of historical overlap between the one and the other. At some time or another, even the most reputable papers had all resorted to sensationalism – or at least, to real journalism layered with editorial steering – in an effort to wrest their readerships back from the tabloids, but always on the understanding that their legacy, their trustworthiness as institutions, was established enough to take the moral hit. But when this same tactic was tried again in digital environs, the effect was vastly different. Still struggling with web layouts and paywalls, most traditional papers were demonstrably harder and less intuitive to navigate than upstart blogs, and with not much more to boast in the way of originality (since they’d sacked so many writers) or technical accuracy (since they’d sacked so many editors), the decision to switch to tabloid, clickbait content – often by hiring from the same pool of amateur bloggers they were ultimately competing with, leveraging their decaying reputations as compensation for no or meagre pay in a job market newly seething with desperate, unemployed writers – backfired badly. Rather than reclaimed readerships, the effect was to cement the idea that the only real difference between professional news and amateur opinion wasn’t facts, or training, or integrity, but a simple matter of where you preferred to shop.

The internet had become an information marketplace – quite literally, in the case of Russia bulk-purchasing ads on Facebook in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election. In Britain, the success of the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum was attributed in part to voters having “had enough of experts” – the implication being that, contrary to the famous assertion of Isaac Asimov, many people really did think their ignorance was just as good as someone else’s knowledge. Though Asimov was speaking specifically of American anti-intellectualism and a false perception of democracy in the 1980s, his fears were just as applicable some forty years later, and arguably moreso, given the rise of perprofial media.

In the months prior to his careless declaration of war, then-president Trump made a point of lambasting what he called the “fake news media”, which label eventually came to encompass every and any publication, whether traditional or digital, which dared to criticise him; even his former ally, Fox News, was not exempt. In the immediate, messy aftermath of the collapse of print journalism, this claim rang just nebulously true enough to many that, with so many trusted papers having perjured themselves with tabloid tactics, Trump was able to situate himself as the One True Authority his followers could trust.

It’s important to note, however, that not just any politician, no matter how sociopathic or self-serving, could have pulled off the same trick. The ace in Trump’s sleeve was his pre-existing status as a king in the perprofial arena of reality television, which had already helped to re-contextualise democracy – or the baseline concept of a democratic institution, rather – as something in which expertise was only to be trusted if supported by success, where “success” meant “celebrity”. Under this doctrine, those who preached expertise, but whom the listener had never heard of, were considered suspect: true success meant fame, and if you weren’t famous for what you knew, then you must not really be knowledgeable. By the same token, celebrities who claimed expertise in fields beyond those for which they were famous were also criticised: it was fine to play football or act, for instance, but as neither skill was seen to have anything to do with politics, the act of speaking “out of turn” on such topics was dismissed as mere self-aggrandising. Actual facts had nothing to do with the matter, because “actual facts” as a concept was rendered temporarily liminal by the struggle between amateur and professional media.

With such “logic” to support him, Trump couldn’t lose. What did his lack of political qualifications matter? He’d still succeeded at getting into politics, which meant he must have learned by doing, which meant in turn that his fame, unlike that of other celebrities, made him an inviolate authority on political matters. Despite how fiercely he was opposed and resisted, his repeated, defensive cries of “fake news!” rang just true enough to sow doubt among those who might otherwise have opposed him.

And so to Twitter, and a declaration of war. By historical assumption, Trump as president ought to have been the most powerful man in the world, but by investing so much of that power in a perprofial platform – one to whose rules of conduct he was personally bound, without any exemption or extenuation on account of his office – he had, quite unthinkingly, agreed to let an international corporation place extrajudicial sanctions, not only on the office of the presidency, but through Trump as an individual and his investiture as the head of state, on a declaration of war.

In the next chapter: racism, dogwhistles and spinning the Final Solution.

*

History is, of course, what we make of it. Right now, I just wish we weren’t making quite so much.

 

   

 

 

 

Warning: spoilers for Shin Godzilla.

I’ve been wanting to see Shin Godzilla since it came out last year, and now that it’s available on iTunes, I’ve finally had the chance. Aside from the obvious draw inherent to any Godzilla movie, I’d been keen to see a new Japanese interpretation of an originally Japanese concept, given the fact that every other recent take has been American. As I loaded up the film, I acknowledged the irony in watching a disaster flick as a break from dealing with real-world disasters, but even so, I didn’t expect the film itself to be quite so bitingly apropos.

While Shin Godzilla pokes some fun at the foibles of Japanese bureaucracy, it also reads as an unsubtle fuck you to American disaster films in general and their Godzilla films in particular. From the opening scenes where the creature appears, the contrast with American tropes is pronounced. In so many natural disaster films – 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Armageddon, San Andreas – the Western narrative style centres by default on a small, usually ragtag band of outsiders collaborating to survive and, on occasion, figure things out, all while being thwarted by or acting beyond the government. There’s frequently a capitalist element where rich survivors try to edge out the poor, sequestering themselves in their own elite shelters: chaos and looting are depicted up close, as are their consequences. While you’ll occasionally see a helpful local authority figure, like a random policeman, trying to do good (however misguidedly), it’s always at a remove from any higher, more coordinated relief effort, and particularly in more SFFnal films, a belligerent army command is shown to pose nearly as much of a threat as the danger itself.

To an extent, this latter trope appears in Shin Godzilla, but to a much more moderated effect. When Japanese command initially tries to use force, the strike is aborted because of a handful of civilians in range of the blast, and even when a new attempt is made, there’s still an emphasis on chain of command, on minimising collateral damage and keeping the public safe. At the same time, there’s almost no on-the-ground civilian elements to the story: we see the public in flashes, their online commentary and mass evacuations, a few glimpses of individual suffering, but otherwise, the story stays with the people in charge of managing the disaster. Yes, the team brought together to work out a solution – which is ultimately scientific rather than military – are described as “pains-in-the-bureaucracy,” but they’re never in the position of having to hammer, bloody-fisted, on the doors of power in order to rate an audience. Rather, their assemblage is expedited and authorised the minute the established experts are proven inadequate.

When the Japanese troops mobilise to attack, we view them largely at a distance: as a group being addressed and following orders, not as individuals liable to jump the chain of command on a whim. As such, the contrast with American films is stark: there’s no hotshot awesome commander and his crack marine team to save the day, no sneering at the red tape that gets in the way of shooting stuff, no casual acceptance of casualties as a necessary evil, no yahooing about how the Big Bad is going to get its ass kicked, no casual discussion of nuking from the army. There’s just a lot of people working tirelessly in difficult conditions to save as many people as possible – and, once America and the UN sign a resolution to drop a nuclear bomb on Godzilla, and therefore Tokyo, if the Japanese can’t defeat it within a set timeframe, a bleak and furious terror at their country once more being subject to the evils of radiation.

In real life, Japan is a nation with extensive and well-practised disaster protocols; America is not. In real life, Japan has a wrenchingly personal history with nuclear warfare; America, despite being the cause of that history, does not.

Perhaps my take on Shin Godzilla would be different if I’d managed to watch it last year, but in the immediate wake of Hurricane Harvey, with Hurricane Irma already wreaking unprecedented damage in the Caribbean, and huge tracts of Washington, Portland and Las Angeles now on fire, I find myself unable to detach my viewing from the current political context. Because what the film hit home to me – what I couldn’t help but notice by comparison – is the deep American conviction that, when disaster strikes, the people are on their own. The rich will be prioritised, local services will be overwhelmed, and even when there’s ample scientific evidence to support an imminent threat, the political right will try to suppress it as dangerous, partisan nonsense.

In The Day After Tomorrow, which came out in 2004, an early plea to announce what’s happening and evacuate those in danger is summarily waved off by the Vice President, who’s more concerned about what might happen to the economy, and who thinks the scientists are being unnecessarily alarmist. This week, in the real America of 2017, Republican Rush Limbaugh told reporters that the threat of Hurricane Irma, now the largest storm ever recorded over the Atlantic Ocean, was being exaggerated by the “corrupted and politicised” media so that they and other businesses could profit from the “panic”.

In my latest Foz Rants piece for the Geek Girl Riot podcast, which I recorded weeks ago, I talk about how we’re so acclimated to certain political threats and plotlines appearing in blockbuster movies that, when they start to happen in real life, we’re conditioned to think of them as being fictional first, which leads us to view the truth as hyperbolic. Now that I’ve watched Shin Godzilla, which flash-cuts to a famous black-and-white photo of the aftermath of Hiroshima when the spectre of a nuclear strike is raised, I’m more convinced than ever of the vital, two-way link between narrative on the one hand and our collective cultural, historical consciousness on the other. I can’t imagine any Japanese equivalent to the moment in Independence Day when cheering American soldiers nuke the alien ship over Las Angeles, the consequences never discussed again despite the strike’s failure, because the pain of that legacy is too fully, too personally understood to be taken lightly.

At a cultural level, Japan is a nation that knows how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters. Right now, a frightening number of Americans – and an even more frightening number of American politicians – are still convinced that climate change is a hoax, that scientists are biased, and that only God is responsible for the weather. How can a nation prepare for a threat it won’t admit exists? How can it rebuild from the aftermath if it doubts there’ll be a next time?

Watching Shin Godzilla, I was most strongly reminded, not of any of the recent American versions, but The Martian. While the science in Shin Godzilla is clearly more handwavium than hard, it’s nonetheless a film in which scientific collaboration, teamwork and international cooperation save the day. The last, despite a denouement that pits Japan against an internationally imposed deadline, is of particular importance, as global networking still takes place across scientific and diplomatic back-channels. It’s a rare American disaster movie that acknowledges the existence or utility of other countries, especially non-Western ones, beyond shots of collapsing monuments, and even then, it’s usually in the context of the US naturally taking the global lead once they figure out a plan. The fact that the US routinely receives international aid in the wake of its own disasters is seemingly little-known in the country itself; that Texas’s Secretary of State recently appeared to turn down Canadian aid in the wake of Harvey, while now being called a misunderstanding, is nonetheless suggestive of confusion over this point.

As a film, Shin Godzilla isn’t without its weaknesses: the monster design is a clear homage to the original Japanese films, which means it occasionally looks more stop-motion comical than is ideal; there’s a bit too much cutting dramatically between office scenes at times; and the few sections of English-language dialogue are hilariously awkward in the mouths of American actors, because the word-choice and use of idiom remains purely Japanese. Even so, these are ultimately small complaints: there’s a dry, understated sense of humour evident throughout, even during some of the heavier moments, and while it’s not an action film in the American sense, I still found it both engaging and satisfying.

But above all, at this point in time – as I spend each morning worriedly checking the safety of various friends endangered by hurricane and flood and fire; as my mother calls to worry about the lack of rain as our own useless government dithers on climate science – what I found most refreshing was a film in which the authorities, despite their faults and foibles, were assumed and proven competent, even in the throes of crisis, and in which scientists were trusted rather than dismissed. Earlier this year, in response to an article we both read, my mother bought me a newly-released collection of the works of children’s poet Misuzu Kaneko, whose poem “Are You An Echo?” was used to buoy the Japanese public in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami . Watching Shin Godzilla, it came back to me, and so I feel moved to end with it here.

May we all build better futures; may we all write better stories.

Are You An Echo?

If I say, “Let’s play?”
you say, “Let’s play!”

If I say, “Stupid!”
you say, “Stupid!”

If I say, “I don’t want to play anymore,”
you say, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

And then, after a while,
becoming lonely

I say, “Sorry.”
You say, “Sorry.”

Are you just an echo?
No, you are everyone.

 

 

 

A few days ago, I went on a Twitter rant about female characterisation and Mad Max: Fury Road which ended up attracting rather more attention than I’d anticipated. As such, a few people replied to ask for advice about how to write good female characters, and while I answered in brief at the time, it’s something I’d like to address in a bit more detail.

Whenever the topic of how not to write women comes up, usually with reference to such narrative basics as avoiding objectification, lone Exceptional Girls and gender stereotypes, there’s a predictable sort of outrage from people who’ve missed the point. Are you saying we can’t write beautiful women? they ask, only semi-facetiously. Is there a quota for female characters per story we have to hit to avoid being called misogynists? Is romance allowed at all? Can women have any feminine interests, or is that sexist, too? And because we’ve already gone on at length about all these things, we’re usually too exhausted to reply.

The thing is, there’s no one “right” way to write women, just as there’s no one “right” way to write any type of person. In talking about common mistakes, and particularly when we’re talking about them in brief, we’re rarely saying “avoid this one, overly simplified Bad Thing in its entirety,” but are rather expressing frustration at how that particular element is overwhelmingly used in certain quarters, while emphasising how to do it well.

As writers, it behoves us to get into the mindset of our characters: to understand their personalities, backgrounds and motivations, whatever they might be. Bad characterisation is what happens when a writer fails to do this; and while that failure can occur for any number of reasons, one of the most common (and therefore most frustrating) permutations occurs when the writer has a reductive, inaccurate or otherwise stereotypical view of what certain types of people are like in real life, or when they fail to acknowledge that their own experience of the world can’t be universally applied to people from different backgrounds.

So: let’s talk beautiful women and the ostensible ban on writing them, which is one of my personal bugbears.

Culturally, women are expected to be beautiful. In the West, the mainstream concept of “beauty” is held to expire at a certain age while being inherently fetishised, diminished or inaccessible to anyone not white. This means that, in a large number of Western narratives, female characters skew conveniently young, even in contexts where you’d expect such a person to be older; are conveniently long-haired, fashionable and permanently made up, even when disdain for such trappings is ostensibly part of their characterisation; and are frequently written as though beauty is a personality trait instead of a personal judgement. What this means is that we’re all collectively conditioned to make female characters “beautiful” as a reflex, because if we’re going to invent a woman out of thin air, then why on Earth would we want to make her ugly?

But as even the type of misogynist prone to rating women’s looks has tangentially realised, not being beautiful isn’t the same as being ugly. Even given the massive cultural dominance of mainstream Western beauty standards – white, blonde-haired and light-eyed, slim but busty, of medium height, able-bodied, aged between sixteen and thirty, or thirty-five at the absolute most – most of us are generally able to acknowledge the attractiveness of women who differ from those parameters by virtue of more than their hair colour. And when it comes to the question of individual preference – well. The world, as they say, is our oyster. Beauty is not an absolute, but a personal judgement, and that’s before you get into the question of attractiveness as determined by personality rather than looks, which is a great deal more significant than many reductive persons care to admit.

All of which tells us a great deal about how female beauty is perceived, and which is therefore relevant to how female characters are viewed by the audience. But when you’re writing a story, the character has their own internality: you have to know them from the inside, too. When a story tells me in the raw narration, rather than from a character’s POV, that a woman is beautiful, it invariably feels forced, as though the author is imposing a false universal over any judgement I might prefer to make for myself. But in a narrative context where women have every reason to be aware of the value placed on their looks, a story that goes out of its way to tell me about a female character’s beauty from an external perspective only is doing her a disservice.

One of the great paradoxes of mainstream beauty culture is that, while women are expected to look good for men, the effort that goes into maintaining that beauty – physical, emotional, financial – is held to be of zero masculine interest. On TV, it’s common to see a hard-bitten female detective whose hair is worn long and sprayed into perfect coiffure, whose heels are high, whose face is permanently made up, and whose fashion choices visibly outstrip her salary, because we expect all TV characters to be exceptionally pretty. It’s just that, with women, by virtue of the extra accessories and effort “mainstream” beauty requires, making any and all characters strive to clear that bar can’t help but impinge on their characterisation in a way that it doesn’t for men. A flock of teenage boys all showing up to school in various dapper vest, suit and tie combinations would raise eyebrows on TV, but we’re inured to the sight of teenage girls in math class dressed like they’re off to a movie premiere. And what this means, whether intentionally or not, is that we void the prospect of women who, at the level of characterisation, have different approaches to beauty, not just in terms of individual style, but as a social expectation.

So: you tell me your character is beautiful in context, wildly attractive to the men around her. Great! But what does she think about that? Did she go through puberty so early that she was teased about having breasts for years before the same boys started to hit on her? Is she uncomfortable with the attention? Does she enjoy it? Does she deliberately “dress down” to avoid getting catcalled? Does she even like men? Is she confident in her looks? Does she feel insecure? Does she enjoy make up? If so, how much time, money and effort does she put into using it? If not, how sick is she of being cajoled into trying it? How does she dress? Does she actually enjoy shopping at all? What cultural norms have shaped her idea of beauty? Have you noticed how many of these questions are context-dependent on the modern world and our implicit association of beauty with makeup and fashion? If your setting is an invented one, have you given any thought to local beauty standards, or have you just unconsciously imported what’s familiar?

I’m not asking these questions to situate them as absolute must-haves in every narrative instance. I’m asking because I’m sick of “she was beautiful” being treated as a throw-away line that’s nonetheless meant to stand in lieu of further characterisation, as though there’s no internal narrative to beauty and no point in mentioning it unless to make clear that male readers should find the character fuckable.

This goes double for warrior women in SFF novels particularly, not because powerful, kickass ladies can’t be beautiful, but because there’s a base degree of grime and practicality inherent in fighting that’s often at odds with the way their looks are described. A skilled fighter who has no scars or bruises at any given time is as implausible as a swordswoman with baby-soft, uncalloused hands. Long, silky hair might look good, and it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility for a warrior to have it, but your girl is still going to need to tie it back when she’s in the field, and if she’s out on the road or in battle with no more bathing opportunities than her male comrades, it’s not going to fall out of her helmet looking like she’s a L’oreal model. If your armies are gender diverse and there’s no stated reason why women can’t hold rank, but the only women we ever see are young and hot, then yes, I’m going to assume you’ve prioritised beauty over competence at the expense of including other, more interesting characters. A woman’s looks are far from being the most salient thing about her, and if a subconscious need to find your female characters conventionally attractive (unless they’re villains) is influencing who you write about, believe me, it’s going to be noticeable.

I could address those other, early queries at similar length, but what it all boils down to is a marriage of context and internality. No, there’s no quota for female characters per book, but if you’re going to give me a POV perspective on a lone woman associating with an otherwise all-male cast, simply telling me “she’d always gotten along better with men than women” is not sufficient to explain the why of it, especially if her being there is contextually incongruous. By the same token, if you show me the POV of a woman who has every reason to associate primarily with other women but whose thoughts are only ever about men, I’m going to raise a disbelieving eyebrow. If you can’t imagine what women talk about when men aren’t in the room, or if you simply don’t think it’s likely to be interesting, then yes, it’s going to affect your ability to write female characters, because even if you only ever show them with men, those private judgements should still inform their internal characterisation.

One of the most dispiriting experiences I’ve ever had in a writing group was watching a man in late middle-age describe a young woman of his own invention. As an exercise, we’d all taken fifteen minutes or so to write out a detailed rundown of a particular character, either one we’d invented on the spot or who featured in our fiction, and to share that work with the group. This man produced an unattractive girl in her late teens who had no interests besides working in a dollar shop, who lived with her mother but didn’t really have any friends, who liked shopping and eating chips – and that was it. Every time a member of the group prompted him for more details, he just shrugged smugly and said she just liked being in the shop, and that was it. When pressed further, he insisted that he saw plenty of girls like this on the bus and around his area, that she was a realistic character, and that there was no need to develop her beyond this dim outline because she just wasn’t clever or interesting or curious, so why would she have opinions about anything else? It was maddening, depressing and so unbearably sexist I wanted to scream, because by his own admission, what he’d done was look at women in the real world and assume that his reductive judgement of their goals and interests, made on the basis of their appearance, was genuinely the be-all, end-all of who they were as people, such that even when it came to putting a woman like that in fiction, he didn’t feel moved to develop her any further.

Ultimately, if you want to write good female characters, there’s no one way to do it. But if I had to distil all this into a single piece of advice – a practical thing for writers to do, to try and better their skillsets – I’d say: as an exercise, try writing a story with only female characters, or in which men are the clear minority. When women only ever appear singly or in contexts where they never talk to each other, it’s easy to fall into the habit of letting their gender and beauty stand in for characterisation, because you only need to distinguish them from men, not from each other. But try your hand at a story whose five characters are all women, and suddenly the balance shifts. You can’t just have The Feminine One and The Tomboy, or The Ultra Hot One and the Girl Next Door, and nor can you lapse into defining them as such in their own perspectives. You can certainly pick a narrative setting that explains why they’re all or mostly the same age (high school, for instance), but it’s harder to lump them together.

And if it’s never occurred to you to write women as a majority before? Then you might want to ask yourself why that is, and consider how your answer might be impacting your ability to write them as individuals.

 

 

 

For days now, social media has been abuzz over Kat Rosenfield’s recent Vulture essay, The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter, which focuses almost exclusively on reactions to Laurie Forest’s debut novel, The Black Witch. Overwhelmingly, the responses I’ve seen are binary: either Rosenfield is a terrible, malicious person who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, or she’s the only person brave enough to speak truth to power. Not having read The Black Witch, a book I can’t recall hearing about before this week, it was news to me that its reception was news at all. Now that I’m all caught up, however, I feel rather like the doomed bowl of petunias falling through space in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: oh no, not again.

The recent history of online SFF, fandom and genre discourse rejoices in an abundance of brilliant trashfires, but even in that context, there’s something about YA that routinely spurs the community to knock things up a notch with the Spice Weasel of Greater Fuckery, BAM! YA is so predictably riven with terrible arguments, in fact, that I made a Venn diagram of them. (In MS Paint, obviously. Because I am secretly nine thousand years old.) THUS:

YA fuckery venn diagram

Or, to put it another, slightly less tongue-in-cheek way: as with anything primarily intended for teenagers, it’s necessary to acknowledge that not all teens either need, want or can handle the same things at the same time, in the same way or to the same degree, while simultaneously accounting for the fact that both teens and adults are frequently unreliable narrators about where these boundaries lie. This creates a maelstrom of seemingly paradoxical, highly contextual arguments about what is or is not “appropriate” for a given audience: in the case of YA, the usual moral arguments about content are further complicated by both literary snobbery and a continual back-and-forth about whether YA authors have an obligation to “teach” their readers, whatever that means in context. Throw in the invariable clash between older, outsider commentators with only superficial genre knowledge and young, frequently inexperienced critic-readers making their first forays into public commentary, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Which isn’t to say that there’s never any insightful, engaging or otherwise fruitful YA discourse to be found online – far from it! It’s just that, when things do go wrong, the pattern of arguments tends to be as predictable as it is explosive.

Rosenfield starts her article by describing how early, glowing praise for The Black Witch was abruptly curtailed, thanks to a single negative review:

The hype train was derailed in mid-March, however, by Shauna Sinyard, a bookstore employee and blogger who writes primarily about YA and had a different take: “The Black Witch is the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” she wrote in a nearly 9,000-word review that blasted the novel as an end-to-end mess of unadulterated bigotry. “It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.”

As Rosenfield notes, Sinyard’s review consists largely of quotes from the book, interspersed with reactive commentary. That being so, it’s striking that Rosenfield neither attempts to engage with the substance of Sinyard’s objections nor addresses the text itself. Her defence of the book, inasmuch as she bothers to mount one, consists entirely of pointing out that, well, other people liked it!, the better to malign Sinyard for daring to disagree. This approach irritates me for three reasons: one, obviously, because people disagreeing about the merit of books is the literal function of reviewing; two, because it situates as irrelevant the rather core matter of whether the original criticism was warranted, or at least reasonable; and three, because it ignores a critical aspect of how Sinyard’s piece was received.

Never having encountered Sinyard before now, I can’t say whether this particular review is representative of her usual writing style, nor can I speak to the breadth of her experience. What I will say, however, is that this particular review is easily mistaken for a conflation of depiction with endorsement. While Sinyard clearly and extensively references the text, and while the immediate reasons for her dislike are clearly stated, her overall argument is sloppy, not because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but because she assumes her readership can fill in the relevant blanks.

To me – and, I suspect, to anyone with a solid background in pro-diversity criticism – it’s clear that she’s angry, not at the mere presence of bigotry in the narrative, but at how Forest has chosen to handle it. With few exceptions, Sinyard is asserting a specific failure of depiction, not depiction-as-evil, full stop. This is, to put it mildly, a really important distinction for any critic to make, not least because it’s the difference between saying (for instance) “I hate that you wrote about drug use” and “I hate that you wrote about drug use badly.” One is a judgement of content; the other is a judgement of execution. Sinyard is so angry at the book as a whole – as, indeed, is her right – that she hasn’t much distinguished between elements which create the problem and those which, with the problem established, serve to compound it, such as the presence of toxic tropes. But then, she likely felt it unnecessary: to those in the know, additional explanations were superfluous.

 

Not having been involved in the initial furore, I can’t speak to which readers thought Sinyard was arguing that depiction equals endorsement, therefore The Black Witch is Bad; nor can I state how much agreement or disagreement with her review was forged on that basis, compared to the number of people who took her as critiquing the execution. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this misapprehension did circulate, and – I would argue – played a salient role in what happened next. When, as Rosenfield points out, the book was positively reviewed at Kirkus, the ensuing comment thread made multiple references to Sinyard’s conflation of depiction with endorsement, both from her supporters and from those who disagreed. This confusion is also apparent in editor Vicky Smith’s follow-up essay, which manages come within spitting distance of recognising Sinyard’s point while still missing it spectacularly. To quote:

Yep, it’s pretty repellent stuff, and readers are in narrator Elloren’s head almost all the way through all 608 pages. She expresses her thoughtless bigotry over and over. She is racist as all get out… And she is homophobic, telling her brother when he comes out to her, “You can’t be this way. You just can’t. You have to change.” While I’m not sure I’d say that Elloren is misogynistic, her culture certainly is, and she is not one of those standard-issue fantasy heroines who rejects her culture’s strictures from Page 1.

But over the course of those 608 pages, as she studies, works, eats, and sleeps alongside those she’s been taught to hate, fear, and revile, Elloren undergoes a monumental change. It’s a process much like that experienced by Derek Black, godson of David Duke and son of Don Black, white supremacist and creator of the white nationalist internet site Stormfront. Black walked in lockstep with his elders’ agenda until he went to college and got to know the sorts of people he had previously vilified, eventually publicly disavowing white nationalism.

Here’s the thing about the redemption of real-world extremists: as happy as we are when they cross the fence, their pre-enlightenment point of view is not something everyone either can or should be asked to sympathise with. For those of us on the receiving end of bigotry, knowing that a particular person has been indoctrinated against us since childhood doesn’t mean it stings any less when they go on the attack. In much the same way that an abuser’s past victimisation doesn’t exonerate their present sins, we understand that, yes, even if a vehement bigot was raised to bigotry, they are still hurting us now, and we are allowed to be angry. That being so, comparing the protagonist of The Black Witch to a real-life white supremacist does more to prove Sinyard’s point than Smith’s. If a reader belongs to one or more of the marginalised groups so profoundly and constantly reviled in the text by Elloren, why on Earth should they want to read six hundred pages about a fictional bigot struggling to view them, the actual living reader, as human? Why wouldn’t that be upsetting?

In real life, anyone might be curious to read up on Derek Black’s white supremacist transformation, because he’s a real person who actually exists, but even so, no black reader is going to come away from that narrative thinking, “Wow, I really do deserve to be treated like a person!” because they literally already knew that. Which is what Sinyard means when she says The Black Witch “holds no regard to the feelings of marginalised people” – the big emotional reveal is seemingly predicated on the reader either learning from, being surprised by or sympathising with Elloren’s transformation, which means caring enough about her – caring more about her than those she victimises – to feel invested in the first place. And if you, as a reader, are one of those she victimises, then that’s unlikely to be a fun experience.

Returning to Rosenfield’s piece, she writes:

In a tweet that would be retweeted nearly 500 times, Sinyard asked people to spread the word about The Black Witch by sharing her review — a clarion call for YA Twitter, which regularly identifies and denounces books for being problematic (an all-purpose umbrella term for describing texts that engage improperly with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other marginalizations). Led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches when it comes to calling out their colleagues’ work, and amplified by tens of thousands of teen and young-adult followers for whom online activism is second nature, the campaigns to keep offensive books off shelves are a regular feature in a community that’s as passionate about social justice as it is about reading. And while not every callout escalates into a full-scale dragging, in the case of The Black Witch — a book by a newcomer with a minimal presence online — the backlash was immediate and intense.

There are several salient criticisms to be made of this paragraph. To begin with, it’s a staggering act of wilful bad faith on Rosenfield’s part to act as if Sinyard’s decision to tweet about her negative review was, in and of itself, a malicious decision. This is quite literally what book bloggers do: they opine about books, whether positively or negatively, then share those reviews with others. But Rosenfield, like Sinyard, is sloppy. In failing to acknowledge the necessity of criticism in any genre, she acts as if YA authors are uniquely entitled to good press. At the same time, by neglecting to mention the current ubiquity of pro-diversity criticism, not only within SFF, but across the board, she creates the false impression that the phenomenon is unique to YA.

Rosenfield’s further claim that YA Twitter is “led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches” is as nebulous as it is frustrating. Not that she names these supposed leaders, of course: how could she? There’s far too many “influential authors” on Twitter to sensibly imagine any of them forming some shady cabal with dominion over the others, and that’s before you attempt to define what “influential” means in context. Better to leave it unsourced, along with her “tens of thousands” figure for YA readers “for whom online activism is second nature”. I’m honestly fascinated to know where she got that number: has someone done a survey? If nothing else, “tens of thousands” stands in stark contrast to the stated nearly 500 retweets of Sinyard’s “clarion call” and the 6000 notes on a related tumblr post. The fact that the review itself apparently garnered some 20,000 views does not evidence make.

More salient than all these numbers, however, is the fact that, as of the time of this writing, The Black Witch has 2,266 ratings on Goodreads and roughly a third as many reviews: if Rosenfield is going to invoke the ugly spectre of “tens of thousands” of angry strangers damning the book to purgatory, she could at least have the decency to be consistent about it. Instead, we get this:

Based almost solely on Sinyard’s opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release.

Allow me to nitpick Rosenfield’s word use, here: the reaction to the novel wasn’t based “solely on Sinyard’s opinion”, but on her review. Opinions, by definition, aren’t necessarily founded in reality: Sinyard’s review, however, was extensively sourced from the text. Whatever qualms I have about Sinyard’s commentary, her review demonstrably gained momentum on the basis of its quotes, which included several full screenshots of various pages. Those who shared her ire weren’t trusting blindly in a familiar voice, but were judging actual excerpts from the book, and whether or not those passages were ultimately representative of the whole, it’s not unreasonable to use them as a gauge for potential interest.

That being so, it’s important to note that much of the frustration expressed towards books like The Black Witch  is the product of a still largely homogeneous mainstream YA market. While progress has been and is being made to diversify the field, the front-and-centering of books which, as per Sinyard’s review, are written more for the privileged than the marginalised – and more, which are often either dismissive of marginalisation or laden with stereotypes – is still a very real problem. Indie authors, who are frequently stigmatised by simple virtue of their “failure” to achieve mainstream publication, but whose books often feature far greater diversity than their traditional counterparts, have to fight hard for readers and recognition both, which makes the seemingly effortless hype afforded books like The Black Witch a bitter pill to swallow. In that context, anger at this particular title isn’t just about the book itself, but the extent to which it represents a wider structural bias – one which, unless actively identified, has a tendency to pass as a silent default.

Its publisher, Harlequin Teen, was bombarded with angry emails demanding they pull the book. The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it.

And now we hit the crux of Rosenfield’s argument: the money quote, for all that she’s lacking in sources. After all, there’s a difference between Harlequin Teen receiving five emails and fifty, and in light of the fact that the majority of her selected links are now dead, in the absence of any confirming screenshots, we’ve only her word that there really was a “mass coordinated campaign,” as opposed to a smaller number of angry readers engaging in bad behaviour.

Even so, regardless of your thoughts on The Black Witch in particular, it should be a no-brainer that leaving 1-star reviews of a book you haven’t actually read is a terrible thing to do. It is, quite literally, a Sad Puppy tactic, and even if it wasn’t just plain bad manners, that fact alone is enough to make it verboten. Even on Goodreads, it’s entirely possible to discuss the failings of a book you don’t want to read without falsely claiming to have done so. Similarly, and as little faith in the novel as the quoted sections inspire, the idea that The Black Witch ought to be pulled for its sins is needlessly excessive. Bad books exist, which is why reviews exist: to tell us not to buy them.

Or rather, to suggest we don’t. Bad reviews are not mandates of Thou Shalt Not Read – they are, to quote Captain Barbossa, more like guidelines. While I agree that voting with your wallet plays an important part in shaping what the publishing industry sees as viable, making blanket declarations to the effect that Buying This Bad Book Makes You A Bad Person For Contributing To Harm is, frankly, both toxic and unhelpful, not least because there is no absolute, definitive line in the sand about what “bad” is. As I’ve had occasion to say before in a fandom context,  you can’t ban stories that feature “bad” elements uncritically without also banning a great deal of content you’d much rather keep – and besides which, it’s entirely possible to both criticise a story and enjoy it.

Not having read The Black Witch, I can’t speak to its other qualities, but then, as both Sinyard and Smith have made clear, it’s likely not a book for me. I was never the intended audience, and thanks to how widely circulated Sinyard’s review has been, it’s easier than it would otherwise be for readers who dislike its approach to avoid it. Which is – again! – exactly what reviews are for. And, look: I know this is a delicate point to make, but nobody who’s currently angry about The Black Witch came into the world, Athena-esque, possessed of their present wisdom. As a teenager, I absolutely adored the Axis trilogy and Wayfarer Redemption series by Sara Douglass: they were my first, formative foray into adult fantasy novels, and they made me consider a lot of things I never had before. As an adult, however, I find much of the material horrifying – there is so much gratuitous rape in those books, you guys! So many racist, ableist tropes! But as critical as I am of the books now, at the time, they helped me to start being critical: and everyone has to start somewhere.

Particularly in the present political moment, I can well understand why Harlequin Teen’s decision to release a novel whose protagonist is the fantasy equivalent of a white nationalist is being criticised. I can also understand why, given the same political context, those responsible for the book might have thought, “Here is a story which teens raised by bigots, who are still in the process of unlearning their own bigotry, might find meaningful.” Returning to the Derek Black example, while no African American reading about his break with white supremacy would learn anything new about their own humanity, the same isn’t true for a reader who shares his background – and if such a person can be converted, isn’t that ultimately a good thing?

There is, I feel, a tension on the left about bigots who cross the floor and recant: we want it to happen, but we don’t want to give people cookies for finally meeting the most basic standards of human decency, because – we argue – they should just be doing that anyway. But the difficult, prickly truth is this: if accepting the humanity of people you’ve been raised to hate, fear and devalue was really as simple as flicking a mental switch, the world would be a damn sight better than it is. Personal change is a messy, imperfect process. From an emotional remove, it’s easy to laugh at that guy who thinks he’s a hero for loving his wife’s curves, but for a lot of people, that’s exactly what their first forays into better personhood look like. I’m starting to feel like we need to apply that xkcd strip about not making fun of people not knowing basic things to the pro-diversity movement: yes, it’s often frustrating to have repeat runthroughs of Diversity 101, but without the basics, how is anyone going to progress?

ten_thousand

But then – and this is getting slightly away from The Black Witch, but bear with me – I also feel like this used to be what happened. The pace of internet discourse and the evolution of its various subcommunities moves so fast that the passage of a year is practically an epoch, such that patterns and behaviours which feel set in stone are objectively quite recent. Once upon a time, as memory serves, the etiquette was to respond politely to newbie queries about feminism, diversity and whathaveyou until or unless the questioner proved themselves hostile, the better to catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Less than a decade ago, it was still new and exciting to be building social media communities online, discussing books and politics and shared interests with people around the world. But what absolutely ruined that optimistic approach – the tactic that was developed and perpetuated with the direct intention of emotionally exhausting the opposition – was the nascent alt-right, MRA, 4-chan-and-reddit-sanctioned rise in trolling.

Offline, we talk about how the culture of particular communities – their character, language and rituals – can be shaped by traumatic events. I would argue that the same is also true of digital communities, and that a great deal of what is now held to be standard discursive practice in left-wing circles was drawn up to circumvent being trapped in bad faith arguments by trolls who deliberately used “polite” language in their initial exchanges as a bait-and-switch tactic. The term sealioning was coined in response to the practice of nicely, “cluelessly” importuning the target with requests for sources the questioner never intended to read, and that’s just one permutation of the phenomenon.

Almost every person I know who spends any time arguing about diversity and feminism on the internet, myself included, has experienced burnout at the hands of trolls who mimic sincere engagement with the express purpose of draining their interlocutor. The cumulative effect has been a bit like the Boy Who Cried Wolf: we’ve all encountered so many terrible assholes masquerading as Polite Bigots Who Are Genuinely Curious About Your Arguments that now, whenever an actual Diversity 101 student wanders in asking beginner-level questions or failing to recognise the higher-level ingroup shorthand or jargon for what it is, the default response is to either laugh or tear them a new one. And if I were a cynical person, I might be given to wonder if that was the real end-goal all along, the better to drive rebuffed fence-sitters back towards MRA forums. (But that’s another essay.)

The point being that, aside from every other valid personal and historical reason why those with limited emotional energy to expend on the induction of baby lefties are disinclined to focus on redeeming bigots, the recent digital past has pretty firmly entrenched that course as folly. So when a fictionalised account of that process comes along, all wrapped up in a fantasy setting for teenagers, and presents itself as a narrative both for and about the group we’re least invested in working to redeem or in viewing sympathetically before that point – well. We’re exhausted. Of course we are.

I say again: I haven’t read The Black Witch, and I came away from Sinyard’s review with a poor impression of it. I don’t think it’s for me, or for a lot of people like me, and without having attempted the text myself, I don’t feel qualified to speak about what value it might or might not have to others – and particularly teenagers – whose background more closely mimics that of the protagonist. But even if you hew firmly to the idea that the book is terrible, arguing that nobody else should be allowed to read it lest they do harm to strangers is completely absurd. Good values and intelligent opinions aren’t formed by simply reading the “right” books and putting a blind, uncritical trust in whoever sets those parameters, but by engaging critically and intelligently regardless of what you’re reading.

When the awful Otto objects, indignant and vehement, to Wanda calling him a stupid ape in A Fish Called Wanda, snapping, “Apes don’t read philosophy!”, Wanda shoots back at him, “Yes they do, Otto. They just don’t understand it.” More than once in the shamefully recent past, I’ve fallen into the trap of uncritically adopting an opinion just because people I thought were Good Guys had expressed it, and damned if that has ever led to anything but me, belatedly, realising I was an ass.

By the same token, I can think of plenty of equally recent instances where I’ve had a wildly different take on a given book or series to friends whose judgement and acumen I respect enormously. A huge number of people in my circle loved Uprooted; despite my affection for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, I ended up ragequitting when I’d barely started. Ditto my reaction to Saga, a wildly successful series beloved of many friends which, from what I’ve seen of the later issues, is doing a lot of great stuff: even so, I never made it past the first issue. The same thing happened with Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, a polarising but popular book: I couldn’t get past chapter two, but plenty of others loved it.

One of my very first forays into online YA discourse happened back in 2011, a full six years ago: remember the blowup when Bitch Magazine put up a list of 100 feminist YA novels, then removed several of them after individual commenters objected to their inclusion, at which point all hell broke loose? Critics disagreeing about the feminist and/or diversity merits of various YA novels is not new. What is new is the rigid insistence in certain quarters on One True Interpretation, never to be questioned or gainsaid, such that 1-starring a book you haven’t read or asking the publisher to pull it is presented as a sensible course of action.

Back when Benjanun Sriduangkaew was still operating as Requires Hate, I remember tweeting a photo of a stack of newly-purchased SFF books and receiving an instant, scathing rebuke from her about the racism inherent in having bought something written by Libba Bray. While I don’t think we’re anywhere near her levels of toxicity in the current discourse overall, I’m as annoyed by the clear comparison between her stance then and certain reactions to The Black Witch now as I am by the identical decision of Sad Puppies and diversity advocates alike to suggest that 1-starring unread, “objectionable” books is a good idea.

Which brings me, once again, to Rosenfield’s article, the latter half of which is, by and large, more cogent than the start. That being so, I was surprised by the amount of anger I saw directed at her on social media for those sections in particular, deriding her decision to quote people “without consent”, or without warning them beforehand that she was going to link to their Twitter accounts.

To be clear: the fact that some of the people named in Rosenfield’s piece were subsequently subjected to new vitriol from strangers who disliked their opinions is awful. That sort of abuse helps no one, and I hate that it’s become so ubiquitous as to frequently be written off as just par for the course. But by the same token, when it comes to suggesting Rosenfield had no right to link anyone without permission – and to quote the formidable Roxanne Gay, who responded to the piece herself – that’s not how journalism works.

Tweets are part of the public record: both the APA and various university systems have established referencing protocols for their citation. The internet is a public space: what we say and do here, in writing, is always on the record. One tweet I saw objected to Rosenfield quoting minors without permission. I have no idea if that’s true – her one professedly teenage source is given a pseudonym – but even so, as best I can tell, the usual journalistic standards about requiring a minor’s guardians to sign off on their being interviewed doesn’t apply to quoting online content, which has – as stated – already been made public.

(I’m happy to be corrected on that point, by the way, but given how many widely-circulated BuzzFeed articles – to name just one outlet – consist almost entirely of screenshots of content from Twitter and tumblr, much of which is made by teens, it doesn’t seem like that sort of journalistic restriction exists in any meaningful way.)

As someone with Diagnosed Mental Health Issues (TM), I completely understand how finding something you said unexpectedly referenced in a prominent publication – especially when it results in a sudden influx of angry digital contact – can be not only upsetting, but actively stressful. But at the same time, strangers are not responsible for setting additional boundaries in anticipation of your unknown mental health needs. In making the decision to engage publicly online, either despite or because of our personal issues, all of us are consenting to being on record: to being quoted, and potentially contacted in response to those quotes, regardless of the convenience.

In those rare moments when we do consider potentially going viral, it tends to be the mental equivalent to clicking “agree” on yet another set of iTunes terms and conditions: yes, yes, risks and blah and whatever blah, just let me keep using the thing! But that doesn’t make the potential consequences any less real – and when we’re writing under our actual names, in our professional capacities as authors or critics, about literary issues, in a medium which is expressly designed to allow strangers to talk to us, being outraged that someone actually linked to what we said in a critical way makes as much sense as going for a long walk when the forecast is rain and crying foul when the clouds open. Someone disagreeing with your opinion and linking to what you said is not the same thing as a person deliberately encouraging their readers to engage in harassment: while the latter is certainly bullying, the former is merely a basic journalistic standard. That it can sometimes have the same effect when assholes show up to mouth off on their own volition is gross and angrifying, but that doesn’t mean the reporter has acted either badly or in bad faith.

That being said, I can’t let Rosenfield’s summation of other recent YA “controversies” pass without examination. Near the end of her piece, she says:

Twitter being Twitter, that outcome seems unlikely. In recent months, the community was bubbling with a dozen different controversies of varying reach — over Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything (for ableism), Stephanie Elliot’s Sad Perfect (for being potentially triggering to ED survivors), A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (for heterocentrism), The Traitor’s Kiss by Erin Beaty (for misusing the story of Mulan), and All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (in a peculiar example of publishing pre-crime, people had decided that Stiefvater’s book was racist before she’d even finished the manuscript.)

Given the context of the article, these issues are presented as being similar in nature to what happened with The Black Witch – and again, I’m annoyed by the number of unsourced claims on offer (and, just as equally, by yet another person 1-starring an unreleased, unread novel). But as in her earlier arguments, what Rosenfield misses here, whether wilfully or in ignorance, is the vital distinction between critics actually doing their jobs – which is to say, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of various books for the edification of potential readers – and an uglier sort of backlash. As previously mentioned, it’s entirely possible to find fault with one aspect of a book, or to make note of any potentially triggering content, while still endorsing it otherwise, and it’s to Rosenfield’s discredit that she’s happy eliding this distinction.

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that, as pissed off as I am at the sneering, editorialised, biased way in which Rosenfield addresses criticism of The Black Witch in particular, her remarks about the pitfalls of online YA discourse in general have some merit. Writing this blog, I don’t expect that everyone who reads it will agree with me. I don’t have some masochistic urge to be yelled at on Twitter,  and nor – for the record – do I think I’ve gotten everything here right. There are times when writing an essay comes naturally, the whole thing flowing onto the page in a single, cogent burst. Writing this piece has been harder, more fragmented, the process full of deletions and revisions. Whenever I act as a critic, I always feel achingly aware of the potential for an argument to twist out from under me: for a single elision or botched turn of phrase to derail my intent into error. Which is why shoddy criticism, bad arguments and poor reasoning invariably raise my hackles: online, there’s a frequent and terrible conflation of opinion with analysis, and while both can be equally valuable – and while they can certainly overlap – we give them different names for a reason.

The objections of marginalised people to narratives which take a “we’re talking about you, not to you” approach to their lived experiences are, and always will be, valid. Likewise, it’s important to consider the impact of particular tropes, not just within an individual work, but as legacies of a wider cultural history and movement. No book, no reader, no author and no critic is an island, and while we’re still individually entitled to our personal preferences, our tastes are nonetheless informed by the world around us, which means that we, in turn, can potentially influence others. Discussing a book you haven’t read or stating your reasons for not doing so is perfectly acceptable practice, and always has been, and always will be – indeed, as I’ve said multiple times already, this is what reviews are for.

The question of what makes good YA is never going to have a consistent answer, no matter how finely you parse the politics of moral purity. That being so, I’d far rather encourage readers to form their own opinions on the basis of the evidence – even if they end up drawing an existing conclusion; even if they’d rather assess reviews than the book itself, or vice versa – than to simply trust whatever they’re told implicitly. Because sooner or later, everyone disagrees about something, and if your only response to a conflict between two trusted authorities is to wait for one of them to make your mind up for you – well. I’d say I’d be frightened to live in that world, but truthfully, I think we already are.

The real trick, then, is to change it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As busy as I am right now, I can’t seem to move past this article about Dan Thomson, a 68-year-old man who recently filed a complaint against the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, claiming they rejected his application on the basis of age discrimination. The workshop’s current director, Lan Samantha Chang, who has been in the job for over a decade, says that the selection process is based entirely on talent: though other details about the candidates are sent to the graduate school, her policy is “not to look at them and to evaluate candidates solely on the writing sample.”

To be clear at the outset: age discrimination certainly exists in the world, and is just as certainly a problem. I will, however, lay real cash-money that age is not the reason Thomson was rejected, and would have done so even before reading the blurb and first two chapters of his self-published opus on Goodreads. (And oh, goddamn, are we returning to that subject later.)

“It seems like a program just for millennials,” says Thomson. “I would have guessed there’d be a broader range of ages.” As the article points out, the program is held at a graduate school, where the main demographic is people in their twenties: just under half of those accepted since 2013 have been aged between 18 and 25, while the median age for accepted applicants is 34 and a half. The median age of all applicants, however, is only 36 – hardly a difference suggestive of bias.

Thomson, he says, isn’t interested in seeing the program reprimanded: he just wants to get in: “I wanted to make clear that somebody my age has a right to do it.”

To paraphrase The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this must be some strange usage of the word right that I wasn’t previously aware of. While it’s certainly Thomson’s right to apply to the workshop, it is not his right to be accepted. There are only 25 spots available to the thousand-odd yearly applicants: with that sort of ratio in play, even genuine talents will inevitably miss out, not because they’re bad writers, but because there simply isn’t space for everyone.

And then we get to the kicker:

Thomson said he enjoyed his creative writing classes in college in the early 1970s, but found at the time he lacked the perspective on life to offer more than surface finery in his prose.

“It’s not prejudice against young people to say, ‘You don’t have a lot of experience,’ ” he said.

After graduate school in anthropology and law school, Thomson focused on raising his family and living a life worth writing about. Two years ago, he completed his first novel-length work, “The Candidate,” and decided to self-publish it.

He has not sought other options for publication, nor has he applied to other creative writing programs…

“It may be vanity on my part… but I have a fairly high opinion of the two pieces that I sent in,” he said.

Again, for the sake of clarity: I have nothing against self-publishing as an endeavour. I know some amazing writers who’ve opted to take that route, and have fallen in love with many an indie book as a consequence, to say nothing of self-pubbed-gone-mainstream works like Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Nor do I have any bias against writers who start their careers later in life: one of the most moving novels I’ve ever read, The Gurnsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, was the first and only work of Mary Ann Shaffer, published posthumously after her death at age 74. There are plenty of great writers who never got their start until later in life, or who found success through non-traditional means, or who managed both: because, by themselves, these facts are not cause for any degree of scepticism.

But for fuck’s sake.

Among authors of any kind, a near-universal pet peeve is being told, on revealing their career, “Oh, I’d love to write a book some day!” by someone who admits to not writing now. It’s not that we have any bone-deep aversion to the idea of writing for fun as opposed to writing for money; indeed, a great many of us swim in both waters at once, or else migrated from one camp to the other without quite noticing how it happened. The objection, rather, is to those who reflexively conflate the two – “Oh, you do this as a job? I’d love that as a hobby!” – without realising how arrogantly dismissive this sounds. At best, they’re assuming that writing involves no element of craft or skill that requires refinement over time, no awareness of an ever-fluctuating market and industry, and so can be picked up by anyone at the drop of a hat. At worst, they’re boasting of their own brilliance-to-be: you might be a dedicated professional, but damned if they aren’t confident they can do just as well or better without all the years of work.

Dan Thomson, it would appear, ticks both these boxes. On the basis of no more experience than a single self-published novel, The Candidate – which, at 100 pages long, is more accurately a novella – and participation in a few writing classes forty-odd years ago, he applied to one of the most prestigious MFA programs in America. So, naturally, age discrimination is the only possible reason for his failure to make the cut.

That rumbling you hear is the sound of my jaw grinding bitten-off expletives into grist.

At age fifteen, I opined to my then-English teacher, a woman now sadly deceased, that the reason my story hadn’t won or placed in a contest to which I’d submitted it was genre bias against science fiction. Mildly, she replied that she knew of multiple students who’d won such contests with SF stories. “Oh,” I said, and deflated a little, and then forced myself to acknowledge the possibility that, regardless of my abilities, other people might indeed be better. Thomson’s seeming inability to make a similar deductive leap at age 68, coupled with his stated belief that “young people” lack sufficient life experience to write well, doesn’t suggest to me that he’d do well taking crit from other, younger writers – which is basically what an MFA entails, though I doubt Thomson realises it – even if the Iowa Writers’ Workshop did let him in.

And believe me, he would be subject to criticism. Oh, would he fucking ever.

A brief disclaimer: as someone who works as both an author and a critic, I make a conscious effort to review transparently. If I think there’s a problem in the text, I show my working; if I haven’t read the full book or have skimmed particular sections, I say so; and if a story hits my buttons, whether positively or negatively, I aim to make that fact clear. In the context of writing groups and editorial work, I try to set my stylistic preferences aside and focus instead on the author’s intentions: on providing feedback that helps them make their style better instead of more like mine. As such, I don’t usually weigh in on fragments or blurbs of a random writer’s work unless they’ve said something in public – such as in interview or at a convention – that suggests a direct link between their attitude about the world, or writing, or the world as expressed through writing, and the content they’ve produced.

That being so, and in accordance with his clear belief that his work merits the same respect as the would-be bests in the field, I will treat Thomson as I would any author possessed of such a glaring disconnect between their self-perception and reality: with sarcasm and sources.

According to the article’s author, Thomson didn’t pursue writing in his youth because, “at the time he lacked the perspective on life to offer more than surface finery in his prose,” with Thomson himself quoted as saying, “It’s not prejudice against young people to say, ‘You don’t have a lot of experience.'” This strongly suggests that Thomson has, for whatever reason, conflated life experience with literary skill: that, in his view, the way to improve as a writer isn’t to work on your prose, but to gain more inspiration. This perspective is echoed in the blurb for his novella, The Candidate, which is less a plot summary than a full paragraph of Thomson explaining why his book is important:

Can An Honest Man Be Elected President? I didn’t give the protagonist of The Candidate a face. I didn’t give him a body or a race either. That was not an oversight. I am confident you will do that for me. I did give him a voice and when you hear that voice you will assign him whatever characteristics seem appropriate to you. Listen to that voice. If you don’t know what Norman Telos has to say about life in America then you don’t know where you live. Does a fish know he is swimming in water? Does he know his pond, lake, river, ocean? After a series of wars, recessions and global warming we are wondering where we are and where we are going. There is a fear that rich powerful men have an agenda for America. The Carlisle Group did write a plan for the new American Century. They believe that war is good for our economy and our souls. War is of course older than the Carlisle Group. Eisenhower warned us of the Military Industrial Complex. Remember that a demand for more bombs requires that they be exploded. Mr. Telos also speaks of important economic realities for a democratic capitalist society. He reminds us of an unshakable truth that Karl Marx gave us. “Capitalist societies require a reserve army of the unemployed to keep wages down.” So we keep a pool of unemployed and poorly employed in poverty. This book is written for people who can think and want to think. It is not the Sermon on the Mount or holy writ, but a spark to your own thinking.  

There are, I would submit, three possible explanations for the creation of such a blurb, none of which is flattering to Thomson: pure ego, a lack of awareness that fiction and non-fiction blurbs have different conventions, or a failure to distinguish between a blurb and a review. Either way, his assertion that, “If you don’t know what Norman Telos has to say about life in America then you don’t know where you live,” is suggestive both of hostility to criticism – if you don’t like, agree with or understand this book, then it’s no fault of mine – and a flat conflation of worldly experience with literary merit. It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that the ethos of the fictional Norman Telos is closely aligned with that of his creator: in exhorting us to value his character’s wisdom, Thomson is, with precious little deftness, hoping we’ll praise him.

Thanks to the preview function on Goodreads, I was able to read the first two chapters of The Candidate. It is not an experience I recommend, unless you like laughing angrily at the sheer bloody-minded entitlement of untalented men.

“The name of Norman Telos’ car was an automatic talk show joke,” the book begins. Thomson swiftly proceeds to describe said car in detail for the better part of three pages, making sure to tell us that it’s the best sedan since the model-T. Only then is it made clear that, rather than being a car that Norman owns, it’s actually one he’s invented. As such, we skip immediately on to the details of his next invention, a silent machine gun sold to the DOD.

And then this happens:

Norman Telos’ next series of inventions were drone cops to solve the Ferguson problems. To Norman Telos the events that happened in Fergusson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 and the shooting of the Black boy with the toy pistol in Cleveland November of 2014 were two problems of trust that could both be solved by a machine. Blacks cannot trust the police because too many police are racists. Police fear for their own lives in confrontational situations. The answer to both problems is to put officer friendly in front of a video game screen controlling a drone that takes all the risks for him. His actions will be documented solving the age old question of who polices the police. Further, the situation was safer for both the police and the policed. The drones were armed with a machine gun for extreme situations where killing to prevent killing would justify its use. More importantly the drones were equipped with nonlethal force; air powered bean bag guns that could knock any perp on his back and if he refused to surrender the bean bags could be shot at him until he had no ability to resist, an arm that carried hand cuffs to the perp and finally the machine itself was powerful enough to push over several men.

RACIST POLICING IS SOLVED FOREVER, EVERYONE CAN GO HOME NOW HAHAHA FOR SERIOUS OH WAIT oh god why.

The description of the drones goes on for several more pages. Comparisons to both R2D2 and Robocop are made – hilariously so, though comedy is clearly not the intent. Crime falls, Norman grows ever richer from his inventions, and the reader’s will to live takes a savage beating. Then, just as I was about to schedule an emergency splenectomy to help inure myself to this nonsense – taking cops out of physical danger doesn’t remove their racism, which is the actual fucking problem here, and especially not when you arm them with machine guns, are you kidding me? – I reached the wonder of Chapter 2, which suddenly introduces a Female Character! And oh. Oh, my god. YOU GUYS:

The beautiful young blond with a face like Ingrid Bergman was a two thousand dollar a day call girl. She was flown to Norman Telos’ yacht anchored in Mobile bay by helicopter. At 4 in the afternoon Norman and Jane Gray were lying relaxed and naked in Norman’s king sized bed sipping martinis. Jane asked, “So what is next for you Norm?”

Norman, “Two hours of latency recovery and then either my 65 year old penis will rise on its own for more loving or I will give it more chemical inducement.”

Jane, “That is a rather crude not too funny joke which makes me feel cheap. I may make a lot of money on this job but I refuse to be treated like or talked to like a whore. Call for your helicopter. You can have a refund.”

Norman, “Sorry. I truly didn’t mean to insult you. Please don’t be so sensitive. I saw it as a joke at my expense.”

Jane, “Ok. By next I didn’t mean here and now between us. I wanted to know what you are going to do with your billionaire career. What is next?”

Norman, “I am going to run for President.”

Jane, “Wow. I never expected to hear a thing like that and take it seriously, but coming from you, of course. So why do you want to be President.”

Norman, “I don’t really want to be President. I want to run. Winning is unlikely and would probably be a bore. Besides I will be running on the Democratic side and  Diebold is likely to sell the next election to the Republicans.”

It’s at this point that I stopped breathing properly and had to wheeze into my cupped hands for several minutes. (Also, lest you think that Thomson is some sort of geriatric savant who accidentally presaged our decent into the darkest timeline, I’d note that The Candidate was published in February 2016, well after Donald Trump announced his intention to run for President. Whatever other similarities lie therein, I’ll leave to a more intrepid soul to fathom.)

Norman and Jane continue to talk for the rest of the chapter. I only skimmed after that, but not distractedly enough to miss Norman posing this serious philosophical query: “Is there a god or a dyslexic dog?” Jane doesn’t answer, but that’s not surprising: she’s pretty much there as a prop to give Norman an excuse to extemporise in detail about Why Religion Is Wrong. Only then, mercifully, did my free sample come to an end.

At a base technical level, Thomson doesn’t know enough about prose writing to include the word “said” and a comma after each character name, or how to indicate the possessive for a proper noun ending in s, or any of the basic rules of pacing, structure or grammar. Even so, no line edit in the world can fix this mess. The prose is didactic and clunky in a way that only comes from being wrongly convinced of the brilliance of bad ideas, while the introduction of Jane Gray is the literal embodiment of How Not To Write A Female Character. Culturally, we spend a lot of time mocking female writers for their (supposedly) thinly-veiled self-insert characters, and yet I can say with authority that I’ve never encountered any such work by a teenage girl that manages to be anywhere near as obnoxiously obvious as the equivalent fantasies written by grown men.

So, yeah: Dan Thomson, whatever he might like to think, did not fail to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because of age discrimination, but because his writing fails to meet even the most basic grammatical and structural standards you would reasonably expect a high school English graduate to know. But let’s by all means keep up the steady flow of editorials claiming whiny entitlement is a millennial problem. Like the proverbial five o’clock, it’s always a slow news day somewhere.