Archive for the ‘Political Wrangling’ Category

On the phone from the Middle East, where he is currently deployed, Torgersen lamented what he called “the cognitive dissonance of people saying, ‘No, the Hugos are about quality,’ and then at the same time they’re like: ‘Ooh, we can vote for this author because they’re gay, or for this story because it’s got gay characters,’ or, ‘Ooh, we’re going to vote for this author because they’re not white.’ As soon as that becomes the criteria, well, quality goes out the window.”

Who Won Science Fiction’s Hugo Awards, and Why It Matters, by Amy Wallace

In light of this year’s Hugo Award results, and with particular reference to Amy Wallace’s excellent rundown on the Puppies affair, I feel moved to address the Sad, rather than the Rabid, contingent. Per Torgersen’s remarks above, and setting aside every other aspect of the debate that renders me alternately queasy or enraged, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something fairly fundamental to the problem that’s consistently misunderstood by the Puppies, and which, when explained, might go a long way towards explaining the dissonance between what they think is happening and what is actually happening. Not that I particularly expect Torgersen or Correia to listen to me at this point; or if they did, I’d be greatly surprised. Even so, the point seems worth stating, if only for the sake of greater clarity.

When it comes to debating strangers with radically different perspectives, you sometimes encounter what I refer to as Onion Arguments: seemingly simple questions that can’t possibly be answered to either your satisfaction or your interlocutor’s because their ignorance of concepts vital to whatever you might say is so lacking, so fundamentally incorrect, that there’s no way to answer the first point without first explaining eight other things in detail. There are layers to what’s being misunderstood, to what’s missing from the conversation, and unless you’ve got the time and inclination to dig down to the onion-core of where your perspectives ultimately diverge, there’s precious little chance of the conversation progressing peacefully. After all, if your interlocutor thinks they’ve asked a reasonable, easy question, your inability to answer it plainly is likely to make them think they’ve scored a point. It’s like a cocky first-year student asking a 101 question and feeling smug when their professor can’t condense the four years of study needed to understand why it’s a 101 question into a three-sentence answer. The problem is one as much of attitude as ignorance: having anticipated a quick response, your interlocutor has to be both willing and interested enough to want to hear what might, at least initially, sound like an explanation of a wholly unrelated issue – and that’s assuming you’re able to intuit the real sticking point straight off the bat.

So: inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.

Right?

Wrong.

But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.

Let’s start with layer one: context. While there’s always been an element of diversity in SFF – you can’t ignore the contributions of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler, or pretend that the Golden Age greats never wrote about politics – as the Puppies themselves agree, it’s only comparatively recently that a movement in favour of promoting diversity has flourished. Setting aside the question of whether this is a good or a bad thing, or merely just a thing, at a practical level, increased diversity in narrative means you’re adding a new set of variables to any critical equation, which in turn requires a new way to discuss them. For example: if the vast majority of protagonists in a given genre are straight, white men, then critically speaking, there’s little need to mention their straightness/whiteness/maleness when making reviews or recommendations, because none of these details are relevant in distinguishing Story A from Story B, or Character A from Character B. Instead, you talk about other things – the quality of the characterisation, for instance – and consider it a job well done.

Which, contextually, it is. And somewhat understandably, if this is what you’re used to, it can be easy to assume that ever mentioning race or gender or sexuality in a review is irrelevant – even when the characters are more diverse – because these details, whatever else they might indicate, have no bearing on the quality of the story.

Except, of course, they do, as per the evidence of layer two: experience. Who we are and where we’ve come from impacts on our construction; on our beliefs and personalities. Returning to a situation where straight white male characters are the default, a reviewer would be within their rights – would, indeed, be doing a good job – to discuss how Character A’s working class upbringing informs his personality, especially when compared with Character B’s more aristocratic heritage and attitudes. A veteran soldier will have a different perspective on combat to someone who’s only ever studied tactics at a remove, just as an old man who’s recently outlived the love of his life will think differently about romance to a teenager in the throes of his first infatuation. These details are critically pertinent because they demonstrate how and why two characters can experience the same story in radically different ways, and if we as readers happen to have some points in common with Character A or Character B, we’re always going to compare our own experiences with theirs, no matter how fantastical or futuristic the setting, because it helps us gauge whether, in our opinion, the writer has done a good job of portraying their thoughts and feelings realistically.

And so it is with details like race and gender and sexuality. A queer character will have different experiences to a straight one, particularly if they live in a homophobic culture; someone who’s religious will have a different outlook on life to someone who’s an atheist; a person from a racial and cultural minority will experience their surroundings differently to someone from the racial and cultural majority; someone who grows up poor will approach wealth differently to someone who’s always had it. How relevant these details are to individual characterisation and worldbuilding – and how successfully they’re executed within a given story – will, of course, vary on a case by case basis; but of necessity, they matter more often than not, and therefore deserve to be mentioned.

Which means that, if the straight white man is no longer the default character, but is rather just one of a number of options, his straightness, whiteness and maleness will be subject to new scrutiny, both in the present and as a retroactive phenomenon. This is layer three: awareness. All stories, no matter how fantastic or futuristic, are ultimately the product of their times, because their writers are the product of their times, too. We might envisage new worlds, but what we consider new depends as much on what we think is old as what we think is possible; our taboos change with the decade or century or according to cultural context; particular writing styles go in and out of vogue; and audiences, depending on their tastes and when they’re raised, expect a range of different things from narrative.

The retroactive criticism and analysis of old works has always been part of literary tradition; what changes is the present-day yardstick against which we measure them. Right now, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift spanning multiple fronts, both political and creative: we’re aware that stories are being told now which, for various reasons, haven’t often been told before, or which didn’t receive much prominence when they were, and which are consequently being told by a wider range of people. Depending on your personal political stance, and as with the question of diversity in the context layer, you might view this as a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing – but regardless of your beliefs, you can’t deny that it’s happening, and that it’s having an impact. As a direct result of this, many of us are now looking at old stories – and at old defaults – in a new light, which means that certain narratives and narrative elements which, by dint of once being so common as to void discussion, were considered thematically neutral, are now being treated as political. (Which, really, they always were – but more on that later.)

As our cultural taboos have shifted – as queerness has become decriminalised (if not always accepted) and rights extended to everyone regardless of race and gender (though still often enacted with prejudice) – the types of stories it’s acceptable to tell have changed, just as it’s now possible for a wider range of storytellers to be heard. We’re all aware of these changes, and whether we like them or not, their visibility makes us question our stories in ways we haven’t before. Thus: while there is nothing noteworthy in choosing to write a straight, white male protagonist in a cultural milieu where almost all protagonists share these qualities, the same act carries more meaning when the combination is understood to be just one of a number of possible choices; and especially where, of all those choices, it’s the one we’ve seen most often, and is therefore, in one sense, the least original. Which doesn’t make such characters inherently bad, or boring, or anything like that; nor does the presence of such characters – or the success of such writers – preclude the simultaneous presence of diversity. It simple means we have an increased awareness of the fact that, up until very recently, a certain type of character was the narrative default, and now that he’s not – or at least, now that he’s not to some people – it’s worth asking whether his presence is a sign that the writer, whether consciously or unconsciously, is perpetuating that default, and what that says about the story in either case.

Which brings us to the fourth layer: representation. Following on from the issue of awareness, consider that, as a wider variety of stories are now being told by a wider variety of people, a wider range of protagonists has consequently entered the narrative market. As with context and awareness, you might think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or merely a thing: regardless, it is happening, and will doubtless continue to happen. As such, a wider percentage of the audience is now having stories written both by and about them – or at least, about people like them – than in previous years; which means that, in response to the former dearth of such narratives, there’s been a corresponding rise in people requesting or recommending them primarily or prominently on the basis of their representational elements.

Ignoring for the moment all questions of quality – which, yes; I’m aware that’s the discussion we’re ultimately having, but bear with me – it should be a point of basic human empathy to understand why this is important; or at the very least, why representation matters to so many people. Despite our ability to empathise and connect with characters whose lives and experiences are utterly different to our own, we still like to see ourselves represented in fiction from time to time, not only as a form of validation – you’re worth telling stories about – but because, amidst so much difference, it’s a point of connection, affirmation, identity. Yet because straight white male characters were so long the default – and because that default, by virtue of its ubiquity, was considered politically neutral – changing the recipe, as it were, is still a visibly deliberate act: it makes the reader aware that the author chose for the character to be male or female, queer or straight, black or white (to give the simplest binary permutations), which awareness refutes the mythical idea of characters as the immaculate, fully-fledged gifts of some inviolable Muse, beyond the writer’s ability to pick or alter; and as such, there’s a reflexive tendency to conflate deliberate with forced, where the latter term carries implications of artificial, false, arbitrary, tokenistic. When these attributes don’t describe us, it’s easy to forget that actually, people like that do exist in the real world, and in considerable numbers; they’re not just something the author has made up out of whole cloth, and the fact that we might be surprised to see them in a given story doesn’t mean, ipso facto, that they’re incongruous within it.

As such, there’s a developing trend towards recommending stories which feature traditionally under-represented groups, not just as some arbitrary exercise, but because we’re aware that members of those groups might actually want to read those stories, and will, as a consequence, have a material interest in that aspect of the contents. But for precisely this reason, such recommendations are seldom indiscriminate, based, as Torgersen and the Puppies fear, solely on the presence of Character A regardless of execution or context – because even though protagonists have long defaulted to being straight, white and male, there’s an equally long tradition of other groups being portrayed badly. The fact that a book contains multiple female characters is no guarantee that those characters are written well, let alone inoffensively, just as the presence of POC within a classic text doesn’t mean their portrayal and treatment isn’t screamingly racist – which is why, when you see  diversity advocates recommending books on the basis that Character A is queer (for instance), the implication is that the filtering for quality has already taken place; that Character A both exists in a well-written narrative and isn’t a walking stereotype. The entire point of the exercise is to promote stories, not on the basis of token or forced diversity alone, but which portray diversity well – and because an author writing from their personal, in-depth experience is likely to have an extensive understanding of the topic, this support naturally extends to mentioning if, for instance, the author of a story starring multiple queer characters is queer themselves, not because there’s an assumption that straight people can’t write excellent stories about queer individuals, but because within any field or group, there’s always going to be a degree of insight or insider knowledge that can only be understood through personal experience, and it’s worth recognising which books are likely to replicate it, especially if we’re insiders, too, and are therefore more likely to notice if those perspectives are missing.

Consider, for instance, the probable insights contained in a military SF novel written by serving soldier, as distinct from one written by a military historian, as distinct again from one whose author’s knowledge of combat, tactics and fighting comes primarily from what they’ve read or seen in other fictional stories. The different backgrounds and knowledge-bases of these hypothetical authors says nothing about how well they write fiction, or how skilled they might be at other aspects of storytelling; they might have wildly different narrative styles and work within very different worlds, such that comparing their books, for all that they ostensibly share a genre, is a tricky proposition. All three books could be excellent in different ways, and all three books could be poor. But if someone you knew  to be both a good judge of fiction and possessed of actual combat experience – let’s call them Sam – handed you the first writer’s book and said, “Read this! The author actually served overseas!”, you’d probably deduce from context that, having served themselves, Sam was telling you that this writer gets it; their experience is my experience, or close enough to mine to be recognisable, and they know what they’re talking about. 

Similarly, if Sam praised either of the other two books for the military content, you’d understand that they were speaking from a position of personal experience: that, to someone with firsthand knowledge of fighting, the tactical/combat elements didn’t feel unrealistic or forced. By the same token, if Sam disliked the first book, you might take the criticism seriously while considering that, as the author was writing from their own first-hand perspective, too, a lack of realism wasn’t necessarily at fault, so much as a clash of opinions. But if Sam told you categorically that the third writer had no idea what they were talking about – that, regardless of any other qualities the book might have, the military aspect was hopeless – you’d be inclined to take that criticism more seriously than if a civilian friend with no grasp of tactics recommended it wholeheartedly; but depending on your own status as civilian, historian or soldier – and how badly you wanted to read the book for other reasons – your own reaction could be different again.

What I mean to say is this: seen from the outside, it’s easy to look at the members of a community recommending stories on what seems to you a superficial basis, and to conclude that, actually, nobody in that conversation is concerned with quality at all. But as per the fifth layer – language – what you’re really witnessing is a collectively understood shorthand: a way of signalling quickly that this book or that is worthy of attention based on a deeper awareness of commonly-held priorities, with respect accorded to those whose recommendations are supported by their personal experiences. Particularly on Twitter, where conversations between small groups are visible to non-participants and where character limitations make exposition difficult, it makes sense that bloggers, writers and critics alike try to be as succinct and powerful in their advocacy as possible. Just as I would accord a greater critical weight to the judgement of a soldier recommending a military SF novel, if a person of colour praises a book for its positive racial representation – or, conversely, criticises its lack thereof – I’m going to consider that relevant.

Which all ties in neatly to the final layer: taste. I’ve said before, and will say again, that I’m a firm believer in the value of negative reviews. Not only do they serve an important critical function, but as another person’s taste is seldom identical to our own, they help us construct a more useful idea of where our interests overlap with the critic’s, and where they diverge. Demonstrably, there’s an audience right now for diverse fiction: for stories which reject the old defaults and showcase a wider range of people, themes and places. The fact that some people enjoy such works does not, in and of itself, make them good works, just as popularity is no guarantee of goodness, either. The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist: creative endeavours are funny like that. There’s always going to be a sort of tension between technique and passion, skill and heart, not because those things are in any way diametric opposites, but because we can never quite agree on whether one is more important than the other, or if you can really have one without the other, or where the distinction between them lies if, for instance, the most heartfelt aspects of a story are only so because of their technically sound expression.

As such, creative awards are contentious creatures – have always been so; will always be so – inasmuch as presenting one represents the imposition of an objective judgement into a fundamentally subjective medium; and because all claims to objectivity are inherently political, so must awards be political, too. This isn’t new information, though some people, like the Puppies, have become mightily outraged at the revelation that what they’ve historically perceived as a lack of politics was, in fact, merely a political bias towards their own comfort. That they are no longer predominantly catered to, they perceive as being under attack; what they call the forced introduction of politics into a formerly neutral space is rather the revelation of existing politics through a natural process of change. A sandbar might be solid for years, but when it shifts with the ocean and so makes new waves, it hasn’t betrayed the people standing on it – though possibly, it might have collapsed sooner beneath their weight, especially if they mistook it for solid and made it the foundation of an improbable edifice.

I guess what I want to say is this: despite what the Puppies think, the rest of us aren’t interested in diversity without quality, and as we’re all acutely aware, the failure mode of diversity is stereotype, which concept isn’t exactly on handshake terms with quality in the first place. That we want to celebrate historically silenced voices and perspectives doesn’t mean we’re doing so purely to spite you, or that we’ve lost all sense of judgement: if our tastes extend to seeing in fiction those versions of ourselves you’re disinclined to write, then who are you to tell us we aren’t entitled to our preferences? Nobody is saying you can’t tell your stories; we just might not want to read them, the same as you evidently have no desire to read ours. That’s not the genre being attacked – it’s the genre changing, and whether you change with it or not, we’re still going to like what we like.

Stop fighting the riptide, Puppies. As any Australian could tell you, it’s the surest way to drown.

Browsing the Guardian this week, I encountered a deliberately provocative headline – ‘Howard Jacobsen: All my books are apocalyptic. I have never met an intelligent optimist’ – and promptly did a double-take when I read down to see that Jacobsen has apparently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his latest novel, J, which is being described as ‘dystopian’ and ‘apocalyptic’. I frowned at the computer screen, trying and failing to reconcile this information with Jacobsen’s self-professed status as someone who is contemptuous of genre things; a man who once argued that what makes genre fiction genre fiction is its formal predictability… the best novels will always defy category‘. And, indeed, it’s clear that Jacobsen does include dystopian fiction as a type of genre writing, as per his assertion that ‘internecine war will sometimes break out between the genrists – paranormalists deriding the moralistic pretensions of dystopians, for example‘. One could be forgiven for expecting, therefore, that Jacobsen has taken issue with such labels being applied to his own work; or at the very least, has failed to use those labels himself.

Apparently not. ‘In a way,’ he says, ‘all my books are apocalyptic.’

In his 2012 review of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Hal Parker made a salient observation about Chabon’s use of genre:

Reappropriating genre literature under the aegis of high culture has become a familiar convention of postmodern literary fiction; really, “literary genre fiction” is arguably a genre of its own at this point. Even more common is the practice of saturating a novel in a given milieu to such a degree that the milieu itself comes to serve as the “brand” of the novel. There, however, lies the rub: While Mr. Chabon is white, much of the milieu providing the “brand” of Telegraph Avenue (soul and jazz music, Blaxploitation films, the Black Panthers, Oakland and its environs) is unmistakably black. What this means is that “literary genre fiction” now runs the risk of becoming a kind of sophisticated “literary gentrification”—a process by which a predominantly black milieu is appropriated by a white novelist as a springboard. Put simply, is the story of “Brokeland,” whatever it may be, really Mr. Chabon’s to tell?

Though Parker is speaking specifically about a white writer’s appropriation of black culture, going on to link these elements with the novel’s arguable classification as a work of ‘gentrification fiction,’ the idea of literary gentrification has, I would argue, a wider and more general applicability which he himself acknowledges: namely, the idea of literary writers seeking to detach – and therefore, in their frequent estimation, elevate, or even rescue – genre ideas from their cultural, narrative and contextual points of origin. Part of what makes this such a difficult phenomenon to discuss, however, is the fact that ‘genre fiction’ has long since become an umbrella term encompassing wildly different types of writing, each with its own history, heroes and hallmarks, and each with varying points of intersection and overlap with the others. Much like a university attempting to unite a handful of disparate academic schools under a single banner by turning them into a college, ‘genre fiction’ is often treated – and, as a consequence, called on to defend itself – as if it were a single, coherent entity, and not, as per the university model, an administrative and academic siphonophore. As such, I would argue that genre fiction isn’t a genre in and of itself, but rather a college of genre – and that makes for some interesting analysis.

For instance: author N. K. Jemisin, who is African-American, has spoken in the past about her books being shelved in the African-American section of bookshops, despite the fact that she writes epic fantasy. It’s worth quoting her at length on this point, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent:

I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting…

It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.

Problem is, most black readers aren’t “new” readers. That was a misconception derived from the initial racist assumption by publishers and retailers that “black people don’t read”; to people who swallowed that baloney, it must have seemed as though millions of black readers suddenly sprang fully-formed from E. Lynn Harris’ forehead in 1995. This is a completely illogical, frankly asinine assumption — what, were we all sitting around playing with our Dick and Janes before that? But that’s racism for you; logic fail all over the place.

And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”…

As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. The folks who would be interested in one are highly unlikely to be interested in the other. But that is precisely what happened to her, because her book got shelved in the AAF section too.The Autobiography of Malcolm X has diddlysquat-all to do with Zane’s “Sex Chronicles”, but I have personally seen these two authors shelved side-by-side in AAF, I guess because X comes near Z on a bookshelf…

Worse, any bookstore or library that does this is, IMO, perpetuating the same racist assumptions that caused this problem in the first place. It all comes down to the idea of universality — which mostly just means “the ability to write something that appeals to white readers”, in my experience. Before the AAF boom, black readers were assumed to have no interest in books meant to appeal to white readers; hence the assumption that we “didn’t exist”. When our existence was confirmed, black readers were then assumed to be strange ducks, Not Like The Rest Of Us in taste or discernment, fundamentally alien — or Other — in our intelligence and thought processes. And black writers — despite having written mainstream books for generations — were assumed to be incapable of writing for anything other than this strange, alien audience. If “universality” = “whiteness”, well, of course we couldn’t possibly have it. Even if we did.

Trying to disentangle concepts of genre from concepts of race is, therefore, a highly problematic proposition, and one which ties in particularly to concepts of antiblackness, as per the fact that, as Jemisin points out, the African American section* is concerned only with the segregation of one specific racial identity. As such, it’s worth noting that both Howard Jacobsen and Michael Chabon are Jewish men, and while it’s conceivable that Telegraph Avenue might have been shelved in the AAF section, Chabon’s other works – such as, for instance, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which arguably belongs to the college of genre, and which, as the title suggests, is deeply concerned with questions of Jewish identity – would not receive the same treatment. Jacobsen’s J is similarly informed, taking place after an event described in his interview as a ‘mass pogrom’:

The new book is about the annihilation of any group, any “other”, Jacobson says. “The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.”

Not having read J – and despite my general dislike of Jacobsen, I’ll admit I’m tempted – I can’t pass any judgement on the quality of the book, its dystopian elements or its relationship with the college of genre. What I can say, however – and returning, at long last, to the original point – is that Jacobsen’s decision to write a dystopian work, embracing the potential of genre’s college without rescinding his previous disdain for it, and being rewarded for his efforts with a second Booker shortlisting, raises an important question. Namely: if, as Jacobsen himself contends, truly great novels defy categorisation, then in the game of literary gentrification, which writers are considered capable of transcending genre while still employing its tropes, and which are not? Because if, per Parker’s criticism of Telegraph Avenue, there’s a parallel to be made between the racial implications of a particular narrative and the context in which that narrative is both created and received, and by whom, then it doesn’t seem irrelevant that, whereas works like Jacobsen’s J, Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are, apparently without effort, classed as being both literary and genre-transcendent while still possessing strong dystopian roots, something like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death is not. When Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time-Traveller’s Wife, with its titular SFFnal conceit, can be shelved and discussed as a purely literary work, but Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Delia Sherman’s The Freedom Maze cannot, then we have a problem. When Nicholas Sparks, a man made rich and famous by his penchant for writing about tragically beautiful white people having romantic sex in the rain, states emphatically that ‘If you look for me, I’m in the fiction section. Romance has its own section… I don’t write romance novels,’ and the bookstores of the world agree with him, while N. K. Jemisin can end up shelved in the African American section regardless of the actual content of her novels, then yes: we have a problem.

Literary gentrification is not a simple matter of famous literary authors – who, coincidentally, tend to be straight, white men – cherrypicking SFFnal tropes and declaring them cleansed of genre, transcendent of but inspired by: it is as much a question of whose writing we deem capable of having this effect as one of which writers strive to have this effect, in that however much one tries to transcend, one cannot actually achieve it – or be told that such achievement has, in fact, occurred, regardless of intention – without a critical audience to argue, or even assume, that this is the case. The idea that works either by or about POC constitute a discreet genre is, as Jemisin points out, as problematic as it is established within the industry, but despite the college of genre being long defined as the home of ‘anything and everything not deemed literary fiction’, it had never quite occurred to me before that the former can be seen to fit within the latter. Perhaps this is yet one more reason why the question of diversity within SFF has become so prominent lately: we have, at long last, begun to argue for the rights of everyone in our college, however falteringly, and if those rights are ultimately defined as ‘the right of POC to not be viewed as inhabitants of a separate genre, but as an integral and assumed part of any readership or creative body’, then so much the better.

Because as much as I loathe seeing smug literary authors speak snidely about SFF in one breath while borrowing its tropes in the next, I’d be misplacing my outrage if this was the only level on which the phenomenon disturbed me. The archetype of the straight white male literary author is so culturally ingrained at this point that it can, at times, serve to obscure the very tangible prejudices underlying the reasons for its primacy: that, now as historically, in genre as in culture, the dominance of straight, white and/or Western men in a given sphere, coupled with a corresponding lack of representation from other groups, is not a fucking coincidence. I would be far more inclined to accept Jacobsen’s argument that truly great works transcend the classification of genre if the ability to bestow transcendence was not apparently restricted to a narrow class of person, not because they’re the only ones interested in producing such works, but because we assume their works possess a certain quality that the works of others do not, even when they deal with similar themes in a similar manner. Hypocritically borrowing from a genre one professes to despise is one thing, but doing so as part of a process of literary gentrification predicated on the selfsame dystopian history of racism, sexism and exclusion of the Other you’re ostensibly critiquing is quite another.

One cannot help but wonder if Jacobsen has noticed the irony.

*As the name suggests, the African American section is something you’re unlikely to find in bookstores outside of America. I’ve never seen an equivalent section separating out, for instance, Aboriginal literature in Australian stores, but that doesn’t mean such sections don’t exist, and if you’ve seen or heard of one, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

In the past two days, I’ve ended up in two different arguments with two different men – both of them strangers – in two different forums, about two (ostensibly) different issues; and yet their methods of argument, even their language, have proven eerily similar. The first argument happened on Facebook, when a friend posted a joke about MRAs (“How many Men’s Rights Activists does it take to change a lightbulb? Not all of them!”) and one of her friends chimed in to assert that, as feminists, we were hypocrites for finding it funny, because if the joke were being told about women, we’d be outraged. The second argument happened on Twitter, when, in response to my tweeting Mallory Ortberg’s recent deconstruction of a sexist book review, an unknown man asked both of us, plus another woman, whether we’d have been just as outraged if the targeted reviewer had been female (the implication being that we were, once again, hypocrites).

Both disputes began with a single man challenging two or more feminist women to defend their beliefs on the basis of a hypothetical genderflip from male to female which, in both cases, completely missed the point of the conversation. In the first argument, changing the subject’s gender would obviously have an impact on how the joke was received, because the joke is explicitly contextualised by our awareness of gender inequality, the punchline a verbatim reference to the cry of “Not ALL men!” with which MRAs so frequently – and aggressively – attempt to derail feminist discourse about sexism and misogyny. To suggest, therefore, that such a joke is offensive on the grounds that a genderflipped version would be even moreso is to fundamentally misunderstand that this is the actual point of the joke: namely, that even though women are still being  disenfranchised by an entrenched culture of sexism, the first response of too many men is to act as though their hurt feelings at being accused of sexism, however tangentially, is the greater evil.

By contrast, the proposed genderflip  in the second argument was ineffective for the opposite reason: though Ortberg’s piece certainly made mention, not only of the reviewer’s gender, but of the fact that she’d yet to see the book in question reviewed by a woman, the ultimate point was simply that the review itself was written in a sexist manner; that this was not a helpful way for anyone to review women’s writing. Had a female reviewer written the exact same piece, replete with the exact same biases and problematic turns of phrase, Ortberg might certainly have worded her response differently, if only in the sense of attributing the reviewer’s attitude to internalised sexism rather than male privilege, but the source material would still have been sexist, and therefore deserving of the exact same level of outrage. For our interlocutor to have based his opening rhetorical sally on the idea that female feminists will be naturally more inclined to excuse sexism if it comes from other women – and worse, to phrase this 101-level question as though we had never once considered it before – was not only deeply oblivious, but actively insulting.

To be clear: genderflipping can be – and frequently is – a useful rhetorical device in conversations about both sexism generally and the more specific issues facing persons of all genders. But its usefulness is always going to be contextually dependant on the user’s understanding, not only of what sexism is, but how and why it functions. Because sexism is fundamentally a problem of inequality, the subversive impact of a well-executed genderflip rests in its ability to switch the (im)balance of power in unexpected ways, thereby highlighting the fact that it exists to be subverted in the first place. Genderflipping an argument to support or restore the status quo, however – whether by asking us to sympathise with those already deemed sympathetic, or to approve the power of those already powerful, at the expense of those already viewed as unsympathetic or powerless – is not only a wrongheaded misuse of the technique, but a catastrophic failure of comprehension. The same is true of other subversive flips, like racebending (which is why, for instance, Victoria Foyt’s Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls was such an all-out disaster).

The fact that these two men deployed the exact same tactic for the same, poor reason was notable. That their subsequent responses also aligned was downright creepy – and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. In response to their condescending language, I referred to each man in tern as patronising, half in anger, half in the hope that they might rethink their approaches. Here is how they responded:

On Facebook: Being patronizing is so much fun you are welcome for it… You may be right but your anger clouds your point and makes it seem far to emotional and not logical. Now before you go off your rocker that I just equated your style of rhetoric with classic feminine traits, I will say that I have done this very thing to men on facebook and gotten the same overly emotional reaction… I always am deliberately patronizing because it would be a waste of the day to do it by accident.    

On TwitterMy pathetic faux-humour patronizes men and women in equal measure. Men find me every bit as exhausting.

In other words, both men accepted that, yes, they were indeed being deliberately patronising, but that I had no grounds for finding their approach sexist, because they were just as rude to men – as though, once again, completely ignoring both the context and the content of the conversation was sufficient to make the accusation go away. Nor is this curious tactic of attempting to deny sexism by claiming misanthropy, or some version of it – as though an admission of being rude to everyone completely rules out the possibility of being rude to certain types of person in specific, culturally coded ways – a two-man anomaly. To quote from Lindy West’s How to Make a Rape Joke:

This fetishization of not censoring yourself, of being an “equal-opportunity offender,” is bizarre and bad for comedy. When did “not censoring yourself” become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks… And being an “equal opportunity offender”—as in, “It’s okay, because Daniel Tosh makes fun of ALL people: women, men, AIDS victims, dead babies, gay guys, blah blah blah”—falls apart when you remember (as so many of us are forced to all the time) that all people are not in equal positions of power. “Oh, don’t worry—I punch everyone in the face! People, baby ducks, a lion, this Easter Island statue, the ocean…” Okay, well that baby duck is dead now. And you’re a duck-murderer. It’s really easy to believe that “nothing is sacred” when the sanctity of your body and your freedom are never legitimately threatened.

Both encounters were frustrating and draining; both left me feeling like I’d wasted time, effort and emotional energy engaging with someone who viewed my exhaustion and distress as a personal victory.  It is disputes like this, in fact – not so much for their content, but for their frequency and duration – which so often prompt people to say, Don’t feed the trolls. Don’t engage. Just ignore them, and they’ll go away. But as I’ve said elsewhere, and as much as even such minor encounters increasingly threaten to burn me out, this isn’t advice I’m willing to take. Like playground bullies, trolls don’t go away when ignored: quite the opposite. They take silence to mean they’ve won, or as assent, or as a challenge to try harder: either way, it invariably emboldens them. I’m not for an instant suggesting that people should engage above and beyond their coping level, or that we should all die on every half-assed rhetorical hill that drops into our blog comments with a virtual smirk and the suggestion that lol maybe ur overreacting??? – I just don’t believe that silence is the answer. This sort of behaviour isn’t anomalous; it’s part of a pattern, and one which needs to be identified before it can ever hope to be changed.

Trigger warning: racism, homophobia.

So, author John C. Wright wrote a thing on the evils of political correctness in SFF, and I’m honestly trying to form a cogent, logical response to it, but that’s a difficult proposition when the thing in question is neither. I’ve read it twice, which was clearly a tactical error on health grounds, as my face now looks like this:

WIN_20140507_171248

and I just – OK.

Let me show you the problem I’m having (my emphasis):

What we have now instead is a smothering fog of caution, of silence, of an unwillingness to speak for fear of offending the perpetually hypersensitive.

Science fiction is under the control of the thought police…

The uproar of hate directed against this innocent and honorable man [Orson Scott Card] is vehement and ongoing

Likewise, when Larry Correia was nominated for a Hugo Award, the gossips reacted with astonishing venom, vocal enough to be mentioned in the Washington Post and USA Today

His detractors, including leaders in the field, announced in triumphant tones their plan to vote his work NO AWARD, without having read the nominated book, and they encouraged fandom to do likewise.

Do you see the issue? You cannot state, as your opening premise, that SFF fandom is being handicapped by silence and an unwillingness to speak out, and then support that premise by stating the exact polar opposite: that there has, in your own words, been vocal uproarDoubtless, what Wright meant to imply is that the persons against whom the uproar is directed are being silenced by it – that he, and others like him, such as Larry Correia and Theodore Beale, are now suffering under the burden of enforced quietude. But given that all three men are still writing publicly and vocally, not just about the issues Wright raises, but about any number of other topics, the idea that their output is being curtailed by their own “unwillingness to speak for fear of offending” is patently false. Indeed, by their own repeated admission, Correia, Beale and Wright are wholly unafraid of causing offence, even sometimes going so far as to seek outraged reactions. So if Wright and his fellows proudly don’t care about being offensive, then who does: who really fears to speak? By untangling the nonsensical web that is Wright’s attempt at logic, a paradoxical answer emerges: that the people who actually do care about causing offence – the apparent victims of silence – are simultaneously the same gossipy, vocal detractors responsible for silencing… ourselves, as it turns out. Where “silence” is a synonym for “uproar”.

Speechless

 

Inigo Montoya

But then, this is hardly surprising, given that Wright also defines “the spirit of intellectual fearlessness” of the Golden Age – a time when “science fiction was an oasis of intellectual liberty, a place where no idea was sacrosanct and no idea was unwelcome” – as a period when “few science fiction readers were offended by his [Heinlen’s] or anyone’s ideas”. (Because intellectual fearlessness is clearly the antithesis of spirited, impassioned debate and the bedfellow of conformity.) But now that “the lunatic Left”, having “planned and struggled for years, decades, to achieve their cultural influence” has done so, true SFF fans need to “retake our lost home one mind, one institution, at a time”.

Take a good, long moment to parse all that, and you’ll find it’s just as self-contradictory on closer inspection as it is at first glance. According to Wright, the SFF of old was a culture in which “no idea was unwelcome”, but in which “the lunatic left” – quite rightly, in his view – had no power or presence: the way to recapture the tolerance of old, therefore, is to violently remove any new perspectives. Wright seems similarly unaware of the breathtaking irony inherent in lauding Golden Age SF a permissive, welcoming “oasis of intellectual liberty” while simultaneously noting that:

The older the strata of science fiction being mined, or the more deeply into nuts-and-bolts the SF tale, the smaller the percentage of women found in the candidate pool. Plucking twenty tales out of the whole mass of SF from 1958 to 2006 (the print range of the stories), even if done at random, might easily have no female authors present.

The famed “oasis”, it seems, had some fairly pertinent membership restrictions.

Gliding over the part where Wright apparently thinks that one cannot possibly be both Hispanic and racist, we come to the real meat of his argument: that figures like Beale and Correia are being criticised, not because they’ve said anything worth objecting to, but because the left is obsessed with “obedience to goodthink”. As Wright makes multiple other references to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the course of his piece – a book whose protagonist, Winston Smith, works as an historical revisionist for the Ministry of Truth, rewriting old newspaper articles to better fit the party line – it seems only fitting to present his defence of each apparently-persecuted individual, and his version of what they did – suitably bolded for emphasis –  alongside the sourced, verbatim quotes of the subjects and/or a sourced account of what actually happened.

Thus:

Wright Claims That: “Orson Scott Card publicly expressed the mildest imaginable opposition to having judges overrule popular votes defining marriage in the traditional way.”

What Card Actually Said: The first and greatest threat from court decisions in California and Massachusetts, giving legal recognition to “gay marriage,” is that it marks the end of democracy in America.”

Wright Claims That: “Theodore Beale was expelled from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers America (SFWA), our professional union, on the rather specious grounds that he repeated comments from a members-only bulletin board to the general public. He was libeled with the same typical menu as above. (By odd coincidence, the falsely accused racist here is also Hispanic.)”

What Beale Actually Said: We do not view her [N.K. Jemisin] as being fully civilised… those self-defence laws [like Stand Your Ground in Flordia] have been put in place to let whites defend themselves by shooting people like her, who are savages in attacking white people… [she is] an educated, but ignorant, savage with no more understanding of what it took to build a new literature… than an illiterate Igbotu tribesman has of how to build a jet engine.”

What Actually Happened: Beale was expelled from the SFWA, not because he “repeated comments from a members-only bulletin board to the general public”,  but because he used the SFWA’s professional Twitter feed to promote his racist screed about Jemisin.

Wright Claims: The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF is an anthology edited by Mike Ashley. When it was noticed that there were no women authors in the table of contents, fandom was whipped into prepackaged frenzy… Plucking twenty tales out of the whole mass of SF from 1958 to 2006 (the print range of the stories), even if done at random, might easily have no female authors present… The case of Mike Ashley was arbitrary.”

The Actual Facts: Wright’s defence of Ashley is predicated on the idea that such a small percentage of SF was written by women over a more than fifty-year period that, even if a sample of stories were chosen at random, women could easily be absent altogether. (He appears completely disinterested in the whiteness of the list.) So, let’s do the math for female writing, shall we? Here are some rough numbers: in 1948, 10-15% of spec fic writers were women, and by 1999, 36% of the SFWA’s membership was female. Obviously, SFWA membership isn’t the be-all, end-all of female participation in the genre, or even of American participation in the genre, and by the same token, the window for these statistics both starts and ends before the period Wright is discussing, which puts us at a double disadvantage, as women’s representation in SFF has inarguably increased over time. Even so, let’s seriously lowball the range by rounding down, and say that, during the period from 1958 to 2006, women contributed just 25% of all professionally published SF works. Now, The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF contains twenty-one stories – five of which, crucially, were new works commissioned especially for inclusion the anthology. That leaves us with just sixteen stories potentially drawn from the period Wright is referencing. And if you do the maths on the basis of these numbers – namely, if you were to pick sixteen stories at random from a collection where 25% were written by women – then 99% of the time, you’d end up with at least one female-authored story.  Which means that Ashley’s anthology would have been more diverse if he had, in fact, chosen his works at random; but of course, the point is, he didn’t. Not only did he commission five new stories exclusively from white male writers, but in digging through the entire history of SF, he somehow managed to miss even classic greats like Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, Andre Norton and James Tiptree Jr, as well as modern award-winners like Aliette de Bodard, Catherynne M. Valente and Elizabeth Bear. So, no: the case against Mike Ashley – or, more specifically, against The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF – was anything but “arbitrary”.

Wright Claims That: “The case of Malzberg and Resnick and Rabe is a paragon of disproportionate punishment. Normal practice when complaints about a writer arrive is to tell him not to repeat the gaffe. Normally, policies are enacted before they are enforced. Here the punishments were cruel, unusual, and ex post facto.”

What Actually Happened: Beyond apparently being dropped as contributing writers for the SFWA Bulletin (though interestingly, I can find no public announcement to this effect), neither Barry Malzberg nor Mike Resnick seems to have received any formal punishment from the SFWA, though editor Jean Rabe, as stated, resigned. The “cruel, unusual” punishments described by Wright , therefore, appear to be non-existent; unless he’s referring to the fact that they lost their column as a result of public backlash. If this is the case, however, it’s worth noting three important things. Firstly: Resnick and Malzberg  weren’t dismissed out of the blue, but after they were given the opportunity to respond to their critics, and after their initial remarks had already generated public controversy, which puts paid to the notion that their “punishment”, such as it was, was entirely ex post facto. Secondly, they weren’t rebuked because of a “gaffe”, if you can even call it that, as the word implies an accidental error, but for their lengthy, deliberate and fervent castigation of their critics within the Bulletin’s pages. And thirdly, there is nothing “cruel” or even particularly “unusual” in an organisation dropping writers or employees for expressing sentiments that have had a deleterious effect on how that organisation is perceived. Last year, for instance, PR Executive Justine Saco was fired after posting an offensive, racist tweet, while in 2002, blogger Heather Armstrong famously lost her job over the contents of her website, dooce.com, which lead to the term “dooced” being coined to describe the act of being fired for writing on one’s blog. While there are many pertinent and complex arguments to be made concerning the firing of persons for their personal beliefs, never mind in instances where those beliefs are disseminated through company channels, the one thing you cannot call the phenomenon is “unusual”.

Wright Claims That:  “Elizabeth Moon was “uninvited” from being the guest of honor at a large convention for making the rather unremarkable remark that immigrants to the United States should assimilate. This was decried as so inflammatory that the fans would be in danger of death at the hands of justifiably outraged militants driven to madness by Miss Moon’s race-hatred.”

What Moon Actually Said: “I know–I do not dispute–that many Muslims had nothing to do with the [9/11] attacks, did not approve of them, would have stopped them if they could.  I do not dispute that there are moderate, even liberal, Muslims, that many Muslims have all the virtues of civilized persons and are admirable in all those ways…  But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they’ve had… I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom.”

What Actually Happened: At the time Moon made the above remarks, she was scheduled to appear as the Guest of Honour at WisCon, a feminist SF convention which was explicitly founded to both support, and to create greater awareness of, diversity in SFF, with a particular emphasis on issues of race and gender. I find it rather convenient that Wright omits this fact, as it’s the crux of the point: Moon’s comments weren’t just general remarks about assimilation, but were specifically directed at, and critical of, Muslims in particular, and wildly out of keeping with WisCon’s stated agenda.

That’s some quality propagandising, Mr Wright. The Ministry of Truth would be proud.

I’ve already expended more time and energy on this post than was my original intention, but I can’t sign off without making note of Wright’s bizarrely gendered remarks on the difference between law and custom:

There are two ways for a sheep to be lead: one is by fear of the sheepdog, and the other is by following the sheep in front of him. The first is law and the second is custom.

Law is enforced by solemn ceremonies, oaths, judges in robes, policemen in uniforms, hangmen in hoods. It is objective, official, overt, masculine, and direct.

Custom is encouraged by countless social cues and expressions of peer pressure. It is subjective, informal, covert, feminine, and indirect.

In other words: Law, which is Masculine and Strong and Important and Upheld By Solemn Manly Male Officials, is Objectively Correct and Forthright, while Custom is all about silly stupid backstabbing bitchy girly stuff, and probably involves feelings. One would be hard-pressed to find a more smugly misogynistic division of social labours masquerading as objective logic, and yet, on the basis of everything else he’s said here, I guarantee that Wright would greet the mere suggestion of his possibly being even a teeny-weeny bit sexist, let alone misogynistic, with the sort of red-faced harrumphing outrage normally reserved for bull walruses in the mating season.

Walrus

So, in conclusion:

  • Silence and uproar are not synonyms;
  • Intellectual fearlessness is best exhibited through debate and criticism, not a failure to be offended;
  • Claiming that Golden Age SFF was an oasis of liberty open to all people and perspectives doesn’t work when you simultaneously mention that there were no women because Historical Sexism and also filthy leftwingers are the devil; and
  • Accusing your interlocutors of stooping to Orwellian tactics while actively and obviously deploying Orwellian tactics yourself isn’t just hypocritical, but on the internet, where it’s really easy to look up what actually happened and notice how it differs in several crucial respects from what you claimed happened, it’s also extremely stupid.

THANK YOU AND GOOD NIGHT.

 

 

Hypothesis:

We have, as a society, such a completely disordered, distorted perception of female bodies that the vast majority of people are incapable of recognising what “overweight” actually looks like on a woman, let alone “healthy”. As such, we’re now at a point where women are not only raised to hate their bodies as a matter of course, but are shown, from childhood, a wholly inaccurate picture of what they “should” look like – a narrow, nigh on impossible physical standard they are then punished, both socially and medically, for failing to attain.

I don’t say this lightly. I say it because this is the only conclusion supported by the facts.

Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?

1: BMI

Overwhelmingly, the measurement used to determine whether or not someone is a “healthy weight” is the BMI, or Body Mass Index. Most people are still taught it in schools; indeed, it’s commonly used by doctors and in medical underwriting for insurance purposes,  and is also used by the WHO and various other official bodies, including many universities. It is, however, flawed to the point of uselessness – a fact acknowledged by the man who popularised its usage, Ansel Keys, who explicitly stated that it shouldn’t be used as a tool for individual diagnosis.

There are several main reasons why our cultural reliance on the BMI as a means of assessing health, and particularly women’s health, is deeply problematic:

1. It doesn’t take into account the fact that muscle is denser than fat. As such, it frequently registers athletes and bodybuilders as being obese or overweight, despite their incredible fitness, just because their bodies have greater muscle density, a prejudice which extends to anyone with significant muscle-mass. This is why, for instance, a superfit bodybuilder, Anita Albrecht, was yesterday told by an NHS nurse that she was obese and ordered to go on a strict diet.

2. It doesn’t take height or bodytype into account with any degree of accuracy. Taller individuals will always have a higher BMI regardless of their actual weight, because of the way the measurement is constructed, while shorter people will always have a lower one. Having been originally developed in Europe, using European physical norms, in the 1800s, neither does it factor in ethnicity or metabolism, which is why a Yale University student, Frances Chan, is currently being pushed to develop an eating disorder by the college’s medical administrators, all of whom are so obsessed with her naturally low BMI that they’ve assumed she must be anorexic, and are forcing her to gain unnecessary weight or risk expulsion.

3. Although women are both shorter on average than men while naturally carrying more fat, the BMI calculation doesn’t take this into account, but uses the same measurement for both men and women. In fact, it was originally formulated based on studies of white male populations only – which means that BMI is fundamentally predicated on judging female bodies against male norms. As such, and as useless as the BMI is anyway in terms of individual diagnosis, it’s especially harmful to women and POC, whose morphology and metabolisms it was never meant to accommodate.

4. It doesn’t account for age, or any change in height that occurs with age. A teenager who hasn’t yet achieved their full growth or settled into their normal, adult weight is held to the same standards as someone old enough to have begun losing height

Combine these facts together, and you have a recipe for disaster. All over the world, women of all bodytypes, ages and ethnicities are being told by physicians, family members, universities and insurance companies to try and adhere to a single, “universal” notion of bodily health that is, in fact, predicated entirely on what was considered normal for white European men in the mid-1800s.

2. Clothing Sizes

Consider the women in these two photos, all of whom, despite their wildly differing bodytypes, weigh the Australian average of 70kg, or 154 pounds:

American women who all weigh 154 pounds Australian women all weighing the average 70kg

Clearly, these women all wear different size clothes for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their weight, and everything to do with height and bodytype. But because of the fashion industry’s obsession with tall, thin, white, ectomorphic models – women chosen, not because they’re a representative sample of the population, but so their minimal frames can better serve as coathangers for clothes that privilege a very specific aesthetic over function – we have learned to correlate small sizes with healthy bodies, the better to justify their primacy on the runway, in advertising and on screen as a healthy ideal. Never mind that modelling agencies have been known to recruit at eating disorder clinics, with store mannequins more closely resembling the bodies of anorexic girls than average women, models eating tissues to stay thin and rail-thin models photoshopped to hide their ill-health and prominent ribs: because “plus size” models – that is, women whose bodies are actually representative of the general population – are treated as a separate, exceptional category, the fiction persists that “plus size” is a synonym for “overweight”, “unhealthy” or “obese”: women too enormous to wear “normal” clothes, even though the norm in question is anything but. As such, plus-size models are frequently derided as fat, a joke, unhealthy and bad role models. Today, catwalk models weigh 23% less than the average woman, compared to 8% just twenty years ago – yet whenever this disparity is pointed out, the reaction of many is to just assume that average women must be overweight, and that using plus size mannequins will only encourage obesity. Throw in the fact that women’s clothing sizes aren’t standardised, but fluctuate  wildly from brand to brand – or within the same brand, even – and the idea of judging a woman’s health by what size jeans she wears becomes even more absurd.

For anyone still temped by the idea that the standards set by the fashion industry aren’t really that bad, and that the obesity epidemic is surely skewing statistics somewhat, let me put it bluntly: Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Women aged 15-24 are twelve times more likely to die of anorexia than of anything else, while 20% of all anorexics die of their illness. So when I tell you that 20 to 40% of models are estimated to suffer from eating disorders, and that only 5% of American women naturally possess a model’s bodytype, I want you to comprehend my full meaning.

Think about that, the next time you’re tempted to call the girl in the size fourteen jeans overweight.

3. Fat Health

And here, we come to the nub of the problem: the ubiquitous conflation of slenderness with health. With all the statistics I’ve just listed, I shouldn’t have to point out that one can be fantastically thin – model thin, even – and still dangerously unhealthy: among their many other evils, for instance, eating disorders can lead to bone loss and heart complications, to say nothing of the mental health component. What’s much harder to convey, given the overwhelming social incentives to the contrary, is the idea that one can be fat – and I want to talk about that word more, in a moment – and still be physically healthy. Obviously, there are also health risks to being obese, and that’s still something worth discussing, especially given that 6% of deaths are attributable to obesity. But on a daily basis, our fear of this fact, when combined with myriad other social distortions – our obsession with an extremely narrow and largely unrealistic image of female beauty, the conflation of small clothing sizes with healthy bodies, our phobia of anything “plus size”, the false reporting of BMI as an indicator of female wellness – means we’ve lost the ability to tell what obesity actually looks like.

(One cannot help noticing that, while the WHO claims the number of obese persons has doubled since 1980, this statistical leap neatly parallels the adoption of BMI as standard by that same body, which also happened in the 1980’s. Given the appalling flaws of BMI as a system – flaws which not only lead to average-sized women being categorised as overweight or obese for failing to have male proportions, but which also award higher BMI’s to taller people at a time when the average person is getting taller – it’s hard not to wonder, therefore, if it’s not that we’re gaining weight in such massive numbers, but rather that the yardstick for obesity has radically shifted. At the very least, if actual obesity is on the rise, I sincerely doubt it’s rising as much or as quickly as scaremongers seem to think it is, given the undeniable skewing of data inherent to the BMI system.)

 

Particularly for women, possession of any visible body fat whatsoever is invariably conflated with being overweight or unhealthy, and while that’s true some of the time, what it means in a practical sense is that fat, as a concept, rather than being a simple bodily descriptor, has instead become pejorative, a warning that we need to amend our ways. We talk about fatness like it’s a single, static thing, rather than a relative term: as though, if you’re fatter than someone – anyone – you must also be fat absolutely. We don’t talk about degrees of fatness, or bodytype, or distribution of mass. We LOVE big breasts (provided they’re not saggy, of course, or possessed in the expectation that you’ll be able to buy affordable bras to put them in, which – surprise! – you can’t) and we talk, gingerly, about “curves”, but always in ways that serve to disconnect them from the type of bodies to which, more often than not, such attributes belong: fat ones. Because being fat isn’t the same as being overweight, or obese; it just means not thin, and if you think “overweight” and “not thin” are synonyms, then you haven’t been paying attention. Being called fat, in fact, is often just code for “not the ideal”, which can be down to any number of things – that you have wide hips, stomach rolls, thighs that touch (our obsession with the thigh gap is dangerous in and of itself; unless you have a naturally splayed pelvis, it’s only attainable via malnourishment). Our language is full of mocking, heavily gendered terms tied to particular bits of anatomy or pieces of clothing, all of them designed to police women’s bodies: cankles, cameltoe, muffin top, whale tail, tramp stamp, thunder thighs, junk in the trunk, saddlebags, child-bearing hips. As a teenager, I remember seeing a gossip magazine mock Jennifer Aniston for having “arm sausages” – little rolls of skin at the side of her armpits – and feeling physically sick as I realised I had them, too, and must therefore be fat.

Conclusion:

We need to stop reinforcing this idea that if you’re not thin, you’re obese. As a concept, it has absolutely nothing to do with health, and everything to do with justifying our demand for idealised female beauty by mocking anyone who doesn’t meet its impossible standards as overweight. We need to stop relying on BMI to tell us how healthy we are, or not – especially for women – and accept instead that “health” is too complex a concept to be boiled down to a single calculation. Especially given the horrific biases in the healthcare system against anyone seen to be overweight, using a single glib rule to determine the most likely cause of unwellness is not only counterproductive, but dangerous. We need to stop using “fat” as a pejorative, and we sure as hell need to stop the toxic culture of eating disorders, photoshopped images and outright malnutrition currently fuelling the fashion industry.

Because society deserves better. Women deserve better.

We deserve better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a bit late to the party on Michelle Dean’s Our Young-Adult Dystopia, which article appeared in the New York Times in mid-February; nonetheless,  I can’t quite see my way to letting it pass without comment. Unlike the vast majority of people who end up wringing their hands in mainstream publications about how YA Novels Will Doom Us All, Dean appears to actually have read the books she’s talking about, rather than merely criticising them from afar. This has not, however, stopped her from writing one of the most pompous and irritating opening paragraphs of our times:

I sometimes wonder what Dante or Milton or any of those guys would make of the modern appetite for the young-adult epic. It wasn’t always a lucrative thing, writing grand, sweeping, fantastical stories, you know. It was a job for nose-to-the-grindstone, writing-for-the-ages types, and worldly rewards were low. Milton died in penury, blind and obscure; Dante met his maker in literal exile. Would they look with envy upon their celebrated and moneyed modern analogues — your J. K. Rowlings, your Suzanne Collinses?

Ah, yes – those were the days! How I yearn for the golden past, when fantasy was Serious Male Business to be ground out in penury, rather than Crass Female Business resulting in fame! Once again, I’m forced to play the game of Mainstream YA Article Bingo, and as you can see from the card below, it’s not looking good:

YA Article Bingo

Having already compared modern YA with stories written over a century ago and dipped into the Free Space with the requisite reference to The Hunger Games (to say nothing of coming perilously close to an elitist dismissal of popular fiction as trash), Dean then proceeds to get the bit between her teeth:

You do not have to believe the latter [Collins and Rowling] match their ancestors in skill or intelligence to see that they live in a charmed time for their craft. Writing a big, imaginative epic, and particularly one aimed at children or that vaguely defined demographic, “young adult,” will get you plenty of money and status in the grown-up population. You’ll get your big Hollywood movie, and you’ll get your New Yorker profile.

Speaking as a YA author whose money, status, big Hollywood movie and New Yorker profile have all mysteriously failed to eventuate, presumably having been lost down the back of a couch somewhere between Berkeley and Manhattan, I am, in the parlance of the modern internet, 1000% done with people who wilfully mistake the massive success of a few bestselling and debut authors for a universal phenomenon. But then, where’s the sensationalist fun in that? You can’t kickstart outrage by pointing out that, even though most YA authors are still working day jobs to make ends meet, earning low four-digit advances, doing their own publicity and attending no shindig fancier than a launch at the local library, a handful of their peers have nonetheless experienced enormous success due to various trends and fluctuations within the marketplace but, most of all, the hard work of actually writing books. All those tedious humdrum facts lack punch.

There is, nonetheless, a downside to this epic bubble. As in every other area of American life, the sweet smell of success wafting from on high proves irresistible to Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies. Scarce will we have let down our Katniss-inspired braids this year, for example, than something called “Divergent” will come hurtling toward us. The film adaptation of the first book in this trilogy comes out in March. The economic success of these books, written by 25-year-old Veronica Roth, can’t be overstated. The finale, “Allegiant,” came out in October, and its announced first printing was two million copies — a number nearly unheard-of in the depressed coal-mining town that is publishing, these days. It rose to the top of the best-seller lists instantly, as though by divine right.

How dare new authors be inspired to write successful books in popular genres! Never mind that, owing to the long lead times in publishing, Roth’s Divergent was picked up by Harper Collins in July 2010, a month before the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, was even on shelves – of course Roth is a latecomer! And how dare the third book of a successful trilogy be printed in huge numbers, apparently! Down with big print runs! Publishers shouldn’t be confident in their authors! (Bonus points will be awarded to those who find it odd that Dean here refers to the publishing industry as a “depressed coal-mining town” when her entire piece is otherwise objecting to the lucrative new vein of stories it’s currently tapping, to considerable profit. Apparently, it’s only noble and right for publishers to make money if they’re not trying to make money.)

I am not the kind of person who sniffs at “low culture.” Still, something like “Divergent” has been so hastily assembled, and then so cynically marketed, that I cannot help being offended on the part of the reading public.

Dean doesn’t sniff at low culture. She just calls it low culture – rather than, for instance, popular culture, which is both more accurate and less snobbish – and thinks its success is an indictment on the industry. I also find it noteworthy that, by implied definition, the “reading public” here described doesn’t include any Roth fans. (Because, like so much else in discussions of popular culture, “reading public” is code for “erudite people who read a better class of book”. You don’t have to like Divergent to find this construction suspect.)

I know it sells, and God knows that publishing needs the money. But the pushing of this stuff is starting to make me feel as if we’re all suckers. Cruelly, the gilded age of young-adult literature threatens to suck the life out of the whole thing.

But for whom, though? Book blogs, digital imprints and teenage readerships are all booming, as are indie publishers, YA fandoms and online communities devoted to the passionate sharing, discussion and creation of YA. Nobody is forcing Dean to read Veronica Roth, or anyone else, for that matter. It’s not being “pushed” on her, like hard drugs or the execrable opinions of Jeremy Paxman. Dean is free to dislike Roth, or not, as the mood takes her. What I’m struggling with is the suggestion that Roth is somehow representative of the moral/commercial bankruptcy of modern YA, just because she’s successful beyond what Dean feels her writing is worth.

Few are bothered by the costs of this excitement, though successful writers in the young-adult market do seem to have noticed the way the industry depends on them. John Green, whose (excellent, though non-epic) young-adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars ” will get its own film adaptation in May, explained his predicament to The Chicago Tribune last fall: “It’s a massive amount of pressure, and not just from fans, but from people whose jobs are on the line because of what you write.” And that pressure’s twin seems to be a blunt carelessness in selecting and editing new work for publication. Most of these Next Big Things appear to have escaped any serious redlining. It seems their “editors” simply pray to the gods of chance that the author lands on a critical featherbed, rather than being thrown to the wolves.

It took me several attempts to parse this argument, because it’s so wholly ludicrous. For the first time ever, YA SFF novels – and particularly books written by and for young women – are considered a big, commercial Hollywood business. But rather than celebrating the unprecedented prominence of female-centric stories and daring to dream of fame, Dean says, YA authors and editors should be endeavouring to safeguard the jobs of film industry professionals by being harder on themselves. If only YA editors would really dig their heels in at the outset, bad movies wouldn’t happen, because Hollywood wouldn’t be tempted to make doomed-to-fail adaptations of “low culture” crap! Young authors need to stop writing commercially successful books, because if someone buys the film rights, another person’s job could be threatened years down the line when forces beyond the writer’s control lead to poor box office receipts! (That sound you hear is me banging my head on the keyboard.)

Setting aside the extremely pertinent fact that authors on film sets tend not to have an enormous amount of directorial discretion, even though it’s their books being adapted, such that the success or failure of what’s produced can’t reasonably said to rest solely on their shoulders – no novel makes it onto the screen verbatim. As various fandoms can attest, Hollywood has never shrunk from making merry with established canon, whether that means whitewashing a previously diverse cast, adding new characters to familiar stories, or generally just chopping and changing various details as par for the course, and that’s before you get to the question of successful promotion. Big studios might be snapping up YA movie rights out of a cynical desire to find the next Hunger Games, but if the end products are failures, authors are hardly the ones to blame. The fact is that, regardless of the editorial energies expended prior to a book’s release, it’s the finished product that attracts (or doesn’t) the eager eye of studios, whose adaptations are then perfectly placed to redress whatever failings the text might have. So while I can perfectly understand the authorial worry that one’s book adaptation will flop, thereby bringing untold misery to those kind souls who’ve expended so much energy bringing it to life, the idea that they could’ve prevented it all by begging their editor way back when to be crueller with the red pen is a solipsistic fear with no bearing on reality.

(And speaking of facts – vaunting John Green as excellent  while criticising female YA authors? Ladies and gentlemen, check your bingo cards!)

…Roth was 21 when she sold the book and all this started. Had I been exposed to such widespread public scrutiny at that age, I doubt I’d have survived it.

Of course, Roth was selected for this fate in part because she was young. Youth is key to the marketing message.

Does Dean have any evidence for this assertion – that Roth is successful, not just because an agent, a major publishing house and a film studio all decided to back her story, but because of her youth? Evidently not, but that doesn’t matter: for Dean, it seems, it’s just the logical explanation for why a book she thinks is poorly written was given such advantages.

I could not help noticing how Roth’s case echoed in another over the summer: Samantha Shannon’s. She was a 21-year-old Oxford student when her first novel, “The Bone Season,” was declared the Next Big Thing last August…  Hopes were clearly high for its instant blockbuster success, and Shannon had all the ritual blessings the young-adult epic market can offer: a six-figure deal for the first three planned books of seven and a prepublication purchase of film rights. The “Today” show declared it the inaugural pick of its Book Club.

But readers did not respond, not this time. According to Nielsen Bookscan, American sales were in the low-to-mid-five figures in hardcover.

This is, once you break it down, an incredibly misleading statement. Firstly, Dean is citing only the American hardback sales of a book that’s been published both internationally and in ebook format – at a time when ebook sales are surpassing hardcover sales in the US market – as evidence that The Bone Season has failed to live up to its promise. Secondly, those “low-to-mid five figures” in the US hardcover market alone were still strong enough to see the book debut at no. 7 in the New York Times bestseller list, which is hardly something to be sneezed at. With the paperback version not forthcoming until April, and the film version as yet unmade, it seems a little preemptive to judge as a failure a book that’s been sold in 21 countries on the basis of its early sales in just one of them.

I often wonder if the people in charge of these decisions noticed that Rowling was 30 when she sold “Harry Potter,” or that Collins was 46 when “The Hunger Games” appeared. If they did, then they must have also noticed how much the present state of affairs resembles the Hollywood starlet system. But I know why movie producers prefer the young ones. That position is even less defensible among book editors.

Though I can think of a number of other modern YA authors published at young ages beyond Roth and Shannon – myself among them, for the sake of full disclosure; I can scarcely call myself famous, but my first book was nonetheless bought by a publisher in 2009, when I was 23, and came out the following year – the idea that publishers are deliberately mimicking the “starlet system” is absurd. While some journalists certainly get a kick out of emphasising the improbable youth of authors like Alexandra Adornetto and Steph Bowe (both published in their teens), the plain fact is that if some YA novels are being written by young adults, it’s not because of some creepy decision to market books in tandem with the nubile flesh of their authors; it’s just a natural consequence of the fact that young adults like writing for themselves, and are, on occasion, good at it.

Judging by her heavily gendered comparison with starlets, however, Dean appears specifically to take issue with the success young female authors, presumably because she, like almost everyone else, has been taught by our sexist culture that successful young women must necessarily be trading on their youth and beauty, rather than being in possession of any actual talent. Whether she’s an author, a fan, a singer, an actress or anything else in the public spotlight, if a young woman does something, you can be guaranteed that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say she’s not a “real” whatever-it-is, because clearly, young women can’t be. Even so, if young women were the only authors having their books adapted to the big screen and given the five-star treatment, then perhaps Dean would have a point: if nothing else, it would certainly be worth discussing. But as she herself acknowledges, the authors of many other successful franchises – like Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, to name the requisite Big Three – are all in their thirties and forties; and while YA certainly boasts a number of prominent female creators, there are plenty of men being given film deals, too. Besides John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which Dean is already demonstrably aware of, there’s Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, now on its second instalment, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and, of course, the three Narnia movies. (Naturally, though, when male-authored films meet with poor or only middling success, as several of these have, no one ever seems to suggest the source material was at fault, or takes it as an indictment on the skills of male authors generally – they were just bad adaptations). Hollywood doesn’t care who writes the books – it just knows that YA and SFF are popular, and wants to get in while the getting’s good, a slapdash attitude that often leads to subpar films regardless of where the inspiration comes from.

But by all means, let’s continue to focus on how undeserving young women are of fame.

Children’s literature toys with our chronological expectations because the best of it has always been written, actually, by the comparatively elderly. Lewis himself was 51 when the “Narnia” books came out; Lois Lowry was 56 when “The Giver” was published; Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in her 40s, and L. Frank Baum his “Oz” books in the same decade of his life.

Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears… 

Books like Frankenstein, perhaps – one of the undisputed greats of modern literature, and the arguable genesis of modern science fiction? Which was, of course, conceived of and written by Mary Shelley at the ripe old age of 19. And how about  Jane Austen, who started writing Pride and Prejudice when she was 21? Edgar Allen Poe began publishing short stories in his early twenties, receiving a prize for MS. Found in a Bottle at 24 – the same age as Alfred, Lord Tennyson when The Lady of Shallot first appeared in print. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, also produced his first major play at the age of 24, in 1958; award-winning author Helen Oyeyemi  famously wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, while still at school; and just three years ago, Yugoslavian writer Tea Obreht won the Orange Prize with her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, at age 25. Which isn’t to say that no writer ever matures or improves with age – quite the opposite. It’s just that a blanket belief in incompetent, callow youth is equally as inaccurate as a sweeping assertion that age necessarily leads to great books. For every new YA author aged in their teens or twenties, I can think of others in their thirties, forties, fifties or sixties whose works aren’t automatic masterpieces. If I were going to try and make any sort of general statement about the relationship between one’s age and one’s ability to write, in fact, all I’d say is this: that first novels, regardless of the age at which we write them, are seldom our very best works, but that their quality is more likely dependent, not on how old we are, but on how long we’ve been writing when they’re published.

English literature is full of young male writers lionised, both then and subsequently, for their incredible gifts, not least because most of them were busy dying of sybaritic illnesses before they got their first grey hair: John Keats was dead by 25, Percy Bysshe Shelley by 29 and Lord Byron by 36, and that’s just for starters. But once again, it’s the young women of today whose outpourings are held to be inferior, not on the basis of individual talent or literary preference, but because young people just can’t write.

I suppose I’m admitting that those people who call young-adult readers “childish” are onto something. It’s just not the pure desire for regression they pompously diagnose. It’s a desire for stories substantial enough to withstand the ages, that are like smooth river rocks you can turn over and over again.

 I see: having first stepped in to defend the honour of the “reading public” from the insult of commercially successful YA novels, Dean has proceeded to fix the blame on YA authors for being too young and YA readers for being too “childish”, and on everyone else in the equation for giving young women power, whether as creators or as members of a demographic audience. On the basis of the evidence, then, it’s harder to say if Dean really resents Roth and Shannon because they’re successful in a genre she dislikes, or if she dislikes the genre because it’s made them successful without recourse to her opinion of their talent. Clearly, though, it’s not just the problem of commercialism in literature that’s upsetting her – or if it is, then I’d humbly suggest that she’s drawing a bead on the wrong target. If the soul of publishing is truly being imperilled by the relentless drive for monetary gain, then the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly and David Baldacci are far more worthy targets, each of whom has produced far more pulp bestsellers than Roth and Shannon combined. But then, of course, these are adult men, and even though we might collectively mock novels like The Da Vinci Code or wonder who on Earth keeps giving Nicholas Sparks money, we never question the rights of adult male readers to enjoy whatever the hell they like, no matter how trashy and poorly written we find it.

But women, whatever their age, are held to different standards. We’re presupposed to be the moral and aesthetic gatekeepers of every genre we’re discouraged from actually enjoying, not just because girls aren’t meant to like that sort of thing (and if we don’t, we’re humourless, fun-hating harridans – natch), but because, if we do, it’s unseemly and inappropriate and we’re doing it wrong, and why does there have to be romance and boys and ugh, trashy films with magic and explosions are just so much better when they fail the Bechdel test and are made for teenage boys and young women need to stop participating in popular culture!

And this, ultimately, is why I end up gritting my teeth whenever I see yet another mainstream article lamenting this female-heavy trend in YA – and that’s really what Dean is doing here, for all that she’s trying to pretend otherwise. It’s not that YA and its authors should somehow exist beyond criticism (they shouldn’t) or that there’s no problematic trends, romantic or otherwise, being perpetuated by the current crop of YA novels (there are), or even that it’s inherently wrong to analyse the logic underpinning commercial YA (it’s not). It’s because, overwhelmingly, this sort of analysis isn’t what happens. Instead, we get sour grapes and grudge matches: journalists outraged at the success of particular stories confusing their failings with the failings of an the entire genre; pundits decrying the ubiquity of books they’ve never read in genres they don’t understand for audiences they didn’t know existed, and calling it the end of civilisation; moral crusaders up in arms that girls are reading about sex, or writing about it, or doing anything other than waiting chastely for the good Christian wedding night where they’ll lie back and think of England, because even stories dealing with the aftermath of rape are somehow pornographic; and on, and on, and on. Whether we’re conscious of our biases or not, we’re culturally predisposed to be extra critical of everything women, and particularly young women, do (to say nothing of the women themselves) – and now that YA novels have become such a breakaway phenomenon, with plenty of film adaptations still in the works, otherwise sane adults are falling all over themselves to declare the whole business a type of commercial heresy.

While the YA market should be criticised for many things, like its habit of whitewashing book covers, its faith in the works of young female writers isn’t one of them. Let young people write books for each other – the result might not always be literature for the ages, but it’s still produced some damn good stories, and with so many new authors entering the field with decades still ahead of them in which to develop their talents, I for one am excited to see where not just YA, but the future of writing is headed.

Hot on the heels of the Jonathan Ross/Hugo Awards fiasco, Baen publisher Tony Weisskopf has written a post, The Problem of Engagement, which has gone up both at the Baen Books site and as a guest post on the blog of Sarah A. Hoyt, a Baen author. Though ostensibly calling for unity in fandom, Weisskopf’s piece has thus far had the exact opposite effect. Already, the piece has provoked a great deal of commentary, both on Twitter and elsewhere – these posts by John Scalzi and Ana of the Book Smugglers are both good examples – and, if you give it a read, it’s not hard to see why.

It begins as follows:

The latest fooforaws in the science fiction world have served to highlight the vast cultural divide we are seeing in the greater American culture. SF, as always, very much reflects that greater culture.

On its own, this might seem like a fairly innocuous statement to make – until you read further on, to the penultimate paragraph, and find this:

…SF is mirroring the greater American culture. Our country is different because it, like science fiction fandom, was built around an idea—not geographic or linguistic accident, but an idea—we hold these truths to be self evident. And it is becoming more and more obvious that the two sides of American culture no longer share a frame of reference, no points of contact, no agreement on the meaning of the core ideas.

Here’s my problem: intentionally or not, Weisskopf has begun by framing both SFF itself and the current tensions within the  community as being a purely American concern, grown from American politics and American culture. The fact that much of what she’s observing  stems rather from a deliberate rejection of this attitude – from the idea that SFF is a global community – seems completely to have escaped her. Which isn’t to say that internal American politics aren’t evident within fandom: obviously, given the size of the US and the breadth of its political concerns, they are. But in the age of international blogging and social media platforms, where it’s possible to communicate daily with fans and authors from all over the world; where Tor Books is about to publish Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, the first Chinese SF novel ever translated into English; where Japanese anime and manga have so long been staples of global fandom that it’s impossible to try and deny their relevance; where award-winning authors like Nnedi Okorafor, Aliette de Bodard and Helen Oyeyemi are writing (among other things) about cross-cultural politics through an SFFnal lens; where there are whole conventions dedicated to diversity and inclusivity, like WisCon and Nine Worlds; and where many of the field’s best writers are anything but straight, white and male, then acting as though every conversation and argument surrounding these issues is simply the result of Americans misunderstanding each other is, to put it bluntly, utterly wrongheaded.

That’s the real “frame of reference” Weisskopf is missing: the ability to consider American SF as just one part of a wider whole, rather than the be-all, end-all of fannish existence.

Having thus missed one point, Weisskopf promptly goes on to miss another:

When fandom was first starting there was the “Great Exclusion Act” when a group of young, excitable, fanboys attempted to spread their political/fannish feud propaganda at the first Worldcon in New York, and were not only prevented from doing so but not allowed back into the con. All fandom was aflame with war! (The fact that this line is a cliché is also a clue that fandom is not, and never has been, a calm peaceful sea of agreement.)

The reason we have a fandom to disunite now, is because calmer heads prevailed. Bob Tucker in particular, with intelligence and humor, led fandom to the idea that it ought have nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction. (Mind you, his sympathies were with the ones who were excluded, but he was able to overcome his own political inclinations for the best of fandom.)

What I find most curious about this section isn’t the fact that, within the space of two sentences, Weisskopf manages to effectively contradict herself, simultaneously asserting that divisive arguments are both an inherent aspect of, and a potentially fatal menace to, fandom; it’s that she’s speaking in familiar, eye-witness language about events that happened almost thirty years before she was born. Though she carefully doesn’t say so, the “Great Exclusion Act” took place in July 1939, a mere three months before the outbreak of WWII – a time when most people, let alone most intellectuals, were rightly concerned with the links between political action and culture. That being so, it hardly seems reasonable to write off the excluded writers – all of whom were members of the Futurians, a group which included Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl – as little more than “young, excitable, fanboys” trying to spread “feud propaganda”. (Especially when the man doing the excluding, Sam Moskowitz, apparently had a habit of selectively interpreting facts.)

Given her fondness for Americanising the issue, let’s put things in perspective with some American history: Weisskopf is citing a conflict that took place fifty years before the invention of the modern internet, twenty-six years before the overturning of Jim Crow, twenty-four years before women became legally entitled to equal pay, and twenty-three years before  the first American state decriminalised homosexuality as a reason why modern fans should stop sullying the community with politics. Never mind that, thanks specifically to these and other startling political developments over the past seventy-five years, even American fandom is now a much more diverse entity than it was in 1939, with a commensurately greater investment in erasing such barriers to global participation as still exist: why should we bother? It’s not like science fiction is the literature of ideas or anything. Oh, wait.

The fact that fandom as an open culture survived more than seventy years is a testament to the power of that simple, uniting concept.

Yes: the concept that anyone can openly enjoy science fiction and affiliate with others who do likewise, provided they don’t live outside America or belong to any group of individuals whose rights are either currently or historically being curtailed by the US government, thereby limiting their ability to engage without being subject to abuse or discrimination.

That we are once again looking to be rift by a political divide was perhaps inevitable. But as fandom has grown, expanded and diluted itself –

By “diluted”, I assume Weisskopf means “made accessible to more non-white, non-straight, non-male persons than in 1939, on account of all the human rights they’ve been granted since then that have steadily made our community more accessible to others, whether we like it or not.”

– we may have won the überculture wars and lost our heart.  We have not been able to transmit this central precept to new fans. Geeks are chic, but somehow we’ve let the fuggheads win.

And, from my observations, this is an inevitable consequence of the creation of any kind of fandom, from tattoos to swords to us. There is a thing people like. Thing people make initial contact with each other to discuss things and thingishness. At some point a woman (and it’s usually women, no matter what the thing) organizes gatherings, and thing fandom grows bigger and better. At some point, the people who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea, squeeze out the thing people. Sometimes thing fandom just dies, sometimes it fissures and the process is recreated. So the fuggheads always win. The only question is how long can we delay their inevitable triumph?

SF fandom has managed to stave it off for a long time. Sadly, we no longer have a Bob Tucker. We don’t have one fan who is so widely respected and loved that his pointedly humorous yet calming voice can soothe the waters. Again, simply a reflection of the greater culture. When SF was aborning, radio and the pulps created huge mass audiences for entertainment. All of fandom read and were influenced by essentially the same small pool of creative endeavor. Now we have not only 300 hundred channels of cable (and nothing on), but the vast output of the Internet, both pro and amateur. It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.

“People who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea”? What does that even mean? Up until now, Weisskopf has ostensibly been asserting that “fuggheads” are those who think political arguments are relevant to SFF, and as such, I can’t help but view her claim that “the fuggheads always win” as lamenting the fact that SFF has progressed in parallel with society. Which is why I tend to get very twitchy around arguments about genre purity and “real” fans: because at base, they invariably constitute a rejection of change. Once upon a time, fandom consisted of a group of people who’d read and loved a finite, specific subset of works: the “thing people”, as Wesisskopf has it, and their “things”. The problem is, of course, that the number and type of SFFnal works has dramatically increased in the 75 years since the Great Exclusion, such that newcomers are now defining themselves as fans – and, by extension, the concept of fandom itself – in reference to a very different subset of offerings, which – horror of horrors! – might not necessarily include any of those beloved, original works. This is what is meant by genre purity: that fans are not fans unless they discover fandom via a strictly limited canon of historical works, an unchanging core around which all subsequent offerings must necessarily orbit. But fandom – like genre, like society, like politics – is a culture,  and no culture which lives is static. Contrary to Weisskopf’s Yeatsian fear that the centre of fandom hasn’t held, unleashing the rough beast of new SFF to slouch towards some politically correct Bethlehem, what’s really happened is this: the centre has shifted, and will continue shifting for as long as SFF remains a living entity.

For instance, a slur that has been cast at people who dare criticize the politically correct, self-appointed guardians of … everything, apparently, is that they read Heinlein. Well, Heinlein is one of the few points of reference those fans who read have. Of course we all read Heinlein and have an opinion about his work. How can you be a fan and not? The answer, of course, these days is that you can watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book. And there’s enough published material out there that it is entirely possible to have zero points of contact between members of that smaller subset of SF readers.

So the question arises—why bother to engage these people at all? They are not of us. They do not share our values, they do not share our culture.

Apparently, Weisskopf is unaware of the deeply ironic hypocrisy inherent in criticising the “self-appointed guardians of… everything” while taking on exactly that role to excommunicate whole swathes of modern fandom with the damning (and rather medieval) indictment, “they are not of us”.

And as for this false narrative of True Fans vs Pretenders – which categories are here defined as “those fans who read” (all of whom, apparently, have read Heinlen) and those who “watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book” – well. I’ve seen some pretty bizarre statements about SFF in recent years, but arguing that devotees of two of the biggest, most universally beloved and popular geek franchises plus an entire subset of cultural outpourings aren’t “real” fans has got to take the cake.

And I’m not sure there is a good enough argument for engaging them. There is only the evidence of history, which is that science fiction thrives on interaction. 

You’ll have to excuse me for thinking that Weisskopf just answered her own question, though she goes on to debate it at some length. Why should fans continue to engage each other, not just about the stories they love, but about politics and the political dimensions of SFF? Because it makes us better. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we confront historic racism and its ongoing implications. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we endeavour to make our conventions free from sexual harassment. We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we celebrate diversity and the global nature of SFF and fandom.  We are better, both as a genre and a community, when we acknowledge that we cannot be the literature of ideas without letting some of them change us. Yes, it can sometimes be exhausting and strange and disorienting to feel as though your beloved pastime has become nothing more than a series of scandals and angry reactions – believe me, I feel it too. The tectonic plates of fandom are shifting beneath our feet, and that can often lead to fire and explosions. But what’s happening isn’t the End of Days. We’re changing, evolving along with culture and the rest of human endeavour. By demonising the new dimensions of fandom, you’re not keeping the foundations pure and your devotion true – you’re dooming yourselves to extinction, like a species that feeds on a rapidly vanishing food source.

So the core of science fiction, its method, is still a valid way of creating the cultural artifacts we want. But is it necessary to engage those of differing political persuasions to get this method? I feel the answer is probably yes. You don’t get a conversation with only one opinion, you get a speech, lecture or soliloquy. All of which can be interesting, but not useful in the context of creating science fiction. But a conversation requires two way communication. If the person on the other side is not willing to a) listen and b) contribute to the greater whole, there is no point to the exercise.

I quite agree. The problem is that Weisskopf and I apparently disagree on what constitutes “the greater whole”. Those of us who view SFF as a global concern are trying to expand its horizons, seeking stories from a greater range of perspectives, voices and contexts than we’ve ever had before; and of necessity, that means pushing past boundaries – both political and narrative – that were previously seen as the limits of the genre. But it’s these same boundaries that Weisskopf and other traditionalists ultimately want to enforce, drawing a tight, neat circle around that same old subset of stories and interactions to make an immutable centre, only expanding the perimeter after enough time has passed that nothing brought within it could possibly be considered radical, in the sense of being upsetting or unfamiliar. Even if we don’t read him ourselves – and some of us do, and some of us don’t – nobody in the global camp has ever said that reading Heinlen doesn’t make you a real fan, because he’s not the right kind of author; but plenty of people in Weisskopf’s position have said exactly that about the works of N. K. Jemisin, or Faith Erin Hicks, or Hayao Miyazaki, or any number of other creators, because they’re not pure enough. I’d rather fandom be a space for anyone to pass through,  no matter how briefly, enjoying what they like and bringing new things with them, than a zealously-guarded kingdom of roadblocks manned by gatekeepers who demand to see your Tolkien Credentials before letting you inside.

And yet, I can’t help but think that at some point, you have to fight or you will have lost the war. The fight itself is worth it, if only because honorable competition and conflict leads to creativity, without which we, science fiction, as a unique phenomenon, die.

This, then, is the real problem of engagement: that fandom isn’t apolitical, and never was. The idea that debate within the community is fine, provided you don’t go bringing politics into it, is a holdover from the days when politics, by virtue of actively excluding so many different and dissenting people, was therefore considered optional by everyone else – an exterior pursuit wholly disconnected from the business of everyday living. But political debate is only considered optional by those so obliviously content with the privileges afforded them by the status quo as to not understand how any further social change could constitute an improvement, on the basis that it either fails to benefit them directly or appears to diminish their power. As such, the current mania for protecting SFF from politics is synonymous with attempting to protect it from reality. Because it can’t be done, you end up instead with a group of people who’ve managed to convince themselves that their politics aren’t politics, but neutral defaults, angrily decrying those who admit their politics openly as the wilful contaminants of some sacred, apolitical space – as if SFF was ever such a sterile, boring thing! As with the devil, the greatest trick privilege ever pulled was convincing its beneficiaries that it doesn’t exist – but all they really need to do is peek behind the curtain.