Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Warning: significant spoilers for Docile

Trigger warning: talk of rape, sexual assault and sexual slavery

In a near-future Baltimore, Maryland where all debts are generationally inherited, 21-year-old Elisha Wilder sneaks away from his impoverished family to auction off their collective 3 million dollars of debt by becoming a Docile – a debtor who sells their labour to a rich individual or corporation, called a Patron, for a set term. Most Dociles choose to take Dociline, a drug developed by Bishop Laboratories, which renders them pliant, happy drones for the duration of their service, and which, once their time is up, leaves them with no memories of the experience. As such, a great many Dociles are used for sex by their Patrons: their sexual health is a guaranteed right, but their sexual autonomy is not. But Elisha, whose mother continues to act like an on-med Docile years after her own term of service ended, intends to refuse Dociline. The only trouble is, his Patron is Alex Bishop: the heir to Bishop Laboratories, whose family is pressuring him to prove that he can publicly manage a Docile as a prelude to taking over the company – and without Dociline to help keep Elisha in line, Alex resorts to other methods of control.

K.M. Szpara’s Docile is a complex, incredibly pacy book about which I nonetheless have mixed feelings. At first blush, it’s a gripping, emotional, highly accomplished debut that I finished in a single sitting: a queer rebuke of capitalism whose central thesis is an investigation of debt slavery, autonomy and consent. And yet, the more I probe at it, the more that thesis is undermined by holes in the worldbuilding; a mixture of glaring omissions and smaller slips that sit less easily with me the longer I have to think about them. At the same time, Docile is also an unapologetically sexual book, which I think is to its credit: in addition to putting queerness front and centre, it doesn’t flinch from portraying the emotional complexities and power imbalances of Elisha and Alex’s relationship, and makes a point of showing how sex is a part of that.

As someone whose primary exposure to queer romance and erotica comes via fanfic, seeing what I’ve come to think of as fanfic tropes appear in traditionally published SFF works is still a slightly weird (but ultimately satisfying) experience. When it comes to particular tropes, however, I’ve discovered that there are things I’ll happily read about in fanfic which I struggle to enjoy in other mediums, not because of any difference in the quality of the writing or level of darkness involved, but because the knowledge that a thing is fic as opposed to canon allows me to process it differently. Partly, this is the result of tagging, which works to reassure me that the author knows the dynamic or context they’re writing is fucked up and is exploring those themes on purpose; but mostly, it’s that fic, for me, exists at an extra level of remove from reality. A dark fic about a particular pairing isn’t the defining story of their relationship; it’s just one extrapolation among many. If it makes me uncomfortable, I don’t have to invest in it, because a plethora of other, gentler stories about the same characters coexist alongside it. And no matter how good or bad they may be, I don’t have to pass critical judgement on the themes and worldbuilding of such stories, because that’s what the canon is for: the fic is an escape from that, which means that I’m primarily here for the feelings.

But when the same tropes appear in an original, canon story, I can’t turn off the analytical part of my brain that wants to poke and probe at the background details, the rules of the setting, and judge how well they work. I have a greater desire for the narrative to justify its logic and decisions, because there’s no pre-existing enjoyment of a separate, existing story to act as a Because Reasons shortcut for accepting why these particular characters are being treated a certain way, or why their world functions as it does. To take some classic fanfic AU examples, when I’m browsing my way through AO3, I don’t need an in-depth explanation for how magic can openly exist in the real world, or a treatise on why every human person is either a sub, dom or switch, or a set of detailed biological diagrams to explain a particular version of A/B/O in order to enjoy a story, even if the writer feels moved to provide such information. Because it’s fanfic, I’m happy just to accept that The Setting Is Like This, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense, and to focus instead on the characters. But in an original work – and especially in a work of SFF – those other details are vital: they’re the lens through which I’m meeting the characters for the first time, and therefore integral to understanding them properly. If the world or the plot is inconsistent, it can make the characters feel inconsistent – and that, in turn, impacts my ability to invest in them.

With all that being understood: Docile is a story about sexual slavery. For many people, this is, quite reasonably, a hard limit, and one I’ve discussed before, when reviewing C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy. Though structured like a romance, with different chapters showing us the first person POVs of Elisha and Alex respectively, the ending isn’t a HEA; nonetheless, the main sexual, emotional relationship is functionally master/slave, and while that’s not the Patron/Docile terminology used in the book, that’s functionally what it is. That the vast majority of the book is spent interrogating the fuckedupedness of this relationship in particular and the nature of consent in general is certainly important – tags or no tags, Szpara understands exactly what he’s writing about, to the extent that the book itself has a trigger warning on the back cover – but even so, that doesn’t obligate anyone to be comfortable with it.

In order to control Elisha without Dociline, Alex establishes rules for Elisha’s behaviour. For his own sexual and aesthetic benefit, he also decides what clothes Elisha wears, gives him a set exercise regime and personal trainer, has him learn to cook and determines what food he should eat, sees him tutored in piano, history and languages, and – of course – teaches him what he wants in bed. If Elisha disobeys, there are three types of punishment: writing lines, kneeling on rice for a set amount of time, and confinement. Throw this all together, and what develops is an inevitable Pygmalion situation: without understanding the full consequences of his actions, Alex brainwashes Elisha into being his perfect boyfriend, someone who is wholly dependent on him in every way, and doesn’t realise what he’s done until he starts wanting Elisha to interact with him autonomously and finds that he can’t. That Alex doesn’t set out to break Elisha doesn’t exonerate him in the narrative: his initial callousness to Elisha’s situation is what causes him to set the rules in the first place. It’s only when Elisha fully becomes his creation that Alex cares enough to see him as a person and, consequently, to be horrified by how broken that personhood is.

As such, I’d argue that this section of the book is – at least in part – a thinly-veiled rebuke of the toxic BDSM “romance” in E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Like Anastasia, Elisha is a subby virgin whose body and life are fully controlled by a dominating rich man; but unlike James, Szpara is fully aware that this is an extremely imbalanced, unhealthy dynamic that doesn’t magically become acceptable because the parties have feelings for one another. Unlike Christian Grey, when Alex finally realises what he’s done to Elisha, he’s appalled with himself. He pays Elisha’s contract in full and sends him home – but Elisha, still brainwashed, doesn’t want to go and is devastated to think himself rejected by the man who’s become the centre of his world. What follows is a protracted, emotional aftermath: after a near catastrophe, Alex realises that, even though he’s the one who damaged Elisha, he’s done so in such a way that he can’t simply expect him to heal in his absence. Along with members of Empower Maryland, an anti-Dociline activist group, Alex tries to help Elisha recover – but when the Bishop family realises what he’s doing, Alex winds up in his powerful father’s crosshairs, leading to a climactic showdown in court.

Without wanting to spoil the novel in its entirety, Szpara does an excellent job of showing how Elisha and Alex come to reconcile. The ending between them isn’t romantic – which I think is the right decision – but it ends in a place of catharsis, with the potential for change in the future. A major part of why this works is the narrative acknowledgement that trauma, desire and identity are fundamentally complicated. Elisha knows that what Alex did to him was wrong, but he also can’t stop being the person who had those experiences, nor would it be healthy to hate his new self just because of its genesis. Instead, he has to negotiate: to figure out who he is on his own terms while still accepting aspects of his identity – his sexually submissive nature, his love of music – that Alex brought to the surface. Elisha doesn’t have to know with 100% certainty which parts of him are untouched by Alex and which are not; the more important thing is to like himself, to have autonomy, and to have that autonomy respected by those around him. Alex, in turn, has to learn about the blinkered nature of his privileged upbringing: how his staggering naivety has done harm not only to Elisha, but to others in his life, and how throwing money at a problem isn’t the same as understanding why it exists in the first place.

This is the heart of Docile, and the overwhelming strength of the book. The emotional intimacy of the narrative, the excellent pacing and the real engagement with questions of consent, identity and autonomy make it a fascinating read, and one I wish I could recommend without any reservations.

But.

The thing I cannot get past – the thing I kept expecting to find throughout the book, but which never appeared, and which I think is a baffling elision in a story of this nature – is the fact that actual American slavery isn’t mentioned. Not ever. Not even once. A story about slavery in near-future Baltimore – a story which features multiple black characters, many of them anti-Dociline advocates – doesn’t mention black slavery. I understand that debt slavery is not traditionally motivated by the same appalling racism that underscored the trans-Atlantic slave trade (though it can still exist within racist paradigms, as happens with a lot of people-smuggling), but the two concepts are still related, especially when it comes to the functional sale of bodies, and I can’t believe that no character mentions it at all.

Especially given that the alternative to being a Docile is ending up in debtor’s prison, the threat of which motivates Elisha to sell himself in the first place, it’s striking that the fate of such prisoners isn’t ever explained in text, either. Given that modern American prisons are literally run as businesses, with prisoners often working for a pittance to make innumerable goods for the American market – another toxic facet of the captialism Szpara is rebuking, which ensures that paid workers in those fields can’t compete with what is effectively slave labour – the lack of explanation about what they do in the world of Docile niggles. I don’t believe there’s any accurate way to discuss intergenerational poverty, debt and incarceration in modern or near-future America that doesn’t include an analysis of race and the systematic racism with which slavery was replaced, and as such, its absence from the text felt not only glaring, but broke my immersion in the worldbuilding.

In establishing how the world of Docile came to be, there is no mention of existing debt slavery; of how fines and fees are already used as a means to incarcerate poor Americans who are overwhelmingly POC. There is no mention of plantations or sharecropping (although we see that Dociles are used for manual labour), no mention of white supremacy (although the majority of the hyper-rich characters are white), no mention of the history of human trafficiking (although this is how debt-slavery frequently manifests itself in the modern world, with workers shipped overseas and promised jobs, only to find their wages increasingly garnished to “pay” for the cost of their transport, lodging and innumerable other things, thus keeping them from becoming independent). The only historical precedent given in-narrative for the Docile system comes from ancient Roman history.

Elisha only has an eighth grade education; Alex has been raised by bigoted trillionaires who view their wealth as deserved. As Szpara never states how far in the future Docile takes place, it would be wholly consistent with the existing narrative to establish – even if only in passing, via something said by a secondary character – that the history of slavery is no longer properly taught, leaving the reader to infer that neither of the protagonists understands the historical legacy of the system to which they now belong. The idea of this history being suppressed, leading to the cyclic perpetuation of an old wound, would’ve made the book a thousand times more powerful without any need to change the central narrative. But to include multiple black activist characters who never once mention real slavery while talking about their fight against fictional slavery? To include a diverse cast, but not explore race or racism as a factor in class and poverty, or to even so much as hint at explaining why that analysis might be absent in a crapsack captialist future that is otherwise extrapolated from our present reality? Feels bad, Scoob.

The lack of discussion around race feels most salient in the case of a black Docile, Onyx, who we eventually learn is only pretending to be on Docilium in order to spy on trillionaires who won’t guard their mouths around him. When Elisha finally starts to break free of Alex’s brainwashing, it’s Onyx who helps him safely start to explore his sexuality, identity, submission and autonomy, which means that the two talk a lot about boundaries and stress. In order to uphold his cover as an on-med, Onyx has been having public sex with other Dociles and Patrons, and while the story doesn’t go deep into the practicalities of this performance in any case, it feels like both a misstep and a missed opportunity that Onyx never mentions the personal, racial implications of being a black man feigning slavery to an audience of mostly white Patrons. Given how gross and dehumanising the trillionaire class is portrayed to be towards their Dociles, I find it inconceivable that racism never enters the mix – however far in the future the story is meant to be set, it doesn’t seem remotely far enough for racism to be so long a thing of the past as to never be mentioned – and yet, it never does.

The other such omission, which feels less charged than the issue of race while still being significant, is the lack of any reference to any religion, particularly Christianity. In a future America where Dociles are used as sex slaves, it completely breaks my suspension of disbelief that nowhere, not even in passing, is there any reference to Evangelical protests about sin and immorality, or how faiths of any kind reacts to the Docile system, and I cannot help but view this as a failing. Again, I’m not asking for the central narrative to be overhauled: it’s just that, in a setting which is meant to be politically and socially derived from the USA at present, in all its megachurch-having, faith-based political glory, it feels like a hole in the story.

There are other issues with the worldbuilding, too. Why, for instance, is there seemingly a practice of putting children and young adults into the Docile system? At the start of the novel, Elisha sells the family’s debt in part to stop his thirteen-year-old sister from having to do so; but given that Dociles are so often used as sex slaves, the uncomfortable implication is that paedophilia is an established part of the system. Similarly, we learn of two characters who were on Docile from ages 7 to 12, and who’ve been in therapy as adults to deal with the trauma of it. But how can children that young, even Docile, be expected to sell their labour? What could they actually do at that age to work off the debt? And given that Docilium leaves you with no memories of your time spent taking it, how would this impact child users, who’d presumably “awaken” to their former mental age once going off-med instead of developing normally? This feels like it should be a much bigger aspect of the novel – a foundational grievance against the Docile system for the Empower Maryland activists, if no-one else – and yet it’s never mentioned except in passing, as though the reader should be horrified by it, but not curious about how it actually works.

With all of these issues already in place, smaller gripes become magnified. Why does Alex sign Elisha to a lifetime contract when he’s only getting a Docile under duress and clearly doesn’t want one long-term? How is the sexual health of Dociles protected, as we’re told it is under law, when they’re sexually shared with each other and their Patrons instead of being sexually exclusive? Why, when Elisha’s mother’s ongoing Docile condition is so central to the plot, is her case the only one of its kind we encounter, instead of being one of many? Why is thirty years of continuous, 24-hour Docile labour seen as a generous contract for paying off a 3 million dollar debt, when this works out to an annual salary of $100k? Even with living expenses paid for by the Patron, this doesn’t seem like a good exchange. What other jobs exist, or don’t, and how does the Docile system change their availability?

Similarly, the fact that queerness wasn’t overtly discussed in the narrative, only depicted as normative, struck me as being oddly unsatisfying, given the context. Returning to the issue of my differing standards for worldbuilding in original content vs fanfic, I’ve enjoyed endless fics where everyone is happily out and queer in settings where, realistically, the opposite is true, and never raised an eyebrow, because the how and why of those stories is vastly less important to me than the characterisation. At the same time, I don’t believe that depicting homophobia or overtly discussing queerness is necessary to establish realism even in stories set in the present day, let alone the near future. But Docile is explicitly meant to be a dystopian rebuke of capitalism, and one of the weirder aspects of being a queer person living in a capitalist society that’s slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into queer acceptance, is watching things like pride events and rainbow decorations suddenly being monetised by corporations who, not so long ago, went out of their way to avoid being seen as For The Gays.

It left me wondering: how, then, is queerness marketed, perceived and understood in the world of Docile, and how would this intersect with other aspects of identity that the book doesn’t tell us about, but which must logically exist? We’re told explicitly that things still suck for disabled people, for instance: aside from medical debt and widespread poverty, Patrons are responsible for paying for medical care for their Dociles, which makes it much, much harder for those who disclose a chronic illness or disability to find good contracts. So if prejudice still demonstrably exists in the setting, then why don’t we hear about it otherwise, even when it must clearly impact the characters? Why are the awful Bishop family, who value lineage and legacy above all else, more concerned with Alex finding a man to marry or a Docile to manage than with his producing an heir? Where are the hypocritical conservatives protesting that having gay sex with Dociles is against god’s law while simultaneously arguing that the hetero alternative is just fine, because something something Old Testament concubines something? And why, when it’s clear that Dociles are treated like objects by their Patrons, do we never hear about the handful of rights they’re granted being abused or broken? Even if Dociles technically have the right to refuse Dociline, what’s to stop a Patron from forcibly injecting them and then bribing or blackmailing not to report it the next time they check in with their caseworker? The premise left me with dozens of similar questions, and while I wouldn’t expect to see all of them answered, the more social elements were left absent or unexamined in text, the more I wondered why the book was set in America at all.

I can understand Szpara wanting to have a tight narrative focus on capitalism as a metaphoric vehicle for discussing bodily consent; I can also understand his wanting to tread carefully around issues of race, faith and culture. If Docile were a work of fanfiction, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about everything he’d left out or the details that don’t make sense, because I’d already have a pre-existing, canonical context in which to situate the characters. An AU setting would be understood foremost as an excuse to explore a specific relationship in a new way, with no need to be self-supporting otherwise. But when you tell me that a story is set in a near-future America, that implies the use of our present reality as a starting point – and if major aspects of that reality are absent from the worldbuilding without any explanation, while other details stand out as being weird or contradictory, then I’m going to find it hard to buy in to the premise.

The Hunger Games is technically set in America, but in a future so distant that there’s no need to connect it to our present, let alone any deeper history, in order for it to stand on its own. The alt-reality TV show Kings was intended as a clear thematic stand-in for the modern US, but as it was set in its own world, it wasn’t tied to historical specifics. And there are any number of narratives set in fully science fictional settings – space stations, colony planets, ambiguously situated cities with familiar technology but no clear ties to modern Earth – that manage to discuss capitalism and other such social institutions without invoking the specifics of our present reality. Had Szpara chosen any of these options for Docile, the book wouldn’t feel remiss for failing to discuss black slavery, religion or anything else particular to the USA, because they wouldn’t have been a contextual part of the setting, but as things stand, the omissions really bothered me.

It’s frustrating to have been so captivated by the pace and intense emotions of a novel, only to want to smack the setting firmly upside the head. Which is why, to return to my earlier point about tropes and fanfic, I can’t help feeling that Docile is, functionally, written as a fic, and that while this does extraordinary things for the pacing and characterisation, it comes – in my opinion – at the expense of the themes and worldbuilding.

I don’t mean that as an insult to fanfic, which I love wholeheartedly; nor will I criticise any reader who, unlike me, is perfectly content to argue that the details of Docile’s premise are ultimately less important than the characterisation. Certainly, I can’t claim to speak for how a POC might react to the text, except to be certain that no group is a hivemind: as a white queer reader, I was more inclined to accept Docile’s lack of homophobia precisely because, even when realistically present in a narrative, it’s personally upsetting to me. As such, I can imagine that some POC might similarly enjoy the lack of racism and racial analysis in an SF story which still boasted a diverse secondary cast.

But at the same time, and without wanting to lay down any hard rules about who is allowed to write what and under which auspices, I feel more comfortable with Szpara choosing to remove homophobia from a (real-world, albeit futuristic) story on the basis that Szpara is queer himself, and therefore representing his own, very reasonable desire to not have to deal with that bullshit in his own writing. Choosing not to acknowledge racism and slavery, however, feels dicier for the same reason – it’s less in his lane, and while neither he nor I gets to tell any POC readers how to feel about that, it nonetheless impacted my enjoyment of the novel.

All that being so, while the ficreader in me loved the twisty, emotional heart of Docile (AO3 tags: rated E, modern AU: slavery, rape/noncon, dubcon, under-negotiated kink, abuse, mindbreak, suicide attempt, suicidal ideation, dark yet weirdly tender, the real big bad is capitalism and also privilege, Lex Bishop’s A+ parenting, hopeful ending), my SFF reader/reviewer brain wanted more from the setting than the book could provide, especially regarding the elision of historical slavery from an American slavery novel. I’ll be interested to see what Szpara writes next – on a technical level, his writing is superb, and he has a compelling grasp of characterisation – but while I’d still recommend Docile to others, I can’t do so without reservation.

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

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

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

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

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

ny lit contest

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

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

ny lit categories

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

ny lit rules

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

use math

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

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

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

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

Says the NYLM:

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

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

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

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

What happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pardon my French, but that is some goddamn bullshit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

kuzko's poison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I honestly can’t even.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fuckery

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

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

Dear Abbie,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yours queerly,

Foz

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

And then we get to the kicker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But for fuck’s sake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then this happens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We appear to be halfway through 2017 already, which is surely some sort of cosmic accounting error. To compensate, here is some writing news.

I’m thrilled to have won the 2017 Ditmar Award for Best Fan Writer in my third year of nomination. I didn’t write as much last year as I would’ve liked, all things considered, but I was proud of what I did produce, and especially now that I’m back in Australia, I’m honoured to have something like this to show for it.

As of April this year, I’m now a semi-regular contributor to the awesome Geek Girl Riot podcast. My segment is called Foz Rants, which is fairly self-explanatory, and covers whatever I feel like yelling about at the time. The whole podcast is pretty spectacular, so give it a look!

I have a new essay out in The Book Smugglers’ Quarterly Almanac: Volume 4. It’s on slipfic and the definition of genre, and contains some thinky-thoughts I’ve been trying to pin down for a while.

Finally, I’m extremely excited to have three short stories in Issue 3 of The Fantastist Magazine – ‘Letters Sweet as Honey,’ ‘Mnemosyne’ and ‘The Song of Savi’. Though different in terms of style and genre, they’re loosely thematically linked, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they’re received both individually and as a sort of triptych.

And with that, back to the studio!