Transgressive writing as a minority pursuit

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I’ve been poking around again, this time wondering a little about the history of transgressive fiction. As it turns out, transgressive is considered a genre, and many writers of what we think of as classics today were actually considered transgressive in their day. This includes writers like the Marquis de Sade (which you would expect), Émile Zola and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. James Joyce’s Ulysses was actually banned in the US until 1933, and William S. Burroughs was the subject of an obscenity trial.

People are still writing transgressive fiction today, of course. It’s normally considered to be cutting edge works about sex, drugs, incest, pedophilia, etc., but as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, people who think they’re just writing something creative can suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of correctness.

Here’s an interesting article by Polari prize-winning writer Diriye Osman who found he had written a transgressive book called Fairytales for Lost Children about the African gay experience. The first indication of this, of course, was difficulty in finding a publisher. Osman suggests that writing programs normally promote a type of writing that appeals to the mainstream, while avante-garde and transgressive works always come from outsiders and minority writers. Osman also notes that most editors are very risk-averse, which means they don’t much want to deal with avante-garde and transgressive writers–they want more of what’s on the best-seller list. After numerous rejections, Osman finally found a tiny publisher for his collection of stories, which (surprise!) then went on to win an award.

A little background on gatekeepers

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I went in search of background on editors as gatekeepers in the science fiction and fantasy field and came up with an interesting text. This is Inside Science Fiction (2006) by SF writer, editor and SFWA Grand Master James E. Gunn. Gunn started writing science fiction in 1949, so he’s seen quite a bit of water flow under the bridge.

Anyhow, Gunn has a chapter in his book titled “Gatekeepers.” He reviews the history of pulp SF magazines, mentioning Hugo Gernsback, Anthony Boucher, H.L. Gold and John W. Campbell as early gatekeeping editors who shaped the definition and direction of science fiction by what they accepted. According to Gunn, SF magazines flowered until about the mid-1950s when they started to die back a bit, impacted by the pressure of novels. This declining trajectory was jolted in 1964 when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine. Moorcock, Gunn thinks, was the “last gatekeeper” for SFF magazines because he threw the doors open wide. This let in a lot of what would have been unacceptable just a few years before, such as anti-heroes, and eventually, New Wave science fiction.

So who are the gatekeepers now? Gunn thinks competition in the marketplace means that individual magazine editors have very little influence on the overall direction of SFF. One reason for this is the sheer volume of material that’s being published, and another is the huge popularity of novels. In the mid-1950s, the advent of the science fiction novel meant that book publishers took over the major role of shaping SFF. However, Jeff Bezos came along in 2009 and shattered that structure with the launch of Amazon’s publishing business.

The huge impact of free and easy self-publishing on the marketplace means there’s a certain amount of chaos out there. You can see from the published figures that submissions for some magazines run into the thousands every month. This means that slush-pile readers are the main gatekeepers for the major publications. Anything they think is interesting gets passed along to the next level, until it’s ultimately added to the body of published work—or not. Noted writers might circumvent this stumbling block by going direct to the top level, but most writers can’t do that.

Nick Cole’s story shows that novel editors still feel very secure in their long-running role as gatekeepers for what’s acceptable and what’s transgressive in the genre. To the list of current gatekeepers, I think you also have to add the nebulous groups the Puppies are accusing of influence on the major awards. Otherwise, why is there such a huge contrast between the Nebula and Dragon Award finalists?

Hm.

More on gatekeeping and transgressive fiction

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Readers of the Dragon Award finalist list may have noticed Nick Cole, nominated this year for his novel Ctrl Alt Revolt! This is a prequel to his successful 2014 novel Soda Pop Soldier. Cole had a contract for this book with HarperVoyager, but got into a disagreement with his editor and self-published instead. His book was later picked up by Castalia House. You can read his blog post about his experience and his decision to self-publish here.

Cole inadvertently wrote transgressive fiction into the first chapter of his novel, which is about revolting AIs. As he tells the story, he wanted to provide a short backstory to explain how his protagonist SILAS made the decision to revolt against humans. The event he came up with was a “crass” reality show where a woman decided to have an abortion because a baby would keep her from achieving her matrimonial goals. SILAS took this as evidence humans would destroy their creations as a matter of self-interest.

Cole says he didn’t think anything about this. It’s silly and ironic and made no statement pro or con on abortion whatsoever. However, he got a message through his agent that the book had been pulled from the publication schedule. According to Cole, the editor stated the chapter was socially unacceptable and that s/he was “deeply offended.” He was told he would have to change the inciting event to something more “socially acceptable.” Cole viewed this as intolerable suppression of ideas and went to Amazon instead.

For anyone interested in reading the offending chapter, he has posted it here. The book seems to have been well-received by both critics and fans. Stay tuned to see if it gets an award, too.

Worldviews and gatekeepers

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A couple of blogs ago, I reviewed Cecily Kane’s article in Fireside Magazine and asked if the publication rate for black authors was really evidence of racism in SFF publication. Whatever the answer, the immediate result of Kane’s article seems to have been that African American Nebula/Hugo Award finalist N.K. Jemisin was suddenly inundated by solicitations for stories.

Jemisin went on to provide an interview for Kane that’s linked to the Fireside article. Jemisin suggests that submissions from black writers to SFF publication might actually be lower than expected because there is a strong self-publishing market for black authors. This grew up in the 1990s when traditional publishers were slow to accept black interest fiction. Now, black writers have to make a choice about whether to submit to a traditional market or self-publish, and many decide to go the direct route and not wait through the slush pile for a rejection slip.

Jemisin also comments on the market forces that constrain black writers to write for mainstream interests. She notes she was 30 years old before she felt confident about writing black characters into her fiction. Because POC try to suit the market, she says, bias becomes self-perpetrating.

In an associated article, Justina Ireland addresses the question of quality as an excuse from publishers. “I’d love to acquire more authors from [marginalized group],” she quotes, “but the stories I get just aren’t of a very good quality!” She then notes that quality often has to do with taste and bias. Anyone who’s been following the recent Puppy activism can probably relate to that.

Jemisin’s interview and associated comments on Twitter also attracted attention from the Puppy camp. “…the Sad Puppies are the bad ones here, but I note that NK Jemsin’s complaint is the same one: GATE KEEPERS,” says the Phantom Soapbox.

Views on the Hugo fallout

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I’ve had a look around the Web and it almost looks like the Hugo scuffle this year was eclipsed by SF writer Dave Truesdale. He apparently hijacked a panel discussion and got thrown out of the Hugo convention, regardless that he was a finalist for an award. Hm. More on the controversy later, maybe.

Checking in on the Puppy camp, I see Vox Day suspects people still voted this year without reading most of the works. That might be correct, as my reviews have gotten a rush of traffic today—maybe because people want to see what they voted for or against. Day also expresses amazement that people voted No Award for the scholarly and well done Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe and gave the Hugo to a novel as grim and hopeless as The Fifth Season. He sort of has a point. However, the other side is complaining about the deserving works kept off the ballot by the Puppy nominations. They’ve got a point, too. Everyone seems put off, and I was surprised at how many of the winners didn’t bother to show up in case they got an award.

Both sides of the political spectrum declared victory, of course. This is one of those “victimhood” arguments that has no solution. Whatever, I think the Puppies have clearly demonstrated how political the awards are. It’s a black eye for the Hugo that won’t go away.

By the way, many congrats to the review site Rocket Stack Rank! Stats for the awards show it narrowly missed qualifying as a finalist for an award in the Best Fanzine category.

2016 Hugo Awards Done!

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royalty-free-writing-clipart-illustration-1146779I’ve noted the winners of the 2016 Hugo Awards below in bold. A few surprises here. I’ve also noted where the Sad Puppies (SP) and Rabid Puppies (RP) won one of their initial recommendations. Interestingly, WorldCon has published the voting stats here.

So, it looks like the Puppies’ strategy of nominating stronger works has paid off, meaning voters appeared more willing to evaluate their recommendations on quality. No Award only won in two of the categories this year, and looking at the stats, it’s clear that some of Vox Day’s recommendations ran a strong second and/or third place when they didn’t win. Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold and Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe by Marc Aramini came in second. Tingle’s “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” actually came in third, as did Slow Bullets by Alistair Reynolds, “The Story of Moira Greyland” by Moira Greyland and “Obits” by Stephen King.

All the fiction categories went to women, three of which were minorities. Both editor winners were women, as was the professional artist. That leaves Andy Weir, Mike Glyer, Neil Gaiman and Steve Stiles as the men who took home awards. Leaving out the categories with a list of names, that looks like 7 women/4 men.

Many congrats to all the winners!

Best Novel (3695 nominating ballots)
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc)
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow)
Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey)

Best Novella (2416 nominating ballots)
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com) (SP)
The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com)
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum)
Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment)
Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon)

Best Novelette (1975 nominating ballots)
“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb 2015)
“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015) (SP)(RP)
“Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)
“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

Best Short Story (2451 nominating ballots)
“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)
“Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2015) (SP)
“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (voxday.blogspot.com, Jun 2015)
“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)
Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)

Best Related Work (2080 nominating ballots)
No Award
Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 by Marc Aramini (Castalia House)
“The First Draft of My Appendix N Book” by Jeffro Johnson (jeffro.wordpress.com)
“Safe Space as Rape Room” by Daniel Eness (castaliahouse.com)
SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police by Vox Day (Castalia House)
“The Story of Moira Greyland” by Moira Greyland (askthebigot.com)

Best Graphic Story (1838 nominating ballots)
The Divine written by Boaz Lavie, art by Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka (First Second)
Erin Dies Alone written by Grey Carter, art by Cory Rydell (dyingalone.net)
Full Frontal Nerdity by Aaron Williams (ffn.nodwick.com)
Invisible Republic Vol 1 written by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, art by Gabriel Hardman (Image Comics)
The Sandman: Overture written by Neil Gaiman, art by J.H. Williams III (Vertigo) (RP)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (2904 nominating ballots)
Avengers: Age of Ultron written and directed by Joss Whedon (Marvel Studios; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Ex Machina written and directed by Alex Garland (Film4; DNA Films; Universal Pictures)
Mad Max: Fury Road written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nico Lathouris, directed by George Miller (Village Roadshow Pictures; Kennedy Miller Mitchell; RatPac-Dune Entertainment; Warner Bros. Pictures)
The Martian screenplay by Drew Goddard, directed by Ridley Scott (Scott Free Productions; Kinberg Genre; TSG Entertainment; 20th Century Fox) (SP)(RP)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens written by Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt, directed by J.J. Abrams (Lucasfilm Ltd.; Bad Robot Productions; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (2219 nominating ballots)
Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay (BBC Television)
Grimm: “Headache” written by Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt, directed by Jim Kouf (Universal Television; GK Productions; Hazy Mills Productions; Open 4 Business Productions; NBCUniversal Television Distribution)
Jessica Jones: “AKA Smile” written by Scott Reynolds, Melissa Rosenberg, and Jamie King, directed by Michael Rymer (Marvel Television; ABC Studios; Tall Girls Productions;Netflix)
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: “The Cutie Map” Parts 1 and 2 written by Scott Sonneborn, M.A. Larson, and Meghan McCarthy, directed by Jayson Thiessen and Jim Miller (DHX Media/Vancouver; Hasbro Studios)
Supernatural: “Just My Imagination” written by Jenny Klein, directed by Richard Speight Jr. (Kripke Enterprises; Wonderland Sound and Vision; Warner Bros. Television)

Best Editor, Short Form (1891 nominating ballots)
John Joseph Adams
Neil Clarke
Ellen Datlow
Jerry Pournelle
Sheila Williams

Best Editor, Long Form (1764 nominating ballots)
Vox Day
Sheila E. Gilbert
Liz Gorinsky
Jim Minz
Toni Weisskopf

Best Professional Artist (1481 nominating ballots)
Lars Braad Andersen
Larry Elmore
Abigail Larson (SP)(RP)
Michal Karcz
Larry Rostant

Best Semiprozine (1457 nominating ballots)
Beneath Ceaseless Skies edited by Scott H. Andrews
Daily Science Fiction edited by Michele-Lee Barasso and Jonathan Laden
Sci Phi Journal edited by Jason Rennie
Strange Horizons edited by Catherine Krahe, Julia Rios, A. J. Odasso, Vanessa Rose Phin, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and the Strange Horizons staff
Uncanny Magazine edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas, Michi Trota, and Erika Ensign & Steven Schapansky

Best Fanzine (1455 nominating ballots)
Castalia House Blog edited by Jeffro Johnson
File 770 edited by Mike Glyer (SP)(RP)
Lady Business edited by Clare, Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay, and Susan
Superversive SF edited by Jason Rennie
Tangent Online edited by Dave Truesdale

Best Fancast (1267 nominating ballots)
No Award
8-4 Play, Mark MacDonald, John RPRicciardi, Hiroko Minamoto, and Justin Epperson
Cane and Rinse, Cane and Rinse
HelloGreedo, HelloGreedo
The Rageaholic, RazörFist
Tales to Terrify, Stephen Kilpatrick

Best Fan Writer (1568 nominating ballots)
Douglas Ernst
Mike Glyer (SP)
Morgan Holmes
Jeffro Johnson
Shamus Young

Best Fan Artist (1073 nominating ballots)
Matthew Callahan
Christian Quinot
disse86
Kukuruyo
Steve Stiles

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (1922 nominating ballots)
Pierce Brown *
Sebastien de Castell *
Brian Niemeier
Andy Weir * (SP)(RP)
Alyssa Wong *

Sales!

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Orion,_battle_spaceshipWell, I guess I’m now a successful hard (well, sort of) SF story writer. I’ve had a story about space colonization accepted tonight by Perihelion. More info later when it shows up on the publication schedule.

Watch for it! It’s sort of different. 🙂

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