Wrap Up of the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award Reviews

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For anyone who doesn’t know, Amazon bought Goodreads in 2013, in a move to integrate the review and discussion site for direct promotion of its literary offerings. Goodreads analyzes the data from what they say includes hundreds of millions of books rated, reviewed, and added to their Want to Read Shelves in a given year to determine which books make the cut for the Opening Round. This is followed by Semifinal Round and a Final Round where site users are invited to vote for the winners. In 2019 there were 300 initial nominees with an average rating of 4 stars. Because the site is so powerful, it’s clearly important for authors to pay attention to how their books are received and reviewed there. That makes this pretty much a popularity award, though I expect it will be affected by factors like levels of promotion and influencers within the various Goodreads groups.

So, this went better than I expected. I don’t always like bestseller novels because I do like solid world building, strong characters and literary elements like theme and meaning. Although Crouch’s book was a little weak, I did like the novels the women authors wrote. One of the big advantages in reading for this award was that there seemed to be a minimum of political messages in the books. There were messages and themes, of course, but in general they were more social commentary than political screeds. These included the dangers of technology (Crouch) and the effects of power, abuse and bullying (Black). Bardugo’s book is a little harder to summarize, but also seems to be about abusing others for the purposes of achieving power.

These books seem to have won the awards pretty much on their entertainment value and for how they speak to the reader, rather than for their “diversity” or other characteristics. All three winners involve mainly white characters, except for Bardugo’s black Centurion, and all the authors are also white. Bardugo appears to be Jewish, and Crouch writes about gay characters fairly often, but hasn’t come out as gay that I can find with a quick search. Of the three, only Black seems to have been recognized by the SFF community; she won the Andre Norton Award in 2005 for Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faery.

Since this went well, I’ll do it again next year. Stay tuned for the 2019 Nebula reviews.

Review of The Wicked King by Holly Black

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The Wicked King is the second novel in the Folk of the Air series, and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult SFF Novel in 2019 with 48,181 votes. This is preceded by The Cruel Prince and followed by The Queen of Nothing to complete a three-novel set. The Wicked King was published by Little Brown in January of 2019, and runs 336 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, the High King stepped down; backers of Prince Balekin slaughtered the royal family, and Jude discovered her foster brother Oak was actually an heir to the throne. In a scheme to protect him, she lured Prince Carden into a bargain that crowned him High King and left him in her power for a year and a day. In her new position as Seneschal, she sent Oak to live in the human world with Vivi and now works as the power behind the throne, pulling the strings that run the kingdom of Elfhame. Locke has abandoned Jude and is now engaged to marry her twin sister Taryn. Madoc is part of the faction that is backing Balekin, who is imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting. The Kingdom of the Undersea offers the Queen’s daughter Nicasea as a bride for Carden, backed by the threat of war with the Land if he refuses. The night before Taryn’s wedding, Jude is attacked, and later lured to the Tower, where she is kidnapped and held hostage by the Undersea. King Carden has to make concessions to get her back. He is poisoned by Balekin in a bid for the throne, but Jude saves him and then kills Balekin. Carden offers Jude vows of marriage if she will rescind the bargain giving her control of him, and he then banishes her to the human world in punishment for the murder of Balekin. It seems she has lost control of the king, but there are still threats to her family. What can she do?

On the positive side, this story remains a gripping intrigue, and themes are now developing related to power and submission. While Taryn has submitted to her tormentors and found a way to fit in, Jude has fought her way to a position of power. Although her scheme to gain control of the kingdom succeeded brilliantly, she struggles with inexperience and makes mistakes in dealing with the challenges. The bullying has stopped, but it has been replaced by plots and attacks on a larger scale. Jude is faced with holding onto what she’s won, and she seems unable to move beyond the station of her birth as a lowly mortal. She doesn’t know how to form alliances, or how to wield power except through Carden. Court officials disrespect her and her office, and her family treats her with their usual familiarity, unable to see her as having grown into anything different. She’s still mired in a mortal worldview, unable to see the big picture, and unable to even form a new self-image.

On the not so positive side, this installment of the story is a little hectic. Jude rushes to put out one fire after another, oblivious to the fact that Carden is now the High King and showing signs of competence in using the powers that go with the position. It also looks like Elfhame has some serious issues with security, as agents of various factions seem to have easy access to the king and his court. Jude is especially blind to issues of her own safety. After barely surviving a solo fight in the forest, for example, she falls right into the Undersea’s kidnapping plot. I’m also concerned about the number of people getting killed in this story. The Fay are immortal and have a low birth-rate. This suggests they should heavily guard their lives and have strong rules for investigating and penalizing murder, but it’s just not happening.

On the whole, this remains a good read, and I finished it up fast, moving on to the series finale.

Three and a half stars.

Not Latina enough: Is the requirement for #OwnVoices changing?

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Referring to my last blog: That is such a troubling statement about Latina heritage on File 770 that I think it needs another look. For anyone interested, here’s the full quote: “Macmillan f’ing up by publishing American Dirt, a novel rife with negative Mexican crime and drug stereotypes (which was written by a white American woman who says she has “Latina” heritage because she has a Puerto Rican grandmother), but not publishing books by actual Latinos.”

You’d think Cummins would be the new face of multiculturism: she’s of Irish and Latin American decent, was born in Spain and lives and works in the US. However, this particular File 770 poster says the publisher f’ed up because they published her, but not actual Latinos, indicating that Cummins has, instead, lost her claim on Latin heritage. One might consider this contradiction a mental glitch, but seeing that the perception is widely shared, I have to assume it really is an expression of the current climate surrounding #OwnVoices writing—the “current climate” does seem to be something the File 770 regulars are on top of. Apparently Cummins, at 1/4 Puerto Rican, isn’t considered Latina enough to have written this book, or even to qualify for minority status in Macmillan’s stable of writers.

So, there are a few conclusions that I can draw from this situation. First, Cummins, secure in her belief she is Latina, and her publisher Macmillan, apparently never thought about being challenged on this book. Next, you’re not a Latina, African American, Native American, disabled, LGBTQ, or anything-else writer, unless you’re out; plus, coming out after you’ve been Twitter mobbed won’t help your case with the mob. And last, the requirements for #OwnVoices writing may have actually tightened so that 1) descendants of first generation ethnic minorities may no longer count, especially if they don’t retain ethnic names 2) an ethnic minority can only write within the narrow limits of their own background and/or 3) an ethnic minority can’t be successful enough to get a seven-figure advance.

These possibilities have repercussions, of course. Should minority writers now consider whether they’re “brown enough” to write something ethnic? Specifically, can only Mexican Latinas now write about Mexico? Cummins isn’t the only minority to fall into this trap recently. About the same time as this controversy, Isabel Fall withdrew her publication at Clarkesworld because of similar criticism. Certainly Fall never questioned her own credentials to write the story, but should her trans status have been publicized in advance to head off criticism? Does the response to both Fall’s story and Cummins’ novel suggest that authors need to publish any minority status they might qualify for on their books/websites/blogs?

This has been a growing trend, of course, but is it now required? Or is that obligation actually an invasion of privacy? Should writers be required to put their ethnic heritage, their gender identity, their age or their medical status out there for a discussion about whether they’re qualified to write their particular story? Should publishers request proof of minority status before going to press so they can post it and head off criticism? And last, is this minority status automatically cancelled when a writer becomes financially successful?

Since Cummins is judged not-Latina-enough to write about a Mexican Latina character, maybe we should now have another look at who’s publishing as an #OwnVoices minority. For example, should we question Native American writer Stephen Graham Jones, who grew up in Texas and has a white name? Or Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims African and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo heritage but writes about Navajo characters? Should we maybe question the light-skinned Nisi Shawl about her qualifications to represent the black experience?

And last, that question about financial success is still hanging there. Cummins has obviously hit the mainstream taste with this novel. It is sitting pretty securely atop the New York Times Bestseller List. So, why doesn’t the Latinx writing community support her?

Latina or white? Jeanine Cummins and American Dirt

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This is another case of author bullying. I’m running a little late on it, but after a recent comment on File 770 that someone with a Puerto Rican grandmother isn’t a real Latina, I’m going to check in. I would have questioned the comment on File 770, but I’ve been censored by Mike Glyer again. Presumably this means he supports the statement and doesn’t want it challenged.

The controversy is about the novel American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins. This is what Oprah Winfrey called a “heart-wrenching” novel about a Mexican family’s efforts to escape from a drug cartel and cross the US border. The novel was recommended by Oprah for her book club and then promptly met by trashing on social media as “brownface” and cultural appropriation by a “white” woman. Cummins revelation that her grandmother was Latina did nothing to stop the furor. This generates some interesting questions. First, what is the definition of Latina? Second, why is someone ¼ Puerto Rican identifying as white? And last, is the issue of #OwnVoices and/or cultural appropriation valid in this case?

First, the definition of Latina: Jim Crow laws would define anyone with a drop of Latin blood as Latina, but these laws are now (supposedly) defunct. However, Native Americans currently use a definition called blood quantum to assess eligibility for tribal membership. According to this principle, someone with ¼ ancestry is considered fairly close, and therefore would be eligible for membership in all but the pickiest tribes. So, a similar analysis suggests that having a Puerto Rican grandmother should definitely qualify Cummins as Latina.

Okay next, why hasn’t she been embracing her heritage and marketing herself as a Latina writer? Research suggests that certain ethnic groups embrace separatism and victim politics, while others opt to work within the system as it is. The US has a long history of immigrants that assimilate into the “white” race. This is, of course, easier for more-or-less light-skinned European types. Although Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants faced initial racism, they fairly quickly assimilated into the white structure of the US. Trying to force other groups to assimilate (i.e. Native Americans) gave the process a bad name in the 19th century, but this remains a highly successful method of “becoming white.” US residents have a very flexible attitude toward culture and skin tone, and as it turns out, Latin immigrants expect to become white within two to three generations. According to Pew, about half of US Hispanic/LatinX residents mark the “white” box, stepping up to assume white privilege. Plus, the number changing their response from LatinX to white has been increasing lately, presumably as the benefits of minority status drop off and family affluence increases. So, does her identification as white erase Cummins’ Latina ancestry? How do you erase something like that, anyway?

And last, is this a case of “brownface” and/or cultural appropriation? One of the problems with knee-jerk, mob-action bullying campaigns is that they don’t investigate the facts before exploding on social media. Presumably Cummins feels a real connection to the Latin immigrant story, or she wouldn’t have felt compelled to write a heart-wrenching novel about the issue. Everyone might have considered shutting up and apologizing when she announced her Latina heritage, but instead they opted to double down and disparage her credentials as a real Latina. Cultural appropriation? Well okay, maybe, because her heritage isn’t Mexican, but you could easily make a case that being Latina is qualification enough; discuss the crime and drug trafficking problem in Puerto Rico, and count the number of Puerto Ricans that migrated to the mainland US after the last weather and corruption disaster. How closely are we going to split hairs on this issue?

Are activists bullying editors and small publishers now?

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For anyone who’s really tired of hearing about the RWA dealings, I promise this is the last blog about it. In the last post, I mentioned there are a number of issues that stand out in the recent controversy. I’ve discussed one, but here’s another.

There has been a movement on Twitter for some time now to bully writers based on allegations of racism. This happens especially in the Young Adult genre, an apparent attempt to make examples of vulnerable minority writers, in particular, to publicize issues of racism and cultural appropriation. One particularly egregious example includes Jenny Trout attacking black writer Fionna Man for a fantasy novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. More recent incidents include attacks on Laurie Forest for The Black Witch, a book that addresses racism; on Amélie Wen Zhao for Blood Heir, a book about an enslaved population, and on Kosoko Jackson, a gay black author for A Place for Wolves, about a gay black protagonist in the Kosovo war. However, the incidents that sparked the RWA meltdown are a little different; in this case, Courtney Milan and her Twitter army attacked two editors and a publisher.

As in the author bullying attacks, the Twitter activists picked an editor and a publisher they thought were vulnerable. Sue Grimshaw is a freelance editor and in 2019 was working at Jack’s House and at Glenfinnan Publishing as an acquisitions editor. Sharp-eyed activists on Twitter noted that Grimshaw had “liked” several tweets that expressed conservative views. Grimshaw had also worked as a book buyer for Borders when the company policy was to shelve African American romances separately, and some romance fans reported encounters at conferences where she seemed uncomfortable with questions about diversity. Based on this, Milan and other activists began to suspect that Grimshaw might hold conservative views. Although this was only a suspicion, they still went after Grimshaw as an anti-diversity editor. Jack’s House fired her based on the Twitter campaign, and the Twitter activists then put pressure on Suzan Tisdale at Glenfinnan to do the same. Tisdale refused, and Grimshaw’s co-editor Kathryn Davis also stepped up to defend her. Milan then went after Tisdale and Davis. The two of them approached the RWA separately with complaints, which management encouraged them to make official.

So, an important point that emerges from this is that Milan and her team of activists attempted to destroy an editor’s ability to find work in the profession based on a mere suspicion that she might hold conservative views. They moved from a few “likes” on Trump quotes to a campaign that labeled Grimshaw a racist gatekeeper who was reducing diversity. When Davis and Tisdale tried to defend her, they became racists, too, which damaged their reputations as an editor and publisher, respectively.

I may be wrong, but I’m thinking this attack on editors/publishers is a new direction for diversity activists. Of course, Vox Day attacked Irene Gallo and Tor after Gallo called him a neo-Nazi racist, sexist and homophobe on Twitter, but in that case, Gallo attacked him first. Making an example of an editor and publisher on suspicion, without any real evidence of anti-diversity, looks to me like something completely and dangerously different. And Milan was an official in management of the RWA at the time? It’s no wonder Tisdale filed a complaint. Grimshaw, apparently, did not. But she did delete her Twitter account.

So, what should we think about this? Should all small publishers and free-lance editors now be concerned that the Twitter activists might go after them? Should they all try to fatten up their reputations as diversity friendly? And what recourse might wronged editors/publishers have when they lose business over alleged transgressions? A civil suit? Should professional organizations get ahead of this with a fund to help with libel litigation?

And last, let’s hear it for Sue Grimshaw’s ghosting ability.

Erasing the Past to Change the Future?

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There are a number of issues that stand out in the recent RWA controversy. It would take a while to work through them all, but one thing that caught my attention is the apparent culture clash between one set of authors who thinks their work should be historically accurate, and an opposing author who charges that this perpetrates a dangerous, racist stereotype. More specifically, this is a look at Courtney Milan’s comment, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” This raises the questions: 1) whether Chinese women in the 19th century (as featured in Davis’ novel) were “submissive,” and 2) whether it’s racist to say so in contemporary fiction (as claimed by Milan).

First some background: Actually, there’s a long history of various cultures attempting to control women and their child-bearing capability, so enforced submission isn’t a problem that’s particular to Asian cultures. In general, Asian cultures are more collectivist than individualist. That means all members of society are required to show a responsibility and duty to the family, the community and the nation that should be stronger than his or her individual interests, i.e. everyone is expected to sacrifice for the greater good. I gather this expectation falls heavily on daughters, as much of the recent work I’ve read from Asian women seems to be about rebellion.

Besides this, the submission of women in Chinese culture in the 19th century was enforced by other customs, including foot binding. This procedure was promoted as enhancing beauty, but actually it crippled girls, reduced their mobility and prevented them from running away. This made it easy to control them in marriage, and also made them good workers in cottage industry. The end result of these social customs was outward compliance, though women generally developed methods of intrigue and manipulation to advance their individual interests.

So, is this mandated submission now a dangerous racial stereotype? Apparently, the answer is yes. Research verifies that the “submissive Asian woman” is a stereotype that persists, and that some men seek out Asian women with the idea they will be sexually submissive. When this turns out not to meet their fantasy, of course, rates of domestic violence escalate.

So, all the authors in the argument are correct in what they say. Now the question arises as to what writers should do in a situation like this. A story that is historically accurate has the advantage of exposing the practices that controlled women in the past, but it also has the danger of suggesting to some readers that these practices were appropriate and that Asian women are still somehow trained to be submissive. A story that erases the social conditions (like foot binding) leaves the reader with a false idea of how societies work and what dangers have historically limited personal freedoms. Issues like this aren’t singular to romances with Chinese characters, either. European women in the 19th century were controlled in various ways, too, not to mention African women. So what choice should the community of writers make? Should we agree that it is now sexist/racist to feature any subservient or submissive female characters in our work?

Checking through a few romances, it looks like the solution to this problem over the last few years is the headstrong heroine in a historical setting who somehow manages to have her way and her lover, too, a man who appreciates her willful character. Speculative fiction doesn’t even have to provide the romance. See Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan, for example, where an Asian girl masquerades as a boy to save her father from having to serve in the war, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series that suggests women really did have a place in the early US space program. Both these are fantasy, but does it really have a purpose? Disney’s The Last Jedi came right out and said that Rey would never accomplish anything until she cut herself loose from history. Presumably isolation from the past is expected to give young women better self-esteem and more readiness to grasp opportunities. Will it work? Can we really change the future with fiction that rewrites the past? Or is this strategy only creating a dangerous ignorance?

Getting back to the issue with the RWA, men don’t generally read romance novels, so it seems unlikely that Milan was concerned that Davis’ book would influence their stereotype of Asian women. That strongly suggests she was: 1) attacking Davis with words she knew would cause damage, 2) using Davis’ book as a pretext for an activist rant on Twitter without regard for consequences, or 3) both. Now that she has generated a backlash, is she really a victim?

So what’s going on with the Romance Writers of America?

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In case anyone has missed the complete disaster Tingle is writing about, it came to a head in late December, 2019. Here’s a quick summary: After some back and forth about Sue Grimshaw, an acquisitions editor at Suzan Tisdale’s Glenfinnan Publishing with alleged conservative views, Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American romance writer, past board member of RWA, ethics committee chair and diversity activist, made racism charges on Twitter about Grimshaw, Tisdale, Glenfinnan Publishing, and Tisdale’s employee Kathryn Lynne Davis. In particular, Milan called Davis’ book Somewhere Lies the Moon (originally published in 1999) a “f–king racist mess.”

Tisdale and Davis approached RWA management and were encouraged to file ethics complaints against Milan. Apparently a new ethics committee was convened to consider the charges, and the organization then suspended Milan and banned her from holding future leadership positions. The problem was that many took this as shady dealings to get rid of a minority author who functioned as a diversity gadfly. There were mass resignations from the board and the previous ethics committee. The past president resigned, and the new president was forced out.

The RWA documents on the case were posted to Twitter, which meant the whole thing played out in the most public way. Quickly backing up, the RWA revoked the suspension, reinstated Milan, cancelled the RITA awards, and announced they were hiring a law firm to “to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.”

The notable thing about this is how quickly it went out of control. Milan posted, “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women.” Davis insisted the comments were “cyberbullying” and complained that they cost her a publishing contract. Grimshaw lost an editing job because of the Twitter campaign. Tisdale insisted that Davis’ book was historically accurate, and only needed minor editing to update it and meet the current standard for politically correct. Tisdale and Davis both called Milan’s comments “unprofessional conduct,” but later expressed surprise at the RWA’s actions, saying all they really wanted was an apology. By January 10, Milan was calling the affair a white supremacist backlash.

I’ve just published a couple of blogs addressing activist behavior that’s apparently calculated to create a backlash and provide a larger platform. Milan might have had this in mind, or this might be a case of mean girl bullying, or it might be a case of young writers going after the old guard. Whatever, once made, I think the claims about racism deserve real consideration. So what are the important points here? First, was Milan justified in attacking Grimshaw as a gatekeeper with alleged conservative views and Tisdale for employing her? Next, was Milan justified in complaining about an old historical novel that portrays 19th century Chinese women as submissive? Next, is this a historical behavior that really needs to be erased to create a more equitable society now? And because Milan claims this is so, is she justified in making profane charges of racism in a public forum without regard for the effects on other professionals’ careers?

On the other hand, was the ethics complaint justified? Were Tisdale and Davis right that Milan’s behavior was unprofessional? Did she target Grimshaw, Tisdale and Glenfinnan Publishing unjustly for issues they had no control over? And last, was the RWA’s over-the-top response justified in any way?

The end result is that Tisdale and Davis are backpedaling in interviews, trying to blame the RWA for encouraging them to file complaints about a minority writer who called them racists, while Milan is reinstated. Meanwhile, the RWA seems to be in ruins, oozing black, cancerous slime, if you can believe Chuck Tingle.

This is a fairly major breakdown, similar to what has recently affected the traditional form of the SFWA, except more so. According to Jemisin, “The only way to enact change in such a system is to destabilize it — unfreeze it.” Presumably, Milan has now destabilized the RWA organization. Can it be rebuilt along more diverse lines?

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