Are activists bullying editors and small publishers now?

13 Comments

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.

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

7 Comments

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?

Writer Walter Mosley Quits Star Trek: Discovery

67 Comments

So, this is still a very interesting cultural collision that I think is worth discussion. Again, here’s my comment that was censored by Mike Glyer at File 770: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Why did Glyer think this would generate an uncomfortable discussion? One comment on the story at File 770 suggested Mosley’s reaction was about privilege and entitlement. Is this the problem we can’t talk about?

There have been previous issues with the use of abusive language at this particular studio, which may have set up, at least, encouragement by Human Resources to report any language that might lead to discomfort among the writers, if not a mandatory reporting rule. Next, Mosley has a very light complexion, so it’s possible some onlookers may not have realized he considers himself African American (and therefore, by US custom, entitled to use the N-word without sanction). Accordingly, here’s what he says about it: “If I have an opinion, a history, a word that explains better than anything how I feel, then I also have the right to express that feeling or that word without the threat of losing my job.”

If neither of these issues above supports why someone reported him to HR, then is it possible the issue is something similar to the NRA suing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for calling them terrorists, or Ahrvid Engholm filing a complaint about Jeanette Ng’s Hugo-acceptance speech where she seemed to associate white males with the word fascist? In other words, backlash. Was the reporting co-worker annoyed that Mosley was exercising some sort of special privilege and entitlement in using the N word?

Some prominent discussions have recently emerged about the success of minority groups in American culture, in particular, and how this generates backlash. For example, over-achieving Asian students recently sued Harvard University for discrimination in Affirmative Action admissions. Jews are perennially targeted for their economic success. And, likewise, black Americans are becoming concerned that backlash from other groups will curtail some of the gains they’ve made. Some sources frankly called the Mosley case an example of cultural backlash against a minority writer. Mosley, himself, called it an action of the political culture, writing: “I do not believe that it should be the object of our political culture to silence those things said that make some people uncomfortable.”

So, how do we sort this kind of conflict out? Is Mosley responding from a position of privilege and entitlement, or does he have a real case that the N word is necessary to express his life experience? Comments?

More on Suppression of Speech

18 Comments

Suppression of speech is always a danger signal that any republic is headed in the direction of totalitarianism. Control of a national conversation is one of the requirements for total power—because speech actually is dangerous. The reasons are 1) that saying something can make it real, and 2) asking questions reduces certainty and makes people think about the issues.

The reason this topic has come up again in my blog is that more examples have accumulated recently about US groups trying to 1) control public perceptions through particular speech, and 2) to control what’s said and who can say it through suppression of speech. First, here’s an example of a government entity trying to frame an activist group (with a membership of 5.5 million) as a terrorist organization. On September 3, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring the National Rifle Association a “domestic terrorist organization.” The officials then went on to urge other cities, states and the federal government to follow suit. So, not only has the San Francisco government body said something fairly radical about an interest group that peacefully advocates, but they’re also encouraging other government entities to say it, too (trying to make it more real). The NRA, always responsive, filed an immediate lawsuit for defamation and infringement on their constitutional rights.

Next, here’s an interesting article on the state of free speech at colleges. This is an opinion piece at Bloomberg, written by Steven B. Gerrard, who teaches philosophy at Williams College in Massachusetts. Concerned by contemporary issues in suppression of speech, Gerrard offered a course in the fall of 2018 called “Free Speech and Its Enemies.” Although he was pleased with the results among the students enrolled, he was later attacked during a faculty meeting on freedom of expression by a student group that named him an “Enemy of the People.” This group presented a letter that said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” Notice that this student group is attacking both right-wing and liberal parties with their condemnation—this suggests they see themselves as neither. Does this mean they’re anarchists? The student group went on to present demands including reparations and segregated housing.

My last example is more related to the SFF community. Walter Mosley is an African American writer most noted for mysteries, but he also writes occasional science fiction. After finishing a writing stint on the FX show Snowfall, he was hired to write for CBS’s show Star Trek: Discovery. After using the N-word in the writer’s room, Mosley received a call from Human Resources telling him he was free to write this word into a script, but that he could not say it because it had made one of the other writers “uncomfortable.” Rather than accept this attempt to “silence” him, Mosley quit. Apparently he forgot to mention this to the studio, which learned about it by way of Mosley’s op-ed piece in the New York Times detailing his experience.

This was reported at the SF newszine File 770, where editor Mike Glyer immediately applied his own suppression of speech. Intrigued by the issues in this example, I submitted this comment: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Alert readers may notice that the comment was never posted at File 770. It was edited out by Glyer, who said it “amounted to trolling.”

Irony, anyone?

So, I’ll end with a quote from Mosley, “The worst thing you can do to citizens of a democratic nation is to silence them.”

Is the term “racist” losing its meaning?

4 Comments

One thing that’s emerged from the US political campaigning in the last week or so is the willingness of EVERYONE, to scream that the other side is racist. This is a problem that’s been growing for a while. In 2017 John Worther wrote a piece for CNN where he notes that liberals overuse both the terms “racist” and “white supremacist,” mostly as a way to shut down discussion or as a weapon to fight other social philosophies. So far, this has been fairly successful. Universities, companies, government, publishers–all have stopped what they were doing when called racist, evaluated, apologized and changed their policies in an effort to better accommodate minorities. We’ve reached the point; however, that people on all sides seem by default to call the other’s attitudes and comments racist. This suggests that the term has become just meaningless name calling.

Worse, in many cases it seems clear that people are crying “racist” when they don’t get their way, or are not allowed the additional privilege they expect based on their personal achievements and/or ethnic group. This is something that whites have been doing for a long time, but now it seems minorities are doing it, too. In 2018, for example, US African American skater Shani Davis called the results of a coin toss racist when he didn’t win the opportunity to represent the US in the Olympic opening ceremonies. About the same time, Fox News president John Moody was vilified for commenting that athlete choices for the Olympics should be based on ability rather than race, pointing out that that the Summer Olympics, for example, normally has a much higher number of black athletes than the Winter Olympics.

One of the problems with claiming “cultural appropriation” is that it defines particular elements of culture as belonging to some racial or ethnic group. This also suggests that ethnic culture should not be exchanged or modified in any way in encounters with other cultures. Doesn’t this damage everyone?

Since I mentioned attacks on Zoe Saldena for not being black enough for a movie role in the last post, I thought maybe I should go on and look at some related issues. About the same time, Scarlet Johansson withdrew from a starring role as a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug. The attacks on Saldena didn’t really start until the movie was ready for release, so were something of an embarrassment but not a deal killer. However, the Rub & Tug project seems to have stalled after Johansson withdrew. This is basic economics. A big name star attracts investors, who want to make money on their investment. If the film tanks with an unknown in the starring role, they won’t get beans. Apparently none of Hollywood’s transgender actors have been able to inspire confidence, so the movie is likely dead. Isn’t this retrograde progress for the transgender community, if not downright bad press?

Johansson said a lot of nice, politically correct things at the time, but she also mentioned that she thought actors should be able to play any role they wanted, which caused a definite kerfuffle. This same discussion about “cultural appropriation” is going on in the publishing world. What happens if we limit actors/writers/publishers to playing only to their own ethnic group?

Review of Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Leave a comment

This novel is science fiction and was released by Vintage on January 9, 2018. It runs 689 pages. For anyone wondering, gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. It also has implications about shadow secret societies. This review contains spoilers.

London in the near future is a surveillance state where a Witness System monitors and records everything. The government operates as a type of perfect democracy where all citizens are polled to vote on issues at regular intervals, and a vote is upcoming on whether implants should be inserted into individuals who need special monitoring and possible adjustment. In this environment, the elderly Diana Hunter, an eccentric Luddite writer and suspected dissident, is brought in for questioning through the invasive method of reviewing all her thoughts and memories. She dies after an unsuccessful interrogation, and Mielikki Neith, an Inspector of the Witness System, is tapped to investigate. Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s neural activity during the interrogation and finds a blockade of fictions, apparently presented to defeat the system. Three different narratives emerge: Athenian financier Constantine Kyriakos who is being stalked by a shark; ancient Carthagenian scholar and alchemist Athenais who is attempting to resurrect her son; and brilliant Ethiopian artist Berihun Bekele whose daughter Anna and partner Colson are designing a digital game called Witness. In her own reality, Neith meets a mysterious presence who introduces him/herself as Regno Lönnrot, who seems to be invisible to the Witness system. As Neith works through the neural recordings, she begins to put together clues and symbols that indicate a shadow group controlling the Witness System. What can she do about it?

So, this is interesting and mildly entertaining. It’s another of those brilliant works that presents the questionable benefits of surveillance and government control in the interests of national security, all in general terms related to the story, of course. It’s also a SF mystery story, plus a narration where one reality blends into another and you end up not being sure of what the “true” reality is. As we work through it, we start to wonder whether Neith is a reliable character or not. Actually, Bekele’s narration sounds pretty attractive, too. And then, there’s Lönnrot. And a demon? Hm.

On the negative side, there is a serious readability problem here. First, this is waaay too long. On the initial attempt, I gave up midway and later started over. It took me DAYS of dedicated work to slog through it. I understand this is part of the author’s literary device—it mirrors how Hunter dragged out the fictional narratives in her efforts to block the Witness’ invasion of her brain, but still, it’s just not gripping enough to justify nearly 700 pages. Second, these narratives don’t add enough to the story to support their length and detail–we could have gotten the idea with a lot fewer words. Each one of the stories could have been a novel on its own, and together they crowd out the minimal plot where Neith carries out her investigation and reaches a decision. The realities all come together in a muddle of resolution at the end, and the author just leaves us hanging there. This is followed by a very nice discussion about consciousness and reality in the last chapter, but that didn’t make the effort worthwhile for me.

Four stars for the brilliance and the message, but read at your own risk.

Patterns in the Nebula finalist list

25 Comments

I had mentioned in the comments section of my announcement of the Nebula finalists that I thought recent shifts in the makeup of the SFWA membership had led to changes in the ballot. To clarify, this is the sudden appearance of indie press military/hard SF on the finalists list when it had been recently trending (as in most awards) to primarily female and fantasy nominees. As it turns out, some other people noticed this pattern shift, too. In the last few days, there has been a huge and embarrassing battle raging on Twitter about a recommended reading list posted before the vote at 20booksto50K a self-publishing writers co-op. Although the post stated that this was NOT intended as a slate, it was still taken that way by some readers who claimed it had unfairly influenced the results.

Annie Bellet and Marko Kloos (apparently still suffering from PTSD acquired from their experience with the 2015 Hugos) challenged the list on Twitter and demanded that the finalists whose stories had appeared on it withdraw. Author of the post Jonathan Brazee immediately issued an apology and offered to withdraw his novella from consideration. Other nominees hunkered down in horror and kept their mouths shut, as did the SFWA Officers and Board of Directors. However, Sri Lankan writer Yudhanjaya Wijeratne, angered by racist accusations that he cheated because he couldn’t otherwise make it as a POC, stepped up to fight it out. Welcome to the SFF community Yudhanjaya Wijeratne. Bellet and Yudhanjaya eventually kissed and made up on Twitter, but not before fairly serious damage was done to both their reputations.

I’m sure no one knew who Yudhanjaya was before his name appeared on the Nebula finalist list. For folks still in the dark, he is an established novelist and a hybrid writer, with both traditional and self-published works. His novelette “Messenger” with R.R. Virdi appeared in the anthology The Expanding Universe 4, and scored 15 recommendations on the 2018 Nebula reading list, plenty of votes to get the nomination without any slate. So, this comes off like another case of bullying successful POC writers.

See File 770 for a roundup of posts on the issue here and here. See Yudhanjaya’s blog here about this enlightening experience with the Nebulas so far.

Moving on to some other observations, once you get to looking for patterns in the Nebula finalist list, then there are at least a couple more that show up. I had meant to discuss this after the reviews, but since it’s been pointed out on other venues, this seems to be a better time. The dominance of certain traditional publishers on the list is troubling, for example, Tor. In the categories where Tor publishes (novelette, novella, novel) about half of the finalists this year were released by Tor. I’ve discussed this issue in the past, and the most likely explanation is the system of promotion, which includes give-aways, recommended reading lists, and reviews and recommendations in elite publications. I really almost think I could predict the finalists from a review of these promotions, and the same choices tend to appear in the Hugo Awards. The promotions determine what books everyone has read, so they become the award-winners, too.

The last pattern that shows up in the Nebulas is the inclusion of SFWA insiders on the list. This year, four members of SFWA Board of Directors out of five appear on the list of finalists, including: Sarah Pinsker, Andy Duncan, Lawrence Schoen and Kelly Robson. According to the rules, officers are ineligible for Nebula nominations because of their administrative access, but board members remain eligible. Mary Robinette Kowal, in line for president next year, is also a finalist. When asked about this on the SFWA forum, board members brushed it off as inconsequential.

There are also some patterns in the themes and styles this year, but I’ll get to that in my wrap up after the reviews.

Militant progressives take aim at “brown” authors (a.k.a. more on author bullying)

30 Comments

It’s been a little while since I checked in on the author bullying scene. A quick review of articles this week shows it’s an ongoing problem, and that the environment for young adult novels is currently well into the toxic range. Here’s a Vulture article that names Twitter and Goodreads as a source of much of the problem, where a certain militant group uses social media to police upcoming or newly issued books that might “harm” teens through what are deemed inappropriate social justice messages.

What’s actually going on here? Censorship? Book burning before the fact? Jealousy? Experts seem to think it has to do with ongoing culture wars. YA continues to be mainly driven by white authors, despite calls for more diversity, and some people of color continue to report rejection due to a sort of quota system. So, looking at the specifics of this, mostly the authors (and their publishers) being attacked this way are white women. That suggests a certain “mean girls” culture could be involved, but still, the attackers use progressive clubs to beat their victims. The Vulture article quotes a NYTimes Best-Selling author as saying there is, “a sense shared by many publishing insiders that to write outside one’s own identity as a white author simply isn’t worth the inevitable backlash.” You could think that this backlash might be an effort to shut down white authors so publishers will have to publish more acceptable POC writers, but interestingly, the community sometimes turns on authors of color who don’t toe the line, as well. For example, I’m curious about what Jamaican author Nicola Yoon did to get lambasted. Is the YA community really trying to shut her down?

So, you must be thinking something happened recently to provoke another blog from me on author bullying. You’re right. This week’s victim is Amelie Zhao, a young Chinese immigrant to the US who recently scored a three-book publishing deal with Delacorte. Her debut book Blood Heir was due for publication on June 4, 2019, but she has pulled it from publication due to attacks from the YA community. Apparently this has to do with a slavery theme where “oppression is blind to skin color.” Here’s a comment by “Sarah” from Twitter: “I’d love it if somebody who looks critically at what they read would write a detailed review that proves all the bigotry in this book so white people and Asians finally start listening because I’ve seen a lot of systematic shutting down of any brown person who brings up concerns with this book.”

This is an interesting comment because of the expectations it reveals. Sarah is soliciting bad reviews of the book? How does she know it’s “bigoted”? It’s not even published yet, so has she actually read it somehow? And what’s wrong with Zhao’s theme? Do people with a particular skin shade now own the rights to oppression? Also, notice that Sarah has lumped whites and Asians together on this in opposition to “brown persons.” Sorry, I missed something here. Are Asians not considered “brown” any longer?

Well, apparently not. Asians are apparently successful enough that they’ve got white backlash now.

So, what is cultural appropriation, really?

15 Comments

Since I’ve been discussing cultural appropriation, I had a quick look around to see what kind of opinions are out there on the subject. First, it looks like most commentators are really adamant that cultural “appropriation” is bad, while cultural “appreciation” leading to real cultural exchange is good. The problem is in deciding which is which.

Checking the definition, I found that Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. According to the article, it’s power imbalance, historically caused by colonialism and oppression, that makes something actually cultural appropriation rather than cultural exchange.

Next, how does this work in practice? Well, there are a few issues. Some writers point out that the definition describes what is generally a local or national problem, while things can look very different on a global scale. In the US, the dominant culture is defined as “white” and the oppressed are considered to be minority persons-of-color like African Americans, LatinX and Asians. These writers also note that “white” is really just a social construct used to describe the currently dominant culture in some regions like the US and EU, because the collection of ethnicities within the term is anything but uniform. “White” in the US currently includes Jews, Arabs, North Africans and East Indians, for example, along with previously oppressed groups like Irish and Italian immigrants, who were at one time defined as “non-white.” And what about Polish jokes? Is this an indication that “white” Poles are oppressed in the US the same way they traditionally have been in Europe?

This is a caveat that dominant cultures are not always just “white” as the current knee-jerk reaction assumes, but vary by time period and region. More clearly, what would be considered the dominant culture in the Middle East, for example, South America, Asia or Africa? These areas have a lot of diversity, but the dominant culture could never be defined as “white.” Is all of African culture off limits to “whites” because of colonialism? Or what about Asia? Much of it was never colonized by “white” Europeans at all.

Actually, the definition of “white” can be dangerously misapplied. For example, the 2018 Eurovision contest provided an instance where a “white” woman was vilified for appropriation of Japanese culture. Netta Barzilai performed the song “Toy” while dressed in a kimono and backed by maneki-neko cats. If you assume Barzilai is part of a dominant “white” culture that oppresses the Japanese, then the charges might be accurate. But is this true?

Well, no. Where’s the power imbalance in this case? On a global scale, Barzilia is Jewish and from Israel, a small, perpetually endangered and persecuted country, while Japan has always been a military, cultural and economic juggernaut. The problem is the assumption that light-colored skin automatically means “oppressor” and a darker complexion means “oppressed.” The end result in this case was wide-spread bullying of a light-skinned, oppressed minority woman who actually put on a great show.

Shouldn’t we be paying better attention?

Identifying with Characters Different from You

19 Comments

Some time back, after reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, I wondered in the blog about how deeply readers from different ethnic groups and different cultures identify with the protagonists in stories. This seems like a timely subject, as there’s been a recent movement in the SFF community toward “own voices,” complaints about cultural appropriation and comments about how POC need to be the only ones to write about characters that reflect their own heritage. The scenario in the novel was that Ruff’s (culturally appropriated) Jim Crow era African American characters were represented as enjoying the works of classical SF writers now attacked as racist (Asimov and Bradbury). It’s uncertain whether Ruff meant this as irony, but he writes it dead-pan, as if his characters really are classic era SF geeks.

The novel is quite a mash-up of social taboos, and given the current climate, I’m really surprised there weren’t more complaints about the book being a) published and b) nominated for awards. However, it did raise the interesting question about identifying with characters from other races. I didn’t really get an answer from POC in the comments on my blog, so I went looking. Here’s an interesting perspective from Turkish-American Elif Batuman writing for the New Yorker.

As you might expect, Batuman describes no problems in using 1) suspension of disbelief and 2) imaginative projection to identify with alien characters. For example, to read period works, Batuman says, you have to BE the privileged, upper class male Englishman in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This means that for the purposes of reading, you have to shift your perspectives of race, gender, social class, religion and whatever other characteristics are present in order to feel what the character is feeling and worry about his or her conflicts. Along the way, you broaden your own horizons and learn about other worldviews, some of them historical, some fantastical, some science fictional, etc. This makes perfectly good sense, and I’m sure it’s been experienced by avid readers everywhere.

Where this breaks down, Batuman says, is when she runs across references to “Turks” in these old books that betray attitudes toward her own ethnic group. This event jars her out of her projection and back to the reality of evaluating “expired social values.” As I read this, mention of Turks is one problem that she snags on, and the other is the insulting quality of the references. Presumably the first really can’t be fixed in contemporary writing, but the second one can.

Everyone is pointing out that the SFF community readership is getting more diverse. So, is “own voices” the solution for problems like this? Will it remove the speed bumps to suspension of disbelief? Or (there’s always the Law of Unintended Consequences to consider) could “own voices” just reduce diversity by segregating the SFF readership into more strictly separate groups?

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: