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?

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

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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.

Has the Hugo Turned into an Affirmative Action Award?

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Another point that came up during the recent discussion at File 770 was how the Hugo Award winners are now regarded. There was commentary on this well before the 2016 awards cycle. For example, various bloggers have noted that the awards are increasingly dominated by women and minorities. In 2015 Brad Torgersen posted his  view of this trend, which is that the Hugos are being used as an “affirmative action award”. For anyone vague on what that means, affirmative action is defined as “an action or policy favoring those who tend to suffer from discrimination.” The fact that anyone sees it this way is another suggestion (see previous blog) that the award voting has become politically motivated. Of course, any reasonable exchange on the idea is impossible. As one poster at File 770 noted, it is “inherently racist” to discuss the results in this way.

This is not to suggest that the winning works are not deserving. The makeup of the SFF community has clearly changed over the more than a century that SFF has been recognized as a genre. This means that readers’ tastes have changed, as well. I tend to lean progressive, and I love the interesting and creative elements that diverse authors bring to the genre. I reviewed all the winners this year and pointed out deserving elements well before the awards were given (as well as undeserving ones). However, the political squabble tends to obscure the positives. For an idea of how the response to this year’s awards went, check this exchange on Twitter.

Because of the virulence of the politics, no one these days can be sure whether they’ve won a Hugo Award based on the quality of the works or because of the politics. It looks to be a damaging experience. The Twitter exchange is another example of Internet bullying of someone who had little to do with allocation of the awards. Regardless of the Hugo committee’s efforts, you have to admit the Puppies are now right about a taint in the awards system.

Note: Mike Glyer has asked me to note that discussions that take place at File 770 don’t necessarily represent his personal views.

Sciencing the bullies

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Just a few more comments before leaving this bullying topic for a while: The SFF community isn’t the only group suffering from this issue. Poking around turned up an interesting blog by Oliver Keyes on the response to his resignation from the volunteer R programming community. Before anyone rushes forward with complaints, I notice that Keyes is not blameless in the bullying sphere. At the very least, he has a wacky sense of humor. He is also employed by Wikipedia, another community rife with bullies.

After his report about a bug in the R programming language was shut down by management, Keyes resigned and received a number of comments on his site, including, apparently, 28 death threats. In response, he conducted a study which he delicately entitled “Oliver Keyes Sciences the Shit Out of the Arseholes on his Blog.” He analyzed 183 comments and found 107 users, of which he determined 67 were arseholes. He also traced their referring site and geo-located their IP address, leading to some fascinating results.

The first chart he presents is “Probability of commenter being an arsehole, based on website of origin.” Interestingly, commenters coming from Vox Day’s website had a 100% probability of being arseholes. The next highest probability went to Google at about 80%. The lowest probabilities were Twitter at about 20% and Facebook at about 30%. Keyes noted that commenters coming from Wikipedia also had a 100% probability rating, but the number of commenters was too small to make it onto the graph.

Next, Keyes looked at country of origin. Because of the language involved in the blog, nearly 100% of comments came from English-speaking countries. “Probability of commenter being an arsehole, based on country of origin” showed the UK in the lead with about 75% probability, the US at about 70% probability and Canada at about 50%.

It’s true that people commenting on this particular resignation had an axe to grind, but still this is an interesting sampling of the kind of comments that some people get. I guess you have to be pretty thick-skinned if you expect to maintain a presence on the Internet.

A look at RaceFail 2009

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Edward LearIn 2009 Elizabeth Bear posted a blog on “Writing the Other.” This was meant to be simple writing advice on how to deal with characters as diverse as stag-horned ponies to Jewish former Army Captains from St. Louis. Bear recommended considering these characters as unique individuals, rather than “other” and writing from that perspective. This sounds like good advice at first glance. However, the post provoked a firestorm of comments about cultural appropriation by privileged white writers who take minority characters and make them over from the white perspective. Various people got their feelings hurt, and pro writer MacAllister Stone called the whole thing “abusive.”

We’re back now to the question about freedom of expression in fiction writing. It is definitely true that an African American writer can fill in current cultural details about a contemporary black American character better than a white person could, but does this ability qualify the same African American writer to write about African characters, for example? What about the US African American experience would inform this process? Would that be cultural appropriation on the part of the African American writer?

Can a Chinese American writer from San Francisco write authentically about the culture of ancient China? Or does the fact of being born into contemporary American culture negate this ability? Would a Chinese American author writing about African American characters be a case of cultural appropriation? Or is cultural appropriation only about white privilege?

Do minority readers/writers have a point about cultural appropriation? Is it a problem that writers of a particular ethnic background write their characters based on their own viewpoints? Or, as Ann Rice says, is this just another case of author bullying?

When does activism become bullying?

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“Speak up” is something we hear a lot in reference to making positive changes in our community. This is something activists are expected to do. After all, if nobody knows there’s a problem, then they won’t do anything to remedy it, right? In the previous blog, Lamb’s last recommendation was that we speak up about bullying, for example. This is meant to raise the profile of the issue and influence sites like Amazon and Goodreads to institute policies that make bullying more difficult. People also feel they have to speak up when they think they see things like racism, sexism or homophobia. But, is all this speaking up a good thing? When does it cross the line into something else?

For example, I’m sure Jenny Trout thought she was working against racism and child rape when she attacked Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Clearly she thought she was using her position as a best-selling author for a good cause when she directed her fans to harass Man’s booksellers into withdrawing the book from circulation. However, this act turned out to look like terrorism instead, because Trout hadn’t researched the book and its author well enough to realize what she was really doing.

In another example, N.K. Jemison made a very activist speech at Continuum 2013 in Australia that discussed racism, sexism and homophobia in the SFF community, as well as past abuses. In the text of the speech she’s posted, she doesn’t mention Vox Day’s name, but she does complain that he is “misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole.” Then she suggests that the 10% of SFWA members who voted for Day are “busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges, not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” She then complains about the silent majority of enablers who don’t come out to oppose this.

How should this to be taken by members of the SFWA? Is it a call to action, or an attempt at bullying?

More on author bullying

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55327_girl-writing_mdI’ve been surfing for more views on author bullying and came up with an interesting blog by Kristen Lamb, a non-fiction author of self-help marketing books. Lamb comments that bullying isn’t something you leave behind in high school any more. There’s some general background you can skip over, but one of her comments is very thought-provoking, which is that she no longer reads book reviews because they are so identified with author bullying.

Reviews are a time-honored method of marketing your book. It’s also a time-honored method of finding a good book to read. And now Lamb thinks the review process has been degraded through the process of bullying, or political infighting, or just general meanness until it’s worthless for marketing your book. I guess this is the result of sites like Amazon and Goodreads opening reviews up to the general public. They end up with lots of troll tracks on their pages.

Lamb suggests a number of methods to reduce the damage that bullies do to your psyche and your pocketbook as an author: 1) Develop your name as a strong personal brand. 2) Keep records of bullying in case you need to take action. 3) Support your friends when they’re bullied. 4) Report and block bullies. 5) Do not engage with bullies, as this will encourage them to harass you more. 6) Hire a professional to find out who scary or creepy people are. 6) Speak up about bullying to create a stronger community of authors.

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