Is the term “racist” losing its meaning?

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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?

Castalia House out at Amazon

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Well, whoever was behind this missed a few audio books, but yeah, I checked and Castalia House was pretty much absent at Amazon for most of today. Looking at Castalia House’s website, it appears they politely inquired and found data on their account was completely wiped by someone at Amazon with access. Apparently the stated reason for removal was a question of rights ownership related to the Castalia-published book The Corroding Empire, a subject they thought was already settled when the book was published. If the missing data includes info on royalties due the writers, this could expose Amazon to some pretty serious repercussions. What is someone decided to wipe all the Tor books, for example? Or Baen? Oops.

Castalia’s books were back up by evening, except for The Corroding Empire, so it must have been a fairly easy fix. I don’t know that I could call this kind of action bullying, as Vox Day generally gives as good as he gets. I’m assuming it might be corporate wars? A drunken escapade on the part of some Amazon employee? A personal effort at censorship? Or maybe part of the marketing campaign for John Scalzi’s newly released installment in the Collapsing Empire series? Hm. There are all kinds of possibilities.

Anyhow, Castalia’s response has been to promote The Corroding Empire, still for sale at their Castalia Direct bookstore. Maybe I should put it on my list for review.

So, who reads science fiction anyway?

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The last blog generated a discussion of whether science fiction can be called conservative at all because of its nature as speculative fiction. Following up online, I see opposing opinions about whether science fiction is inherently conservative or inherently liberal. There’s not nearly as much research on the demographics of the speculative fiction market as there should be, but in this post, I’ll try to have a look at some results.

First, what kind of people in general read science fiction? One writer-conducted market survey found that science fiction readers account for about 20% of the US population, are wealthier than the average, are about 57 percent male and tend to reduce their reading volume between the ages of 45-65. Also—no surprise—SF readers are people who read a lot. One study found that speculative fiction fans consistently consume high volumes of books, TV and films, which the authors considered “cognitively beneficial.” This study also found that SF as a genre has a strong effect on the way the public perceives and accepts science. Another study showed that science fiction in popular culture has a real effect on public attitudes. The authors suggest this is a literacy effect, where consuming scary media about “killer robots,” for example, affected opinions about development of autonomous weapons.

Other research shows that science fiction readers are more mature in their social relationships than readers of other genres. Fans who scored as knowledgeable about SF on the Genre Familiarity Test also scored higher on the Relationships Belief Inventory, while romance readers scored lower. In contrast, another study found that readers of romance and suspense/thrillers had higher interpersonal sensitivity/empathy scores than science-fiction/fantasy fans. Again, this isn’t really a surprise.

People read fiction for a variety of reasons, and escapism seems to be high on the list. Education is likely up there, too, where people are interested in broadening their horizons—science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, after all. However, most of us would still like to read texts that reaffirm our beliefs and values rather than something that challenges them. That leads us to the question of worldviews (i.e. politics). So how do worldviews affect reading habits?

Here’s an interesting study that found a preference for different disciplines in science reading material. For example, liberals tend to like theoretical disciplines including anthropology, biology, astronomy, physics and (surprise) engineering. On the other hand, conservatives tend to prefer applied disciplines including medicine, law and (surprise) climate change. Analyzing the results, the authors conclude that “scientific puzzles appeal more to the left, while problem-solving appeals more to the right.”

Another study conducted on Goodreads found that conservatives tend to prefer escapist, “low-brow” genre fiction and recent book-to-movie titles, and liberals tend to read more “high-brow” novels that win prizes. According to the authors, these results support the worst, polarizing stereotypes of “sophisticated” readers (liberals) versus “simple-minded” readers of formulaic fiction (conservatives). However, the authors also discovered a sizable number of non-partisan books that bridged the gap between liberals and conservatives. And, it turned out to be generally conservatives who were more engaged in producing this space for cultural compromise.

I didn’t find anything at all about the relative size of the conservative versus liberal audience, which suggests it’s a topic for original research. Anybody?

Identifying with Characters Different from You

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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?

Diversity versus cultural appropriation—Best current practice?

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Here’s a current report on the subject from professional writers in the field.

Thursday night after Halloween, I went to a program at the local writer’s guild that included African American poets and musicians. Excellent program. Then afterwards, some of us went across the street for a couple of brews and had a great conversation about art and marketing your work. One of the gals in the guild is an established novelist who writes research-based historical-type fiction, and she mentioned that she’s having trouble finding a publisher for her latest work: a story about a civil rights riot that took place in 1919 and includes African American characters.

Far be it from me to judge the racial heritage of others, but the writer looks pretty German. Her agent has told her the problem is the African American characters in her book. According to Agent, major US publishers are no longer interested in works from Caucasian writers that feature African American characters—not just lead characters, mind you, but any kind of prominent characters at all. Presumably this is based on the recent movement to call out cultural appropriation from “privileged” white writers.

So what am I doing today? I’m going back through my marketable works to remove anything that might identify characters by race or ethnic heritage. Sure, that really cuts down on the diversity, but that’s the end result of the cultural appropriation and/or “own voices” movement, isn’t it? A curtailment of ally-ism in support of minority issues (e.g. my friend’s novel on civil rights riots)? Less diversity in the works available for sale? Greater segregation of the market?

The Pressures for Positive Reviews

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Here’s the second installment on the subject of reviews and what’s expected from the contemporary book or film critic. There were a few more interesting opinions that came out of my recent readings on the subject, generally related to those explored in the last blog.

Writing for Salon, Laura Miller describes the traditional model of literary criticism where critics pretty much made the classics by pointing out which books should matter for a cultivated, educated audience. This meant the critics were the arbiters of taste, and the audience took their advice because they wanted to be seen as cultivated and intelligent. Publishers were also, presumably, swayed by these critics’ opinions which slapped down anyone unsuitable who thought they could write a novel. Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom. Her view of the critic’s role is to point out the books he or she likes in particular so the audience can find them.

Of course, the problem with this is that authors and publishers quickly get the idea they should offer inducements for critics to point out their books. Writing for The Baffler, Rafia Zakaria calls reviewers an “extended marketing operation” who are expected to “arrange the book in a bouquet” like blooming flowers to help attract an audience.

Writing for Slate, Ben Yagoda gives us a current classification of critics:
• Over-intellectual nitpickers – Try to rate popular books as something they’re not.
• Soft touches – In the pockets of publishers.
• Quote sluts – Write notices for display ads.
• Chummy logrollers – Relentless enthusiasm for the blogosphere.
• Careerist contrarians – Try to stand out with unpopular opinions.
Yagoda also suggests a reason for large audience vs. critic discrepancies in ratings. He thinks this means the work is unpleasant to sit through in some way. In other words, reviewers will hold out because they’ve got to write a review, while causal readers or film viewers will take off and find something better to do.

Also writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman describes the “safe space” atmosphere of the Twitter/blogosphere where all books are wonderful and every writer is every other writer’s fan. He calls this shallow, untrue and chilling to literary culture. After all, he says, what critic will write an honest review in an environment where authors are valued more for their social media following than for what they write? What he doesn’t say is how fast this social media following can turn into trollish attack dogs. Silverman says it’s not publishing that’s threatened; instead, it’s the body of reviewers who are trivialized and endangered by this system.

Another issue Silverman doesn’t identify in this analysis is generational characteristics at work. Everyone likes praise, but a constant need for it is fairly well identified with millennials. Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Alex Williams points out some of the tendencies we can expect from Generation Z (aka post-millennials), now displacing the millennials as the largest, richest and most sought-after generation of consumers. Gen Z is generally the children of Gen X, who are coming of age post Millennium. Compared to millennials, this group has grown up in uncertain times, so they tend to be more conservative than millennials and heavily concerned with privacy, risk and safe spaces. They tend to be less binary and more biracial, are heavily oriented toward technology and social media and tend to lose interest in things more quickly.

Is this the group Silverman has identified as so intolerant of critical reviews in the Twitter/blogosphere? When will the upcoming Gen Z start to change what sells in the marketplace?

More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “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.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?

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