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?

Review of by “Not Pounded by Romance Wranglers of America: The Endless Cosmic Void” by Chuck Tingle

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Since the meltdown of the Romance Writers of America over racism charges is trending, I should probably take this opportunity to make another comment on author bullying. No surprise; I’ve been beaten to the punch by the ever-ready Chuck Tingle, so I’ll preface my remarks with a review of his story. His newest release is now available on Amazon, adding to a fairly extensive bibliography. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Chuck Tingle, he normally writes witty porn and crashed into prominence with a Hugo nomination in 2016 for Space Raptor Butt Invasion, a novel about an over-sexed dinosaur and an exotic dancer. Tingle seemed to be thrilled by his Hugo nomination and responded with Slammed in the Butt by My Hugo Award Nomination. Lately he seems to be leaning to satire and has produced several non-sexual adventures. As part of the promotion for this e-book release, Tingle put up a website for Romance Wranglers of America.

Gorblin Crimble has been writing romance novels with some success, but he’s starting to feel burned out. For support in getting through his next novel, he joins a local writers’ group. The first meeting goes well, and Gorblin makes friends with Amber, who suggests he should also apply to the larger romance writers’ organization Romance Wranglers of America. Their headquarters is only a short distance away, and Amber drives Gorblin there in her car. On the way, the two of them bond and start to wonder if they might be characters in a Chuck Tingle story. On arriving at the headquarters, they see a humanoid dinosaur stumbling away from the building, covered with a yukky tar-like substance. The building itself looks to have been infected with a black, cancerous growth that sticks out of huge cracks in the façade. It breathes softly like a horrific, living thing; pools of black ooze drip onto the sidewalk, and the whole place stinks like burning. They are greeted by a man named Demon, who explains the black ooze is a “remodel” project. Can Gorblin and Amber escape before they become infected?

Okay, so Tingle makes his points with a sledgehammer. This doesn’t have a lot of depth, characterization or world-building, but its strong points are timing and social commentary. Gorblin and Amber are both nice people, as are the other writers in the small group. They write about love and relationships. They’re very welcoming, and some are even fans of Gorblin’s work. However, on a greater scale, the Wranglers are tarred black and oozing cancerous sludge. They’re administered by a demon, and it smells like the place is burning down.

Three and a half stars.

Examples of Internet Censorship/Bullying: Sarah Wendell vs. Kate Breslin

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Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945), dressed in military attire and giving the Nazi salute, early twentieth century. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945), dressed in military attire and giving the Nazi salute, early twentieth century. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

I’ve already touched on a couple of other examples of Internet bullying in previous blogs which I’ll review here. One of these is the 2014 novel For Such a Time.

This is a historical romance by Kate Breslin, who says on her website that she tries to write “inspirational” books. Before being attacked, her novel had been shortlisted for a RITA prize in the Romance Writers of America’s annual awards. See Newsweek article here.

The book is reportedly based on the Book of Esther with New Testament Christian overtones. In the novel, Jewess Hadassah Benjamin is blonde and blue-eyed, so able to hide behind an Aryan identity during World War II. She is pressed into secretarial service by SS Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. She is horrified by what’s going on, but needs to protect herself. To make matters worse, Hadassah finds herself attracted to von Schmidt. She makes an effort to save prisoners and converts to Christianity as the novel progresses. It’s a complex set-up, and, of course, turned out to be offensive in some quarters.

The book was denounced as anti-Semitic after a letter of complaint from Sarah Wendell to the RITA awards committee. This resulted in an apology from Breslin, but the issue didn’t stop there. A controversy about anti-Semitism erupted within the Romance Writers of America. Vox Day printed Wendell’s comments on his blog, which resulted in a backlash and attacks on her as an anti-Christian SJW. Wendell denied that her motivation was to censor the book.

Note: This should not be taken as support for Nazism or anti-Semitism in any way on my part. I just support Breslin’s right to freedom of expression.

Ann Rice on censorship

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55327_girl-writing_mdFollowing up on questions of ideology in literary criticism, I notice Ann Rice has also recently attacked lynch mobs in the name of political correctness. You can read an article about it here. The way this goes is that someone writes and publishes a story or book that asks uncomfortable questions, lays out unpopular views or sets up conditions that are unacceptable in some way. Then, what Rice calls “the anti-author gangster bully culture” jumps in to shame the author, attack the publisher and provide ugly reviews on widely read Internet sites like Amazon or Goodreads.

Rice uses Kate Breslin’s romance novel For Such a Time as an example. For a romance novel, this has a lot going on. Before being attacked, it had been shortlisted for prizes in the Romance Writers of America’s annual awards. In the novel, Jewess Hadassah Benjamin is blonde and blue-eyed, so able to hide behind an Aryan identity. She is pressed into secretarial service by SS-Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the transit concentration camp Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. She is horrified by what’s going on, but needs to protect herself. To make matters worse, Hadassah finds herself attracted to von Schmidt. She makes an effort to save prisoners and converts to Christianity as the novel progresses. It’s a complex set-up, and, of course, turned out to be offensive in some quarters. It was denounced as anti-Semitic, but does that mean the questions it raises shouldn’t be looked at? We’d like to say at the distance of 70 years that all the choices in Nazi Germany were black and white, but were they really? Should Jews that passed as Aryans be condemned? Were the military guards at the camps people with real concerns about what was going on? In a bad situation, what’s salvageable?

Another example of this is Victoria Hoyt’s book Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden. This caused a scandal back in 2012, as Weird Tales Magazine initially meant to publish an excerpt, but then backed down and apologized after a backlash. The novel is set in a sun-blasted dystopian society and follows Eden, a young white woman, as she tries to find her way in a society where whites are considered weak and useless because of their skin color. The set-up was, again, offensive to some people, and it was denounced as racist. Does offensiveness mean this shouldn’t be written, published or read? Why should the fact that Eden artificially darkens her skin be offensive? Is it racist to investigate a dystopia where whites are an oppressed minority? Shouldn’t we be able to openly discuss what Rice calls “transgressive” questions in fiction?

Rice sums up her views this way: “There are forces at work in the book world that want to control fiction writing in terms of who ‘has a right’ to write about what.”

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