Patterns in the Nebula finalist list

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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.

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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.

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?

The Red Panda Faction

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It looks like there’s a new player in the 2018 Dragon Awards. A leftist group calling themselves the Red Panda Faction posted recommendations for voting during the last few hours before it closed. Here’s the description of their mission: “We are leftist fans of SF/fantasy/horror lit & film, gamers, & comic book nerds…who discuss & promote leftist, LGBTQ+, and feminist cultural works in SF/fantasy/horror.”

The Dragon Awards guidelines don’t discourage slates or campaigning, but it’s a little unusual for SFF justice warrior groups to clearly state their mission in political terms this way. Apparently there was a Facebook page, too, but when I tried to find it, it seemed to be down. Here’s the slate the Pandas posted:

Best Science Fiction Novel

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Death’s End by Liu Cixin

Best Fantasy Novel

Blood of the Earth by Faith Hunter

Best Military Scifi/Fantasy novel

Allies & Enemies: Exiles by Amy J. Murphy

Best YA/Middle Grade Novel

A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

Best Alternate History Novel

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Best Apocalyptic Novel

American War by Omar El Akkad

Best Horror Novel

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

Best Comic Book

Monstress by Marjorie Liu

Best Graphic Novel

My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris

Best SF/Fantasy TV Series

Stranger Things, Netflix

Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Movie

Arrival by Denis Villeneuve

Best PC/Console game

Mass Effect: Andromeda by Bioware

Best SF/Fantasy Mobile Game

Monument Valley 2 by ustwo games

Best SF/Fantasy Board Game

Terraforming Mars by Stronghold Games

Best SF/Fantasy Miniatures/Collectible Card/RPG

Pulp Cthulhu by Chaosium

Review of “43 Responses to ‘In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'” by Barbara A. Barnett

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Here’s another short story published by Daily Science Fiction with 10 recommendations.

The format looks like an exchange of Twitter messages. The first is from puppyhugs42 thanking Dr. Bates for his tribute to Dr. Alexandra Nako. The next is from Chekhov’s Jellyfish opining that there really is something beyond death, and that Dr. Nako is a martyr. The third is from AlexandraNako, addressed to Kevin. She tells him he needs to stop the research immediately. Contributors take this as insensitive use of Dr. Nako’s name, and Dr. Bates responds that the research will continue. Nako continues to post, and is banned twice, but quickly returns under other usernames to continue her warnings. Bates posts that he considers this harassment and has called security. Spam starts to come over his feed.

Like most of Daily SF stories, this one is very short. The format is creative and the story emerges from the exchange of posts as the users carry on a conversation. It remains only suggestive, as Nako is never able to post a complete warning—the letters jumble when she tries. Because of this, it never really says anything, only reveals small bits of information about the characters and what they might possibly have been doing. This means it doesn’t present thoughtful ideas or ask much in the way of questions. The story is entertaining, but again a hard sell for a Nebula nomination.

Three stars.

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.

Worldviews and gatekeepers

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A couple of blogs ago, I reviewed Cecily Kane’s article in Fireside Magazine and asked if the publication rate for black authors was really evidence of racism in SFF publication. Whatever the answer, the immediate result of Kane’s article seems to have been that African American Nebula/Hugo Award finalist N.K. Jemisin was suddenly inundated by solicitations for stories.

Jemisin went on to provide an interview for Kane that’s linked to the Fireside article. Jemisin suggests that submissions from black writers to SFF publication might actually be lower than expected because there is a strong self-publishing market for black authors. This grew up in the 1990s when traditional publishers were slow to accept black interest fiction. Now, black writers have to make a choice about whether to submit to a traditional market or self-publish, and many decide to go the direct route and not wait through the slush pile for a rejection slip.

Jemisin also comments on the market forces that constrain black writers to write for mainstream interests. She notes she was 30 years old before she felt confident about writing black characters into her fiction. Because POC try to suit the market, she says, bias becomes self-perpetrating.

In an associated article, Justina Ireland addresses the question of quality as an excuse from publishers. “I’d love to acquire more authors from [marginalized group],” she quotes, “but the stories I get just aren’t of a very good quality!” She then notes that quality often has to do with taste and bias. Anyone who’s been following the recent Puppy activism can probably relate to that.

Jemisin’s interview and associated comments on Twitter also attracted attention from the Puppy camp. “…the Sad Puppies are the bad ones here, but I note that NK Jemsin’s complaint is the same one: GATE KEEPERS,” says the Phantom Soapbox.

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