21 August 2012

On Weird Tales, Save The Pearls, and What Censorship Actually Is

Some days you bait the badger, some days the badger baits you.

That's my best summation of the current state of speculative fiction, fantasy fiction, horror, slipstream/bizzarro/New Weird/Old Weird/Weird Harold, what have you, and its fandom. There's a lot of damn bait and a lot of damn badgers out there. And the lines cross between who and what and where and when, and the result? A goddamn mess. There's far too much claptrap out there right now, far too many voices shouting when more ears need to be listening, far too many "tough guys" flexing their internet muscles and writing screeds like a bunch of bargain basement Norman Mailers with a bad drunk on. It gets wearisome, tiresome and just plain somatic past a certain point. Honestly, it puts me to sleep. And that's the danger of all the shouting--past a certain point you tune the shouting out, or you do if you're a smart person, and you miss the important stuff when you really need to be paying attention.

For instance, if I didn't follow Jeff VanderMeer on Facebook I might not have known about the Weird Tales fiasco until the incompletely reported io9 articles on it surfaced yesterday. As it was I had the pleasure--if that's the word--of watching the disaster unfold like a slow-motion airshow crash, until by the time I went to bed last night I was thoroughly disgusted with Weird Tales and its insanely tone-deaf treatment of race, racism, and its readers.

A little background: Weird Tales has a long and storied history as one of the giants in genre fiction, a place where horror and fantasy and SF and a bunch of other things could intersect freely and co-mingle. That was especially true of the years between 2007 and 2011, when Ann VanderMeer and Steve Segal turned WT, which had become a flailing shadow of itself up to that point, into a Hugo-winning showplace for some of the best genre fiction on offer, with an emphasis made on finding and cultivating new writers. Then, last year, the magazine found new ownership, and promptly shitcanned the people who made WT into the showplace it was. Ann VanderMeer graciously offered to stay on as a contributing editor, and the new ownership and editorial regime proceeded to leap boldy into the past by returning Weird Tales, not to the flailing shadow of itself that it had previously been, but by . . . well . . .


Nora Jemisin said it better than I could, so I direct you to her post on the subject. But I will add:

Seriously? Saving the Pearls: Revealing Eden? This is what passes for literary, thoughtful fiction in the post-VanderMeer era at Weird Tales? A poorly written polemic on so-called "reverse racism," penned by a privileged white woman, which deliberately goes out of its way to employ just about every patronizing cliche you can think of in pursuit of its dubious "white man's burden" theme? (And if you doubt me,  please note that the whites are called "pearls" in Foyt's book while the blacks are called "coals," and it only goes on to get more blind-bat ham-fistedly condescending from there.)

Sorry, no. Not buying it. Nor am I buying EiC Marvin Kaye's self-important editorial on the book, his dismissal of the vast roar of criticism Foyt has faced as "some Amazon readers," or his impossibly wrong-headed comparison of the book (I won't sully the term "novel" by using it here) to the brilliant satire of Zanna, Don't! Nope, it won't wash. Not even close.

As Nora Jemisin said, "It’s more than the fact that the editor has chosen to introduce the revamped magazine with a diatribe against evil anti-racists, or evil people with no sense of irony, or something. It’s more than the stunningly poor judgment that he displays by hitching his magazine’s new applecart to this spavined old horse. It’s also the fact that they’re going to be publishing the first chapter of this hugely problematic book in Weird Tales. What the hell is that about? In all the furor over this book, no one is defending it as high-quality literature. It’s not even “weird”, in either the old-school pulp sense or the VanderMeer-era modern sense; it’s a slushpile-stock discrimiflip with implausible science and banal writing."

This.This this this. Dear sweet butterscotch sundaes in a banana cup, THIS.

The fallout was swift and intense. Ann VanderMeer resigned altogether as editor. Her husband Jeff went off on Weird Tales on Facebook and Twitter, and later that evening on his blog. Writers stood up and called for a boycott. More writers stood up and withdrew submissions from the magazine, and in at least one case a writer actually withdrew a story slated to print in an upcoming issue and offered to refund the money paid her for the work.

Then came the fallout to the fallout. Weird Tales killed Kaye's editorial, possibly in an attempt to evade responsibility for their own dunderheadedness in this matter, possibly as evidence of further and ongoing dunderheadedness. But cached copies exist, and despite WT's attempt to kill the controversy by damming the river, the river just spilled its banks and the controversy continued. Online commenters defending Foyt turned up in some corners, wondering how people could vilify a book if they haven't read it--completely ignoring the fact that plenty of other people have read it and think it's shit.

And then Weird Tales publisher John Harlacher issued a half-assed apology and stated WT would no longer be publishing the first chapter of the book. And there was much indifference, because the damage was already done, and nobody was willing to take Harlacher or Kaye seriously at that point--especially after Harlacher's admission that he never read the book in the first place, and apparently knew of no way to find out that, as noted above, the majority of the people who have read the book think it's a gigantic steaming pile of rhinoceros puckey.

And then Robert Silverberg apparently compared the furor and the calls for boycotting Weird Tales to the calls to ban Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 from libraries (and I haven't found a source on this, so if anyone can locate it for me I'd be obliged), which led to the inevitable wrong-headed cries of censorship and "why can't we talk about race, you're horrible for trying to shut down this discussion!" And I'll get to all that in a minute, because hang on to your hats, folks.

The last word on the mess is Jeff VanderMeer's, from this blog post:

"Ann VanderMeer, my wife, was the editor-in-chief before being forced out by Marvin Kaye and his financial backer John Harlacher. She tried to be a team player because they offered her a role picking one story by a new writer every issue. This appealed to her because of her ongoing commitment to up-and-coming writers and new voices—it seemed like she could still do some good work. But ever since a meeting with Kaye and Harlacher in New York in June, it had become obvious that she would be extremely uncomfortable working with them. Although they did not consult with her on editorial decisions, they did mention during that encounter that they planned to publish an excerpt from a YA novel written by the wife of a film director about 'the last white person on the planet trying to survive in a world of black people.' This seemed deeply problematic on the face of it, and Ann was kind—perhaps too kind—but adamant and firm in saying that they shouldn’t do this. Ever. During this meal, a startling lack of understanding about international fiction and other subjects was also evinced, to the point that afterwards both Ann and I wished we had not stayed for the entire meal. It was one of the worst experiences we’ve ever had. Still, Ann believed that John Harlacher had gotten the point and that perhaps a lesson had been learned. Clearly not."

In other words, Harlacher and Kaye have been planning this for months, never gave a shit that other people thought it was maybe not such a good idea, and were probably patting themselves on the back for thinking it up the entiire time--right up until the moment it blew up in their faces. They either didn't know what the hell they were doing, or knew exactly what they were doing and just didn't care, on the assumption that no publicity is bad publicity. Given that Marvin Kaye has pulled this kind of horseshit before, in the form of Orson Scott Card's god-awful, revisionist, homophopbic "bad touch" version of Hamlet, which still has Shakespeare spinning in his grave, I can only think that it is the latter rather than the former. They knew what they were doing the whole time, and Harlacher's protestations that he has not read Foyt's book are a bunch of rhinoceros puckey. Nothing like this happens in a vacuum, not in this day and age . . . and even if Harlacher hadn't read the book, he couldn't be unaware of the heavy criticism of its premises, its imagery, its promotional video, or its amateurish writing. There is simply no way he could be, unless he's been trapped in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber for the last two months with no access to the internet. And Harlacher doesn't strike me as the type who owns a hyperbaric chamber.

So: Weird Tales has screwed the pooch, and has done so in such a spectacular fashion as to create a scorched-earth version of a once-great magazine, with a ring of incompetent stench and flop-sweat around it so large that it will be some time before actual professional writers want anything to do with it again. With the possible exception of Robert Silverberg. Which leads me back to that.So, here we go with that again:

I've posted about banned books on this blog before, and most likely will again--my Banned Books Week posts about Maus and Slaughterhouse-Five still get page hits to this day, even though they're well in the past. I'm married to a librarian, and I am vehemently anti-censorship. Which is how I can stand here (well, sit here actually, because if I tried to type this while standing it would be really tough on my back) and tell you that, in no uncertain terms, what happened with Weird Tales was not censorship.

Allow me to explain: Weird Tales is a privately owned and operated organization. The readers and professionals who withdrew support and/or work and/or money from Weird Tales are private citizens. At no time did anyone hold a gun to anyone's head here and say: stop publishing Victoria Foyt, or stop buying Weird Tales because of what they are publishing. At no point did anyone run to their congressman or village assemblyman or write a letter to the President of the United States demanding that Weird Tales be shut down by legal fiat. None of that happened. What happened was, Harlacher and Kaye did a thing that many, many many people regard as stupid, those people spoke out about it with their voices and their wallets, and Harlacher and Kaye realized they had done a stupid thing and stopped doing it. Pure and simple.

But Jay, I hear you ask: what about the tyranny of the majority? What about the right to free speech? What about the fact that Foyt is using the imagery of racism to promote tolerance? What about Robert Silverberg and his point about Ray Bradbury?

So, here are my refutations of those points: Where was your worry about the tyranny of the majority when Prop. 8 was passed in California? Because if you're more concerned with private citizens legitimately boycotting something they dislike over private citizens using the public arena to actively prohibit and proscribe what other private citizens are allowed to do, you need to take another look at your motivations. Put another way: private citizens can spend their money or not as they like, and if they choose to do so to make a point about speech they dislike, then as long as they do not use the law or government (i.e., the public arena) to try to legislate against that speech, they are free to do as they like. Harlacher and Kaye were not forced to abandon their plans; they did so voluntarily when faced with the consequences of their actions to the organization they run. They could just as easily have stuck to their guns and not backed down; the point is, they had a choice, just as the people calling for boycott had a choice. That's how it's supposed to work, folks.

Free speech? Well gee, hmm. Maybe you can show me whose speech was abridged and/or censored here? That would help. So, go ahead. Show me.

Harlacher and Kaye? Nope. They weren't censored. They changed their minds. And before you go on about how they were forced to do that, no they weren't. Read the paragraph above again until you figure it out.

Foyt? Last I heard she was still free to publish and publicize and sell her book, and nobody's tried to have her book confiscated, removed from libraries, or burned, which is more than you can say for Kurt Vonnegut or J. K. Rowling . . . so nope. Sorry. "But her critics forced them to . . ." No, they didn't. She is the target of heavy criticism and if that makes her uncomfortable, then too bad for her. And if it makes Harlacher and Kaye uncomfortable enough to withdraw their support and publication of her book, then that is likewise too bad. Whether you agree with it or not is also too bad, because it's still not censorship, no matter how much you want it to be.

Foyt was using the imagery of racism to promote tolerance? Maybe. But she was doing so in such a clumsy, facepalm-inducingly, ham-handed way as to make you wonder whether she had any idea what she was doing. I'm not getting into an extended discussion of what does and does not constitute racism in the context of Foyt's book and how people who have actually experienced racism have experienced it, but here is a good analysis if you want one. As to Foyt's use of every dipshit racist cliche you can think of, up to and including unironically describing black men as rapacious sexual beasts and  putting white characters in blackface . . . well, I'll let John Harlacher say it for me, because it is the one thing in his half-hearted apology that is entirely accurate: " It seems like the work of someone who does not understand the power of what she is playing with." I will freely admit that context means something, but so does how one approaches said context. Stephen King once noted that the original version of I Spit On Your Grave is, despite its intent, the work of morons with cameras. So it is here: Save the Pearls is, whatever its intent (and based on the author's comments about it that intent is ridiculously condescending and high-handed), the work of an idiot with a keyboard--and whether she meant it to be racist or not is irrelevant, because that's exactly how it comes across. Context cuts both ways.

So, that's that shot to shit too.

So what about Robert Silverberg and Ray Bradbury?

Well, what about them?

I don't mean that to be flippant. I seriously don't see, especially in light of my arguments above, how Silverberg's opinion is in any way a) well-informed about the issue, b) well-reasoned, or c) relevant. Bradbury's novel has been the subject of numerous attempts to use local government to legislate it away. Foyt's book has not. Therefore, this is not germane to the subject at hand. Dismissed back to Majipoor. Sorry, Robert.

I'm going to make a few final notes here about censorship and freedom of speech, and then I'm going to leave off.

First of all is one you hear all the time, but which I will repeat anyway because nobody ever seems to fucking hear it: Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism. You have the right to say what you like--and if I then think what you said is a big stinkin' load of rhinoceros puckey, then I have every right to tell you so. And just because ten or twenty or thirty people also tell you so does not mean those people are trying to suppress your right to say what you want: it just means that ten or twenty or thirty people have now told you that what you said is, in their opinion, rhinoceros puckey. At that point it becomes incumbent on you to a) argue your point intelligently enough to convince them otherwise, or b) rethink your opinion in light of others'. Note that you are free to do either one. Criticism does not mean censorship--never confuse censure for a censor. If you do then you had better undertake some education because you clearly need it.

Second: Censorship is indeed bad, and I will never say it is not. The second someone tries to have Foyt's book banned from a library, let me know and I will make note of it. I honestly think you'd be better off reading something by Richard Wright or Eldridge Cleaver--but if Foyt floats your boat, be my guest. Even a shitty book deserves the right to be read. Which is how John Saul keeps getting published.

Finally: I would like to make the point that if you buy the argument that no publicity is bad publicity, then in writing about this, I and anyone else who has approached the subject from its various angles has become a de facto publicist for Victoria Foyt and her piece of printed excrement. That being the case, I would like  Ms. Foyt or her representatives to contact me regarding some form of recompense forthwith. Because while I may have the freedom of speech, my speech doesn't come for free.

. . . yeah, I ain't exactly holding my breath on that last one.

In conclusion? Ladles and Jellyspoons, this little tempest in an intertube is best left behind us. It's been a tough year for fandom already on a lot of levels, and this is just one more unfortunate mess to be added to the pile. My sympathies in the whole thing honestly lie with Ann VanderMeer, because it has to be just utterly heartbreaking to see the thing you spent years building and nurturing reduced to not just a shadow, but a shell. I know the VanderMeers themselves would rather put this behind them and move on to pastures greener (or at least weirder), so I will respect that and forbear any other commentary on this subject (you there in the back, stop cheering). I would suggest we all do so, rather than get drawn into another Series of Unfortunate Comments that hurts speculative fiction, fantasy fiction, horror, slipstream/bizzarro/New Weird/Old Weird/Weird Harold, what have you, and its fandom. We've been baited enough, and we've been badgered enough. And enough is enough.


  1. The Silverberg reference is from a private mailing list, Fictionmags, which discusses, well, fiction magazines. In recent years it's become increasingly misogynistic, with a bit of conservatism thrown in, leading to what I would call "get off my lawn" posts. The majority of members are of a certain age, and generally white, and feel free to say things that they wouldn't admit to in public, I suspect.

    1. One more mailing list I think I'll avoid. Thanks Adam.