This was supposed to be my last post on getting yourself unstuck when you’re putting a story together. I guess it has to wait. Sorry, guys.
A couple weeks ago, the SFWA released its summer bulletin, Issue 202, which contained some fairly heated responses to reader responses to this winter’s Issue 200 and spring’s 201. Going through the magazine rack on the back of our bathroom door as well as Nathan’s wastebin and my own wastebin on Saturday, I located all three issues and read the articles in question after reading E. Catherine Tobler’s blog post in which she explains why she’s leaving the SFWA (spoiler: it’s because of Issue 200, with a cameo by Issue 201, and the responses of some of its contributors to some complaints by readers).
Yes, I’m an SFWA member. No, I hadn’t read any of the Bulletins all the way through. The truth is that I don’t typically find that they feel relevant to me or my writing and publishing experiences thus far. I always chalked that up to the idea that middle grade fantasy is maybe a different beast in many ways from what most of the SFWA membership is up to. But now this kerfluffle is making me wonder if that’s not the only reason it doesn’t feel relevant.
In Issue 200, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg have a dialogue about “lady editors.” That phrase did put a few backs up, but more bothersome than that seemed to be the repeated references to the physical attributes of the ladies in question. There was also an anecdote about how editor Beatrice Mahaffey joined the Cincinnati Fantasy Group and how after “ the members’ wives got a look at Bea in her swimsuit at the 1950 Midwestcon…the club’s makeup changed to the 50% men and 50% women that has existed ever since.”
Now, as a personal strategy for looking at comments that I find offensive, I try very hard to assume good intentions on everyone’s part at the outset, and I try to look at context. I don’t find “lady editors” to be immediately offensive. And to be fair, the dialogue does actually talk about the accomplishments of the women it profiles. It does mention some women without starting off their segments by calling them “knockouts.” And there is clearly a lot of admiration for these women. The anecdote above came from another woman who knew Ms. Mahaffey personally. Other anecdotes are included that seem clearly intended to draw more detailed portraits of the women, not necessarily to suggest that these things (including their physical attractiveness) are more important than their editing.
On the other hand, read this paragraph: “Anyone who’s seen photos of Bea from the 1950’s knows she was a knockout as a young woman. She was invited to Chicago to edit Other Worlds by Ray Palmer when she was barely out of her teens. In the process she also edited or co-edited Mystic, Science Stories, and Universe. (Some of them were the same magazine under different titles; Palmer changed titles a lot to keep a step ahead of the printing bills.)” Now, I don’t necessarily have any issue with including the fact that a brilliant editor was also beautiful, but I’m just going to say that if it had been me writing that paragraph, I would probably have mentioned it at the end if I really felt like it was that important. Just, you know, to keep anybody from thinking I thought it was critically important. And by the way, in the article, that’s the second of three mentions of Ms. Mahaffey’s attractiveness.
I’m sorry, Mike and Barry—I don’t think you meant to suggest that she accomplished what she did because she was beautiful, but bringing up one lady’s hotness three times in two pages…it’s weird if that’s not the point. Sloppy writing at least. At worst, well, it’s easy to read what is ostensibly an article about female editors and to come away with the impression that you might think one’s beauty was as important as her literary contributions. Which one would hope you can see is sufficient reason for readers to maybe get their backs up. And you certainly left room for that interpretation, gentlemen. Moreover, coupled with this, “lady editors” starts to seem less quirky and more condescending.
We’re writers. We put content out there for readers, presumably after we have honed it in order to do our very, very damnedest to make certain that the message our readers take away is the one that we intended to get across. I’m not going to say it’s always the writer’s fault every single time a reader takes something in a way the writer didn’t intend, but if a bunch of readers get their backs up…well, maybe it’s not just that the readers got it wrong. Maybe the writer/s needs to own the perceptions his/her/their words have created.
So, to summarize: I’m willing to assume good intentions and true regard for the women in question in the “lady editors” column, but in that case it’s seriously sloppy work. However, I also think it takes absolutely no work and certainly no agenda to find the column problematic or offensive. I certainly did (although admittedly I read it after reading about the shitstorm it caused, so I wasn’t a totally unbiased reader).
But Issue 202 contains Resnick and Malzberg’s rebuttal to the complaints they and/or the SFWA received about that column, and boy, even I, with my high-minded assumptions of good intentions, had a hard time reading that.
Their argument is that for the entirety of their careers, they have never (or almost never) before been “censored” despite writing stuff that could have offended plenty of people along the way, including the gatekeeper types who, if they had chosen, could easily have stopped publication of those racy pieces. But they worry that the complainers are calling for their censorship now, by those who responded negatively to their article and to the warrior babe on the cover.
Malzberg calls the objectors’ concerns “stupidity”—which he is willing to stomach as long as the objective isn’t to “shut us down” (which, presumably, is what would push those concerns from relatively harmless “stupidity” into true “censorship”). They argue that romance novels are just as bad about objectification of men on their covers. This might be a fair point, but while I’m not a member of the Romance Writers of America, I’m pretty sure the RWA would happily to discuss that any time its readership and membership choose to raise it as a concern. (Note: since writing that line, I found this excellent post, which–apart from containing the cover of 200 and the pdf of the dialogue column from 202–addresses that particular note directly. Evidently there is robust discussion on the topic. Hooray for robust discussion! That’s a good thing.) That’s what service organizations do—they respond to the concerns of their members and the readers they serve. And raising concerns is what many members and readers of the SFWA did, which is why the SFWA needs at least to have the discussion.
So, halfway through the rebuttal column, I had learned this much: the authors consider that either those who objected to the cover and dialogue in Issue 200 are at best stupid and at worst censorious. Resnick and Melzberg are also upset about the “anonymity” of those who complained, although ten minutes on Google would’ve given them ways to contact plenty of people eager to discuss their concerns—assuming they’re interested in discussion, and if I were still assuming good intentions, I’d presume they’d be pleased to do that. But by this point in my reading, I was no longer assuming good intentions. In order to explain why, let me tell you where I lost my ability to read objectively. It’s where Melzberg says this:
“Our Warrior Woman protesters and enemies of the adjective (who unlike Ms. Dworkin will not identify themselves) fall into the category of what Right Wing radio talkers call “liberal fascists,” and I cannot disagree with that description.” He then goes on to quote Sean Hannity: “The difference between the so-called liberals and conservatives is that the liberals want to shut us down. They truly do not believe that we should have airtime. They truly believe that we should be banned. We do not feel that way about them. We don’t like their positions but we acknowledge their right to expression. They do not extend us the same courtesy.” Melzberg continues: “This seems to be the subterranean issue here…the conviction held by at least some of the protestors that what they found offensive should be banned. That does not take us to anyplace that a writers’ organization should want to go, and I find the central issue here as distressing as you do.”
Actually, what I find distressing is the idea that a writers’ organization would not respond with discussion and debate to evidence that one of its mouthpieces (the Bulletin) does not represent the values of the community it serves. The problem is that the community is not one homogeneous organization. It now contains a lot of younger writers and fans and a growing number of women, many of whom, as Resnick points out, are making noise, demanding that the SFWA—which represents them as much as it represents the two men writing the dialogue—hear their concerns and take them into serious consideration.
And my interpretation of those concerns—having read rather a lot of them now—is not that hard-bodied Warrior Women should not exist or be on the covers of any books or magazines, and it certainly isn’t that women should never be described as beautiful (the adjective Melzberg mentions having “enemies” in the quote above). It’s not that no one should ever write or read material that anyone anywhere finds problematic. It’s that in 2013, many people are bothered when they see, coming from their writers’ service organization, so many potentially problematic things in one place—one of the mouthpiece publications of the organization—and they want to be able to discuss those things with the organization. And they have the right to that discussion by virtue of having paid dues.
Here’s something I’m pretty sure is almost universally true: when we disagree about something, there is a marked difference in the way we speak when we are willing to discuss that something on equal footing with the other party in an open exchange of views, and when we just want the other party to shut up. And the evidence that these fellows are too angry at being challenged to consider the possibility of the opposite point of view being valid and unwilling to engage in discussion is the way the article ends: with references to thought control, to Stalin and Chairman Mao; with comparisons between the negative response to their previous article and “the Federal Government (or the Supreme Court) telling you what you are allowed in your bedroom and with whom.” This not the language of anyone willing to consider that they might have caused legitimate offense and willing to take part in a discussion. This is the language of someone who isn’t willing to consider the other party’s point of view at all. The message here is: shut up and stop complaining, you’re behaving like a bunch of idiots and would-be dictators, and your challenging of what I wrote is on the same level as withholding my civil rights.
Note that at no point here have I accused the authors of the dialogue of behaving like Old White Men, which they claim is one of the reasons people are trying to silence them. On the other hand, dude, I’m really thinking it. I wish I wasn’t, but I’m not going to lie: I totally am. I also really wish that they hadn’t made the argument a liberal-conservative thing. I really wish they had just been willing to take part in a discussion. To have a conversation rather than a fight.
The conversation is important. The conversation has value. And it has value in this case especially, because, having now discussed Issue 200 and Issue 202, I should just mention one thing from Issue 201: CJ Henderson, in an article on how to maintain a writing life even when it seems to have stalled, includes an unfortunate bit of advice: Be like Barbie.
Now, once again, let me start from a place of assuming good intentions: while Henderson says, “Yes, Barbie has always been perfectly long-legged and tiny-waisted, perfectly proportioned in every way with dazzling blue eyes, terrific hair, and oh right, quite the pair of sweater-fillers as well,” (honestly, why would you even go there?) he completes that sentence with, “But, that is not who she is.” He goes on to suggest that Barbie’s great staying power is due to the fact that who she is is more—and more important—than the sum of her measurements. “That’s not who she is inside.” So far so…well, so far so really, really awkward, but I kind of see what you’re trying to do there. There’s a weird sort of parallel here to what I think maybe Resnick and Malzberg were trying to do—refer to a woman’s prettiness as part of her but not all that she is. But then Henderson puts his foot in it. “She has always been a role model for young girls…because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”
No, no, no… And I’m not even touching the other thing he said that raised lady-hackles, about how Barbie’s staying power was due to the fact that, unlike the Bratz dolls who “dress like tramps and whores,” Barbie is a “nice girl.” I don’t have the bandwidth. But the net effect, of course, is that the rest of Henderson’s article, which on the face of it has nothing to do with preaching to women about how they ought to behave, disappears from the conversation, because, like Resnick and Malzberg, he says something he somehow thinks is complimentary but which makes a chunk of readers drop their heads on their desks in either (charitably) embarrassment or (more likely) disgust.
There are bright spots here. I had to break this post into three because I had so much to say, and the next one talks about a really excellent rebuttal piece that also appeared in Issue 202, from Jim C. Hines. Also, both SFWA President John Scalzi and Vice President Rachel Swirsky responded immediately to the concerns raised by readers and members alike. A task force has been created to evaluate the state of the Bulletin. And a lot of people are talking.
And that’s good. Even if Resnick and Malzberg aren’t willing to have a discussion, plenty of people are. And that’s good for everyone.