This is the place, kids. Preorder your fresh-off-the-press copy of Bluecrowne (plus PDF) here. Payments are processed securely by Gumroad. We expect to ship on or about May 15th, and media rate shipping is included.
Without further ado:
Isn’t it beautiful? As she did with The Kairos Mechanism, Andrea Offermann used hand-cut paper for the silhouetted “ironwork.” Miwako Feuer hand-drafted the title. I sat back and watched them work, because I am useless when it comes to visual arts and design. Thanks to historian and author David Antscherl for making sure we had the correct type, size, and rigging for the cutter in the center image.
Time’s running out for Bluecrowne, though. Only 10 days are left as of this writing (Monday), and we’re only at 50%. Remember that the bulk of the budget goes to hiring young reader artists to create art for the illustrated digital edition. Without the success of the Kickstarter campaign, that won’t happen. So if you’re a fan of fantasy or a fan of kids participating in storytelling, get on over to the Bluecrowne Kickstarter page and do what you can!
I read three things this week that made me think this might be a post worth writing. One was Patrick Ness’s post in this year’s Battle of the Kids’ Books, in which he had to decide whether Far Far Away or Boxers and Saints would proceed to the next round. Full disclosure: I have not read either of these books, so I can’t comment on whether I agree or disagree on the points he made as they relate to these specific titles, but something he said that resonated with me was this: “I found the book false in the most objectionable way: the teenagers aren’t allowed to be real people.”
Fast forward to yesterday, when I finished reading Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman. Two points of full disclosure here: I consider Aaron a friend and the book’s very much about storytelling and its consequences, so I was probably somewhat predisposed to like the book. Not surprisingly, I loved it. But I also appreciated the fact that the characters who peopled it were painfully real, and full of the flaws and bizarre contradictions and oddball tensions and perceived inadequacies and irrational behaviors that kids aged 12, 13, and 14 are knit from. It so completely brought back the constant fear and tension and uncertainty that I remember acutely from those days, even now at age 37. These kids say things and do things that make me cringe, and that’s before the actual primary (and terrifying) plot gets going. That’s just life for these kids. And it feels true. The stakes feel high before anything even happens. But I’ll tell you what: this is a book that will put some people’s backs up, if they happen to pick it up thinking something like, “Oh, this looks like a nice creepy middle-grade romp.” And by some people, I mean some adults.
I don’t actually remember whether there was any particular use of salty language in The Riverman. There must have been; if not actual swearing, then certainly there were at least occasional discussions of the sorts of untoward subjects that almost-teenaged boys talk about. But let’s go back to Patrick Ness, who definitely called out the use of “zounds” rather than something harsher in Far Far Away as pulling him out of the story. Now, again, while Far Far Away is definitely on my TBR pile, I haven’t gotten to it yet, so I have no opinions on the author’s choice of expletive; this post is not about critiquing Mr. McNeal’s choices. (I am still really, really looking forward to finally reading Far Far Away.) And this is not to argue that every book for kids or teens needs to have heavy cursing, or even cursing at all, in it. Not every book does, which should hopefully be obvious. But when I read Mr. Ness’s comments, I thought immediately of an email I’d gotten from a teacher I’d asked to read a late draft of Bluecrowne when I needed fresh eyes, in which he’d more or less called me out for not letting my protagonist be a real person in a couple moments where I’d reined her in.
On Twitter I said that he’d told me Lucy Bluecrowne didn’t swear enough, but that’s not entirely true (that was my paraphrasing for amusement value). What he did was to point out a couple instances in which I’d pulled my punches when writing Lucy’s responses to things. This is a girl, he pointed out, who would know how to swear. (And boy, is that ever true.) I’d written a couple places where the idea that she wouldn’t have reacted with at least one sharp word was kind of unbelievable. He was kind enough not to put it that way, but he was right.
The challenge, I think, is this: write real kids. It can be put that simply, but it isn’t simple at all, and of course language is just one part of the elusive formula. For many writers who also happen to be adults, it’s easy to err on the side of writing kids either as we see them through our own (not always accurate and not always relevant) memories, or as we want to believe they are. Or, worst of all, we write gentler versions of our young characters because we’re afraid we’ll put people’s backs up if we don’t.
Some stories are gentle, and this post is irrelevant to those books. Some books are about or for younger kids, and generally this post is irrelevant to those books, too. I’m not suggesting Charlotte’s Web would’ve been improved by some saltier language, I promise you; I’m pretty sure I left the hard stuff out of Greenglass House, for instance, because it just wasn’t called for. And softer language choices are only one way in which we, as writers, sometimes pull our punches. But when writing MG it’s important to challenge ourselves to write real kids, because we’re writing for real kids. It does get tricky sometimes when writing older MG, which sometimes walks the MG/YA line as if it were a tightrope and which sometimes makes adults uncomfortable in the same way kids of that age sometimes make adults uncomfortable. But it’s a challenge worth taking up.
Thoughts for a Thursday. Discuss?
One week down. 30% in the coffers. This is where we are: 40 backers have pledged $2445 towards our goal of $8000. It’s all so exciting! And so many wonderful friends are helping to spread the word through Twitter, Facebook, and their blogs. I can’t thank you all enough. Watching the numbers climb in these first days has been just amazing. You can take a look at the progress here at the Bluecrowne campaign page. As you’ll see, things are looking great, but we still have a long way to go. Original art is going fast, but there’s still time. There are also 3 copies remaining of Jaime Zollars’ signed Greenglass House cover prints. Remember how awesome the Greenglass House cover is? Here it is (picture it without my name and the title). Who doesn’t want that for their wall? I mean, really. I want one for my wall.
So what am I, and the rest of the Bluecrowne team, up to during the campaign?
Well, I just turned in the first pass of Greenglass House. This was really exciting, because it’s the first set of editorial notes I’ve gotten since a pretty sizeable rewrite I did right before the Greenglass ARCs were printed. You might figure (and you’d be absolutely right) that my editor would never let ARCs go to press if she wasn’t happy with what I’d done. And yet it’s still an incredible relief to have the notes in your hand and see that they’re mostly about weird comma splices and places where you used the same word three times in two pages. Reviewing and approving and fixing all those edits took about a week and a half.
Meanwhile, Rachel is finishing up editing on Bluecrowne, and Miwako is finishing the titling for the cover, which she decided to hand-draft rather than use an existing font. It looks amazing, and I can’t wait to share the final front cover with you. My next task is to write the back text so that we can lock down the back cover; then it’ll be time to tackle Rachel’s notes and get the text locked, too. In the meantime, I have a few guest posts to tackle for blogs who are helping to pass the word about the Bluecrowne campaign.
I also have some prep to do for three upcoming appearances I couldn’t be more excited for.
On April 14 at McNally Jackson Books I’m honored to be helping, along with fellow author-booksellers Sarah Gerard, Carly Dashiell, Fiona Duncan, and Julie Carlisle, to launch Beth Steidle’s illustrated novel The Static Herd, which is being published this month by Calamari Press. Beth is an author, artist, and designer, and also one of the masterminds behind McNally Jackson’s Espresso Book Machine department. I couldn’t be more excited for Beth, or to be reading alongside the amazing women I’ll be joining. It’s going to be a totally varied group of readers–meaning, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s not a kids’ book event. (I, therefore, am going to have to really think about what I’m going to read. After all, as Madeleine L’Engle said, “If the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Maybe Walker’s first appearance in The Broken Lands? Everybody likes a villain. Thoughts?)
In May, I’m joining Aaron Starmer and Laurel Snyder at NESCBWI for a panel on 5/3 called The Blurry Space of Thirteen. This one’s going to be great, and we all think this is a topic that really needs more discussing in the kidlit world. Many of us get our backs up when younger kids’ books get referred to as YA, as if bookstores were shelving Charlotte’s Web alongside The Hunger Games and teachers, librarians, or authors recommending or writing them for the same readers. But even among the books classified as MG, there’s still a huge age range represented. We serve readers as young as 7 and 8 up to 13 and 14, and while we call this entire range middle-grade, these are very different kinds of readers. We’ll be discussing the need for tackling truly thorny issues in MG. I have high hopes for a truly great discussion.
Lastly, on May 17th at 4pm, in honor of the ABA’s Indies First Storytime day, I’m joining a group of 12 middle-grade authors for a dramatic reading from The Phantom Tollbooth at McNally Jackson Books. This is going to be wicked fun, and I hope many of you will come out to join us. The cast includes such luminaries as Adam Gidwitz, Michael Northrop, Natalie Standiford, Matthew Cody, Jeffrey Salane, Courtney Sheinmel, Kekla Magoon, Sophie Blackall, Claire LeGrand. Barbara Marcus of Random House Children’s Books will be narrating as well as moderating a discussion afterwards. Then we’ll all hang around and sign books. It’s going to be great.
Oh, and this weekend my sister and I are running a ten-mile race neither of us precisely trained for. The heckling from our husbands has already begun.
So that’s the report from Milford Command Central! Basically, yay for a great start, but the heavy lifting’s far from over. Thanks to the early supporters! Keep spreading the word, and let’s make this happen!
I suppose I should point out the use of “an” in the title. This is not the final text of the Greenglass House author’s note, by any stretch. But the ARC doesn’t have a note at all (chalk that up to Stuff That Didn’t Get Done Due to Griffin) and I’d like to note a few things for the sake of early readers of this book who might be curious about Milo and his family.
In 2011, my husband and I decided to begin the process of international adoption. It wasn’t a question of infertility, something we’ve had to explain now and then since the birth of our first child, Griffin, in 2013, when acquaintances are surprised to find we’re still in the adoption pipeline. The truth is that there were a lot of factors involved in our decision to adopt. We chose China because we had an interest in the culture and history. We began studying, both on our own and with our adoption agency as part of the home study, a required stage of the process. Among the many topics we read about and discussed were questions of identity and family and culture and heritage. If you’ve read my last book, The Broken Lands, you might be thinking now about Jin, and the speech Liao gives her atop the Brooklyn Bridge. It probably won’t surprise you to know that Jin grew from what was supposed to be a secondary character into a main character at the time that Nathan and I were beginning that process.
I began writing Greenglass House in the summer of 2012, and I was still thinking (as I imagine I often will) about adoptive families and what ours might be like. Out of those musings and the many hours of reading and study we spent to prepare for our adoption came Milo and Nora and Ben Pine. I didn’t want the story to be specifically and only about adoption, so it isn’t; just as I don’t imagine the experiences of every child who came to his or her family in this way are forever and always about adoption. However, when I chose the makeup of the family that ran the inn, it meant adoption would be part of the story. A lens—not the only one, but an important one—through which Milo views the world.
No two children are alike, so I have no way of knowing whether our Chinese son or daughter will have the same questions and secret musings that Milo does. But every kid has a birth family, so I know that family will always be part of my kid’s life in some way (even though, as in Milo’s case, the chances of our ever knowing anything about that first mother and father will be very slim). I would be very surprised if he or she didn’t wonder about them at some point. I hope he or she will not feel in any way uncomfortable about those wonderings, and will feel comfortable talking to Nathan and Griffin and I about them. But kids are kids—they’re secretive little critters. They suffer in silence when they shouldn’t have to. So let this book also be a letter to my future kid: We understand. We know. Wonder away. Include us in your wonderings when you want to. Know that we love you. Know that we know you love us, too.
The international adoption process can take a long time. Our first child was born into our family in June of 2013. Although there’s no way to be sure exactly when his little brother or sister from overseas will join the family, it’s likely Griffin will be four or five when that happens. We can’t wait to go to China together, all three of us, to bring home the newest member of our family.
In honor of what I’m just going to go ahead and call Greenglass House Cover Day, I’m delighted to have a guest post from cover artist Jaime Zollars, without whom today would be really not very exciting at all. Thanks for stopping by, Jaime!
Good day to all of you! My name is Jaime Zollars and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to be a little part of Kate’s amazing story, Greenglass House.
Many of you reading are no doubt writers, or avid readers, or simply fans of Kate’s lovely writing. While there may be some illustrators out there as well, I wanted to explain something to those who don’t make pictures. Illustrators get to be surprised all the time with the jobs that come our way. We may be going about our day, drawing, surfing the internet for “research”, sipping coffee and tweeting about said coffee, when an e-mail pops up in our inbox. It is a job! And we hope it is a fun job. But if we choose to illustrate the content of others in lieu of writing our own, the details of such assignments are always a surprise.
Now, surprises are sometimes good, but they can also catch you off guard. It is relatively common for me to get an e-mail from a client that says something to the effect of: “We love the work you do, but we’d like for you to do something entirely different.” (not in these exact words.) So while thankful for every opportunity that comes my way, I proceed in drawing a client’s pet shop of adorable kittens while dreaming of the day I will be called to draw something with shady characters, snowy mountains, and an air of magical mystery.
So when I was contacted about illustrating a cover and interiors for Greenglass House, it was probably the best surprise I’d ever uncovered in my inbox. I was sent samples of my own work that Clarion felt made me a good match (shown here), and seeing a few of my more obscure personal favorites there was thrilling! Then getting to read the book before most anyone else made it all even more exciting. This was one of those jobs that I immediately understood why the publisher was calling ME. This project felt like a natural fit. And for an illustrator, that is always the best kind.
Of course, once one gets “the perfect job”, the next thought that pops into one’s head is “I sure hope I don’t mess this up.” While it was difficult to pack in the depth and wonderful mystery of Greenglass House in a single image, hopefully it does its job of making you want to know more.
See Jaime’s beautiful cover, read an excerpt from the first chapter, and enter to win an ARC over at Book Smugglers!
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 Issues 200 and 201. This is the end of a really long post I wrote on Saturday that I had to break into three parts. You can read the first two parts here and here.
Now, what I had originally planned to post today was based on my readings of the three bulletin pieces at the heart of the Kerfluffle and my readings of a pretty good cross-section of responses on both sides of the issue that were posted throughout the interwebs. It’s also colored by my reactions to several other kerfluffles that have been swirling around the ether and the intertubes. It still exists after the cut below in its original form (making this an obscenely long post, taken as a single thing). But yesterday evening I spent rawther a long time (several hours) reading the SFWA forum threads covering the issue and the discussions which have been going on at least since January when Issue 200 landed in folks’ mailboxes. That, friends, was verrry illuminating. So before you read what I was going to say, here’s where I landed at one in the morning last night, after reading the conversations that have been taking place out of public view.
You can’t read the forums if you aren’t an SFWA member, which is troubling in this case for the very important reason that a lot of would-be members are watching to see the organization’s response to the Kerfluffle to help them decide whether SFWA is something they want to participate with. A lot of current members are doing the same. But a lot of us (myself included) don’t visit the forums as often as we might. And while there’s a rousing dialogue going on online, very little of that has contained concrete information about what the SFWA itself is doing to respond. There has been an official apology and statement from outgoing president John Scalzi; vice president Rachel Swirsky has also apologized publicly and been appointed to a task force to evaluate the Bulletin and how to improve it based on this episode as well as ongoing grumblings about its usefulness and the readership’s expectations for it. Both of which are great, but it would be easy to think those are a couple drops in a bucket compared to the massive response of everyone else who’s spoken up on one side or the other.
If you are making the decision about whether to renew your membership, please, please login to the forums and read the threads about the Bulletin. And if I might suggest, while the early threads about the individual issues make for more, shall we say, entertaining reading, you should probably start with the thread titled “Moving Forward.” This is the one you need, and if you start with the other ones, you might never get there. Moving Forward is the thread in which you’ll find several instances of direct evidence that not only the leadership of the organization but the leadership of the magazine itself understands the magnitude of the situation and is responding accordingly. Although I suspect some of these things will be announced publicly very soon, a brief Google search suggests they haven’t been announced yet. But they’re there if you’re a member and can login.
More importantly, though, there is a rousing discussion between folks who are eager to contribute to solving the problems with the Bulletin–both the very real problems of these last few issues and the less immediately troubling but no less important questions of how the Bulletin can stay relevant to its readership and provide real benefits. One relatively new member, Carrie Cuinn, who wrote this about her response to the Kerfluffle back in April (this was the issue with the Barbie litany), contacted editor Jean Rabe and volunteered her skills and time to help at the Bulletin. Jean Rabe brought her aboard despite the fact that Carrie openly wanted to work toward changing the Bulletin. Carrie has not only been volunteering at the Bulletin ever since, but has been active on the forums not merely calling for change but offering concrete solutions and helping to extend the discussion by encouraging others to join in.
She isn’t alone on the threads, either. There are many, many voices who, after venting their reactions, followed up not with continued vitriol but with suggestions and counter-suggestions. This, despite the fact that one of the sad things that happens in all of the forum threads in question is, unfortunately, a predictable bit of what I’m going to call “this is our sandbox” posturing, mostly from two or three specific voices. One of those voices felt (and perhaps continues to feel) that Affiliate and Associate members don’t have the right to “make demands” of the organization. They may make suggestions and requests, this person said (I won’t quote the individual directly or by name; that would be inappropriate since the forums are not public-facing), but use of the word “must” (as in, the Bulletin must change) is inappropriate from anyone who isn’t an Active member.
The membership requirements are here if you’re curious, but to summarize, the difference between Associate and Active member is only the number of prose fiction sales that person has made to qualifying markets at certain pay rates, and Affiliate members are professionals who work in SF/F but not necessarily as writers; they are editors, agents, reviewers, academics, etc. A single sale of a prose novel to a qualifying market allows one to join as Active, and those who work in short fiction need three qualifying sales to join as Active or one to join as Associate, and of course they can change their membership later.
There are differences in the levels of participation allowed members at different levels, so maybe there are some theoretical grounds for The Individual’s suggestion that Associate and Affiliate members should not feel entitled to have the organization pivot to suit them. The problem is that everyone who believes in the work it does for authors wants SFWA to grow, which means it’s in all of our interests that people join at whatever level they can and upgrade their memberships when they can, which emphatically will not happen if all levels of membership can’t be involved in shaping the organization, at least by taking equal part in discussions about its future. If people feel that Associate members aren’t “real” members, then why should they bother plunking down their hard-earned dues money to join as Associates? Certainly they’ll have no reason to volunteer, or to participate in discussions like these. I’ve been an Active member for like five years; my first sale was a novel, so I was Active from minute one. But ask me how often I’ve volunteered. Ask me how often I visit the forums except to make sure there’s a PDF of my books available around Nebula/Norton season. Now take someone who works full-time as an SF/F editor and has several SF/F sales of their own but they’re verse fiction, not prose and therefore they can’t join as Active, and let’s further pretend that this person actually maintains a pretty decent level of involvement. My concerns–when I suddenly discover I have them–are more important than our fictional ‘sub-Active’ member? Riiight. Also not irrelevant: members at all levels are demanding change. Lots of members. And the concerns of non-members saying, “I don’t know if I ever want SFWA to speak for me if this is what it’s going to say” aren’t irrelevant, either. So. That’s what I think about that.
One of those sandbox voices also felt (and perhaps continues to feel) that the problem with younger and newer voices making all of these demands is that the SFWA and the Bulletin are what they are because of the recognized names and long years of contributions of the organization, and that they have earned their platforms and the right to a certain level of respect. Now, I think everyone deserves respect, and deserves to be heard. Basic human respect, though; not veneration and an ongoing platform. And most everyone in the discussion on the forum sees the platform issue as one linked to the Bulletin’s place as one of the mouthpieces of the organization. Someone said something I really liked–that just because someone’s put in a long career and made contributions doesn’t mean they get a megaphone and the right to speak for everybody.
But here’s the neat thing–although several times I literally slapped myself in the forehead while reading the forum discussions, they were, by and large, almost entirely civil and rational and involving people who were provably eager to solve problems, not just to gripe about them. Yes, there were the sandbox guys, who at the end of my reading still seemed to think that what was being asked for by those who were asking for change was a full-scale coup d’etat under the flag of Never Offend Anyone Again. And there were a couple times where both sides got a little strident. But between the superhuman moderators and some occasional “let’s make sure I’m hearing you right” reality checks from parties eager to keep the conversation going, things never escalated so far that the conversation couldn’t be made civil again. (Although I confess to being curious about how many comments the mods actually had to mallet; none of them were closed for comments at any point, but all four threads that I read did eventually wind up having ground rules set and all of them eventually went into active moderation).
And active in all the conversations were Rachel Swirsky (who as you will remember is heading the Bulletin task force) and incoming president Steven Gould. At one point, someone asked Rachel what the timeframe was on a related issue that had been raised as needing eyes on it, and Rachel’s response was (again, paraphrasing) that she had planned to tackle it in about two weeks, but was she hearing that it needed to be given a higher priority? Several questions were raised from people about things they’d been trying to get answers on for some time, and scrolling down other people came back with answers. It was not just a place to vent. It was (and is) a place to work. The Moving Forward thread is still active, and anyone who wants to be involved in the discussions should get over there asap. There’s also a thread for those willing to volunteer.
So what I took from the forums were two things: 1) sadly, my suspicions that there was a certain sandbox mentality going on were confirmed, although it’s hard to know how prevalent it actually is because only a few sandboxers joined the conversation; HOWEVER more importantly 2) the Kerfluffle had resulted in inclusive, solution-focused conversations and brainstorming involving members at all levels and on both “sides” of the issue, and those things were already resulting in active steps being taken to improve the Bulletin both in terms of professionalism and inclusion and its value to the SFWA constituency. Oh, three things: I also learned that the Bulletin is and has been (although evidently almost nobody knew it) open to submissions from both members and non-members alike. Bonus: it pays pro rates. So another tremendously useful way to get involved in making changes to the Bulletin is to submit to the Bulletin.
SFWA members who haven’t visited lately–this is a really good time to go to the forums and catch yourself up. I was extremely heartened by the discussions taking place. Those who are not members and who are still deciding, you may have to wait and see what the next couple of Bulletin issues show in terms of results. It isn’t clear what state the next issue was in prior to all of this blowing up, so it’s hard to say whether we’re going to see visible results with Issue 203, but I feel pretty good about the likelihood that Issue 204 is going to do a better job for everyone. And the Kerfluffle–well, it would have been better for it never to have happened, but certainly it’s gotten people involved who haven’t been involved before, and it looks like it’s going to result in some things that perhaps really needed to be examined being done differently. Those are both really good things.
And now, if your eyes aren’t crossing yet and you have more time to kill, you’re welcome to read what I was going to post up until last night.
Here it is: Continue reading
I spent Saturday writing a blog post that became three, because I was that peeved by a series of kerfluffles lately, culminating in a dustup at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America over several pieces spanning three issues of the SFWA Bulletin. This is post number two.
In very brief, in Issue 200 a dialogue between Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg raised some hackles, as did the cover, which featured a metal bikini-clad warrior woman crouching over the corpse of some cold-climate beast. In Issue 201, another contributor, CJ Henderson, opened his mouth and inserted his foot by saying that, like Barbie, women should maintain a “quiet dignity.” And in Issue 202 Resnick and Malzberg responded to the complaints the SFWA received about both the cover of and their contribution to Issue 200 by saying the complainers were idiots, if not outright attempting to censor and suppress them.
But there was another response in Issue 202 to the reader responses to 200. It was by Jim C. Hines, and it came in response specifically to the cover and the outcry it prompted. Echoing a blog project he did some time ago in which he himself posed as closely as he could to the contorted positions in which cover chicks find themselves, Hines argues that the problem is not primarily the fact of the skimpy clothes and the sexuality—it’s the specific ways in which those things are drawn, and the fact that men on covers are not required (or at least, not required nearly as often) to break their backs in the name of sexy poses. In his blog post he very generously speculates that the idea behind these covers is probably to portray strong, sexy women–not just pinups in costume. But in the course of sexing the poses up, the artists have put these women in nearly impossible postures—certainly postures from which they could not possibly fight or in fact, function without pain.
In his Bulletin column, he points out: “Our barbarian swordswoman is more than able to take down monsters with three times her mass, but she doesn’t have the slightest idea how to dress herself. As both armor and protection from the snowy environments, her wardrobe puts her clearly in the “too dumb to live” category of characters.” Therefore, if you want to draw a sex-kitten/warrior woman, you’d better be able to justify your choices. Preferably, dress her in something she can actually fight in, and pose her as a fighter, not a pinup. And (adds Kate) if you don’t think you can accomplish both with the same picture, you’re not trying hard enough. That’s all. Full stop. You’re an artist. Try harder.
Interestingly, Hines’ article, which directly follows Resnick and Malzberg’s, includes on its first page the following statement: “I’ve been talking about sexism in cover art online and at conventions for more than a year now, and I believe it’s an important conversation to have. I certainly understand that not everyone agrees with me, and I’m not about to try to force everyone to take part in that conversation, but I wonder sometimes when people seem so eager to shut it down. Whether it’s dismissing concerns about the objectification and sexualization of women as knee-jerk overreaction from people looking for reasons to be offended, or proclaiming that the PC Police are coming to paint burkas over all the old Conan the Barbarian covers.”
I said it in yesterday’s post, and I’ll say it again: the conversation is important. The conversation has merit. And in the interest of keeping the conversation going (and in response to something I mentioned in yesterday’s rant, the fact that the Resnick and Malzberg took issue with their detractors’ purported “anonymity”), Hines is also keeping a roundup of the (not at all anonymous) responses to the Kerfluffle. You can find it here.
And here’s another thing to discuss once we get that conversation going: there’s a problem with the way that some people use femininity and female sexuality, and the way they defend their uses (some would say abuses) of it. A sexy woman on the cover of a magazine doesn’t immediately have to equal sexism. But when that woman is fairly obviously sexy just for the sake of the sexy, well, then there might be a problem. But when women (and sometimes men) complain about hypersexualized female images, they are often countered with something like this: she’s not hypersexualized, she’s strong and powerful and in charge of her own sexuality, and by the way, why are you ashamed of the female body/female sexuality?
About a year and a half ago DC Comics went through something like this when they rebooted Catwoman and Starfire and a Kerfluffle resulted, in which many (mostly but not all female) readers objected to what they saw as a massive and misogynistic oversexualization of characters they cared about and many (mostly but not all male) readers countered that people were reading “misogynistic oversexualization” where they should have been reading “strong, sexually empowered, and badass” and demanded to know why those angry readers were offended by beautiful women who weren’t ashamed of their sexuality.
My response was what I hoped would be a helpful tutorial on how to write better female characters, in which I argued that, if only for financial reasons (namely, increasing market share by not pissing off female readers who would otherwise spend their money on your product), DC writers ought to consider just writing better women. Because really, that’s all the angry folks were demanding: female characters who were written so that their entire personalities were not based upon their sexuality. (Now, to be clear, I wish people would write better women and not assume or claim that sexuality is a sufficient stand-in for personality and strength because it’s the right thing to do, much like I wish we could all have equal rights and pay and generally be treated with respect because it’s the right thing to do, but on matters like this I admit I default to being cynical.)
I guess the parallel for artists (and designers and publishers, if they’re listening) is: you can have your sexiness, just please make it make sense. Otherwise nobody’s fooled and people get pissed off because it starts looking like you’re pandering to men and objectifying women. And writers/editors/artists/designers/etcetera: you can do that, if you feel that strongly about it. You can continue to pander and objectify. Of course you can. You’re allowed, to put this on the kindergarten level of discourse. Nobody’s going to come to your home or place of business and stop you. But you should expect some negative reactions and you should expect to lose a chunk of your audience. Weigh that into your calculations, is all I’m saying. (I’d like to say, be reasonable and do the right thing, but again, cynicism. Plus, if we were ever likely to agree on what “the right thing” looks like, we wouldn’t have kerfluffles like this, would we? Evidence: this response to the Kerfluffle. But look: just don’t click on that link. And if you value your blood pressure remaining at healthy levels, for God’s sake, do not read the comments.)
But let’s go back to the positive, because there are positives here to talk about. In Hines’ article he speaks to an artist named Lee Moyer and asks “how a professional made the distinction between painting a beautiful woman (or man) and objectifying them.” Moyer’s response included the following: “I cannot speak for other illustrators. But for myself, the goal is always to paint the person first. To paint women as persons in their own rights is key, as opposed to painting women for the male gaze.”
So again: people who feel so strongly about having your SF/F served up with sexy sexy covers–you can still have that! But maybe the artists and designers just have to work a little bit harder. They’re professionals. They can handle it. And frankly, so can you, probably. It’s not like anyone’s asking you to eat kale or anything like that.
Yesterday I posted a massive rant. I tried not to write it as a rant, but that’s pretty much what it was. But I finished the post by commenting that on the bright side, the SFWA is taking the Kerfluffle very seriously and really actively looking to foster meaningful discussion. Thank you, Jim C. Hines, for taking part in that discussion, and challenging others to do the same.
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.