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Posts tagged as “Sensawunda”

Off to Further Confusion

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No author appearances - just going to enjoy myself at the local furry convention, Further Confusion.

It’s a lot of fun seeing all these people having fun dressing like anthropomorphic animals. There’s a whole spectrum in this fandom to from cartoony characters out of Looney Tunes and Walt Disney to highly detailed characters with elaborate backstories out of a Steve Galacci hard science fiction story (and, yes, a definite subset of characters like something out of an Elf Sternberg furry erotica story … which, oddly enough, are also hard science fiction stories in the Larry Niven vein).

It’s one of the most welcoming fandoms out there, and I always have a great time. Off to the con!

-the Centaur

An Outrage, But Hardly a Surprise

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Recently one of my friends in the Treehouse Writers' group alerted me to the article "Sexism in publishing: my novel wasn't the problem, it was me, Catherine" in the Guardian. You should read it, but the punchline:

In an essay for Jezebel, Nichols reveals how after she sent out her novel to 50 agents, she received just two manuscript requests. But when she set up a new email address under a male name, and submitted the same covering letter and pages to 50 agents, it was requested 17 times.

“He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25,” writes Nichols. “The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me – Catherine.”

Catherine Nichols' original article is up at Jezebel under the title Homme de Plume - go check it out - but the point of raising the article was to gather people's opinions. The exchange went something like this: "Opinions?" "Outrage?"

Yes, it's outrageous, but hardly a surprise. I've heard stories like this again and again from many women writers. (Amusingly, or perhaps horrifyingly, the program I writing this in, Ecto, just spell-corrected "women writers" to "some writers," so perhaps the problem is more pervasive than I thought). Science fiction authors Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Jr., C.J. Cherryh, Paul Ashwell and CL Moore all hid their genders behind male and neutral pseudonyms to help sell their work. Behind the scenes, prejudice against women authors is pervasive - and I'm not even referring to the disparaging opinions of the conscious misogynists who'll freely tell you they don't like fiction written by women, or the discriminatory actions of the unconsciously prejudiced who simply don't buy fiction written by women, but instead calculated discrimination, sometimes on the part of women authors, editors and publishers themselves, who feel the need to hide their gender to make sure their stories sell.

I am a guy, so I've never been faced with the problem of having to choose between acknowledging or suppress my own gender in the face of the prejudices of those who would disparage my existence. (Though I have gotten a slight amount of flak for being a male paranormal romance author, we got around that by calling my work "urban fantasy," which my editor thought was a better description anyway). As a business decision, I respect any woman (or man) who chooses a pseudonym that will better market their work. My friend Trisha Wooldridge edits under Trisha Wooldridge, but writes under T. J. Wooldridge, not because publishers won't buy it, but because her publisher believes some of the young boys to whom her YA is aimed are less likely to read books by female authors. The counterexample might be J. K. Rowling, but even she is listed as J. K. Rowling and not Joanne because her publishers were worried young boys wouldn't buy their books. She's made something like a kabillion dollars under the name J. K. Rowling, so that wasn't a poor business decision (interestingly, Ecto just spell-corrected "decision" to "deception") but we'll never know how well she would have done had the Harry Potter series been published under the name "Joanne Rowling".

And because we'll never know, I feel it's high time that female authors got known for writing under their own names.   

Now, intellectual honesty demands I unload a bit of critical thinking that's nagging at me. In this day and age, when we can't trust anything on the Internet, when real ongoing tragedies are muddled by people writing and publishing fake stories to push what would be otherwise legitimate agendas for which there's already enough real horrific evidence - I'm looking at you, Rolling Stone - we should always get a nagging feeling about this kind of story: a story where someone complains that the system is stacked against them. For example, in Bait and Switch Barbara Ehrenreich tried to expose the perils of job hunting … by lying about her resume, and then writing a book about how surprised she was she didn't get hired by any of the people she was lying to. (Hint, liars, just because it's not socially acceptable to call someone a liar doesn't mean we're not totally on to you - and yes, I mean you, you personally, the individual(s) who are lying to me and thinking they're getting away with it because I smile and nod politely.)

In particular, whenever someone complains that they're having difficulty getting published, there always (or should be) this nagging suspicion in the back of your mind that the problem might be with the material, not the process - according to legend, one SF author who was having trouble getting published once called up Harlan Ellison (yes, THAT Harlan Ellison) and asked why he was having trouble getting published, to which Harlan responded, "Okay, write this down. You ready? You aren't getting published because your stories suck. Got it? Peace out." Actually, Harlan probably didn't say "peace out," and there may have been more curse words or HARSH TONAL INFLECTIONS that I simply can't represent typographically without violating the Peace Treaty of Unicode. So there's this gut reaction that makes us want to say, "so what if someone couldn't get published?"

But, taking her story at face value, what happened with Catherine Nichols was the precise opposite of what happened to Barbara Ehrenreich. When she started lying about her name, which in theory should have made things harder for her … she instead started getting more responses, which makes the prejudice against her seem even stronger. Even the initial situation she was in - getting rejections from over 50 publishers and agents - is something that happens over and over again in the history of publishing … but sooner or later, even the most patient stone is worn away. Legendary writing teacher John Gardner had a similar thought: "The writer sends out, and sends again, and again and again, and the rejections keep coming, whether printed slips or letters, and so at last the moment comes when many a promising writer folds his wings and drops." Or, in Nichols' own words:

To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition. My book was getting at least a few of those rejections because it was big, not because it was bad. George [her pseudonym], I imagine, would have been getting his “clever”s all along and would be writing something enormous now. In theory, the results of my experiment are vindicating, but I feel furious at having spent so much time in that ridiculous little cage, where so many people with the wrong kind of name are burning out their energy and intelligence. My name—Catherine—sounds as white and as relatively authoritative as any distinctly feminine name could, so I can only assume that changing other ethnic and class markers would have even more striking effects.

So we're crushing women writers … or worse, pre-judging their works. The Jezebel article quotes Norman Mailer:

In 1998, Prose had dubbed bias against women’s writing “gynobibliophobia”, citing Norman Mailer’s comment that “I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn”.

Now, I don't know what Mailer was sniffing, but now that the quote is free floating, let me just say that if he can cram the ink from Gertrude Stein, Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Patricia Briggs, Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, J. K. Rowling and Laurell Hamilton into the same bundle of fey, old-hat smells, he must have a hell of a nose.

But Mailer's quote, which bins an enormous amount of disparate reactions into a single judgment, looks like a textbook example of unconscious bias. As Malcolm Gladwell details in Blink, psychological priming prior to an event can literally change our experience of it: if I give you a drink in a Pepsi can instead of a Coke can, your taste experience will be literally different even if it's the same soda. This seems a bit crazy, unless you change the game a bit further and make the labels Vanilla Pepsi and Coke Zero: you can start to see that how the same soda could seem flat if it lacks an expected flavor, or too sweet if you are expecting an artificial sweetener. These unconscious expectations can lead to a haloing effect, where if you already think someone's a genius, you're more likely to credit them with more genius, when in someone else it may seem eccentricity or arrogance. The only solution to this kind of unconscious bias, according to Gladwell, is to expose yourself to more and more of the unfamiliar stimulus, so that it seems natural, rather than foreign.

So I feel it's high time not only that female authors should feel free to write under their own names, but also that the rest of us should feel free to start reading them.

I'm never going to tell someone not to use a pseudonym. There are a dozen reasons to do it, from business decisions to personal privacy to exploring different personas. There's something weirdly thrilling about Catherine Nichols' description of her male pseudonym, her "homme de plume," whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work.”

But no-one should have to hide their gender just to get published. No-one, man or woman; but since women are having most of the trouble, that's where our society needs to do most of its work. Or, to give (almost) the last word to Catherine:

The agents themselves were both men and women, which is not surprising because bias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive. It’s not something a few people do to everyone else. It goes through all the ways we think of ourselves and each other.

So it's something we should all work on. That's your homework, folks: step out of your circle and read something different.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Some art by my wife, Sandi Billingsley, who thinks a lot about male and female personas and the cages we're put in.

Down to the Wire

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So, just before the deadline last night, I completed my voting for the Hugo Awards. I was worried - what with trying to write my own novels and all - that I wouldn't be able to squeeze in enough reading to be able to participate in good conscience, but as of yesterday afternoon I'd read enough to come to a judgment, and an hour and a half before the deadline, I submitted my votes.

For those not in the know, this year there's a controversy over the Hugo Awards known as Puppygate. A number of authors who felt left out by past awards banded together in nomination campaigns, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies, promoting "slates" of recommended candidates to save the Hugos from "boring message fiction". They've tried this a few times, but this year, these slates managed to completely sweep some categories, which led to some serious outrage.

Why the outrage? Well, first, by sweeping entire categories in their desire to "include" work that they felt was left out, they created the opposite problem - excluding a lot of work of high merit. Second, there appears to have been some back-room dealings in how the slates were put together, and story put forth by the leadership of the Puppy teams keeps changing. And third, the very idea that they're being excluded seems to be wrong - George R. R. Martin has written about this extensively.

And now we come to the point - because I wanted to see how far in this article I could get without addressing the real controversy - many of the authors sponsoring the Puppies are conservative or libertarian, and think that likeminded authors are being shut out of the awards by liberals and progressives (whom the Puppies call "Social Justice Warriors") that they think are rewarding work for its inclusiveness or radicalism, not its quality or storytelling - and who, sometimes, are punishing work because it's popular.

Unfortunately the political dimension of this is bullshit.

The "boring message fiction" and "popular exclusion" that the slate teams are complaining about? It's not just a left-leaning problem. I'm a "Social Justice Warrior" - a left-leaning moderate who consciously works to make his stories more inclusive - and in the left-leaning circles I hang out with, filled with nontraditional authors with purple hair who write race, gender and culture-inclusive stories - we're also worried about "boring message fiction" and the elitist disdain of the popular.

And much of what the slates put forward is also "boring message fiction". As I was reading this year's nominees, again and again in the material put forth by the slates, I came across paper-thin stories and articles which existed solely to serve a point or drive an agenda. And while no-one would accuse the slates of ignoring popular fiction, they had the opposite problem, sometimes nominating things just based on their popularity and not on outstanding merit.

Often … but not always. As I started reading through the packets and digging into the stories, I consciously threw aside the idea of trying to rig my reading against the slates, and just read what was there on its own merits. While I know the names of some of the people involved - Vox Day, John C. Wright, and so on - soon I was just reading, not knowing who nominated what. Some of it was good. Some bad. Some of it was just drek. And some of it stuck with me, probably for a long time.

Whodathunk - some of works nominated for the Hugo awards were actually really good!

There are some people outraged by the slates, and were determined to vote NO AWARD over any work nominated by the Puppies. The Hugos use preference-based voting, you see, so it is possible for NO AWARD to rank over some nominated work. This happened to Vox Day once, in which one of his works (I think a story) got sixth place out of five. He put a picture of himself as a Borg on his blog and joked his new name should be Six of Five - which I find hilarious, and I don't mean in the "making fun of him" hilarious way but legitimately hilarious. Personally, if nominated for a Hugo I'd rather win one, but, God forbid, If that happened to me, I'd so put "Six of Five" on a T-shirt or banner "Totally Shut Out of the Hugos" on my blog. (Note: if you, the reader of this, are personally involved with a future Razzie award, and I've produced some film or screenplay that receives a Razzie for Worst Anything, please invite me to the ceremony. I'd be honored).

But the problem is, the slates nominated work I actually like for a number of categories, including for Best Novel. I realized, even if they'd swept the Best Novel category, then I shouldn't penalize work that I liked just because they nominated it. I do think that there should be some penalty for gaming the system, but as I reflected further, I realized I shouldn't penalize any work in any category if I truly liked it - even if it was nominated by some person who might deserve censure for gaming the system.

For example, In the Related Work category, I quite liked the article "The Hot Equations" by Ken Burnside. I think it should be required reading for anyone, like myself, who writes or is interested in writing military science fiction. (My YA story "Stranded" in the anthology of the same name, while not military itself, is the first novella in a longermilitary science fiction series set in a "hard space opera" universe - epic-SF with a hard-SF edge, so Burnside's article was great food for thought for me). It's in a collection called RIDING THE RED HORSE, edited by Vox Day, which I also liked.

I'm sorry. I can't shoot down the article that struck me most among all the Related Work nominees just because it was nominated on a slate. And I can't in good conscience not credit Vox Day's co-editing job on that book - I've edited books and I know how hard a job it is. I was familiar with the editing work of a lot of other editors in the category, so he wasn't my first choice - but he was my second, and I'm sure as heck not going to put NO AWARD down for the editor of an anthology I actually liked.

When I was done voting and looked back on my work, I realized the slates had done in themselves. I did put NO AWARD first in a number of categories, because the slates had managed to pack them with poor-quality drek and "boring message fiction" that didn't maintain my interest - just, this time it was right-leaning message fiction, along with some very whiny-sounding articles. To be fair, there was a bit of whining on the left too, and some drek, and some experimental stuff that didn't hold my interest. But in the end, I'd found a lot of good material in all categories, some of which were on slates. And that's OK. If it was good, that's OK.

No matter what happens, some people on the side of the Puppies will proclaim victory. It's a classic technique: arrange to play the game in a way in which you can't lose. Fail to get your work nominated? "See, we're being excluded!" Fail to get an award? "See, we're being discriminated against!" Get shut out of a category by NO AWARD? "See, we're being shut out!" Get an award? "See, our work was great anyway?" So I congratulate them on their "victory," no matter what form it takes.

But I think the slate teams have made a more important victory, one which is potentially a victory for everyone: they've made people care about the Hugos again. Now people left and right are talking about them in cafes and phone calls. People are debating the ethics of Hugo slates. And many people, like myself, who can't vote in good conscience without considering all the alternatives in depth, suddenly got exposed to an entire spectrum of science fiction that, in my heads-down, get-my-books-done focus, I had been ignoring. I have now read stories and read articles and seen artists that I liked, both on the slates and off them, and I feel enriched, energized - and determined to participate more in the process in the future.

I don't find Puppygate black and white, or symmetric. The creators of the slates made an important point about otherwise quality work being excluded - but the champions of the status quo had an even more important point: you shouldn't game the system to fix problems in the system. Two wrongs rarely make a right. The impression they had about their particular political bent being excluded was wrong, the way they decided to address it was wrong, and they've been caught in a cascade of coverups and changed stories ever since which is not endearing them to the people they might otherwise convince. I'm not sure we need to "fix" the system, but I do know I'll be participating much more actively in the future.

But, hey, the controversy led to an interesting and exciting slate of nominees, and I enjoyed all this reading, no matter who proposed it.

And, in the end, how did I vote for the Hugos?

By my conscience.

-the Centaur