The New Rude Masters of Fantasy & Science Fiction – and Romance

We’re closing the doors on 2019 and with that, I’ve finally finished up this essay, which I’ve been working on for over a year and which keeps having to be updated as new scuffles arose. I have many thoughts on the modern publishing scene, many of them related to class/race/gender/disability issues, but I will focus on a particular question because right now we’re seeing a lot of this getting enacted yet again, this time in the form of the Romance Writers Association debacle, where author Courtney Milan was officially censured, suspended from membership for a year, and banned for life from RWA leadership after two other members complained that she had repeatedly/intentionally engaged in conduct injurious to the RWA through comments on social media.

As part of the resulting furor, which seems to me just a flaming trainwreck and shining example of how an organization shouldn’t handle something like this that has included moments like Chuck Tingle disavowing knowing RWA President Damon Suede, authors of color are yet again being called rude for speaking out. So let’s begin.

How is Fantasy & Science Fiction Publishing Changing?

In this decade, writers have found themselves at an unsettling and unpredictable moment in publishing as well as history, one that marks major changes in the ways humans consume words. New forces have entered the scene. Among them are the rise of indie publishing, the ability of binge readers to download an entire series to their e-reader in an instant, the accessibility of free media through sites like Project Gutenberg, unforeseen copyright battles involving new technology and business models, and social media with its global reach, to mention only a few.

This moment is shaped by political shifts seeping through from the overall culture. One such shift is an attention to previously-marginalized voices. On the political left, there is a concerted effort to acknowledge that a system of privilege has muted and silenced some groups while privileging those in the mainstream. In recent years, conferences have begun with acknowledging first peoples and their land, cultural repositories are focusing their acquisitions to remedy gaps, and fan conventions are bringing in fans of color and include codes of conduct, to present a few examples of such initiatives.

Also acknowledged is that sometimes celebrated members of the privileged groups have mocked, diminished, or profited from those marginalized voices and their cultures. A manifestation of this acknowledgement is the way in which multiple writing awards have had their names or physical shape changed in recent years, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now the Children’s Literature Legacy Award), the Melvil Dewey Medal (the new name will be announced in January), the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award (now the Otherwise Award), the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (now The Astounding Award for Best New Writer), and the World Fantasy Award (the physical award has been changed from a bust of H.P. Lovecraft to a design that is not a human shape).

Such acknowledgements and the changes to our culture’s overall mindset that they represent are groundbreaking shifts, major changes in perception. The war over that territory is fought on a daily basis in social and mass media as well as in specific manifestations of that culture, the fantasy and science fiction works being produced in it. Some of the people fighting do regard their efforts as a war and others do it for self-proclaimed “shits and giggles,” while for what I suspect is the majority, it’s become a thing lived with, an ongoing storm that’s become the norm.

Speeches Marking Change—and the Reactions

Every year as award seasons play out, we see moments that express these changes. Two recent ones have had at their center writers who are women of color making speeches: N.K. Jemisin and Jeanette Ng.

At WorldCon in 2018, while accepting a Hugo for the third year in a row, Nora Jemisin read her speech off her phone, frequently interrupted by a flood of congratulatory texts (which I thought was adorable). Her speech referenced many of the controversies of recent years and particularly reactions from the Hugo-centered Sad/Rabid Puppies group, a conservative-led movement that had produced significant public vitriol at her previous two wins.

Here is the speech in video form; here is a transcript.

I watched Jemisin’s speech not sitting in the audience at the Hugo Awards ceremony but nearby in the convention center, amid a crowd gathered to watch the livestream. I heard the applause; I felt the love around me for what she was saying. It was a moment where I felt myself part of fandom, part of one of that fandom’s institutions, itself beleaguered by alt-right attempts at disruption and co-option. Her speech moved me to tears, in the happiest of ways, and I was not alone in that.

But some did not feel themselves included by her speech. One notable reaction was that of Robert Silverberg. Silverberg is familiar to the majority of science fiction fans, but for those who are not, he is a SFWA Grand Master, and winner of multiple Hugos and Nebulas over the course of the past six decades. He remains influential in the field, serving recently as the 2019 Toastmaster at the World Fantasy Convention and has attended every Hugo Awards ceremony since the first one in 1953.

Among other things, Silverberg said:

I have not read the Jemison books. Perhaps they are wonderful works of science fiction deserving of Hugos every year from now on. But in her graceless and vulgar acceptance speech last night, she insisted that she had not won because of ‘identity politics,’ and proceeded to disprove her own point by rehearsing the grievances of her people and describing her latest Hugo as a middle finger aimed at all those who had created those grievances. (1)

Jemisin’s first novel, published almost a decade ago now, was nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and won the World Fantasy Award for the best first novel. The next two both won Hugos. To declare one has never read her work is strange for someone who is, presumably, still reading in the field in order to vote for awards, and would seem to many more a confession of lack than a statement of one’s political alignment.

Given how many people had said she had won because of “identity politics,” often expressed much less indirectly than that, I found Jemisin’s speech a measured reply. For Silverberg to employ a dog-whistle term signifying “this person got X because of affirmative action and not because they deserved it” is… well, it’s disappointing at the least, but perhaps not surprising. Silverberg, who has given a number of Hugo performances that involved sexual innuendo, and who offered up no opinion when fellow SFWA Grand Master Harlan Ellison groped Connie Willis as part of his 2006 Hugo Award performance, found Jemisin’s speech “vulgar,” a word I’ll return to later in order to point to some implicit class dynamics.

Let’s fast-forward a year to Jeannette Ng’s speech accepting the (since re-named) Campbell Award at the Hugo Award ceremony in Dublin in 2019. The Campbell Award is given each year to the best writer first published in the previous two years. It was named for John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Magazine. Again, here’s the video as well as a transcript.

Ng comes out swinging, declaring “John F. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist.” And she talks about the evolution of the genre, how it’s grown “wilder and stranger than his mind could imagine or allow.” She speaks about the Hong Kong protests, still very much in the news at the moment of this writing, and which have become increasingly violent since the time of her speech, including live bullets on the part of the police.

So I need say, I was born in Hong Kong. Right now, in the most cyberpunk in the city in the world, protesters struggle with the masked, anonymous stormtroopers of an autocratic Empire. They have literally just held her largest illegal gathering in their history. As we speak they are calling for a horological revolution in our time. They have held laser pointers to the skies and tried to to impossibly set alight the stars. I cannot help be proud of them, to cry for them, and to lament their pain.

Several venerables of SF stepped forward to react to the speech. Their purpose was not to celebrate this passionate declaration of intersection of politics and science fiction, one that followed in the path of so many other science fiction writers, but to make sure this uppity newcomer knew they should have stayed in their place.

Among them were Norman Spinrad, who discovered the controversy three months later and immediately moved to denounce Ng, saying, “Jeanette Ng who won the Campbell award for best new writer used it to screech a foaming at the mouth tirade against John W. Campbell which you can view on You Tube, calling him a racist and a fascist among other things,” and then adding in the comments, “Whether she was wrong or right may be a matter of opinion, but her utter swinishness is not. As I understand it, both Campbell awards-best new writer, years best novel, are indeed continuing under more politically correct names. And whatever Campbell was, he was not a facist [sic] as the word is propperly [sic] used, ala Musselini [sic]. Nor really a racist in terms of whites versus people of color. The woman, among other things, is an ignoramus.”

Like Silverberg, Spinrad is a multiple award winner, longtime author, and highly regarded. I’m a big fan of his writing, which pushed multiple boundaries in the past, and continues to do so in books like Osama the Gun. He was always on my shortlist for SFWA Grand Master when picking them, and I regret that the Grand Master system is structured in such a way that not everyone deserving can get recognized, and that we continue to miss adding worthies, such as Octavia Butler and Terry Pratchett.

But despite his fervent testimonials, Spinrad’s view of Campbell is not shared by everyone, and the name of the award had been, by the time he spoke, already changed. Spinrad declared Ng simply wrong about Campbell; others have spoken of Campbell as being a representative product of his times. Yet, as Cory Doctorow observes in his own essay about this phenomenon:

There’s plenty of evidence that Campbell’s views were odious and deplorable. It wasn’t just the story he had Heinlein expand into his terrible, racist, authoritarian, eugenics-inflected yellow peril novel Sixth Column. Nor was it Campbell’s decision to lean hard on Tom Godwin to kill the girl in “Cold Equations” in order to turn his story into a parable about the foolishness of women and the role of men in guiding them to accept the cold, hard facts of life.

It’s also that Campbell used his op-ed space in Astound­ing to cheer the murders of the Kent State 4. He attributed the Watts uprising to Black people’s latent desire to return to slavery. These were not artefacts of a less-enlightened era. By the standards of his day, Campbell was a font of terrible ideas, from his early support of fringe religion and psychic phenomena to his views on women and racialized people.

Why Stand with Campbell?

So how—in light of the notion that science fiction has always been talking about and predicting the future, always trying to figure out the coming thing—how does one explain it when some writers who have been among the most influential and groundbreaking in science fiction are now part of the conservative forces decrying changes in science fiction, and most particularly the invasion of new voices that are not like themselves?

I attribute most of the discordance to a few factors:

Many SF writers are used to being the most liberal voice in the room, the proponents of the wildest and wackiest things. But as time has passed, as is the way of things, the boundaries have been stretched farther, and what was once-wild now looks tame at times. There are new forces in the world. And now some of those previously outrageous, convention-challenging voices are putting their energy into protecting the conventions and social mores they created from any further change.

Were they ever as liberal as they think themselves? Some, probably/perhaps. At times it seems that the liberalness of many science fiction writers lies more in their perceptions of themselves than in their actions. Isaac Asimov was notorious for harassing women, Randall Garrett notoriously walked up to women at parties and asked them if they wanted to fuck, and early in this century Harlan Ellison thought it fine to grab a fellow writer’s breasts for a comic shtick—during a Hugo ceremony.

In his essay, “Racism and Science Fiction,” Samuel R. Delany recounts incidents encountered in the field and tells the story of a Nebula Awards ceremony where Isaac Asimov said to him, on a night when he’d won multiple Nebulas, “You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro…!” Asimov was joking, but the fact remains that at a moment when Delany should have been able to celebrate, some of his fellow writers were saying the only reason he’d won was because of his race—and not all of them were joking. (Campbell also features in Delany’s essay.)

There’s also the fact that some well-established SF writers don’t want to admit that any part of their prominence may be due to privilege. Writers are in general seething masses of ego, and this is an understandable, human thing. But it is true. Writers of color, women writers, writers with disabilities, and queer writers have all faced barriers that writers more sheltered by privilege have not, and the ones that have made it in have done so because they were too good to be ignored. Knowing that your place came at someone else’s expense may be difficult to acknowledge, particularly when you were playing the game on the easiest setting while they had to face a harder one.

Money Changes Everything

Some traditionally published writers are uncomfortable with the indie model, and I’ve mentioned the years-long struggle that it took to get them into SFWA before. Often these writers are the ones most snobbish within the confines of the traditionally published version. For a writer to be “overly commercial” is, they will gently imply, an unworthy goal, even while tap-dancing around the admission that the colleague they’re slapping that label on is outselling them. This verbal gyration underlies an attitude that science fiction itself has traditionally held towards romance, that it’s more commercial and somehow a lesser form. It’s an odd reflection of a similar assumption sometimes made by literary fiction about F&SF.

This notion that an author wanting money somehow spoils fiction, degrading it away from “art,” is a symptom of the final factor, which is centered on social class. Some of the loudest voices in our culture’s conversations are experiencing difficulty adapting to social changes affecting who gets to talk and therefore resisting the idea of encouraging voices that have been suppressed by social forces (which also involves acknowledging those social forces exist).

This is a sticking point and this is where the vocabulary of class—“vulgar,” “low-rent,” and “crude”—often gets flung around. Couple it with the current political times, where who speaks and who does not can, as healthcare and social support system funding is slashed, become a matter of life and death, and its implications become downright dangerous.

I have had some folks express to me the idea that they fought to speak and so other people unwilling to make the same efforts are undeserving of access to the speech they fought for. One friend who’d done union work said, simply, “I got beat up for my principles.” It’s perhaps a compelling argument until one considers whether or not it’s a question of unwilling versus unable. And that is why the ability to throw or take a punch cannot be the bar for being able to participate in the conversation, or it makes that past fight pointless.

The idea that worthy voices will fight to be heard is saying that the voices who speak should only be the ones capable of fighting through the existing, hostile system in order to do so. That narrative privileges people with energy and what has become known as “spoons.” But beyond all else, that approach–among other things–overwhelmingly, drastically, and undeniably privileges those born with inherited wealth and all the physical, emotional, and social resources that position affords them.

You cannot trust a system like that to account for the people who are not represented in daily speech, who are discouraged by a thousand tiny things from speaking. You cannot trust it to let them speak when they need to or when they have value to add. If we are to build a society that accommodates those folk, they must be part of the conversation. If we are to create a literature in which every reader can find a place, the underrepresented writers must be part of that conversation as well. We do not ask for a system where privileged authors are using that privilege to speak for those groups, but one where members of those groups get to speak for themselves. That is at the core of #ownvoices.

Lots of generalizations are made about millennials. Here’s mine: they rub older people the wrong way sometimes because they won’t put up with the bullshit acceptable in the past. Personally, I dig that. I hit the fact that society uses politeness and the expectation that I be “nice” against me on a daily basis, and so the way I see these fierce young folks say “ok boomer” and move on is a revelation and a joy to me. Day by day, I get a little ruder to the people who think nothing of demanding that I cater to their time and energy rather than mine, and it’s the millennials rolling their eyes at the clueless that egg me on.

Much of that gets played out on social media. Like #ownvoices, the #MeToo movement is a result of social media’s prevalence. I do not think it would have manifested without it, but I can remember living in a system where men felt a lot more comfortable grabbing or groping me than they seem to be with women nowadays. The existence of #MeToo, an expression of solidarity and validation with the succinct jolt of a hashtag, is not making sweeping changes, but rather eroding some social structures in a way that I find encouraging. Mostly.

The Weaponization of Civility

As I’ve said, one cudgel used in this fight is a demand for civility, and I’m seeing it raised again in the debate surrounding the RWA ejecting Courtney Milan for speaking up. Courtesy becomes weaponized, a way of silencing. A way of forcing others to wait for the conversational turn that never gets ceded. Note Silverberg calling Jemisin’s speech “graceless and vulgar” and Spinrad weighing in to call Ng “swinish.” I cannot help but think that these men are less upset by what was said, than that it was not delivered with the deference that they felt Campbell, a proxy for themselves, deserved.

Hegemonic structures replicate themselves, continually pretending to reinvent and innovate but doing so in the same old forms. Traditional publishing is as prone to this as any other social structure. Indie writers get treated as though they were the nouveau riche, obsessed with money, when many of them are actually making a living at writing in a way our forebears—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Gilman—would have totally approved of. The truth is being a New York Times best-selling author doesn’t mean one is rolling around on moneypiles like Scrooge McDuck unless you’re part of a very very small group. For things to truly change, publishing must bring in new voices and not just allow them, but encourage them to speak — not just emotionally, but financially.

Those voices are a diverse group, but one thing they often share is a lack of economic privilege, the sort that allows one to work as an unpaid intern, or pay for the grad school that gives one time enough to write or resources for focusing on craft rather than survival. That’s part of the undercurrent in those cries about vulgarity: an unease with people who haven’t undergone the same social shaping features, who may not have been signed off on by society with a standardized degree. To ignore the ways otherness has been used to justify discouraging those others is to be complicit in that act of silencing. And that, I would argue, is about as rude as it gets.

Conclusions

Plenty of other writers’ organizations have been tweeting at the writers quitting the RWA in droves, including the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, aka SFWA, and I hope they find places where, among other things, they know they can speak out and not get ejected for it. I know SFWA’s had similar incidents in the past and I would like to think that one thing that strengthened considerably during my time with the board is an awareness of the importance of diversity and its myriad of forms, and actual concrete practices and steps put into place to help move SFWA towards better representation of the wide spread of F&SF writers, such as admitting indie, small press, and game writers. I also believe current President Mary Robinette Kowal will continue to make that a priority. At the same time, not every RWA member wants to or is eligible to join SFWA. Will the RWA manage to recover or will a new organization arise? I don’t know.

Either way, I welcome the new rude masters of genre–even though some of them have been with us all along. I’m happy they’re bringing our genres fresh ideas, new insights, and new ways of thinking in a manner that promises new and interesting stories. Imma follow them wherever they choose to go next, and hope that my own writing can keep up. Excelsior! Here’s to a decade where we move onward, upward, towards the stars.

(1) Every time I hit this misspelling, it strikes me that the frequency with which Jemisin’s surname is referenced incorrectly is just ridiculous to the point where it sometimes seems like a deliberately added, contemptible little dose of smear.

ETA: Thank you to Chelle Parker for copyedits that made this better. 🙂

#SFWAPRO

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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