Friday, October 13, 2017

When Good Guys Let You Down: A Response

I've been keeping mum regarding the disputes over this post by Jon del Arroz -- mainly because I don't feel I have all the information. (In reality, publication statistics are meaningless if we don't have solid data on submitting writers. As far as I know, no one has offered up that data for our analysis, so no one really knows if Jon is right or not.) However, I've come across a related post that I feel compelled to respond to because I happen to know the writer in real life, have always thought him to be a decent man (with pretty good taste in SFF, by the way), and am consequently very disappointed to find him resorting to lazy mischaracterizations of what right-leaning fans of various persuasions - Jon included - actually believe.

So here we go:

"Message fiction is the latest in a long line of words that have been generated or co-opted by the Right and turned into a pejorative, along with such bon mots as ‘virtual signaling,’ ‘doxxing,’ ‘mansplaining,’ and any number of such phrases that have poisoned our speech and infected the zeitgeist these last couple of years."

The only people who use "mansplaining" in a pejorative way are leftists, "doxxing" is used by all sides and is a tactic universally and legitimately decried, and you seem to be conveniently forgetting all the terms that your side uses indiscriminately - and most of the time without justification - to poison the debate, including "racist," "white supremacist," "homophobe," "transphobe," "Islamophobe," "misogynist," and countless others.

"I’ve been seeing this term bandied about online for a while now, but what brought it to the fore was a couple weeks back when noted writer, editor and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Cat Rambo posted on Facebook warning about a particularly self-righteous and nasty little rightwing troll named Jon del Arroz, an indie writer and self-described “journalist” who recently took it upon himself to “prove” through faulty research methodology and purely anecdotal evidence that there are more women writing short fiction than men, and that this is affront to dudes and represents an apocalypse in which male voices are being drowned out."

Like I said above, I don't know if Jon's analysis is right or not (and you don't know either). You are, however, putting words into Jon's mouth that he didn't actually say. What he argued, rightly or wrongly, is that the short story market has, in recent years, been consciously selecting stories based on gender rather than merit. This is not about "insulting dudes" or "drowning out male voices"; this is about people in positions of power in our field using what are, to rightwing individualists, unprincipled criteria in making their publishing decisions. According to Jon's worldview - and mine too - gender is irrelevant to story quality; if it is being consciously considered, we feel that is manifestly unfair and a dereliction of duty on the part of the editors in question.

Jon is also not a "nasty little rightwing troll." He's a shameless self-promoter for sure, he likes to test people at times to make a point, and he sometimes doesn't know when to just drop it, but he strikes me as sincere in his stated desire to reach out. Why do I believe this to be the case? Well, did you notice how he responded when the editor at Clarkesworld decided to engage with him instead of treating him like an idiot? He basically said, "Okay, this dude is above-board. Everyone subscribe to his magazine." I can sort of see why people would find him annoying, but nasty? Nope.

On the other hand, I have seen people call Jon names -- and at least one person on your side went after his kid. Funny you don't mention that.

"(What’s interesting to me about del Arroz and his knuckle-dragging ilk is that, even if this were true (and it’s most clearly not), they obviously didn’t give a shit about it when it was the other way around. No, an unbalance that favors them is just hunky dory, de rigueur, business as usual. But when they’re precious privilege is perceived to be taken away from them, it’s suddenly the Twilight of the Gods.) "

No, this is not what Jon and others on our side think. We believe deliberately orchestrated imbalances in either direction are wrong regardless of the stated rationale. If editors and publishers used to discriminate against women due to sexism, that was bad. If editors and publishers are now discriminating against men, even if they claim to be doing so to "seek redress for past injustices", that is also bad. Discrimination is bad, mmm'kay?

"This is complete and utter bullshit, of course. In fact, the opposite is true, and SF is still a field dominated by men."

This is probably still true when you look at the field as a whole -- but also meaningless unless you have information on who's actually interested in writing science fiction and is submitting to publishers. Let me put it to you this way: There also happens to be a gender imbalance in romance -- that favors women. Why do you suppose that is? And why doesn't this imbalance raise eyebrows or elicit concern?

"But when Ms. Rambo pointed out to Mr. del Arroz that the methodology he used was faulty, because it used too small a sample size of current magazines that take submissions to be statistically significant, he took umbrage and started trolling her on Facebook and Twitter and calling for her to be ousted from the SFWA for “being mean” to him."

Because she was dismissive and didn't really make her case as far as I can tell.

At this point, my Dragon Con friend then goes on for a bit longer about how Jon is a troll -- and a whiner to boot. Since I've already addressed that, let's jump down to his central message:

"So, what the hell am I talking about when I say message fiction?

"Since it’s a purely rightwing term, let’s go to the rightwing source, in this case, one Theodore Beale, who calls himself Vox Day (another White Nationalist attention whore with an overdeveloped sense of his own self-worth I won’t flatter by sending a backlink to his blog)."

Okay, there are several things wrong with the section this bit introduces:
  • The quote used comes from this post on the Castalia House blog, which, as you can see in the heading, was not written by VD. Actually, I've been following that blog for a while, and I don't think I've ever seen VD post there. He may own the publishing company, but that's the extent of his connection to the blog, which is run day-to-day by a group of writers who've evinced no obvious alt-right leanings.
  • "Another White Nationalist attention whore"? Jon's not a white nationalist, James. He's a Trump supporter. Though the two categories are not mutually exclusive, they are not synonymous. I am not a Trump supporter, but because I actually talk to those who are, I understand this very basic fact.
  • This is not the only definition of "message fiction" that exists, nor is it the earliest. Matthew Bowman's post on the subject, for example, predates the Castalia House blog post by more than a year.
So no, Vox Day didn't invent the whole idea. Nice attempt to use guilt by association, though.

"Another thing I take issue with is that this term, message fiction, like all of these terms the frightwing like to bandy about, whether they stole it from the left or made it up themselves out of whole cloth, is that it is used in a derogatory way. For example, They call anyone who disagrees with them–and strives for a fair and equal system for everyone–Social Justice Warriors, or SJWs for short. Yeah? And? I’ll proudly wear that badge all day. Of course I’m a social justice warrior. Why aren’t you?"

Hoo boy! Where do I start?

We don't call everyone who disagrees with us SJW's. On the contrary, we're a pretty diverse group politically and have plenty of disagreements amongst ourselves. (See also: Jon's being a Trump supporter and my thinking the guy is a buffoon.) "SJW" is a term we lob at members of the radical left, who - I'm sorry - don't "strive for a fair and equal system for everyone." A person who genuinely strives for a fair and equal system for everyone attempts to address the root causes of disparities between groups and works to ensure that the field of opportunity is level. He also seeks justice in the spirit of charity towards and solidarity with the entire human family. And lastly, he has a fundamental faith in our liberal tradition and therefore tries to persuade others in our marketplace of ideas through reasoned discussion.

Those we call SJW's, on the other hand, seek equality of outcome and are wholly willing to bend the rules and even use force to achieve it. Further, an SJW's attitude is vengeful - he seeks to punish those he views as "privileged" in order to elevate the "downtrodden" he favors - and distinctly illiberal in flavor. He intimidates his opponents into silence and eschews reason completely in favor of brute displays of power -- because to an SJW, it's all about who has the power and who doesn't. There is no "truth" to discover through debate.

I personally don't have any problem with rank-and-file Democrats who fit the first profile. My sister-in-law is left-leaning in that way, and she's a lovely person with whom I get along swimmingly. I do have a problem with people who fit the second profile -- and that's why I don't identify as an SJW.

"Now, this makes it sound like message fiction is tantamount to distributing leaflets from an airplane behind enemy lines. But that’s exactly how the Sad Puppies (the SF alt-reich’s term for themselves)..."

Stop. Right. There. There are two distinct Puppy groups - the Rabid Puppies and the Sad Puppies - and their underlying philosophies and aims were and are different. The Rabid Puppies are Vox Day's baby. He appropriated the Sad Puppies' recommendation list in the first year, but he acted on his own and with, I believe, the intent to nuke the Hugos completely. Vox Day is arguably a white nationalist, though I think it's an exaggeration to call him a Nazi.

The Sad Puppies, on the other hand, are a diverse collection of conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals, etc. who just wanted to get works they personally liked on the Hugo ballot and increase participation in the process overall. Prominent Sad Puppies include Larry Correia, Brad Torgersen, Sarah Hoyt, Kate Paulk, and - I guess - yours truly given that folks think I'm at the center of a conspiracy to Puppy-ize the Dragon Awards. I defy you to present evidence that any of us are even remotely alt-right in our politics, let alone Nazis.

Don't lump us all under one umbrella, James. You are so much better than that.

"So, if an SF story or novel has a female protagonist, or a starship inhabited entirely by people of color, or dares involve anything other than white guys in space, it is message fiction."

False. Have you actually read any of the stuff we say we like? Do you even know what we say we like? Sarah Hoyt has written books that feature female and gay main characters. John Ringo - another of our favorites - has a predilection for writing kick-ass women. Should I go on?

"They don’t care if it’s good. They automatically assume it’s bad. It must be, if it contains things which don’t fit their own narrow worldview of white guys flying around in giant chrome penis rocketships rescuing fair yet brainless damsels from menacing aliens that are almost always cardboard stand-ins for Communists or whomever is the hated du jour at the time the stuff is written."

Once again, that describes very little of what we like. Even the early pulp writers the Castalia House bloggers admire are not that simple. Please put aside your preconceptions and read, for example, this post.

"They just want science fiction to be fun again, and to have no political message whatsoever..."

Also false. We just don't want the message to override the principles of good storytelling.

"But here’s the problem: someday I might want to write message fiction. And dammit, I should be able to if I so choose. It’s the message fiction that lasts. It’s the message fiction that stretches one as a writer, because it’s hard to do well. It’s hard to do without coming off preachy and heavy-handed."

If you want to write a story with a message, that's something altogether different from what most of us mean when we complain about "message fiction." When we say "message fiction," we mean the preachy and heavy-handed stuff. We also have some auxiliary complaints about flat characters, relentless darkness, and other stylistic elements that seem designed to destroy reader enjoyment, but nowhere do we insist that you completely refrain from expressing your individual worldview because, quite frankly, we recognize that's impossible.

"And here’s the other problem: It’s all message fiction. All of it. If Brown Girl in the Ring and Ancillery Justice and Parable of the Sower are message fiction, then Starship Troopers and Oath of Fealty and Lucifer’s Hammer  sure as shit is message fiction. And it’s a message we read loud and clear."

See above regarding the inevitability of expressing one's worldview. That a work has an identifiable slant doesn't make it "message fiction" in the way we are using the term.

Also, that article you linked is so skewed and misleading that I will need another whole post to respond to it.

"If a female woman of color wants to write about a future in which a transgender black woman pilots a starship through hostile alien forces to freedom, she can do that without you getting bent out of shape about it. She is free to write and say whatever she wants. And it takes nothing away from you, your maleness, or your whiteness if such a book exists. Don’t like it? Then don’t fucking read it. Write what you want. Don’t whine and complain and troll the author and sit in your hovel banging out angry screeds on your blog about how all these SJWs are ruining your precious science fiction, all because you feel empowered because Trump’s president now and that makes it OK for you to use the N word again."

Right. We're all criticizing this fiction because we're Trump fans who just wish the darkies and queers would shut the fuck up.

  • We are not "threatened" by nonwhites and non-males writing science fiction. We have nonwhites and non-males among our number.
  • We also believe people should be allowed to write whatever feels right to them. It is the SJW left that is actually telling people what they can and cannot do. It is the SJW's who write angry posts complaining every time an author commits the sin of not including enough people of color, or of not writing female characters who are "strong," or of not featuring gay characters in prominent roles, etc., etc. It is the SJW's who are insisting that every single book/movie/TV show/game/comic/etc. conform to their dictates -- whether it makes sense or not.
  • If a woman of color writes about a future featuring a transgender black woman piloting a starship and it happens to be fun, well written, and not obsessed with today's politics to the point of obtrusiveness, we'll happily promote it. Just show us where these works exist.
  • When we write "screeds" about SJW's ruining science fiction, we are talking about works that we have actually tried to read and found wanting -- but are apparently considered above criticism by the hard-left cognoscenti precisely because the leads and/or the authors themselves are people of color/LGBT/etc. We are talking about works whose only selling point, based on prominent reviews, is political. We are talking about works that are not selling as well as you think they are nor as well as they should; works that have, in fact, alienated a large audience that is hungry for speculative things to read but isn't impressed by what the traditional science fiction market now has to offer. And we're talking about the mentality that celebrates, for example, women sweeping literary award categories without actually discussing the merits of the stories they wrote.
And really, there's a small problem with the whole "if you don't like it, don't read it" argument that so many on your side deploy: If you want to get your message out - and I'm going to assume you do - you need to reach more folks than the ones who already agree with you. That means writing stories that, message or no, still have mass appeal. So no, you can't just tell thousands of potential fans to fuck right off if they tell you they don't like your book. At least, not if you want to be anything more than a niche creator with a tiny and insular following -- and not if you want the science fiction genre as a whole to thrive.

"That work couldn’t have possibly been better than what these Sad Puppies submitted. No, it had to be because this stuff had foreigners and people of color in them. That’s the only reason these profit-motivated publishers, who have always had their collective finger on the pulse of what’s selling right this very minute, could have accepted these pieces of SJW trash, which can’t possibly hold a candle to their golden prose."

Yes. Traditional publishers are so good at picking what sells that they've been able to retain their market share even in the face of indie competition.

Oh, wait, no. The opposite is true.

And by the way, as I remarked above, we're not judging these works sight unseen. We have tried to read them, and we honestly don't think they're better. Don't you think, just for a femtosecond, that maybe what publishers consider good is being influenced by groupthink? That their standards may, as a result, be screwy as all hell?

"And lest you think this is a chiefly a prose fiction problem, let me say that it’s happening in comics too. These Sad Puppies are angry over a move toward more diversity in comics, as if a more diverse comics readership is ever a bad thing."

No. They are angry because characters they've grown up with and come to love are being supplanted by what they judge to be inferior replacements. Seriously; have you ever really listened to comics YouTube? Because I have; I've consumed hours of commentary by "Diversity & Comics," Douglas Ernst, "Captain Frugal," and others, and nowhere have I heard anyone say they disliked a book solely because it was "diverse." Indeed, "Diversity and Comics," the most popular of these commentators, is on record praising Saladin Ahmed's Black Bolt (just to name one contrary example).

What I do hear from the voices of "#ComicsGate" are complaints:
  • That these new characters are either empty of personality, are walking stereotypes, or are self-involved narcissists.
  • That these new characters are constantly being emotionally validated by the people around them instead of being challenged when they screw up, as the original heroes were in earlier books.
  • That in many books featuring these characters, nothing of significance actually happens.
  • That the humor in these books feels strained and childish.
These are all substantive critiques that have nothing to do with the characters' being minorities.

"Captain America punching Hitler in the face was message fiction back in 1945. The only difference is, now the neo-Nazis have got their swastika panties in a bunch because the guy they idolize is no longer Cap, but ole’ Adolf himself."

Because everyone who doesn't like where the modern comics industry is headed is a neo-Nazi. Sigh.

And Cap punching Hitler in the face is not "message fiction;" it's a story with a message. I've already gone over that point, so I hope there's no need to repeat it here.

"I am continually astounded at the number of right-wingers in the SF field, either as rabid and vocal fans or as well-known contributors. It’s like they’ve never actually read anything beyond Heinlein, or watched a single episode of Star Trek."

And I'm continually astounded by the number of people on your side, James, who claim that the fiction we like is all white men in penis ships rescuing damsels in distress. If anyone is poorly read here, it's you.

"Star Trek is all about diversity. It’s about a post-scarcity, socialist utopia. It’s a message about the future. But to these guys it’s all just Kirk beaming down to planets that always look like the hills above Van Nuys, fighting the lizard monster and bedding the half-naked green chick."

Stop. Just stop. Nobody thinks this. We all realize that Trek is utopian. Many of us are lifelong Trek fans. The reason we can tolerate - and even, to some extent, appreciate - Trek's overall message is that the show, most of the time, didn't beat us over the head with a baseball bat to convey it. The writers focused primarily on crafting three-dimensional characters we could care about and stories with universal resonance and usually let the setting speak for itself. It didn't, for instance, lecture us about how wonderful it was that the bridge crew was diverse; it just let that bridge crew be awesome and allowed us to draw our own conclusions.

 "But if that’s all Star Trek was, a comforting, staid reminder of an idealized past that only truly existed for guys who look like me and Vox Day, it wouldn’t have lasted more than 50 years. It wouldn’t have anything left to say to us now."

And if all Trek had to offer was political messaging - if Kirk, Spock, McCoy and all the rest weren't so sympathetic and so iconic as characters - it would not have endured either. Which is kind of the Puppies' whole point.

"SF, whatever else it might be to the del Arrozs and Vox Days of the world, is a candle in the dark. A way of seeing the world that uses rationalism and kindness. We’ve come too far to slide back down into the dark now. A darkness composed of willful ignorance and dogma and obscurantism, of jingoism and authoritarianism and fear of the Other and just plain old Ayn Randian “I’ve got mine, so fuck you!” selfishness."

James, you may not realize this, but the people you are aligning yourself with don't believe in rationalism or kindness. They are just as tribal as any alt-right gadfly and are just as willing to drag us back into the darkness of ignorance, dogma, authoritarianism and selfishness. The fact that they are othering white people or straight people or cis people or anyone else they perceive to be "advantaged" doesn't actually make them any different. If people like Vox Day are the head of the coin, the SJW left is the tails.

We Sad Puppies are actually trying to restore the original ethos epitomized by Star Trek and other early science fiction that you say you admire so much. The classically liberal ethos that judged people as individuals, not as interchangeable widgets defined by the circumstances into which they were born. The ethos that was aspirational instead of angry and accusatory. The ethos that didn't dismiss the members of the mass audience but instead met them where they were and invited them - rather than scolding them - to imagine something different.


  1. Liberals ask, "How can we get back civil dialogue and compromise?" Answer: when you stop the reflexive namecalling and use those names as an excuse to silence everyone else.

    1. Yeah because right wing people don't call people names or accuse people of things that aren't true. But whatever it takes to assign negative behavior to the "group" you disagree with, I guess.

  2. It's very sad when friends disappoint so badly.

    I've tried so hard to figure out why the reaction was what it was back when and the only thing I can figure is that when someone internalizes an ideology or "side" or "tribe" as the source of their value, anyone who disparages it disparages them *personally*.

    And the sjw branch was absolutely trying to dictate what the future of science fiction must be. No exceptions. And people were setting themselves up as judges of the righteousness of what was written and who wrote it. That's what Requires Hate was all about.

    But if your value as a person is assaulted, people go completely nuts.

    Worse is the fact that clearly, beyond all doubt, the enemy resides nowhere but in their own heads.

  3. Also, I've been trying to find a pithy way of saying that demanding that people who disagree with you not buy or read your work is doing message fiction wrong.

    1. You assume the idea is to actually change minds. It's not. The purpose is to let everyone who agrees with you know you have the correct opinions. So telling potential readers to go f**k off (cough-John Scalzi-cough) makes perfect sense.

    2. Isn't that what right wingers do when they tell people they are wrong to criticize the money system? They don't tend to tolerate criticism of capitalism.

  4. This is just painful. You say this dude is a good man?

    If so, he is doing a TERRIBLE job of reflecting who he is in writing. Because all I see in this post is radioactive hatred.

  5. You try so hard to make any negative behavior you think of as leftist or liberal.