Thursday 30 January 2014

Does it have to be this way?

Perhaps it's always been like this, but I can't help feeling that the dialogue around SF&F has in recent years grown increasingly toxic and counter-productive. It may well have been just the same in the old days of mimeographed fanzines and letters columns - feuds run long and deep in literary circles - but there's no doubt that the nature of online discussion has raised the temperature, enabling flamewars and "fails" to flare up with numbing regularity. If they burned out as quickly as they started that would be one thing, but the online environment also helps to keep them running and running, the rhetoric growing hotter and the positions more entrenched, until the next flamewar kicks off and the cycle is sustained. Notably lacking (with, of course, some exceptions) is a general presumption of good faith on behalf of the participants.

It's SF award season again (this being a month with a vowel in it) so naturally thoughts have turned to the growing trend for writers to post lists of their eligible works. I don't personally care for these lists myself, and I've stated my position in a blog post. Other writers and commentators have made similar observations - most recently Adam Roberts, in a widely discussed post on his blog. Adam and I get on well and we feel essentially the same way about these eligibility posts, although perhaps Adam articulates his position more successfully than I do mine. Here's the thing, though: it's just an opinion. It's not worth the unpleasantness of falling out with another writer or commentator because they happen to take a different view. Paul Cornell, another writer I know and like, happens to regard eligibility posts as a fundamentally good and useful thing. So does Rachel Swirsky, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a Hugo ceremony. John Scalzi even goes so far as to open up his blog to other writers to post their own eligibility lists. Many readers have pointed out (as they did in the comments to my own blog piece) that it's actually quite a helpful thing to see a list of stories you might wish to consider when compiling your awards nominations. I might not agree with that, but my counter argument - that if you need to be reminded of something, it probably isn't award-worthy - isn't terribly easy to defend either, since it speaks only to my personal reading habits. I don't consume a lot of SF in a given year and I tend to be selective about what I do read, so it's relatively easy for me to recall the pieces I liked - if indeed there are any. But there are many readers who are much more engaged with the field than I am, and probably do read dozens or even hundreds of stories a year. From their point of view, I'm forced to conceed, those eligibility lists serve a genuinely useful function. So there's no need for an automatic presumption of bad faith on the part of those defending the lists, or to assume that the writers who publish them are doing so out of naked self-interest. I'll continue to take a jaundiced view of eligibility lists, but I'll accept that there are, on balance, some reasonable arguments to be mustered in their favour.

And yet ... within days of Adam Roberts' blog post, the conversation had become intensely polarised. Rightly or wrongly, the issue had become conflated with two different topics: the wider theme of self-promotion, and the under-representation of women writers in the field. Now, I have no problem with self-promotion at all. Almost everything I do as a writer that doesn't involve typing prose fiction into a keyboard is some form of self-promotion. This blog is self-promotion. Being on Twitter is self-promotion. Doing public events, going to conventions, doing phone-in interviews, doing reviews for free - it's all self-promotion and I accept it gladly because most writers do not have the luxury of a huge publicity machine to do the work for them. This is not the same activity as awards campaigning, and whether you regard eligibility lists as a form of campaigning, or a useful service for readers, it's surely distinct and separate from the larger business of self-promotion which is part of being a professional author. To think otherwise is, I think, an error. When John Scalzi, in an otherwise reasonable and good-spirited response to Adam's post, mentioned that Adam was "shy" of announcing the eligibility of his own work, Scalzi was making exactly that mistake. Trust me, I know Adam. He's an outspoken critic of the field, a confident and engaging public speaker, and not someone you could remotely describe as "shy". That's missing the point totally - and by the same token, it isn't shyness of modesty that prevents me posting my own eligibility lists.

Still, that was mild compared to the position articulated by another writer, Amal El-Mohtar, that to state a dislike of eligibility lists was a "peculiar, unbearable, vicious smugness", and that in arguing against such lists one is helping to silence exactly those writers who are most in need of attention. This struck me as wrong. My feeling was that, again, self-promotion and awards-boosting are being seen as facets of the same activity, whereas to my mind they are fairly distinct. I promote myself to further my sales, because that is what my livelihood depends on. Awards are an entirely different sphere of my life as a writer, and whether I'm nominated or not nominated (mostly the latter), I'd far rather that it didn't depend on the visibility of my eligible works. Furthermore, I couldn't really see how a newer writer was going to benefit by adding another voice to an already loud conversation. Regardless of that, though, the rhetoric had become more divisive. Who is honestly going to consider their position on a topic, when they've been described in those terms I quote above? It's a presumption of bad faith - the notion that we're saying one thing and thinking another. I'd rather assume that the opponents of eligibility posts are sincere in their stated positions, and that this also applies to the proponents. I didn't care for the particular tone of El-Mohtar's piece at that point, but her wider position - that eligibility posts are a platform for enabling newer writers to receive some sort of attention - is far from unreasonable, and deserves serious and civil discussion. To put it another way, it's something to think about, and perhaps it has shifted my attitude to a degree. It's also made me aware of Amal El-Mohtar as a writer and I apologise for not reading her work sooner.

The almost universal presumption of bad faith is once more on display in the reactions to Alex Dally MacFarlane's piece on the Tor blog, discussing the representation of post-binary gender in SF. Regardless of what you make of the piece, it sets out its position in extremely cogent terms, arguing that SF needs to think a bit more about the depiction of non-traditional gender roles, and that the field can't keep pointing back to forty year old books by Ursula Le Guin as if to say it had that one covered. The piece is suitably respectful to Le Guin, and makes only the mildest of demands on the field. You may or may not agree with it. My take was, this is interesting and I need to think about it.

And yet, the responses to the piece have been predictably intemperate, with an almost immediate crystallisation of "for" and "against" camps. Some of the rhetoric from the "against" camp has been astonishingly spiteful, although at this point I don't suppose I'm very much astonished. Shot through it all, though, is the presumption that Alex Dally MacFarlane is presumably out to destroy SF as we know it, as if anyone with a long-standing engagement with the field would ever want to do that. There is sensible and civil engagement with her points, but as in all these intensely polarised arguments, it's becoming very hard to tune the signal from the noise. Sarcasm and strawmen arguments abound; line are drawn and positions fortified; the presumption of good faith is all but lost.

Does it have to be this way? Can't we disagree with each other, but reserve the right to accept that the other person might, ultimately, have a point?

Thursday 16 January 2014

Sword and Laser video interview

This coming Saturday (18th) I'm doing a video interview with the good people from Sword and Laser, who are based near San Francisco. I'll be Skyping in from Wales. If you'd like to ask me a question, you can drop a suggestion here:

Sorry about the short notice.