I was watching something on Twitter yesterday that I thought was interesting. The ongoing dynamic of how to talk (if at all) about books either by people on the right or particularly liked by people on the right. The questions is whether it is possible to do so. [Part 2 Here]
The particular point of interest is an anthology from Baen whose gimmick is that all (but one) of the author are called “Dave” or “David”. I’m not particularly interested or concerned about the book and it was something I would have more generally ignored because it’s got Dave Freer in it. On Baen’s own social media there were some comments about the premise being inherently discriminatory and a response from Baen’s social media account that it’s one anthology and they’ve published anthologies (or at least one) where all the authors were women.
There’s some merit to Baen’s argument in principle — I haven’t looked to see how it works out in practice. The merit is that it’s not the impact of a single anthology but the collective impact over time. A publisher picking an anthology premise that promotes authors of one demographic group (intentionally or otherwise) isn’t itself an issue. It could be a neutral thing or a positive thing but the issue is with overtime is part of an effort to narrow who gets published or broaden…and so on. An anthology of Daves isn’t a big deal, does favour a type of author more likely to be male etc, should be seen in a broader context of what else the publisher publishes and so on. Not terribly difficult ideas to get your head around. The propositions that it is just a silly/fun/quirky idea for an anthology and makes a (small) contribution to making it easier for the stereotypical ageing white guy SF author to get published can both be true. The scale of the thing makes it easy to ignore i.e. publishing has bigger issues than this book.
BUT it clearly should be absolutely OK to make either point about the book.
So here is Nick Mamatas on Twitter about the book in question.
Now Nick M is not famed for his delicate diplomacy on social media but this is hardly scathing or particularly harsh. It’s not even a substantive dig at the premise of the book nor at the actual contents. The point is a pertinent one. Some of the authors on that list have been vocal about what they see as ‘affirmative action’ in Science Fiction publishing. It really would be hypocritical for them to be OK with a book whose premises helps their story get published rather than somebody else’s on a basis other than whether the story is fun or good or otherwise. Note, that doesn’t mean their story ISN’T fun or good, it is just literally taking a critique that some of the authors on that list have used in the past for anthologies for women, disabled people, LGBTQI people and others and showing that their critique would apply even more aptly to a book of Daves.
The counter-argument (i.e. that there are other anthologies) is itself a counter-argument to their own anti-‘affirmative action’ argument. It doesn’t address the issue Nick M raised about the inconsistency of the position.
If this sounds very pedantic on my part then 1. welcome to my blog new reader and 2. I just wanted to pin down this initial point so we can follow where the argument goes afterward. The other point is that it’s perfectly reasonable and measured criticism even if you think the criticism is incorrect or unnecessary. It’s pretty mild, there’s no suggestion that the book is horrible or deeply offensive or badly written or whatever.
Act 2. Author Christopher Ruocchio replies. I’m not familiar with him but his bio at Random Penguin books says that he is also an assistant editor at Baen. He replies to a later Tweet by Nick M on a side discussion on why Barry Malzberg is in the anthology if he’s not called Dave (the answer is the story has Dave in the title). Nick M calls this weak, which is arguably a bit mean.
And it escalates up from there:
And so on…
And so on…
Except of course, nobody said bigotry. To start with this was pretty mild critique of an anthology.
Well OK. This a silly argument on social media with an author/edit being a tad over sensitive. An ordinary occurrence. I won’t post every Tweet. This one is from near the end of the exchange.
And yes, sure enough, elsewhere in the social media of right wing authors the spin on this specific exchange becomes transformed. The left is trying to cancel the book etc and specific calls to actions to boost the anthology and to spread the word and to show the left that people won’t be silenced etc etc.
Of course there’s a contradiction here. The early complaint of punching down and the boast of free publicity are at odds. It is the later claim that is more correct. Whatever, you might think of Nick M’s initial Tweets they were not doing any practical harm to the book and probably doing a small net gain in publicity. The people who might view the concept of the book negatively weren’t ever going to buy the book but Nick M’s argument wasn’t an attempt to discourage people to buy the book.
The hyper-defensive reaction probably did help boost initial publicity for the book. Indeed, regular readers have all witnessed various authors trying to arrange their own brouhahas precisely to help their books get noticed. Does that work in the long run? I’ve no idea. Is that what happened in this case? Where the initial responses from Christopher R a cynical reaction to build up a publicity flame war or a genuine case of somebody being overly sensitive on social media? I think that is a false dichotomy.
Think about it this way: among conservative leaning authors in particular there is no social penalty to being hypersensitive on social media. The over-reaction is (probably) a genuine reaction but it happens also because it can help promote books within a community of readers.
So does that mean Nick M should NOT have even mentioned the anthology and avoided giving free publicity? No. It is reasonable and right to talk about books, including books with issue. More politically, I’ve discussed repeatedly how so much of the right’s current engagement with the left and centre is about shutting down discussion and silencing left viewpoints. The current iteration of the right is, in general, deeply opposed to free speech in its functional sense of open discussion and exchange of ideas. Not talking about stuff that you find interesting for fear or either a hyperbolic reaction or that you words will be exploited to help sell more of a book amounts to a pernicious self-censorship.
Pick and choose and there’s no single right way of doing this. That’s not much of a moral to finish the story but it’s all I’ve got 😌