The chaos within and beyond the RWA has only continued and coverage of the fallout has become more mainstream. I’ve tried to add more links to my original post but events kept piling up between Christmas and New Year. File 770 has a more recent round-up here http://file770.com/as-criticism-snowballs-rwa-keeps-trying-to-justify-treatment-of-courtney-milan/
As with my prior post, I will note that I’m not affiliated with the RWA (or any writers association) nor familiar with the dynamics of Romancelandia, nor am I a lawyer or an expert on the fiduciary duty of officers of organisations. What follows is speculation based on the many but limited facts that have been revealed and my attempts to understand them. It isn’t meant to be authoritative and like much of what I write should be read as me thinking out loud mainly to get my own thoughts in order. Corrections and speculation are, as always, welcome.
What I want to do is list some issues and themes that have arisen. Running through is the issue of apparent conflict of interest. I’ve discussed the distinction between different concepts in this topic and here is Columbia University’s definition:
“A conflict of interest involves the abuse — actual, apparent, or potential — of the trust that people have in professionals. The simplest working definition states: A conflict of interest is a situation in which financial or other personal considerations have the potential to compromise or bias professional judgment and objectivity. An apparent conflict of interest is one in which a reasonable person would think that the professionals judgment is likely to be compromised. A potential conflict of interest involves a situation that may develop into an actual conflict of interest. It is important to note that a conflict of interest exists whether or not decisions are affected by a personal interest; a conflict of interest implies only the potential for bias, not a likelihood.”http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/rcr/rcr_conflicts/foundation/index.html#1_1
Other institutions and businesses have different definitions but conceptually we are interested in APPARENT conflicts i.e. were there may be a perception (regardless of actual motive or behaviour) of a conflict.
Some themes after the fold. It had ended up being something of a marathon.
Whose free speech?
Back in 2013 the SFWA bit the bullet and expelled Theodore Beale aka Vox Day. At the time he vowed an extended legal fight and the disintegration of the organisation was predicted. Neither of those things eventuated and as of 2019, Vox Day isn’t even particularly interested in science fiction. None of the attempts to establish a rival SFWA have amounted to anything. At the time we were told in some quarters that this an egregious suppression of free speech. Further we were told by his defenders that the one thing Theodore Beale was not was a racist.
“Nope. Beale is not even slightly racist. He’s honest about observed facts and doesn’t care what culture or skin color is attached to the fact. I’d rather be in a room with Beale, because I can guarantee that he would not make nicey-nice then stab me in the back. If he had a reason to dislike me, he’d be upfront about it. Her, not so much.”Kate Paulk 2013, https://madgeniusclub.com/2013/08/15/the-organization-formerly-known-as-sfwa/#comment-28545
“Her” in this example was N.K.Jemisin who was one of the most outspoken of Vox Day’s critics at the time. The argument advanced was that Jemisin was somehow the ‘real’ racist for criticising systemic (and in Day’s case overt) racism within SFWA and the wider SFF community.
Jemisin’s case and Courtney Milan’s situation are not direct parallels but there are so many points of similarity not least of which is that two notable authors within their respective genres having to stake a lot on a personal battle where they are speaking out about systemic racism within a leading writers organisation and facing direct racism as a consequence and to add further insult being told that somehow they are the “real” racist. Here’s Sarah Hoyt in the comments of the same post in 2013:
“What in hell is a stretch about it?Sarah Hoyt 2013, https://madgeniusclub.com/2013/08/15/the-organization-formerly-known-as-sfwa/#comment-28505
Oh, wait, you’re right, because Beale is NOT a racist and only claims certain opinions to wind you up — and it works. Since he’s mostly Hispanic, he can’t actually believe what he claims to believe. BUT Jemisin is on her high horse about her victimhood and the evils of the white race, and she MEANS it.
So, she’s more of a racist than Beale. When are ya’ll casting her out. Interested minds want to know. While at it, cast out the androphobes in your middle.
Oh, I know, you can’t cast out your dead, because you’re ALL dead men walking in a landscape you don’t understand while following the lockstep dictates of Marxism, which is a theory of dead men and doesn’t apply to anything living. Sorry.”
Notably, not even Sarah Hoyt would contend that Day is not a racist any more but it required Day to overtly attack Hoyt’s status as an American on the grounds that she was born Portuguese for her to accept that.
Neatly the Mad Genius Club alumni have helped illustrate the one-way and highly selective nature of the ‘free speech’ defence of racism. It is applied to racist speech and then cited as a reason for actively suppressing the speech of others. Which ‘others’, specifically women of colour speaking out against racism. In Jemisin’s case it was groups like those who coalesced into the Sad Puppies. In Milan’s case it was an ethics complaint and a finding that in some way (not explained) her speech was “invidious discrimination”.
I am not going to label anybody a white supremacist in this post because it is needlessly provocative but highly selective advocacy of ‘free speech’ is not advocacy of free speech at all. When empirically ‘free speech’ is applied to defend racism and used to silence those who speak out against racism and specifically used to demand silence from victims of racism then there is zero connection between the actual idea of free speech and the term is simply being used as a fig-leaf to cover the idea that black women (in the case of N.K.Jemisin) should be silent in the face of man advancing a theory of race-based ultra-nationalism.
Mobs, criticism and damaging careers
No, no, we are told, it isn’t about speech at all but about the manner of speech and the terrible dangers of Twitter mobs and people damaging the careers of authors. I was told on more than one occasion that I have attempted to damage people’s careers — on asking for examples I was told there are too many and when asked for a single example the claim evaporated. I’ve got zero interest in attacking anybody’s livelihood and never have done so but what is being illustrated is a free-floating idea that is used to target the left. It is part of the same strategy of anti-speech as the ‘who is the real racist’ attack above. The difference is that the first is used primarily as an attack on people of colour (particularly women with an added ‘who is the real sexist) whereas the second is used in attempt to silence people on the left or those perceived to be on the left.
Clearly there is a lot that could be much better about online discourse but there is nothing uniquely toxic about how it works on the left than in the political centre or neutrally. There are examples of poor behaviour and there are examples of premature outrage. Such examples though are not the same as systemic campaigns of organised harassment. Having lots of people angry with you or even people being emotionally neutral and criticising you online is not nice. However, it is still qualitatively different from an organised hate campaign (see my recent post on Goodreads trolls – still ongoing BTW) or an event like Gamergate.
However, despite a very limited set of examples, the notorious SJW Twitter mob descending to ruin people’s careers is cited as if the were masses of broken careers in their wake. The concept, rather than limited examples, is cited to imply that any criticism of a work as homophobic, racist, sexist, ableist or transphobic is inherently irresponsible as simply stating the criticism will summon a horde of furies to wreck vengeance on an individual’s financial viability.
In the Milan ethics complaint, the existence of some people on social media criticising the publisher and the books of one of her editors has been used to suggest that Milan was endangering the financial viability of the publisher and/or the authors concerned. The issue isn’t one of intent i.e. the nature of this idea that we must all tread carefully lest we summon the Twitter-Mob does not depend on whether we ever intended to. No, the concept cuts directly to nature of criticism and discourse about books and again serves to silence.
I should be clear: manifestly honest, well intentioned reviews can be financially damaging. A bad film review can impact its box office. A write up of a lacklustre meal might undermine a restaurant’s financial viability. As others have pointed out, discussing the racist tropes in a book has an implication of racism within the author (although the two things are not synonymous). However, there is no way that there is a lively and healthy discourse about literature without criticism and that includes critiques of prejudices, negative stereotypes and the use of tropes that help enable prejudice.
More generally, activism is not harassment even if feelings are hurt. There are things we should do to act more ethically, even towards shitty people but silence is not a good option.
Authors versus readers versus powerlessness
Writers are not in general terrible people but the opposite impression is easy to get. We’ve seen no end of examples of authors behaving badly but simple arithmetic suggests it must only be a few. However, the script of entitled author (often with only very limited success) exploding at other authors or at readers in general necessarily generates more coverage than author just getting along writing books.
Publishing and self-publishing is a tenuous business, I have discussed before how self-publishing has elements in common with problem gambling, particularly the lack of control but with an appearance of control and the potential (rarely realised) of very high returns.
It’s no surprising then to find people not always coping well with what is a hostile commercial environment and lashing out. However, there is nobody to lash out to. Even when authors have genuine complaints (again see the Goodreads issue) they are met with faceless, unresponsive corporate walls of obstruction. For all authors, Amazon is an institution is very much not famed for its responsiveness and warm connection with writers.
This an environment in which poor behaviour faces limited consequences slowly delivered. It is also an environment in which a small number of technology companies hold a lot of power with very little responsibility. Consequently, it is also an environment in which people attempt to exercise power in other directions e.g. at readers, other authors and critics. Criticism in general is often seen as an inherently hostile act.
The distinction between a bad review given in good faith and any kind of review given in bad faith is not something that can be automated. That feeds into an environment where reviews in general are seen as hostile because, after all, in some cases they really are (and once again, see the Goodreads troll problem).
I don’t think this is a primary cause of the complaint against Milan but it is part of the circumstances in which professional writers organisations now have to exist. Even flawed organisations have much higher standards of accountability than Amazon, Twitter or Facebook. Therefore when somebody wants to metaphorically speak to the manager they are more likely to get traction from a professional body than a faceless tech-corporation.
Cultural change and fashion
Success is hard and working out a winning formula is hard. For writers finding ways to win authors and sales can feel like unlocking secrets. Again this is a feature that the world of writing can be similar to problem gambling where belief in secrets and systems can also abound.
In such circumstances, shifting cultural norms and changing fashions among readers will be highly stressful. Looked at through the lens of workplace change, any shift in rules, policies, procedures or general ways of working can be highly stressful. Books, as cultural products, are particularly susceptible to changes in cultural norms, expectations and shifting taste. As such the political-cultural shifts around attitudes to racism, sexism and other systemic prejudices are not just cultural changes but also professional changes.
The people who will be best equipped to cope with such changes professionally are also the people who are best equipped to cope with the change culturally and politically. The opposite also follows, so we get a double-dipping amplification of reaction from those unhappy with social change in general who are also work in creating cultural products.
Again, the place were this reactionism-squared will most likely play out is in professional organisations. It also means there is no escaping it for a writers association. There isn’t a way for them to be apolitical or side-step the issue. The only option is to help members manage change because the change will happen anyway.
Professional staff and established officers versus change
Noting that point above about both cultural change and workplace change, consider staff and long-term elected officials of professional writer’s organisations. The same tendency of workplaces to resist change because change is destabilising, stressful and usually leads to immediate (if short term) increases of work for overworked* people, applies to people who work or have invested a lot of personal time in professional bodies.
Confronting internal systemic biases is hard. Coping with cultural change is hard. People pushing such change will be met with negative reactions both because of systemic prejudice and direct prejudice but also because of the same reason a corporate IT department is faced with anger when they upgrade productivity software and the menus move. Cultural change is hard, workplace change is hard, combining both is hard and combining both with the responsibility of helping others cope with both is even harder.
It’s not just a left-right issue but a psychological issue with how well people are open/resilient to change versus how much people react against. Reacting against change is not inherently bad — obviously in the case of harmful change, resisting it is good. Even so, change is harder psychologically for some people than others. So for some, there will be cases of even more compounded issues with change. I’m not pointing that to elicit sympathy for unknown personages but just to identify causes of what can seem like inexplicable behaviour.
Phew, already written way more than I intend but each section implies another. I wanted to get to more specific issues sooner.
A left-field issue to the original conflict around the ethics complaint on Courtney Milan was an on-going issue with romance publisher Dreamspinner. There are numerous accounts but I’ll start with a story at the Writers Beware blog from September.
“Writer Beware has been receiving similar complaints about late royalty and advance payments and confusing/conflicting explanations for the delays, with some authors saying they are owed four- and even five-figure amounts. According to a number of authors who contacted me, these problems have become more acute in the past few months, but they aren’t new: periodic payment delays, with attendant excuses, began as much as two years ago.”https://accrispin.blogspot.com/2019/09/authors-concern-grows-over-late-royalty.html
A longer timeline of events is available here https://sorcereroftea.com/dreamspinner-press-not-paying-its-authors-the-tea/ [I should add, not being part of this world I can’t speak of the track record of some of the blogs I’m linking to – one reason I started with Writers Beware which I’m familiar with.]
In October the RWA put Dreamspinner Press on an indefinite suspension:
“Update (October 2019): Dreamspinner Press has been placed on indefinite probation, which means it has been removed from RWA’s list of Qualifying Markets and will not be able to participate in RWA events and publications until the issues resulting in the probation have been resolved. Dreamspinner Press was notified on October 1, 2019.“https://www.rwa.org/Online/News/2019/Advocacy_Update_Dreamspinner_Press.aspx
President-elect (at the time) of the RWA Damon Suede, was published by Dreamspinner. Now, I’ve zero idea about the underlying issues with Dreamspinner. As noted above, publishing is a precarious business and stuff goes wrong.
However, clearly there would be a potential conflict of interest if the president/president-elect of the RWA was involved in a dispute with his own publisher. Consequently Suede has recused himself from issues surrounding the complaint against the RWA.
However, apparent conflicts of interest are a broad and sometimes difficult category to deal with. For the moment I’ll leave this here.
Between my first post on the issue and this one, the Board of the RWA have rescinded the sanctions against Courtney Milan that they had previously voted for. As I said at the time, the ruling against Milan was broad and vague. Where there were more specific breaches of the Code of Conduct alleged, the ethics committee report found for Milan (although worded in a way that sounded very grudging).
The Board back-tracking on their decision has not resolved matters. Specifically the Board has not clarified their reasoning for either decision. The policy of the RWA on action similar to Milan’s is unclear. Was it the substance of Milan’s claim that a book was a “fucking racist mess”? Was it the profanity? Was it the dreaded fear of the ‘Twitter Mob’? All of these, none of these and was the ethics committee right in principle but wrong on procedure or wrong on both? Nobody knows.
Simply, is it acceptable to the RWA for a member to describe another member’s book as a “fucking racist mess” or not? If so, by what standard and what level of criticism would be acceptable? Without guidance, the RWA ends up with an unenforceable set of rules or rather ends up with rules that can be enforced selectively. The complaint against Milan itself compares her to a neo-Nazi, which would on the face of it be an unwarranted insult. Is ‘neo-Nazi’ a step to far or fair comment (even if misapplied)? The ruling and the rescinding of the ruling raised more issues than the RWA could hope to deal with.
Which takes us back to social change. The cultural discourse about racism isn’t going away, so if the RWA ends up having a de-facto rule against describing racism in books then the discourse happens outside the organisation. It makes an important role of the organisation (helping authors cope with a shifting market) very difficult to do by creating a taboo topic.
There can be advantages to delaying change but overall, if changes are occurring that will happen anyway then starting the process of change early can reduce the stress of change. Conversely, delays in adjusting to changing circumstance can result in higher organisational costs, which exacerbate the organisational resistance to change. Which takes us back to the impact of workplace change for people with organisational roles within a group and where resistance to change can originate.
Organisational inertia and systemic problems are inadequate explanations
Among the many posts and tweets about the RWA in the aftermath of the Courtney Milan suspension, have been numerous accounts of systemic problems with the RWA and affiliated chapters. For all of the reasons above, that clearly is part of any explanation of the meltdown of the organisation during this Christmas period.
However, in detail it is inadequate to explain the direct sequence events. Notably, some significant changes were made to complaint procedures and rules about the ethic committee between the complaint being made and the new committee hearing the complaint. The RWA board itself, in announcing the reversal of its decision about Milan pointed mysteriously to a ‘gap’ in the process while also affirming that all actions had been done legally.
Above all Courtney Milan is an ambitious target to aim such a process at. At a minimum there appears to have been a massive under-estimate of the reaction that the censure would produce. This is additional hard to explain given the implied power that Milan had within social media within the complaint itself. The complain alleges that Milan’s activism cost a publisher a significant deal — a charge that implies that Milan has substantial clout and a charge that apparently the board believed and yet also underestimated?
Additional discussion has centred on President-Elect (now President) Damon Suede’s honesty. I’m not going to judge those claims but the volume of them is significant and carry much credibility. It may be pertinent in the extent to which other decision makers may have been misled. Who knows. Weird decisions regardless.
Which takes us to another area people have speculated on.
Milan was chair of the ethics committee, was active in the RWA and was powerful in the sense of influential, as well as being clever and resourceful. Her efforts (among others) to improve diversity and conduct within the organisation had made strides forward but will have created friction and counter reactions of various kinds.
The action against Milan have removed her from the ethics committee (initially temporarily), helped establish a separate ethics committee with (apparently) none of the same members who had worked with Milan, the resignation of multiple board members and increased power for the President Damon Suede and he Executive Director. If we discount the idea that this mess was caused by people massively underestimating Milan’s reaction and instead assume people only partly underestimated the reaction then the resulting resignations both at the board level and at the membership level would need to be reclassified as a feature rather than as a bug. In short, a high profile move against Milan to alienate her supporters and get them to leave the RWA.
Is that what happened? I’ve no idea! How could I! I can observe what the outcome was though. I doubt that the extended international press coverage was part of anybody’s plan but I can see somebody imagining a mass walkout of supposed “SJWs” as a positive outcome.
But if we don’t know and can’t ever possibly know that the whole thing was a coup, what does it matter? Because, when it comes to formal organisational ethics appearances matter even if motives and intent are utterly different. An effective coup caused by clumsiness or incompetence still creates an issue for the beneficiary of the accidental coup.
The RWA has a situation where the President-Elect/President was part of rule changes to the ethics committee that occurred along side a significant issue between RWA members and the President-Elect/President publisher, which resulted in the chair of the committee temporarily stepping down, a new committee being established to which the President-Elect was the liaison to the board which eventually resolved to ban the former ethics committee chair from holding any office in the RWA. This then led to resignations from the board leaving the President-Elect/President with the power to appoint replacements.
That’s a pretty big apparent conflict of interest right there. Assume it’s a giant mess of chaotic accidents rather than a coup or conspiracy and the apparent beneficiary of all these accidents (barring the much greater scale of the blow back) sits with Damon Suede. Which makes him either extraordinarily lucky or unlucky or both, I can’t tell.
A lack of conclusion
There is a giant iceberg of background here, partly why I’ve gone on for so very long. We don’t and can’t know all the details and manifestly even the very best run and well intentioned professional association of writers is walking a tightrope of cultural change and fragile commercial viability of its members currently. However, there is also a very specific and odd set of direct events in the final quarter of 2019 that can’t be explained by systemic problems alone.
My first reaction last week reading that report was just how very odd it was. Things have only intensified that impression. I can’t tell Damon Suede what to do and in the end it is a matter for RWA members not me.