Well I guess I’m writing about Clarkesworld again

It is very creditable that Neil Clarke has written a lengthy response about the since withdrawn story that I reviewed here. There is much to be commended about his response, in particular that relevant background is given and responsibility taken. I do think there are issues with the response and that they are issues worth discussing. Arguably, this is a discussion that could be postponed but I think waiting has its own issues. Broadly, there is an issue here with the role of publisher versus author and the relative risks each faces when engaged with something controversial. I’m not attempting to go line-by-line through the statement or diagnose what is good or bad about it but rather I want to examine what concerns me in general by looking at some select details.

Firstly, it present the ensuing controversy in terms of “attacks”. Later in the response it acknowledges genuine difference of opinion. It would have been wiser to begin there. If Clarkesworld did not anticipate prior to publication that the story would engender controversy then I would have to assume a level of naivety that is astonishing. I think there is a significant issue with this statement also:

“I’d like to start by addressing some of the misinformation that I’ve seen:”

Speculation is not same thing as misinformation. There was a lot of speculation (which I’ll discuss further on). Of the points Neil Clarke then lists most centre around issues on which there was wide levels of speculation rather than active disinformation. True, much of it was poorly or weakly reasoned but what we did not see (on the whole) was people claiming inside knowledge (i.e. we didn’t see people claiming they actually knew who the author was or had access to inside knowledge). Rather, it was cases of people making inferences from the nature of the text that the text itself was not sufficient to make.

I’ve talked a lot here about the difference between a reasonable hypothesis made in advance of information and how that shapes how we inquire about the world. Both cognitively and as matter of how the logic of empiricism works, people need hypotheses to ask relevant questions. Inquiry is not assumption free and it isn’t possible to be assumption free. The rational step is knowing when to dump assumptions and hypotheses when they aren’t helping. A case in point is:

“This was not a hoax. Isabel honestly and very personally wanted to take away some of the power of that very hurtful meme”

There are two very different points but intimately related points here: the intent of the story and whether there was some kind of hoax in play. The ostensible intent of the story was clear once read. It is notable that this intent is about attempting to accomplish something in the ‘real’ world beyond the normal range of written fiction. I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to attempt but it’s not unlike lifting a heavy weight, impressive if you can do it but it requires some care. In this instance the equivalent of a responsible person in a workplace making sure people aren’t trying to carry heavy boxes without the use of a trolley is the editor and publication. Isabel Fall’s intentions are one thing (heck, they are admirable) but what were Clarkesworld’s intentions?

A publisher/magazine isn’t a neutral medium that simply transmits stories to readers. That’s a lot clearer with NON-FICTION, e.g. if a journalist writes an incredible scoop that will generate a lot of interest and controversy, the newspaper publishing that scoop is a co-partner in that. There is an “I” missing in that statement from Neil Clarke as in “I wanted to take away some of the power of that very hurtful meme” and I can very much see why he might feel that it wasn’t his place to say that. However, if that was a key purpose of the story, then the act of publishing was a key element of that purpose. Exactly the same story published on a personal blog or on AO3 would have a very different kind of impact and be less capable of achieving the stated objective.

That all points to significant issues around publisher responsibility and the duty of care between publisher, editor and author. As far as I can see Isabel Fall satisfied all her duties as an author (delivered an attention grabbing story that shows some significant skill with genuine intent) but there is a massive failing in the duties of Clarkesworld to one of its authors. It’s a failing equivalent to an employer seeing an employee about to lift a heavy box and doing no more than saying “Hey, do you think you are OK at lifting that heavy box?” and when the employ says “I think so!” giving them a thumbs up.

The second point is the one about hoaxes. I could act smug because I hedged my bets on the story being genuine but that misses the point. Hoaxes and pranks happen. In addition contributions to the society-wide discussion on the human rights of transgender people really do include bad-faith contributions, not all of which come people who are openly on the far-right. Prank articles to non-fiction outlets are also a phenomenon. That varies from the funny (e.g. this case https://www.vox.com/2019/8/9/20794325/quillette-dsa-hoax-archie-carter ) to the less funny and while I might find the prank on Quillette amusing even an attempt at a righteous hoax creates the same basic problem of undermining trust.

Pranking an outlet for fiction is harder to do because a story is a story. The purpose of a prank or hoax (such as the famous Sokal Hoax) is typically to demonstrate a lack of editorial oversight in an outlet claiming to be truthful to some degree. That makes less sense with fiction but it doesn’t exclude the possibility. Given a hostile environment on multiple levels (i.e. attacks on transgender people, attacks on fandom and the overlap between the two) it is not only unsurprising that a story entitled “I identify sexually as an attack helicopter” would have people asking “is this a hoax?” (or “is this some sort of attack?”) but also that is eminently PREDICTABLE that was going to be a reaction. I say that but clearly Clarkesworld didn’t predict that and that’s a shame. Things maybe obvious in retrospect but it is a lot harder to imagine seeing something as being fake when you already know it is genuine. I get how they didn’t see that prior (but should have done) but looking at Neil Clarke’s response, I don’t think he has still grasped that aspect.

For example, further on he makes this point:

“Isabel was born in 1988. That does not make one a neo-Nazi. I’m honestly surprised and disappointed that I have to say that.”

I’ll assume he is genuinely befuddled. I am 100% certain nobody believes that being born in 1988 makes you a Nazi. What he is doing here is failing to consider how on earth this even came up. Being dismissive of it because of the face-value absurdity of it is a failure. It’s the same kind of failure of not considering an alternative view point that he is admonishing others for elsewhere. I do believe that a focus on the “88” was an error of reasoning but it was a subtle one and of a common type. As I said several days ago:

“Likewise, I see people trying to discover meaning in the birth date given in the Clarkesworld bio (1988). The ’88’ being a bit of neo-nazi semiotics, but it’s also a perfectly reasonable year for an author to be born in. I’m suspicious of the idea of somebody hiding their identity by leaving secret clues to their identity — they probably didn’t and if they did then they’d be a bit more obvious.”

[edited to correct my appalling spelling]

The point here is a kind of fallacy of confirmation of priors. Putting in deniable tokens of far-right allegiance is a thing that neo-nazis do but the whole point of this stupid game is that they are intended to be deniable. The fallacy is taking a hypothesis about deceit and reasoning “but that’s exactly what somebody being deceitful would do!” without considering the opposite hypothesis (i.e. it’s also what somebody not being deceitful would do) and realising that it is of no evidential value at all. Looking for hidden “88” is rather like the stupid neo-nazi circle game/OK symbol nonsense — it is intended to provoke a degree of paranoia and distrust in people. It is both genuine (in that neo-nazis genuinely do these things) and in-genuine in that it’s purpose is to sow doubt.

I’ve no idea why Clarkesworld decided to include Fall’s birth year as the only bit of biographical data but clearly it wasn’t a neo-nazi shout out. Should they have spotted that? I think probably not, that’s a much harder case of spotting in advance why data you know is genuine might be see as false by others. However, as an error it illustrates the primary issue with the fuss around this story and it is a point I alluded to in my review.

The fundamental question surrounding the story before its withdrawal was not at its heart one of gender, own voices or author identity. There are issues about each of those but looking at them separately only adds further confusion. The core issue was the question of whether it was a story in good-faith or bad-faith.

An ‘own voices’, good faith story (i.e. reflecting a person genuinely attempting to tackle issues) might be good or bad aesthetically (or emotionally or politically etc). It might succeed or fail. It might be problematic in all sorts of ways and a corollary to that is that people have every right to talk about how it might be problematic and a corollary to that is that the author might find that discussion hurtful. I’m not engaging in that perspective of the story beyond that.

The open question in early January was whether this story was a story meant in good faith. There’s not a way of asking that question without it being hurtful to the author IF in fact it is in good faith. But we are back to the point that “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” announces itself as being in bad-faith. That’s part of the the (now) stated intent of taking a hurtful meme and attempting to strip it of its power. Neil Clarke knew that the story was meant in good faith, his readers did not nor did the wider audience. Nobody in that wider audience knows who Isabel Fall is. That’s not a question of pseudonymity but simply a question of there being no established track record of trust. For example, if I entitled a blog post here “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” I suspect most people would expect to see me write an essay about the history of the meme rather than assume that I changed politics (even so, I doubt I’d use that title).

Again, that’s not Isabel Fall’s fault and it shouldn’t have been her problem because the source of the trust should have not rested with her but with Clarkesworld. The answer to the question “is this story intended to be in good-faith” should have been “yes, because Clarkesworld wouldn’t have published it otherwise”. Unfortunately, that wasn’t a sufficient answer for many people and I don’t think we can fault people for not seeing it as a sufficient answer. The key question Clarkesworld need to answer before publication is whether people in wider fandom (i.e. not just their regular readers) is whether they had sufficient trust both in fandom in general and among transgender fans in particular for Clarkesworld (not Isabel Fall) to attempt to take away some of the power of a very hurtful meme. The answer would have been “no”. Clearly, the magazine doesn’t have that level of trust, as demonstrated but also, I think it was obvious before hand.

Am I being wise after the event in saying so? No, really I don’t think so. Multiple people, from varying backgrounds were asking me privately before I wrote a review, whether I thought the story was some sort of hoax or other shenanigans. In the context it had then (which isn’t the context it had now) many sensible, rational people genuinely couldn’t tell. My main reason for thinking that it wasn’t a hoax was that I don’t think any of the usual suspects are that smart or that intellectually adept (or, lets be frank, capable of writing that well). That this was unclear was an editorial failure not a failure on the part of the author. Which takes me to this point:

“It’s the author’s choice when and where they want their story to be heard.”

That would be nice if it was true but the editor & publisher of a notable SF magazine knows that it is not true. Clarkesworld chose to have the story published at this point in time in their magazine not Isabel Fall. The author isn’t wholly powerless and obviously has some power of consent in the process but I really don’t have to explain what the power dynamic is in this circumstance. Again, no that does not mean they shouldn’t have published the story but simply publishing it is not by itself empowering an author. Later, Neil Clarke does credibly engage with aspects of this but running through his account is this same kind of notion of the magazine as a neutral conduit. I don’t think he is attempting to pass blame onto others but I also don’t think the response really examines the position, power or responsibility of the magazine here, although it begins approaching that in places. For example:

“Twitter can be dangerous.”

I’m just doing short quotes because people can quickly read the whole thing (and probably already have done). Again, I think this is disingenuous and worse feeds into a right-wing narrative of evil Twitter mobs etc etc that itself is particularly damaging. Science fiction has had no shortage of spats, kerfuffles, controversies and cause célèbres since there has been something recognisable as ‘fandom’ and long before the existence of Twitter. The issue here was not the medium of the discussion but, as I said above, whether this was a flawed story written in good faith versus a story intended in bad faith. Social media impacts the speed of such discussions perhaps but of the many kinds of flaws social media has, the discussion around this story was not a particularly pertinent example.

How can I say such a thing! Because, the ‘problematic’ aspects of the story were baked into the very premise of the story: taking a hurtful meme and repurposing it. The questions around identity, trust, gender etc are the questions that taking a hostile symbol and repurposing it bring with it. How can it not? You can’t take something from one group (transphobes in this case) and give it to another without bringing up who-is-who. That’s a different issue to the other aesthetic or literary aspects of the story (cue discussion on death of the author etc) or the models and perspectives of gender in the story. Twitter wasn’t the problem here, a lack of context was and, again, the failure lies not with the author but with the magazine.

And that takes me to this point:

“The story was neither award bait (in January?!) nor clickbait. Both are unpleasant practices and we have no tolerance for either. I can at least see how the latter might have been assumed by the title, but it was not the intention.”

The ‘award bait’ issue arose not as a confused attack on the author or the magazine but because of multiple people positively suggesting the story should be given an award. For example, from the original comments:

“I feel bad for any new author publishing their first short this year, they don’t have a chance at a new author Hugo, this is it right here.”

And, no, there is nothing wrong with people saying they love a story so much that it deserves an award. I’m citing positive award comments about the story to show where and why people critical of the story were likely to talk about awards and the magazines intent.

Also, Neil Clarke’s rejection of the claim is a little hollow. “Award bait” isn’t an unpleasant practice, it’s a dismissive (and rude) term for magazines seeking to publish stories that will win awards. In terms of substance, yes, magazines do that because, well, because of course they do. We want magazines to publish stories that have the qualities that lead to stories winning awards.

As for “clickbait”. Sorry, but they can’t have not known that “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” would attract clicks. Obviously it would. Obviously it is bait for clicks regardless of ‘intent’ — it’s like shouting and then saying you didn’t intend to make a loud noise. The only way for that not to play a part in the decision to run with that title (and yes, that’s a decision that ultimately sits with the magazine not the author even if authors of short stories typically decide titles) is if they didn’t use that title. You can’t un-know that somehow and make a decision uninfluenced by it. This is not unlike some of what I have written about apparent conflicts of interest — this isn’t a conflict of interest as such but it shares that same feature of intent not making a huge deal of difference to the ethics of the situation.

It also fails on the ‘unpleasant practice’ aspect as well. Really? Clarkesworld pays no regards to titles and whether they draw in readers? That it sees trying to optimise that as an unpleasant practice? Nah, there may be shades of cynicism attached to how we all (myself included obviously) craft what we put on the internet but there no simple distinction between carefully crafted title to encourage would-be readers and click-bait. There certainly isn’t a way to put “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” out there as a webpage and shareable link without knowing that it’s going to pull in a lot of clicks.

Put another way, and I know this will sound harsh, Clarkesworld ran a stunt and exploited an author to run a stunt and the author suffered as a consequence. That’s a bad thing and, as creditable as Neil Clarke’s response is (and written in difficult circumstances), I really don’t think it has engaged with that issue sufficiently. No, I’m not saying he is a terrible person etc etc. I can well see how good intentions and an unlucky combination of circumstances led to the situation. Hell, as readers know, I wrote things here in the past that led to nasty attacks on another person that I really wish hadn’t happened.

That also takes us back to “award bait”. As Neil Clarke says (and as I mentioned back in my earlier piece) January is a poor time of year to put out a story hoping to attract nominations twelve months later, nor would it help a first-time author with earlier stories (because they don’t have any). However, it is a great time of year for magazines and editors to gain attention. No (and I keep belabouring ‘no’) I am not saying that is what Clarkesworld was doing! But they weren’t not-doing that either and “in January?!” is a disingenuous response.

I can’t count how many posts here have touched on outrage-marketing. I don’t think this is an example of it but as with terms like “clickbait” there is not some easily defined line between being outspoken and being controversial for being controversy’s sake (or even in the latter case meaning that what is produced is bad cf Harlan Ellison).

As I said in my review, science fiction should attempt interesting things and a bold story that doesn’t achieve its objectives are still stories I want to see. I want to see new voices and I want to see magazines taking bold and provocative choices. The issue here for editors and publisher is understanding were the risks lie and who benefits when the risks pay off and who suffers when they don’t. In this case the balance is WAY OFF based on what we are now told. Isabel Fall took most of the risk and suffered most of the consequences. Clarkesworld has probably had a bit of a dint in its reputation but also a huge amount of attention, and around award season. Was the outcome they wanted? Of course not but that is what happened and that is not good.

46 thoughts on “Well I guess I’m writing about Clarkesworld again

  1. I do think you make it easy for yourself when you try to correct to the word “speculation”. No, not all was speculation. Some of it *was* misinformation. Like the clear statement in the comment section here that some troll had stolen the name of Peter Watts. It is hard for us all to know if what we have seen as speculation is later repeated as fact. Whisper games happen.

    And honestly. With this kind of extreme dissection of single sentences and even *words*, I think the best for Clarkeswood would be to just ignore it. I hate fisking and this is almost worse.

    To expect a person out of heart surgery to write the absolute perfect response with every word thought out and immune to criticism is to set the goal to a ridiculous level. I really, really hate the pedantry of fandom when this happens.

    I kind of wish all editors and organizers would as a group throw their hands up in the air and walk away. Because this is too much.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I leaned toward the story being in good faith. First because that’s what I like to assume. But, of course, if it were in bad faith, it wasn’t aimed at me. And because I am a regular Clarkesworld reader, I had some trust that they wouldn’t act in bad faith themselves and were unlikely to have been duped into it.

    As for the statement, I’m fine with it. It mostly answers the questions I had. My opinion of Clarkesworld hasn’t diminished. They underestimated this, but they are willing to learn from it. In fact, I finally subscribed. I’ve been meaning to for a while. Now I can listen to Kate Baker’s podcasts without guilt when she mentions pitching in!

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  3. Glad to hear it. I really hoped this would inspire a few more people to subscribe to Clarkesworld.

    I still dispute that it was difficult to tell that this was written in good faith, so I don’t blame Neil for failing to advertise the author better. I think the people who attacked the author knew this too, and operated in bad faith from the get go simply because they didn’t agree with the story’s message. Note how they’ve all pivoted to “well, it doesn’t matter that she was trans.”

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    1. //I still dispute that it was difficult to tell that this was written in good faith//

      Not trying to pick an argument and I get that you could be 100% right and not be able to give a specific reason but…can you give a specific reason why? I assumed it was but only after a lot of thought.

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      1. Obviously I can’t answer for Greg, but the reason (aside from a general respect for Clarkesworld) that I assumed that the story was written in good faith is that it takes the titular concept seriously; there isn’t the slightest hint of “Isn’t this ridiculous?” That’s independent of whether you thought the story worked or not. (FWIW, I found the story fascinating and really well-written.)

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      2. //there isn’t the slightest hint of “Isn’t this ridiculous?”//

        Good point. Yes, a prank would have some sort of joke or gotcha element to it that the story didn’t have.

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      3. @PhilRM
        Yeah, the fact the story took the meme seriously was a big factor. I suppose I should also admit that I didn’t think Clarkesworld would intentionally run a transphobic piece. But the strongest thing was the narrator’s discussion of the experience of dysphoria, which matched what I’d heard from other trans people.

        As for whether it was a “mob” or not, the fact that it focused heavily on attacking the author with only a few people bothering to read the work is sufficient. It was certainly sufficient to drive the author to withdraw the piece.

        On the topic of sensitivity readers, my own sensitivity readers weren’t willing to read the story because of the title, although they did read my review. I thought this comment was illuminating:

        “I can see from your description that the author is trying to undermine a common derogatory tactic of those who decry the existence of trans people, and I’m glad that she’s trying to do that, but beyond that I’m not sure I have the capacity to engage. . . . I agree that the author should keep her writing up; this sort of hard-to-read provocation might actually stand a chance of changing some important minds.”

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      4. Greg Hullender: As for whether it was a “mob” or not, the fact that it focused heavily on attacking the author with only a few people bothering to read the work is sufficient.

        I don’t think that either of these things is true. I saw a lot of people commenting who had actually read the story, and almost all of the criticism was directed at the story and its title, not at the author, apart from saying “I don’t think the author succeeded at what they were trying to do” — and that’s not attacking the author.

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      5. @Greg

        My experience of seeing the various comments on the story matches what JJ is saying, and I did watch for the issue on twitter quite closely over a few days so I’m pretty confident I saw a good range of the opinions.

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      6. I didn’t see that either. Both criticism and praise I saw focused on specific quotes from the work. Those that hadn’t/wouldn’t read it were focused why they weren’t willing to.

        Of course, critique of a very personal work is still tough — especially for a brand new author.

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      7. @Laura

        Yes, I saw people saying that whether or not the story was in good faith, they couldn’t get past the title. Some were saying it in sorrow, some more in upset. I think that’s a very valid reaction, and very different from some sort of clichéd condemn-without-reading attack.

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      8. I should add that I didn’t have the slightest idea the title was a transphobic meme until this blew up, but I of course I did by the time I read the story.

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      9. I can’t speak for Greg either, but I share his opinion that it was pretty obvious the story was written in good faith. In addition to dealing with gender identity, the story has some strong feminist, environmentalist, and anti-war messages. Is it impossible for a feminist, environmentalist, anti-war person to also be transphobic? No, but in that case, I would expect the transphobia to be more subtle and probably the result of honest ignorance/misinformation rather than malice. Using the attack helicopter meme unironically is something I would expect more from a right-wing provocateur, and a right-wing provocateur is unlikely to hold the other views that are put forth in the story.

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    2. In the early 90s I made the decision to do what a small fraction of the LGBT community was doing: to take back the word “queer.” At the time it wasn’t a popular idea. My own (now deceased) husband was dubious at first. It’s been 28 years, and I still occasionally get grief whenever I use the word queer to refer to myself or the community. Quite often from old gay guys just like me.

      They don’t disagree with the word because they lack the discernment to tell that I mean it in good faith. They don’t refuse to use the word for themselves because they think I’m a Nazi. They aren’t attacking me when they explain why they refuse to use the word for themselves. They aren’t spreading misinformation when they speculate about why I’m comfortable with the word and they aren’t.

      They don’t like the word because it and the memories it evokes are painful. And it doesn’t matter that I have just as painful memories as they do, I have no right to demand that they deal with the pain the same way I have decided to.

      Taking back a slur isn’t an easy thing to do. And it is perfectly reasonable for people to avoid the pain of engaging with the slur. It is perfectly reasonable for people to explain why that they don’t want to engage with the slur. Deciding not to engage with the slur isn’t an attack on the author.

      I have a lot more to say about this, but I think it belongs on my own blog.

      Liked by 7 people

  4. If you publish a story with a transphobic meme for its title, you are walking a precarious tightrope. So I am not surprised it blew up & the publisher should have anticipated that as a likely response.

    And if the author bio is sparse, then people are going to examine every word of it for ‘clues’: speculation fills an information vacuum.

    I thought the story was a powerful piece of writing.

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  5. “The issue here for editors and publisher is understanding were the risks lie and who benefits when the risks pay off and who suffers when they don’t. ”

    Exactly. This is not about criticizing Clarke for a not-perfect after the fact response. It’s about way before that, when they first bought the story for publication. About how the people at Clarkesworld did not plan before the launch of the story, rather than after, to deal with the response. It’s about how a bunch of in this case cis people (the dominant) simply habitually don’t recognize the degree to which marginalized people are vulnerable. How they took no responsibility going in for dealing with what logically any sixteen-year-old could tell you was going to happen with a bold approach by an anonymous author.

    No matter who wrote that story, trans or not, because of the use of the meme it involved trans civil rights. It was going to be a major talking point, and there would be curiosity and also anger coming at the author, especially because of no context about the author. There are trans people who are very inspired by this story. And there are trans people who are very hurt by this story — even after knowing that the author is trans because trans people are individuals who have been through different levels of experience about their rights. And it is a fact that all of those trans people in fandom or fandom adjacent face getting attacked by some because of this story, even if they never read the story and expressed an opinion on it, especially the author. Because the issue of the meme — and consequently of the story — is trans people’s equal civil rights, including their right to exist.

    We’ve seen this happen frequently. It’s not a matter of “bad” people. It’s a matter of people with privilege who can’t imagine consequences for those who don’t have that privilege, who don’t realize that representation also requires support. Convention runners who are sure they don’t need a code of conduct with automatic and enforced policies to support the vulnerable — women, queer people, POC who may and have been harassed. Movie studios that don’t have a social media plan that protects and supports the vulnerable cast members of their film from online harassment, etc. Representation is great and wanted, but the marginalized can’t present their work or have their work presented alone, without support from those running things, who get to run things because they are in dominant groups. When the marginalized go out on a limb, or even just try to participate, they need back up if we want things to change towards equality. You can’t just shove them out there as an asset of your company and then hope for the best for them.

    I’m sure that Clarkesworld will do better on that going forward and other mags may learn from it too. But “we were surprised by the response” and “it’s weird we have to deal with this” are not just disingenuous responses in 2020 — they’re potentially dangerous. Civil rights issues will always need a plan going in, even if it’s not perfect, because the marginalized are going to be the ones in the middle of it with targets on their backs. Now that there is a formal statement that the author is trans, a lot of the conversation will shift to the story itself. But people are still going to be critical and some people will probably try to dox the author.

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    1. I do not agree. Clarkesworld had, as far as I know, several sensitivity readers reading the story and it was adjusted in discussion with the.. They would have expected feedback from them on how controversial they could expect the story to be.

      I absolutely think that is taking responsibility when they themselves were not experts in the area. The question is more if why the sensitivity readers didn’t warn them more. They were the persons we would expect to have the necessary knowledge.

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      1. Dunno if you saw my comment on File770, but I wondered there if the way Clarke asked the sensitivity readers for a review ended up priming them how to read the story, so they missed how someone coming in with no context would read it.

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      2. This would be tough. If someone’s asking for sensitivity readers, you know going in that they are operating in good faith. We know from the statement that they didn’t see the sparse bio. Maybe that would have raised some flags.

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      3. As I said in the other thread, sensitivity readers are not a magic shield that you can just use and declare, there, done, now no one can criticize us! These issues are about people’s personal civil rights and lives, about life and death, about the meaning they have for different people. Trans people are not a monolith — they are individuals. If one trans person says something is okay, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be okay to all trans people or their friends. Just as if one black person says something is racially okay, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be okay with all black people. People in dominant groups cannot fireproof themselves from criticism from the marginalized or those who are worried about them, and the determination to try to do that, instead of understanding that the process of criticism is going to happen, is one of the things that causes discrimination to remain embedded in our societies and institutions.

        You can’t “reclaim a meme slur” if you won’t let people talk about the reclamation attempt and what they think about it.

        Clarke is not a newbie editor. He’s had years of doing this and he and his staff had to know that there would be considerable discussion, controversy and criticism of this story as soon as it was out there. And they did not prepare for it. They wanted the impact of the story for the magazine without considering how to finagle the consequences of that. They did not prepare for the interest, concern and upset that would come at the author, no matter how many sensitivity readers they had. Because they’re cis and most cis people work very hard at pretending that trans people are not constantly under siege for their mere existence. And that those cis folks who often seem to be their allies can turn around and show a lot of clueless and damaging bigotry and bigoted discomfort towards them on a regular basis — and then be shocked, shocked that many trans people regard it as discrimination, (but I have trans friends! And sensitivity readers!)

        Now, this particular case seems to have been complicated by the fact that Fall was not out as trans as the story was being published and so wanted to take on a trans slur in the story and title without showing the good faith of being trans. And so Clarkesworld went with a minimal bio that Fall was comfortable with. But even if Clarkesworld did not want to present a statement as the story was published — not after — that the author was trans, they should have had a statement ready to go with the publication of the story that the story was being published in good faith by both the author and Clarkesworld. That doesn’t mean that everyone would have accepted that the story was actually in good faith — civil rights issues don’t work that way. But it would have been reassuring for a lot of people who can’t afford to assume it’s in good faith.

        It’s no good for people, including Clarke, to say, well I didn’t have a problem with the story or find it transphobic or damaging for trans people, so no one else should either. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of it works. We do not have equality for trans people, so if you do a story like this, it’s as much a weapon, because it involves trans people’s civil rights and for that matter, women’s civil rights, as it is potentially advocacy. It will be discussed and it will invoke strong emotions in individuals. So Clarkesworld couldn’t have prepared for and headed off all criticism, nor should they attempt or demand that. But they could have dealt with the issue of THEIR intentions in publishing the story as they published the story — not after, when the bomb had gone off. Nor can they credibly say, why I’m surprised it was a bomb going off. That credulous reaction from Clarke was privilege talking, not advocacy.

        And that’s not unusual because cis people suck at trans civil rights in our transphobic society. But a lot of the damage that Fall experienced was because of how Clarkesworld handled publishing the story, not simply because Twitter is mean and full of trolls. If you are going to publish trans stories, of any kind, you have to be prepared for intense reaction, discussion and criticism. You can’t pretend it’s strange.

        As for Clarke not knowing about the 88 thing, if that’s the case, that’s because Clarke as a white man has the privilege of burying his head in the sand about these sort of attack campaigns against the marginalized in the age of autocrats. But trans people and others seldom get to do that. So if you’re going to publish a clearly going to be controversial story on trans civil rights, again, know what you may get from the trolls and what people are afraid of happening to trans people from trolls from the story. Is there no one on his staff under the age of 27? And again, if Clarkesworld when they published the story had issued a statement with it that said they were publishing the story in good faith where the author was trying to take on the derogatory meme, then while the story would still have been criticized, the 88 stuff probably wouldn’t have come up. People were trying to determine if the story was an attack, in bad faith, and these are the sort of markers the trolls use in these attacks.

        People are scared. Trans people are murdered or driven to suicide on a regular basis, or beaten or threatened or stalked. They are hounded from public toilets by people with guns and their own school locker rooms. They are fired, they are unemployed, they are kept away from children. You cannot publish a story like this and think that it’s going to be a polite dinner conversation. So Clarkesworld failed, but it’s not an unusual failure. Some people will forgive them for it and some people won’t because it hurt and that’s their right.

        Representation is not enough. Sensitivity readers are not enough. You have to publicly and immediately have a plan to support the marginalized you’re representing before/when you launch, not after. And even then, it’s going to be a lot of intense, emotional reaction. Clarke was ill, but it would have been great if those handling things for him had been prepped. It would have been better. It’s okay to say it would have been better. It’s okay to criticize in the hopes of it getting better going forward.

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      4. If you look at this whole mess through the lens of “Clarke did not know that the title was a transphobic meme”, then a whole lot of things suddenly make sense.

        The title alone would make an editor call for a sensitivity reader. And if the sensitivity reader(s) assumed that Clarke knew the title was a transphobic meme, they might not have a reason to mention it.

        The fact that the title was a transphobic meme pretty much guaranteed that this would blow up big. I think that Clarke was caught flatfooted because he didn’t know about the meme. And yes, he really should have done the groundwork to know it. He certainly had to know that the story itself would spark a lot of contentious discussion.

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      5. I think it’s pretty unlikely that he didn’t know, as I said below in response to your earlier comment. And he has not said that he didn’t know about the meme in his official response, so I’m not going to assume that he didn’t know it. Either way, it was still a failure to plan to launch the story effectively.

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      6. I again do not agree that Clarke did not prepare. Saying that “Sensitivity readers aren’t a magical shield” is not a magical weapon that makes all criticism legit.

        There is a question on how much time, effort and knowledge we can expect from a publisher, how much responsibility and agency we can remove from the author and also how much we can expect from a man to follow through on preparation *during ongoing heart surgery*.

        Clarkesworld did hire sensitivity readers. They let the story go through several changes. They communicated with the author who was the one who had themselves decided to write the story for a specific reason. When publishing the story, we could have expected Clarke to monitor the situation, check comment fields and social media, be ready for response and to discuss development in social media *but he was in heart surgery*.

        And yes, I do believe heart surgery is at least partially a shield, because it is very hard to do things while sick, during narcosis or during recovery. Even the things you were prepared for are heard. As an example, the statement you were prepared to write might not be written.

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      7. The belated response by Clarkesworld was clearly due to the fact that Neil Clarke was in hospital having heart surgery (best wishes for a speedy recovery BTW).

        However, it should have been obvious that this story had the potential to be controversial and it certainly shouldn’t have been published while the editor was out of commission. Keep the story for the February or March issue, when Neil Clarke is hopefully back in action and can respond at once. And yes, I know heart surgery can happen surprisingly, but normally not so surprisingly that you don’t have time to prepare.

        Also the story was online for at least a week, before everything blew up. I visited Clarkesworld on January 2 or 3, read the Naomi Kritzer story (which is really good BTW) and clicked on the helicopter story. I read the story, thought, “Hmm, I’m not sure what to make of this, but I have a bad feeling about this. This feels transphobic. On the other hand, it’s Clarkesworld, so maybe I’m overreacting.”

        I didn’t think about the story again until the situation blew up on Twitter on January 10 or so, a week later, whereupon I said, “Oh, that story. Yup, I had a bad feeling about that one from the start.”

        As far as I can tell, the blow up was triggered by Clarkesworld tweeting a link to the story.

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      8. From what I gather from Clarke’s recent editorials, he was expecting surgery sometime early this year for maintenance of his cyborg parts. But an unexpected complication made it necessary to move it up. So it’s possible he thought this would be out beforehand. But again, he may just have totally underestimated things.

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  6. Kat Goodwin: This is not about criticizing Clarke for a not-perfect after the fact response. It’s about way before that, when they first bought the story for publication. About how the people at Clarkesworld did not plan before the launch of the story, rather than after, to deal with the response.

    It’s my belief that the author did not tell Clarkesworld that the title was a transphobic meme, and that Clarke and whoever else read it before publication did not know. I don’t think they had any idea what they were publishing — but of course, they’re not going to admit that now.

    And it seems clear that Clarke still doesn’t understand why “88” is associated with neo-Nazis, he talks as if that association just came out of the blue.

    I still don’t think that the story works as a subversion of the meme, or as one of transhumanism, and I think that people who suspected it of being a hoax/prank have legitimate reasons for doing so. A publisher communicating with an unknown author by e-mail has no way of knowing whether anything they are being told is true — and the same is true for readers of the story.

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    1. I’m pretty sure that the attack helicopter meme came up when Clarke bought the story from Fall, since Fall’s main intent on publishing the story in Clarkesworld was to affect search results for the bigoted meme. But if you’re right, JJ, Clarke not bothering to know about a major trans issue critical to the story he was publishing is part of the problem of cis folk ignoring violence, marginalization and discrimination of the trans people because they don’t have to know these things, ignoring them and making them worse in society collectively.

      But if you’re trying to do representation of trans people for the good of the magazine as well as the good of representation, then it is part of your job to know about those issues. The ignorance is part of trans discrimination in our society — avoidance, indifference, etc., which leaves the marginalized out there without back-up.

      Nobody is going to do it perfectly right. But it would have been nice if Clarke or his staff had made more of an effort if they were going to publish the story. And it would be nice if people in dominant groups quit doing the shocked and surprised thing about civil rights, and if that shock and surprise were not so frequently framed as suggesting that people stop talking and getting upset about civil rights issues — silence. (I include myself in this; we all do it. We should quit pretending that we don’t and that it’s an outrage if people bring it up that we’ve done it. But that’s my increasingly depressed wishful thinking.)

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    2. “It’s my belief that the author did not tell Clarkesworld that the title was a transphobic meme, and that Clarke and whoever else read it before publication did not know.”

      I have speculated about that as well. But regardless off what Clarke knew about trans issues before this, won’t an editor do a few simple google searches to verify that the story they’re buying is an original story?

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      1. That’s a good question. I remember a couple years ago there was a story listed as original (with artwork created for it) at Tor.com, but people pointed out in the comments that it had appeared online before. It was no longer available at the original website, but it was word for word the same at web.archive.org.

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  7. I think you’ve got this pretty much spot on.

    I do think Clarke needs to be given a bit of slack for speed of response given that he was recovering from heart surgery, but of course most of the issues that need critique had happened when making decisions on publication (title, bio, etc) long before that.

    I’m seeing way too much retroactive interpretation of what happened as twitter mobbing, when actually the commentary was a slow and tentative process (at least by the standards of usual online speeds) and was never monolithic – it was always very mixed and often very hedged. And I think that no matter the outcome, a particularly valid criticism was that trying to “reclaim the meme” was a tactic fraught with danger, and people who said that they wouldn’t even start the story based on the title were very entitled to say so.

    I think that when there’s a bit more distance there’s something to think about in this about how we react to works based on knowledge of the author – there were a lot of people saying that their opinion of the piece would differ depending on whether the author was trans themselves – but that brings up a question of whether an author is obliged to put themselves out there (I’d say not, even though this is a clear case where it would have helped a lot).

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  8. I see some people seem to have edited their Twitter comments to remove hurtful things they said. I didn’t think anyone ever did that, but, hey: credit where credit is due.

    “I had strong negative reactions to the story. But I also made guesses and assumptions about the author which I regret making. More, I was catty and mean in how I said what I said. I am sorry for doing that, and I will try not to do it in future.“

    But plenty is still there. This is just from a scan down the Maria Haskins (a straight white woman) thread on Twitter. These are things different people posted:

    “Just…it feels in bad faith but designed to *sound* right.”

    ” it feels disingenuous somehow.”

    “Yeah, this story is some sort of troll. Disingenuous. ”

    “This makes me think the writer is a dude, trying to deflect on TERFs, because it’s weirdly male-gazey. ”

    “An unlikely number of implausible things would all have to be true at once for this to have been written in good faith.”

    “Folks who write stuff like this word it carefully enough that it slips by folks. VERY common abuse tactic to make folks who speak up look paranoid. Many can’t spot the technique unless they have a survivor background themselves.”

    “It’s like the author doesn’t actually know what being trans is, what dysphoria is, even what a woman is! ”

    “Personally I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written by someone who is trans, because our community is a mess & people have wildly different experiences & there is misogyny all over.”

    These all go beyond merely critiquing the story and instead attack the author in various ways, accusing her of writing in bad faith, being troll, being a misogynist, not knowing what it means to be a woman (that one must really hurt for a trans woman to hear).

    And this I got from just a few minutes mining a single Twitter thread after people have had a chance to clean up after themselves. There were at least eight similar threads.

    It was brutal. It was personal. It was inexcusable. It was Twitter.

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    1. Greg, in the past you’ve had a very strong reaction to people wanting to reclaim and use a word you consider to be an slur, years after it has been successfully reclaimed in most people’s eyes. Maybe that would give you some understanding of some people’s strong reactions to this very early attempt at reclaiming this one?

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      1. @Mark Hepworth

        Greg, in the past you’ve had a very strong reaction to people wanting to reclaim and use a word you consider to be an slur, years after it has been successfully reclaimed in most people’s eyes. Maybe that would give you some understanding of some people’s strong reactions to this very early attempt at reclaiming this one?

        I dispute your claim about “most people,” but, as far as I know, there hasn’t been any polling on the matter. I would say that lesbians like the word “queer” but most gay men hate it. It’s also unpopular outside a few major metropolitan areas, mostly on the coasts. For example, I attended a gay pride match in Cincinnati, Ohio a year or so ago, and you couldn’t find the Q-word anywhere. This really is a case of a few very loud people forcing something distasteful down everyone else’s throats.

        However, I have not descended to personal attacks on people who do use the word. That’s what we’re talking about here.

        By the way, no one seems to have noticed that Isabel Fall is probably black. In the short story, Barb is black (she compares her skin color to onyx), and it’s unusual (though, of course, there are exceptions) for a white author to have a black protagonist. I think the spectacle of a bunch of straight white people attacking a black trans woman for her own-voices story really ought to bother people more than it seems to.

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  9. I thought it was an excellent story, having a lot better substance than others in similar style that have been published over the last couple of years.

    The uproar from the trans community just goes to show that people ought to consider whether they might be cannibalizing one of their own before they post their outrage on Twitter. And I think you’re right that this is both award bait and clickbait. Neil Clarke likes edgy stories because they attract attention.

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    1. The concern trolls who whine that trans people should be quiet about their own individual experiences and civil rights issues are exactly who people were worried about regarding the publication of the story. Because they always show up these days.

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