According to Wikipedia, the fairy tale character’s name means the following:
“The name Rumpelstilzchen in German means literally “little rattle stilt”, a stilt being a post or pole that provides support for a structure. A rumpelstilt or rumpelstilz was consequently the name of a type of goblin, also called a pophart or poppart, that makes noises by rattling posts and rapping on planks.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumpelstiltskin#Name
Anyway, I’m talking about squeecore again. I was in two minds about this. After the initial Rite Gud podcast (which I covered here), the hosts had said they would do a follow-up podcast on some of the reactions to their claims. I was curious about that, partly to see how the term was evolving.
The follow-up podcast was released the other day and I listened to it and made some notes but, well frankly it was a lot, lot weaker than the previous one. A lot of the content of the follow up (https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/ ) felt more like the airing of grievances and the parts that weren’t were largely quoting from more sympathetic coverage that I’d already read (such as Simon MacNeil’s essay https://simonmcneil.com/2022/01/15/notes-on-squeecore/ ). What would have been interesting would have been to hear the hosts more critically engage with their own ideas. My conclusion at the end of my original essay was that, despite some interesting ideas, there was not much substance to the “squeecore” idea. The follow-up podcast only confirmed that.
Having shelved the idea of writing another post on the topic, I read a different essay on the aftermath of the squeecore debate. Although I disagree with a lot of what is written there, the essay does present an argument that connects the counter-reaction to the Rite-Gud podcast to influential succesful authors defending their material position.
“However, the existence of the petit-bourgeois author is a precarious one. Sure, you’ve got a bit of cash, you’ve worked hard to break into the industry and you feel like you’re doing okay — but at the back of your mind, you know that this is contingent on your ability to sell what publishers are looking for.https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-squee-heard-round-the-world-83a51b8c7854
And what happens, do you think, if the publishers change their mind about what they’re looking for? What if you can’t keep up?”
You might disagree with the phrasing of this or the use of some terms but, sure, I think there is an element of that within economically precarious world of writing and publishing.
Is that why the Rite-Gud podcast got a sometimes very vehement pushback to their claims that squeecore is the dominant mode of SFF publishing? I’m going to say quite simply, no, it wasn’t. It’s not even close to being correct. In fact, what we have is a very weird distortion of events and people’s reaction to them. And that takes me right back to the most recent Rite-Gud episode and I’m pulling this post back off its shelf 🙂
Both in the essay I just quoted and in the recent Rite-Gud episode, there is an attempt to portary events as something along the following lines:
- Rite-Gud releases is Squeecore episode
- Several big name authors become aware of the term
- The big name authors react angrily to being described correctly
- The Rite-Gud hosts get a big angry pushback on social media
To quote one of the hosts, JR:
“And for a podcast of such lowly stature to reach multiple New York Times bestsellers with storied 30 year careers only to have them flip out.”https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/
To decorate this frame, one of the host (Raquel S Benedict) reads the climactic scene from the fairy tale Rumplestilskin at the start of the episode, where the mischevous man pulls himself apart in anger at being named.
Is that what happened? Well, I was both watching carefully and participating in some of this and I think that’s a very misleading view of things. Now, sure one very big name author did contribute to the volume of discussion, specifically John Scalzi. However, Scalzi wasn’t particularly harsh on the topic and his major post was more tangential to the issue. What it did though was raise the level of notice on the topic. Some other authors did make comments (e.g. Cat Rambo, Ursula Vernon) but generally, these were mild but sceptical reactions. Other notable writers who reacted were more sympathetic. Nick Mamatas pointed out his much earlier coinage “Fantatwee” and Silvia Moreno-Garcia discussed trends in marketing. Both of these are covered positively in the Rite Gud podcast, so I don’t think they count in terms of a major author backlash against the term.
So am I saying the negative pushback on Rite-Gud is a lie or fabricated? Oh no, not at all. There was definitely some very harsh comments made. Who, though, was making them?
It was not big-name authors, as far as I can see. Of course, I’m not omniscient. I haven’t read every Tweet but I’m pretty sure of how things actually played out. I can group the reactions in various ways:
- Positive reactions from fans and supporters of the podcast/the podcast’s hosts
- Positive reactions from a few people previously unfamiliar with the podcast
- Curious, neutral/sympathetic reactions that added additional elements to the debate (e.g. El Sandifer retweeting her earlier ‘Tor wave’ concept)
- Sceptical but engaged reactions to the podcast (I’d put my post here)
- Sceptical/tangential reactions (John Scalzi’s own essay on the topic)
- Confused reactions from people who were reading the ideas second hand. These were often negative and focused on the apparent negative view of diversity.
- Very negative reactions to the discourse on Squeecore
Arguably, the Rite-Gud hosts have some reason to feel aggrieved that people focused on one aspect of their claim (that squeecore involves forced or inauthentic diversity) without the caveats that they offered that even token diversity is better than none. However, it is the very negative reactions I want to focus on, after all the backlash is part of the new framing for Rite-Gud’s claims about squeecore — essentially that controversy validates that their claims were true because people wouldn’t be so angry if it was false.
So if those very negative reactions weren’t from millionaire big-name authors, who were they from? I’d sum it up as a broad, diverse group of fan-writers, podcasters and media critics. Many of them have some influence in fan circles but not people with John Scalzi-sized Twitter followings, nor people just blithely expressing their ire at where famous people are pointing. Some were from BIPOC spaces, some from LGBTQI spaces (and the overlap between those). What the people reacting harshly had in common was past negative experiences with one of the hosts: Raquel S Benedict.
Now, I’m not the fandom police, nor am I the grand umpire of social media. I’m not going to attempt to adjudicate where the fault lies in social media feuds (or at least not with a lot more time and incentive). Maybe, Raquel S Benedict is the repeatedly wronged party but it is neither a secret nor a controversial statement to say that she has many people in genre-related spaces who publicly dislike her and are critical of her.
In the recent podcast Benedict asks a rhetorical question:
“Now, did you notice something weird that for some reason people seem to get madder at one of us than at the other? Yeah, very curious. And what reason could it possibly be?”https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/
The offered answer is sexism and given the omnipresent impact of sexism I’m sure that’s part of the complex equation but the more obvious and immediate answer is there was already a lot of people in SFF fandom that dislike Raquel S Benedict. This is something she is aware of and she styles herself as “the most dangerous woman in science fiction” as a consequence to past controversies.
You don’t need to take sides on those controversies to note the likely impact of Benedict’s existing conflicts on the specific squeecore controversy. That Benedict doesn’t acknowledge this is understandable but adds to the general disingenuousness of the follow-up podcast. It is also important for the general framing because a key aspect here is the idea that the squeecore critique is a LEFTWING critique. To that end, positioning the counter-criticism as coming from privileged white male authors is important. However, a substantive push back, particularly on the apparent anti-diversity aspect of squeecore argument came from BIPOC people who were not in substantial positions of power within publishing.
The idea of the squeecore-critique being a left-wing critique is supported by the fact that its proponents are genuinely left-wing. I want to emphasise that point so that I’m not misunderstood. As far as I’m aware, the people involved are genuine parts of the left. However, arguments, positions and critiques don’t carry tiny bits of leftwing DNA from their progenitor’s brains. That’s not how things work. We can examine ideas and consider the politics implied by those ideas. Further, there is nothing new or unusual (sadly) about people on the left adopting positions that they consider leftwing but which perpetuate regressive or reactionary ideas.
This essentialist counter position (it’s a leftwing critique because the people making the critique are of the left) is reflected in a similar counterargument about other counter-critiques made.
“Yeah, but let’s talk a little bit about some of the dumb criticism. We talked a little bit about why do we hate women and neurodivergent people? Which is. Yeah, they were also accusing me of hating neurodivergent people, which it is very bold of you to assume that I am neurotypical. Regular listeners of this podcast can probably guess that is not the case. It’s interesting. People seized on the diversity thing a whole lot, and I think part of that is, well, we can take this out of context and say you’re just a Chud. But I think for a lot of people this episode did articulate something they’ve been feeling for a while but weren’t quite sure how to express. I am a little sad that people seize only on the diversity aspect and ignore the stylistic critique, because something I really would like to bring back into criticism and discourse on fiction is to talk about style and craft, because we don’t talk about that at all.”[my transcription – it may be inaccurate] https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/
Benedict has also countered claims about the critique being anti-diversity on the grounds that she is Latinx (or Puerto Rican descent). I know regular readers can spot the very, very obvious flaws in reasoning and argument here. I will ask in advance not to make the also very obvious comparison with some people who have featured here in the past because I think that would be unfair. We know in those previous cases that the argument is being made in bad faith, whereas here I think Benedict is genuinely mystified.
The more substantive counter-argument to the potential reactionary anti-diversity elements of the squeecore critique was that its proponents had, in the earlier podcast, overtly stated that they were in favour of authentic inclusion. It’s a fair point. But…that was also literally the Sad Puppy argument as well and in this case, it wasn’t just a bad-faith figleaf over a reactionary truth. Sarah Hoyt genuinely had included a gay protagonist and other notable Sad Puppy authors had diverse characters (I’m not going to attest about the quality of the representation – just that the Sads genuinely thought they were OK with a “not forced” diversity in fiction). Yes, the caveats temper the squeecore critiques apparent anti-diversity but not by much — it heads closer to a centre-right position.
More overtly leftwing was the criticism in the original podcast of the influence of writer’s workshops like Clarion. Yet that criticism was both thin and disconnected from the main claims. These workshops are not new and have had an influence on SF since the 1960s if not earlier. Worse, the loose connection here renders this point little more than a ‘wealthy elites controlling things’ style argument. Sure, when the right makes such arguments they do so in bad faith but on the major points of the squeecore-critique there’s very little that somebody on the right couldn’t nod along with. Sure they would disagree with some of the details and definitely disagree with some of the author recommendations but the substance of the squeecore critique is not at odds with right-wing perspectives of SF writing/publishing.
No, this doesn’t make either of the hosts closet Nazis. It just means they put out some very badly thought out ideas. They themselves concede that they didn’t necessarily think all of this through.
“RSB: You were kind of collecting unhinged responses and having a very good time. And did you expect this to get the kind of response that I got?[my transcription – it may be inaccurate] https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/
JR: No, I didn’t, because it’s funny. It has to be funny. But no, I did not expect that level of response because it is the Rite Gud podcast. It has a smallish, faithful audience, but it does not have. Yeah, we have a really small audience generally. Yeah. And to see authors that I’ve read tried to insult me personally is amusing. It’s very funny because I didn’t try that hard. That’s really all.
RSB: I did not try at all. We were very lazy. We quarter assed this.
JR: I mean, if I’d known it would get that much attention, I would have been more rigorous in the analysis and tried to define Squeecore on a more acceptable level. There are people who want this sort of term to be very analytical. They want it to have specific traits and tropes that make up what it is. And to say clearly, like, this is squeecore or this is not. And here it is. Because ultimately it’s just marketing. Right. All these terms, grim, dark, hope, punk and stuff, they’re all marketing. That’s all it ever was. Right. So to define it as squeecore or the intent would be to eventually recuperate it as marketing. Right. But because we didn’t give a clear definition that nobody can do that, you can’t say I am squeecore. I’m reclaiming this because it’s too nebulous to do. Right. Yeah. And I don’t think that’s a disadvantage.”
And fair enough. Not everything needs to be super thought through. Getting ideas out there and simply expressing them unfiltered, helps you think. Still, there’s a good chance if you are quarter-assing a novel hypothesis about modern genre fiction that you might get a lot of it wrong. There’s not a wholly unreasonable chance that there may be elements that are various kinds or wrong, dodgy or easily open to misinterpretation and frankly that’s not everybody else’s job to deal with.
The various digs at others don’t help the podcast’s attempt to rescue the squeecore-critique from looking like an arbitrary bunch of stuff. For example:
“RSB: Yeah. There was another side of it that was disturbing. It was people who didn’t listen to it or read it, giving these really half baked responses and then saying, and you don’t need to listen to it either. It’s not worth listening to it. You shouldn’t read this. You shouldn’t listen to this. I did. Deliberately saying don’t listen to a woman. Yes.[my transcription – it may be inaccurate] https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/
JR: Several of the blog responses and at least Jason Sanford, they were just straight up like, don’t listen to her. Don’t listen to this podcast. Just listen to my internet.
RSB: Don’t listen to this person. We’ll say person because we don’t want to call her a woman, because we don’t want to admit we’re misogynistic.”
I haven’t found a Tweet of Jason Sanford saying that. I’m giving a lot of benefit of the doubt so far but who knows. Sanford’s January Genre Grapevine where he covers the squeecore debate certainly doesn’t say that.
“The discussion started after a Rite Gud podcast in which R. S. Benedict and J.R. Bolt offered “A Guide to Squeecore.” When I say the original take felt condescending and simply a way to attack fiction you don’t like, this is what I’m referring to. I agree with Marie Brennan who said squeecore appears to be defined as “books the person using that term doesn’t like.”https://www.patreon.com/posts/61853999
But what is squeecore? According to Benedict, “You’re soaking in it. Squeecore is the dominant literary movement in contemporary SFF, a movement so ubiquitous it’s nearly invisible.””
In fact, he directly links to the podcast AND to the transcript of the podcast.
Fan writer Natalie Luhrs is also targeted a few times but not by name. There are references early on to Luhrs’s comments about Raytheon on the night of the Hugo Awards (in conversational replies which she deleted and apologised for). Those comments have become a bigger deal in the wider circle of people-centred on Rite-Gud to the extent of JR (the other host) photoshopping them onto the wreckage of a bombing in Yemen and the magazine Bloodknife (sort of loosely connected to the broader group I believe) publishing a poem with the photoshopped picture. It’s frankly weird. It reminds me of Mark Fisher’s Vampire Castle:
“The first law of the Vampires’ Castle is: individualise and privatise everything. While in theory it claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour.”https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/
With the Hugo-Raytheon issue, there were many people (including but not limited to) people in this broader circle focussed less on the huge (IMHO) issue of an arms company attempting to coopt the Hugo Awards and more on finding individuals who had zero say in what happened to target. Some of that was out of a feeling of impotence at the time but notably, JR and Raquel S Benedict are still on that same track.
The other reference was included in a longer section on civility. I’ll quote the whole section because there’s a broader point here:
“Now, you can accuse any writer whose work you dislike of a litany of very, very serious sins. It’s become common to drag a writer out of the closet because you weren’t comfortable with the way they portrayed queer characters. There’s that one famous instance of a writer who was forced to publicly disclose that she had been molested as a kid when a critic complained about her novel. When a College student made a fantasy quip about wanting to keep a white millionaire lady’s YA romance novel off her school’s reading list because what she actually wanted on the list was a serious nonfiction book about racism in the criminal justice system. A group of well connected, award winning rich bestselling writers, including some Hugo winners, launched a fucking disgusting, vicious harassment campaign against the girl, simultaneously accusing her of misogyny while calling her a raggedy bitch. Oh, yes, an angry, obscenity laden blog post in which a woman said that she wanted to see an elderly writer burned to death in space was nominated for a fucking Hugo Award. And I don’t have to remind you about the helicopter story controversy. So after all that, after you have normalised this kind of cruelty and viciousness. No, you do not get to ask me for civility. Civility is gone. You killed it. You do not get to chase people back into the closet and then cry for civility when someone calls you squee. Making fun of a writer’s prose style is a hell of a lot nicer than misgendering her and calling her a Nazi. So that’s why I’m mean, because you don’t deserve civility. You do not deserve politeness.”[my transcription – it may be inaccurate] https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/
The elderly writer burned to death in space being Luhrs’s essay on George RR Martin, of course. The YA romance novel reference is, I believe, to the 2019 issue with author Sarah Dessen (see https://jezebel.com/how-to-use-the-fictional-teenage-girl-1839863520 ) How Sarah Dessen’s poor behaviour justifies Benedict’s point, is another question. It’s not a hard question — it just doesn’t. However, Benedict’s broader point is collective guilt of…well it isn’t clear exactly who. Hugo voters? Blue Check Twitterers? Authors?
Benedict later says:
“I mean, they weild social justice language like a toddler who just found Dad’s gun. It’s incredibly careless. And they don’t fucking care who they hurt. And they keep hurting people and they don’t stop doing it. So now I’m not going to be fucking nice to them.”[my transcription – it may be inaccurate] https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/
Ah! Them. That’s who. My favourite giant ants. More than any of the comments about squeecore, it’s this vague, broad collective guilt of an undefined “them” that reads like a Sad Puppy post. Again, I really don’t think either of the podcast hosts are right-wing but that’s some messed up ideation going on there and a pause for thought would be wise.
This is already a long post but I’m not at a conclusion yet. I’ll give a provisional one and then consider an alternative one that others have raised.
Provisionally, squeecore was initially a fun term that they tried out with a plausible definition (the YA-centric one I quoted in my original post that was used in the Rite Gud episode about the Sad Puppies). Since then, in an attempt to turn it into a theory of everything (I’ve seen it applied to writers as diverse as Chuck Wendig to Benjanun Sriduangkaew) it has simply become wholly incoherent. There’s nothing but a grab bag of ideas there and hence the shallow quality of the critique and why it so often slips into ideas that are hard to distinguish from existing reactionary critiques. The idea that a short-lived controversy validates the critique is absurd and reflects yet another meme: “you don’t catch flak unless you’re over the target.”
As a critique of the capitalist aspects of science fiction, a focus on aesthetics and recent trends is fundamentally limited. It’s not that there’s no connection but capitalism is more than capable of coopting leftist or overt anti-capitalist themes within popular culture. More relevantly, capitalism within creative domains loves changes in fashion and reactions against what was once popular.
However, I’ve seen a different conclusion which I won’t attribute to an individual. That conclusion contends that the focus on figures like Chuck Wendig or John Scalzi is not the point of the squeecore-critique. After all, it really makes no material difference to them. However, the very vagueness of the disparaging term “squeecore” helps define an in-group and an out-group. What is liked is not squeecore and to be not-squeecore requires you to be liked.
Near the end of the podcast, JR touches on the flexibility of the term by explaining his example of the Poppy War from the earlier podcast:
“Well, one thing that people yeah, that was part of it. But one thing that people who are very angry demanded was to know what is specifically like a squeecore or text versus what is not. And if you mention one or the other, it’s like, well, here’s all the reasons that what you said is squeecore is actually not. And if you say this is not, well, here’s actually all the reasons that it is because they want to confound you that way. Right. They want to catch you in its own. And I sort of brought up off the cuff of the Poppy War as an example of something that does something interesting. To say it’s squee or not is kind of dumb.”[my transcription – it may be inaccurate] https://kittysneezes.com/squee-quel/
The Poppy War was an example I’d focused on as well because it hit so many points from the original definition. It’s not squeecore, according to JR, because it does “interesting things”. Well OK, so the squeecore books are the ones that don’t do interesting things? Whether the intention is to create a pejorative term so flexible that almost anything can or cannot be squeecore and where the arbiters are the Rite-Gud hosts, certainly imbues it with some power.
Well that went long. Time to drink some beer.