Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hey Claire: What Gives?

Claire Light writes:

Those who read slush know (although it's not cool to talk about in these terms) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren't reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published.

Really, Claire? Who exactly knows that? Certainly not "those who read slush." For instance, Jay Lake doesn't know that:

I've edited 11 anthologies, published at least one story that wound up in Best American Short Stories, and I have not shared your experience of the slush pile.

Nick Mamatas doesn't know that:

I've only been reading slush for both book-length (fiction, poetry, and political non-fiction) and short subjects (overwhelmingly fiction, some non-fiction queries) on and off for eleven years, co-edited a Hugo and World Fantasy Award-nominated magazine for two years, and co-edited two open anthologies, so maybe the thousands of stories and hundreds of book samples and queries I've read were somehow skewed, but I have no problem saying that when it comes to women at least Light is 100 percent wrong... Women are, on average, better writers than men, probably because they read a lot more and perhaps because males who show an interest in writing and reading as children are often gay-baited or picked on.

I don't know that. Ann Leckie doesn't know that. Molly Tanzer doesn't know that. Cat Rambo and Sean Wallace don't know that.

So: who does, Claire? Would you care to give us attribution? By "slush readers know" do you mean that *you* know? Or are you referring to sources in the industry? Who? If you won't name them, at least do us the courtesy of acknowledging that they don't count as all slush readers. Their opinions are not a consensus that can be applied to a monolithic group "slush readers."

While you're at it, Claire, would you like to substantiate your claim? At all?

Or are we just going to let it slip by as a "fact" agreed on by "slush readers?" How lovely.


claire said...

Hey Rachel,

I've already changed that in my post. Yes, implying that this was a universal experience was a rhetorical device that came across wrong. My bad.

But just because it's not a universal experience doesn't mean it isn't a legitimate one. And no, I'm not going to list all the names of all the slush readers I've discussed this with in the past. A number of editors who have been accused of racism have made such claims on the internet in the course of blog brouhahas about literary diversity and have gotten heavily smacked down. A lot of them have said other things that indicate that they might not be open to submissions from women and poc, so their contentions that the submissions suck is suspect.

However, as is evidenced by the comments on my post, my own experience with sucky submissions is being disputed, so I'm not surprised that other folks who have had that experience haven't wanted to go public with it. It's hard to know when someone's saying something like this purely out of racism and sexism or when they're saying it because maybe it's kinda true.

I do have wonder why you've written an entire blog post about that one thing and ignored the substance of the post, which is about WHY I think women and poc don't submit to mainstream publishers in proportion to their actual numbers (and especially why GOOD writers don't submit to mainstream pubs in proportion to their numbers.) Will you write a post about THAT, I wonder?

Therem said...

Rachel, I think you have really misrepresented what Claire was saying. Reading this post, I got the impression that her original piece was some kind of diatribe about what crappy writers women and POC are. Then I clicked through to it and saw that it was actually a substantial and thoughtful "how to" on encouraging women and POC to submit to publications that have historically had very little representation from those groups.

I'm not sure what is behind the out-of-context quoting, but it seems unfair.

Rachel Swirsky said...

You don't get to say something that's racist and sexist and then protest that the rest of your post is being ignored. Seriously.

Rachel Swirsky said...

And hey--going to go complain to Nick that he's focusing on the wrong thing? He wrote a separate blog post, too. Or do you reserve that for the disproportionately sucky rage of other women?

Josh said...

Thanks for the links here, Rachel. I loved reading the discussion at Nick's lj, and, from there, discovering Nora's (no Hammett reference intended).

For blog readers who don't know the subject of the post, this is a thought-provoking Claire Light essay. Helped me understand a lot about myself and others.

claire said...

Rachel, I didn't comment on Nick's post because I don't read his blog. I do read Aqueduct's blog, and often comment here.

Rachel Swirsky said...

Nora's blogging is wonderful. Do you follow her at Angry Black Woman? She hasn't been posting there much since the release date of her book crept closer (and passed!--it really is an amazing novel), but wherever she posts, I think she's one of the smartest bloggers around.

mouseworks said...

I think the politics of this are extremely complex and I also wish that people would realize that unless you can make a living from publishing with a mainstream press, you're not markedly better off with one over a smaller press. If the commercial press wants women writers to follow traditional women writers' roles (writing YA, pace UKL, really is a ghetto with a very few exceptions), being with a commercial house can be unpleasant.

As I said on Nick's LJ, in mainstream publishing, 90 percent or more first novelists will never sell another book. I've known at least one person whose advance was close to a quarter million who hasn't published anything since that book came out in 1995 or so. Most of us can't make a living from advances, even those who do sell novels to commercial houses.

Commercial publishing works for its superstars, maybe, but a fair number of people whose work I respect went from the majors to smaller presses over the last ten years.

Almost none of us could sell a collection of stories to a mainstream house, but short fiction tends to be the best s.f. out there.

A good writer tends to be intelligent and self-respecting. Working for someone who wants only problem novels from POC or YA from women, or good old fashioned space opera is only worth it to people who don't want to write something else. Or we're looking at people seeking validation. Getting published by a NYC commercial publisher is validation in some people's minds.

The very famous places, the magazines everyone has heard of, even in small towns, will probably get the very worst slush from people who aren't involved in writing communities of any kind. This lower level of writers who submit to the most famous places may be disproportionately women because it's possible that women have more free time and perhaps because husbands and families tolerate a bit of artistic behavior in a wife or mother as long as it's not too serious and doesn't interfere with dinner. A writer would not have heard of Clarkesworld or Glimmertrain without having some connection to a writing or more sophisticated reading community. I'd imagine the New Yorker gets some of the absolutely worst and most incoherent slush because it is so well-known.

Rebecca Ore

Patrick Nielsen Hayden said...

I don't think I quite understand what Claire Light is trying to say, but for the record, it's never been my experience that "submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky." Quite the contrary.

Kelly said...

I've read slush for over 15 years at various places: lit mags, zines, small presses, workshop applications, etc. I don't know who Claire Light has been talking to, but it doesn't map on to my experience or to the experience of any slush readers or editors that I've ever talked to. And since slush readers love reminiscing about bad slush experiences, I think this subject would have come up.

The large, large bulk of bad & unprofitable slush tends to be written by well-paid successful professionals (lawyers, doctors, scientists, more rarely engineers) nearing retirement who have always wanted to write a novel/poetry/short stories. Judging by names on the cover letters, they are almost entirely white males who have been successful in their primary careers w/o ever having had to develop any of the skills or flexibility of thinking that would make them into interesting writers. More speculation: They are used to being competent, in their professional life people pay to hear what they have to say, and they have an expectation that writing, compared to law/medicine/etc, is something that anyone with a good idea can do, and time is short.

When women and writers of color take up more space at the bottom of my slush pile, it will also mean that there are more women and writers of color succeeding in the field as well. I'm fairly sure that bad slush reflects, in some distorted way, the top of the pile: the kinds of work and writers that are published, reviewed, win awards, and find large audiences.

Claire may make some valid points later on in her post, but it's awfully hard getting past the "the slush readers support me in email" opening, when as far as I can tell, the slush readers do no such thing.

Kelly Link
Small Beer Press

Josh said...

Rachel, Yes, I read ABW -- sometimes at "Alas"-- and agree that Nora's blogging is awesome. Possibly the best there, although Tempest's is very very good.

I'm thinking of stealing your post title for a piece on Claire Potter, the Tenured Sometimes Radical who not long ago gave me the impression (not unfamiliar to Rebecca) of being more progressive on issues affecting the suffering in Boorioboola-Gha than among workers in the academic humanities.

But I derail.

mouseworks said...

Josh, I can derail this even further, if you want, but academia is a weird of its own. I owe you for the Patti Smith concert even if she has gotten politically boring in old age.

Kelly, one of the guys I knew in Patrick County worked years on his first novel while becoming a judge. He finally sold it and did reasonably well with it, so at least one white libertarian Republican does reasonably successful work.

Martin Clark isn't quite a friend (we were rivals for the spot of top local writer in Patrick County) and I haven't read him, but he does have readers, especially for the first book. Got more money than I've ever gotten for a book, too. This may be hegemonic privilege, but Martin had to work for that first sale even being a lawyer son of a lawyer, educated at UVA.

Some of the counter arguments to Claire's come across like guy bashing. I'd rather read Malaparte or Celine than most politically correct writers. My own politics are slightly left of Jane Jacobs, but I have a gut hostile reaction to people who try to judge art by morals and values that aren't esthetic. Art is joy, not pedagogy. No pleasure, no value, and some pleasures are dark or complex.

Crap writing is crap writing. We may remember people like us or people not like us more than the reverses, but I suspect crap is pretty uniformly distributed.

And I've met successful retired business women who had the same idea about writing than the successful guys have. They could afford the workshops, could do the Naropa summer program, and were no better or worse than their male peers.

Rebecca Ore

Josh said...

Rebecca, thanks for the corrective: I'm working on an essay that specifically addresses the need for alternatives to judging "art by morals and values that aren't aesthetic." Kind of a letter to my younger, more politically judgmental self. I'm at the point where I prove that Adrienne Rich and Cyril Kornbluth are the same person.

As to who owes whom for what in Philadelphia, I think we're close to even--hard to disentangle such debts.

mouseworks said...

Josh, I'm about to nail William Butler Yeats' quote to the desk "Out of my quarrels with others, I make rhetoric; out of my quarrels with myself I make art." I think one thing that makes art interesting is when the conclusion isn't foregone and the writer is too busy with the internal struggle to turn pedagog on the audience.

Timmi Duchamp said...

"Out of my quarrels with others, I make rhetoric; out of my quarrels with myself I make art."

Thanks, Rebecca: this Yeats quote explains a lot to me about my on work. Just about every piece of fiction I've ever written has involved "a quarrel with myself"; Certainly it's the case that if any of the "conclusions" of my fictions had ever been foregone, there'd never have been any compulsion for me to finish them. (Writing, for me, is driven by compulsion, rather than by the desire to "be a writer." If ever I stop feeling that compulsion, I'll happily stop writing.) But unlike you, I don't see that quote as divorcing the political from art: on the contrary. It more or less proves they're joined at the hip. All you have to do is expand "quarrels with myself" to see that.

I have to agree with Chip Delany, particularly with his essay in the soon-to-be-out Narrative Power. Aesthetics and politics are inextricable, though not in the obvious way I think you are talking about. The didactic (& the pedagogical) aren't what I'm referring to when I talk about narrative & politics. I'm hardly alone in this, either. Though there's plenty of disagreement across their essays, not a single contributor of the Narrative Power volume goes there. (Talking about didactic & polemical writing is really not interesting, since the conclusions one must draw about it is just so obvious.)

mouseworks said...

I don't think the political can be divorced, but some of us like to believe that art leads. I don't think it does. The realities around us lead.

The NYC poetry scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s was less progressive in terms of gender roles than banking was at the same time. Banks learned that women could be smart with figures and promoted my then roommate to Vice President by age 30. She didn't rise beyond that -- glass ceiling and all, but it was better than one representative chick and the rest guys that was the case among the poets.

Did Ginsberg and others see women as equals? No. Did their work contribute to the feminism of the 1970s? Yes, but not due to their beliefs about women (Ginsberg believed that women just weren't as good at poetry as his friends, and I'm not sure he ever really changed his mind on that even after working with Anne Waldman). We could build our own models of freedom on theirs and ignore their rather sexist attitudes toward women.

One of the things that drives me nuts about the current state of science fiction is the gender role bifurcation. I'm not interested in children's fiction other than in passing. Asking me to write YA or expecting me to like to discuss writing childrens fiction with women who are really interested in it is infuriating gender stereotyping and several other forms of evil. It's definition by other, not letting me define myself (and Josh, you're not innocent completely in this).

One very lovely convention evening, I watched traditional gender roles evaporate in the presence of guns and realized how much upper body physical strength disparities were metaphorized into other inequalities. The guns in a woman's hands, even unloaded, made the guys rethink gender roles in obviously flustered and sometimes melodramatic ways. This was the only time I've been among men without having to deal with their default assumed superiority to any woman in the room. The guys still tried to gender the room in a more realistically egalitarian way (and slipped into fem dom anecdotes in one case). Concealed weapons permit envy rather than penis envy (I had my permit, just hadn't gotten the handgun at that point). It was the most fun I ever had with s.f. fans, just wish more women had been with me to really get that "aha" moment, and the loveliness of men without their attitudes.

Women talking about babies -- not my thing, thanks. I put mine up for adoption. I have no experience with children as an adult, and I didn't read children's books if something better was available. Childhood was a horror to escape, not something to revisit. And children's books in my youth were brutally didactic, so I had no fond memories other than my imaginary subversion of one of them with a wicked witch.

If we can't stop gender stereotyping in our field (things have gotten worse since the big feminist books of the 1970s), then expecting to stop various stereotyping in the bigger world with art seems even less likely.