Monday, July 22, 2013

Do book publishers' slush piles have much relevance to gender issues in sf/f publishing?

The latest Galactic Suburbia podcast-- episode 85, July 21, 2013-- is a must-listen for anyone interested in the on-going conversation about sexism in sf/f publishing. The podcast series as a whole, of course, is acutely tuned in to gender issues in our field,  but I was particularly happy with this episode for tackling Tor-UK editor Julie Crisp's post focusing narrowly on the failure of women writers to send out as many slush submissions as do men writers--an thus implying that that failure is the reason for the under-representation of women's work in the field. Alex notes in the podcast that the word she would use to characterize this post is "surface," and Tansy suggests that the post is "a bit disingenuous." The fact is, as Alissa reminds us, slush accounts for a minuscule portion of what gets published-- a fact Crisp neglects (or perhaps takes care not) to mention in her post. (She does not, after all, give any figures for how many slush submissions actually get published, or what proportion of published books were unsolicited submissions.) Sadly, a lot of people have hailed Crisp's post as a credible explanation for why so little women's work gets published in the UK-- as though slush has much bearing on anything other than itself. For a thorough discussion of Crisp's post and the context needed for evaluating it, I urge you to listen to episode 85.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Helen Thomas, 1920-2013

Journalist Helen Thomas died yesterday at the age of 92. The obituaries now appearing characterize her with a variety of epithets-- "trailblazer," "pioneer," "feisty scourge," "barrier-busting," "former dean of White House Press," as well as others considerably less respectful. I knew her name for all my adult life, and I recall numerous occasions on which the sharpness of her questions to presidents and presidential press secretaries and the often faux-jocular but pained way presidents responded to her directness delighted me. I loved that though they wanted to dismiss her for being a woman, their attempts at handling her were transparently not to their credit.

Thomas was the US-born daughter of Lebanese immigrants ("Thomas" apparently being Ellis-Islandese for "Antonious"). Wikipedia has a couple of quotes from her about growing up as the daughter of Middle-Eastern immigrants: "We were never hyphenated as Arab-Americans. We were American, and I have always rejected the hyphen and I believe all assimilated immigrants should not be designated ethnically. Or separated, of course, by race, or creed either. These are trends that ever try to divide us as a people." The entry notes that she remarked that as a child in Detroit in the 1920s, "They wanted to make you feel you weren't 'American'... We were called 'garlic eaters'."

Wikipedia offers lots more details-- about the course of her career, her honors and awards, the books she published, and her increasing frankness after she quit UPI in 2000. (I suspect this increasing frankness also had something to do with her age. Over the last few years, I've been noticing that women become franker and franker the older they get.) They quote her saying in a speech at MIT, "I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’" This was, as the entry notes, a quip. But I think the entry's description of a skirmish at a press conference in 2007 best illustrates the point:
In a press conference on November 30, 2007, Thomas questioned White House Press Secretary Dana Perino as to why Americans should depend on General David Petraeus in determining when to re-deploy U.S troops from Iraq. Perino began to answer when Thomas interjected with "You mean how many more people we kill?"
Perino immediately took offense, responding: Helen, I find it really unfortunate that you use your front row position, bestowed upon you by your colleagues, to make such statements. This is is an honor and a privilege to be in the briefing room, and to suggest that we, the United States, are killing innocent people is just absurd and very offensive.
Refusing to back down, Thomas responded immediately by asking Perino if she knew how many innocent Iraqis had been killed and then questioned the worth of regret when Perino responded that the administration regretted the loss of all innocent Iraqi lives.
For the harsh, interminable duration of the Bush II Administration, the White House press corps happily assumed the role of courtiers admiring the Emperor's New Clothes. The press secretary's remonstrance underscores the press corps' failure to call the administration on its war crimes. In short, Thomas was one of the few public persons during the Bush Administration openly daring to speak truth to power.

Thomas's national career virtually ended in 2010 with an outburst against against Israeli Jews, fueled by long anger and frustration at the State of Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians. A few days later, after she had resigned, she noted "I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon." Her outburst, of course, was publicly unforgivable. As Ralph Nader commented, one off-hand "ill-conceived remark" ended Helen Thomas’ career while "ultra-right wing radio and cable ranters" engaged in "bigotry, stereotypes and falsehoods directed wholesale against Muslims, including a blatant anti-semitism against Arabs."

Thomas's trailblazing, of course, refers to her having forged a successful career despite being a woman, which was definitely a liability in the 1940s and 1950s. She started as a "copy-girl" for the Washington Daily News in 1943-- a job she lost less than a year later after joining a strike action. In 1959, she and a few of her fellow female journalists forced the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. The entry notes: Many female journalists memorialized Thomas on Twitter, including Judy Woodruff, who called her a "trailblazer", and Lynn Sweet, who said she was a "glass ceiling breaking journalist".[89] Andrea Mitchell tweeted that Thomas "made it possible for all of us who followed."[90] Dana Perino, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush, remembered that on her first day as Press Secretary, Thomas approached her to give her words of encouragement. (Presumably Perino didn't hold that exchange about killing innocent people against her.)

Of all the epithets characterizing her, let me add this one: indomitable. In my mind, she belongs to the pantheon of women journalists like Molly Ivins and Mary McGrory whom we forget at our peril.

Friday, July 12, 2013

More theater of the absurd--

-- this time in Texas. Due to the success of Wendy Davis's filibuster of legislation that would have virtually ended legal abortion in Texas, the governor felt the need to call a special session of the legislature to push it through. According to Katherine Haenschen,, who is liveblogging the session, one "Senator Bob Deuell made the charming remark that low-income abortion seekers are "unsophisticated patients" who need the legislature's help. Yes, Senator Deuell actually said that poor and less-educated women need the legislature to make decisions for them." So far the Democrats opposing the bill have been focusing on procedural issues.

But what has captured the most attention for the national audience is that women wanting to watch the session from the gallery are being searched for tampons and sanitary napkins, which when found are being confiscated-- unlike, say, guns, which are legally allowed in the chamber. Progress Texas has duly produced this graphic (which is flashing madly across Facebook, thanks partly to the Daily Kos, and partly to women tired of such now-commonplace ironies):

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 3, 3

The summer issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is out! You can purchase the issue for $3 (or subscribe for $10) at

Vol. 3 No. 3 — July 2013

Musing on Sandberg’s Lean In
  by Nancy Jane Moore

  by Sonya Taaffe
The Marriage He Saw Beneath the Shade
  by Sonya Taaffe 
Grandmother Magma
How to Suppress Women’s Writing
by Joanna Russ
  reviewed by Kathleen Alcalá

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember:
How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

by Annalee Newitz
  reviewed by Victoria Elisabeth Garcia

Death by Silver
by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold
  reviewed by Cynthia Ward

The Other Half of the Sky
edited by Athena Andreadis and Kay Holt
  reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Space Is Just a Starry Night
by Tanith Lee
  reviewed by Craig Laurance Gidney

Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom
by Leila Schneps and Coralie Colmez
  reviewed by Karen Burnham

Wolfhound Century

by Peter Higgins
  reviewed by Natalya Volkhovets

Featured Artist
Ta-coumba T. Aiken

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A few thoughts about freedom of speech

It's Independence Day in the US. And so I'd especially like to honor the US Bill of Rights today, with particular attention to the first and fourth amendments, which (like the fifth, sixth, and eight amendments) are under increasingly serious threat.

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

 And yet, drawing attention to these amendments, I feel compelled to make certain that I'm not misunderstood in our little corner of the blogosphere by neglecting to assert that certain people who are claiming they are being censored when their disrespectful speech, whether thoughtless or hate-driven, is scrutinized and condemned. Censorship is something governments and government-directed agencies (which corporations sometimes behave as) do. Professional organizations, publishers, and editors are not agents of the government. They have limited powers. And they have responsibilities to their members and readers respectively. One of the responsibilities of a professional organization is upholding the ethical standards of its members.

 In her recent, four-part post, Liz Bourke sums up the current situation in the sf/f sphere with elegant succinctness:
The month of June 2013 saw sexism (and bigotry in several forms) bubble to the surface of the SFF genre conversation. Not fictional sexism, but the real-life kind: the Resnick/Malzburg dialogues (liberal fascism! censorship!) were followed by repugnant white supremacist and ex-SFWA presidential candidate Vox Day’s vile rhetorical attack on award-winning author N.K. Jemisin. And then we were faced with the news that Elise Matthesen had made the first formal report against Tor editor James Frenkel, long rumoured to be a man with whom one should avoid getting into an elevator.
I hope you have all read, at the very least, N.K. Jemisin's excellent speech, Elise Matthesen's courageous post, Amar El-Mohtar's righteous post insisting that SFWA needs to abide by standards of professionalism. Liz Bourke quotes from and links to other posts, too. By examining the outrageous, ridiculous post made by Rod Rees on his publisher's blog, she arrives at this significant, critical point:
In the last month, “freedom of speech” has been seized upon as a cri de coeur in the face of criticism in the SFF genre community. The response of Resnick and Malzburg to legitimate criticism was not to say, “Hey, you might have a point, we’ll think about it,” or even, “I think you’re wrong, but we’ll have to agree to disagree,” but to talk about “censorship” and “liberal fascism.” Likewise, calls to expel Theodore Beale from SFWA for, essentially, bringing the organisation into disrepute, were met with but you can’t punish him for exercising his freedom of speech!
(The right to freedom of speech is not the right to a platform, or to a megaphone. Nor is it freedom from the consequence of speech – which can be criticism, in the form of more speech.)
In other words, the claim that freedom of speech has been endangered by criticism of that speech is a red herring. The crucial question people should be asking themselves is this: what behavior is appropriate in professional situations, and what speech is appropriate in professional venues? Do we (I mean SFWA) have no professional standards at all (beyond, of course, the three-professional-sales qualification)? That, really, is the question. How professional is it to call a fellow (more talented and successful) writer an “ignorant half-savage” and proclaim that “self-defense laws have been put in place to let whites defend their lives and their property from people, like her, who are half-savages engaged in attacking them,” as Beale did? To me, such talk sounds like nothing more than vile hate speech (and a thinly veiled threat). Beale availed himself of a SFWA twitter feed to spew his vitriol: in other words, he used his professional status to amplify his bandwidth for what any reasonable person would call an unprofessional utterance.

So let me ask again: what ought the standards of sf/f's professional organization to be? We've recently begun demanding certain minimal standards for sf cons.

Liz Bourke sees these rhetorical assaults and the excuses made for them as signs of "systemic failure." And so they are. We've had exposure after exposure. Clarity must follow, right? 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Bank of America's latest bit of theater of the absurd

The news for civil rights, women's reproductive freedom, and democracy has been see-sawing like crazy lately. The latest, breaking news of the trial of Jeff Olson, who was prosecuted for writing--with water-soluble chalk-- on public sidewalks in front of San Diego Bank of America branches, offers a victory--even as it reveals just how off-kilter our judicial system is. Olson faced a sentence of thirteen years in prison for writing protest messages that could be easily washed away by anyone who wanted to. (Not quite as bad as that Texas court's sentencing a kid who'd attempted to steal a candy bar to prison for life, but ridiculous enough.)  In a nutshell,
Bank of America pushed for the prosecution of Olson on vandalism charges for writing his First Amendment opinions on public sidewalks (and in one case on Bank of America pavement). In fact the elected conservative SD City Attorney, Jan Goldsmith, didn't even initiate charges against Olson until months after he wrote in chalk on sidewalks in front of three Bank of America branches in SD. It was only after the local security officer for Bank of America relentlessly prodded the City Attorney's office that Olson was charged with the 13 counts of vandalism.
The trial judge, Howard Shore, not only forbade Olson and his defense to mention the First Amendment or little things like freedom of speech in his defense, he also put a gag order on Olson for the course of the trial. And he had special condemnation for the mayor of San Diego, too:
Judge Howard Shore also chastised the Mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner. Filner apparently in the judge's eyes had the temerity to call the trial of Olson a waste of time and taxpayer money. According to the San Diego Reader, Filner sent out a memorandum on June 20 that read in part:
This young man is being persecuted for thirteen counts of vandalism stemming from an expression of political protest that involved washable children's chalk on a City sidewalk. It is alleged that he has no previous criminal record. If these assertions are correct, I believe this is a misuse and waste of taxpayer money. It could also be characterized as an abuse of power that infringes on First Amendment particularly when it is arbitrarily applied to some, but not all, similar speech.
Judge Shore, in essence, warned the mayor of San Diego, who happens to be a Democrat in a traditionally conservative city, to keep his comments to himself, and would likely have issued a gag order on the mayor if Judge Shore were able.
It's farcical, sure. But just think for a minute how serious such farcical abuses of the law really is. Many of us are always talking about how it's gotten to be difficult to tell the difference between reports of political reality and displays of political satire. As Mark Karlin writes, "No Bank of America top officials were prosecuted for any number of questionable legal activities leading to this nation's taxpayers bailing out the banks too big to fail." As far as Bank of America officials (and certain judges and prosecutors) are concerned, the law is not an instrument of justice, but of protecting the interests of a tiny, wealthy elite. We see this every day not only in the way that political activists are treated by our various judicial systems, but also--and especially-- in the large-scale jailing of black men. We're also seeing it used, now, by the Obama Administration to punish whistle blowers revealing government policies to citizens, declaring them "traitors" as though they were the revealing secrets to foreign powers rather than government policies and actions to the citizens they supposedly work for.