Friday, July 31, 2009
IBARW 4: On knowledge and knowing and audience
Much of it is prompted by the extremely common fallacy that non-white people/POC do not exist outside of the white eye, that our countries are "discovered" even though we have been living there for centuries, that our cultures are there to be explained by white people to white people. I've seen this play out in person over various iterations of Racefail online, but the important point is that this is not new. This is a tool that has been used over centuries by colonizers to justify their own narratives, to make themselves the heroes of their own stories, and to erase non-white/POC contributions to history. I cannot count how many times I have picked up a book titled "The History of [Subject]" only to have it cover the Western history of [subject]. Occasionally, if the writers are "generous," we get a brief mention of Egypt or China or the Ottoman Empire, but always with the assumption that these civilizations are static ones that existed only in the past, that their contributions are blips on the radar, unconnected to anything coming before or after. Joanna Russ talks about how taking away the context and the narrative disempowers female writers in How to Suppress, and the same tactic is at work here.
My Academic Crisis
I actually come from this from the opposite side, insofar as there are sides. I majored in East Asian Studies as an undergraduate and devoured the many texts written by white men about Japanese and Chinese history; I learned my own history faster and better in the United States. I swallowed the lie that scholarship by those outside of a culture is more accurate and less biased, and it was easy to do so when the nationalism in my Chinese—not Taiwanese, Chinese—history textbooks in Taiwan (probably written and approved by the KMT) was so blatant. I very much believed that even though it was not possible to be fully objective, academics basically tried their best to do so, and that that method worked out overall.
I am no longer so sure about this. My final paper for a class last semester was on race and the Internet; I read quite a few articles on how racial and ethnic minorities use the Internet. Many were by POC, but even so, they were talking about "them" and what "they" did. It was incredibly disconcerting to read, and even though the studies were not about me per se, they made me feel like a bug under a magnifying glass, something to be examined and poked at and written about. It was many things that did so, particularly the contrast between informal quotes from those being studied and the academic language explaining and discussing and dissecting those quotes. It was all done with the intent of being objective, but I found I preferred the lack of that intent. I wanted to know how the authors defined race and racism and if they agreed or disagreed with the people they were quoting. By attempting to take on a veneer of objectivity, it read as though the writers had positioned themselves above the people they were writing about.
I did find articles and books that did not strike me this way, particularly ones from the school of Critical Sociology, but I did not cite them. I was too worried my professor would think my sources were "biased," that I was not constructing a "proper" argument, that I could not simply define things like race and racism for myself, but had to look for definitions of things like "aversive racism" or "POC" from "authoritative" sources.
It hurt to write that paper. It hurt every time I had to cite things I knew, every time I had to "prove" things that are common knowledge with most of the people I talk to online. It hurt to have to go through something with an obvious sexist, Western, white, middle-class, ablist, heteronormative slant and to not be able to just say "unmarked position defaults to the mythical norm" and have people be able to piece it together themselves.
Yes, academia in the United States is based on proof and citation. But much of that is also based on what you assume your audience knows and what you think you must explain. The general advice we got is to always assume people don't know, but there are always assumptions of what people know, assumptions of what language to use, of what vocabularly is common to the field. And, of course, when you assume what "most" people don't know, you are establishing a norm for conversation, and that norm is frequently based on that unmarked position.
And it is a conversation I am no longer interested in. Not on those terms.
The right to know and not know
The assumptions of what people know and what is common knowledge runs parallel with defining who has a right to know. If there is knowledge that the "majority" of people can be assumed not to know, then the corresponding action frequently is to discover that knowledge and to make it known. But again, we get the questions of "Who knows?" Who is this supposed majority, and why am I not surprised that it so often defaults to Western and white? Who is "discovering" the knowledge, and is it an actual discovery?
At a Wiscon panel on science and colonialism, I talked about who has the right to know with regard to science and probably derailed the panel quite a bit, as I am more concerned with how this plays out in the social sciences, as opposed to sciences that focus less on humans. This is, of course, not limited to social scientists or academics, but manifests itself everywhere. It's the history of stealing artifacts and bodies from people to display in museums as Other, the taking and naming of land in the name of "discovery," the experiments conducted on the bodies of disenfranchised people for knowledge, the idea that culture (but only some cultures) is free for the taking (but only by some people). It is people saying, "I know what gender you are. I know your body and what it does. I know what race you are and what that means. I know how and why you have sex. I know where your space is in life. I know what your reactions should be. I know who you are. And I will tell you, because I know better than you."
I sound like I oppose cross-cultural learning or scientific discovery, and I don't, not really. But there has been so much abuse carried out under the name of knowledge that I am wary of any blanket statement declaring that all people have the right to know. Because maybe we all do, but the way it's played out through history, only some people have had the right to know. Everyone else gets that knowledge forced upon them, written about them, is left outside of the process even as they are scrutinized.
And those who are most often given that blanket right to know are usually those who most often exercise the right to not know. You see it in the recent Avatar fail, but also in the way common and hidden knowledge plays out, in the way so many histories and stories are not lost, but deliberately destroyed or written out. You see it in how bits and pieces of culture are taken and assimilated, and how people using those pieces of culture do so with the assumption that they now know that entire culture. And when this lack of knowledge is combined with the belief in the right to know, we end up with people demanding explanations again and again, the repeated requests for academics to get into locked spaces so they can observe their subjects in the wild, the simultaneous asking for education even as the askers are hard at work denying all the answers they are given, with so many people wanting access without making ties to communities, without putting in any work.
Presumed audience and defaults
And this all somehow comes back to my blog and the spaces I occupy.
What should I explain? What should I assume people know? Who am I talking to? What should I say and how should I say it?
Over the years, I've been decreasingly inclined to write general posts on race and racism. I feel like I have nothing new to add, and more and more, I prefer to post in non-open spaces or to discuss things over chat or on email or on the phone with people I trust. I don't mind making 101 posts once in a while, but having to deliberately expose the costs of racism on me personally again and again is too painful to do very often.
I emphasize that this is a personal choice for me. I am incredibly grateful for people writing general posts and educating in comments. I have learned and continue to learn a lot from them, and carving out space in white-dominated areas is so hard and so painful.
I'm still trying to figure out how to create a spaces around me that are not default white, how to discourage unthinking demands for knowledge without discouraging all the intra-POC conversations where we are learning about each other and talking to each other about all our identites, how to have these conversations without their being taken and used as weapons against us.
More than that, I keep coming back to Andrea Hairston's closing challenge at the Conquest panel at Wiscon, where she asked (paraphrased), "What are we doing to protect our most vulnerable populations?"
What spaces are we creating? Who are they centered around? What kind of language is being used?
My pronouns here start to vary between "us" and "them" because of where I stand in terms of privilege and social justice, because I am still educating myself about so many aspects of social justice and how they intersect, because I am still trying with varying degrees of success to do anti-oppression work in areas where I have privilege, because I am still learning about how to contribute both to communities where I have privilege and where I do not. And I keep saying "I" because I don't yet know how to change things on a larger level when I am still working on not failing all the time.
I want to change so that my own ignorance is a burden and a statement about myself, not something forced on other people the way POC are forced to bear the burden of proof, to be the outliers and not the norm. I want "hidden" knowledge and "alternate" histories to be common knowledge and accepted history. I want a world that is radically different from the one we have now, where knowledge and knowing aren't constantly used against people.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Wiscon 33: My Wiscon
Although I had a very positive Wiscon experience this year, it was amidst a lot of fail. I heard and saw Black and South Asian women being mistaken for other Black and South Asian women, fish bowl ogling, and a lot of reports of people asking POC to be their special POC friends ("I have had no prior interaction with you before, but let me waylay you for half an hour to pepper you with questions about proper ally behavior or ask for your permission to do X!"). I personally managed to avoid a lot of fail, I think because a) I limit my panel appearances, b) I only go to panels in which I know and like the panelists, and c) I am antisocial, do not really go to parties, and only talk to people I know and like. Given the shenanigans, I do not think I will be changing my interaction habits in the future.
This works fine for me since I am, as mentioned, antisocial, but seriously. POC should not have to limit all their social interactions at a con just so they can be treated like a normal human being.
With all those caveats in mind, I was so happy to see so many brown faces this year, to make connections with people I've only seen online, to get the chance to talk in person instead of via comments.
One of the highlights of the con for me was being on a panel about Andrea Smith's Conquest with Andrea Hairston and Diantha Day Sprouse and talking with them afterward. First, I'm thankful I got the chance to apologize to Diantha for calling her too angry years ago; I read that now and think "She is so right! Make people with their horrible grabby hands GO AWAY!" But mostly, I cannot emphasize how good it was to talk to women of color from different generations than me about their journeys and their experiences.
The women I grew up with—my mother, my grandmothers, my aunties—gave me many things, but they did not give me the tools to deal with issues of social justice. And although I love them dearly, the models they have to offer aren't very radical. I think it's pretty sad that it took me going to Wiscon, which is mostly white, to find other women of color whom I looked up to as role models, but that's what happened. And I'm grateful that even though the initial connections I made with people were online or at Wiscon, they have been moving offline and outside the con. I'm glad I've been able to talk with more people locally, to have discussions in email and on the phone and in person so I can work through things without having random white passerbys ogling at my mental processes.
I can't even say how much it means for me to finally find these communities of women of color who are committed to social justice, especially in SF/F, which is what I grew up on. So thank you to the women I've gotten to know, the women I sometimes disagree with, the women I don't know, the women who have passed on, to all of you out there creating and critiquing and blogging and talking and being fannish and just being yourselves.
Having your multitude of voices means so much to me, especially as I continue to work on who I want to be and what I want to do.
x-posted from here
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Proposal: Open Source Book Re-Covery Project
Let's create a central repository for fan-created alternative covers for books. Covers with people of color on them. Covers with cool but not stereotypical designs. Covers that demonstrate the diversity and richness that's already inside the text, or that reimagine white texts as more diverse, male-dominated texts as more feminist. This project should be centered on race, but I personally think we should pay attention to other issues with mass media representations as well, particularly the misrepresentations of beauty, weight, age, and gender-queerness, and that we shouldn't leave out reimaginings that are just plain fun. Ideally, people could print out replacement covers for whitewashed texts, or libraries and bookstores can create displays that will let readers know that there's more out there with people of color than they think.
I'm envisioning a wiki, which will make it easy for people to update with new covers or to search for books by author, by genre, by race of author, by race of protagonist, by any characteristic the wiki users think are important. Each individual book page can link to the multiple available covers as well as to publisher contact information, to make it easy for readers to write or email the publishers to protest white-washed covers, to praise books by authors of color, to counteract the many ways in which the publishing industry continues to maintain white supremacy and racism--from the white-washing of covers to the de facto implementation of POC quotas or bans to the ghettoization of books by people of color to the reduced advances for POC authors writing about people of color to the preferential marketing of white authors.
So. Anybody have Webspace they care to donate?
For reviews and recommendations of books by authors of color, check out Color Online and 50 Books POC.
Announcement: International Blog Against Racism Week
IBARW collects links to participating posts during the week; we try to get posts from people who blog about racism all year round and from people who habitually blog about other topics. As with Rydra Wong's link spam, all posts regardless of content are linked to, so there may be fail appearing. If you discuss IBARW in your post and do not want it to be linked to, please mention it in the post and we will respect your wishes.
How to participate:
- Announce the week in your blog.
- Post about race and/or racism: in media, in life, in the news, personal experiences, writing characters of color, portrayals of race in fiction, review a book on the subject, etc. (Linking back here is highly appreciated!) The optional theme this year is "global."
- Let us know by bookmarking your post on Delicious with "for:ibarw," or comment with a link to your post in one of the link collecting posts.
For inspiration, here are the previous years' IBARW posts and last year's POC in SF Carnival IBARW edition. You can also check out this post or delicioused recommended reading for further resources.
Easy contributions if you don't feel up to posting:
- Update the Carl Brandon Society, FeministSF, or the Fanlore wiki on race in books, media, or fandom, or with the work of artists, authors, actors, or filmmakers who are people of color. Or update a wiki relevant to your own interests instead of mine.
- New York locals: The Diaspora of the Fantastic reading is this Thursday at BlueStockings Books in NYC, with N.K. Jemisin, author of the forthcoming The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; Alaya Dawn Johnson, who's already got one novel out and two more on the way; and K. Tempest Bradford, who's got several shorts out in current collections, including John Joseph Adams' Federations. The readings will be followed by an hour of discussion on race in sf/f/h.
Some interesting responses to the Gates incident: a couple of black progressives, Reed and Loury, take the opportunity to harsh on Gates's conservatism; a couple of Jewish contrarians, Hitch and Fish, write basically sympathetic pieces.
II. LiarFail. The US publisher of Justine Larbalestier's Liar, a novel with a black protagonist, released the book with a white girl on the cover and seems to have, um, lied about their motives. Shame on 'em. Justine's brave critique is here. One of the Angry Black Women, Alaya Dawn Johnson, discusses the issue here.
A discouraging response that ADJ calls attention to is this, from a commenter on BoingBoing:
I would probably be inclined to subconciously not checking out the back of a book with a black character on the cover. It isn't that I take offense to black characters. It is because I generally don't like to read harrowing tails about battles against racism. I read enough of them in high school to last me one life time. Sadly, due to the abysmally low number of black American authors righting about things other than race relations, people (rationally) just assume that they are looking at another book on race relations and skip it if they are looking for something else. A solid 90% of the time they are probably right that a black person on the cover means harrowing tail of battle against racism.Now, in 1963, Thomas Pynchon’s editor at Viking urged Pynchon not to make V. a “protest novel” by including “Negroes” among its characters. And in 1977, Delany wrote a positive review of the first Star Wars movie that expressed a wish to have seen some black faces among the characters: the piece received more mail than anything else he has written, the vast majority of it from white kids under seventeen who deeply resented the suggestion, on the grounds that non-whites in movies were signs of "social problems" which they wanted no part of in "their" film. But in 2009? Jeepers.
TNH offers a generous reply with a couple of false notes, some of which ADJ remarks on in the post linked above. Their Eyes Were Watching God and Go Tell It on the Mountain really aren't "struggle against racism" novels. As for "This pattern affects books about orientals, hispanics, and all the other Persons of Brown," I don't think Theresa earns Cute Points for that sentence.
III. Tempestwater. The fearless K. Tempest Bradford spoke out, as people have been doing for decades, about gender bias and cheesecakey art in fantasy illos here. Her critique elicited opposition from People Who Rarely Get It (I mean "rarely understand" --"get it" in the sense of "dig it," or "grok" as the old hippies like to say). Harlan somehow thought he was being attacked and pointed out that he'd discovered Octavia Butler ("Having Discovered Octavia Butler" is an all-purpose defensive weapon, like Wolverine's Healing Factor). HJE realized his error and admitted to it; KTB forgave him; the CBS responded awesomely. Principle 3 is especially necessary to articulate in these contentious times, when you encounter disingenuous people saying "I’m honored to have exposed how humorless and sanctimonious BOTH sides are in Racefail":
3) Expressing contempt for ongoing racial and gender discourse is unacceptable. Although particular discussions may become heated or unpleasant, discourse on racism and sexism is an essential part of antiracism and feminist activism and must be respected as such. There is no hard line between discourse and action in activism; contempt of the one too often leads to contempt of the whole.
So what's the opposite of "Shame on 'em?" "Pride on the Carl Brandon Society," I guess.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Ursula Le Guin at The New Yorker
t’s noted in the book that Gethenians remain female for the duration of pregnancy and a six-to-eight-month lactation period, then revert to androgyny, which eliminates any “possessive” maternal instinct. How did you envision this shortened experience of motherhood for Gethenians? The hormonal bond between a nursing mother and her baby could be considered as powerful as that between kemmerings.
Wow, did I only give them six to eight months to nurse? How stupid! A clear reflection of the strange and universal American ethnic practices concerning childbirth and early maternity, to which I was fully subjected as a three-time mother.
In the fifties and early sixties, breastfeeding was not expected; the bottle was the norm. Doctors and nurses and books all insisted that if you were so lower-class as to breastfeed, your milk must be “supplemented” by formula, and even by water. (If you want an angry baby, just give her a nice bottle of lukewarm water—here, honey, isn’t it yummy?) And the baby was supposed “go off the breast” within a few months.
By 1964, when I had No. 3, I was paying no attention to all that nonsense, and nursed him as long as he and I wanted, about two years....But I went and made the Gethenians act like good American girls of 1960?! I am so sorry!
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
A Nineteenth-Century Utopian Explorer
Catherine Helen Spence (1825–1910) was a philanthropist, social reformer, and the first woman to stand for Parliament in Australia. She was pictured in 2001 on the Australian five dollar note, and earned the soubriquet of "The Grand Old Woman of Australasia." In addition she wrote eight novels, of which two, Handfasted (1879) and A Week in the Future (1888–89), were utopian explorations of the future. Few other nineteenth-century women wrote so much futuristic fiction, precursive of the SF genre proper.
She was born in Scotland, daughter of lawyer David Spence and his wife Helen. Her father unwisely speculated, sending the family bankrupt, and they emigrated to South Australia in 1839. From her late teens Catherine was obliged to support herself and her mother from teaching and later journalism. Her social activism including campaigning for social welfare, women’s rights, and electoral reform. Though she lived in Adelaide for most of her life, she maintained a network of correspondence, being acquainted with notables such as novelist George Eliot, and economist John Stuart Mill.
Her first utopia, Handfasted, was submitted for the Sydney Mail’s novel competition (its prize £100). Its matter, an ancient Scots system of trial marriage, was famously rejected for being socialistic, dangerous, and calculated to “loosen the marriage tie”. Handfasted was only published in 1984, proving to be one of the most readable and durable of nineteenth-century utopias.
Her second utopia, A Week in the Future, was serialized in the Sydney Centennial Magazine. It was less of a novel than a blueprint for the future, covering economics, law, marriage, and the arts. The heroine Emily Bethel is single and of similar age and politics to Spence. She is dying, and her doctor grants her wish—to swap increasing invalidism for a week spent in London a century in the future. What follows is 1988, as Spence hoped it might be. She had read English social thinker Jane Hume Clapperton’s Scientific Meliorism and the Evolution of Happiness (1885). “Meliorism” referred to social advances via altruism; the “science” was evolution. Spence essentially popularizes Clapperton’s notions, depicting a highly evolved society of honest work, co-operation, and the rights of women and children. It is socialistic, communal in its living, and Christian. The utopia is presented day by day, from Monday’s Associated (communal) Homes to Friday’s Government and Laws, ending with Sunday’s Religion. A “good exchange” writes Emily Bethel, at the end of the narrative ready to die with good cheer at this happy future.
Some of Spence’s predictions occurred, such as women’s rights. Others, as happens with prognostic literature, are inaccurate. We do not practice eugenics, and modern fantasy literature is not her school of fiction, “purely ideal, in which spirits and fairies and supernatural beings…were called out to paint a moral and adorn a tale”. Spence was unaware of ecology and uninterested in non-Anglo-Saxon cultures (as was typical of Victorian utopianists). Yet what she gives us, in this optimistic vision, is a society run for the good of all, some of whose better features still might be achievable.
Handcuffing "post-racial possibility"
Gates said in an interview to TheRoot.com "I would sooner have believed the sky was going to fall from the heavens than I would have believed this could happen to me."
Here, by the way, is Harris-Lacewell's summary of the details of his arrest:
The Cambridge police and Professor Gates tell somewhat different versions of the story. But both sides agree that Gates came home to find his front door jammed. He used his key to enter by the back door. He and his driver then pushed at the front door until it opened. Witnessing this, someone called the police and indicated there may be a breaking-and-entering in progress. While Gates was on the phone with a property management company a police officer arrived. The officer requested identification. Gates produced it. Even after ascertaining that Gates had not illegally entered the property, the officer arrested him for disorderly conduct. The police report asserts Gates yelled and behaved aggressively. Gates denies this. The charges have been dropped. In short, Gates was arrested even though the police officer was fully aware that Gates lived in the home.
The heart of her piece is about how she had (before this) seen Gates as an embodiment of "post-racial possibility." Her conclusion is worth quoting:
It is hard to imagine many other African American men who would indicate such surprise. Even President Obama has spoken of the difficulty in hailing a cab and First Lady Michelle Obama has expressed her understanding of black men's vulnerability to random violence. But Gates seems genuinely surprised and deeply hurt. His sense of violation and humiliation evokes great empathy, but also some incredulity about his astonishment with racial bias in the criminal justice system.
I like and respect Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Although we have had intellectual and political disagreements he has always welcomed dissent and encouraged individuality. Our personal connection is not why I was so devastated to see his mug shot or images of him handcuffed on his front porch. I was not even distressed because of class implications that reasoned, "If this can happen to a Harvard professor then no one is safe."
My distress is squarely rooted in feeling that I watched the police handcuff American possibility.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
A classic example
He forced the door open with the help of his cabdriver, Ogletree said, and had been inside for a few minutes when Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department appeared at his door and asked him to step outside.
Gates, 58, refused to do so, Ogletree said. From that point, the account of the professor and the police began to differ.
According to his lawyer, Gates told the sergeant that he lived there and showed his Massachusetts driver's license and his Harvard identification card, but Crowley still did not seem to believe that Gates lived in the home, a few blocks from Harvard Square. At that point, his lawyer said, Gates grew frustrated and asked for the officer's name and badge number.
According to the police report, Gates initially refused to show identification.
In the report, Crowley said a white female caller had notified the police around 12:45 p.m. of seeing two black men on the porch of the home, at 17 Ware St. The caller was suspicious after seeing one of the men "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry," according to the report.
A spokesman for the Cambridge Police Department did not return a call seeking comment. But in the report, Crowley said that as he told Gates he was investigating a possible break-in, Gates exclaimed, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?" and accused the sergeant of racism.
"While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence," Crowley wrote in the report, "I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me."
Gates ultimately followed him outside, the report said, and kept yelling at him despite the sergeant's warning "that he was becoming disorderly." Crowley then arrested and handcuffed him.
Gates was held at police headquarters for several hours before being released on his own recognizance.
"He is cooperating now with the city to resolve this matter as soon as possible," Ogletree said, adding that Gates wanted the charges against him dismissed.
Police officers are notorious for reconstructing events in their reports to justify their behavior after the fact. But even if I were inclined to take the cop's version over Gates's (which I'm not), there's no getting around the officer's arresting Gates-- in his own home-- even though he says he believed that "Gates was lawfully in the residence." One would expect the officer to have been apologetic on learning his mistake. Instead, he apparently expected apologetic, deferential behavior from the person he has falsely accused.
Ogletree said that Gates had "never touched" Crowley, but did "express his frustration at being subjected to the threat of arrest in his own home."
Well, duh. So it's illegal, now, to complain about being harassed in your own home? It's easy to imagine the scene: just arriving home after a long trip, from the other side of the world, exhausted and jetlagged. Wanting a bath or shower. And probably just to crash. Do you think that officer would have treated a white male executive as he treated Gates? "Disorderly conduct," out on the street, usually means not leaving the scene when the police tell you to, or asking questions they don't want voiced in their hearing. It's one of those flexible charges that can be arbitrarily flung at anyone who's being an inconvenience to the police. But what does "Disorderly Conduct" actually mean when you're inside your own home, whichh been invaded by police on a spurious charge?
Second, I wonder why Gates's neighbor didn't recognize him. And why, at noon, with a taxi driver helping him and presumably his luggage sitting nearby, the obvious explanation didn't occur to her.
And third: even if this doesn't offer one of those classic examples of racial profiling, the vile racist comments on the Seattle Times site make it impossible not to see this in terms of racism.
For the record? I once had to break into my house, when I got locked out. It never once crossed my mind that a neighbor might report me to the police for doing that. (Though of course it sounds as if Gates didn't actually "break into" his house: having unlocked the door, it jammed. Wooden doors do that sometimes.)
Friday, July 17, 2009
Book View Cafe Hits 1,000 Members
Book View Cafe, the online professional authors' cooperative, now has 1,000 registered reader/members and we're celebrating with cheers and giveaways. Of course, you can also celebrate by signing up and/or reading our fiction. New work is posted every day.
Aqueduct Press authors participating in Book View Cafe include Sylvia Kelso, Sue Lange, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Nancy Jane Moore.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Readercon, authority, and models of readership
This weekend I went to my first Readercon. There's a lot to like about Readercon, but there's also a lot to dislike. To start off with, the name is false advertising. This isn't a con that centers itself on or meets the needs of readers, or enables readers to talk to each other. This is a professional networking conference that also meets the needs of a small set of fans, most of whom seem to be white, male, and over 50. It is designed, in many ways large and small, to reinforce the status of professionals--particularly writers, but also editors, paid critics, and academics--above that of people who are "just fans" or "just readers."
The con's setup (everything from the programming to the hotel selection) allows and encourages this group of people to talk to each other, and fans and readers to express appreciation to this set of authorities, but does very little to encourage literary conversation as a conversation among equals. Readership, audience reaction, is strongly encouraged to stay within strict bounds; criticism and participation in the discussion are treated as privileges accorded to a few, not the basic rights of every reader.
This description is probably startling to many of you, since many attendees praise the con for the high level of its discussion. Indeed, many of the panels are a joy -- panelists tend to be intelligent, erudite, and witty, with a deep knowledge of the panel topics. The problem is, they all tend to have the same kind of deep knowledge. There are a number of perspectives which simply do not appear--particularly those of people of color, but also those of younger generations, queer people, women, young professionals, poor or working class people, and fields of literary criticism developed since 1968. (HINT: Harold Bloom, b. 1930, most influential work The Anxiety of Influence , should not be the youngest nongenre literary critic anyone on a panel can cite.) The con is missing out on a huge richness of diversity of experience and thought; it is missing out on some of the greatest pleasures of reading, not to mention the chance for writers and critics and "just readers" to challenge and change each other.
These lacks are not due to individual program participants, who seem in general eager to talk and welcoming to newcomers. Rather, they stem from basic assumptions shaping the con's programming practices.
Programming consists of two tracks of panel discussions, two tracks of readings, two tracks of workshops, individual discussion, and "special panels," one track of kaffeeklatsches, and one track devoted to autograph sessions of two to three authors. Program items are developed and assigned by the con staff in private. Panel discussions usually consist of four to six panelists discussing the program topic for forty-five minutes to an hour, with the remainder of the hour open to audience questions at the moderator's discretion. Kaffeklatsches are small meetings led by one or two hosts, and the topic and management of the space is up to the host's discretion.
Basically, all of this creates a top-down expert approach to literature and literary discussion, emphasizing authoritarianism, lecturing, and celebrity status, discouraging small or individual book conversations among people who are not panelists. A small group of experts is given dedicated time and space to speak; the mass of readers must speak in a conversation framed by the experts, and all discussion is mediated by the experts, rather than being reader-to-reader. Kaffeeklatsches may offer a space for reader-to-reader discussion, depending on how the host shapes conversation, but these are not even on dedicated topics; the audience may be brought together by their interest in a particular writer, but since that writer is the host who controls the conversation, the conversation can only occur in particular ways, even if the writing is the topic--and frequently it is not, nor supposed to be.
Of course people can form small discussion groups on their own, if they can hold a steady discussion in the public hallways, or have a hotel room they are willing to open up to strangers -- and I think we all know that depth and long duration are not typical of con encounters in hallways. My point is not that readers are mute or lack initiative, but that the con provides dedicated spaces and established methods for particular kinds of conversations, but not for others.
Additionally, the con provides no resources or dedicated programming for newbies. For a population that often claims to be welcoming the socially mal-adept, it's striking how little care is taken to ease new people into the community discussion. Or, rather, it's striking what kinds of new people are eased in. People who have trouble reading social cues but are confident enough to speak and volunteer discussion without explicit welcome may find this experience pleasurable. People who are hesitant to volunteer discussion without being explicitly welcomed, or who are reluctant to intrude on conversations without explicit invitation, will not. And these differences, although individual, are both gendered, racialized, and tend to trend according to age.
The scheduling shows both an indifference to the needs of typical young working attendees and to encouraging non-panelist communication. Readercon takes place the weekend after a holiday weekend, when people without organizational power (who tend to be younger) will be reluctant or unable to take the day off, but eleven of the con's 21.5 hours of programming are scheduled for Friday. Saturday and Sunday contain some rerun programming (items repeated from earlier Readercons), while the Friday programming is all new. Key program items, like the panel on the work of GOH Elizabeth Hand, took place in the middle of a workday. The kaffeeklatsch with GOH Greer Gilman took place at 11am, first thing in the morning, on a workday. The race panel, which could be expected to be difficult and controversial, took place at Friday at 5pm, meaning that anyone who could only attend the con after work could not make this programming item.
Only one mealtime during the con is scheduled for the entire con, removing another opportunity for people to mingle. There are no official parties and no official Saturday evening events that encourage mingling. The "Meet the Prose" party on Friday evening once again centers on having readers communicate with writers rather than each other, and also offers a painfully evident demonstration of relative status within the Readercon community: You can tell who's generally considered important by how stationary they are.
Unsurprisingly, given the con's focus on traditional status markers, panels are dominated by white people, men, and people over forty. Women, younger attendees, and people of color led the readings track much more than in the panel discussions. POC hardly appeared as panelists outside the dedicated race discussion. I am not convinced more than two people under 30 would have been on the panels without the intervention of GoH Greer Gilman, who had clearly encouraged and endorsed the participation of several young female academics and writers in several program items. Despite the heavy female presence at the con (three female Guests of Honor, including the Memorial GoH; an attendee base that I'd guesstimate at 40-50% female), programming showed a disturbing trend to gender segregation: in panels of 4-6 people, many panels were all one gender or had only one male or female participant out of all the panelists.
For me, the cap for the con's evident unconcern for people who do not fit a narrow set of criteria came in the advertisement for Readercon 21 in the printed Program Guide to the con, which has the tagline "This IS your father's Readercon." Yes, I am familiar with the phrase's history. This does not eliminate the sexism of the assumption that genders science fiction and science fiction conventions male (it was "your father's Oldsmobile" because it was assumed men had the money, the purchasing power, and the moral right to make unilateral decisions about the household's major purchases). And it relies on the idea that what the Concom values in Readercon is the golden past, that it wants to contract rather than expand.
The result of all this, quite clearly, is the reluctance of people under forty to come to the con without the additional impetus of professional networking. In a con taking place in the city with the youngest age distribution in the United States because of the concentration of colleges in the area, I did not meet a single person under thirty who was there without some professional reason to be (academic, editor, professional critic, writer or aspiring writer); in fact, I only know of three people under forty, including myself, who were there without some professional reason. People of color are especially unlikely to attend without professional obligation, given the overwhelming whiteness of the con and the unthinking cultural imperialism of many of the panels.
People of color at the con: 8-12 (personal count vs. personal count of friends)
Con attendees: 600 (guesstimate based on discussion with other attendees)
Percentage of people of color at the con: 1-2%
This con is 98% white. The United States is 66% or 74% white (depending on whether white Latinos are included). Boston is 58% white.
This is the worst con I've ever seen for accessibility; no one appeared to have given it any thought at all. The signage for rooms was small, poorly formatted, and difficult to read even for someone without major vision problems (or, to be precise, for someone with artificially corrected vision problems). The pocket program font size is nearly illegible. The aisles in panel rooms may have been large enough for wheelchairs, but only barely. I believe there was no ramp access to the panel podiums, but may be wrong on this. The steps up and down to the podiums were clearly difficult for at least some of the panelists. There were no seats or spaces up front set aside for wheelchairs or people with vision or hearing problems.
- The hotel not only didn't have free wireless, it had thirteen-dollar-a-day wireless that did not work for a substantial number of people. It is just plain ridiculous that the hotel charged for this to begin with, or that the con failed to set up a network themselves for attendees in this situation.
- The lack of official party space means that people run parties out of their rooms, inconveniencing guests who do not keep those hours. Admitting that people at cons have parties and declare some dedicated space for them in a single floor or wing will make things easier on everyone, including people who want to sleep on quiet floors.
- The program guide devotes an entire page to defining science fiction awards (which attendees probably either know or can google) and devotes 37 pages to participant bios, largely because no one seems to have spent any effort imposing length limits. Some of the bios are five paragraphs long.
I'll try to get up something on alternative discussion models tomorrow, but I'd like to separate it out because it's a general sf con issue even if Readercon is a particularly extreme example. Even the smaller sf cons seem dead-set on the panel discussion model. I don't honestly see Readercon as likely to change its practices, but I think there's some stuff we can experiment with at Wiscon.
Monday, July 13, 2009
WisCon Chronicles 4 - Update
(Aqueduct at WisCon 33 - part of Nisi Shawl's hand to the right as a special favour)
I last posted about this a fortnight - or is it three weeks ago? Things are slowly gathering momentum here. Almost enough academic papers are promised, or on the way, or actually submitted Lots of other interesting things beginning to appear, eg. we hope one Guest of Honour speech already, courtesy of the publisher, plus 2 pieces from Nisi Shawl, our Tiptree prize winner, 2 poems on panels from Anne Sheldon, that a truly excellent poet, and a My WisCon in verse in process from Robin Small-McCarthy, attending her first WisCon.
A piece on language at Cons and elsewhere from MJ Hardman is on the way, and I'm hoping for an ethnography of WisCon from a writer and archaeologist with a similar interest in Peru, Meg Turville-Heitz. Nancy Jane Moore is doing a response to one of the academic papers, and a report with Diane Silver on a panel about a Writers' Community, and other panel reports are also coming in. There's also some fiction and poetry from people who read at the Con. I'd really like at this stage, some more overall views or My WisCons, and more panel reports. The ones I'm getting are excellent, so more please. More!
Current deadline for materials is August 1st, so if you have any thoughts or retrospects about WisCon 33 that you'd like to have considered for print, send them off to me, preferably in .rtf or Word format (easier for the typesetters, helloooo, Kath...) at
Saturday, July 11, 2009
A Pair of New Reviews
A review of Vandana Singh's Distances has been posted at Tangent Onine. Reviewer Bob Blough concludes his review:
Individual sections illuminate and provide a rounded backdrop to the whole, until by the end of this finely layered novella I felt as though I had met a fully formed human being—not to mention a number of fascinating characters—and all with a mathematical conundrum of epic proportions with dire import for the cultures of two planets.
“Distances” is a richly rewarding experience. Vandana Singh is relatively new to the genre, having seen published a mere handful of popular and critically acclaimed stories in the past few years. If you've not yet encountered her work, “Distances” would be a fine place to start.
And Joe Sherry has reviewed the third book of the Marq'ssan Cycle, Tsunami, at Adventures in Reading. In his view,
Ultimately, Tsunami is a novel about power. The power of the Executive. The power of the Marq’ssan. The power of the Free Zone and the power of change. One of the many ways Duchamp demonstrates this is through Elizabeth Weatherall. Weatherall has been the de facto leader of the Security branch of the Executive for more than a decade. As the personal assistant to Robert Sedgwick, she wielded Sedgwick’s power when he was not able to. Weatherall had all the power of Security in everything but name. At any time any of the other senior leaders of the Executive could trump Weatherall by going to Sedgwick. Tsunami features a major power struggle between Weatherall and Sedgwick and this struggle is central to the narrative and the shape of the series.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Reasonable? Who Decides?
Back in the late 1980s, I worked as a secretary for a couple of docs at one of these very hospitals. I would often come home acutely nauseated by what I had no choice to learn about the relations between drug companies and doctors, and technology companies and doctors, and asbestos manufacturers and doctors-- and by my being required to participate in it. I kept wondering: are these things legal? Ought I to be writing these letters and these bills and these reports on University time? I just couldn't tell, because the corruption was so thoroughly normalized. "I'm not a bad guy, Timmi," one of the docs told me. (Apparently my control over my eyebrows had slipped, betraying my dismay when he told me to charge the asbestos company he was testifying for in court $200 an hour for his travel time, plus, of course, expenses and the fee for deposing the patient who was going to get screwed by his testimony.) (That $200 an hour would probably be a lot more now.) "This is just how we do business, he said," eager to justify himself to me. (One day, telling me about his passion for Ferraris, he told me he'd already put away the money needed to send his five children to Princeton-- which was when, he said, he decided he deserved to spend his money on Ferraris and other treats, given his sober diligence as a breadwinner.) In short, I learned then, from the back end, the real reason health care is so expensive in the US. Which is why, of course, the routine denial of health care to millions of people and the industry's ability to stave off government-mandated universal health care is particularly enraging: it's so totally unnecessary and is the best illustration I know of for what is wrong with the current state of politics in the US.
After reading these two pieces, I found myself wondering how any reasonable person could conclude that the people running hospitals that can't be taxed-- because they're "nonprofit"-- can get away with paying themselves millions a year plus "golden handcuffs." The KUOW article noted that one of these hospitals has as its motto "We seek simplicity in our lives and in our work." (Its CEO was paid $2.1 million in 2007.) It notes, too, that another of these hospitals laid off 200 employees this year. And I also recall reading some time ago that many of these hospitals' employees don't receive health insurance with their wages. (Is that still the case? I'd be surprised if it wasn't.) According to Ryan,
The IRS can impose tax penalties or even revoke a charity's nonprofit status if it deems compensation to be unreasonable.
An IRS report this year on the nation's tax–exempt hospitals found almost no executive compensation violating the federal standard for reasonable pay. But the agency says it has a hard time enforcing the law because the notion of what is reasonable is so imprecise.
Reasonable? I suppose if you assume that bosses need to be paid 200 times as much (or more) as most of their employees, millions in salary a year for the so-called "employees" of a so-called "nonprofit" is "reasonable." But I wonder why someone holding such an attitude gets to decide what is reasonable in the first place. (What are such people doing, working for the IRS?) Why not put some ordinary people in charge of deciding what "reasonable" is. We could ask the surviving relatives of people who die from curable conditions because they can't afford or are denied health insurance and thus health care what reasonable is. Or perhaps we could ask some of the people just laid off by these hospitals: they might have a more informed notion of what reasonable is. "Reasonable," obviously, in this case doesn't mean reasonable to the ordinary person on the street, but something else entirely.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Nisi Shawl Reading "Wallamelon"