Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

A Long But Necessary Response To Athena Andreadis

with 14 comments

Athena Andreadis is infamous within the science fiction community for a couple of things. Firstly, there is her drive-by spamming of magazines and blogs with links to her own blog. For example, she posted a link on my review of The Heroes Joe Abercrombie and then, three days later, posted the exact same link on my summary of the “bankrupt nihilism” debate around Abercrombie’s fiction. The initial comment from her on the review reads, in its entirety: “You must be aware of the recent epic fantasy dustup. My view thereof.” I was indeed aware of the dust up and had written about it at length but Andreadis was clearly unaware of this, despite the summary post being linked from the review. Not only hadn’t she been reading my blog, she hadn’t even read the post she commented on. It is an extremely rude form of discourse and perhaps “discourse” is being to generous: it is barging into a conversation and shouting your point of view. And this is a pattern, not a one of instance.

Secondly, as you would perhaps expect form someone who communicates in this way, Andreadis holds her own words in very high regard and believes everyone else should as well. This translates into the belief that she has a right to a response to everything she writes. Now, I don’t respond to every comment on my blog, I don’t think every comment deserves a response; if you don’t reply to Andreadis she will email you to demand to know why. I fundamentally believe that a conversation begun in the public sphere should stay in the public sphere. Partly this is personal preference (if there is something you will only say to me in private, I probably don’t want to hear it) but it also avoids the problem of communicating in two separate but linked spheres. A good illustration of this problem starts with this comment from Andreadis on the Strange Horizons blog:

I had an exchange recently with a regular contributor to Strange Horizons who was convinced it had gender parity, if not female dominance. I countered that it was actually the usual one-third (which seems to register as “female excess”).

Because there is no attribution, there is no way of knowing if this is true yet it is impossible to rebut. When someone queries whether they are the supposed source comment it is ignored but doesn’t stop the comment being repeated on the Aquaduct Press blog. Andreadis then doubles down by referring to public statements are well but still refusing to attribute them:

“After both private and public interactions with some of the Strange Horizon reviewers, I have come to the sorrowful conclusion that the venue may end up becoming the SF/F version of The Valve.”

Again, no response was forthcoming to requests for clarity on just what those interactions might be. So when Andreadis posted a long piece on her own blog about Strange Horizons yesterday I thought it might contain the answers. Well, sort of. Here is Andreadis’s core complaint:

So I read SH fiction less and less but continued to browse its columns and reviews. Then in the last few years I noticed those shifting – gradually but steadily. They were increasingly by and about Anglosaxon white men and showed the tunnel vision this context denotes and promotes. The coalescent core reviewers were young-ish British men (with token “exotics”) convinced of their righteous enlightenment and “edginess” along the lines of “We discovered/invented X.”

It is ironic that Andreadis used Niall Harrison’s The SF Count post as the starting point for her own; Harrison’s post is all about building an evidence base, her post is all about throwing around accusations with an almost total lack of evidence. I only count two pieces of actual evidence in the post. Unsurprisingly, neither of these are attributed, nor are they directly relevant to her core complaint. Abigail Nussbaum, reviews editor for Strange Horizons, has responded but I would like to specifically address one of those pieces of supposed evidence. This is because it is about me, although, of course, you can’t tell that from the post.

I should start by saying that this is a conversation I should be having over on Andreadis’s blog, where the accusation was made and where people who read her side are more likely to read my side. I can’t do this, however, because she has refused to moderate my comment and instead delete it. As justification for this, she has added a note to the end of her post:

Note to readers: I am aware this will lead to polarizing and polarized views. I will not engage in lengthy back-and-forths, although I made an exception for the expected response by Abigail Nussbaum. People are welcome to hold forth at whatever length and pitch they like elsewhere.

This is incredibly bad form but not unexpected from someone who values her words above everyone else’s. So I will just have to hold forth at my own length and pitch here. The reason I need to hold forth is because paragraphs five and six of Andreadis’s posts are devoted to me and my review of Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding. As I said, you wouldn’t know this from her post; it neither names me or links to the review. Andreadis’s justification for this is that: “I didn’t name names because I’m discussing general trends.” This is such transparent bullshit that it is hard to know how to respond. Suffice to say, I am unsure what possible general trend about Strange Horizons one could derive from a single review on my blog. Rather, I suspect the real reason for not name names is that actual evidence would undo her argument. With that in mind I am going to go through each paragraph line by line and respond to Andreadis:

I caught a whiff of the embedded assumptions that surface when these self-proclaimed progressives relax,

I don’t think I’ve ever proclaimed myself a progressive. Indeed, I’d consider it a primarily American identification so why would I? As for “relaxing”, I find the idea of writing a blog post as well earned breather from toiling in the SH salt mines hilarious. And you never get round to saying what the “embedded assumptions” actually are.

safe from prying eyes.

That’s right, safe from prying eyes on the bloody internet. On a blog linked from my SH bio, no less.

One of them recently reviewed a story on his site and characterized its protagonist by the term “cunt”.

Well, a novel but yes. However, whilst this sentence is factually accurate, I am amazed you would devote two paragraphs to attacking me without naming me or providing a link to the actual words that you are paraphrasing. Doing so also elides the sex of the protagonist which is surely of relevance here. I also fail to see any direct – or, to be honest, indirect – connection to Strange Horizons.

He used the word repeatedly, as a synonym for “empathy-lacking sociopath”.

Why are you using quote marks here when I didn’t say that? In fact, I don’t use it as a synonym, rather that is your characterisation.

Having accidentally read the entry,

WTF? I am truly fascinated to hear how you managed this.

I remarked that, feminism bona fides aside,

I still have no idea what this actually means.

the term doesn’t ring friendly to female ears

You can tell me it does ring friendly to your ears, you don’t get to speak on behalf of every woman in every country. There is a well known and long established difference between the reception of the word cunt in America and other Anglophone countries. In your comments to my review, you claimed to accept this.

and even the canon definition of the term (“extremely unpleasant person, object or experience”) is not equivalent to psychopath.

Again, this characterisation of equivalence is your’s, not mine. Also I’m not sure why I have to accept your definition of the word cunt but, as it happens, that is exactly how I am using it.

Perhaps not so incidentally, I was the only woman on the discussion thread.

Apart from the second commenter, Nic Clarke, who says “I came to much the same conclusion”. (The fact Nic agrees with me doesn’t mean I am right but it does mean you are factually wrong.)

The reviewer’s first response was that only Amurrican barbarians “misunderstand” the term.

Again, why are you using quote marks here when I said no such thing? Nor did I suggest any of the things outside the quote marks. I merely suggested that this is only an issue for Americans.

I replied (in part) that I’m not American,

It is true you are not American, you just live in America and speak American. I think I can be forgiven on this point since I was clearly correctly that this is the reason it was an issue for you.

and presumably he wishes to be read by people beyond Britain and its ex-colonies.

Here is where you realise that your attempt to impose American cultural assumptions on me is not going to have any traction so you instead have the massive presumption to lecture me about who I am writing for. It should have been obvious by this point that I certainly wasn’t writing for you and I had zero interest in who you thought I should write for or, indeed, what I should write.

At that point he essentially told me to fuck off.

Fair call.

His friends, several of them SH reviewers or editors, fell all over themselves to show they aren’t PC killjoys.

Here is where you finally try to tie an old, irrelevant fight you had into a new argument about SH. There were three further responses: one from Jonathan McCalmont (reviewer for SH) agreeing with me, one from Patrick Hudson (no connection to SH) disagreeing with me and one from Niall Harrison (editor for SH) linking to a feminist discussion of the word cunt.

They informed me that US cultural hegemony is finally over (if only),

Jonathan, in fact, said the opposite.

that “cunt” is often used as an endearment (in which case his review was a paean?)

Patrick did note this in passing but it was hardly his main point nor was it made in relation to the review.

and that women themselves have reclaimed the term (that makes it copacetic then!)

Niall presented the link without comment, presumably because he thought this fact was relevant to the discussion. Since you make the blanket declaration above that “the term doesn’t ring friendly to female ears” I would suggest he was right. As for the word copacetic, unless you want only Americans to read this as intended, you may think about word choice.

You seem to have wanted the conversation to be entirely on your terms. It didn’t go. Being unable to continue the conversation on somebody else’s terms you decided to pointlessly get the last word by saying: “Heh heh. Love it when the boyz get feisty.” The fact you didn’t get your way – and perhaps the fact I generally haven’t engaged with your heavy-handed comments on my blog – has obviously festered. However, our discussion about the word cunt in the margins to a review on my blog has nothing to do with a discussion about the supposed increasing “tunnel-vision” of Strange Horizons.

Written by Martin

27 March 2011 at 11:38

14 Responses

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  1. I should point out that the “exception” Athena made in graciously letting my comment go up did not extend to its follow-up, in which, among other things, I objected to her condescending characterization of my words as being motivated by nothing but “loyalty to SH.”

    Abigail

    27 March 2011 at 11:53

  2. Though I think this hardly needs to be said, I think you’ve been doing a fine job Abigail and SH continues to be the place I trust for coming to grips with what’s happening in SF. It is head and shoulders above everyone else and I hope you remember that.

    I think there is an unfortunate tendency in the broader SF community to get up in arms about… oh, I don’t know… anything and everything. Sometimes I feel as though our nice things (SH) are just never good enough for people.

    But at the risk of offending on this touchy subject, what I am really confused by is the insistence of the SF community (particularly in online discussion) on gender and ethnic parity to achieve diversity rather than looking to the substance of the work as the metric for its diversity.

    I say this not from a position that is ignorant of the disparity here – but what I am confused about is why a novel needs particularly more or less attention because of its author’s genetic attributes.

    A novel, to me, is the representation of an individual’s viewpoint and I think we are all sufficiently different enough as human beings that we inevitably bring something different to it, regardless of similarity in background. I think I would even agree that non-Western authors tend to bring something different to the table because of their distance to our familiar culture. But again, this value should be obviously textual, not something in the author’s physical makeup/nationality/etc., correct?

    If all of these arguments boil down to a lack of “diversity of voices” in SF, why is it that so much energy is expended not on the content an author produces but on their extra-textual identity?

    This is what galls me over and over again when I see this discussion spring up. I sometimes feel as if we are emphasizing one group or the other without actually talking about what is on the table. Does the uniqueness of someone’s background really matter that much to us if what they’ve written is generic drivel?

    Or to put it another way, why are attributes of gender and ethnicity constantly evoked as a means for gaining diversity in the field when the much more powerful measure of these is the hundreds of pages they’ve given us to examine? Why are we talking about diversity without measuring what’s actually there (and how diverse it is in comparison to the rest of the genre?)

    I know there are also ulterior motives in this discussion, relating directly back to fighting inequality in the publishing industry and I respect that. Clearly that is something that must be overcome, though I’m a bit leery at the attitude we take.

    I sometimes feel as if the SF community thinks that a sufficient fetishization of author identity will be enough to get publishers on board and eliminate prejudice, but I think the minefield of what this has wrought in literary fiction is an example of just how terrible an effect it can have. I would not like to see SF reach the point where Asian authors must write about the future in Asia for a first novel because somehow that’s more “authentic.” That’s not a better place to be – arguably, it’s much worse.

    But going back to the level of reading and reviewing:

    To me, diversity comes in the form of authors doing something new, something experimental, or something subversive. This can happen regardless of background. So why are we talking about someone’s reproductive organs instead of their fiction?

    Am I missing it?

    Casey Samulski

    28 March 2011 at 07:37

  3. I don’t have time for a long response so I’ll just make a few quick comments to this question:

    If all of these arguments boil down to a lack of “diversity of voices” in SF, why is it that so much energy is expended not on the content an author produces but on their extra-textual identity?

    a) I don’t think content has been ignored, rather it has been judged and found wanting. As a reader and reviewer I spend a huge amount of time dealing with content and I think the same is probably true for others involved in this conversation.
    b) I don’t think you can divorce content from extra-textual identify. Diverse content from a group of men will be inherently less diverse than diverse content from a group of men and woman.
    c) The argument doesn’t just boil down to lack of diversity of voices, there are also issues of equality and social justice.

    Martin

    28 March 2011 at 08:11

  4. why are we talking about someone’s reproductive organs?

    Because people are more harshly judged and given fewer opportunities if they have particular reproductive organs. That’s the whole point at issue.

    Alison

    28 March 2011 at 12:40

  5. Casey:

    Thank you for your vote of confidence, but I agree with Martin and Alison that the issue of gender representation (and, indeed, race and sexuality) is an important one and not “the SF community to [getting] up in arms about … anything and everything.” One of the things that most anger me about Athena’s post is how it piggybacks on an important issue in order to raise her profile, in the process distorting and obscuring facts so that a meaningful conversation becomes so much less likely.

    You write that “what I am confused about is why a novel needs particularly more or less attention because of its author’s genetic attributes.” I agree with your confusion, but the fact is that novels do get more attention if they are by, or about, white men. And that those authors are more likely to be published. Everyone claims to be focused solely on the quality of the work, and most people mean that wholeheartedly, and yet the imbalances persist. It’s obvious that meaning well hasn’t worked to create the gender-blind scene we’d all want, so we need to work to create it.

    No one is saying that women should be hired just because they’re women – and if you’ll forgive me, that’s uncomfortably close to the “quotas” argument with which calls for diversity are often shouted down. But there must be women who are qualified to, and interested in, writing for Strange Horizons.

    Abigail

    28 March 2011 at 13:27

  6. Casey, there is the social justice aspect, as mentioned, and there is relatedly the fact that, in all societies that I know of, women have had a different experience of those societies in some generalizable ways, experiences and ways that I believe are worth capturing and exploring in fiction and non-fiction–to more fully grasp how societies work, to establish and legitimize a fuller range of human experience, values, and potential. So in that sense you’re right, it’s the content that matters. We should not think well of ourselves if we achieve gender parity by featuring only the women who best mimic the male gaze. But as Martin and Abigail write, when the established systems for producing and/or reviewing content do result in noticeable gaps and omissions in the ways that the world is seen and presented, gender (and other) counts and percentages can become a useful shorthand for gauging one factor of change in a way that is more measurable than the matters of degree and interpretation involved in content analysis. Gender percentages are a quantitative tool that, yes, also requires us to keep a qualitative eye on the content we’re responsible for as well. Taken separately, both are necessary, neither is sufficient.

    Matt Denault

    28 March 2011 at 15:43

  7. (Reading what I just posted in the clear light of post-submit-clicking, I should like to change “women have had a different experience of those societies in some generalizable ways” to simply “women have had different experiences of those societies.” I meant to imply that there have always been general differences in how women experience a given society versus how men do, not–as it could be read–that there is some overall “female experience” generalizable across all societies. The latter may be true, but I don’t know enough that I’d want to suggest it, and I think the former is a more useful level of abstraction for this discussion.)

    Matt Denault

    28 March 2011 at 16:10

  8. Yeah, I hear you guys, but I think there are still a few thoughts I’m troubled by in this.

    For example, I don’t buy into this at all:

    “Diverse content from a group of men will be inherently less diverse than diverse content from a group of men and woman.”

    If only because it stacks the deck (in my favor.)

    If you take ten mediocre male writers and they write ten bland, recycled stories and then you take five mediocre male writers and five mediocre female writers and get ten bland, recycled stories, I don’t see an increase in diversity there. If you are stacking the argument, like Martin has done, by starting with “diverse content” I think you’ve already argued my point for me, which is that the substantial metric is the content itself, and the writer’s identity ends up being of secondary importance.

    I disagree with the prescriptive notion of diversity that argues this idea apart from the text. And since, by my own perhaps ill-fitting declaration, if we are talking about “diversity in SF,” we need to have diversity in the fiction itself, not just in the identities of the authors.

    That was my original point, more or less.

    “It’s obvious that meaning well hasn’t worked to create the gender-blind scene we’d all want, so we need to work to create it.”

    Agreed Abigail, but everything I’ve ever seen suggested to work towards this goal is explicitly the opposite of gender-blind. Why isn’t there, for example, some sort of author-anonymous reviewing venue? Or maybe more realistically, a short-story anthology in which the submissions are truly author-blind as you say?

    I’m not suggesting that pushing for prominence of women’s work is not a valid way to try and get parity or equality, I’m just a bit confused as to why we aren’t also trying to practice what we preach? Does this happen or get argued for and I’m just unaware of it?

    In my opinion, the best way for SH to encourage diversity in the genre is for it to review books that push the boundaries and increase the diversity of the content available. So why not go for this in an author-blind way? This may not be achievable for already established authors who have ongoing series or PR attaching their name to a project before publication. But for first novels, I bet you could do some sort of honor system where you said: here’s the name of the book, who has no idea who wrote it – and then let them do the review without seeing the author’s name/identity/etc.

    I’m not sure if it’s possible, but it seems much closer to the social justice you want modeled, doesn’t it?

    Matt,

    You made some great points and I agree with all of them. I think we agree overall, but I read a lot of this conversation playing out over and over again without that “qualitative eye” you mention and it seems like a lost cause at that point.

    I think you said it best here:

    “We should not think well of ourselves if we achieve gender parity by featuring only the women who best mimic the male gaze.”

    And yet I sometimes feel as if that’s all the community is arguing for – numeric equality, substantive homogeneity.

    Casey Samulski

    28 March 2011 at 19:27

  9. And since, by my own perhaps ill-fitting declaration, if we are talking about “diversity in SF,” we need to have diversity in the fiction itself, not just in the identities of the authors. That was my original point, more or less.

    I don’t think that was your original point, I think it has shifted closer to mine. You argued that content was ignored at the expense of identity whereas you felt that content was the only important measure of diversity. My response was that content hasn’t been ignored at all and content and identity can’t be so easily separated. Here you make the link that I was getting at: “the substantial metric is the content itself, and the writer’s identity ends up being of secondary importance”. So far from stacking the deck in your favour, if you believe identity is of secondary importance, you must agree with me that diverse content from a group of men will be inherently less diverse than diverse content from a group of men and woman.

    You mention “the minefield of what [a focus on identity] has wrought in literary fiction is an example of just how terrible an effect it can have” but I really can’t see this. The risk is much less “Asian authors must write about the future in Asia” than the only people publishing novels set in a future Asia are white Americans. To look at British science fiction, if no women are being published then it doesn’t matter how diverse the range of content being produced is because it will not contain a single female character written by someone who is actually woman. This shows the limits of a focus on content, even though on an individual basis a man might write a convincing portrait of female character (and, conversely, a woman an unconvincing one)

    Agreed Abigail, but everything I’ve ever seen suggested to work towards this goal is explicitly the opposite of gender-blind.

    Its not at all contradictory to explicitly consider gender as a factor in order to achieve parity. As Abigail suggests, if something is unbalanced then you need to push in the opposite direction to balance it out.

    In my opinion, the best way for SH to encourage diversity in the genre is for it to review books that push the boundaries and increase the diversity of the content available. So why not go for this in an author-blind way?

    I don’t really see how this is practical (for starters, it would involve the reviews editor chopping up books before posting them out). Even if you could manage to make it work as an experiment, I don’t see how it would relate to the diversity of books covered by SH or their pool of reviewers. What it would test was any gender bias on the part of reviewers but that is an entirely separate issue. Similarly, I’m think there examples that answer your other questions – “Why isn’t there, for example, some sort of author-anonymous reviewing venue? Or maybe more realistically, a short-story anthology in which the submissions are truly author-blind as you say?” – but I don’t think they are relevant in this context.

    Martin

    28 March 2011 at 22:22

  10. I think I’ve got a better handle on what you’re saying, Casey. You seem to be taking our efforts to correct for gender bias as a process that occurs in the individual review – hence your repeated questioning of whether identity is being factored into evaluations of merit. But of course, that’s not what we’re talking about. On the level of the individual review, of course the author’s gender, race, sexuality, or any other factor of their identity shouldn’t play a part, one way or another. But that’s the last step in the process. Long before that there’s the question of what books to review. It’s impossible for any venue to review all the books published in the field (which is one of the reasons why your suggestion of ‘gender-blind’ reviewing is impracticable), so a big part of the editor’s job is deciding which of the many review copies received and the even greater number of books published should be reviewed. This is where bias needs to be corrected with awareness. And of course, there are several other steps before you get to the review venue where bias expresses itself – which authors get publicized, which authors get published, which wannabe authors are encouraged by their teachers and fellow writers, which fans are embraced by their peers.

    The same is true for reviewers. On the level of the individual reviewer, you’d expect gender to play only a small part in determining the reviewer’s opinions. It’s on the level of the selection of reviewers that bias is expressed – though whereas books are submitted for review, in small venues like Strange Horizons it’s the editor’s job to seek out interested reviewers.

    Abigail

    28 March 2011 at 23:13

  11. Martin,

    It was the point I intended but I may not have articulated it very well. But generally, I think I agree and I feel like we’re starting to say the same thing, just in different ways.

    I suppose I agree with your hypothetical, I just wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that you always achieve it simply by selecting for identity. Or to put it another way – a diversity of author backgrounds does not automatically lead to a diverse selection fiction.

    I read a great piece on “ethnic” literary fiction that I wish I could find for you now – it argues my point in that direction much better than I can but I can’t remember where I read it. I think it might have been the AV Club but it eludes me. I’ll post back with a link if my google-fu is good enough.

    Abigail,

    I hear you and I think I now understand the kerfluffle a bit better. I suppose my question to you then is what is the appropriate way of selecting what you review? Is it appropriate to select for a male to female ratio of 50-50 if the result is that you don’t reflect the proportion of what’s published and thus disadvantage men in coverage? Is the idea to reflect the original percentages published as accurately as possible so that the coverage is representationally correct even if the publishing industry is unfairly biased against publishing women?

    Is there a place you can aim for in terms of what you cover that’s fair to everyone? Where do you think that is?

    And what do you think SH’s responsibility is within this issue? Obviously you cannot be responsible for the biases of a publisher or a culture, but where do you think the role of criticism and reviewing fits into this?

    I invite Martin and others to answer this as well, as to me, this is actually substantial discourse on the subject as opposed to the typical dismissive holier-than-thou attitude we usually end up with.

    Casey Samulski

    29 March 2011 at 02:07

  12. I think all I can do is repeat what Matt said: both content and identity are necessary but not sufficient. Far from content being ignored, I would say that to date the focus has almost entirely been on content and it clearly hasn’t produced a particularly diverse field. So yes, I think it is time to focus on identity.

    Martin

    29 March 2011 at 08:58

  13. Casey:

    I think that the statistics Niall gathered are probably best thought of as a diagnostic tool, rather than a litmus test. Gender equality isn’t magically achieved if Strange Horizons‘s reviewer pool is split evenly between men and women, or if there’s a clean 50/50 split between the genders of authors we review. If for no other reason than that Niall’s metrics don’t show the whole picture. In his post he notes, for example, that while a relatively high percentage of Locus‘s reviews had female authors, many of them were written by a single reviewer as part of a column, in which she reviewed each book in a few hundred words, as opposed to the thousand-word and more reviews written by other reviewers for the magazine. And just yesterday I had an email discussing what’s hidden behind SH’s statistics – whether individual male reviewers review more often than their female peers, and which books are assigned to which reviewer.

    So I don’t think it’s particularly useful to strive towards a specific number. As you say, SH is one part of the field and of the problem, and not a very big part either, and I think that what we should be striving for is to have an effect on that larger field. If we review a book it gets attention. People might buy it; other venues might review it and thus compound the effect. The author might become more interesting to publishers. More importantly, the idea that books by women deserve attention is normalized by a little bit. I think that SH has been helping to create this effect, but I also think that we can do better.

    Abigail

    30 March 2011 at 12:05

  14. [...] State Of The Industry – in which I analyse who publishes who in British science fiction. 5) A Long But Necessary Response To Athena Andreadis – in which I make extensive use of my right to reply. 6) The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution [...]

    Three « Everything Is Nice

    27 October 2011 at 16:07


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