The Speculative Fiction Community and Save the Pearls
About a week ago, I had some Things to say about the whole Save the Pearls ballyhoo. I’d even written up a blog and everything. Then, my computer and I had some intense artistic differences and I lost my saved copy. I eventually decided not to attempt to reconstruct it for what I think is a good reason and it’s entirely possible that, given my reasons, this blog will seem incredibly illogical, but I find myself in a double-bind. Basically, I think Victoria Foyt has done a masterful job of manipulating the spec-fic community into talking about her book for weeks on end and I didn’t want to contribute to that, even if I had critiques. Now, however, I feel like I need to get this out because a community that is really important to me is being exploited and I don’t want to remain silent about it.
By most accounts, Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls is not a very good book. Many reviewers have pointed out the clunky, unexciting prose (excerpted portions seem to support this) others have argued that the characters are weak and less than memorable and the plot is a bog-standard coming of age adventure story with nothing to set it apart. The growing acceptance of and access to self-publishing, as well as the popularity of ebooks, has led to a real glut in the market, especially in YA and, as with traditional publishing, there’s a wide array of quality and a reader simply has to sift through the sea to find something worth reading. And a book has to have some sort of hook to stand out. By its own merits, this book would not have attracted the kind of attention all over the web that is has lately.
But Revealing Eden does have a hook, of course: it’s super-racist. Now, I agree with those who had said that Victoria Foyt didn’t “intend” to be racist, but intent matters fuck-all, quite frankly and I absolutely do believe that Victoria Foyt used and exploited hurtful imagery to sell her shitty YA novel. I don’t believe for a second that she didn’t understand how upsetting blackface would be when she created and released her infamous promotional YouTube video. I think her intent was to provoke attention first and, as a very distant second, make some wrong-headed attempt at a statement on racism. But first she had to get people to read the book.
Even this, though, is hardly that noteworthy. As N.K. Jemison noted in her excellent essay on this issue “…poorly written books are a dime a dozen and so are racist texts.” So Foyt herself waded into the fray and poked the bear. A dumb racist book is a dumb racist book, an author who argues that her detractors are too lunkheaded or themselves racist to understand the book properly…now that’s good internet controversy! This was especially brilliantly timed, considering the recent controversy over the despicable Stop the GR Bullies blog and the issue of alleged “author bullying” and then, sure enough, GR Bullies immediately championed Foyt (arguing, hilariously, that she couldn’t be racist because she…said she wasn’t racist. Oh, okay. She would be the authority on racism, clearly.)
When Foyt first made a splash with her Facebook/HuffPo whine, people wondered how an author could be so dumb, why she didn’t just do the obviously correct thing and stop talking. But I think now that Foyt is far from dumb, at least when is comes to PR. She didn’t want or need to be liked; she wanted to generate interest in her book. And, when it comes to internet drama, there really is no such thing as bad publicity, everybody wants to slow down and rubberneck.
It’s clear to me that Foyt had a good understanding of how to generate press for her novel, even before all this exploded. The things she did—the website and even the video—are the kind of things that indie authors are encouraged to do to get the word out about their work. And hers are fairly sophisticated examples, at least in terms of production values. I don’t know anything about Foyt’s economic situation, but it does seem that she has devoted a certain amount of money to publicizing this book, especially if claims that she purchased her glowing reviews and prestigious YA award are true (you can find discussion of the dubious award here and a very comprehensive look at Foyt sockpuppet reviews at this blog). These are all smart things to do. Smart things, though not necessarily ethical things.
I think Foyt partnering with Weird Tales was very natural, in light of all this. She wanted reviews badly enough to allegedly pay for them and she had set herself up as a martyr to the mean readers of the internet and this is apparently what she brought to Marvin Kaye. But I think there’s a very good reason why she didn’t pull this shit (or it didn’t work) with, say, Fantasy and Science Fiction or Asimov’s. Weird Tales is and has been, since Ann VanderMeer and her team were summarily dismissed earlier in the year, a controversial entity in the spec-fic community. As Damien G. Walter points out, it wasn’t just that Ann VanderMeer is generally well-liked in the community (though I do think that was part of it) but rather than, under Ann’s leadership, Weird Tales moved away from what it had once represented; the somewhat outmoded side of pulp, and towards a sensibility more in keeping with the current state of spec-fic: a place more diverse and thoughtful about that diversity. Those who didn’t openly withdraw their support from the magazine after Ann left were still awaiting the first issue with a certain wariness, a certain fear that we would see a return to the unconsidered veneration of complicated and controversial figures like Lovecraft and the stories that those people told.
And I also agree with Damien that Kaye’s inexplicable choice to publish Revealing Eden in Weird Tales (that’s a very, very bizarre move for a periodical like Weird Tales, it doesn’t make sense economically as well as artistically) was a statement. Foyt may well have approached other editors, but I think Kaye latched on to her work because something about it spoke to him and seemed, in his mind, a good fit for the magazine. So good, in fact, that he made it essentially his first editorial statement. In announcing his support of this novel, he was saying “this is what Weird Tales does now. This is what we are.” It was provocative and, judging from the immediate back-pedal, a little too provocative. Didn’t understand what they were playing with, indeed.
I’ll note here that I don’t buy the back-pedal for a minute. I think it pays crappy lip-service to objections that the editors don’t actually understand, only fear. I think its far more likely that the editorial staff made a decision that they knew was inflammatory but they did not expect the extent of the backlash, because, like Victoria Foyt, they are unnuanced thinkers when it comes to race and they do not fully understand the character of the spec-fic community as it stands today. Even if you believe their story of not knowing about the controversy, the whole thing still suggests a shocking lack of editorial continuity and, most critically, really poor judgement and even worse taste. If Marvin Kaye read Revealing Eden and didn’t see any problems with it; if he had to fucking google it to figure out what was wrong with a stupid paean to the imaginary issue of reverse racism, then he has bad taste and bad judgement.
I think this was a failure for Weird Tales, but not for Victoria Foyt. And I think that’s because Victoria Foyt is working from a different value for “failure” and “success.” She has kept her book in the public eye for another week and even introduced it to a new potential audience of people who want to see for themselves what the outrage is about. Basically, she played us. The spec community was ready to be outraged at Weird Tales and she simply provided the spark.
This is not to say that I think Victoria Foyt “did it for the lulz.” I think much of her reactions and actions were actually very genuine. I think she is very ignorant about how racism works for actual non-white people and I think she’s unwilling to address her ignorance in any meaningful way. I think she does feel attacked unfairly and I think she does believe that her book is meditation on how destructive racism is. I think she truly believes that, if she can just get people to read the book, they will come around to her way of thinking. I also think she has excellent instincts for how to get and hold on to attention and a good nose for finding similarly controversial people and groups (Stop the GR Bullies, Weird Tales) and leap-frogging off of their notoriety. And I think, unfortunately, that she’ll be laughing all the way to the bank on this one.
So where does this leave us? Despite what Victoria Foyt and the people behind Stop the GR Bullies seem to think, criticism is not a personal attack, criticism is not a violence done to those criticized (criticism can of course be bundled with personal attacks and violence but they are by no means intrinsically linked). As a community, we do have a right and a responsibility to patrol and define ourselves. To say “this is acceptable” and, perhaps more importantly, “this is not acceptable.” As a writer and as a reader, I oppose Weird Tales. I’m pretty mercenary when it comes to submissions because if I don’t treat myself like a professional, no one else will. I refuse to submit to markets that don’t pay, even if it’s just five dollars. Weird Tales is not a SFWA-qualifying market at this time, it pays less than pro-rates. Yet, at one time, it was in my top tier of places to send my stories because it had a reputation I respected and an audience I wanted access to. But it’s now joining the short list of places I will not submit to for ethical reasons and it seems that many others are doing the same.
If there is a bright spot in this sea of bullshit, it’s Mary Robinette Kowal’s generous underwriting of Shimmer Magazine, allowing them to pay pro rates. Shimmer is a magazine I really enjoy as well as a market I’m proud to be published in and I am very moved by the ways in which the community is willing to shape its own narrative, as it were. We are not perfect, but I think, as a whole, speculative fiction is moving towards a more inclusive and diverse constellation of people and publications and I am heartened by this rejection of an attempt to regress us. We are authors of the strange, the never-was and will-be; it is our job to reach for the stars.