Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Weird Tales, Racism and Yet More Stupidity

In a week full of depressing exhibitions of ignorance and stupidity, I have plenty I could rant about. Instead I'm going to lament the passing of a previously great speculative fiction magazine: Weird Tales. No, they're not closing down, and no doubt the next issue will come out on time. But it isn't the same Weird Tales that in 2010 earned a place on the Hugo ballot. That was made abundantly clear with the farce that is currently taking place on their website, after their editor Marvin Kaye decided to defend a "thoroughly non-racist book", that is totally racist - screen capture here (as Weird Tales have removed the original article from their site. Tut tut.) He also planned to publish the first chapter in the next issue of Weird Tales. Even though it's available for free from Amazon and a number of other places...

A bit of background: Victoria Hoyt self-published her book "Save the Pearls, Part One: Revealing Eden", marketed as a dystopian YA novel, and features some truly jaw-dropping racism in it's text and particularly in it's marketing material (white people are called "pearls", black people "coals" - 'nuff said). I watched just one of the youtube videos on the marketing site before I had to turn it off in disgust. For the purposes of letting you make your own mind up the link is here - try not to throw up -

I considered writing about my disquiet at the time I came across this but decided not to - I haven't read the book and bad mouthing a book I haven't read just seems mean - and definitely open to criticism. But the Weird Tales fiasco has angered and disappointed me. They've issued an apology but it all seems a bit hollow; especially as they were warned months ago by the previous editor-in-chief Ann VanderMeer (the same editor-in-chief when the magazine won its Hugo Award) that this was a very bad idea. She resigned  on 20th August 2012 due to them going ahead with the publication of the first chapter of "Save the Pearls" and the editor's defence of it, though she had been planning to leave for some time. I can't imagine she'll retract that even with the apology and assurance that they will not be going ahead with the exerts publication.

Angry cat is angry. 
 (Photo by Guyon Morée, c.c. licence,via Wikimedia Commons)


Weird Tales is one of those magazines that for me is almost a legend in its own right; around since the  '20s, they've been a constant source for interesting new stories, and are one of the few magazines still going that publish short stories. I had Weird Magazine on my radar for whenever they were open to submissions but I'm thinking of not bothering anymore. I'll be watching with interest to see if there are any real consequences for this farcical situation but it doesn't seem like a good place to be sending stories right now or for the foreseeable future.

The lesson from this for all wannabe writers and even wannabe editors? Think about your privilege. A lot of people don't like that term, but the fact is a lot of people have privilege and just don't know it; Victoria Hoyt and Marvin Kaye are two examples of this. No matter how shit your life may seem, you likely have it better than someone else and that may be down to something you have no control over: your skin colour, your gender, your family's wealth, your health, where in the world you were born. It's always worth considering if you know about a subject from first hand experience, or only as a witness looking in. And if you're going to delve into sensitive areas like racism, do it with extreme care. Otherwise you risk coming off as ignorant or, at worse, a bigot.


  1. Maybe I'm more gullible or just plain stupid, but I didn't read it this way...

    There are two areas I think you’re unhappy about here. One is the book in question; and the other the fact the WT are/were publishing it.

    On the first point, well, I’m not convinced by what I’ve read on the editorial page, and the little I’ve gathered from the site. I wouldn’t regard ‘coal’ as a derogative term; coal is black and useful, the basis of the Industrial Revolution; whereas a pearl just sits there and looks pretty (or not). Meanings are in the head (…or not; Putnam is an interesting read). And besides, it’s hardly an argument to be based on a single word. I could write the best novel in the world on race issues, but if I entitled it “Die Nigger Die!” would that make it a racist tome, or be merely cute marketing? The whole point about ‘art’ (and we’ve had this before) is that it’ll be something that might enrage people; or it should provoke a reaction if done well. Freedom of speech means that one is quite entitled to write the most awful, racist pap – there is (thankfully) no censorship of literature. I’m sure there are many overtly racist books in publication. In fact I think several of the ‘responses’ within the editorial are showing a clouded judgement. When Samantha Henderson writes, “it wouldn’t matter if you were American, Zahra, because according to her own statement Ms. Foyt has doubts that African-American readers even exist” she’s clearly interpreting the author’s words in a manner I do not. The statement: “if the book had not reached the African-American community of readers, if such a category still exists...” she isn’t disputing that African-American readers even exist; she’s questioning whether the category of an African-American community of readers still exists. I guess, hoping that such a distinction is archaic, and that we no longer split our reading communities into ethnic origin, but merely see them as ‘readers’ alike. If you look hard enough for something to complain about, you’ll probably find it. Whether it exists or not.

    Anyway, given that neither of us have read the book, it is wrong to criticise it. At worst, it seems naïve in outlook. Perhaps too innocent in its mechanics.

    So, given that I disagree, or have no strong opinion on (1) then it’s hard to see that (2) is wrong either. The objection would be if a large circulation periodical is publishing overtly racist material. Well, I’m not convinced it is. If, as hinted, this is an attempt to decry racism (even if poorly – and publishing poor literature is no crime) and one that’s slightly daring, then they should be supported. Always taking the safe option isn’t what life should be about, and is just what Penguin did after all. It would be too easy to hunt down that nth Potter drivel to print. Isn’t this what publishers should be on the lookout for … challenging material for their readers? At the end of the day if it incites discussion, then isn’t there some merit in that alone?

    1. Hmm, I think the problem here is what I think of as "outsider looking in" viewpoints. We are both outsiders looking in as we haven't read the book in question, so I've gone with what the majority have said who have read it; it's terrible writing and it's racist as hell. Many agree that it might not have been the intention of the writer but that the book adds nothing to the racism discourse and just perpertrates the worst stereotyping instead. And while freedom of speech certainly does give everyone a right to say what they want it doesn't give them the moral authority to do so without consequence; i.e. not getting published or advertised in a positive light in one of the longest running short story magazines in the world would be a reasonable consequence, imo.

      Then there's also the whole outside looking in problem of being white and deciding that something isn't racist when it belittles/insults non-whites. White folks don't get to do that, sorry. They can certainly identify something as racist, but I don't actually think white people have the right to say something is not racist when they're not the ones that could potentially be insulted by it. That's where my biggest problem lies with Kaye's decision to publish the first chapter - ever after being warned about doing so. He looked at it through privileged eyes and went so far as to insult people who criticised and called the book racist. Just not cool and not what I would expect from Weird Tales.

      I'm 98% sure this story is racist as it fits too closely with what a number of white extremists keep preaching about in parts of the world (and I think coal compared to pearl is pretty derogatory, and after reading some of the first chapter, it is meant to be derogatory in the context of the book.). I don't think the writer is necessarily a racist though - more likely misguided and ignorant of the fire she was playing with. Then again I imagine she had something to do with those youtube videos which are just... well, imo, inexcusable in this day and age.

      A comparison would be this: someone writes a story set in the near future, from a German's perspective, where Jewish people control everything and they are portrayed as the bad guys through most of the book (with only a few exceptions). The German characters are almost always cast in a positive light or as victims and we the readers are meant to take their side. It treads on too many toes and is massively insensitve to people's feelings and ignores the context of still existing prejudices. A writer is certainly free to write something like that but whether it should be published or advertised positively is a another story.

      As much as I want original fiction I don't want fiction like this to be getting endorsements from publications that, though may not be mainstream, are pretty well known in the speculative fiction crowd. That and I really liked Weird Tales (even if they are bit obssessed with Lovecraft - who also has a fair amount of racism in his works) so I'm very disappointed with what seems to have happened to their editorial team.