Dear People On The Asimov’s Boards and Elsewhere…

…who are quibbling about whether it was legal for Luke to post that rejection letter or any rejection letter, let’s get one thing straight: No one would be whining and crying about this had he published a rejection that said:

Dear Luke,

Your writing is very good, but this story isn’t right for our market. The spec element isn’t strong enough for our tastes, but you might do well to try more literary markets because I feel the story has a lot of merit.

The only reason this is upsetting to Sanders and, I assume, certain other editors, is because that letter revealed bigotry. Bigotry that Sanders assumed Luke shared with him (and he might have) and thus he felt safe expressing it. It seems to me that the only reason this would worry any other editor is if they realized that rejections they’d sent out might reveal their own bigotry in some way. That would scare the shit out of me, too. Know what? I can’t feel sympathy for you over it, though.

We can spend the next week quibbling over whether or not rejections are private correspondence and whether it’s unprofessional to post one to public or private spaces. (I don’t believe it is based on the fact that, since I’ve been a writer, writers have shared rejections, either in whole or in part, in forums relating to writing. Also, I agree with those who’ve said that once a person says truly despicable, racist things in letter form, professionalism is already off the table.) It may very well be true that, from a legal standpoint, Luke didn’t have the right to do what he did. But, again, would anyone care if it hadn’t revealed what it did?

The fact that Gardner Dozois brought up the specter of a lawsuit makes me wonder what’s hiding in his rejection letters. Why else try to scare Luke in that way? Maybe it’s just general fear on the Internet that people of his ilk seem to have. Either way, it makes me extremely dubious about Gardner and anyone else who focuses solely on the whole private/public correspondence bit and not the raging bigotry. As Celia said elsewhere, this is similar to what got David Moles in trouble with SFWA. The people in question couldn’t defend their (terribly disappointing and, in some cases, disgusting) words and opinions, so they fell back on whining about privacy.

I’ve made a man of straw, would someone like to use it?

ETA: It’s been brought to my attention in comments that Sheila Williams was the first to bring up lawsuits. I mistakenly thought it was Gardner mainly because Luke mentioned him, not Sheila. That still makes me sad, because I am still annoyed with all this focus on whether it was okay for Luke to post the rejection instead of the important issue: Sanders’ bigotry.

I also hear that people are mad because I’ve cast aspersions at (on?) Gardner Dozois. I elaborated in the comments, but basically I stand by my assertion that I am extremely wary of people who jump to “How horrible of Luke to post that letter” and not “How horrible of Sanders to say such things!” Those who do not speak out against bigotry usually do so because they are afraid/intimidated into not doing so by their peers or because they just don’t see the bigotry as being all that bad. (There are other reasons, too, these are just the ones I come across most of the time.) I have some sympathy for people who fall into the first category and absolutely none for people who fall into the second.

Daughter of ETAThis very thoughtful comment explains how, in the context of the community and rules of the Asimov’s board, this particular annoyance began.  Unless someone who actually hangs over there wishes to contradict this, I’m going to choose to believe this is how things work there.  Which means that everything is Stephen Francis Murphy’s fault.  And I have no trouble believing that.  Above when I said there might be other reasons for reacting to the “oh, ethics and copyright!” and not “arg, bigotry!”?  This appears to be one of those other reasons.  I’ll amend my opinions accordingly.

William Sanders, Senior Bigot, Helix

William Sanders, Senior Bigot, Helix

I love writing science fiction and fantasy, I love reading science ficton and fantasy. I love (some parts of) fandom, I love (many parts of) this community. But there are times when I really feel like I could, and should, and must, walk the hell away before I end up hating all humanity. This is one of those times.

From a rejection letter William Sanders of Helix sent out:

I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.


the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty);

Full letter here.

You know what makes me so mad about this, beyond the obvious? I want to like Helix. It’s published some great stories by some wonderful writers (some of whom are my friends). But all of that is canceled out by the insane bigotry on display in that letter. And people like this are not shunned, cast out, or made an example of.

As I said. There are times.

ETA: Sanders responds:

Son, hasn’t anybody ever told you that public posting of a private email message is contrary to the rules both of accepted internet practice and common courtesy?

I do appreciate your efforts to be fair – certainly far more so than most of the other people in this ward, ah, group – but the fact remains that you’ve done something both socially and professionally unacceptable in posting it at all. So if you had any idea of submitting anything else to Helix, forget it. I won’t work with people who pull this kind of shit.

I suppose this is what I get for trying to be a nice guy, and give you a little encouragement rather than the standard thanks-but-no-thanks form rejection. Silly me.

(I notice, too, the presence in the lynch mob of another person I’ve tried to help, and to whom I thought I’d been particularly kind. No good deed, etc.)

Of course none of these people have read the story, and so they fail to grasp the context – that I was talking not about Muslims, or Arabs, or Oompa Loompas or any other religious or ethnic group, but about terrorists and violent extremists. (That being, after all, what your story was about.)

But I don’t feel any need to defend myself, or Helix, to these people; indeed I doubt that there’s anybody outside their little Mutual Masturbation Society who gives a damn what they think about anything at all.

They are cordially invited to have intercourse with their precious selves. I’m sure most of them could use the practice.

That makes it all better, right??

The contributions by lwe/Lawrence Watt-Evans on the thread are… special, as well.

Daughter of ETA: There is more commentary here and also here with the full rejection reposted, since apparently the person who was rejected deleted it from the original thread.  Speaking of the rejected person, he’s put up a post explaining that we’re all taking Mr. Sanders out of context:

There is a truly despicable Muslim character in my story. Sorry, world. Maybe I was playing into prejudices. Sanders was talking about that character, so it wasn’t an out-of-the-blue rant, it was targeted to the content of my story. In context, his comments were directed at MY character and those types of extremists. People are taking it out of context and interpreting it too broadly if they think that Sanders was referring to all Arabs or all Muslims. I’m sure that if my character was a Timothy McVeigh-like extremist, Sanders would have used different but equally scornful language. The extremism of MY character is what drew his ire, and so if there is any blame it’s MY blame.

I’m sure you can image what I have to say to that.  Lucky you, I posted it in the comments. I would cut Luke some slack due to him probably freaking out a little when Sanders was all “You’ll never be published in MY magazine again!” except that from his description of his own story I’m not at all convinced that he didn’t write something sketchy and racist himself.  I’m willing to be proven wrong.

Engaging in negative stereotypes — the ongoing struggle

I was busy all morning doing IAF stuff and missed out on the beginning of this “debate” going on in the comments to Lisa’s story on Fantasy. It’s kind of ironic that this came up today because yesterday I had a long conversation about a similar issue surrounding one of my stories.  I wonder, actually, if I would see the thing that happened today in the same way had it happened last week, before my conversation yesterday.  Hmm.

So to clue you in on what I’m talking about, my other writing group, the Black Beans, met yesterday to discuss a story that I’m rewriting for a market.  Without going into too much detail, my story has terrorists and those terrorists are from a specific ethnic group.  (And in my story, it’s not ambiguous, nor did I mean for it to be.)  Now, being a not-racist person, I thought that I was not engaging in negative stereotypes with my story.  But due to the way I wrote things and the length of the story, it totally came off that way.  After much discussion I realized that, in order to have these terrorists remain the ethnic group I’d chosen, I would have to do a LOT of explaining to show that I wasn’t just trading on stereotypes.  And that even if I did that, many readers would probably focus on that aspect of the story, which would be bad as it’s not the point of the story at all.

Now, I’m extremely lucky that I belong to two writing groups with many talented people of many different backgrounds who are not afraid to speak their minds.  Thank goodness I had the sense to show the rewrite to them else I might have found myself in a similar situation as Lisa today: not meaning to have dealt in stereotypes, but perhaps doing so nonetheless.

This does not mean that writers have to censor themselves, or not include any disadvantaged groups they don’t belong to in a story.  What it does mean is that the author needs to know exactly what they’re about, and needs to get the opinion of people they trust so as not to fall prey to their own unconscious biases.  Or, you know, it’s not an unconscious bias per se, but an ignorance to how certain images, characterizations, and depictions of this or another group sink into our unconscious and don’t get pegged as “wrong” or “prejudiced”.  They may not affect us, therefore we don’t immediately recoil from them.  And they may come out in our writing, or our speech, or whatever.  Innocently, perhaps, but it’s still painful, damaging, wrong.

During the conversation/critique this weekend I found myself feeling very uncomfortable and even defensive on that particular point.  However, what I tried to do, and hope I succeeded in doing, is to keep my damn mouth shut until I could absorb the things I was being told, take into account the people who were saying them to me, and check myself mightily.  It’s only because I have so often been on the other end of conversations of this nature that I was able to do this, but it was hard.  As I said, very uncomfortable.  Most people don’t want to think that they have it in them to even appear racist, etc.  But achieving that takes work, and working through discomfort, and listening, and understanding.

One thing I do know: the proper reaction to an accusation or even hint that one is engaging in negative stereotypes about a group is not to do or say anything contained within this most excellent post.  Instead, as I have said very recently, you should find someone who is knowledgeable about such things whom you are comfortable with and know will tell you the truth, even if that truth makes you uncomfortable, and ask their opinion.