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Monday, August 20, 2012

The Weird Tales / Save the Pearls Fiasco: Preliminary Reactions

(Disclaimer:  This post is a preliminary reaction.  I have not read the novel in question and can only respond to what others have said about it.  As such, what follows will not be based on what I know about the book itself, but rather a series of curiosities and questions that I suspect will be answered later this week.  An educated reaction will follow.

Note:  I am collecting links to other responses at the bottom.

Note 2:  The original Weird Tales post has been taken down.  An apology has been put in its place.

Note 3:  Some new details have surfaced.  You can find my update here.)

Twitter was in a rage this morning about this Weird Tales announcement involving the publication of the first chapter of Victoria Foyt's Saving the Pearls:  Revealing Eden.  Authors/bloggers N. K. Jemisin, Celine Kiernan, Martha Wells, Nick Mamatas were among the most vocal hitters, decrying the selection as, at best, a phenomenally stupid choice of publication and, at worst, a throwback to the racism that might have made Lovecraft proud.

If you're not familiar with Saving the Pearls, then you're not alone.  I am writing this post from a position of profound ignorance, having only read reviews of Foyt's novel, and not the novel itself (such as this review or the numerous reviews on the Amazon page). What many seem most bothered by is Foyt's portrayal of a reverse-racist society which uses blackface to make its supposedly anti-racist point (a historically derogatory practice originally used by whites to stereotype and denigrate blacks -- the white-race-glorification film, Birth of a Nation, for example, used blackface in order to portray black males as sexual "beasts," which, as it turns out, is another stereotype that Foyt, according to reviews, unsuccessfully "turns on its head").  Coming from the outside, my first reactions were along these lines:

  1. Is it possible to reverse blackface without running into the problem of racist history?  In other words, can one take the history of making blacks feel inferior because they are "too dark" and reverse it so whites must now darken in order to "fit in"?  I'm thinking of a reversal of George Schuyler's Black No More (a novel I am teaching this semester).
  2. What is the narrative context for the use of "pearls" to refer to whites and "coals" to refer to blacks?  Since the novel is a dystopia, is it possible these terms actually mean something very different in that world?  I wonder if (one, again, coming from not having read the book) perhaps coal has become a scarce, important resource, thus providing an added value to something we traditionally think of as prevalent and cheap (dirty, etc.).
  3. Why is it that whenever we have discussions about these very issues, there are a sea of loud-mouthed people proclaiming that there is no such thing as racism against whites, followed by condescending ad hominem attacks against anyone who suggests otherwise?  (I'm not referring to anyone named in this post.)  Racism is not colorblind.  Some white people are targets of racism.  The difference, as I see it, is a matter of degree and a matter of institution.  That is that whites are rarely targeted by the institutions around them, and only uncommonly the target of racist ideas from other "racial" groups.  Perhaps it's a question of power dynamics?
  4. How many people coming into this discussion are screaming because they've already been tainted by other reactions?  Some folks who have chimed in seem to have read the book after reading or agreeing with people who hate it.  Is it possible that some of us are so emotionally driven against racism that we get trapped into knee-jerk-ism whenever something that appears to be racist shows its face?
Now, I could be wrong about all of these reactions.  We'll see.  I've said on Twitter that I will try to read the book, in part because I don't want to offer a proper opinion on all this without knowing what I'm talking about (something some people will do in typical knee-jerk fashion).  That doesn't mean, however, that the Weird Tales post deserves to be ignored.
The book in question...
I say all of this knowing that there are all kinds of red flags in the Weird Tales post.  Take, for example, the title:  "A Thoroughly Non-Racist Book."  If it's a thoroughly non-racist book, then why the insane overcompensation in the title?  Even my hackles were raised when I saw that title.  Or even Kaye's need to reject the negative reviews on Amazon by saying "this is America and they have the right to express their opinion(s)" makes you wonder at which point he would acknowledge a negative review as intellectually valid.  Or if you disagree with a review, does that immediately mean it is only valid as "free speech"?  

But perhaps what most concerns me is the level of condescension Kaye lobs at detractors of Foyt's story.  Kaye says that it will be "very clear to anyone with an appreciation for irony" that the book is not racist, but an attack on racism itself.  Typically, one means satire, not irony; likewise, when one says "folks who are X will get it," you're essentially discounting the validity of contrary opinions.  The clincher, though, is this:
The blessing is to wish they acquire sufficient wit, wisdom and depth of literary analysis to understand what they read, and also the compassion not to attack others merely because they hold a different opinion. 
The curse is an integral part of the blessing…for if they do acquire those virtues, they will then necessarily look at their own behaviour, and be thoroughly ashamed.
You're right.  Because only people with insufficient wit, wisdom, and depth of literary analysis will not like Save the Pearls.  Only people without compassion could find something wrong with Foyt's novel.  Because only becoming "like you," oh Mr. Compassionate, Witty, Wisdom-filled, Literary Analysis Guru, can we fully comprehend the great wonders of the universe contained within Foyt's novel.  And then we can be ashamed.  Of what?  I don't know.  Ashamed that we weren't like Kaye?  Ashamed that we didn't get it?  Ashamed that we were totally mean to Foyt's novel and should have just hugged her?  [/snark]

That's more or less what I've got to say right now.  I'm going to set aside most of the reactions and (try to) read the book with my blinders on.  Afterwards, I will come back and let folks know what I think of this whole fiasco.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Anywho!

(Thanks to Bart Leib for some of the links in this post.)


Other Responses (*** indicates posts linking to fiction work previously published by Weird Tales that the authors have now posted elsewhere):

"On Weird Tales" by Matthew Cheney (The Mumpsimus)***
"This is how you destroy something beautiful" by N. K. Jemisin***
"Racism, Revealing Eden and STGRB" by Foz Meadows (Shattersnipe:  Malcontent and Rainbows)
"Down with 'coals'; save the whites!  Revealing Eden pt 1" by acrackedmoon (Requires Only That You Hate)
"Fuck You, Weird Tales" by Carrie Cuinn (There's a Story in Everything)
"Special Offer:  Weird Tales Subscription Trade-In" by Weightless Books
"Weird Tales Magazine faces a boycott after endorsing a 'thoroughly non-racist book'" by Charlie Jane Anders (io9)
"Weird Tales Goes Back in Time" by Rose Fox (Genreville)
"Weird Things at Weird Tales" by Gav Reads
Apexology:  Science Fiction and Fantasy from Apex Publications (not a response so much as a reminder that J. M. McDermott's Weird Tales publication is re-published in this book)
"'The Good Old Days Were Anything But...'" by Josh Reynolds (Hunting Monsters)
"Book News:  Famous Authors Quit Weird Tales Over Racially Sensitive Novel" by Ed Fortune (Starburst Magazine)
"On Having Pride" by John P. Murphy (Murphy's Blog)
"Weird Tales backtracks on support of 'ridiculous and offensive' novel" by Charlie Jane Anders (io9)
"Response to Weird Tales -- Shimmer is now paying pro rates" by Mary Robinette Kowal
"A Thoroughly Non-Racist Kerfluffle" by Unknown (SpecTechnique)(Includes screenshots of the now-deleted original post)
"Weird Tales, Ann VanderMeer, and Utter Stupidity" by Jeff VanderMeer (Ecstatic Days)
"Umm. WTF? Weird Tales? Really?" by Christopher Fletcher (The Region Between)
"Thoroughly Non-Racist Nonsense" by Jim C. Hines
"Weird Fiction -- we love it, and not just when the internets explode" by Rose Lemberg (One Star called Out of Darkness)
"Racism row over SF novel about black 'Coals' and white 'Pearls'" by Alison Flood (The Guardian)
"Shimmer Pays Pro Rates" by Beth (Shimmer Magazine)
"Weird Tales Pulls Novel Excerpt Following Fan Uproar" by John O'Neill (Black Gate)
"Weird Tales" by Willalex (Graphy)
"Save the Pearls, Weird Tales, and Racism" by Hilary B. Bisenieks (Urban Phantasy)
"Scandal la Weird Tales" by Articole (Galileo Online)(Romanian language; use Google Translate)
"Weird Tales editor has insulted us all" by Damien G. Walter
"The Speculative Fiction Community and Save the Pearls" by Nicole M. Taylor (Writer, Girl Friday)

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  1. Hi!

    I've been following this since The Frisky broke it last month.

    I know that this post here is well done and contains links to A LOT of other scholar and reviewer analysis of the racial issues:

    Also, I personally did two reviews on its problems, one on the racism and the other on the misogyny:

    I also know there's an EXCELLENT essay on the problem of how both Save the Pearls and The Help treat race. I haven't been able to relocate the link for it, but I if can, I'll send that forward as well.

  2. Thanks for the links, J!

    Most of what I'm linking to are responses to Weird Tales. The reviews are a totally different issue (there are probably a thousand or so negative reviews out there...).

  3. Anonymous7:55 PM

    I read the book... it's anti racism IMO... I think people are 'outraged' simply because they like the sounds of their own voice and have nothing better to complain about at the moment...

  4. I intend to start reading it tomorrow. We'll see on which side I fall: outrages, middle ground, or pleasantly surprised. But I'm not hopeful at this point.

  5. Anonymous11:00 PM

    Thanks for linking to my entry. However, the title is "Weird Fiction: We Love it..." not "Weird Tales: We love it..." - which is really an important difference in this context.

    Rose Lemberg

  6. Chris4:28 PM

    I haven't read the book and I doubt I will, but many of the reactions seem hateful and heartless. It does sound like the book was intended to convey an anti-racist message. Maybe it's not very good or very "sensitive", but the way the Social Justice brigade have pounced on it probably says more about them than about the book.

    1. This is partly what the rhetoric has become these days: kneejerk.

      The problem with Foyt, as I see it in retrospect, is her apparent ignorance of the history of blackface. I think it's possible to turn blackface on its head, but to do so requires nuance and a great deal of knowledge about the history of the practice. One can't simply reverse things and expect the message to remain the same, particularly since we have yet to move beyond the racism of our past in any collective sense. Racism is still very much alive, and so to write about something attached to centuries of racism (and just outside of living memory) without recognizing that history and addressing it fails to capture the profound problems racism produces. It's just a simplistic novel.

      Is it racist? I don't know. I still haven't read it. Is Hoyt racist? Probably no more than the average American. But the whole situation could have been mitigated by Hoyt and the people defending her openly recognizing that the novel fails in its mission, and then to discuss *why* so there's some transmission of information between groups.

      But this is from so long ago now we're sort of grasping at a past that isn't relevant in Internet time anymore.