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Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Rant: An assumption that damages the most vulnerable new artists

| 30 Comments

I saw the following two tweets go by yesterday:

If a marginalized group criticizes a problematic book, you should be listening. You should believe them and actively work not to undermine.

and

If you aren’t a member of a marginalized group, you can’t decide what they find problematic. Period. When they say something is, listen.

The term “marginalized group” is the first problem. Can we please be careful? Yes, indeed, there are groups who are in many important ways stuck in the margins of U.S. society in general and fantasy fiction in particular, and this hurts both them and the field as a whole, which means it hurts me because I like reading good stuff.  But when an unemployed black auto-worker in Flint, who is having his heating and electrical cut off while his kids are drinking poisoned water, is put into the same group as President Obama, who is arguably the most powerful individual in the world, then we may need to consider exactly how we’re grouping people, don’t you think?

Another issue is the supreme, colossal arrogance of saying, “If a marginalized group criticizes…” as if the entire group got together to attack a book.  You’re saying, “As a member of this group, I am speaking for all members of this group.”  Was there an election or something?  I still remember how furious I was when, about 20 years ago, a certain now-deceased Jewish writer objected to a certain book, claiming it was antisemitic.  As it happens, I thought the main character was, and the book was not, but that is a subject we could disagree about.  I did not object to his opinion, but the way he expressed it made it sound as if he were speaking for all Jews, and it was insulting to have someone I disagreed with claiming to express my opinion.  And, no, you don’t get to just assume that, “People in my group who differ with me are complicit in their own oppression.”  You can make the case, but when you make the assumption you are being offensive, dismissive, and pompous.

But the big problem, and the reason for this rant, is the belief that somehow criticism that focuses on certain issues is subject to different and special rules: if some random person says of a book, “it was boring,” or, “it was predictable,” or, “I didn’t care about the characters,” most writers know enough, or should know enough, not to listen unless it comes from one of those she or he relies on for judgment: editors, beta readers, trusted friends, and so on.  Being told, “I was bothered because there were no members of this group,” or, “I was bothered bothered by your depiction of this group,” is absolutely no different.  Writers need to find those whose judgment they trust, listen to them, and ignore everyone else.  Of course, these are valid subjects, and anyone reviewing the work or discussing it has a right and even a duty to mention anything he or she sees as a problem.  But expecting—demanding—the writer pay special attention to this sort of criticism, or, as the tweet says, “you should be listening…when they say something, listen” is going to inhibit, stifle, and maybe even kill the work of the most insecure new writers. Unfortunately, there is no relationship that I’ve found between the power of a new writer’s voice, and the self-confidence of that writer.  By filling social media with this sort of insistence, you are hurting new writers, you are hurting art.  You are making our field less vibrant, less exciting, less creative.  Stop it.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

30 Comments

  1. Seconded.

    I have noticed that people who claim to be speaking for a group are often only speaking for a subset of that group and assuming the rest of the group is irrelevant or mistaken. Pronouncements come easily to the bourgeoisie, regardless of race.

  2. I agree, but…aren’t all writers insecure? I have certainly found myself batted about by marginal-group-criticism. Sometimes I learned from it—that’s good! But sometimes I fled. Insecurely.

  3. I’m a *tiny* bit guilty on this score. I once offered what I thought was constructive criticism to a new author regarding dialect and word choice (I pointed out that a character who grew up in the South Bronx would never call a soft drink ‘pop’). He tore into me for making ‘racist comments’ then had me blocked on the forum.

  4. I find the impulse to either restrain criticism or give “bonus points” for fiction by members of marginalized groups based on their membership in those groups incredibly self-serving in most cases, and damaging to the art overall. Promoting a work based on its authorship, and not its quality, demeans all who labor to give expression to their creativity.

  5. SKZB – I find it a bit discomforting that your post seems really just a negation of the first tweet quoted and equally as (un)helpful.

    NEWSFLASH: Everyone’s a critic.

    Of course no one speaks for anyone else – unless you have the proxy papers or other legal authorization to prove it. The NAACP doesn’t speak for all colored people. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t speak for all colored people. The Teamsters Union can’t speak for all teamsters. The Socialist Workers Party doesn’t speak for all socialists — or even for all SWP members. Expectation of a single voice united is absurd. Any claim to such is generally a rhetorical device.

    Yet, Colin Kaepernick, who has devolved into an incredibly mediocre – even bad – 2nd string NFL quarterback now has the #2 position in NFL jersey sales. A very wealthy member of a marginalized group has spoken. He’s probably preaching to the choir because I doubt that many people outside of the choir are listening. And of those outside the choir that have taken notice most are criticizing (undermining) him.

    Nor do I see how having an African-American President suddenly removes African Americans from the list of marginalized groups. Are there individual exceptions? Sure, to an extent. But put Kaepernick or Obama in a grey hoodie behind the wheel of car with a taillight burnt out in many neighborhoods in this country and they’ll still end up in jail – or worse.

  6. skzb

    oneillsinwisonsin: I, on the other hand, am not the least surprised that you see no difference between a willingness to intimidate new writers, and wishing to protect them from intimidation. That you see these as the same surprises me not at all.

  7. I have never seen the philosophy of the first tweet applied to class. In fact, I half expect the first reaction to be undermining.

    I agree you ought to be listening, but when you stop listening, you don’t have to agree. Also, there’s a point where you ought to be able to say, I have heard your point and further discourse isn’t going to add anything to my process: without being a “bad” person.

  8. This is doubly true because the people most likely to get angry about art (“this offends my religion!” and so on) frequently represent the most reactionary parts of a cultural group, and by treating these people as if they were representative of an “authentic” monoculture, liberals frequently end up supporting incredibly oppressive power structures.

  9. This sounds to me like a misinterpretation of what is being said/referred to. Of course we are all biased by the scope of our own experiences, so if you have seen people behave in a manner that justifies your interpretation, that’s fair. But, based on the quotes alone:

    “If a marginalized group criticizes a problematic book,” is not equal to “As a member of this group, I am speaking for all members of this group.” There was no “a member of” in the tweet, so it sounds more like the kind of situation where multiple people have spoken up and were all dismissed/ignored, or a consensus has existed within the group for a long time.

    Obviously, differing opinions between individual members of any group are common and normal. I’m familiar with the “How dare you speak for me” feeling myself, but that is a whole different issue than people who are not part of the group being advised to step back and listen. So marginalised person B disagrees with what marginalised person A said? Cool, listen to that as well. Also wait and see if marginalised person C wants to weigh in, and listen to that. If you, as a person outside of the demographic in question, believe person A may have been wrong, a good course of action could be to alert someone you know who belongs to the same group and ask them if they have anything to say about it. Because if you skip that part and respond critically yourself, you’ll either be defending people (the segment of the group that disagrees with the original statement) who might not even appreciate this unsolicited “help” … or you’ll be arguing for the sake of arguing. I understand that some people consider this self-defense, but that implies the original criticism was an attack, which is a problematic assumption in itself.

    Now as for the more specific scenario of a writer having their work criticised, I agree that taking every single bad review to heart would be … ill-advised, to say the least. But I feel you are overestimating the level of reaction that people expect when they ask you to listen, because listening could simply mean something like:

    First “this is kind of racist” comment: “Wait, what? Really? Maybe this is just a troll or an oversensitive person, but I’ll think about it and pay more attention from now on.”
    Second comment along the same lines: “Crap, I probably did make a mistake. I’ll do some research and perhaps discuss the possibility with a PoC I know.”
    Third comment: “They’re likely onto something, maybe I should consider writing a blog post containing an apology or at least a promise to do better in future.”

    “Listen and believe” does not mean, “Never question anything.” It means that you should pay close attention and assume that, allowing for a small percentage of trolls, most people making these criticisms are probably speaking out of genuine distress, rather than to attack you. If you listen and listen, but it seems that whoever criticised you was an outlier, cool! “Please listen to us” doesn’t rule that out in the least. The “believe” thing is a bit more ambiguous, I’ll admit. But the way I’ve seen it expanded upon in places without a character limit, it simply means erring on the side of caution, in the sense that in any disagreement between a person with lived experience of a phenomenon and a person who does not have that lived experience, the former is statistically way more likely to be correct, so it’s reasonable to assume this until proven otherwise. Which can happen! Sometimes people are wrong. But I frequently keep my mouth shut on issues that don’t affect me, quietly observing and holding back on forming an opinion until I find a person who is directly affected and explains their point of view so clearly that I end up convinced.

    You say that “Writers need to find those whose judgment they trust, listen to them, and ignore everyone else.” That is all nice and well as long as the list of people whose judgement they trust also includes people who happen to be affected by the issue in question, preferably more than one. If not? Then “ignoring everyone else” would be unwise.

    If a new writer is so insecure that being asked to listen and err on the side of caution lest they accidentally hurt someone will make them stop writing, then uh … they have my deepest sympathy and I suggest they find a therapist to work with on that until they’re ready to come back? :/ I also suggest looking up the word “listen” in a dictionary because I honestly do not understand why or how it would cause such a defensive reaction, unless everyone’s associating it with the way it is sometimes used on children (“you listen to me right now” = “do what I say or you’ll be punished”). No, come on, actual listening is literally all that’s being asked for. I’m white and I’ve never felt attacked by PoC saying these things – shocked for a few seconds, sometimes, if the wording was very harsh, yeah. I recovered.

  10. skzb

    Luka Lin: Thank you for taking the time to make such a thoughtful comment. I’ve read it three times, and I think you bring up some important issues. The first place I differ with you is when you say, “There was no “a member of” in the tweet, so it sounds more like the kind of situation where multiple people have spoken up and were all dismissed/ignored, or a consensus has existed within the group for a long time.” Nor was there a mention of multiple people, so, in the abstract, one assumption seems as valid as the other. Concretely, however, I have, and I’m sure you have as well, seen many, many occasions where a given member of a group will claim to speak for the entire group. This is far from uncommon. It is, of course, not said in so many words, but it comes up a lot. It is especially common–epidemic, in fact–for extremely privileged upper middle-class academics who imply a claim to be speaking for the members of that group who are toilers, and use this as an excuse to turn the conversation to matters that–coincidentally–are important to privileged upper middle-class academics. Some examples are: who wins awards, who appears on covers of fashion magazines, who gets research grants, who is in upper management of Fortune 500 companies, &c &c. I’m sure you’ve seen this a great deal; in any case, I assure you I have.

    More significantly, however, in your long (and, I repeat, interesting and thoughtful) remark, you do not mention what is I think is the fundamental point: the assumption that these sorts of criticisms (perhaps “attacks” might be the more accurate term) should get special attention from writers, attention that criticism of other aspects of craft do not. I do not believe they should, and I think the assumption that they should is terribly destructive to art.

    I admit to being a little disturbed by the callousness implied in “If a new writer is so insecure that being asked to listen and err on the side of caution lest they accidentally hurt someone will make them stop writing, then uh … they have my deepest sympathy and I suggest they find a therapist to work with on that until they’re ready to come back? :/ ” Perhaps this is because I have worked with so many new writers, and because this matter is important to me, but, yes, as someone said above, all writers are insecure, but new writers are especially so, and, because society attempts to teach women not to be confrontational, they are often especially affected. Have you honestly never run into a writer afraid to write something because, “if I include someone from this culture, I’ll be personally attacked for getting it wrong, and if I don’t, I’ll be personally attacked for excluding them”? I have heard this, in so many words, many times, and I’m a little surprised if you haven’t. The attacks people get from social media are real, are powerful, and can be stiffing and terrifying. Can you seriously doubt that we have been denied interesting and creative new voices because of new writers who are afraid of being attacked on social media? Google “Requires Hate” and look through the stuff. While an especially toxic example, this is far from the only time this has occurred, and this individual did not emerge from a vacuum, but from a very definite political and social context.

    Last, there is this: ‘You say that “Writers need to find those whose judgment they trust, listen to them, and ignore everyone else.” That is all nice and well as long as the list of people whose judgement they trust also includes people who happen to be affected by the issue in question, preferably more than one. If not? Then “ignoring everyone else” would be unwise.’

    I think this is an absolutely valid point, and have no disagreement with it.

  11. Oh boy. “I did not object to his opinion, but the way he expressed it made it sound as if he were speaking for all Jews, and it was insulting to have someone I disagreed with claiming to express my opinion.” OMGWTFBBQ never knew you were an ‘Uncle Sol’. Unsubbing. Reporting. Burning the books, starting with ‘Phoenix’. #skzbigotry is unacceptable. Frownyface + angryface emoji x3.

    But seriously, this seems like an opportunity to float a question that I think, if answerable, has interesting ramifications: Is it intrinsically more, less, or equally difficult for members of marginalized groups to identify and empathize with characters aesthetically or culturally different than themselves? I mean, compared with those with more (superficial, at least) representation in art?

    As to [expurgated] social media, let’s list some features: amplification of the voices of the most offended, distillation of in-group biases through ideological purges, encouraged brigading of the ‘other’, forced brevity to the point of incoherency, virtue-signalling, knee-jerk reactions, arguments between people and not between ideas… seems like an artist’s worst enemy. You can’t please everyone and make compelling art. It’s not a coincidence that network TV is, has been, and will be lukewarm garbage. Writers should write, not tweet – nor listen to those that do.

    “If I include someone from this culture, I’ll be personally attacked for getting it wrong, and if I don’t, I’ll be personally attacked for excluding them.” That is just about perfect. Should be the subtitle of the book chronicling late 20th – early 21st century lit… if anyone gives enough of a snapchat to write it 50 years on. Look upon thy works, ye milquetoasts, and despair!

  12. skzb

    Nathan S: That sums it up nicely, yes.

  13. Way out of my league in these sorts of discussions (as I’m about to make clear!), but as I read and think I keep coming back to this: identity politics / reactions / rants don’t generally seem to be very helpful, accurate or constructive. Those on the receiving end of such would do well to look somewhere for more individual, substantive input.

  14. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a writer respond to criticism with “yes, I’ve considered this opinion and done my research, but I disagree with you” and not get turned into a target for online mobbing in the name of social justice. Even if people from those backgrounds spoke up and said they actually agreed. Much like I haven’t seen accusations of appropriation stop when people from the affected cultures said they don’t even agree with the concept of appropriation, or being stopped from sharing their culture is harmful to them. Never. The loudest, angriest voice is always taken as the most authentic. Which is why “always listen to the marginalized” usually means “always listen to me, and if you don’t, I will fuck you up”. (I remembered I actually wrote a deeply sarcastic post about this a while ago, being part of such a group myself: http://www.jonas-kyratzes.net/2016/05/24/an-authentic-opinion/.)

    Never listen to anyone because they are authentic. Listen to them because they are making sense.

  15. Jonas Kyratzes:”Never listen to anyone because they are authentic. Listen to them because they are making sense.”
    Good advice.

  16. Jonas Kyratzes:”Never listen to anyone because they are authentic. Listen to them because they are making sense.”

    Wow. Seriously? “Never listen to anyone because they are authentic.”??? I can think of no better reason to listen. “Listen to them because they are making sense.”??? So you only listen when you agree and understand what they are saying?

    That sounds to me like a recipe for ignorance.

  17. Pete Hautman:People I don’t initially agree with can make perfect sense. Agreement does not preclude making sense. Understanding can come with some effort on the part of the reader. An open mind and curious intellect are useful things.

  18. skzb

    Jonas: Like the blog post, thanks for the link. “Never listen to anyone because they are authentic. Listen to them because they are making sense.” Five stars.

    Pete: Yeah, it isn’t always easy to separate “this is a reasonable argument that explains the facts” from “this confirms my prejudices.” But we should still try to do so.

  19. Jonas: great essay.

  20. Is there a significant difference between this and “trigger culture”? Pseudoliberal censorship is one of my triggers.

  21. “I can think of no better reason to listen.”

    I can think of no better reason to question the very concept of authenticity, deeply rooted as it is in nationalist myth-making. Those most dedicated to performing authenticity are not necessarily those most dedicated to the well-being of their fellows.

    “So you only listen when you agree and understand what they are saying?”

    You mean, do I apply reason to a debate and refuse to accept arguments from authority? Do I prefer understanding over blind faith? Yes!

    And if I tell you that in Greece the poor live in houses of pure gold that they’ve accumulated by cheating on taxes, then you shouldn’t believe me, no matter how many references to my authentic identity I make, even if I write some words in Ελληνικά or tell you the history of oppression my family has experienced. (And yeah, there are Greek nationalists, who will make a big deal of how Greek they are, and who will tell you that the poor deserve what they got, that we all wasted the money together, that immigrants are the problem, and so on. They are lying and performing authenticity at the same time. If you can’t see past their identities, you will be supporting the most reactionary part of society.)

  22. Pingback: Sound advice from Steven Brust: When a member of a marginalized group criticizes your writing – Mitch Wagner

  23. Identity is the top tool the machine employs to discredit its critics. Only those “qualified” to discuss foreign policy because they are bloodthirsty neo-cons are allowed to speak on the widely accessible national news platforms. The exact same “experts” who beat the war drums for invading Iraq in 2002 are still earning their hefty salaries and plying their trade to this day, rewarded instead of penalized for their folly.

  24. I love your points. They’re right-on.

    For me, I am actually nervous to write about people from any ethnicity I don’t have a lot of direct experience with. Isn’t it better to not represent at all than it is to represent poorly?

    I grew up in a ghetto that was a mix of white and black, and I feel pretty comfortable in those bounds, but I’d feel like an bumbling bozo if I tried to write about life for a Chinese person.

    I have a question for you, and I couldn’t find any particularly appropriate place to ask it. (I googled a bunch looking to see if there was already an answer somewhere online, and I’m pretty convinced now that there isn’t.)

    Is Valabar & Son’s based on a real restaurant you’ve eaten at?

    I just finished re-reading Dzur and it strikes me that you’ve probably modeled Valabars after one or more places you’ve eaten. If so, do tell me where! 🙂

  25. skzb

    Isn’t the whole point of writing to live in someone else’s head, someone totally unlike you, and bring the reader along?

    Valabar’s is loosely based on a (now, alas, closed) restaurant in Chicago called The Bakery, Chef Lajos Szathmary.

  26. As much as I dislike The Guardian as a news org, kudos to them for running this op piece: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

    Fits this topic so well I can’t stop myself from sharing.

  27. skzb

    Yeah, someone linked to that on my Facebook page. Good speech.

  28. I’m really late to the discussion and I’m not a writer. But I read a lot of books. I’ve seen criticisms of books/authors like you describe and it’s almost always made me immediately dislike the critic. Within every group, marginalized or not, there are exceptions to the stereotype. One character in a book does not represent the entire “group” to which he/she happens to be a part of.

    For a real life example: I know someone who lives deep in Appalachia coal country who is a die hard democrat who has liberal beliefs. But if you put him in a book, I’m sure some critic would say that character is not believable.

    Research what you’re writing about. Find out everything you can as you write. Have people you trust review it, edit it, help you. But at the end of the day, put your story down on paper, not some politically correct check all the boxes BS.

  29. Pete Hautman:

    “Wow. Seriously? “Never listen to anyone because they are authentic.”??? I can think of no better reason to listen. “Listen to them because they are making sense.”??? So you only listen when you agree and understand what they are saying?”

    “That sounds to me like a recipe for ignorance”

    Coming in very late, my own view is it’s valuable to listen to people particularly when you don’t understand them. When you understand them so well you can predict what they’re going to say before they say it, there isn’t much there.

    So I like to listen to things I don’t understand and try to make sense of it. Very often I succeed. I can sometimes make sense of schizophrenic people when I pay careful attention. Like, in one case the most important thing to hear was “This idea is so beautiful it has to be true!” Once you get that he refuses to throw away beautiful ideas just because the consensus reality says they aren’t true, then the rest falls into place.

    It’s sometimes a problem when I actually understand something and it turns out it makes sense and looks valuable, and then I try to explain it to other people and they think I’m crazy. So I look for better ways to explain it, and usually those don’t work either. It’s something to deal with.

    Consider the source when people talk about facts. Everybody does have their own reality and sometimes things they say are real are inevitably lies in your reality. You’d have to walk around with them or see candid videos or something to believe it’s true for them. But everybody has their own explanations, and for explanations it doesn’t really matter what the source is. If you can make sense of it, and use it, then it’s yours.

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