Saturday, January 18, 2014

on "author privilege" and the hierarchists of skiffydom

Yesterday, as I took a break from revising The Problem with Privilege Theory, I read Renay's You Got Your Industry in my Fanwork and Hal Duncan's brilliant response, You Got Your Privilege in My Face. If you'd rather read those without preconceptions, follow the links now, but I'll warn you that Duncan's will call for both time and thought.

First off, two of my beliefs:

1. Artists have no privileges and damn few rights, and that's how it should be. The audience always makes what it will of the work.

2. All artists learn by doing fan art. We imitate work we admire to acquire the skill to make work others might admire.

Which is to say that fanfic and author's rights are issues that don't interest me. I've seen fanfic that I thought was brilliant, and I'm flattered when I hear someone's done fanfic based on something of mine, but I don't seek out fanfic.

However, theories of privilege have fascinated me all my life.

Renay says two things relevant to Duncan's response and what I'll rant about:

1. "Once I read a work, that work is mine. I'm going to interpret it my way, disregard authorial intention, embrace alternate readings of the canonical facts, and probably consider writing explicit fanfic about characters an author likely never intended to be together."

2. "Over the last few years, we've been watching creators slip into our communities and our social circles; sometimes we invite them in and sometimes we don't, but as some book blogs, born from fannish beginnings and with fannish goals, become industry blogs, we'll continue to see incidents where creators step in and find themselves the target of severe discomfort that takes form as anger and hostility."

Duncan says early in his post:
Privilege? The article is asserting it: "Because once I read a work, that work is mine. I'm going to interpret it my way, disregard authorial intention, embrace alternate readings of the canonical facts, and probably consider writing explicit fanfic about characters an author likely never intended to be together." (My italics.) The article lacks the bold-faced audacity to forego the weasel words of "probably" and "consider," and just say, "I'll damn well slash your characters if I wanna and chuck it on the interwebs for all to see," but that's just the angst of repercussions that it's hard not to see as the "discomfort" in question. Maybe that's not the "discomfort" intended, but authorial intent can hardly be a defence here. And my reading is not born of a defence of authorial intent; it's born of the fact that "severe discomfort that takes form as anger and hostility" is typical of entitlement's response to challenge. The privilege of authors is in play here. It's just that the authors in question are the article's author, the author of the Aaronovitch review she references, and those who write their work from that same stance of entitlement, whether it's fiction or non-fiction.
He concludes:
What's really more damning to me is to see a professional magazine with a strong progressive ethos publishing an article like Renay's that springs out of that outburst of entitlement, spilling out its own entitled advocacy of entitlement, and with the same posturing of victimhood. That article: asserts a privilege of appropriation over any artist; rejects not just authorial intent but authorial ownership, asserting as a right the "non-author's" capacity to fetishize/demonize/straightiron a gay author's gay characters; justifies prejudice as a response to challenges to that privilege; rewrites the history whereby that privilege became so entrenched that privacy is no longer even required; laments the discomfort where the extended privilege of no legal challenge doesn't extend to a privilege of no challenge at all; suggests we salve that discomfort via more privilege by establishing a principle that everything from a specific book blog to Tumblr as a whole is basically a bastion of authorial privilege.
Because, yes, the solution to the angst of privileged authors of appropriative work and bad faith critique that distorts its subject in the lens of privileged appropriation... when those entitled boors can't even deal with an author diffidently requesting they rethink... the solution is to deny response rights to a class of authors who respect the rigours of discourse so as to cosset this other class of authors claiming exemption from such rigours. 
I love the way Duncan takes the language of privilege theory to answer someone whose assumptions grow from it. I'll happily go further. Renay's attitude toward living writers is that of colonialists, imperialists, and cultural appropriators: she says she'll take what she wants because she wants it, regardless of the intent or the love of its creators.

Now, I think appropriation is how cultures and artists grow, so that doesn't bother me at all.

But hypocrisy does.

She doesn't just want to take. She wants to silence the people she's taking from. She objects to their objections. She doesn't just want to take. She wants to be respected for taking. It's a social justice warrior thang—they demand respect while refusing to give it.

If you respect a living artist, respect that artist's attitude toward their art. Here's an analogy that's probably not as good as I would like it to be. For decades, my writing group has used the phrase "you can go out in that shirt." It means a story's ready to be submitted to an editor or to be published. If I went into someone's closet, took a shirt that person had made with love, wrapped it around a monkey like a diaper, took a photo, washed the shirt, and replaced it without the original person knowing what I had done, I would not be surprised if the person happened upon the photo later and did not think it was as amusing or as inventive as I did. It wouldn't matter if I loved both the monkey and the shirt and didn't intend any mockery. The person who made the shirt did not intend for it to be a monkey's diaper, and really shouldn't be faulted for responding to what I'd done.

This reminds me of Piss Christ and Victoria's Secret's use of American Indian headdresses.

I have no objection to Piss Christ or repurposing headdresses. Piss Christ seemed like Andres Serrano just wanted to offend someone, and the world of high fashion is so artificial that everything it references is either demeaned or effectively untouched—I favor the latter, because, like the novels that are not ruined by Hollywood because the books are still safe on the shelves of book lovers, sacred symbols are not weakened when they're treated without the reverence given them by the people who love them.

But the people who love those symbols as part of their identity still have a right to complain.

Fanfictionists who demand silence from creators are no different than Serrano or the designer behind the Victoria's Secret show. What they do is new, but it takes from others, and they should not be surprised when creators object.

An aside: I just showed the picture of the Victoria's Secret model to Emma, who rolled her eyes and laughed and pointed out something I'd missed: The mishmash of appropriation, a Plains headdress with Southwestern jewelry, is even greater than it looks. That silver work? Appropriated by the Navajo from the Spanish, who appropriated it from the Moors.

In the comments on her post, Renay tells Ben Aaronovitch that creators should simply stay out of public conversations of their work: "There is no need for creators to do sophisticated traffic analysis to know whether or not they should comment on a fan discussion. All it requires is empathy. Were you invited explicitly to the discussion? No? Then don't comment."

Charlie Stross responds,
This is my sad face at being told I'm not allowed in the fan suite :-(
Like many pros, I was a con-going fanzine-publishing fan before I sold any fiction, much less began publishing books on a regular basis. (Back in the mid-eighties.) My reading of this piece is that it's rather hostile to fans like me -- it attempts to redefine us as not-fans, as fiction-producing-alien-entities who should get the hell out of fandom.
I don't know whether that was Renay's intention in writing it, but I receive it as a harsh cold-shoulder treatment.
(As for how you should read my output -- shrug. I don't care how you read it. I'll happily answer questions about my intentions in writing, but I can't dictate how you should interpret my work because human minds are not perfectly spherical frictionless objects of uniform density. Your interpretation of my words creates a new mental object, in your mind. It may or may not accurately reflect my conscious intentions -- but that doesn't invalidate your interpretation. And I've learned interesting new things about my own mind by listening to readers' interpretations. About the only thing I will take exception to is being told what my own interior state must be, on the basis of deductions from my public writing. It's psychoanalysis by proxy, and when the proxy has a weakness for writing deliberately unreliable narrators it's probably going to result in a bogus diagnosis.)
Big ditto to all that.
It's probably impossible for younger fans to understand fandom before the internet, partly because of the internet itself and partly because of privilege theory. Pros and fans hung out with each other with no concern over who had sold anything. The social hierarchy was based on accomplishment, but accomplishment was not based on sales. A BNF ("Big Name Fan") and a pro were both valued for their contributions to the community—there's a reason the 1953 Hugo Awards included "#1 Fan Personality".
I suspect three developments set the precedent for social hierarchy in fandom. Green rooms made it easier for panelists to find each other. SFWA parties made it easier for SFWA members to meet each other. The third doesn't seem relevant in this context, but I'll mention it for anyone else who wants to explore hierarchy in fandom: in the '80s, panelists only had name cards on the table to identify them. No one showed book covers to promote themselves. We weren't there to promote ourselves. We were on panels because we loved sharing our love of our genre. The general attitude among pros in fandom was that we were fans first and pros second, just as we had been fans originally and became pros later. We were simply a community, with all the good and bad that entails.
This does not mean it was a golden age of love. Fandom has always had feuds. Writers have always had different concerns. There were many things to divide us. But we knew we were a community of outcasts. We wanted to be inclusive—to the point of including a tiny number of fans who were more concerned with status than accomplishment. Though some of us quibbled with the notion that science fiction was the literature of ideas—all literature is about ideas—we valued ideas above all. People of all social identities had a home in fandom because what united us was what we loved, not what people saw when they looked at us.
The commitment to egalitarianism created tensions as students of Critical Race Theory and bourgeois feminism entered fandom. People who craved influence saw influential people as privileged rather than accomplished. Discussions had less to do with what they were about than who was speaking. The binary logic of identitarianism meant fans and pros were seen as separate social identities—perhaps pros could be seen as fannish allies, but pros and fans were distinct in this worldview, and authors now had "author privilege".
In the comments on Renay's post, Mely, aka Coffeeandink, said, "I think there are social justice issues that are affecting the opinions offered and how they're received. For one, it's notable that the vast majority of bloggers and reviewers who are being criticized or challenges for attempting to control their own spaces are women. The imperatives to "be nice", "be welcoming", and "listen to authority" are enforced by people of all genders, but they are applied much more stringently to women than to men."

Mely's both a Critical Race Theorist and a bourgeois feminist, so you should trust her analysis of how they see the conflict. They want to speak where their unexamined assumptions will stay unexamined. This may be clearest when she said, "The assumptions behind who is allowed to speak where are not politically neutral." She's very right. Some of us assume everyone may speak; her community assumes people who have "privilege" are not allowed to speak without permission.

Sabrina Vourvoulias rejected that notion, saying, “I'm not defending the author in this drama (he exasperated me to no end), but in SFF, as in real life, I abhor what I see as the justification for (and fortification of) a wall between those who share interests. It would be a disgrace to turn the border zone -- that liminal space we SFF writers and readers like to say we understand and are fond of -- into a war zone.”

If Vourvoulias were a man, Mely could’ve settled for ad hominem. Without that option, she tried saying, “"Newspaper" is one analogy for a blog. So are "salon," "living room," and "publication platform." A platform is not required to publish every letter of comment it receives, and a moderator is not required to allow.”

Vourvoulias answered, “Thinking of blogs as salons and living rooms probably does change the character of what content gets posted, but unless it is password-protected, it is still a salon or living room set out in the middle of Times Square. You get traffic ... and fumes.”

Though I have never met Vourvoulias and know nothing about her, I have a bit of a brain-crush on her now. Since she didn't address Mely’s analogy of “publication platform”, I'll add that no one has said bloggers shouldn’t be able to ban who they please. If they want to ban people with author privilege, they're free to use their blogger privilege.

Christopher Caldwell commented, "The assumption that writers need to be explicitly invited to a conversation as if a public blog were a house and a writer were a vampire is oddly entitled."

I now have a bit of a brain-crush on him, too. And I've long had one for Robert N. Lee, who said, "Pardon me, but how do I get to this alternate Earth where writers have lots of power and much greater "privilege" than fans with the disposable income to amass giant media collections and all the spare time in the world to blog about them? It sounds lovely."

Enough. I'm off to exercise the only author privilege that exists, the privilege of writing a little more on a story.