Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

You Got Your Privilege in My Face

The Privilege of Authors

My first thought on reading this article in Strange Horizons is, I have to say, a fairly simple thought: I can't say I'm impressed with claiming the right to ship/slash my characters in ways I find fetishising/problematic and vetoing my engagement. Clearly from the "Go, you!" comments, a number of readers don't have anything approaching that thought, oblivious to the ramifications for a sodomite in a principle which theoretically extends to outright straightironing, and all the more oblivious to the authorial privilege it's actually asserting rather than rejecting, for the authors of appropriative work and amateur critique who are apparently to be treated as special snowflakes, protected from the responses of their sources and subjects. All those poor little straight white authors who need protected from the Authoritay of us faggot authors who might, heaven forfend, gently point out that having X fuck Y in that way (or insisting that the work is Wrong because that's not how it happens) is Epic GayFail, an Othering fantasy promulgating the stereotypes at the heart of the gaybashing that leads to... you know... gay kids blowing their own heads off.

But it's about book blogging, you say. It's about authors not commenting on reviews. Well, yes and no. It's certainly applying its principle--that the author should butt out of social media discourse unless specifically invited in--to book blogs, but it's setting its foundations for that principle in fandom, on an assumption of a power relationship in which artists entering an audience discourse are punching down, imposing the authority of their privileged position on the text, creating discomfort, stifling fanwork. And that notion of fanwork is framed not just such that it extends to appropriative fiction but such that it's grounded in it.

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.

Yes, having your privilege challenged is uncomfortable. If you think you have the right to publish slash with zero repercussions (note: publish; note: with zero repercussions) of course you're going to be thrown into angst if you bring that "sexy fanfiction" and "explicit fanwork" to the artist's attention. And it's sadly predictable that you would view the backlash as  a problem of "bias." And it's only pragmatic to adopt an axiom of avoidant behaviour: "don't talk about fanwork with creators." It's only natural to justify your privilege as a personal precious thing that others have no business trying to take from you when the product of that privilege "isn't for them, it's for us." And it's not surprising to see challenges cast as victimisation, as "horrible characterizations of fans," even a mea culpa of yes, I'm a bit sensitised enclosing (literally, extra-parenthetically,) a defensive/accusatory but it's your bad, really; stop comparing fanwork to theft, turning blame onto those you're disempowering in order to defend your privilege.

You feel uncomfortable? Tough shit.


If My Dog Barks At Gays

Sorry to be blunt. I'm not by any means a hater of shipping and slash. I fricking love the fanart that turns up every so often on DeviantArt. I'd most likely be flattered by fanfic in the unlikely event it occurred. But I do reject the assertion of privilege here, where it's the privilege of exercising the power of my characters irresponsibly, where I remain indirectly but ultimately responsible for the consequences. And I absolutely reject the extension of that privilege, the attempt to refuse me the right to even remind you of such consequences. Because I'm a fricking sodomite, and there are a whole host of ways your appropriation could be harmful not just to me but to every citizen of Sodom. Understand, I'm not playing copyright nazi and threatening lawsuits for any labour of love that dares to play in my sandpit. I am however denying you the privilege of carrying out a recuperation of my work safe in the knowledge that I'll just STFU and accept you getting my dog to bark at gays.

An artist's ownership of their living mythos can be understood, I mean, like the ownership of a dog, less as a matter of property than as a matter of responsibility, duty of care, liability for impact. If my dog barks at gays because you've taken it to the park without my permission and this is your idea of harmless play, you have made me indirectly responsible for homophobic intimidation. You don't get to be exempt from the fallout where I make you uncomfortable as all hell.

A simple way to put it. One of the examples used in that article is Teen Wolf, with its gay showrunner, Jeff Davis. As problematic as that series is in terms of race, it's a series that's doing some interesting things from this gay viewer's perspective. It took them a while to get past a tokenism quality to Danny, but there's an embedded normalisation of gay sexuality in which nominally straight male characters are regularly subtly queered (e.g. Stiles's "You'd do that for me?" when Danny jokes about taking his virginity.) Now imagine fanwork which, however unwittingly, applies the sort of homophobic bullshit that characterises Da Vinci's Demons. The appropriating author could rankle at Davis taking issue with that, entering their "fan space" to challenge it, but that would just make them a tool, in all senses of the term. They'd be making his dog bark at gays in the park--hell, if they were as bad as Da Vinci's Demons, they'd be getting it to bite them--and after co-opting his creation from progressive to reactionary impact, acting as a tool of recuperation, they'd be obnoxiously using their resentment at being called on it as a shield. Because if you're busy being aggrieved at the artist coming into your space, that outrage will divert the attention required to even recognise that you are making their dog bark at the gays. That's one of the ways privilege sustains itself, discomfort lashing out in anger and hostility.

Note that artificial distinction of authors here is operating on a pretence that some are not authors, but rather fans. This is an expedient denial exempting those authors from the responsibilities that go with the power they are wielding. It has nothing to do with professional versus amateur. An amateur author remains an author, the only distinction being in terms of pay. To set oneself as a non-author is an affectation of non-importance, which is to say of lack of import. Which is to say, it's a way to pretend to oneself that because one is taking my dog to a certain type of (wholly public) park, by and for fellow "non-authors," any tricks one makes it does by definition constitute harmless play. This being untrue, an affectation of non-importance on the part of an author is not a lack of import but rather a lack of integrity.

Again, of course, when challenged on such behaviour, it is only natural to feel discomfort.


An Axiom of Avoidance, a Moral Dictum of Indulgence

Yes, you can prevent such discomfort entirely with a pragmatic measure of keeping it on the downlow, not tempting fate. Yes, "don't talk about fanwork with creators" is a good rule-of-thumb for preserving your privilege of writing such appropriative work and sharing it in public communities without repercussions, but to lay it on the artist as an ethical imperative is arse-about. If there's an ethical reason not to talk about fanwork, it's so as not to rub your privilege in the artist's face: if you're appropriating from a living mythos, (as opposed to a legacy mythos in the public domain,) you wanna have the good grace not to shove it in the original artist's face that you are, as far as they're concerned, a) taking their dog to the park without permission, b) getting it do an oh-so-entertaining trick whereby it barks at gays, and c) getting it to do this trick embarrassingly badly.

Understand, this is an actual privilege, not a vague and nebulous abstraction but the practical entitlement to do a specific concrete thing. The artist cannot prevent you. They're morally--which is to say, in the current mores of society--restrained from legal action, because suing some kid who publishing a slash piece that regurgitated fetishizing/demonizing gay tropes which the average viewer is clearly oblivious to in Da Vinci's Demons is going to look ridiculously overkill... even to the artist. You can write all the fanwork you want in which you take that dog created by a gay artist to the park, make it do whatever tricks you fancy, and if the gay artist finds your appropriation of their characters so clueless as to be dangerous, they're restrained from slapping you down for it, for no other reason than that the pervasive perception would be that they're in the wrong. That moral dictum of indulgence is about as pure as privilege can get. Well, until you entrench and extend that restraint to even challenging the privilege.

Which is what that article is proposing, functionally, where it frames the discomfort to be averted as that of the fanwork artist liable to incite an original artist's challenge, and frames that challenge as of "intensely dubious" acceptability. This is no less than an extension of the privilege such that if someone turns my dog against gays and I turn up on their virtual doorstep with even a polite request that they rethink, I'm the one that's out of line, in breach of this moral dictum of indulgence.


Punching Up

With all due respect, anyone thinking in these terms needs to get their head out of their ass. This entitled fantasy is not something to be grounding one's protocols of artist-audience engagement on. It's not something to be applying to the SFF book blogosphere or to literary discourse in general. It's projecting a power and privilege on authors, a "canonical weight" that is wholly an illusion of enthusiasts' canon-reverence, even more outmoded in the age of incessant franchise reboots than it was in the age of incessant franchise retcons, and inapplicable to individual authors who are, as Barthes put it, dead, their privilege of imposing an authoritative reading stripped. That illusion is an intellectually dishonest expedience for those authors who need to assert it in order to maintain their own pretence of "non-author" status. Ironically, they must, in complete doublethink, assert the authority of authorial intent here, even as they reject it.

The mass of appropriative fanwork fucking with any canon is a mass of hard evidence of where the real power and privilege resides. There can be few contemporary individual writers with a more impressive canonical profile than Rowling, so the real privilege is demonstrable in any Harry/Draco BDSM vignette, in the free publication of such. The legal veto on (non-profitmaking) appropriative work has long since been overridden by those privileged with the option to ignore it simply doing so, until we're now at the point where not only is that privilege considered a right, the right to challenge abuse of that privilege is now considered a privilege.

Pardon me if I don't tug my forelock and kowtow in meek accommodation of that sense of entitlement. Forgive me if, in interrogating the foundations of an argument on author-audience interaction, I unpack the "discomfort" at the heart of it, and finding it to be the angst of the entitled, expose and excoriate it as such. Like any artist, I have a dog in this fight simply on that basis, but as an artist, I know how easy it is for the abusers of such privilege to thereby dismiss the artist's challenge as the petty stinginess of a control freak unwilling to share their toys with the poor fans who only want to play, how easy it is to throw up a smokescreen in which any artist trying to defend their right is cast as punching down out of petty pique and mercenary self-interest, dismissing their stance as motivated by bullying egotism and greed. As a gay artist, maybe by making it brutally clear what dog I have in this fight... maybe that will cut through the crap and force the privileged to confront the exact nature of that discomfort.

The truth is, as a gay artist living under that moral dictum of indulgence, my right to challenge abuse of that privilege is being cast as a privilege by that article, and the weight of comments in support of this stance makes it very clear how systemic that privilege is among the culture. That means I'm punching up.


My Dog in This Fight

What dog do I have in this fight? Well, how about the werewolf from "Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!"? He comes with his handler, his boy, a pre-slashed pairing that I could happily write a few more stories with. Hell, I'd love to do the TV series, with plenty of red-hot action to fuel your fantasies. I found that dog, made him my own, and I know he can do more tricks than there was space for in that story. And cause it's the whole point of our relationship, with that link I've let you into a space in my imagination to see him do those tricks. Because it's now a space in your imagination too, you get to come in and pet and play with that dog in my absence, even teach him to bark at gays. But taking him to the park to do that without my permission is not part of the deal. Why not? Because that dog is my responsibility. And what he does in the park is my responsibility. And while you having him bark at gays in your imagination only manifests your damage to yourself, having him do so in the park is damaging to others, and that damage caused by my creation is my responsibility too.

We don't have to look further than Da Vinci's Demons, its artist(s) and audience, for proof of how oblivious the privileged can be of the damage they do. And if your head is far enough up your ass you don't recognise the artist's right to challenge abuse of that privilege of shipping/slashing their work, you are a proven threat of real damage. Your self-serving cluelessness is established. You are demonstrably operating on a sense of entitlement. That the privilege remains unchallenged shows that you do not recognise these specific ramifications for gay artists, no matter your sexuality and/or politics; and so you are a proven threat of real damage in this specific area.

I can predict where you would most likely go wrong indeed. For all the light tone of that story, there are some serious purposes to the exact way gay relationships are rendered. One of the reasons I might well return to that mythos is to make it clearer that there's a bottom and a top in that pairing, that their relationship is contrary to the pervasive trope(s) spawned by heteronormative culture. If you flip them because you don't get that the one being bossed around isn't necessarily the one taking it up the arse, then you're fucking over the thematics and creating an appropriative work which reasserts the very misconception I'm out to challenge. There are other reactionary tropes being critiqued too, precisely because they're the clichés we're most prone to regurgitate. If you fetishize the characters, if you load them with Gay Angst, if you go wrong in any number of ways that you could go wrong with that material, your fanwork could well be actively harmful, as far as I'm concerned.


The Fourth Wall, the Left Arm

Consider how I class Da Vinci's Demons as agitprop and do not, in your arrant sense of entitlement, expect me to accept your "fourth wall" as a defensive perimeter, a bastion of your privilege where even for me to knock on the gate is a transgression. And for all the superficial focus on book blogging, the conflation with the issue of etiquette in author's responding to reviews, do not pretend that this is not what's going on here. From the first two paragraphs it is clear that the "fourth wall" Renay paints between artist and audience is, in its roots, a defensively furtive huddle, the left arm kept on the table as one leans in to do one's fanwork on the paper hidden by it, the arm kept guarding that picture from prying eyes as you show it to trusted friends. It's the extension of that self-protection to LiveJournal communities, DeviantArt, dedicated fanfic sites, the application of that axiom of avoidance in private groups and "friends only" lockdowns, all of them essentially domains of the privileged. If you were an online cultural super-consumer in the '90s, trust me, you're privileged.

What has changed perhaps, for Renay specifically, is an increasing involvement in the literary SF scene where that fourth wall / left arm huddle has never been the way of things, not in the convention culture from the Golden Age to the present day, in the clubhouse of carasses and granfaloons mingling professionals, SMOFs, aspiring writers, casual fans, you name your flavour or combination thereof. And what has changed generally since Renay's involvement in media fandom in the '90s is not that the industry has crept into those private spaces of enthusiasts sharing fanwork; it is that those often only quasi-private communities have themselves relaxed out of the huddle, become open public communities, that privilege extending into the liberty to appropriate without any "fourth wall" at all.

The surrender of artists to that reality has, I'd argue, often been done willingly, often positively, in celebration of the greater joy granted if one allows the budding creative type to take your dog to the park and teach it to do tricks, even embarrassingly bad ones, as long as they're not charging for it. It's sad to see the return from that generosity not a recognition of the privilege as a gift and an unshucking of the angst defending it, a concomitant surrender of the sense of needing a defensive perimeter, but rather an entrenchment of the entitlement focused on incidents of backlash, a spin of "bias" and "canonical weight" casting artists as unwarranted aggressors, and an abstraction of that dropped pragmatic barrier of privacy into a ludicrous moral dictum of indulgence--directing artists to STFU and butt out of the public spaces.


DiscourseFail 101

To apply this to book blogs of all things is absurd. Blogs are a distinct step outside of that comfort zone of cloistered quasi-privacy. They're public platforms, as any free magazine distributed round a city, published for anyone to read. They remain an owned space, the blog's owner having the same authority to turf out unwanted boors that they have in their physical home, and many blogs distinctly present themselves as such, as intimate offhand spoutings of--as here--rants, raves and general ramblings. Some with a more literary focus establish themselves in the discourse as a virtual salon, with an open door but with no function other than virtual communion. An owner like myself may double as author, in an essay like this automatically open to debate as an entry into the literary discourse, but I'm quite entitled to kick someone out for co-opting the space as a way to challenge how I live my life via posts that are purely social. One doesn't review a host's anecdote of a trip abroad as if it were an X thousand word mini-memoir, whether it's told in their physical or virtual space.

A book review blog, on the other hand, is presenting itself as specifically functioned, and while some may present the critique as simply one function of many, those which assert their dedicated status in that regard are establishing themselves as publications, as entries into the literary discourse. They may be amateur, self-published with zero funding or support, but just as self-publication does not exempt my chapbook Errata from treatment as an artwork in the literary discourse, so too with a publication setting itself as a virtual review magazine, not a quasi-private Yahoo Group of hobbyist critique but a legitimate entry into the literary discourse, the authors producing it cannot reasonably expect that work to be exempted from treatment as non-fiction. If I publish Errata on Lulu and distribute via Amazon, it is by definition not some special case for a private community alone, and I cannot expect to prescribe who comments on it where. Likewise if I publish a book review blog, I cannot expect to prescribe who comments on it where.

Any article's subject is perfectly entitled to try and communicate with the author of that article, or the editor of the publication, whether to correct a factual error in the article or simply to respond. As a magazine might leave a letter unprinted, a review blog might delete a comment, whether it be in a refusal to acknowledge error, a refusal to accommodate dissent, or a refusal to print abuse. The line between the last two is subjective, of course, but if feedback is printed at all, the integrity of any publication is dependent on the integrity of judgement here. To print a retraction is integrity. To print dissent is integrity. To print abuse or not is a matter of personal ethos. One is entitled to act either way, I'd say, selfishly or selflessly: to refuse them the platform; to give them the platform; to print and let the abuser hoist themselves by their own petard; to not print and spare them making a fool of themselves. Either way, a lack of integrity here is a lack of legitimacy.

This is pretty much a universal standard of discourse. This is DiscourseFail 101. Where author responses to criticism are subject to judgement it is on this exact basis. In the most extreme examples--e.g. the infamous Anne Rice Amazon meltdown--precisely what makes for a trainwreck is the author's vain and illegitimate attempt to extinguish commentary they cannot quell, fervently disacknowledging their own error, furiously dismissing dissent, foolishly treating every passing snipe on the interwebs as if it were direct hatemail. They abrogate integrity and in so doing legitimacy. If an author can engage with integrity--acknowledging error, accommodating dissent, maintaining good faith in the face of abuse, whether that means a stiff back or a sharp wit--the notion of an injunction on this becomes itself bad faith. That injunction is a dishonest defensive maneouver by one who is always already themselves an author and subject to the same judgement.

There are no exemptions here.


Asserting Illegitimacy

For a publication or the authors involved to claim the greater protection of a default injunction against an article's subject engaging at all is an abrogation of integrity so wholesale it's embarrassing to see. Such an injunction is a publisher's prerogative, but a magazine proclaiming that no article's subject should ever write a letter to correct factual errors or in polite dissent, that the mere receipt of a response is in and of itself a form of abuse--an invasion of space and an intimidating exercise of throwing around one's "canonical weight"--is so blatantly projecting a dread spectre of authority to pre-emptively veto any challenge to its authority that it's intellectually bankrupt as an enterprise in literary discourse. Hell, it's actively asserting illegitimacy.

It's like a novelist condemning as abuse any review by a critic of sufficient standing in the field--Clute, Wolfe, Kincaid, etc.--where that critic was not personally invited to review their work, the novelist being equally in a place to plead anguished timidity in the face of that swaggering authority. It is exactly like this, the author of article or novel both being authors, both acting to preserve an illusion of authoritative status for their work by excluding expert opinions as unwarranted authoritarian imposition by definition, regardless of the actual substance.

As far as the original author response that sparked this goes, it's worth noting, the substance of Aaronovitch's comment consists of: a correction of two factual errors; a request to "look beyond the META"; two questions on whether X or Y makes more sense if you think about Z; the teasing out of an implication of a textual fact; a question on whether X is (im)plausible given Y; a few lines on choices made during the writing; two mea culpas on decisions he regrets and their impact on the text; and an apology to anyone "broken or disappointed" with his work. There is nothing in all this that even remotely constitutes an attempt to "enforce" an authorised reading. Steering in a direction, yes, but his core comment is simply a request to reconsider, with a few suggestions of a potential alternative approach.

The outraged outburst that immediately follows from the review's author accuses him of insulting intelligence, disavows shipping while declaring it a right, argues for the shipping being disavowed, bristles at his audacity in "showing up to call people out," and challenges him to show where in the article she said something that he didn't ascribe to her. It's too short to constitute a tirade, but it's an apoplectic tantrum, and I'd say it's saturated with entitlement, except the entitlement is boiled down to an abrasive salt being ground into Aaronovitch's face. There is no comparison in the two comments, and no question of which is abusive, which is throwing around weight, albeit rhetorical rather than canonical, which is staking absolutist claims and trying to smash dissent into the ground.


Damned, Damned and Thrice Damned. And Then Some.

I'll also note that Aaronovitch's diffident request basically entails not imposing (from my understanding) a sexual dimension on a platonic male/female relationship, and that a platonic male/female relationship is exactly the sort of thing an author might construct specifically in an attempt to address gender issues progressively. Which is an all too close parallel to the potential issues I'm raising above with respect to privileged readers imposing a heteronormative reading on, for example, my Hellhound characters. And while an individual's reading is a long way from appropriative fanwork using the characters, when you're looking at a blog with seven times the number of Twitter followers I have, a published review there that stamped a sufficiently politically problematic reading on the discourse, one that aggressively asserted the author's Correctitude and my Wrongosity for having the temerity to not regurgitate and reinforce some fetishizing/demonizing/straightironing variant, one that was exercising this authority to a presumably receptive audience... that's a situation where I might choose to lay aside my general principle of non-response and intercede.

It is abundantly clear, I think, how that would be received: with every obnoxious tactic an entrenched sense of entitlement can muster when privilege is challenged.

The review blog itself can be pretty much dismissed, as far as I'm concerned. In its extension and abstraction of the axiom of avoidance into a a moral dictum of indulgence, a bastion of authorial privilege, it has demolished any pretence of integrity, any illusion of legitimacy, disqualified itself as in any way a contribution to literary discourse. That the entitlement at the heart of this mindset becomes truly repellant and, I'd argue, undeniable when viewed through the lens of membership in an abject social groups is doubly damning, but to be honest, I find it triply damning that, by all evidence, the entitlement requires the application of that lens to be exposed. And I have doubts that even this will be persuasive for some. Whatever. As far as discourse goes, such a bastion of authorial privilege is intellectually bankrupt. Even laying aside the expectations of actual published discourse, professional or amateur, accepting it as a playground for doublethinking fans to play out a fantasy of private publication, non-authorial authorship, even disregarding the fact this roleplaying is live action with every bit the impact of legitimate discourse, the toxicity of such privilege renders it an ugly joke even in social terms. Some of us don't have the luxury of not seeing how ugly that entitlement is.

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.




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Blogger Patrick Nielsen Hayden said...

Hal Duncan:

We have mutual friends, but to be honest, I've never before managed to connect with your work -- your fiction or your blogging. Oh well, I've thought to myself, everybody's work isn't for everybody.

But this post is brilliant and dead on. So much so that I'm going to go back and read your other stuff again. No, really.

2:35 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well done, Hal. I particularly loved the dog in the park analogy.


6:44 am  
Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Two comments from real people and one piece of comment spam on a brilliant post? That's the wrongest.

1:03 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Oh, I missed the comment spam. Bloody bots! Deleted!

And cheers. :)

1:52 am  

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