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Conflicts - The Motive Center
March 22nd, 2008
11:41 pm

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Conflicts
As mentioned previously, I've been grappling with conflict on the Sisters in Crime list. For those who don't know, Sisters in Crime is an organization dedicated "To combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, educate publishers and the general public as to inequities in the treatment of female authors, raise the level of awareness of their contributions to the field, and promote the professional advancement of women who write mysteries." It is open to everyone, and the Internet Chapter even more so in some ways. We have periodically had a debate, if you can call it that, between those who self-publish, who are "traditionally" published, and who belong to small presses, complicated by the introduction of "Print on Demand" technologies, which are not a publishing technique but a printing technique. The debate has been annoying and overwrought, but generally manageable. Then several organizations started defining what counts as published and what doesn't, including Mystery Writers of America and several well-known conferences. Now the debate has exploded.

Now, none of this is new at the core. MWA has always specified who counts as professionally published. But with the rapid increase in new technologies and techniques for the dissemination of text, it has gotten more complicated. But in the past, most people who didn't meet the qualifications had to complain through mail, at a reasonable distance, and were not able to cause that much trouble, because frequently they didn't even know this distinction, or the organization that made it, existed.

But the Internet is a Land of Trolls even Sauron could take pride in.

Let me be clear and say I have every sympathy for those finding it difficult to publish, more so than James Blish, for example, who commented that there are plenty of other talented people out there, and the thin-skinned writer is not worth having. My proof of this is that I have myself gone through the process to publish. It was quite painful and lasted years, and the book itself is designed to encourage people to write despite the pain.

But the painful truth is that these barriers have always existed for a reason: not everything is worth publishing.

Since the definition of publishable quality is open to debate, there will always be stories of writers who got rejected 42 times (like Richard Bachman's Jonathan Livingston Seagull) or "by every publisher in New York" (like Frank Herbert's Dune) and be wildly successful regardless. However, that is not true of all work, nor will it ever be true. You can talk about the middle ground, sure. But there is a clear continuum, which runs from "obviously publishable" to "not a chance." Despite this, many people are insisting by implication that the only measure of quality is their own self-belief.

Well, it would be nice. Furthermore, I am the first to tell you that belief in yourself is an essential requirement to write. But I am not fool enough to claim that every word I write is worth someone else's time to read. Ask yourself how many things -- how many categories of things -- you do not want to read. Why should I insist that my work should be read by everyone? I have enough ego to believe that at least some of it is readable by some people, and I am willing to be tested by the "literary establishment" to prove it. Other people may feel that, for whatever reason, their destiny lies outside conventional big-name publishers. More power to them -- my book was published by an academic press: a good-sized one, but a small press by any sensible definition.

I am fine with someone making a conscious choice, and living with the ramifications of that. But I am not happy with those who avoid even trying the system, and reject it out of hand, and then insist that everyone else is wrong and it's those "New York Publishers" at fault. Furthermore, they cast aspersions on people like my wife, claiming (as one idiot did, without a shred of evidence) that they only get published because they know people. Toni spent a year and a half writing publishers and agents, and got her agent out of a book, so there. Everything else has been earned.

And that is what rankles. Sure, I've been rejected repeatedly. I don't like it. But I can deal with it, and I realize that there is enough range in taste that it is possible for me not only to be rejected inappropriately, but also to find the right publisher. The system works both ways. If I think my work is decent, then I think it can pass the obstacles eventually, and I can earn my stripes. But many of these people refuse to admit that there is the slightest possibility that their work might be rejected for any reason apart from prejudice, and they insist on equal rights with those who have grappled with the system. Or they insist that they are being "discriminated" against. True. The definition of discrimination is making distinctions. Publishable versus unpublishable is one of those distinctions. If any self-published book is equal to any regularly published book, then I will write "now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country" 5,000 times, self-publish, and demand to be made eligible for all literary prizes, be it the Agatha, the Anthony, the Hugo, the Nebula, the Oscar, heck, even the Nobel Prize. That is the position these people are taking, whether they admit it or not.

So what does this have to do with motivation? Truth be told, I think it is depressing to those who have worked hard and are being told, in essence, that they wasted their time and effort or, alternatively, that any moron with a keyboard and an email account is equal to them in terms of quality. I think we are also seeing people who have motivation unleavened by self-confidence or self-restraint in most cases.

I found in my research that published writers tended to have vast amounts of Activity Inhibition -- the ability to constrain and manage their motivational and emotional impulses. I have noticed a pattern on the list, which is that most of the published authors (not all, but most) are being very restrained or not speaking out at all, or in some cases are very patiently trying to explain their position. The others, who for some reason are overwhelmingly self-published or tiny-published (like being published by your friend, who publishes you and himself), are venting their spleen, and frequently aren't even reading the posts carefully. They show every sign of unmanaged impulses. Once upon a time, you had to at least write a letter, put it in an envelope, and mail it somewhere. Not any more.

I'm not president of the SinC-Internet Chapter anymore, so I don't have to be patient and balanced anymore. The truth is that this pattern is strikingly clear to those of us willing to see it.

Now one of the first things I learned on this blog is that some people are genuinely unpublishable by mainstream publishers for reasons of content. I'm fine with that; that's one of the great things about blogs, online communities, and the Internet in general. Certain art forms are not being published simply because they have too small an audience, and that is ideal for things like webpublishing and small presses and even self-publication. But again, I also understand the difference.

One cannot help but think that these people doth protest too much.

Current Music: 06 Sweetness Follows - Sara Quinn featuring Kaki King

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[User Picture]
From:albionwood
Date:March 23rd, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC)
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Sturgeon may have been an optimist.

Can you really be surprised, though, to find the "victim culture" pervasive among members of an organization whose dedication is premised on the same idea? Now that women have become quite successful in the mystery field - and occupy prominent roles in almost every aspect of writing and publishing in general - I wonder if SiC isn't perpetuating the idea of discrimination rather than combatting it.
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From:stevekelner
Date:March 23rd, 2008 04:08 pm (UTC)

Nope.

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Actually, what I like about SinC is that they document the lack of a level playing field, rather than asserting victimhood. It started out tracking the number of reviews women get in newspapers country-wide, as well as award nominations and wins, and lately I've been analyzing the pattern of awards as they come out, too. The hit rate for women in these areas is, on average, considerably below the percentage of women publishing.
[User Picture]
From:albionwood
Date:March 23rd, 2008 04:26 pm (UTC)

Re: Nope.

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Interesting. There was a similar flap about the recent Hugo Award noms IIRC.

To what are the apparent discrepancies attributed? Are the reviewers/award committees (statistically) male-dominated?
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From:stevekelner
Date:March 23rd, 2008 06:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Nope.

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That's the question. In the past, unquestionably. It's been shifting, however. The interesting thing to me is the Edgars, which are selected by (balanced) committees, not general readers, but yet are invariably tilted towards male writers and usually the more hard-boiled side of mystery. Some of it is a perception that this category is more "serious" and "literary," I think (as opposed to "cozies" or "traditional mysteries" like Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, the latter of whom blows away most modern writers of any genre); some of it may be due to categorization -- for example, a lot of "chick-lit" stories were mysteries but not marketed that way, and "romantic thriller" is really in-category, too, but again isn't marketed that way. So I think that takes out a lot of female writers from the running.
[User Picture]
From:albionwood
Date:March 24th, 2008 04:23 am (UTC)

Re: Nope.

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Which doesn't really sound like gender-based discrimination to me. More a matter of style? If a larger proportion of female authors choose to write in a certain style, and that style is not preferred by those who write reviews/nominate awards, then...

Tricky thing to analyze.
[User Picture]
From:stevekelner
Date:March 24th, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC)

Re: Nope.

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Indeed, it is tricky. You can argue it any number of ways, including that certain styles are more friendly to female authors, in which case it is a gender discrimination issue; people just make the most of it! But the flip side of friendliness is hostility. Most people want to write what they want to write, and if they go a different direction, I am inclined to think that indicates some perceived constraints.

There's also a bias against funny stuff and "cozies" going on here, and it just so happens that most funny women don't get awards. Solemnity is perceived as deeper and more difficult to write than humor, which is absolutely not true. That's why it's so easy to parody "hard-boiled" styles - they're very clear-cut in style, language, and plot. Why that makes them superior to, say, Regency Romances, which share the same underlying traits (though obviously not the style), is not obvious! Being married to a funny cozy writer (who admittedly can and does write dark and dramatic on occasion) might have influenced my feelings here...
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From:albionwood
Date:March 25th, 2008 03:27 am (UTC)

Re: Nope.

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The humour bias extends to male authors as well; check out Terry Pratchett's (very short) list of awards.

I'm still not seeing much evidence of a gender-based discrimination. Reviews and award noms are notoriously out of touch with popular taste; does gender really have much to do with that?
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From:stevekelner
Date:March 25th, 2008 04:10 am (UTC)

Re: Nope.

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I'm afraid you're fighting without ammunition here. There is absolutely no doubt that there is gender bias. Keep in mind that reviews and awards, whether out of touch or not, have a clear and demonstrable link to visibility and therefore sales, so that is a problem for a level playing field. Furthermore, that bias can be used to choose male writers over female.

Last year I put together a summary of all the Edgars across their history. Keep in mind that women currently publish a solid 45% of books identified as mystery overall today (remembering that we have more distinctions, some of which are heavily gender-sorted), and probably more than half of all books published.

Best Novel winners: 37 men, 13 women (26% women). This year, 60% female nominees.
Best 1st Novel winners: 45 men, 8 women, 5 uncertain (15% women, not counting
"uncertain") This year, 0% women
Best short story winners: 42 men, 13 women, 1 uncertain (24% women, ditto) This
year, 20% women.

I wrote:
"The best women do in any decade is match men [in single categories] (2000-2003 and 1954-1959 best novel, 1946-1949 Best First Novel, 1970-1979 and 2000-2003 Best Short Story). In the 1970s, not one woman won a best novel, and in the 1950s not one woman won a best short story.

"Has it improved? It trends that way in Best Novel, but nowhere else."

You can also go to the Sisters in Crime site and check out the Monitor Project, which tracks reviews: http://www.sistersincrime.org/monitor/. It's listed by newspaper, but the overall is pretty compelling: for 2007, 63% of the reviews are of male writers, 27% are of women. This is just for mysteries, of course, but if look down at the New Yorker, for example, for two straight years they only reviewed male mystery writers.

There is no doubt that there is bias. The only question is how to explore it in detail.
[User Picture]
From:albionwood
Date:March 25th, 2008 04:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Nope.

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Oh, I'm not fighting; only questioning. It's in my nature as a scientist. And I fully recognize that I possess few facts in this case and may well be way out of line.

My principal question is whether the observations can only be explained as gender bias, or if it's more complex than that. Are we looking at a multifactorial problem with single-factor analysis? Lots of erroneous conclusions have been reached that way.

Now, we can agree that gender bias existed in the past, and was quite strong at times. So if you can show that female authors are doing no better (proportionately) now than they did in, say, the 1950s, that would be pretty compelling. Yet it still would be looking only at one factor, when others might be involved as well. You've suggested one other possible factor - that female authors disproportionately write the kinds of books that don't get reviewed as often and don't win awards as often. This is a bias, but I'd argue that it's not a gender bias - reviewers don't ignore the books because of the author's gender, but because of the book's content. If two (or more) factors are strongly correlated, and one of them is the source of a bias, it's easy to assign the bias to the wrong factor.

Don't get me wrong, I am sympathetic to gender bias and have seen it firsthand in other settings. I'm only questioning this particular issue because of the connection with the victim culture thing. America has a real problem with that - we've divided ourselves up into aggrieved subsets, each believing we are victimized by the others. Sometimes, discrimination gets perpetuated by this culture even after the problem has been largely redressed; or, the real discrimination gets used as a pretext for imagined affronts. So an organization fighting against gender bias in publishing ends up being overrun by people who feel they are victimized because they can't get published...
[User Picture]
From:stevekelner
Date:March 30th, 2008 03:39 am (UTC)

Re: Nope.

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Well, I'm a social scientist myself, so it's in my nature, too, which is why I keep gathering data. Of course it's more complex than just gender bias, but since that appears to be the overwhelmingly large factor, it only makes sense to tackle it first. (See, for example, the astonishingly negative and sexist reaction to Hillary Clinton, which includes some openly misogynistic comments from many in the press, e.g. Chris Matthews, which has nothing to do with her as a person.) Your interpretation of the other factor I mention can also be construed as supporting the hypothesis of gender bias, in that there are "ghettos" in which women can safely publish, but note that those subgenres are also targeted only at women. The male-dominated Thriller category books are shelved in "Fiction," but "chick lit" is typically shelved within Mystery/Crime or even Romance. Is there a meaningful difference between "Romantic Suspense" (e.g., Mary Higgins Clark, one of the few really big names) and "Thriller" as categories? Both involve a protagonist who falls into situations beyond their control and are pursued by hostile antagonists, traditionally running from peril to peril. "Separate but equal" is not an acceptable argument any more.

You keep bringing up the "victimization" thing, which I object to, because I don't think that is what SinC is about. I see victim culture being about complaining and expecting special treatment. SinC is about taking action and raising visibility. There have been people (always men, interestingly enough) who have claimed that now it's biased towards women, but this is clearly not true.

Also, while I understand the objection to "victim culture," if you ARE a victim, what do you propose you should do? SinC is only about getting fair treatment for women, not perpetuating victimhood. It's calling people's attention to bias.

Interestingly, the Edgar committees are very carefully selected to avoid gender bias, and they have tried very, very hard to avoid it, which is one reason why I am so horrified by recent results. I have two hypotheses for this. One is unconscious bias; another is small but incrementally large bias at every step in the publishing process. Getting a book published requires you to pass through several "gates" - agent, publisher, award nomination, award win, etc. I once figured that if there were no more than a 10% bias away from women (45-55), you would get exactly the results we see. To counter that takes a real challenge, because it means calling attention even for those who are relatively unbiased!
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[User Picture]
From:stevekelner
Date:March 24th, 2008 09:58 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! I think Job had a few years on me, but I gotta say I was glad to go. The Steering Committee was happy to keep me -- in fact, the official tenure is only one year, and I stayed on for two. But I was tired of it. I've done my bit, and I now want to express my own opinion once in a while.

It was fun being able to swoop down and hold people accountable with my virtual Iron Boot, though.
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