26 December 2019

Another Heidi Game

I was a young football fan, living in a city with no football team of its own, in November 1968. My excuse for watching the end of the only available game (including the closest team to Seattle at the time) was that there was family content scheduled to follow it: A new production of a so-called classic. But Heidi used old values to suppress football, in large part because existing ad structures favored the old-school family TV presence. That darkened my day; twenty minutes later, the screen crawl told me what had happened in those last few seconds.

This time, though, the shoe is on the other foot, although it's once again a case of marketing expediency (denied by everyone involved) lurking behind the old guard resisting change and, therefore, another foot-in-mouth problem. This time, it's an authors' group with some historical problems, focusing on a marketing category with even more problems. Bluntly, "romance" has historically been gender-, race-, religious-, ethnicity-, and class-insensitive on its good days.1 And virtually every day, that category is actively hostile to intellectual achievement, let alone intellectual immersion. Even, and perhaps especially, in its progenitors (off-site video).2

I think I've now sufficiently buried the lede. My ambition is, as with any law journal article, to have approximately half of the verbiage in the footnotes…

This is about RWA's mistreatment3 of "Courtney Milan."4 Milan has a significant history of calling out racist and other discriminatory language in written works. So far as I've been able to determine (see note 3), that's what she did this time… but the writers of those words — who claim that they had been written years ago, and were "historically accurate" as to the environment depicted in the works themselves — were unable to distinguish between the works and themselves. They filed complaints with RWA's Ethics Committee, claiming that Milan had violated RWA's purported ethics rules.5 The Ethics Committee, and ultimately RWA Board, agreed that Milan's conduct violated RWA's purported ethics rules. Of note here:

  • The publicly disclosed complainants are commercial competitors of Milan, but neither the RWA Board nor the Ethics Committee has acknowledged that at all.
  • Writers are not professionals and can't make themselves professionals. One can drum a writer out of a particular writer's group and its sponsored events, and then engage in whatever (probably unlawful) boycott or commercial pressure against that writer one can imagine, especially hyped up in antisocial media. But getting kicked out of that group does not prevent a writer from writing and publishing; it's not like yanking a doctor's license or dismissing a military officer from the service, where there is no alternative to being a "licensed" professional if one wants to engage in those activities. (Not even Blackwater et al.)
  • Virtually all public discussion has assumed a high intersection — virtually a union — between "words in an already-completed work of fiction" and "authorial bigotry." The irony that if, as the authors of the works Milan criticized contend, those works were in fact expressing historically authentic attitudes, those authors missed a chance to undermine those attitudes, has gone unremarked upon. In particular, this failure as endemic in the romance category has gone unremarked upon (see note 2).
  • Where, oh where, is there any bloody acknowledgement that "this is an example of something unsatisfactory" should lead to "then we must do better"? As a commissioned officer, I swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. One must acknowledge that sometimes the Constitution is its own enemy; the need for the Nineteenth Amendment is an obvious one, as are "three-fifths of all other persons" and the Jim Crow laws that resulted because that clause was merely struck and not actively repudiated. <SARCASM> But no organization in the arts, or individual practitioner in the arts, really needs to acknowledge any portion of that problem. That would be too intellectual for artistes to contemplate.</SARCASM>

Everything that has appeared in public indicates a failure of both substance and process.

Sadly, this is not just an occasional flaw, but the default outcome, for organizations in the arts; not just, but especially, when there's an allegation of misconduct. There is no correlation whatsoever among outstanding accomplishment in the arts, leadership and managerial skills that apply in the arts… and the ability (and willingness) of those actively participating in the arts to recognize that when they're selecting leaders, only the latter matters. Not just the titular leader, <SARCASM> but the entire Board of the Upper Lower Middle East Side Ladies' Gardening Club </SARCASM>.6 It is perhaps even worse in the performing arts and related fields, as witness leadership failures in H'wood and music and live theatre; but it is bad enough among writers and photographers and… It is perhaps inevitable, given how difficult the concept of "critical distance" is to explain.7 Of course, that also requires the ability to recognize a conflict of interest — something also missing here.

What a great bloody holiday gift.

  1. In this, it is really not much different from other commercial fiction categories. The malign, bigoted influence of John Campbell on science fiction is a really obvious example. So, too, is the dearth until quite recently of women and non-Europeans (or at least non-Eurasians) in literary fiction, especially the "great novels of academia." And so on. There have, of course, always been exceptions; but that is precisely what they were, and they came from an even smaller subset of authors, usually with some significant amount of liberal guilt attached (e.g., Toni Morrison… at Princeton of all places).
  2. The racial diversity in this video satire (no, Justice Souter and clerks, this is not a "parody," but that particular tangent is for another time and a few hundred footnotes of its own) is an important subtext that withstands far more scrutiny than, say, the history of the RITAs. But the antiintellectualism is definitely prominent! Jane Austen's oeuvre is a part of the history of the novel, and of romance. But for these and many other reasons, her novels need to remain part of the historical record that merits study but not continued emulation. That is such an overtly intellectual argument, though, that both practitioners and fandom refuse to engage with it.
  3. I am explicitly not linking to anything from any of the parties because — as a simple websearch will demonstrate — the result is based at least in part on secret deliberations arising from secret evidence by an "Ethics Committee" of no apparent qualifications to judge the ethics of anything… except that the elected leadership of RWA approved the membership of that committee and initially approved its results. Linking to particular "documents" and "commentary" elevates their credibility in a fallacious way. Bad writers' group, no retcon or egoboo.
  4. I'm just going to acknowledge that this is a pseudonym; it's no secret who is behind it, and neither are her prior encounters with harassment, entitlement, and discrimination. I'm dropping the quotation marks hereafter because if Eric Blair wants to be George Orwell, or Mary Ann Evans wants to be George Eliot, it's not my place to object… especially given the pressures on my own authorial identity from my professional past (including previously published works of fiction and nonfiction that are at least indirectly relevant). Ironically, there will be commercial pressure from publishers who don't want this particular foofery interfering with their "genius-level" marketing plans to force Milan to adopt yet another pseudonym — and it's pressure that is even greater in romance than in most categories for some very historically suspicious reasons indeed. Irony: It's just like goldy and bronzy, but made out of iron. Or in this instance an alloy of antimony.
  5. I refuse to even link to that piece of insufficient, unenforceable garbage, which bears a disturbing resemblance to older legal discipline codes that also (without adequate labelling or distinction) mixed purportedly "mandatory" and purportedly "aspirational" elements. If you really want to encourage misuse of discretion (and unacknowledged reliance on unstated personal connections and entitlement), you can't do much better than that. Hint that should have been learned from the US experience in Korea and Vietnam, and the corresponding changes half a century ago in military ethics: "Aspirations" and "directives" don't mix, don't belong together, can't be enforced based on facts, and when enforced otherwise lead to self-destructive tribalism and loss of respect for individuals both internally and externally.
  6. See The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
  7. See, e.g., Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (2d ed. 1982); see generally Martha J. Reineke, Developing Critical Thinking (undated); cf., e.g., Matthew Feldman, Ezra Pound's Fascist Propaganda 1933–45 (2013). And yes, this is a quite unsubtle criticism of authors' organizations' typical, and frequently overt, rejection of literary scholarship as meaning a bloody thing. Application of that criticism to the problem of organizations in the arts rejecting scholarly work on effective organizational structure and operations (let alone following specific advice) is left as an exercise for the student.