Bow Down to the Savior of Modern Literature!

list

Don’t mind the post title, I’ve just gone a little bit mad with power. It seems Silent Motorist Media has named yours truly as one of their “10 Weird Writers to Save Us All in 2018.”

While my kneejerk response is to quote a certain Stabbing Westward song (“I cannot save you / I can’t even save myself”), I can’t deny that it’s insanely flattering to see my name listed alongside writers I myself look up to, such as Jon Padgett and Betty Rocksteady and S.L. Edwards and… well, I don’t want to spoil the whole list for you. Give it a read yourself; hopefully you’ll discover some authors you haven’t heard of yet.

That is, after all, what the list is really all about. That whole “savior” thing is just a fun way of bringing together a motley mismatch of under-the-radar and up-and-coming writers beneath the same umbrella. As the folks behind Silent Motorist Media themselves said to their readers when asking for authors suggestions a few weeks ago, this list is meant to shine a light on “weird, bizarro, horror, and otherwise experimental writers who haven’t quite received the exposure you think they deserve.”

And that, more than anything, is why my inclusion on this list means so much to me. It’s not just a list put together by some random blogger rattling off his or her own personal favorites; every writer on this list is there because actual readers liked their work enough to email Silent Motorist Media. As a relatively new author with few published credits to my name, Imposter Syndrome weighs heavily on me. I often find myself wondering if anyone even reads my stories, let alone likes them.

So thanks to anyone and everyone who nominated me for this list, thanks to Silent Motorist Media for putting it together, and thanks to the other writers on it for being such damn good company.

Advertisements

Diversity in Publishing: Good Ethics, Good Business

priv

Don’t mind me. I’m nobody.

I have no experience as a publisher, editor, or anthologist. Hell, I’ve only been an active member of the genre writing community for a couple years, and I have barely a handful of published credits to my name. As such, my opinion carries little to no weight.

That’s okay. I don’t think I’m smarter than people who have been doing this for decades. I don’t think I have all the answers. I don’t think I know better. All I know is what I believe, and if you don’t agree with me, well, feel free to chalk it up to me talking out of my ass.

Recently, the issue of diversity in publishing has reignited as a hot topic in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction communities. It’s not a new issue. Nor is it one that necessarily impacts me, a (mostly) hetero-leaning white cis male, all that directly. I’m fortunate in that way. I’m privileged enough to not have to look very hard or very far to find my own perspective reflected back at me. A vast majority of the art and entertainment I consume is dominated by characters I can easily relate to, produced by creators who come from a similar background.

That doesn’t mean the issue of diversity in publishing doesn’t impact me whatsoever, though. It impacts every last one of us, in fact, and we should all view it as a matter of utmost importance. After all, isn’t the value of reading widely one of the great truisms which both readers and writers hold dear? That doesn’t just mean reading a wide variety of styles or genres; it also means reading a wide variety of authors, voices, and perspectives. Being open to a multitude of different worldviews, lifestyles, experiences, and identities is not just the hallmark of a good reader, but of a good person. In turn, our own life experience becomes all the richer for it, exposing us to possibilities we might have otherwise never dreamed of.

Which is why it disappoints me so much when I look at the table of contents of some new anthology and see not even one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author listed as a contributor. It’s the kind of thing that makes me double-check the copyright page just to make sure that, yes, I am indeed holding a product of the current century.

Even when unintentional, this kind of oversight is especially damning when it comes to anthologies, wherein part of the whole point of the thing is to offer up a veritable witches’ brew of diverse voices. For all the variety that differing writing styles, plots, themes, and characters can provide, even if some contributors are specifically trying to represent perspectives different from the ones they personally identify with, the fact remains that you can line up a hundred hetero white guys and not one of them will be able to reproduce the unique viewpoints of just one woman, person of color, or LGBTQ author.

Of course, we are, all of us, different and unique and we all have our own singular life experiences, blah blah blah. That’s a given. But there are nevertheless some experiences which more or less all individuals of a certain background are more likely to be able to relate to. One hetero white guy may overall have very different life experiences from another hetero white guy, but chances are there remains a common baseline of experience uniting them simply because they are both hetero white guys. It might seem like a small thing, but that’s the kind of fundamental difference that stacks up over time. It affects the way you think and what you expect from life. It affects the very way you understand reality.

In a very real, meaningful way, women experience the world differently than men, people of color experience the world differently than whites, and LGBTQ individuals experience the world differently than straight folks. This does nothing to diminish the value of any individuals’ experiences, nor does it validate or invalidate any of those experiences above or below the others. None of this should be seen as excuse to hold biases against those who are different. Quite the opposite, it should motivate us to reexamine what biases we may already hold because of our individual privileges (or the lack thereof).

Therefore, an anthology which deprives readers of a truly diverse lineup of contributors in turn deprives readers of entire swaths of possibility and experience. Such an anthology inevitably falls far short of its full potential. And, frankly, in a market overflowing with competition, why should any reader be expected to waste their time and money on something that isn’t the very best it can be?

A few days ago, I said as much in a thread on Facebook, only to have my opinion completely dismissed by a writer and editor far more experienced and respected than myself. I don’t disagree with this person being held in high regard (in truth, I count myself as a fan). Nor do I dispute the validity of said person’s own experiences.

And yet…

Here’s the thing. In the simplest terms, this person’s argument boiled down to a rehash of the idea that it is not an editor or publisher’s responsibility to seek out and cultivate diversity, and that an editor or publisher shouldn’t be expected to do anything beyond simply rifle through whatever submissions they receive and select the very best stories they can, regardless of who wrote them.

Seems like pretty sound logic, right?

Eh, not so much.

I’m not even going to go in-depth into the disingenuousness of claiming editors/publishers always accept only the best stories regardless of author (admit it, if Stephen King submitted a pile of barely readable crap, most of us would probably accept it sight unseen, if only to guarantee the book healthy sales numbers and a shot at attention from mainstream media). Nor am I going to spend much time tackling the ugly underlying implication that women, POC, and LGBTQ authors would be published more if only they were good enough writers (independent from the fact that many of the very best writers working in genre fiction today are women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals, this notion blithely ignores years upon years of marginalization and homogenization through which minority voices have often, at best, been treated as novelty items and, at worst, been told in no uncertain terms that they are not welcome here).

Instead, I’m just going to focus on the question of what constitutes an editor or publisher’s “responsibilities.” At first blush, it seems reasonable to suggest that an editor/publisher should be beholden to nothing more and nothing less than the requirement that he or she put out the very best anthology they can, selecting the very best stories from whatever submissions that have found their way to them. Putting aside my earlier assertion that an anthology without a diverse set of contributors is inherently not the best it can be, the flaws with this line of thinking become apparent the moment we start thinking about everything else that we, both writers and readers, contributors and customers, expect from any publisher who wants to be taken seriously.

In general, we expect publishers to not only produce “good” products, but ethical ones as well. Otherwise, why would it cause a scandal when a publisher violates a contract, infringes copyright, fails to pay their writers, exploits rookie authors through predatory “for the love” submission calls, or employs someone with a proven history of sexual assault or who is literally Hitler?

Conducting business in an ethical manner is not just a responsibility of publishers; it’s a responsibility of all people, everywhere, at all times. Arguably, you can be a “good” publisher without being an ethical one, and you can be ethical publisher without being a “good” one. But, as previously noted, the market is awash with competition. When there are publishers out there who are indeed both “good” and ethical, why settle for anything less?

So then, what does it actually mean to be an ethical publisher? Well, aside from avoiding the obvious aforementioned pitfalls of shortchanging authors, employing white supremacist scumbags, etc., being an ethical publisher means, surprise surprise, seeking out and cultivating diversity.

Actively encouraging diversity is important. Not just because it inherently improves the quality of your product and enriches your costumers’ experiences with it, but also because it’s simply the right thing to do.

Why? Because women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals are still drastically underrepresented and often reduced to stereotypes, both on the page and behind the scenes. Because decades of this exact sort of thing has made the overall literary community into a place that is in some ways subtly intolerant and in other ways openly hostile towards voices which do not reflect the already accepted status quo. Because minority voices are already starting from a disadvantaged position which their majority peers can breeze right past, thus making “equality” an impossibility unless steps are taken to correct systemic prejudices.

These days, publishers are too frequently viewed, both by themselves and by writers, as godlike behemoths who exist to pass judgement on that which “good” and that which is “bad,” blessing the “good” with publication and banishing the “bad” to the hell of rejection. Publishers, in this context, become passive beings, monuments which we writers must trek to and grovel before, and if we don’t or can’t make that journey, well, that’s just one less supplicant for the publisher to pass judgement on. No worries; there are still many, many others eager to take our place.

Not all publishers embrace this view, but those that do, those who see no reason to actively search for and court new and different voices, are just plain lazy. Good publishers are not stationary gods. Good publishers are treasure-hunters.

Some publishers may protest, claiming they don’t have the time, energy, or resources to reach out to authors beyond their established pool of reliable contributors. As a reader, though, how am I supposed to trust that such a publisher will indeed put in the work required to make a final product worthy of my hard-earned money if I can’t even trust that publisher to put in the work required to put together a fresh, diverse line-up of contributors?

No one expects the unreasonable. No one expects your average small-press publisher to send out a network of undercover scouts to every community-college workshop and open-mic night on the eastern seaboard in hopes of discovering the next great diamond in the rough. But is it too much to request that a publisher or editor put in a few extra minutes of effort to ensure their latest submissions call explicitly asks for and encourages diversity? Or to ensure that said submissions call is posted in places where diverse authors might actually see it? Like I said at the start, I myself am not an editor or a publisher, so maybe I’m wrong here, but it doesn’t really seem like that taxing a request.

Either way, being that I’m not an editor or a publisher, I don’t really have a whole lot of power to directly correct what I perceive to be a genuine injustice in genre fiction. As a writer, though, I do have the power to say “No thank you, I don’t want to be involved” to any project pretending it’s 1955 and that heteronormative whitebread sausagefests are still acceptable. And, more importantly, as a reader I have the power to say “Fuck you, you will not get my money” to any product whose creators are too lazy to be bothered to put in even the bare minimum of effort to ensure diversity.

I may be nobody and my opinion might not carry much weight, but my cash sure does. Some editors and publishers can’t see past their own privilege, but they sure as shit can see the difference between good business and bad business.

Vote with your dollars, friends. Don’t just ask for better. Demand it.

Free Speech and the “Death” of Genre Fiction (Part 2)

garth

A couple weeks ago, I acknowledged some of the debate that had been going on in the horror, bizarro, and weird fiction community regarding allegations of social justice-imposed censorship (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing) and the notion that transgressive genre fiction is either dead or dying. Since I already tackled the whole “boo hoo, SJW’s don’t like me” bullshit last time, I think we’re about due to take down that “R.I.P. genre fiction” crap too. And considering it’s the start of a brand new year, I can think of no better time to look back at all that 2016 gave us and ahead to all that 2017 promises.

Full disclosure: I originally planned to write this follow-up within a week after the first post. I don’t know what madness compelled me to try that right before the holidays. Suffice to say, between making plans, seeing old friends, avoiding Trump-supporting family members, buying gifts, wrapping gifts, giving gifts, and, best of all, getting gifts, all while simultaneously trying to finish drafts of a couple short stories I needed to have finished before the end of the year, it’s hardly surprising that I’m only now getting the chance. Sorry for the wait.

Anyway, we currently live in an era where such writers as Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, John Langan, Joe Pulver, Simon Strantzas, Nick Mamatas, Grady Hendrix, Matthew Bartlett, C.V. Hunt, Tiffany Scandal, Garrett Cook, and M.P. Johnson are all more or less blossomed into their prime at roughly the same time. And that’s to say nothing of publishing houses like Deadite Press, ChiZine Publications, Eraserhead Press, Raw Dog Screaming Press, Necro Publications, Lazy Fascist Press, Bizarro Pulp Press, DynaTox Ministries, Muzzleland Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Sinister Grin Press, and Hippocampus Press, all of whom are pumping out a constant and consistent conga-line of books that are alternately breathtaking, brutal, beautiful, and bizarre.

On top of all that we also live in an era where self-publishing and self-promotion are easier and more accessible than ever before. Thus there are virtually no limits for anyone to be able to read or write something that exactly matches their tastes, no matter how out-of-left-field those tastes may be.

In other words, things aren’t on the wane. If anything we’re in a goddamn golden age!

But, hey, for some it’s not enough that contemporary genre fiction is incredibly dark, thoughtful, and well-crafted. Some of us need our horror to be hardcore, dirty, and gruesome, full of excessive violence, graphic sex, and creative uses of bodily fluids. Well if that sounds like you, fret not, we got you covered. The last year or so has seen the release of such take-no-prisoners juggernauts as The Train Derails in Boston by Jessica McHugh, Reincarnage by Jason Taverner and Ryan Harding, A God of Hungry Walls by Garrett Cook, The Complex by Brian Keene, Season of the Witch by Charlee Jacob, Ritualistic Human Sacrifice by C.V. Hunt, The Con Season by Adam Cesare, and Mayan Blue by the self-proclaimed “sisters of slaughter” Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason. And these are just the standouts!

Likewise, Splatterpunk Zine, Comet Press, and the aforementioned Necro Publications have all put out anthologies specifically focused on envelope-pushing extreme horror: Comet makes no bones about where their bread is buttered with such releases as Stiff Things: The Splatterporn Anthology and the debut of their annual Year’s Best Hardcore Horror series. Meanwhile, the rich mythos of Gerard Houarner’s landmark 1996 erotic-horror collection Painfreak was revisited in Necro Publications’ exhaustive Into Painfreak anthology, edited by Houarner himself, which saw everyone from Wrath James White to Monica O’Rourke to Jordan Krall to Edward Lee (the reigning king of literary gore, if you ask me) delving into wretched red depths of flesh and blood. And, hell, no one spelled it out more clearly than Splatterpunk, who released the perfectly titled Splatterpunk’s Not Dead, featuring stellar stories by the likes of Shane McKenzie, Paul Essig, and Jeff Strand, among others.

Maybe you’re more a fan of bizarro fiction, though. Maybe you’re more interested in the so-called literary equivalent of the cult section of your local video store. Is that what you want, huh, you sick fuck? Truly outlandish stories that combine the absurdity and reality-warping rules of Saturday Morning cartoons and unrepentant strangeness of Salvador Dali with the scatological, satirical, intentionally offensive humor of John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman and the out-of-control violence of splatterpunk?

Well guess what, bucko, this last year was a damn good year for bizarro too! Behold the incredible insanity that is Puppetskin by Danger Slater, Shit Luck by Tiffany Scandal, Bacon Fried Bastard by David W. Barbee, Governor of the Homeless by G. Arthur Brown, Berzerkoids by M.P. Johnson, and Very True Stories Starring Jeff O’Brien by, uh, Jeff O’Brien. At the same time, genre workhorses like Carlton Mellick III and D. Harlan Wilson continued to release new works even after nearly two decades of exemplifying the best the movement has to offer, and they’re still at the top of their games. Best of all, Eraserhead Press’ New Bizarro Author Series turned another year older, still furthering its altruistic goal of seeking out and exposing the world to fresh young authors who will no doubt go on to be the Mellicks and Wilsons of tomorrow.

Tell me, do you know what the most important thing is that all these horror and bizarro books have in common? Sure, they’re all as gleefully confrontational as they are controversial, chock full of murder, dismemberment, self-mutilation, rape, necrophilia, bestiality, cannibalism, abortion, puke, piss, cum, and gore. But, even better, so so many of them are also witty and intelligent and richly thematic on a level that those looking at genre fiction from the outside-in would likely never imagine, a level that probably too few readers even within the genre fully appreciate.

The truth is, today’s hardcore horror and bizarro are as twisted and gratuitous as they’ve ever been. But they’re also a whole lot smarter than they’ve been in years. The widespread and progressive aspect of that intellectual element is a hundred times more meaningful than all the chainsaw gutsfucks in the history of literature; the brains actually enhance the blood and guts. The substance is just as shocking as the superficial. That’s punk as fuck!

I ask you, how much more “alive” could these genres be?

Saying that hardcore horror is dying is like saying that horror in general is dying, and saying that horror is dying is like saying that fear is dying. Fear is a fundamental part of the human experience, one that no matter how civilized and sophisticated we become we will always have a need to indulge and thereby purge. And hardcore horror? Well, that’s nothing more than a logical extension of general horror, one which delights particularly in the related realms of shock, decadence, and revulsion. All of which are equally fundamental parts of the human experience. Suffice to say, if horror isn’t dying, then hardcore horror isn’t dying either. As long as there are people who like being scared there will be people who like being grossed out and disturbed.

Bizarro, meanwhile, is a relatively new genre. So maybe it is just a fad, a flash in the pan doomed to be snuffed out as its 15 minutes of fame comes to an end. Maybe. Me, I reject that notion, and I do it by rejecting that bizarro is new at all. As a named, codified thing separate from other strains of surrealistic and experimental literature, yes, it’s still just a baby. But “bizarro” did not just emerge out of a vacuum. It has a long line of precursors that fulfilled our ancestors’ own inherent appetite for the strange and unusual. I’m talking not just about the classical outrageous fiction of William S. Burroughs and Franz Kafka, but also the do-it-yourself middle-finger of punk rock and no-wave, the ero-guro madness of artists Toshio Saeki and Junji Ito, the “you won’t believe your eyes” showmanship and deformity of P.T. Barnum’s circus sideshows, and the brain-melting comic-book psychedelia of Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.

In my view, while these things may not all be classifiable as pure bizarro, they are absolutely a part of the long-standing tradition that we are now only just beginning to give the name “bizarro.” Therefore, bizarro has always been here. And if it’s always been here, well, I have a hard time imagining it going anywhere anytime soon.

Still, what about the argument being made that, since so few authors are able to make a steady living creating this kind of stuff, then that alone is proof of genre fiction’s decline? Well the truth is that has nothing to do with genres, nor quality, nor content. It’s no secret that traditional publishing across the board has struggled to evolve in a way that is sustainable in the 21st century. Without getting too deep into things, I can’t ignore that a perfect storm of rising production costs, falling digital sales prices, oversaturated markets, audience distractions, online piracy, and the popularity of ebooks has shaken the publishing world to its core. There’s a riotous mix of good and bad going on here, and sometimes the two are hard to distinguish from one another. Hell, sometimes they’re actually both simultaneously.

Outside of the “big five” mainstream publishing juggernauts, outside your New York Times Bestseller shoe-ins, your Stephen Kings and your J.K. Rowlings, the reality is that authors who are able to make a comfortable living off of writing and only writing are few and far between, and those that do exist can never rest on their laurels. It’s all about the hustle. This goes for every genre, though, not just the niche worlds of horror and bizarro, or even those of fantasy and sci-fi for that matter.

Do me a favor. Next time you pick up a book by an author you admire, one who is maybe frequently critically lauded, one who you probably think “Yeah, he or she definitely has it made,” let me suggest that you turn to the bio at the back of the book. Notice how many author bios make mention of the writers being teachers or editors themselves? The reason for that isn’t just because they’re so passionate about the English language (or some other subject, perhaps). No. Passion is part of it, but a bigger part of it is that they need to make money. The vast majority of fiction authors have day jobs. Fact.

What’s more, this isn’t even anything new. As much as the publishing world has taken hits from the mutating landscape of modern media, in all the centuries of its history writing fiction has only intermittently been a widely profitable profession. Simply put, if you’re looking for a steady job, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Only the most cynical among us get into writing with the intention of defining their success or failure solely by their profitability. That’s certainly not why I’m here. The proof is in the pudding: I’m broke as fuck.

Joking aside, art is not an ATM. It’s a vehicle for self-expression. The fact that so many of us have conned our way into getting people to pay us for it whatsoever is a goddamn gift. So, yeah, if you’re still pining for the lightning-in-a-bottle days of the ’80s paperback horror boom, maybe then you have a small point when you say that genre fiction isn’t doing so hot, but only in that specific context. And if you’re doing that, then, damn, you are seriously out of touch with reality and just plain deluding yourself. Worse yet, you’re valuing the wrong things. The truth is that there is more high-quality weird fiction, horror fiction, and bizarro fiction out on the market right now than there has been at any other single period in my entire lifetime. If anything, there’s too much awesome stuff out there!

Seriously, sometimes I look at my ever-lengthening to-read and to-buy lists and feel anxiety grip me, worrying how in the hell I’m going to find the time to buy and read all this stuff and still have any kind of life of my own. As far as problems go, however, as a lover of genre fiction it’s a very good dilemma to have. And that’s the only perspective we should be coming to the table here with: that of lovers, of readers, of fans.

Anyone who says that horror sucks these days, that the current sociopolitical zeitgeist has had a chilling effect on genre fiction, or that dark, extreme, or transgressive literature is on the wane in any meaningful way whatsoever is clearly not paying attention. With how robust and diverse the current offerings on the market are these days, the only excuse for a fellow writer having that kind of attitude is that they’re consumed with self-absorbed terror at being overshadowed and lost in the shuffle. After all, it’s easier to be a big fish when the waters run shallow, right? When they run deeper, when there’s a lot more room for other fish, that’s better for everyone… except for the little minnows who don’t get to act like sharks anymore.

In the end, if you’re looking at a horror or bizarro bookseller’s catalog right now, at the dawn of 2017, and you don’t find anything that you think qualifies as legitimately great and/or boundary-pushing, then, simply put, you need to get your eyes checked.

Free Speech and the “Death” of Genre Fiction (Part 1)

censor

Recently, in the horror and bizarro writing community, there’s been a bit of a ruckus kicked up by a certain author going on a tear, accusing his contemporaries of censorship, claiming that genre fiction is on the wane, and opining that the reason for said decline is because of this supposedly rampant censorship.

I won’t mention the author by name (let’s just call him the Odd Man Out), nor will I level any attacks at him directly. Partially, that’s because the man in question was one of the first members of the fiction community to see anything of worth in my own writing. He gave me a chance, encouraged me when I felt like giving up, and even went on to be the first person to publish some of my work. So I owe him.  But I just cannot in good conscience agree with the things he says nor with his immature shit-stirring antics. Though the situation is unfortunate, I can’t deny that the cold shoulder he’s received from former friends and colleagues can be attributed directly to his own self-righteous, antagonistic approach.

In any case, however you feel about the Odd Man Out, the question remains: Does he have a point? Are the spheres of horror fiction, bizarro fiction, weird fiction, and transgressive fiction dying? Is there really an “epidemic” of forced censorship in the genre fiction community, perhaps perpetuated by some foaming-at-the-mouth mob of hysterical, ideological, left-wing bigots who can’t accept any beliefs divergent from their own?

My, there’s a lot to unwrap here. So let’s get the bigger, more complex issue out of the way first. That would be the issue of free speech versus censorship. Before we get too deep into this, let me say a few things:

First, I should acknowledge that I consider myself a progressive liberal, as well as a sex-positive feminist and a secular humanist, and I have very little tolerance for racism, misogyny, misandry, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and the like.

Second, despite that, I do think that people in general need to lighten up and not be so damned sensitive sometimes, and not only am I entertained by art that is deliberately, unapologetically shocking and offensive, I also think there is legitimate social value inherent in such works.

Third, despite that, I recognize that, as a (mostly) hetero-leaning white cis male, I can say all this from a place of privilege, having not had to deal with anything even resembling the kind of prejudice and stereotyping that might lead, say, a woman or a gay person or a person of color to respond more sensitively to things that I might ignorantly perceive as innocuous. Thus, I strive to be as empathetic as possible without sacrificing my own personal identity and values. It’s a delicate balance, one that I am still very, very far from mastering. But I hope it’s worth something that I recognize this fact.

Having said all this, I must admit that I agree quite a bit (though not completely, not by a long shot) with We Need to Talk About Kevin scribe Lionel Shriver, who, during her opening address at the Brisbane Writers Festival earlier this year, argued against certain ideas which suggest that if a writer hasn’t experienced something him or herself then they have little to no right to write about it, and if they do have a right, then that right is conditional upon meeting the standards of… I don’t know… someone. The majority? Whoever shouts the loudest?

This is, of course, ridiculous. Fiction writing is all about asking oneself to imagine the world through the eyes of another. No one, not even someone who has legitimately lived that life, has any standing to decree that an author’s individual perception is somehow invalid, even if it is demonstrably inaccurate. Fiction writing, lest we forget, is not to be confused with news reporting. It’s less important to “get it right” than to fully express oneself, and that can include expressing such things as bias or privilege. Creative writing is a very personal art form, one that should reflect the worldview of its author, however skewed or just plain “incorrect” that worldview may be. It’s about subjective reality, not objective reality. Concerns like “respectful portrayal” and “cultural sensitivity” should barely even enter into it, if at all, and then only at the author’s discretion.

It’s okay if you disagree with me. Please understand, I’m not advocating insensitivity. I’m simply saying that sensitivity should not be dictated by some kind of majority-imposed “community standards.” All standards, both aesthetic and ethical, should be decided individually, from person to person. If you read a book and feel the author in question was not adequately “respectful,” that is your prerogative. It’s also you prerogative to make your opinion known as far and wide as you wish. That’s fine. But suggesting that the author “should” have done something a certain way to better meet your criteria, even if you have the masses behind you, is simple egotism. And putting excessive, abusive pressure on an author to feel ashamed or to recognize your own viewpoint as correct over their own is just untoward.

I suspect the Odd Man Out would agree with me so far. I suspect he would also agree with me when I say that I think contributing to a culture that would actively ostracize those who don’t meet its collectively decided standards is oppressive and backwards. After all, it’s one thing to openly share your criticisms of a piece of work; it’s quite another to argue that your criticisms are objectively correct and to try and scare up a mob of like-minded critics to browbeat the author.

Wait. Don’t leave yet.

See, where the Odd Man Out and I likely diverge is in our understanding of what constitutes legitimate criticism versus mere browbeating, as well as what constitutes a contribution to the aforementioned oppressive, backwards culture. Despite what you may think, I’m not one of those people who equates “freedom of speech” with “freedom from criticism,” as the Odd Man Out appears to be. Nor do I fail to realize that allowing for criticism inherently allows for criticism based on majority opinion, as well as (and more importantly) criticism that comes with real-world consequences. That, however, is something the Odd Man Out seems either unable or unwilling to acknowledge.

Keep in mind, freedom of speech is very important to me, so much so that I have a framed copy of the Bill of Rights hanging on my wall. The idea of art in general and writing specifically being maintained as an outlet for unfettered free speech is very important to me. But freedom of speech is not a one-way street. Freedom of speech not only protects the speaker but those who speak in response to what that speaker has said. I have the right to say or write anything I want. You have the right to say or write anything in response. Of course, I also have the right to respond to your response, and you have the right to respond to my response to your response, and so on and so on, ad infinitum. As I said, regardless of what the Odd Man Out seems to want, freedom of speech does not equate to freedom from criticism or consequence.

Example: Let’s say you’re a big-time author, a New York Times bestseller even. You have a deal with a successful world-famous publishing house. They plaster advertisements for your upcoming book in widely circulated newspapers and magazines. They even pay for TV air time to run commercials. Then a reviewer reads the book and posts a scathing critique talking about how they were offended by it. Other folks, similarly offended, speak up as well. Lots of folks, in fact. The cable stations refuse to run the ads. The newspapers and magazines do the same. Stores pull copies of your book off the shelves. Eventually, your publishing house drops you.

It’s not because they’re trying to stifle your freedom of speech. It’s because they don’t want their brand associated with yours. This is all, of course, very extreme and very tragic. But none of it is actually about suppression. Most for-profit businesses try to appeal to the widest possible audience, so as to maximize revenues. If enough people want something, they’ll be happy to sell it. If enough people don’t want it, then they’ll wash their hands of it. That’s all it is. You’re still free to say anything you want. Hell, depending on the terms if you’re contract, you can probably take your manuscript to a different publisher if you want.

This is an example of consequence, not censorship. You have a right to free speech. You don’t have a right to a well-funded, corporate-backed, nationally visible platform. Sorry to break it to you. It’s not a “mind crime.” It’s business.

Likewise, let’s say you’re a Facebook user who posts a picture of a famous rock ‘n’ roll album cover. Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy as an example. Yes, the one with the naked butts on it. It’s not porn. It’s not explicit. It’s hardly even offensive to most people’s eyes. It’s Led Zeppelin for fuck’s sake! But, uh oh, someone reported it and now Facebook has taken the image down. Let’s go even further down the hypothetical rabbit hole and say that, unlikely as the scenario might be, your post results in your entire Facebook account being terminated. Lame, right?

Believe it or not, though, your freedom of speech has not been impinged here. Facebook, regardless of how it may feel sometimes, is not real life. It is not the be-all end-all of social media, let alone self-expression. Facebook is a service. It’s not a right. When you joined, you ticked a little box that said “I agree to the terms and conditions of blah blah blah,” something like that. I didn’t read it. You didn’t read it. Nobody read it. Doesn’t matter, though, because it’s still a legally binding contract. And if you had read it, you’d know that anything you post on Facebook is subject to Facebook’s standards, not yours. This is a permission you gave them. You agreed to it when you signed up. No one forced you to join. Their house, their rules.

Again, these things are consequences. Not censorship.

One last example for the road. Let’s say you have a blog. You go somewhere, to some kind of group event. You see someone there you find attractive and so begin following this person around. Some call it stalking. You call it simply having a crush. For the purposes of this hypothetical, it’s irrelevant who’s right or wrong. What is relevant is that when you get back from the event you post on your blog about your experience, including the part about you shadowing the object of your unrequited affections around the whole damn time. Some of your readers, of course, don’t find this anecdote as charming as you do. They pepper your comments section with insults. They really dress you down. The person you followed makes it clear that they felt harassed by your behavior, and friends of that person publicly suggest that you should take your blog post down. So you do. You just don’t want to deal with it anymore.

The thing is, no one forced you. You made the final decision. You’re the one who made the whole situation public in the first place. When you post something online you openly invite the Internet to respond to it. Problem is, you may not like the response you get.

Say it with me, one last time: Consequences. Not censorship.

Now I know some of the things I’ve said in these last few paragraphs may seem, at first glance, inconsistent with things I said earlier. To wit: Earlier I said it’s oppressive and backwards to put pressure on an author you don’t agree with, but now all of a sudden I’m saying that if someone does do that it somehow doesn’t equate to censorship? That’s crazy, right? Except it’s not. Because that’s accurate; it’s not “censorship.” It’s unfortunate. It’s shitty. I don’t typically agree with it, approve of it, or advocate for it. But I don’t typically agree with, approve of, or advocate for sheltering people from that kind of thing either. It’s an accepted risk we all acknowledge by exercising our free speech.

Listen. We live in tense, troubled times, caught between a new generation that is campaigning for massive positive cultural change and an old guard that is confused and scared and holding onto the past. I don’t believe in political correctness, but calling out bigoted or predatory behavior is not about being politically correct. What some (including, to my chagrin, the aforementioned Shriver) dismissively refer to as “identity politics” I view as a major part of the ongoing battle for civil rights, basic human rights.

I hate to admit that I would ever agree with Odd Man Out and his “anti-SJW” (*cringe*) stance, but I do agree, on a very general level, that we could all benefit from taking things in stride more often, having a broader sense of humor, dismissing “cultural appropriation” as a largely fallacious concept too often misused to hold back positive multiculturalism, disengaging with kneejerk outrage culture, and empathizing as much with our opponents as we want them to empathize with us. It’s true, sometimes those of us trying to be empathetic and inclusive try too hard. We can on occasion get overzealous and paradoxically err on the side of reactivity instead of understanding. But is that not better than erring on the side of passivity? Because sometimes it’s not just a matter of an insensitive joke or wrong-headed character portrayal. Sometimes you’re not dealing with someone who is merely oblivious to their own privilege. Sometimes you’re dealing with a straight-up piece-of-shit human being.

See, hate is not a difference of opinion. Racists, misogynists, homophobes, war-mongers, etc., they’re not just “opinionated” people. They’re bad people. They’re fucking monsters. Their ideas aren’t “controversial.” They’re vile. Unjust. Destructive. As I said, I’m all for taking things in stride and laughing it off, but there are times when letting something go is just as good as condoning it. When it’s something as indefensible as, say, sexual harassment or white supremacy, we can’t afford to let it slide. We need to be active and vigilant and committed in calling these things out, in standing up against them, in fighting back. The problem with the Odd Man Out (one of them, at least) is that he seems to see hollow preening moralizing where the rest of us see right versus wrong, good versus evil. He’d probably say this sentiment is melodramatic or that it’s indicative of delusions of grandeur. I would counter by saying that he is, in this instance, lazy and apathetic.

Maybe you’re like the Odd Man Out. Maybe you don’t agree with me. But remember when I said that everyone needs to decide their own aesthetic and ethical standards? Well these are my standards. I respect that yours may be different than mine. I respect that you have that freedom. But that doesn’t mean I have to respect your standards themselves, and it certainly doesn’t mean I have to respect you. Nor do you have to respect me. Once again, it’s not a one-way street. That’s perfectly fine.

I’m starting to lose my train of thought now (already been wrestling it like hell this whole damn time) and at almost 3000 words I think this post has gone on long enough.

TL;DR version: Criticism and censorship are two different things, no matter how heated or even personal that criticism may get. How you react to it is entirely up to you. There’s no witch hunt here, Odd Man Out. From where I’m standing it doesn’t look like it’s other people in the genre fiction community who can’t handle differing viewpoints. From where I’m standing it looks like it’s just you.

As for all the faithful readers out there with a taste for the outre, fret not. There is no slippery slope here. “Political correctness” (if that’s what you want to call it) has not had a chilling effect on horror and bizarro fiction. I’ll talk more about that next time, when I post Part 2. But suffice to say, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of genre fiction’s death are greatly exaggerated.