Don’t Step On The Wrong Square
Writers and artists and other obsessives are not very nice people, I’m afraid. We will do anything to have our work reach the public. Sometimes we will do anything to research for our work too. Well, not anything, but I have stories.
My research mania is not so much criminal as odd. At death’s door, I made notes, in case I survived, because I was going to need it for a novel. I made a friendship because the (future) friend’s brother had just suffered an injury similar to that of the character I was writing. I tracked that recovery more than if the stranger were a child of mine. Stories strike suddenly too. Once while following my husband into a massive dark warehouse of used moving boxes for resale, I said without thinking “What a great place to kill someone.” The face of the poor girl leading us, as she turned back to look was a thing to behold.
Given these instincts and that drive, the oligopsony that was (and still is for those who wish only to go that way) traditional publishing is a corrupting influence.
Part of it is that the entire publishing world is designed to make things convenient (as oligopsonies do) to those buying. Which means to a certain extent getting the crap bucket under you to keep quiet and keep each other in line. In that way they are very similar to authoritarian governments, particularly those administered by invaders who have taken over the culture. Makes sense, since those are in a way, also oligopsonies, even if no money is changing hands. They are also similar to profoundly dysfunctional families.
I was talking with an unpublished — but has kicked around the fringes of fandom/wanna be writers forever, life just never giving her enough space for a big push — about the matter of political discrimination or lack thereof in publishing, and she said what I’d heard a million times before, but forgotten as I got published more, and frankly stopped giving a damn: when you start even thinking of getting published, people further along, both mentors and friends, and perhaps the inevitable ill wishers, caution you constantly “Watch how you behave.” “They don’t like publishing unpleasant people” “Don’t make waves” and “don’t associate with troublesome people.”
The feeling was familiar to me. Portugal was never organized enough to be a proper totalitarian regime. It went at it, both under the national socialists, the international socialists, and the summer of the Maoists, by fits and starts. Kind of like publishing, because thought it was centralized it wasn’t organized. You might get away with something, or you might get crushed like a bug (or in Portugal’s cases end up in one of those mass graves from the Summer of Maoists, which they unearthed in Alentejo a few years ago.) There was no way to tell, and the only way to be absolutely safe was to behave like a little automaton all the time, say all the “right” things and endorse all the “right” opinions. Also, if you were on the “right” side, you got to do ANYTHING. By which we mean ANYTHING.
Which confused little beginner me, because when they tell you not to make waves, and one of the most notorious/famous/idolized figures in the field sues everyone, it’s bewildering.
You will say I assumed it was political because of my previous experience. You’ll be wrong. I’d decompressed a lot, both since Portugal had got relatively saner, and since I’d come to the States. Like someone who has been through a great illness, recovers, and the last thing they want to think about is hospitals, the last thing I wanted to think about was politics.
My first year published, I was trailing behind Ginjer Buchanan, then my editor, while she talked to another editor (and I no longer remember who it was, sorry) and she said “If I get a book in that’s of that sort” — expression of “we both know” — “but it’s well written, I reject but refer them to Baen.”
I was so innocent and trusting, I had no clue what to make of that. I read Baen. Tons of it. But I knew they tended more to the “fun and adventure” end of the spectrum. Since I’d just sold a “literary fantasy” I assumed what she meant was “if it’s more popular fiction.” It didn’t occur to me till years in, that EVERYONE “knew” Baen was right wing. Given they publish everyone from conservatives to communists, this is not immediately obvious, unless you’re in a field in which allowing anyone to the right of Lenin to be published means you’re a “fascist.”
(My third agent dropped me because I refused to walk out on my only contract at the time… with Baen. Yeah. It’s like that.)
Also, it took me about two years to figure out that people don’t make the sort of jokes that were made in business situations, unless they’re sure they’re in the midst of true believers of their own stripe. I can be slow, but I can read print when it’s ten feet high and written in bright red letters. I’d figured out that the only opinions expressed were leftist, and that if you tried to correct some factual misapprehension at the bottom of it, you’d get looked at as though you’d let out a particularly sonorous fart in church before 2004 (when I’d been published 6 years) when the keynote speaker encouraged us all to cheer for Howard Dean “our next president” at a formal dinner that had bloody nothing to do with politics.
Oh, and…. most publishing houses have a “conservative” imprint (which often isn’t really) but none of them have “liberal” imprints. Because “conservative” is the odd thing. Everything else is from a liberal slant, of course. The very existence of “conservative” imprints is a tell, as is the fact those authors never make it across to the main house in other subgenres, etc.
Oh, and there is a “young communists” club out and proud in my field (and none of them younger than 45, but that’s something else.) There are libertarian clubs, too. We recognize each other by signals as elaborate as the hanky signs of gay males in the bad old days. And it’s a relief to let go and talk frankly in safety, but that happens rarely and given the “Borgia court” atmosphere, you’re never sure someone isn’t a mole and won’t denounce you. Oh, and if you’re an out and proud libertarian — waves hand in international ‘yoo-hoo’ sign — the last people who will talk to you are the closeted libertarians, because they’re afraid of being made. In fact, they might be among your loudest critics.
Well, you know what? I’d parroted back Marxism to get my degree, and I could do it again, right?
Writers will do anything to get and stay published. And the thing is, they could stop publishing you at any minute, at whim, and there was no appeal. As I found out in 2003, even if the reason they gave YOU for letting you go/ending your series was numbers (something curious about that, my friends, considering all 3 of the Shakespeare books earned out their 10k advance, and were taken out of print the day after they earned out, why were my numbers reason enough to let me go? Don’t answer. Oligopsony. Doesn’t have to make sense. As grandma would say “they have the knife and the cheese.”) the very fact your publisher dropped you caused a vast desert around you.
No one knew why you’d been let go (hell, you might not know why you’d been let go, not the real reason, and everyone in the field knows the craziest fiction the houses publish is their statements. Yep, those of us who write for many houses and across genres, all had the experience of getting the EXACT same numbers on books published around the same time by completely different houses and in different genres. And these are not approximate numbers, either. They’re like, for four year old books, 131 copies sold. Let me tell you the mathematical impossibility of that FAR exceeds any impossibility in our books, from FTL to transformative magic.) You knew what the editor told you, but not what they told anyone else. Or if they’d told something else to someone else. And the law of the field was to stay away from those in disfavor, or you’d find yourself cut off too.
So I found myself in a vast desert. And I almost walked away — which was/is the most common reaction for someone only recently published — but I’m that obsessive, and the stories yelled in my head, and no friendly time traveler told me there would be indie (damn it, why not?) so eventually I was pulled back in and sold a book to Baen, then a trilogy to Bantam. And the friends who’d buggered off came back. Only I’d never trust them again. I’d seen their backsides as they ran away. And I understood, sure, but I don’t forgive easy.
In the same way I understood friends who’ve gone suddenly and seemingly politically insane; friends who were soft left and now are making crazed struggle session sounds and turning on everyone they once hung out with. I remember even ten years ago how panicked they were, how afraid of getting thrown off the wagon. And things have only gotten worse, as publishing slots, advances and promotion all shrunk beyond what anyone would have thought ten years ago.
I understand them, and I don’t hate them. Writers will do anything to be published, and to continue being published, and if they don’t perceive an alternative, they’ll sell their own mothers to a brothel in Cairo for the chance to publish just one more book. I just won’t trust them again. Ever.
And as the oligopsony grows tighter and tighter, people are watched more carefully and new “commissars” come in who decree the new hotness.
While at a con panel recently, with one of the teachers of Clarion west, she seemed bewildered that her students pounded on each other for having women or minorities in less than sainted roles in their stories. She seemed bewildered and said “this is the atmosphere we write in, and I feel it’s a challenge, because of course characters without flaws can’t grow. But it’s the atmosphere we right in, and we’re not allowed to give them flaws without seeming discriminating.”
I responded with my normal restrained manner that that was bullshit and racist bullshit at that. If women and minorities aren’t capable of flaw or evil, then they are something less than human. I’ve found myself on the receiving end of some true racists before (like the asshole who thought Portugal was a city in Mexico, and who consequently would not give me — and my black colleague — access to the store safe while giving it to everyone else, including the ex con… but who called me and the black colleague into the office FIRST when money went missing) but even they didn’t assume I was some kind of subhuman robot, incapable of the full range of human behavior, agency and emotions.
However, that’s how the field has gotten.
The tightness of the buys, and the continuous denunciations of “racisss, sexisss, homophobic” got so crazy that future generations will look in awe at the fact an icon of the field was reviled for using the word “lady” while indulging in some very soft-lighted remembrances of early female editors whom he obviously admired.
I left the carousel a while back. I found that I might have submarined to get my degree (and I guess to avoid being killed, though in my defense, I never thought that was a possibility, until those mass graves came to light) but in my forties, with two kids, I had less and less patience for keeping my mouth shut, and things kept leaking out. (My sons, who attended cons with us from a very young age and who being darker and on a larger frame than I were often not identified as mine, overheard things had given me the impression that my mask was nowhere as good as I thought, and I was at the very least grey listed, early on. So did friends who overheard things.)
So, in 2011 when indie became a thing, I started orienting towards indie, and keeping only Baen, where at least my politics are never policed.
And I came out of the political closet, which allows me to sleep at night, and all that. It also of course precludes the “big money” advance and the Hollywood deal. Yes, there is still a price to pay. But against sanity…
However, I’ve watched, and I have enough friends in the field that I get reports periodically.
I thought we were all afraid back in 2002. I didn’t know what fear was.
These days the things you can’t say or do seem to change daily, depending on the orders coming from the “darlings” who proclaim what is politically correct. Like mean girls dictating that no one wears yellow anymore, their dictates go out: now you have to have these many of this kind of characters in your novel. But the villains and the victims are predetermined, and don’t you dare say the wrong thing.
As a commenter put it not so long ago, it’s the equivalent of crossing a floor composed of identical squares, and suddenly, out of nowhere, you get hit, and get told it’s because you stepped on that square. Yes, that one there. And you should have known better. And your only salvation, the only way to make the beating stop is to admit you did wrong and stepped on that wrong square, even though it’s indistinguishable from all others.
I couldn’t take it. It’s no great and vaunted moral principles. It’s just that I couldn’t take it. I had enough of it and plenty before I entered publishing. I couldn’t–
The whole denunciation and purge show seemed designed only to make writers abase themselves, to see how far they’d bend, and to increase the pointless power of those remaining at the top who — seeing the industry crumble under them — I guess needed to feel they were still important.
And the writers trapped in it… It’s important to understand that most people have trouble changing the mechanisms of their minds, particularly after thirty or so. Our minds have pictures of success, pictures of how things are done.
I was lucky I was never very successful at traditional publishing, because at least my mind hadn’t internalized what was “the thing to do.” Even then, going indie was hard — really hard — psychologically and I don’t know how much of my slow production is because of craptacular health the last 6 years, and how much because my mind is fighting the idea. Maybe equal parts.
For those of my colleagues who were more successful — most of them — it’s even harder, and they are in panic rat-in-a-sinking-ship mode. It’s not pretty to watch, and I can only imagine the pressures. And of course, the tighter the oligopsony gets, the crazier the dictates from above and the favored few. And the more disconnected from the real market.
Eight years ago I told my husband I was giving up writing. I couldn’t take it anymore. He asked me to give it one more year, and then indie became available.
Now that the health is improving (minutely, but improving) I’m trying to retool the mind. It’s not easy.
I understand those still trapped. Perhaps they’re stronger than I. I couldn’t have made it this far.
What I don’t understand is new writers, particularly conservative new writers, who hanker after the Borgia court.
I wrote this because it finally occurred to me they have no clue what is really going on behind the facade.
In an oligopsony the suppliers are treated as exchangeable widgets. They’ll do anything to keep their position, even if it’s not very good. ANYTHING, even become a completely different person; even betray their innermost selves.
If you must go in, go ahead. But remember, past those portals there is no absolutely trustworthy friendship. There is no unalloyed joy for your friend’s triumph, because you’ll always wonder if it was stolen from you. There is no trust between anyone. And the slightest wrong word or look; not laughing at the jokes everyone laughs at; being the first one to stop applauding; any of it can get them to turn on you like a pack of rabid hyenas. You’ll be subjected to struggle sessions that would make Maoists blush. And your career is in someone else’s hands all the time, regardless of talent, ability, craft or anything you bring to the field. And your very subject matter, your very art, will have to be watched every second for the wrong word, the wrong expression, the wrong simile.
You still want to go in, go, and G-d go with you. But go with your eyes open and know that fairyland is all dark spikes of ice underneath the glitz.