Back to previous post: It is not logical, but it is often true

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: “IT’S TIME, TERRY.” “I know.”

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

March 9, 2015

Your “polarizing” opinions are part of what you write with
Posted by Patrick at 12:56 PM * 149 comments

I imagine that lots of Making Light’s regular readers also read John Scalzi’s Whatever, so I don’t link to posts by John every time I find myself in strong agreement with him. (Which is frequently.)

But I want to especially note this fine rant from today, particularly if you’re someone who aspires to write and sell genre fiction, or if you’re someone in the early stages of an actual career doing that. John is responding to an article in a publication of the Romance Writers of America* that advises upcoming writers to avoid discussing controversial—their term is “polarizing”—topics on social media, lest they turn off potential readers. John points out, correctly, that this is terrible advice, and goes on to list the several ways in which this is the case. They’re good points and you should read them all. But the one that interests me most is this:

Speaking as an explicitly commercial writer—I write books that I plan to sell! To a lot of people!—I’m of the opinion that one of the worst ways to be a writer is to shear off or trim down all parts of your life that are not obviously designed to further the goal of selling tons of books. Why? Because then you’re cutting off the parts of your life that inform your writing, and which allow you to create the work that speaks to people, which is to say, to write the stories that people want to read and buy, and make you an author they wish to support.
I couldn’t agree more. Good fiction doesn’t come from struggling to offend no one.** Good fiction comes from being in touch with certain deep parts of yourself, parts necessary to pulling off the trick that is making stories people want to read. Those deep parts will not come out to play if you’re bending your efforts toward being the Most Acceptable Kid At The Prom. To actually do the job you’ve got to be your troublesome and awkward self, because that’s all you really have.

There’s an enormous amount of well-intentioned terrible advice to writers about the crashing importance of “social media” and the absolute necessity of having a “platform” and all the desperate supposed do’s and don’t’s of what writers must and mustn’t do in our brave new age of ubiquitous interwebness. Some of this advice is slung forth in the time-honored diction of Grizzled Old Wise-Guy Pros, and some of it is tremblingly proffered as dire warnings of monsters hiding under the bed. Almost all of it is complete bullshit. In writing, just like in motion pictures, William Goldman is still right.

* Just one article. Not the official position of the Romance Writers of America. Obvs.

** You also don’t have to take a public position on any “polarizing” topic if you don’t feel like it. Also obvs.

Comments on Your "polarizing" opinions are part of what you write with:
#1 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 01:26 PM:

Indeed. I write a lot of fanfic on AO3 when I'm not writing original stuff (hey, fanfic is cheaper than therapy, right?), and the story that got the most hits in the shortest time was the outright transgender one. This is out of over 70 stories with a huge variety of themes, ranging from humour through spy/detective to bleak anti-war stuff.

I'm delighted that so many people want to read a story about a trans kid. I was a little nervous about putting it up there, but I'm glad I did.

#2 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 02:58 PM:

This moose initially expanded RWA as Rght Wng sshls due to lack of context. Sheesh.

#3 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 03:38 PM:

I'm reminded of Orwell's essay "Inside the whale" (end of section 2):

Literature as we know it is an individual thing, demanding mental honesty and a minimum of censorship. And this is even truer of prose than of verse. It is probably not a coincidence that the best writers of the thirties have been poets. The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature. How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual. No decade in the past hundred and fifty years has been so barren of imaginative prose as the nineteen-thirties. There have been good poems, good sociological works, brilliant pamphlets, but practically no fiction of any value at all. From 1933 onwards the mental climate was increasingly against it. Anyone sensitive enough to be touched by the zeitgeist was also involved in politics. Not everyone, of course, was definitely in the political racket, but practically everyone was on its periphery and more or less mixed up in propaganda campaigns and squalid controversies. Communists and near-Communists had a disproportionately large influence in the literary reviews. It was a time of labels, slogans, and evasions. At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship ('Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?') was at work in nearly everyone's mind. It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened. Which brings me back to Henry Miller.

#4 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 03:52 PM:

It's a better world when people are willing to express their own beliefs on controversial topics and ideas, and in genera; to be honestly themselves. I'm willing to believe it makes you a better writer to do so. But I don't know whether it's an individually rational decision in general. That probably depends on your situation--who your readers / editors / peers are, where you are in your career, etc.

It's common enough all over the blogosphere, including here, to see people dismiss various writers and state (just as Scalzi points out he's seen in reference to his writing) that they'll never buy a book by such-and-so, because of his offensive political or social opinions. And then there are these occasional awful cases where people get hounded out of their jobs or mobbed online for offending the wrong set of assholes, and the justification for that kind of mobbing seems like it's almost always ideological.

The direction of the world right now seems like it's toward more and more concern with what will go onto your permanent record. That's a world with a lot less practical freedom for most people, especially younger people who don't know if they'll be able to get a job with some vaguely disturbing Twitter scandal showing up in their Google search, or embarrassingly naive political writings from when they were 22 showing up online when they're applying for job. I expect we'll get a worse world from that, but I'm not sure what's going to change it.

#5 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 04:16 PM:

The danger of being hounded by angry mobs is real, but given that one can be hounded by an angry mob for having an opinion on video game characters, I don't think that refraining from expressing political opinions on Twitter is going to do much to change the risks, there. It might be more helpful to refrain from becoming a writer: if fewer people know about you, fewer people can be angry at you.

Once you've decided to write, though, you've already given up that little percentage shift on safety. (Especially as people will inevitably read political statements out of literature, accurately or not. Supporting the status quo and not doing so are both political acts.) So you might as well express your opinions honestly.

#6 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 05:25 PM:

Albatross's concerns are well-founded, but I think Fade Manley has the correct answer. It's not that speaking one's mind is ever consequence-free; it's just that, for most writers in most circumstances, the damage done by trying to be somebody one is not outweighs any benefit likely to be derived from struggling for a "safety" that is fundamentally an illusion.

I'm not saying it isn't a dangerous and darkening world; only that courage makes better art than cringing.

#7 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 05:30 PM:

As for that Orwell quote in comment #3...I am a big fan of Orwell's essays and journalism; I've read the canonical four-volume collection multiple times, likewise all of his novels and several biographies. Long ago in another life, I edited a collection of critical writings about him. I find him tremendously readable; he's one of my favorite writers.

But Orwell was hardly free of vulgar prejudice, for instance in his habit of considering feminism a form of crankery on par with homeopathy and nudism. This is fully on display in this passage, in which he duly trots out the standard British view of Roman Catholics as all mind-slaves to the Pope*, to be contrasted with the brave free minds of Protestantism -- a view of European cultural history that collapses on the slightest examination, but which has persisted through generations of blimpish British pronouncements about liberties won in the Hard Island Race's struggle with alien popery. It's basically the British equivalent of bombastic Only-In-America exceptionalism ("Only in America could a child of such $LOWESTATE rise to such $HIGHPOSITION!" Well, actually, no, these things happen in lots of countries), and it correlates about as well to reality.

Orwell was brave and admirable in many ways, as a writer and as a person, but he was also a stiff-necked puritan with tremendous sensitivity to conformism and orthodoxy in others, and no insight whatsoever into these qualities in himself.

* Save for those who are "bad Catholics," a subject on which Orwell was a noted expert. Wait, actually, he totally wasn't.

#8 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 06:36 PM:

Lots of good stuff in that post, but I think my favorite bit is this one:

What these threateners, and apparently the author of this article, don’t understand is that the world is positively filled with people who will read my work despite of, because of, or independent of, my social and political thoughts.

Seriously. If public opprobrium per se had any noticeable effect on a writer's sales... well, let's just point out that Larry Correia and Orson Scott Card are both crying all the way to the bank. It's a big world out there, filled with all sorts of people and lots of different opinions.

#9 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 06:38 PM:

I'm in broad agreement here, I think. But I think it's important to note that there's a big difference between expressing strongly held beliefs, and belittling other peoples' strongly held beliefs.

I may not care for the opinions of, say, right-wing conservatives or religious fundamentalists. But I stand zero chance of getting them to reconsider their beliefs if I insult them or belittle them. (Besides which, it's rude.) So I can see an argument for some degree of self-censorship that springs not from timidity, but from a desire to state one's case more effectively.

(For example, this is also where I part company with Richard Dawkins. I share his attitude to belief, but I don't see anything productive about his manner of approaching dialog with believers.)

Where was I?

Oh, one other thing: if you don't try to hide your beliefs, then -- unless you're so far out of the mainstream you need a telescope to see everyone else -- for every reader who turns up their nose and says "I'm not buying any of their books ever again!" you'll find someone new who thinks, "If that author is pissing those folks off, they must have something interesting to say." So it's not really worth getting worked up about loud-mouthed nay-sayers, unless they start issuing death threats (at which point it's time to call the police).

#10 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 08:12 PM:

PNH #7:

I thought about the anti-Catholicism in the quote when I copied it, and considered quite seriously eliding that sentence with ellipses. (I think that if you make a few judicious omissions, the passage is saying, eloquently, something close to what you were saying: reread it omitting the three sentences between the words "anarchical of all forms of literature" and "No decade in the past", and see if you agree.) Maybe I should have elided it; it's a distraction from Orwell's main point, and of course offensive. But I somehow felt too keenly the irony of omitting an unpopular opinion (albeit a bigoted, offensive one) from that writer, from that quote, and in this context, was just a step too far. If I made the wrong call, I apologize.

#11 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 08:53 PM:

Sorry to intrude on the echo chamber, but this is another case of 'okay for me, not for thee'. If you're an established -- or in Scalzi's case, famous -- author, you can take risks and offend people. If you're a nobody trying to break into the industry, then offending people is another hurdle that you will have to overcome. Yes, you may be brilliant enough to jump that hurdle, but it's another weight holding you down. It's just not a good idea.

#12 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 09:27 PM:


Actually, I think you've got that backwards. If you're John Scalzi,* every reader that sees something about you mocking misogynists and thinks "that guy's on the wrong side, he's my enemy and I won't buy his books" is a loss. Every reader that sees the same thing and thinks "stick it to them!" has maybe-probably heard your name anyway.

If you're a "nobody," the equation is different: you offend someone and you've lost nothing. They'd never heard of you and were never going to buy your book anyway. You inspire somebody and maybe that's a sale.

I also suspect that the reality is that most people are in neither camp. Most people, on most issues, have some opinion one way or the other but it's not such a strongly-held opinion that they base their fiction-buying decisions on it. If you write something they disagree with, but you're sensible (whatever that means to this particular hypothetical reader) and they find an interesting idea or two in your post... You might pick up a reader that way.

*I think Scalzi is actually a terrible example for your purposes, Remus. He's writing in a subgenre that is probably majority-conservative and which certainly has vocally politicized elements on the right. He actually has a fair bit to lose from talking the way he does. The John Scalzi in the alternate universe where he quietly advocates a return to the golden age of 1955 might well sell even better than ours.

Furthermore, didn't Scalzi get famous for not keeping his mouth shut, even before he got published?

#13 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 10:03 PM:

There was a related post on Janet Reid's literary agent blog last week. It starts by sounding like she thinks her authors shouldn't say anything controversial, but looking more closely, she's saying that if the bulk of your online presence is about $ControversialTopic then it won't draw general readers. And I think that's fair. It's certainly true for me as a reader. The author blogs I enjoy most have a little of this and a little of that - some mix of writing process, pets, book reviews, recipes, news about work in progress or book release, links to cool news stories or other blogs, pet peeves, knitting, tidbits about research that went into the worldbuilding, and, yes, the occasional political rant.

It doesn't matter if I don't agree with the political rant unless (a) I think they're espousing something that's completely morally reprehensible, or (b) as Charlie mentions @9, they take a jerk attitude toward people who disagree with them, or (c) it gets to be that every time I go to their blog I'm going to be beat over the head about $issue. (a) is likely to make me stop buying their books. (b) might. (c) won't make me intentionally stop buying their books, but I'll probably stop reading their blog and therefore might miss their next release.

It's not that $issue might not deserve a dedicated blog. But that blog doesn't work well as an author's online presence unless $issue is author's main claim to fame.

#14 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 10:29 PM:

Remus Shepherd @11, you obviously don’t think insulting readers is a problem, because here you are calling us an “echo chamber”!

Getting back to the central issue— If you’re starting out as a writer (or any other creative career), your biggest obstacle, the one so large that it overwhelms all others, is obscurity. If you believe something passionately, and become widely known for that belief (a tweet or Facebook post goes viral, say), that’s going to attract an audience that you didn’t have before. It won’t be 100% of everybody, but there was never a chance that you were going to appeal to 100% of everybody anyway.

#15 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 10:30 PM:

Me, I have a policy of not reading anybody who doesn’t have a public opinion on the free coinage of silver.

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 10:44 PM:

Hi there, Remus. What's with this "Sorry to intrude on the echo chamber" thing? When was that ever a good way to start a conversation? And if you have to say it, shouldn't you at least wait until later in the thread, when it's theoretically possible for a virtual echo chamber to have formed, instead of launching the notion ten comments in, when it isn't?

I can only conclude that something's gotten up your nose. I hope it's nothing serious, and that you feel more cheerful soon.


Being an opinionated newbie doesn't matter the way you imagine it does. If your potential readers don't yet know who you are, they also don't care what you think, so you're off the hook. If they do become aware of you as an author, it'll be because they've enjoyed what your writing does for them.

It may be easier to see this if you rotate the transaction 180 degrees. Imagine you're a new author who's still fairly obscure. You desperately want your potential readers to care about your political and/or social opinions. That plus how many bucks is it going to take you to buy a cup of coffee?

Later, when readers do come to recognize your name and pick up your books, what they'll remember and care about is that you wrote stuff they enjoyed. It still won't be about your opinions. It'll be about what you can do for your readers.

So don't worry.

One last note. You can damage your relationship with your potential readers if you turn yourself into one of those bores who drag gun control or abortion into every online discussion ever. If so, the real problem won't be your supposedly controversial opinions; it's that you never lay those opinions aside to pay attention to your readers, which puts you in violation once more of the It's All About the Readers rule.

#17 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 10:57 PM:

Remus Shepherd:

Scalzi was "tak[ing] risks and offend[ing] people" by having opinions in public on the interwebs long before he was published, much less "established" and "famous" as an author. It seems to have worked for him, in spite of the fact that his first published novel, and his very popular series, appeals strongly to demographics that one might think would be antithetical to his personal political opinions.

#18 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 11:26 PM:

Halfway through my second year of seminary, which is where I disappeared to. As I read this post (and the linked article) I suddenly realize that one can substitute "ministry" and "minister" for "writing/fiction" and "writer/author" and both Patrick's and Scalzi's posts still ring true.

We talk a lot about authenticity, about finding one's authentic voice and serving from whatever place of conviction one happens to stand. (Maybe it's God, maybe it's Scripture, maybe it's Tradition, maybe it's a lot of things. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool heretic; finding my anchor has been tricky.) Sometimes risky, sometimes unpopular, but the alternatives are at best boring and ineffectual, and at worst repellant, hypocritical and damaging to the integrity of the world.

#19 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 11:27 PM:

A quick VAB scan shows that Remus has been an occasional commenter (very occasional; the average number of comments per year is 6) for about a decade, and has generally made constructive contributions to whatever topic was under discussion. I'm inclined to put this bad-smelling attempt down to an ill-considered choice of words.

#20 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2015, 11:28 PM:

I certainly agree with there being a distinction between expressing one's opinions honestly and doing so, well, continuously. There are authors I've unfollowed on Twitter because they spoke relentlessly about a specific topic, and whether that topic was political or not, it got to be...a bit much.

Except for when the topic was about their cats. I'm remarkably down with people talking constantly about their cats.

But in general, I am leery of advice that wants every publicly accessible expression of self to be tuned to some theoretical demographic. I may need to advertise as a writer (once I have something to advertise), but I am not myself an advertiser, or an ad, or, god help me, a brand. (Insert a 'turn and spit' image after that last one.) Moderating my social presence is just good social behavior, much as I don't talk relentlessly about fanfic during my Greek classes, or about current political hot buttons when visiting various relatives.

I wish I had a pithy way to sum this up, because I feel there's an important distinction to be made between adjusting what we say because of being socially adept--and sometimes recognizing moments when we ought to be socially inappropriate, because the matter is sufficiently important at that specific time and place--and adjusting what we say to be palatable to a theoretical politically touchy audience. But I am not very good at pithy tonight.

#21 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 12:44 AM:

Avram #15: LOL!

Lee #19, TNH #16: Oh good, I wasn't the only one who went for the VAB. I note that his previous comment, back in January 2014, seemed quite angry with Tor, but yeah, the rest are all intelligent and insightful.

In the course of investigating this, I also discovered that the link Moderation, community, and rules I’ve added since 2005, from the post Have online comment sections become ‘a joke’?, has gone "Woe, not found!".

#22 ::: Josh Berkus ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 01:24 AM:

Well, I have an opinion: Corning's PolarCoat(TM) kicks Chroma Corp's tuchas! Nobody will ever call Corning the "casserole dish" company again!

There, was that passionate enough? ;-)

#23 ::: Randolph ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 04:51 AM:

The risk, I think, is not so much to one's future publicity as to one's personal freedom of thought, in the global gossipy small town we are creating. Gossipy small towns are great places to plant the seeds of an individual vision, and often fatal to the maturing vision, which is probably why a lot of writers, historically, have moved to the big bad city.

The oversharing which commercial social media press on users, far beyond what the old internet co-ops did, combined with the routine acceptance of sometimes-criminal harassment level, is a serious problem for self-definition. The nail which sticks up is not only sometimes hammered down, but is sanded, bent, beaten,…

#24 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 06:28 AM:

David Harmon: thanks for the warning. I'll check to see what's up with that. I probably Did Something.

#25 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 07:20 AM:

Patrick @ 7: I just assumed he was complimenting Grahame Greene, agreed that Greene is indeed a great writer, and moved on.

#26 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 09:13 AM:

Devin @12: *I think Scalzi is ... writing in a subgenre that is probably majority-conservative and which certainly has vocally politicized elements on the right. He actually has a fair bit to lose from talking the way he does.

I also write in that genre and I disagree.

Even in the sub-genre segment most prone to ideological righty-rightness -- military SF -- there's a roughly 30% female audience and a fair number of non-right-wing readers who read it because they enjoy a kick-ass war story from time to time and stick their fingers in the ears during the unpleasantly preachy bits. Overall the consumer demographic for fiction skews female and tends to have a liberal arts education. While SF during the 1930-1960 period was dominated by some overtly right-wing ideologues -- the toxic influence of John W. Campbell springs to mind -- I certainly wouldn't say that being on the left of the US political mainstream has harmed the careers of, say, Kim Stanley Robinson, Eric Flint, or Ursula LeGuin. Nor did being considerably further to the left harm the UK SF careers of Ken Macleod or Iain M. Banks.

The paucity of prominent left-wing Mil-SF authors actually favours John, because he's writing for an under-served market.

#27 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 09:15 AM:

Avram @15: That's one way to cut back on the TBR pile.

#28 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 09:54 AM:

From where I sit (which is an important data point), I find that what makes me not want to read someone is not *opinions*, but tediously expressed opinions. Opinions on topics make people interesting. Well and entertainingly expressed opinions on topics make me think that person is a writer I want to read.

You can do all the social media you want, but if you are not interesting about something, it's so much wasted time.

#29 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 09:55 AM:

I think it's the kind of thing newbie writers stress out about, along with worrying about covers and marketing.

But I think there's a genuine fear that it's hard to say people aren't right to worry about, and I think it's different now from when Charlie and I were starting out. And I don't think it's primarily to do with protecting careers by being uncontroversial, which is clearly silly. But people are afraid.

It's the fear that the internet could fall on your head. And it could. We've seen it happen. And it's very traumatic when it does. I don't want to think how many writing hours get lost to that kind of thing. And it can come to death threats and people saying you deserve to have acid poured on you and their friends agreeing -- because you said something ill advised, or that you believe and they disagree with. And this can happen in your own space, or in a forum where you thought you had friends and people liked you. And it's all very well to say "be more thick skinned" or "not worth getting worked up about", but being thin skinned and not being able to ignore people calling you names and your supposed friends betraying you is ALSO where writing comes from

And that can happen to anyone, but it is more likely to happen to people with a bit of demi-fame, because "x said" isn't as exciting for people as "person-I-vaguely-heard-of-said".

(And as for "people who agree will buy your books" if you say something that can be construed as vaguely racist, it doesn't help to think racists will now buy your books! And they won't anyway.)

So I think Patrick and Scalzi are right as a response to that dumb advice. But I don't think this mostly comes from wanting to be the most acceptable kid, but from fear.

#30 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 10:02 AM:

I think Jack Campbell's military SF also qualifies as left-leaning although I'm not absolutely sure of the author's politics. (Who cares? He tuckerized me, not once, but twice, in his series' latest, along with tuckerizing the titular hero of Gilligan's Island.)

#31 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 10:31 AM:

Jo Walton @ 29... But I don't think this mostly comes from wanting to be the most acceptable kid, but from fear.

Life is like high-school, except that there's more people who can trash you.

#32 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 10:36 AM:

Jo Walton @ 29: There is absolutely a "fear of posting" that can accelerate into a genuine "internet phobia"--we probably need a good name for that, if no one has come up with one yet--and it's certainly both justified and probably akin to the kind of social phobia that has people going sweaty-palmed about talking in large groups. That's something that every thoughtful (and self-protective) person ever tempted to post on the internet in any forum, or to maintain a blog or a FaceBook page or whatever ought to think about before doing any such thing: what's the worst that could happen, and how would I deal with it?

Where the "don't post anything that might offend potential readers or publishers" advice loses me is that it seems to be a corollary of the advice to "post a blog for self-marketing purposes" bit. If that's a new writer's goal in blogging, then . . . maybe blogging isn't something that particular new writer should force himself or herself to do? Acknowledging that putting yourself out there is risky is one thing; assuming that the only reason you are doing it is for career-enhancement would seem to be a more fundamental error.

#33 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 11:50 AM:

Charlie Stross @26, there's a roughly 30% female audience and a fair number of non-right-wing readers who read it because they enjoy a kick-ass war story from time to time and stick their fingers in the ears during the unpleasantly preachy bits.

Yes. This describes me.

#34 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 12:01 PM:

Cassy B. (33): And me. Also, my eyes tend to glaze over during the lovingly detailed battle sequences. I very quickly lose track of exactly what ships are where doing what, retaining only a general impression of how the battle is going.

#35 ::: Michael Johnston ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 01:07 PM:

As a newbie, not-yet-published, writer, I confess I have decided on several occasions not to post blogs in which I held forth on controversial opinions.

Some of those, I probably should have just posted them. On balance, though, I stand by those decisions--not because I'm afraid of alienating readers (I haven't got any, really), but because, on further reflection, those posts weren't so much about stating an opinion, but about being a jackass because I was angry about someone, or sometimes because I'm crossing that line Charles Stross mentioned in #9 above. And THAT, I feel, would harm me much more than would, say, disagreeing with a reader, agent, or even an editor whose desk I may someday cross. PNH is a grown-up and, possibly more importantly, a professional; if I say something he disagrees with, even something he vehemently thinks is stupid, I'm pretty sure he's not going to note down my name and reject everything I ever send him because of that. I can't imagine other professionals I may deal with in future are much different.

#36 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 01:26 PM:

beth meacham @28 I find that what makes me not want to read someone is not *opinions*, but tediously expressed opinions.

Excellent point.

Rant with a unique voice and POV? I'm likely to read along, whether I agree or not. Whiny complaint? Okay occasionally from someone who posts a variety, especially if there's some self-awareness displayed. Nonstop whining and/or shouting? Is both annoying and boring, and I'm outta there.

#37 ::: Antonia T. Tiger ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 01:52 PM:

Military systems that work tend to share authoritarian aspects with the typical right-wing political and social movements. But there are variation in the detail. One of the historical details that inspired my stories was that the WW1 German Army, almost a by-word for authoritarianism, had far fewer commissioned officers than the British Army of the same war. Instead of a very junior officer commanding every platoon, by the end of the war most of the command and leadership at that level was done by NCOs.

It's not hard to point at some groups that have a lousy reputation for their reactions to opinions they dislike. They seem to think there can only be one true way of telling story, and I doubt I need to suggest a list. They harass those they disagree with, and may try to manipulate award ballots, or flood social media with threats and lies. And if they were to pick on me, because of the political views and actions of my characters, care I should?

I have seen some of the stuff that they think is so great, and it often isn't.

Good writing is, I suggest, a form of performance. Not everyone needs to use social media, just as not every actor needs to be on a stage. One might ask if social media has some of the same argument around its use as film soundtracks briefly had.

A book is far more than just the dialogue and brief stage directions that are left to us as Shakespeare, but a denial of social media is a denial of back-stage gossip and handbills and that chap with the handbell going Oyez! on the street.

#38 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 01:53 PM:

I will note here that I have recently joined my local library's book club. I am 100% of the male membership. To say fiction readership skews female seems to me an understatement.

#39 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 02:10 PM:

I enjoy "techno-thrillers." I'll confess to being a Tom Clancy reader. I didn't agree with many of his political stances, but I enjoyed the books.

Even better was that characters with a walk-on part in the early books could turn out to be a key plot element in later ones. In some cases, they became old friends. So each new book made me wonder who I'd see again this time.

I don't expect the authors I read to share my political point-of-view, but I do demand that their books engage and entertain me, or be subject to the book being flung across the room with the pronouncement of the Eight Deadly Words.

(I hasten to note that the latter has not happened with any of the authors I have encountered on Making Light.)

#40 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 06:14 PM:

Mary Frances #32: Being wary of a genuine hazard does not count as a phobia. And for women especially (as well as various minorities), the Internet does offer real dangers. (Q.v. Scalzi's article about the crap he doesn't have to deal with.)

#41 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 06:22 PM:

David Harmon @ 40: Being wary of a genuine hazard does not count as a phobia.

I agree completely, both with your point and Scalzi's. That's why I tried to differentiate between "fear of posting" and a possible "internet phobia," but I obviously didn't do it very well. My apologies for not being clearer.

#42 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 07:34 PM:

David H., #21: The VAB is a fairly reliable indicator for determining that someone is not a troll. It's less useful in the reverse, because sometimes people change e-mail addresses after they've been gone a while, and forget to note that the address has changed when they come back.

Jo, #29: I think that's a very good analysis.

#43 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 08:09 PM:

Lee #42: This is true, but no prior posts is at least a potential warning sign. Of course, around here even a troll is likely to get a chance to rehabilitate theirself¹, unless they're completely over the top. Even if Remus had been a first time poster, ISTM #11 only covers a single bingo square, and that wouldn't rate much more than getting called on it (as he was anyway).

The real red flag would be someone with prior trolling posts, and we have seen that in the past.

¹ Or "themself"? It would be "their self" or "them", I'm not sure which parallel applies.

#44 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 08:53 PM:

Mary Frances #41: OK, we're in, "athletic" agreement (can't really call it violent). And now I look back at my #40 it looks a bit mansplainy, for which I apologize.

It is a tricky question as to where realistic fear shades into phobia, especially when the potential danger is that unpredictable. There are other Internet-related hazards¹ with that same "dark lottery" quality, where mostly you get nothing, occasionally you get a bag of dog poop, but sometimes you get a bobcat, and there's always that slim chance of a bomb.

On the one hand, fear can certainly feed on itself and become overwhelming, but on the other hand, pathologizing someone's fears can be a tactic to delegitimize them (and perhaps bring down a victim's defenses). For that sort of power-law danger, I don't even know how to judge what level of fear is "sensible". Well, I'd tend to exclude both extremes, but I'm not even too sure about that.

¹ Privacy issues, viral infection, identity theft, unexpected celebrity, probably more.

#45 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 09:07 PM:

David Harmon @43: Go passive: a chance to be rehabilitated.

#46 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 09:13 PM:

I think the technical definition of a phobia has less to do with whether it's an "unreasonable" fear than whether it's an "unreasoning" fear.

Fear of heights is a reasonable fear if it moves one to be cautious in high places, making sure that one is securely supported, and so on. Because falling from a height is generally, you know, bad, and one wants to avoid it. Where a response shades into phobia is when the mere thought of heights is enough to set one to sweating, and one's heart to racing.

#47 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 09:54 PM:

Jacque (46): Drat, that means that my intense fear of bees is in fact a phobia. I've always insisted that I'm not phobic about bees, because it's a rational fear; I'm highly allergic** to bee-sting. But my reaction is unreasoning and visceral. Fortunately, I freeze rather than flailing wildly. Flailing would be... counterproductive.

*severe localized reaction, won't kill me unless it morphs into a systemic one, but it's No Fun At All

#48 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2015, 10:56 PM:

Mary Aileen #47: And yet, an "unreasoning" fear can also be "rational", because in the face of real danger, an automatic response can be faster and more reliable than thinking it through. That doesn't have to be deadly danger, either.

Indeed, often the "instinctive" response of fear is correct, even when people are telling you authoritatively that there's no problem. In your own case, I'd agree that freezing is actually a fairly good response, especially if you can follow it up with a retreat. And if I were to tell you "oh, it's just a bee, nothing to be afraid of", I'd be full of sh*t. But I'm thinking even more of abusive situations here -- not just relationship abuse¹, but also political and commercial exploitation².

(It's also worth noting the difference between fear and panic. As Jim has discussed in his emergency posts, panic is much less likely to yield a useful response.)

¹ There's a book The Gift of Fear, which apparently focuses on such cases in women's life experience.

² On the other hand, abusers and exploiters can play the other side of the coin, using fear to imprison or stampede their victims. Hey, I said I don't know how to calculate a balance here.

#49 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 12:28 AM:

Mary Aileen, #47: I still wouldn't classify it as a full-on phobia if it only happens when you're in the presence of a bee. The reaction may be strong and visceral, but it's also not by any means unwarranted.

I react much the same way to any kind of stingy-thingy, and with far less reason. AFAIK (because I've only ever been stung once) I don't have an allergic reaction, but I still freeze up and back away slowly, and if I'm in close quarters with it (say, if it flies thru an open window into the car with me, or if it buzzes around me) I have a very definite internal freakout. OTOH, this doesn't cause me to have any problems with, say, walking around in a park, where there may be flowering plants with bees -- in fact, if the bees are busy with the flowers, I can enjoy watching them from a safe distance.

#50 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 01:10 AM:

You can't meaningfully estimate the chances of the Internet falling on your head, for any given post. There's a noise-amplification(*) effect, where enough people yell at you to make you notable enough to draw the attention of yelling people. Or not.

This makes it hard to talk about what an "(un)reasonable fear" is.

I've been in this situation. I posted about GamerGate back in early September, when it was still news that people were receiving continuous waves of death threats. The "worst that could happen" was clearly very bad, with non-zero chances. But how much above zero? There was no way to think about it.

I could make some kind of *relative* statement, like "I am less likely to receive shit than a woman making the same post," or "I am less likely to receive shit than an employee of a high-profile gaming company." But this is guesswork, and doesn't give me a way to estimate a risk anyhow.

In the end, I went ahead and posted, and nothing happened(**). Thus I became a data point for the next person... but still in a vast sea of uncertainty.

(* This must be an engineering pun.)

(** I discovered that a couple of Internet acquaintances disagreed with me, and I lost respect for them, but that's not the risk we're talking about.)

#51 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 08:24 AM:


The Gift of Fear isn't restricted to cases involving women; the writer is a consultant who helps minor people (often minor celebrities, I think) protect themselves from crazy followers, stalkers, etc.

#52 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 08:26 AM:

ohnosecond: just people, not minor people. (Which sounds like he consults with children.)

#53 ::: Nickelby ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 08:33 AM:

Fumble flingers....

First link "whatever" is broken.

#54 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 09:00 AM:

albatross #51: Hmm. If you've read it (I obviously haven't), what do they have to say about this?

#55 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 10:53 AM:

David Harmon (48)/Lee (49): Thanks. It does only happen when actually in the presence of bees*. Retreating slowly mostly isn't an option, though; the freeze is too total for that. And the time a bee flew in through my open car window while I was driving was definitely suboptimal. I'm very lucky I didn't have an accident.

*and wasps, hornets, yellowjackets, etc.

#56 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 12:07 PM:

I feel like I need to come back and apologize for sniping. I shouldn't appear every six months or so just to whine about the majority opinion of the day. As busy as I am, I only check internet forums sporadically, so it's impossible to carry on deep conversations or become a known regular anywhere. But when I see the same argument in every fora I read, I feel the need to speak out on it. I chose this place to do so; I shouldn't have. Sorry.

Not apologizing for my opinion, as I haven't seen any convincing arguments against it. But I presented it rudely, and I apologize for that. Chalk this one up to Remus being bitter again.

#57 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 12:39 PM:

Mary Aileen #55: the time a bee flew in through my open car window while I was driving

Yikes! Ok, I'll grant that instinctive responses often aren't so appropriate to modern highly mechanized environments. It might even be worth a round of desensitization therapy (or some other tactic against the "freeze"), just for that situation and equivalents.

Remus: Thanks for the apology. As for the opinion... well, if between this thread and Scalzi's you "haven't seen any convincing arguments against it", then I doubt anything I could say would convince you either.

#58 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 03:45 PM:

David Harmon @ 54, I read the book relatively recently (but don't have it to hand, as I'm at work), and it seems to me that the biggest points are to listen to your instincts (rather than talking yourself into the "rational" explanation for behavior that puts you on alert) and completely disengage from your...well, I guess "attacker" works, as long as I acknowledge the attack can be either physical or psychological. That is, provide them NO feedback, no acknowledgement, beyond a a single, firmly stated, "Leave me alone." Don't enter into any kind of conversation/correspondence with them, do not respond to repeated attempts at contact, nothing. Keep track of their actions toward you, but don't respond in any way after the initial "Leave me alone." The idea being that every time you DO respond after saying you won't gives the attacker that much more expectation of a resolution in his/her favor.

If albatross has better details or more nuance, I'm happy to be corrected.

Overall, though, I'm not sure how this advice translates to the sorts of Internet dogpiles that include threats of violence by large numbers of people...

#59 ::: Victoria ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 06:05 PM:

Syd @ 58

And here I thought I was just being rude and anti-social when doing that in those situations. Too much early childhood training, especially for females, revolve around smiling, politeness, and good behavior.

#60 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 06:30 PM:

Avram 15: I'm entirely against the free coinage of silver. I don't read anyone who opposes the Third Amendment, myself.

David 43: 'They' is plural in form and takes plural grammar, even when used as an ungendered singular. I would say "themselves."

Lee 49: When I was four, I was stung 59 times by a swarm of yellowjackets. I've never been stung since, because I avoid anything with a stinger very carefully. I have an irrational (but IMO entirely understandable) fear reaction whenever they're near me, but thinking about them? Doesn't do a thing.

#61 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 06:48 PM:

Remus Shepherd @56: To be honest, I was more confused by your statement than anything else. I don't understand your position well enough to accurately argue against it!

Back in your first post, you said "this is another case of 'okay for me, not for thee'." The bit you had in quotes I usually see deployed to accuse someone of hypocrisy--advocating that other people conform to a rule they themselves aren't bound by--which is the exact opposite of Scalzi's premise: that everyone else ought to feel free to comport themselves in the same way he does.

If your argument is that it's very dangerous to express political opinions before being published, I'm afraid I'm just not seeing any evidence for it. John Ringo and China Mieville have radically different politics, and are both published within the SFF genre. Hillary Clinton and Rush Limbaugh are both published because of their political stances. So it really doesn't seem like there's any grand conspiracy on either end to keep people from being published because of their political statements, though certainly some types may make a person less likely to be published by certain venues.

So...what is it that you're trying to convince us of? What's the evidence you're pointing out at that we're failing to refute? I mean this quite sincerely: I would be happy to debate the topic with you, but I don't know what your stance is, on more than a very broad and slightly confusing basis.

#62 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 09:38 PM:

Fade @61: If I believe that unpopular opinions hurt my career, then I shouldn't be stating them here. But you asked nicely and I need to prove (once a year, it seems) that I'm not just a troll.

I'm not accusing anyone of hypocrisy. I'm just saying that the rules are different for people inside the industry and those attempting to break in. Scalzi and everyone here are professionals who are worried about readers. You're right in that you will not scare off enough readers to harm your career, and making noise might help it.

But new authors are worried about the gatekeepers. Offensive opinions will scare off agents and acquisition editors, all of whom are judging you by one measure -- whether or not they can sell your work. Maybe your writing is brilliant enough that they'll take the chance, but it is an additional hurdle that you must overcome. And therefore I believe it is good advice for unsigned authors who wish to make it in traditional publishing to avoid controversial topics. Save them for after you have a contract.

The biggest problem for professionals is obscurity. The biggest problem for newcomers is the need to get past the gatekeepers. Once you do that, then the rules change. It frustrates me that very few professionals recognize that simple fact of the universe. Sorry if my frustration bubbled out.

#63 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 10:07 PM:

Thank you for coming back and clarifying! I don't think you were trolling, and I appreciate the detailed response.

I think it's worth noting that several people who post here aren't just professionals in the industry, but the "gatekeepers" in question. So I'm inclined to take their statements as a better assessment of how this works than any speculation of my own.

When I read blogs by agents, they talk about the queries they like, the books they like, and how to get their attention by sending them a good story. I don't see them talking about googling potential clients to double-check their political stances before accepting them as clients; the closest it comes is when someone is wildly aggressive in some manner. And editors seem to use about the same methods.

So it seems to me that controversial opinions, expressed in public, in a normal manner, just aren't much of a drawback for any of those gatekeepers. And if these people did care that much, I don't see why they would all pretend it was otherwise, and conceal these secret criteria or lie about it. What's the benefit to them in that? If they want to take on authors with controversial opinions, but only if those authors never voiced any such things online before being published, wouldn't it be to their benefit to warn authors about this extra criterion, rather than claiming it isn't one?

I am honestly trying to think of exceptions, and I'm not seeing a lot. Avowed communists and libertarians get published, and so do misogynists and radical feminists. Some of these people get published on those platforms as part of their draw. I can see gatekeepers being dubious about a potential client based on that person being exceedingly hostile with any given opinion (though that sure hasn't stopped some people from being published either), but not a lot of blanket condemnation based on just having a view that's controversial. Especially given that the most innocuous possible opinion--I like cats! the world is round! women should be allowed to vote!--will be controversial somewhere, to someone.

If you feel more comfortable not expressing political views online, it's entirely your right to just not do so. But I do think that advising people in general to be wary of it because of gatekeepers is spreading additional anxiety where it doesn't need to exist.

#64 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 10:49 PM:

Syd #58: So, a sampling of the strategies we've generally supported here. But yes, it clearly applies to individual known attackers, not anonymous mobs.

Xopher Halftongue #60: Hmm. Rings a bit oddly for me, primarily because "a troll" had already established the referent as singular. (And that sentence shows why natural-language interpretation is AI-complete. ;) )

#65 ::: Krinn DNZ ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2015, 10:53 PM:

Fade@63: Without casting the slightest shade on our hosts' character and skill as editors—from outside a gatekeeping system, it seems to me, situations more or less always look like the gatekeepers are applying additional criteria beyond the professed ones. It's tenuously-at-best related to whether or not such additional criteria are being applied, but it's the default appearance. An institution would have to work very hard indeed, most often harder than is worth it, to really establish that the stated criteria are in fact the only ones being applied. On the other side of the wall, the gatekeepers in turn always see themselves as fairly and scrupulously applying the stated criteria for admission without letting additional criteria ooze in. This is again not very closely related to whether or not additional criteria are actually being applied, because it's the default.

So the behavior you observe in agents and editors doesn't seem to me to be very relevant, because it's that same default behavior, it's independent. As well, I think historical examples suggest that more often than some kind of moustache-twirling, conspiratorial agenda for applying additional criteria, gatekeepers are instead applying criteria that they are not fully aware of applying. My favorite recent example was someone noting that companies in my field rely quite heavily on employee referrals for introductions to potential new hires—but the existing body of professionals skews heavily white, and those people's social and professional networks in turn are *overwhelmingly* white. I'm sure you see how that can lead to problematic hiring practices without requiring anyone in the gatekeeping business to be conscious of racism. There's also the example of blind concert auditions, by now well established.

I'm going to again note that I think our hosts and their pals in the publishing business are people of extraordinary character. But simply because the default is for people in the gatekeeping business to not be very good at seeing whether they are applying additional criteria, I'd say that someone who's Out and trying to get In, like Remus, is actually very well-advised to apply some healthy skepticism to whether or not the stated criteria are the only ones being applied. It may very well be the case that they are, but to assume so, especially if you are a person who has been burned by assuming so in the past, is foolhardy.

Also: Remus! Been forever! :D Drop me a line, yeah? 🐯💋

#66 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 12:10 AM:

Victoria @ 59, that's exactly the reason Gavin DeBecker recommends it: stalkers and abusers of all sorts see any engagement as a win, and as a doorway through which they can achieve their goals in the situation, and lots of people (definitely including most women I know) were raised to be polite, and ignoring people is EVER SO RUDE ***rolls eyes***. In these cases, it doesn't pay off for the one "doing" the politeness.

David Harmon @, yeah. I really don't know if there's any way to translate applicability from solo troublemaker (or worse) to grouphate.

#67 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 12:46 AM:

KrinnDNZ @65: Doesn't it kind of depend on why the gatekeepers are keeping the gate? If on some level, even unconsciously, they feel that "people who believe such things don't deserve to be published and I don't want to work with them!" then maybe . . . but it seems to me that the way most editors and agents perceive the gate is: "Hey, this is a good book that I think will sell and make me and my employer lots and lots of money! And maybe win some awards, and possibly increase the sum of human wisdom as we know it! Or something!" So unless they genuinely, consciously believe that an author won't sell due to "controversial" (quotation marks because that's such an unknowable concept) opinions expressed online, why would they care? And if they aren't aware that they care, why would they bother to look up the online reputations of the authors they are considering publishing?

Our hosts and others have pretty flatly said over the years that what they look for in a submitted manuscript is a solid, readable story. Once that criterion is met, unless the author is a personal friend or acquaintance, they'd have to go out and find out more about the author if his/her public opinions matter--and that would take deliberate action on their part. Add in the fact that I know editors who publish authors that they flatly disagree with on several social and political issues, and, well. It does seem that the advice in the original article was built on a view of the publishing industry that isn't quite justified by what actually happens in that particular industry.

#68 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 01:05 AM:

Mary Aileen, #55: Yikes! At least I wasn't driving when it happened to me. That could have been... very bad.

But you can think about bees, when you're not in the presence of them, without freaking out, right? So I still wouldn't call that a full-blown phobia. We're just both a little hypersensitive on that topic.

My partner gets annoyed with me when I freak out about the mud dauber wasps in our yard (and, once or twice, in the house). He says they're "not wasps". I say I don't care, they LOOK like wasps! He says they're non-aggressive. I say I don't want to find out the hard way. We go around and around about this.

Victoria, #59: Exactly. Women are socialized to ignore that inner sense that something might be Not Right in favor of being polite, helpful, and "ladylike", and a lot of them end up damaged or dead as a result.

#69 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 03:47 AM:

Remus Shepherd @62, John Scalzi was tackling controversial political topics on his blog well before selling Old Man’s War to Tor. (That blog post is from March 2002; he sold the book in December of that same year.)

#70 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 08:57 AM:

Victoria #59, Lee #68, probably etc.: Yup, that socialization falls squarely under "disarming the intended victim" -- both on the societal level, and for individual abusers.

#71 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 10:31 AM:

Captain Awkward, who runs my favourite online advice column, says one thing very frequently, and it is this: if you are having to deal with someone who is causing a problem (whether through actual malice or simply underdeveloped social skills), then taking steps to resolve the problem is not making things weird, because the other person has already made them weird. This is an extremely useful thing to remember for people - like me - who really aren't keen on confrontation and prefer to use it only as a last resort.

#72 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 11:06 AM:

They might not be aggressive, and some of them build teeny mud vases that are seriously cute, but - I won't get any closer than I have to, and please not in the house.
(I still remember picking tomatoes and discovering a cicada-killer resting on the vine. I moved to the next plant. That's a B-52 wasp.)

#73 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 12:01 PM:

Avram @69, Scalzi already had over 10,000 readers by the time he was picked up by Tor. That's enough to qualify as famous, certainly for the internet at that time, and it enticed an acquisition editor to take a chance on him.

And frankly, I've never seen Scalzi take an offensive stance on anything. That often-linked essay of his is dead-center politically -- the stance he takes in it is "I hate politics of all kinds". At worst he can be called an inoffensive cynic. Scalzi is a teddy bear. This discussion is about people with real fringe opinions.

Mary Frances @67: I don't believe that editors research authors. (Agents might.) But if the offensive opinions are in the book they're considering, they don't need to do research.

Krinn @65: You know that I have no way of reaching you, right? We need to exchange contact info. If you get in touch, I'll respond.

#74 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 12:03 PM:

The fear that you're going to be unfairly treated in an opaque, judgmental process is a real, totally understandable fear. Even when the opacity is necessary, even when judgment is genuinely the only tool for the job, it's still painful and worrying.

But that makes it even more cruel to be alarmist: to speculate about more things to be afraid of, or to inflate perfectly understandable anxieties beyond their native scale and scope.

So when someone (among multiple someones) who is in the know steps in and says, "This fear here? Not actually an issue with the way we do things," I'd suggest taking it as useful input.

Just my two cents' worth, of course.

#75 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 12:06 PM:

Remus Shepherd, Krinn:

If you both email my username at this domain, I will take your emails as consent and put you two in touch without any contact information appearing in public.

#76 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 01:58 PM:

Lee (68)/P J Evans (72): My previous apartments (two in the same building, in succession) did occasionally get wasps inside. AIEEEEE! I usually managed to open a screen-less window and wait for the wasp to go out; the time the wasp was *resting on* said window was beyond nerve wracking. Sometimes I would overwhelm the thing with flying-bug spray then, when it fell down twitching, bludgeon it to death with a flyswatter. Death to wasps!

I have no idea what kind of wasps they were, nor did I care.

#77 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 02:34 PM:

P J Evans: I looked up "Cicada killer wasps" and got a page that told me that the male wasps were stingless and harmless, and went on to say that "That can be easy to forget when staring down a big wasp."

Indeed, I imagine it can.

#78 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 02:58 PM:

Remus Shepherd @ 73: II don't believe that editors research authors. (Agents might.) But if the offensive opinions are in the book they're considering, they don't need to do research.

If the offensive feelings are in the manuscript that the editors are considering, then that--has nothing to do with an online presence, does it? And that is the topic under discussion . . . ? You kind of lost me, there, I'm afraid.

#79 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 04:10 PM:

Mary @78: It's just an edge case. I agree with you that if an editor doesn't know about your fringe opinions then there can be no issue. They will know if it's in the manuscript, if they stumbled across you elsewhere, or if they research authors before offering them contracts.

#80 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 04:31 PM:

Remus Shepherd @ 78: Okay. I submit that "if it's in the manuscript," that's a totally different situation. Of course an editor might not buy a manuscript he/she found offensive, even if it was well-written and he/she thought it would sell--though I do think that it's appropriate to stress "might not," even in those circumstances. I suspect that the editor's reaction to the polarizing opinions in the manuscript might lead to said editor believing that the resultant book wouldn't sell, or might sell better if purchased by a different editor, possibly even one working for a different publisher. He/She might be wrong about that, of course, and yes, it could be an unconscious reaction. That's partly why editing is also an art, I think.

Anyway. The original advice wasn't, "try to keep controversial subjects out of your books," but "don't talk about controversial subjects online, or publicly." It seems to me that Patrick's Corollary to Scalzi's Dissent was something like: if you try to avoid acknowledging your personal beliefs out of fear that the reaction will mean you don't sell books, then odds are that you will also write a book with no conviction, a namby-pamby book that isn't about real people . . . because your main focus will have become Not Giving Offense, rather than on writing a story you believe in. And that if a writer does that, in the end the result will be a bad book, one that is far less likely to sell (to an editor, or to readers) than one informed by your personal beliefs, however visible they may be in the story.

I'd agree, myself. (And Patrick, if I'm putting words in your mouth, if you were only discussing online posting, I apologize. Profoundly. In either case, what you have to say about writing and "polarizing" opinions makes sense to me.)

#81 ::: Krinn DNZ ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 05:53 PM:

Abi @ 75: Much obliged, I think I'll take you up on that. And I agree with your #74, I think I went a little long & academic in replying to Fade Manley.

#82 ::: Krinn DNZ ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 05:59 PM:

Remus @ 73: Still on Taps as Krinn, also quite easy to grab my attention on Twitter, where I am @krinndnz. :)

#83 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 06:25 PM:

Remus et al: of course there are unannounced agendas that influence editorial selection processes! But they're not secret or even totally opaque -- they're just not well-publicized, because everyone in the industry understands and takes them as a given.

That's because the additional "hidden" agenda mostly boils down to two extra constraints above and beyond "is this a good work of genre fiction?" ...

1. Is this work going to be commercially viable?

2. Is the author going to be a pain in the arse to work with?

Trade fiction publishers can only keep on publishing trade fiction if they occasionally turn a profit, and taking on books that are obviously not going to turn a profit is a good way to go bust, hence item (1). And as for item (2) ... there are plenty of good solid works of fiction out there that meet the criteria of commercial success and are not written by lunatics, cranks, and people who need to bathe more often (and are thus not going to do a good job of impressing the public when you roll them out at author events). So why buy a rod to beat your own back when you can buy something a little less painful?

This stuff shouldn't be rocket science. It's not even specific to the writing business; it's just general good business sense. Also, one editor's definition of "commercially viable" and "difficult to work with" may differ from another's. Nor do either of these filters speak to "editor agrees with all of author's pet peeves". Most editors are quite capable of publishing stuff by authors whose views they strongly disagree with, if the work is commercially viable and the author is someone who they can do business with. How they apply is basically down to personal chemistry, not some kind of vast, industry-spanning conspiracy to define who to do business with and who to blackball.

But it does, nevertheless, constitute an additional set of frequently confusing filters on who gets published.

#84 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 07:09 PM:

Charlie, #83: Furthermore, I submit that it is perfectly possible to write a blog absolutely full of "controversial opinions" and still be a person who is clean, polite, and easy to work with. We should remember also that one person's "controversial" is another's "well, DUH".

#85 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 07:35 PM:

There's something here, back in the assumptions of the original publication, that I'm not sure has been addressed. Sometimes you can talk to someone and suggest things that, due to your relationship and their specific situation, is good advice or at least fair comment. However, if you then publish it as general guidelines out of it's original context, it turns out to be not so good.

As an example, I've tutored teenage school children in maths, and sometimes I've overheard them making plans for the weekend that seemed unwise to me. Suggesting to teenage girls that, given that they were likely to go drinking no matter what I say, they let someone know where they were going and what time they should be back, and to stay in groups, preferably with a non-drinker they trust, and illustrating the conversation with stories from both my own experiences and from people I know personally is, I hope, good practice. Putting the same thoughts into the comment thread of a sexual assault story in a newspaper is at the very least crass and unfeeling, and probably will reinforce stereotypical victim blaming.

Similarly, if someone (perhaps a romance writer) asks you for advice about posting about hot button topics on their website then suggestions about cooling it down, allowing room for people who disagree etc. is not inherently bad. Telling everyone to stay neutral on everything is not so good.

#86 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 08:30 PM:

Charlie @83: I think we're in complete agreement. Having offensive opinions will impact both #1 and #2 on your list and are weighed by editors when they decide whether to publish an author's work. It's not a deciding factor but it is a factor, and an author is well-advised to avoid airing fringe opinions in public.

This isn't a conspiracy -- I didn't see anyone assert that it was. It's just common sense about how human beings work with each other.

#87 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 11:37 PM:

Lee 68 etc: one of the stranger pleasures of last summer was watching paper wasps (?) build a nest; I was close-up but safe because they were building against the outside of the window of the shed our archery gear lived in. The nest didn't reach the ~basketball size I remember from Maryland (this was in Massachusetts) but watching them steadily lay down lines of chewed cellulose was \very/ impressive.

#88 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2015, 11:57 PM:

Remus: I'm decidedly confused. You say Scalzi's political views are positively mainstream - and I don't entirely disagree - and yet he has his own pet hate cabal. He's QUOTED people saying they will never read his books again for the things he says. His post attacking every single political stance might put his own politics in the middle-of-the-road, but it also actively insults virtually everyone who actually does tend to a side, which is not exactly safe and neutral. That he was posting his political opinions openly and actively before he was published was half the reason he GOT readers, yet you cite the existence of those readers prior to his publication as evidence he was safe to air his political views in a way a newbie would not be.

My impression is that you're determined to prove your thesis if you have to twist into a corkscrew to do it.

Thing is, one person's mainstream is another's fringe opinion (See any debate on inclusiveness or diversity, or the debate about the use of rape as tool for realism or as overtired trope or as titillation), so any political stance can count as fringe. Look back at the kerfuffle over Elizabeth Moon, which cost her at least one major promotional spot as guest of honour at a convention, for espousing an opinion a sadly high number of people consider mainstream. It ALSO hasn't evidently hurt her sales much, or her reputation as an excellent and even feminist author. As someone remarked above, every time someone says something that upsets or loses one reader, chances are, unless the opinion is *Truly* extremely "advocates death camps" level of fringe) someone else will be drawn in by the same.


I want to work with people who want to work with me for multiple books if possible, and anyone who would reject a book of mine because of the explicit political views of the characters (and the implicit ones of the author) wouldn't want that relationship with me anyhow.

#89 ::: Remus Shepherd ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2015, 12:05 PM:

Lenora @88: I'm sorry if I'm not being clear enough for you. The essential point is that I don't think readers are important to this discussion. Offensive opinions matter because they give gatekeepers -- agents and editors -- reason to avoid you. If you lose the gatekeepers then your traditional publishing career is over, no matter how many readers you might have.

Of course, having lots of readers works in your favor when the gatekeepers make their decision. Which brings us around again to Scalzi.

Scalzi may have gotten some fringe readers' hate, but his views are really very moderate, and the gatekeepers recognize that. I cited the existence of his readership as an incentive for gatekeepers to publish him even if his views were mildly offensive. A publisher might see him with a minor flaw for being a loudmouth, but a big upside for bringing his own readership.

You would have to be truly vile to drive away enough readers to impact your career. I don't think that's ever happened. But being just a little offensive might harm your status with the gatekeepers, and that ends your career quickly. And for someone new who does not yet have a readership, being just a little outside of the mainstream can scare a publisher away quickly.

#90 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2015, 01:19 PM:

The thing is, Remus, there are at least three "gatekeepers" in this conversation, and they have all said, explicitly and clearly, that this is not a thing that matters to them.

As it happens, I do hang out in communities where a subset of people use the term "gatekeepers" a lot. It's often a tribal marker for a particular sub-community of self-publishers. Unfortunately, many of the things that the tribe says about the industry aren't really accurate reflections of how people in publishing describe their own work. (This is an understatement, because I don't really want to drag those wars here.)

I don't know if the other places you hang out are populated by that particular tribe, but your vocabulary makes me wonder. And I say this unironically—I promise—but the term I would use about that tribe is "echo chamber".

I wish you'd consider this thread as new information to be pondered, rather than something that has to be refuted.

#91 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 12:53 AM:

David 64: Rings a bit oddly for me, primarily because "a troll" had already established the referent as singular.

Yes, but you wouldn't say "they is," would you? 'They' takes* a plural verb even when used as a singular. To me it's the internal number disagreement of 'themself' that clunks unpleasantly on my ear. *shrug*

*Casual readers may think I just contradicted myself. Sense, reference, use, mention, etc.

#92 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 01:40 AM:

Remus: I think what it comes down to though is, unless the fringe opinions you have are, as I said, along the extreme lines of "Maybe the {Godwin's law referent} were right about how to deal with THAT kind", then you're not likely to need to worry about all the gatekeepers. The individual gatekeepers who *might* reject your work for, say, posting publicly about the pro-transgender movement and causes are few and far between and probably not people you'd want that kind of work relationship with, and you'd go on to find another gatekeeper who wasn't bothered.

So, ultimately, by the time you're talking about politically extreme views strong enough to make a significant percentage of gatekeepers hesitate to touch you, you are well past the realm of the original thesis, which was ONLY "Don't display any political opinions on the internet".

#93 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 01:45 AM:

(Okay, it says any *polarizing*. But most of the most obvious polarizing opinions have two really vocal sides that are both sufficiently common as to be called mainstream for enough of the population to make a writer's fan base: things like abortion, vaccination, homeopathy, feminism, LGBTTQIA rights, climate change....)

#94 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 04:14 AM:

Isn’t that exactly what the word “polarizing” means in this context? An issue that pushes people to one of two opposed extremes?

#95 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 06:59 AM:

Xopher @91: ah, yes. I use neutral pronouns and have that problem. "They" works for me just fine until I run into "themselves/themself", and neither seems satisfactory. It seems rather unfair that people should have trouble with reflexive verbs if they want to discuss me in the third person!

#96 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 09:26 AM:

Avram #94: Isn’t that exactly what the word “polarizing” means in this context? An issue that pushes people to one of two opposed extremes?

Indeed -- but of course, the "toilet-paper rule" means that any issue can be polarizing.¹

Remus's overt position here (strawman alert) seems to be that all such issues are religious wars, and any "gatekeeper" who's not waving the right flag should be presumed hostile.

But you know, I don't think that's actually where he's at. I think Abi's called it, and Remus is instead assuming that the "gatekeepers" are "dragons at the gate", trying to keep out anyone who doesn't meet their exacting and esoteric standards.

Except... everything I've seen of them makes them look like the opposite. They are Sherpas trying to guide people up the mountain, but they can't do much for climbers who won't listen to them.

¹ In another forum, my grammatical discussion with Xopher could have taken over the thread and gone to brickbats and Molotov cocktails by now. That it's not, is just one reason I like this place.

#97 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 09:41 AM:

Xopher Halftongue #91: On the flipside, as I originally noted back in #43,"theirself" (which is what I "naturally" used), can parse as a contraction of "their self", which passes number consistency on purely grammatical grounds (a single self attached to "them"). It's the semantics that suggest a number conflict, but does that properly count? (So to speak. ;-))

#98 ::: tnv ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 10:27 AM:

I've read the thread, and I don't quite see someone address my question.

On the one hand, people who are well-versed in the publishing industry insist that authors' political stances do NOT matter for being published. And I believe them.

On the other, I have heard that many writers of color and/or who write about protagonists of color have a harder time getting published. And since they have the experience, I should believe them too.

Since being open about being a writer of color is a political statement (say, Marisol Hernandez has the option of publishing as Mary Ann Hardy, writing about blonde characters, and not including an author photo, but chooses not to), how do I reconcile these two positions?

#99 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 11:36 AM:

tnv, #98: I'm neither an editor nor a publisher, but from where I sit this sounds as though you've conflated "unwelcome political statement" with "institutionalized racism", which is not the same thing. And since you've used a female author in your example, you're also dealing with institutionalized sexism -- women find it harder than men to be published.

Institutionalized racism is a result of unconscious bias; it's one of the things that arises from white privilege. Minorities get overlooked because they've always been overlooked, and it takes serious conscious effort not to continue the process. Perhaps a better explanation by analogy is the "15% phenomenon" -- studies have demonstrated that in a mixed-gender classroom environment, if women contribute more than 15% of the class discussion, they are perceived as "dominating the conversation". Similarly, in Hollywood there's a widespread perception that if you make a movie about black people or with a black lead character, only black people will go to see it.

Representing this sort of thing as being about political positions is a serious mischaracterization of the issue.

#100 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 12:45 PM:

tnv @ 98: What Lee said. It also seems to me that you are conflating editors' and publishers' reactions to "what authors say, as personal opinion" and "what authors write into their books." I think that part of Patrick's point in the OP, and the point of Scalzi's post, was that the former really doesn't matter to "gatekeepers." I'd add that the latter only really matters if the gatekeepers believe that the opinions expressed in the book will prevent the book from selling, or make them (as editors, usually, I imagine) unable to work with the author in question (that is, as Charlie Stross put it above, in a slightly different context, make the editors believe that the specific author will be difficult to work with).

Institutionalized, often unconscious attitudes may play into the latter, as Lee said; we are all human, on all sides of this equation, and we've all got our issues, acknowledged and otherwise. But "can I work this author?" and "can I sell this book?" are probably the more important "gatekeeping" questions that editors and publishers ask themselves, so to speak. And--speaking of being human--editors and publishers could be wrong in their judgement of a specific work selling, or even a specific author being difficult. I'd bet there's not an editor or publisher out there who doesn't have some (possibly secret) regret, regarding a work he/she did or didn't buy, in the "what was I thinking?" category of regrets . . . as I said before, it's an art, not a science. For an author to try to stifle his or her personal opinions, actually in the work or out of it, would seem to be at best a waste of time (because who knows how readers or editors will react?) and at worst self-defeating (because constantly focusing on selling and reputation would seem to create poorer books). In my opinion, at least.

#101 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 08:02 PM:

It just occurred to me that anybody who thinks having outlandish beliefs is an obstacle to getting published in science fiction has probably never heard of Richard Shaver.

#102 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 14, 2015, 09:14 PM:

Avram @ 101: Shaver flourished 70 years ago, and was published by a single editor who was already dumbing down his 2nd-tier pulp magazine; Palmer dumped Shaver as soon as the stories started losing popularity. The members of RWA are probably hoping to be published in somewhat more respectable (e.g., larger) markets -- not to mention markets that actually pay. (Shaver would probably crawl under a bed and hide if he saw some of what shows up on the web, where one crank with a little money for server fees can showcase many others.)
      Your example is also weak in that Shaver put his bizarre opinions right into the work he sold, where the advice Scalzi et al condemn is to muffle opinions outside one's work.

I can't argue with Scalzi's thesis, even if I read and enjoy some work that seems to me to come out of craft rather than care. (I won't point fingers, because I'm aware that I still miss a lot in what I read.) But I'm remembering a recent Arisia panel in which a number of people (IIRC including someone I've seen in ML) argued vigorously that one should weigh (or at least be aware of) an author's non-fiction positions when deciding what to read, and wondering what an editor from outside our notoriously opinionated field would make of the argument.

I would also note that Patrick has made clear (in his response to the description on Stross's blog of how a publisher decides to buy a book) that he is working for an unusual publisher. (Charlie had noted editors reporting to marketing managers rather than more-senior editors.) I appreciate this -- I give Tor books a second look even if the story seems at first uninteresting, because I know \somebody/ was passionate about the contents as story rather than as marketing potential -- but I wonder how general this is, in times when it seems that almost anything will provoke some group to demand a boycott.

#103 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 12:56 AM:

Mongoose 95: You know, the more I think about it the more I like 'themself' for a singular, despite what I said earlier. It makes it clear that one person is being referred to.

The thing is, the use of singular 'they' to refer to a specific, known person is brand new. It's going to sound a bit awkward at first, especially at the seldom-used corners like reflexives. "Mongoose educated themself about these issues" sounds awkward, but so did 'Ms' when it first appeared. We'll get used to it.

May I give an opinion, despite being a cis man? I think what the trans community, especially people like yourself who use neutral pronouns, has done for the rest of us, especially progressives, is wonderful: made us conscious of how gender is even more important to us than we realize. It's the one thing the language virtually forces us to repeat about someone over and over whenever we talk about them. I would speculate that this is one of the reasons Mrs. (not Ms.!) Grundy denounces the singular 'they'; it keeps the Grundies from lining up their bigotry prior to meeting someone.

[My opinion of the ideal result deleted here. It's not for me, as a cis man, to give opinions on how trans people should conduct their lives or movement, and I tried to write without sounding like that was what I was doing, and it just didn't write. So I'll STFU instead.]

David 97: Well, OK, but do you say "hisself" to go with "theirself"? In my dialect the reflexive is formed with the objective (not possessive) of the pronoun in the third person (though the opposite is true in the first and second): himself, herself, itself, themselves.

If your dialect uses poss+self in all persons, I'm not here to judge, and 'theirself' (with the sense you describe) would be consistent with 'hisself'. (Side note: as far as I'm aware, the dialects that do that do NOT use 'itsself', but that may just be an artifact of teachers enforcing dominant-dialect norms.)

#104 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 08:18 AM:

Xopher #103: "hisself" sounds not only wrong-dialect to me, but oddly out of place -- as if there is some case where I might actually use it (perhaps for effect), but it's not "he fooed hisself", and I can't think offhand what the "natural" use would be.

And yeah -- language is much of the infrastructure for our minds. I'd say that fixing it up to allow for non-binary gender is parallel to installing ramps and such in streets and buildings (another innovation that still draws occasional fire from defenders of the status quo).

#105 ::: Eric K ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 10:20 AM:

It's really interesting how pronouns shift over time. Most famously, many European languages do strange things with person and number when speaking to somebody politely:

  • English (historic): thou → you (plural)
  • French: tu → vous (plural)
  • German: du → Sie (third person)
  • Spanish (Mexico, etc): tu → usted (third person, special pronoun)
  • Italian: tu → Lei (third person)

(I hope I got all those correct. I've studied all the above to some degree, but I only arguably speak the first two.)

But there are other examples. For example, casual spoken French rarely uses the subject pronoun nous "we". Instead, most people use on "one", with a third-person singular verb. E.g., "We are going to eat [our pizza]" becomes "One is going to eat [?our pizza]." And in English, we of course have the royal "we", and various fascinating developments with singular "y'all" and plural "all y'all" in various dialects.

In other words, people twist person and number around in all sorts of strange ways to meet their linguistic needs, and doing so is perfectly ordinary.

Right now, in English, we need several things:

  1. A gender-neutral pronoun for speaking of an indefinite individual: "If a student wishes to drop a course, they must speak to their dean."
  2. A gender-neutral pronoun for speaking of a definite individual of unknown gender: "I also want to thank Panorama17 for their contributions to this thread."
  3. A gender-neutral pronoun for speaking of a definite individual who prefers not to be identified as "he" or "she": "Alex is taking their car down to garage this afternoon."

In English, (1) has a long history, and it's becoming the preferred form. (2) is pretty common online. As for (3), we've seen several approaches, including novel pronouns and singular, definite "they". There's also a case (4), an indefinite individual of known gender, for which singular they is used surprisingly often.

Personally, I think those of us who like singular "they" should just go for it. English speakers have already replaced the singular thou with the plural you, after all. (And now I'm wondering about the origin of singular yourself—this would be an excellent precedent for themself.) It fills very real needs, and it's probably the most euphonious solution within easy reach.

#106 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 11:14 AM:

Xopher, I've used 'his own self'. Not sure if that qualifies, though.

#107 ::: Eric K ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 11:41 AM:

Mongoose @ #95, Xopher Halftongue @ #103: Your messages made me curious about themself, so I decided to investigate.

I started with The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), an 1,800 page tome that attempts to organize the raw data of written, standard English. It's a relentlessly descriptivist book, written and edited by linguists but accessible to any interested reader. According to CGEL, "themself" has been growing in frequency for several decades, but most people still find it odd.

However, CGEL also had a footnote claiming that the reflexive form of the royal "we" is "ourself", and Merriam-Webster agrees.

This gives us the full set of plural "-self" forms!

  1. I/myself → we/ourself (royal "we")
  2. thou/thyself → you/yourself (replacement of informal "thou", as I understand it)
  3. she/herself and he/himself → they/?themself (possible reflexive for singular "they")

This would be surprisingly neat and tidy. It would follow a consist rule of "when conscripting plural English pronouns for singular use, the reflexive should take a singular -self ending." On the basis of this logic, I am welcoming the singular, reflexive form "themself" into my idiolect, and I shall use it with enthusiasm until such time as everybody else agrees on a standard solution.

#108 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 11:55 AM:

FWIW, I think part of what's happening in this discussion is that we've landed on the nexus of a developing "singular they" form, which I suspect will eventually become the neuter third person singular personal pronoun that English no longer has. For those of you who argue that it's already arrived--it probably has, in speech, but it has not yet been formally recognized (and likely won't be for a while yet, writing change being more conservative than speech in general). All sorts of odd shift are happening in that nexus, as the grammar changes, and who knows what will eventually "sound right" and be accepted?

#109 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 12:29 PM:

Reverse polarity!

#110 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 12:55 PM:

Eric K. wrote @ #105

English speakers have already replaced the singular thou with the plural you, after all.

Is this not linked to the disappearance of the thorn, which looked like a Y but was actually Th, hence Ye was actually The and Thou was You?

Eric K. wrote @ #105

English speakers have already replaced the singular thou with the plural you, after all.

Is this not linked to the disappearance of the thorn, which looked like a Y but was actually Th, hence Ye was actually The and Thou was You?

<FX: Hastily shoves Thy and Thine under the desk and puts a foot on them.>

#111 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 12:58 PM:

Now how did that happen?


#112 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 01:03 PM:

Eric, #105: singular "y'all" and plural "all y'all"

My understanding is that "all y'all" is incorrect, and arises from a failure to understand that "y'all" is already the second person plural, "you" being the singular even in the Deep South.

ObSF: The primary language spoken in The Goblin Emperor includes not only informal and formal second person (thou/you) but also informal and formal first person. As English does not have an equivalent to formal first person, it is represented by the style normally known as the "royal we" -- only everyone uses it, which is slightly confusing until the reader catches on. It also means that sometimes the author has to indicate when a speaker is using the first-person plural rather than the first-person formal; this would be a very easy place for the writing to go clunky, and the fact that the author accomplishes it gracefully is something I greatly admire.

#113 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 01:56 PM:

Lee (112): We've discussed all y'all around here before*; it seems to be a sort of super-plural, denoting something along the lines of the whole group of you.

*Examples here and here. (Turns out that use of all y'all is common on ML, which makes finding the discussions thereof somewhat difficult.)

#114 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 02:03 PM:

Cadbury Moose @ 110: Is this not linked to the disappearance of the thorn, which looked like a Y but was actually Th, hence Ye was actually The and Thou was You?

That one I can answer: not really. Digraph-th was around long before the thorn disappeared, so something else had to be feeding into the disappearance of "thou." It may have contributed to the development of singular-you, but not all that much, I'd say. Though--as with most linguistic change--we really can't tell for certain, of course . . .

#115 ::: Eric K ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 02:34 PM:

Lee @ #112: The primary language spoken in The Goblin Emperor includes not only informal and formal second person (thou/you) but also informal and formal first person. As English does not have an equivalent to formal first person, it is represented by the style normally known as the "royal we" -- only everyone uses it, which is slightly confusing until the reader catches on.

Thank you for reminding me of this lovely detail. It reminds me of this blog post about how to translate a French character who switches mid-scene from the formal vous to a more intimate tu. It's a significant element in the original story, and a literal translation would lose it.

I also enjoyed the way the narrator of Ancillary Justice used "she" as a default pronoun. To tie this back to the original subject of the thread, this is a great example of an author with interesting opinions that made her work more interesting. The thing about science fiction, as has been pointed out by one of our hosts, is that it's an inherently political genre. You can't build strange new societies—or change things about our own—without having some sort of opinion about what happens next.

#116 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 04:50 PM:

Sort of following on from tnv@98 (and maybe a little bit from something Remus might have had in mind too.)

I take John Scalzi's experience to be good evidence that if you're a white cis/het male, you don't have to worry about your polarising opinions damaging your sales. I don't feel especially comfortable with inferring from that example that the same is true for other demographics. (After all, lots of other bits of the experience of that particular group - which is also my experience - are not safely generalisable in that sort of way.)

Patrick's point that 'your polarizing opinions are part of what you write with' seems more likely to be transferable. So this isn't really intended as a defence of the RWA suggestion, which still seems problematic for all sorts of reasons - not least that codifying this as advice in anything semi-official has the effect of entrenching it as conventional wisdom, and marking out those who go against it as potentially 'difficult' or 'people who won't take advice' - both of which seem as though they could be an issue for an agent or publisher, even if the opinions themselves wouldn't be.

#117 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 06:36 PM:

There's a curious phenomenon in Japanese where personal pronouns will gradually start out as humble and then the pronoun is adopted en masse by people trying to outdo each other in humility, until it's common enough that it no longer has any humility attached to it, and in fact sounds quite casual.

This is also the most convincing speculation I've heard for how we lost "thou" -- we picked up (maybe analogizing from the French "vous") using "you" as both 2nd-person-plural and 2nd-person-polite, and then everyone was trying to outdo each other with politeness and ended up using "you" for everybody. (The Quakers noted this development with dismay, and wanted to address everyone with the plain "thou," but they were too late for the great tides of language change.)

#118 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 06:51 PM:

Eric K @ 107: "This would be surprisingly neat and tidy. It would follow a consist rule of "when conscripting plural English pronouns for singular use, the reflexive should take a singular -self ending." On the basis of this logic, I am welcoming the singular, reflexive form "themself" into my idiolect, and I shall use it with enthusiasm until such time as everybody else agrees on a standard solution."

I approve! While the indefinite singular "they" has long been part of my idiolect, "themselves" versus "themself" has stymied me. This is an elegant solution.

#119 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 08:07 PM:

Regional variation may also come into it - the Quakers in the US were mostly from the north of England, where 'thou' hung on longer than it did in the south.

#120 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 10:23 PM:

Eric, #115: Fascinating translation post! And the comments provided further interesting discussion.

The mention of "tutoyer" has reminded me of a clever neologism I ran across some while back (I noted it here at the time, but that was at least a couple of years ago). Dudoyer: To apostrophize someone as "dude".

#121 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 15, 2015, 11:12 PM:

Lee @ 112, Erik K @ 115, Abi -- I'm moderating a multi-week discussion of The Goblin Emperor elseweb. Is it kosher to tell folks where? I don't know forum policy on directing folks to other discussions off this forum, and I don't want to step on toes.... (We're doing chapters 1-5 this week...)

#122 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 02:45 AM:

Cassy, I would love to get in on that! Most of my friends haven't read it yet, and I'm on re-read number something-like-10.

#123 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 06:12 AM:

The Making Light policy about directing folks to other fora is:

1. The internet is an interesting and wonderful place, and we should totally share places where interesting and wonderful things are happening.

2. I would fervently hope that everyone in this community is always seeking to make the internet even more interesting and wonderful, with the inevitable result that their* participation elseweb, if attributable to Making Light, does not constitute an embarrassment for Making Light. Or, you know, themselves*.

(Also, I love The Goblin Emperor and am happy to see people putting time into thinking about it.)

* indefinite person, gender unknown

#124 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 06:40 AM:

CassyB @121 I would love to be in on that too.

#125 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 06:59 AM:

P J Evans @119: "thou" is still alive and well in the north of England, though never pronounced as such. It's normally "tha". The accusative form, "thee", remains in its original form.

In Sheffield dialect, however, there is a slight tendency (especially among older speakers) to pronounce "th" as "d" at the beginning of a word, so one still occasionally hears something like "Nah den, dee, what's da doing here?" That is becoming increasingly rare; but "now then, thee" is still a common enough Sheffield greeting.

#126 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 08:52 AM:

Ok, The Goblin Emperor discussion I referred to upthread is taking place on Compuserve, in the Science Fiction & Fantasy forum.

(Yes, Compuserve is still a thing. Really. A small thing, these days, but it still exists.)

You will need to make a log-in; sorry about that.

Here is a link to the Science Fiction & Fantasy Forum

Here is a link to the Reading Group folder, where the discussion is going on.

Start with the "The Goblin Emperor discussion schedule" -- not only is it the reading schedule (a new block of 4-5 chapters every Saturday) but it also gives the spoiler rules. Then you may want to read the "The Goblin Emperor - Cover & Blurb" thread, or just jump right into "The Goblin Emperor - ch. 1-5".

Note that after you've opened a thread, when you leave and come back the default setting us "unread posts" so you'll only see the new ones; it assumes you've read everything open on the page. You can reset that setting to "all", or just scroll back through the page numbers inside a thread, if you want to go back to refresh your memory.

I look forward to seeing folks over there; I'm hoping it'll be a fun discussion. Remember; several of the folks over on Compuserve have not yet read the whole thing, so NO SPOILERS!

#127 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 09:08 AM:

Wow, CassyB, it took me a surprisingly long time to end up with a username that wasn't already taken, rotating through my usuals and variants.

I guess I'm spoiled, having gotten On The Internet more than 10 years ago, back when relatively simple name-related stuff was still available.

(I was still impressed when I met pam@livejournal in person, though. Three-letter usernames disappeared pretty fast in the founding of the site)

#128 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 09:45 AM:

Elliott Mason @127, remember that Compuserve has been around since the 1980s, and alphanumeric logons have been available since the mid to late 1990s. That's twenty years of people snapping up user-names...

#129 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 09:47 AM:

Oh, I know! I was surprised, and then shook my head at myself for being surprised, if that makes any sense.

#130 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 11:50 AM:

Okay, I'm in. I'll have you know that I have successfully avoided having an AOL e-mail address until now! You should be flattered to have come up with something that would override my aversion. :-)

I was not at all surprised that my first choice of username was taken. But my second choice I have found to be sufficiently unusual that it usually goes thru with no trouble.

#131 ::: Cassy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 12:42 PM:

Lee @130, I know what you mean about AOL; I was so invested in the Compuserve communities where I post that I grit my teeth and stayed when AOL bought Compuserve. But I know a LOT of people who left Compuserve, including my husband.

Nice to see you in the discussion!

#132 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 01:17 PM:

Cassy B, Lee, Elliott Mason, I created an ID over on Compuserve. OtterB was taken but I got a related ID.

Actually, I already had an AOL ID. It's been my primary personal email for more than 20 years now. But it's closer to real-name than it is to my more common online nym, so I created a new one for the discussion. Will be by when I have a little time to read and think.

#133 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 03:53 PM:

Eric 105: Pretty good analysis. The German 'Sie' is actually (historically) a third-person plural; there was a time when the formal mode of second person was third-person singular (so formal address to a man would be 'Er'). I guess they either decided that wasn't quite formal enough, or just reconstrued the feminine formal 'Sie' as a plural.

#134 ::: Idumea Arbacoochee, Gardener of Threads ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 05:21 PM:

Please note that heresiarch @118 came by my place a day or so ago. Since it's heresiarch, I got the good port out, and we kind of fell to talking. And the long and the short of it is, the comment didn't get posted until just now. Now that my hangover has mostly cleared, I've also fixed the up-references.

I still need to tidy up my table. There seems to be a complex design for—if I am reading it correctly—a time machine powered by the eldrich abilities of hamsters. Unfortunately, we appear to have drafted the accompanying instructions as a kind of rewrite of The Waste Land. I'm still not sure how to correctly pronounce "Weialala leia" to start the whole thing off, but if I figure it out, I'll tell you last Tuesday.

And don't ask about the emu. Nobody ask about the emu. I'll need at least a day's clear head to deal with it; until then it can just stay in the break room.

#135 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 05:44 PM:

Mongoose @125:

When I lived in Leeds, I came across a book of Bible stories in Yorkshire dialect, containing such gems as 'So Noah said to God 'Eh oop, God, how's Tha been' and 'Now the Lord were right chuffed off wi' Jonah'. It was excellent.

#136 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 06:54 PM:

praisegod barebones @135: I would absolutely love a copy of that book, not least because I once wrote a version of the Book of Jonah in rhyming verse in Yorkshire dialect. Rather like a Stanley Holloway monologue, only Yorkshire, and there were three voices (Jonah, God, and a narrator).

Idumea @134: I could, if you wish, send the penguin to help deal with the emu.

#137 ::: Mongoose ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 06:54 PM:

praisegod barebones @135: I would absolutely love a copy of that book, not least because I once wrote a version of the Book of Jonah in rhyming verse in Yorkshire dialect. Rather like a Stanley Holloway monologue, only Yorkshire, and there were three voices (Jonah, God, and a narrator).

Idumea @134: I could, if you wish, send the penguin to help deal with the emu.

#138 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 08:05 PM:

praisegod@135: is that usage of "chuffed" regional, or archaic, or has it always been invertible by a following "off"?

#139 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 08:38 PM:

Is it your experience that "chuffed" is always supposed to be positive? My understanding, from various Brits, was that it's nearly impossible to be sure whether "chuffed" means extremely pleased or furious, except from context or knowledge of how the speaker uses it.

#140 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2015, 09:14 PM:

Clifton (139): I can't speak for CHip, but I had the distinct impression that 'chuffed' always meant 'extremely pleased'.

#141 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 01:59 AM:

Idumea @ 134: As my head still throbs gently I shall shortly take myself for a bracing nap, but let me pass on something I have recalled: you may be tempted to substitute other appropriately-sized members of rodentia within the machinery. Resist, I implore you. A vole? I am afraid not. A mouse? Good Lord. A squirrel? Let us not joke about such things. But above all: never, ever use a rat. No matter how plaintively he asks.

#142 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 02:15 AM:

The New Zealand usage for "chuffed" is invariably to mean "extremely pleased". Until now, I had not been aware of the negative meaning(s).

#143 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 02:16 AM:

Referring to my previous comment:
And sometimes with implied pride.

#144 ::: Paul Herzberg ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 04:27 AM:

In the UK chuff has many uses and it's meaning can vary by region. So "chuff off you chuffing chuff" can be mild or vulgar depending on where you are in the country.

For "chuffed" to be positive, in my experience, it has to be preceded by "right", pronounced "rate", or "well" as in "I was right chuffed" or "he was well chuffed with that".

#145 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 08:22 AM:

Some of us USians who got Brit exposure via newsgroups (especially the fannish ones -- or that's where I got it, anyhow) got the impression that "I'm chuffed that ..." is always a delighted-and-proud thing.

Because we never heard "chuffed off" or the other variants, as far as we are concerned, it is solely a positive word in its geek diaspora into our brains.

This is not the case in its homeland.

I think of it as being like linguistic chop suey, sort of ...

#146 ::: Cadbury Moose may well be chuffed ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 10:22 AM:

This moose knows of "chuffed" as in "pleased", "chuffed to bits" or "extremely pleased", and "dischuffed" for the negative version.

#147 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 04:18 PM:

@ 'chuffed' subthread 135ff

I think what we have here is a divergence of dialects. 'Chuffed off', meaning 'angry', and pronounced with an 'oo' sound is Northern. (I'd have said specifically Yorkshire, but I think it's been in the idiolect of my step-brother - who's originally from the Potteries - for longer than he's been resident in Wakefield, where he now lives.)

'Chuffed', meaning pleased, is something I think of as Southern, though on the basis of Cadbury Moose's testimony it seems to reach as far North as Birmingham To the extent that Southern dialects of English are represented as normative (and have been since the time of Chaucer) it doesn't surprise me greatly to learn that non-UK residents are more familiar with that usage than the Yorkshire one.

(Dave Bell, tykewriter - any thoughts? I wonder if we can pin down the boundaries for 'chuffed off' meaning angry any better here. If I had to guess, I wouldn't be surprised to see either the Trent or the Ouse marking a boundary.)

#148 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2015, 10:30 PM:

General expressions of confusion....
So first I read the reference to Compuserve and was thinking ?Time travel?.
And Idumea's table was covered with diagrams of time machines powered by hamsters, which seemed to confirm it, but I'd misread the headers to think that heresiarch had visited Abi, as opposed to visiting Idumea, so it took me a little longer to realize that time travel was obviously at play here. [possible end to confusion?]

Some years back, one of the Usual Sources, such as the NYT or WaPo (you know, the people who used to do in-depth articles about news in various other countries), or maybe The New Yorker, had an article about emerging use of "yo" as a third-person singular indefinite-gender pronoun in Baltimore African-American school-kids' dialect. (Possessive was "yo's", objective "yo".) I don't know if the usage has persisted, but it felt like a much more natural construct that some of the "ze/zir" or "he or she / his or her" things, though "they" seems likely to take over.

Other than British usage of "chuffed" to mean "pleased", I've heard it used to refer to a noise made by tigers when they're commenting on something.

#149 ::: Paul Herzberg ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2015, 04:03 AM:

I wonder if the northern use of "chuff" is due to it being a near anagram of the f-word. My grandad worked in Rawmarsh Pit and, according to those who knew him then, could swear with the rest of the miners, but I never heard anything worse than "blinkin' 'eck". My uncle preferred "chuffing Nora". "Blinking", "blooming", "chuffing" are, I suppose, variants of the same idea.

Also, "Chuff" can also mean nether regions, for example "it went right up me chuff".

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.

(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.