How Weird Tales did everything wrong

How far we've come.By all rights, Saving The Pearls: Defending Eden should not have been anything I needed to spend time thinking about. The problem with self-published books is that there’s no reliable means of gauging quality, so I generally don’t pay attention to them unless they’ve been recommended by someone I trust, or they took a title I wanted to use. The literary world would really benefit from some sort of comprehensive system to gauge the quality of self-published work, but until then, I have plenty of other books that I haven’t had time to read.

Then Weird Tales went and made this a story about how not to run a magazine.

It’s hard to find any aspect of this controversy that Weird Tales managed to handle well. First, the editor goes out of his way to get involved in what was already a building online controversy over an obviously touchy issue — not just by defending the book on Weird Tales‘ blog, but by promising to publish its first chapter in America’s Oldest Fantasy Magazine. Then, once the backlash happens, his (co-)publisher decides that the best way to save the magazine is by throwing its editor under a bus.

Editor Marvin Kaye’s original blog post has been taken down, which is a pretty clear sign that no one at Weird Tales knows how the Internet works. But then again, I could say the same about his original post. Titled “A thoroughly non-racist book” (I’ve included it down at the bottom), it notes that Weird Tales rarely publishes SF, but he thought the story’s combination of a global warming nightmare scenario with a parable about reverse racism had earned it an exception. He doesn’t spend much time explaining why he thinks the book is so thoroughly non-racist that “anyone with an appreciation for irony” will see it as such, instead excoriating critics who have, through some nightmarish tangle of passive voice, been accused of not reading the book, or suggesting that the critics who have read it lack the “wit, wisdom and depth of literary analysis to understand what they read.”

The whole thing reads almost like a parody of editorial elitism. Kaye comes as close to saying anyone who disagrees with him is dumb as one possibly can, without resorting to such pedestrian language. And he clearly bought into the idea pretty thoroughly, since it’s doubtful he would have decided to print the book’s first chapter unless he thought its literary brilliance would be self-evident to Weird Tales‘ audience.

I haven’t read Saving the Pearls, so for all I know, it really is a thoughtful and sophisticated deconstruction of racism. That would still mean that Kaye was being injudiciously dismissive of people with a legitimate reason to be wary of a story that refers to white people as “pearls,” black people as “coals” and describes its black love interest as a “beast-man,” but at least it might justify his decision to put it in the magazine. Unfortunately, even the magazine doesn’t seem to buy Kaye’s interpretation of the book.

The publisher’s statement, which hasn’t been taken down, is almost as remarkable as Kaye’s. First, it declares that you don’t need to read the book in order to condemn it, thanks to readily available resources like the videos on its YouTube page. And just in case that wasn’t enough of a smackdown, the post comes remarkably close to saying that Weird Tales‘ editor doesn’t know how to judge the merits of a story:

Marvin says if you read the whole book, she explains her use of this imagery, and it ends up as a plea for tolerance. I say, so what. And that is the position of Weird Tales — and upon reviewing the video and other materials, Marvin is in full agreement.

Two things jump out about this. First, if the book only ceases to seem racist if you read the whole thing, then the logic of publishing its first chapter in isolation makes even less sense. Weird Tales would have been presenting its audience with the offensive imagery but not the mitigating elements that are supposed to make it okay.

Second, the statement strongly implies that Kaye hadn’t reviewed the book’s promotional material before he decided to put Weird Tales‘ imprimatur behind it. Considering the whole reason the book came to his attention was that it had already set off a controversy, that seems like a pretty glaring oversight. One that we know about because his publisher just saw fit to tell us.

This could also raise the question of whether objectionable promotional materials ought to affect one’s impression of the story itself. It can certainly offer some insight into how the author, or whoever’s marketing the book, perceives it — and that can be particularly telling in this case, since the author self-published. But it seems just as likely that Weird Tales was looking for a fast way to backtrack after kicking up the hornet’s nest, and this was the best excuse they could come up with. “Wait, there are videos? OH MY GOD!” doesn’t sound good, but it’s slightly better than, “Turns out we have terrible judgment, so we’ve just crowdsourced our editorial policy.”

Just to be clear, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that Weird Tales caved to public pressure once it was blindingly obvious that their position was indefensible, especially if the book is as bad as it sounds. It would have been a lot better if they’d not had terrible judgment in the first place. And most fundamentally, you probably shouldn’t take a controversial position unless you’re prepared to defend it when people get mad at you, which Weird Tales obviously wasn’t.

The big takeaway from this mess is that the editorial process at Weird Tales is pretty horribly broken. Marvin Kaye invoked his authority as an editor to assert that Saving the Pearls was “throughly non-racist.” Five days later, his copublisher informed us that not even Marvin Kaye agrees with Marvin Kaye’s judgment anymore. (Kaye himself hasn’t resurfaced.) Which begs the question of why I’d ever want to pay money for a magazine filled with stories he selected.

If Weird Tales had stood by its decision to feature the book, I’d at least know that they’d actually put serious thought into this beforehand and knew what they were dealing with. And, obviously, if they hadn’t decided to publish it to begin with, we all would have been none the wiser. Instead, they’ve created an impression of a magazine that has no idea what it’s doing. Which is not a great position for America’s Oldest Fantasy Magazine to be in.

Here’s Kaye’s original post, in its entirety:

I have been an anthologist and magazine editor for most of my life, and as of last year became copublisher and editor of Weird Tales, America’s oldest fantasy magazine. In the upcoming issue, we are publishing the first chapter of Victoria Foyt’s SF novel, Saving the Pearls: Revealing Eden (the subtitle after the colon is an indication that the story will continue in a subsequent novel).

Weird Tales seldom prints SF, but this story is a compelling view of a world that didn’t listen to the warnings of ecologists, and a world that has developed a reverse racism: blacks dominating and detesting not just whites, but latinos and albinos, the few that still survive of the latter are hunted down and slaughtered.

It is the same literary technique employed in the off-Broadway musical a few years back, Zanna, Don’t!, set in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and a pair of heterosexual lovers are therefore socially condemned.

Racism is an atrocity, and that is the backbone of this book. That is very clear to anyone with an appreciation for irony who reads it.

I have noted the counterarguments that some Amazon readers have launched against the book and its author, and while I strongly disagree, this is America and they have the right to express their opinion(s).

But I also have been told that they have not stopped there, but also have attacked Amazon readers who describe the book in positive terms. I do not know if this is true, but if it is, it is mean-spirited, espcially if they have not read the entire book before condemning it, a charge that has also been leveled against some of them. Again, I do not know if this is true, or an exaggeration, but if these actions have, in fact, been performed, than I wish those who have done so a blessing and a curse.

The blessing is to wish they acquire sufficient wit, wisdom and depth of literary analysis to understand what they read, and also the compassion not to attack others merely because they hold a different opinion.

The curse is an integral part of the blessing…for if they do acquire those virtues, they will then necessarily look at their own behaviour, and be thoroughly ashamed.

(I’m especially glad he explained that the subtitle was “an indication that the story will continue in a subsequent novel.” Otherwise, I might have lost a lot of sleep wondering what all those words after the colon meant.)

Leave a Reply