About twenty years ago, I was going through the gauntlet of becoming a US citizen. The immigration interviewer put her hand on top of the thick stack that contained copies of the Harvard B.A., the MIT Ph.D., the assistant professor appointment from Harvard Medical, the research papers, the Harvard Review articles and asked: “Have you ever been a whore? Are you one now?”
None of my credentials mattered. And given the specifics of the situation, she could humiliate and mistreat me with impunity. People who want to cut others down to their own size consistently employ this technique.
I had reason to recall this incident yesterday. A friend sent me a link to a magazine soliciting literary criticism and non-fiction of interest to the SF/F community. I e-mailed them asking if they would consider reprints. When told that they wouldn’t do reprints, I gave a link to an published example to showcase my work and proposed a brand-new unpublished review.
The editor — who prides herself in her progressiveness — didn’t deign to read through my message. Instead, she accused me of trying to “sell” used goods (for the astronomical amount of $100, one third of my hourly consulting fee). The last sentence of her e-mail, which is representative of her overall tone, reads: “I appreciate your chutzpah but you are wasting my time”.
The exchange was so fast that she clearly didn’t bother to even Google me. Maybe the non-Anglosaxon name was sufficient to disqualify me from consideration as either a writer or a human of sufficiently high caste. And obviously I did not register as someone who could affect her wallet or reputation – if I had, the refusal would at least have been polite.
As with the immigration officer, it made no difference that I’ve written a popular stealth science book, that some of my essays won awards, that I must turn down requests for reviews and articles for lack of time, that several SF authors consult me and send me their novel drafts for critique, that I’m one of the few people in the domain who is also a working scientist. The crucial point was to establish superiority by acting as if I were a sleazy impostor attempting to weasel my way into her gated community.
My words won’t change anything, because this person is deemed to be one of the industry Names who Must be Appeased (if only because “editors talk to each other”). And I’m sure I will hear the argument that her brilliance as a critic and editor excuses her behavior. The reality is that she represents the increasing mistreatment of writers by self-appointed gatekeepers who fancy themselves feudal lords and the rest serfs because it’s a buyer’s market.
This kind of behavior does nothing to enrich the stock of contributors or the quality of the contributions. When the overriding factor is massaging a primadonna’s ego, craft and imagination become distant second requirements. It does encourage other things, however: bootlicking and similar ghetto habits. And it may explain why speculative fiction increasingly cannot have nice things.
Image: Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), the epitome of rudeness to “inferiors” and obsequiousness to “superiors”.