Rilke vs. Resnick & Malzberg, or, No, It’s Not Just a Dinosaur Thing…

You know, I’ve been trying for a few days to figure out a way of saying something useful about the Resnick/Malzberg/SFWA thing that’s the talk of the ghetto these days.

The thing is, it’s all obvious. What E. Catherine Tobler Said, basically. Others have said useful things too. Jim Hines has compiled many links. Or this is also a good run-down of things, if you prefer.

My thoughts? Actually, my reaction is much like Benjamin Rosenbaum‘s, but I prefer to share what me wife said to me when I brought the situation up to her, because she pretty much nailed what’s embarrassing, sad, and, in Rosenbaum’s words, disgusting about this.

But first, to be clear, I’m not just talking about the laughable “censorship” rebuttal from Issue 202 (there are links to all six pages of that that drivel up here), but but also copy like this crap in Issue 200 (which I found here, since I don’t receive the SFWA Bulletin anymore; my membership lapsed a while back and I’ve just not gotten around to renewing):

[Barry Malzberg]

Almost synchronous with her [Catherine Tarrant’s] entrance was that of Beatrice Mahaffey as Raymond Palmer’s assistant editor when Palmer left Amazing to originate a series of his own magazines (beginning with Other Worlds) and I will leave it to you to introduce her; you knew her from the SF community of your early years and were, with so many, an admirer. She was competent, unpretentious, and beauty pageant gorgeous … as photographs make quite clear. Tell succeeding generations all about her, please.

Mike

Ah, Bea Mahaffey…

She was the only pro I knew in Cincinnati when we moved here from the Chicago area more than a third of a century ago. She was incredibly generous with her time and reminiscences, and I spent a lot of time with her, on the phone and in person, duting the first few months when I was learning my way around town.

Anyone who’s seen photos of Bea from the 1950s knows she was a knockout as a young woman.

[…]

Another story is from nonagenarian Margaret Keiffer, who lives just a couple of miles from us. She’s the widow of super-fan Don Ford, who ran the 1949 Worldcon, and founded both Midwestcon and First Fandom. Don also created CFG (the Cincinnati Fantasy Group), the venerable local club to which Carol and I belong. According to Margaret, during its first few years of existence CFG was populated exclusively by men. Then Bea joined. Then the members’ wives got a look at Bea in her swimsuit at the 1950 Midwestcon. Then the club’s makeup changed to the 50% men and 50% women that has existed ever since.

Har, har.

When I told my wife about this garbage (basically right after reading up on it), she made a face and without missing a beat she commented at how SF writers are supposed to be forward-thinking and imaginative…

… but how even Rilke, a Christian mystic poet who died just less than a century ago, had ’em beat when it came to respect for women. Then she quoted back this passage to me from memory (from this letter):

Someday (and even now, especially in the countries of northern Europe, trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

You could say she cherry-picked that quote, that Rilke wasn’t perfect, and you might be right: in fact, in the very lines immediately preceding that passage, Rilke problematically puts women on a pedestal of elevated humanity and vibrancy, to which men can only be lesser. My wife is quite aware of this, of course–she knows her Rilke–and agreed with me that Rilke’s attitude is complex and problematically nuanced.

But she very rightly pointed out that it’s still better than what’s on display in Resnick/Malzberg pieces being discussed. Rilke evinces a clear sympathetic willingness to listen in those lines of his quoted above; a willingness to engage in utopian imagination, a striking courage and humility, and an unmistakable yearning to properly respect women, and to see that respect for women universalized. None of these things are in evidence in the pathetic performance of Malzberg and Resnick so far as I’ve seen.

Humility and respect for women being the things most troublingly absent: one can forgive a poverty of imagination, a weariness with utopianism, and even, perhaps, a failure of courage. But I can’t see why we should excuse a lack of respect–sustained not just through the first offense, but also into the refusal to apologie for it–nor should we excuse the lack of humility–the arrogance–in Malzberg’s and Resnick’s retreat into paroxysms of horror over “anonymous criticism” and “censorship.” And I think Ferrett Steinmetz is wrong to throw them a bone on the basis of them being dinosaurs (albeit amid criticisms) for that same reason: The Letters to a Young Poet were written between 1902 and 1908, after all!

Is Mary Robinette Kowal right to worry how this will reflect on SFWA? Maybe, but the public reaction seems to show signs that most people don’t think this really says much about the whole organization.

But maybe we ought collectively to be reflecting on whether it says something discomfiting about our whole community–if that’s what we SF people are, a community. The fact anyone in the SF world would think that this is acceptable–that we actually have to get up in arms and point out that it isn’t–is frankly somewhat embarrassing. We let them get away with that crap? For how long, now? 

The outcry is heartening, mind: it suggests maybe we’re not as backwards as it may seem. Except, is “not as backwards as it may seem” something to be proud of? In this day and age, what’s wrong with what happened should simply be plainly obvious to anyone of good will, including the dinosaurs, and if it isn’t, that means we’ve been indulging people on spurious grounds for waaaay too long.

After all, we should, collectively, be somewhere further along than Rilke was in 1908, should we not? The story of social change, of moving forward, is central to SF. The myth of traveling to the stars is about that, fundamentally–about moving forward, collectively. And yet, the drag… our rocketships are firing, but how slowly they ascend.

Sigh.

It brings another line of Rilke’s to mind–the last one of his “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which is about precisely what the title says, though he could be talking quite directly of complicity and apathy to all of us:

… for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

8 thoughts on “Rilke vs. Resnick & Malzberg, or, No, It’s Not Just a Dinosaur Thing…

  1. I read about the controversy, but I think this is the first time I read the relevant comments by Resnick / Malzberg. Wow. By this standard, Issac Asimov was a hopeless sexist. (I remember reading some of the anthologies he edited where he mentioned various female editors. Some of whom (e.g. Cele Goldsmith of Amazing) he mentioned as – paraphrasing from memory – looking like ‘showgirls’). I guess what was charming during 1940-80s has now officially become ‘creepy.’
    Based on the comments here and the cover, I don’t see the problem myself (especially looking at all the paranormal romance covers out there from books by male and female authors), but maybe it’s just because I am of the older generation.
    Also, I’m surprised Malzberg made those comments. (Resnick I am not too surprised. it sounds like what he would write). But my impression of Malzberg was of a overly serious and perpetually depressed ‘artistic’ new-wave writer.^^

    1. Hmm, well, yes, times certainly have changed, and for the better. Since you say you don’t see the problem, I’ll try to explain it clearly (but I hope not patronizingly), so you can see what I’m talking about and why so many people–male and female alike–in the SF community were offended by this.

      It’s one thing for men to find women attractive. It’s another for men to focus on that aspect of particular women when discussing their contributions to the world of SF–to the exclusion of discussing any contributions made by said women… and still another, when being told, “Come on, man, could you be a bit more respectful!” to start crying out about Constitutional rights of free speech, and so on.

      Which is to say, I think there are (at least) two major problems here: what they said, but even more important, what they didn’t say. When you purport to discuss the accomplishments of women in a field, and then focus on their looks, you’re not just objectifying them, you’re also implicitly dismissing the idea of their having attained any accomplishments. This is pretty familiar strategy, men have been doing it since time immemorial, and it definitely is no longer acceptable in American society: people do it, obviously, but you wouldn’t find such stuff in a professional journal.

      (Or would you? When economists discuss the accomplishments of women in the field in a professional (say, academic) journal, do they not just talk about, but focus on their looks to the exclusion of discussing their contributions to the field? Or, more directly, imagine you were honoring a retiring female colleague in your department, and she happened to be very good looking back in the old days, would you talk about her beauty pageant looks and not bother to mention her work? Because from everything I’ve read, that is essentially what Resnick and Malzberg did… in front of the whole professional SF/F writing community. And to do so is essentially to shit on women by saying the only thing that will matter or be remembered is your looks, not your work. I mean, if the individuals they chose to talk about didn’t make significant contributions, why not choose women who did? It’s not like there weren’t any.)

      Granted, the SFWA Bulletin is not even close to the level of any decent peer-reviewed academic journal in economics (I’d assume), but it is the publication issued by America’s official union of professional writers. Many SFWA members are women, and they were not admitted to the ranks of SFWA on the grounds of their being “beauty pageant beautiful”: they had to make the minimum number of pro fiction sales, just like the men.

      Which is to say, it’s about context. In memoirs, nobody would have said much: they’d just shrug and say it was dinosaurs being dinosaurs. But SFWA Bulletin is not some older guy’s memoirs.

      By the way, I think Resnick and Malzberg probably could have gotten away with mentioning these women’s appearance if they’d done it in a classy way, like:

      “The first thing most men in the field noticed about [FEMALE AUTHOR A] was that she was gorgeous; however, she was an important editor, whose contributions were unfortunately not really recognized…” Or something like, “Though many men at the time chose to focus on her stunning good looks, [FEMALE AUTHOR A] was far more than just a pretty face: she made important contributions…”

      Which is to say, I suspect it’s not the bringing-up-their-looks (what was said) that got the men into hot water, so much as it was the omissions (the what was not said, and what it implies) that first got people angry. That, and the ridiculous outcry about censorship and Constitutional rights and so on (when nobody, absolutely nobody, broached the subject of censorship).

      And as for the cover, I’d point you at Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s succinct and apt post on the subject. I pretty much agree with her. (Also, personally, it really did look like an image from some D&D book in the 80s, styled off the 1970s. That is, like so much in SF, catering to a generation that is greying, while turning off everyone under 40. It’s a small symptom, but a symptom nonetheless.

      All of that said, the SF field seems to be rocked by some controversy involving sexism, racism, homophobia, or some other sort of bigotry about every three months. I’d like to see us move beyond that to, I don’t know, actively celebrating the diversity that our field has attracted, and actively building values that cast that diversity–and not just respect for it, but also the embrace of that diversity–in a positive way. Racefails aren’t enough to move us forward: they’re sort of more like plugging holes in the dam. I think we need to actively start reclaiming shoreline, and building higher and higher up onto dry land.

      Which is something that has me thinking right now…

      1. I suspect no matter what I say, it’s going to come back and bite me in the ass^^, so I’ll just say that I’ve seen these types of comments (‘that economist was sharp, and a knockout’ type), as you said, in blogs and memoirs, but obviously not in academic journals (where the whole point is to abstract away from personal points altogether, so often first names are given in initials). Since I don’t know whether SFWA column by Resnick / Malzberg was a personal recollection / memoir type of column (a la Silverberg’s columns in Asimov’s) or a serious advice column in the mechanics of writing, I can’t confirm personally which situation it was, given the type of comments Resnick / Malzberg made, I thought it was the former type, but given the controversy this is generating, I now suspect the type was latter.

        1. Hi Junsok,

          Ha, well, yeah, I think you’re right that Resnick/Malzberg’s understanding of what their column was (and was supposed to be) differs from what a lot of SFWA members felt ought to be included in the SFWA Bulletin. Probably they were given no guidance, and almost certainly (from the samples I read in the past) there was a case of things that weren’t really quality or relevant being printed anyway… the quality control issue only seems to have come up as a result of it having crossed the line in terms of insulting a significant portion of the readership…

          And that said, a lot of critics have noted that part of the blame lies with the editor. But part of it, the part I find important to consider, is how much coddling the older guys are getting just because they’re older. Harlan Ellison was coddled by more people than I like to remember when he grabbed Connie Willis’ breast onstage at a Hugo Award ceremony a few years back; the Readercon Fail thing last year was pretty clearly a case of coddling too. (And the offender in that case wasn’t even very old!)

          Though I’m not a huge fan of Silverberg’s column in Asimov’s, from the installments I’ve read I think Silverberg has the class and common sense (or savvy?) not to cross the line that was crossed by Malzberg and Resnick, which is–at least in the excerpts I’ve found–to reduce women to their looks only. I can see him commenting on how someone was attractive, maybe, but I can’t imagine him characterizing that as an editor’s main attribute.

          Anyway, your comment is interesting because I imagine that would have made a much better defense than all the Constitutional drum-beating that Malzberg and Resnick chose to go with for their rebuttal. If they’d just written, “Hey, folks, we really didn’t mean to make some of you feel excluded, or to belittle women. So let’s talk about the contributions made to SF by women we’ve known…” none of this would have happened. It was all the ranting about censorious “liberal fascists” (why not just come out and say “feminazis”?) that got people really, truly pissed off.

          Which is also interesting. I’m not a huge fan of the publicly forced apology, and understand the urge to repudiate it: I’ve always felt a forced (i.e. demanded) public apology would always come off insincere anyway… and in the end, it seems to be becoming a kind of micro-hara-kiri ritual of sorts, in North American culture, demanded anytime someone says something that someone chooses to interpret as offensive. (And, I suspect rather often, such apologies are insincere.) It seems problematic to me, especially when one gets into the question of interpretation–where someone with a questionable interpretation of a text demands an apology, and the person who wrote it doesn’t feel the interpretation is sensible, and refuses to give one.

          But I’m really rather dubious in this case, since the negative interpretations I’ve seen line up pretty well with my interpretations of the excerpts available to me. I feel like Resnick and Malzberg could have saved a lot of face by just being more considerate, or at least by just expressing their regrets about the implicit sexism in their comments. (Something they refuse to address in the most fallacy-ridden rebuttal I’ve seen in a while. And I spent a lot of time online, so that’s really saying something.)

          1. 1) Yep, based on the second-hand accounts I’ve read, Resnick / Malzberg probably could have saved everyone a lot of grief if they just gave even a half-hearted apology, instead of blowing this into a First Amendment case.

            2) Resnick, Malzberg and Ellison are probably at the age of cranky old men who rarely apologize anymore. (Though Resnick always seemed to have a big ego that rarely means apologies even when he was younger; and yep, that incident with Connie Ellis was pretty much unforgivable – and I *like* Ellison and Resnick as writers – One of my prized possessions is a personally signed hardcover of Essential Ellison).

            3) I also wonder, though, if this much fuss would have been made if the comments were about men – e.g. “Joe Smith was an editor for Ridiculous Fiction from 1945 to 1948. Not only was he a really bad editor, but he was the butt-ugliest man that you would have ever seen, and he had really bad grooming.”

          2. Hi Junsok,

            1) Yep, based on the second-hand accounts I’ve read, Resnick / Malzberg probably could have saved everyone a lot of grief if they just gave even a half-hearted apology, instead of blowing this into a First Amendment case.

            Yep. In a sense, though, I’m hoping this opens up a bigger discussion of the issue of coddling and making excuses for the older generation in SF, which I see more as enabling than as understanding them and their time. It’s been a LONG fucking time since plenty of women have stepped up in the SF field and said, “Look,” — followed by all kinds of interesting things, after all.

            2) Resnick, Malzberg and Ellison are probably at the age of cranky old men who rarely apologize anymore. (Though Resnick always seemed to have a big ego that rarely means apologies even when he was younger; and yep, that incident with Connie Ellis was pretty much unforgivable – and I *like* Ellison and Resnick as writers – One of my prized possessions is a personally signed hardcover of Essential Ellison).

            Ha. I had a softcover of that book, and I tried to read it straight through; never got further than a hundred pages or so at a time, and gave up on the third attempt. In my books, the essential Ellison is a much shorter list of pieces.

            Anyway, as far as being of an age when one rarely apologizes anymore; what’s the cutoff? Just wondering. I’d like to think among civilized people one retains the ability to apologize unto death, though maybe it’s idealistic of me.

            3) I also wonder, though, if this much fuss would have been made if the comments were about men – e.g. “Joe Smith was an editor for Ridiculous Fiction from 1945 to 1948. Not only was he a really bad editor, but he was the butt-ugliest man that you would have ever seen, and he had really bad grooming.”

            Well, outside of the SF field, Gordon Lisch (a big-name mainstream editor, worked with Raymond Carver) has been subject to that kind of discussion, but often the off-putting description was kind of done in such as way as to characterize him: from what I recall he was prickly and unpleasant, and the discussion of his eczema and the constant scratching of his own back with a backscratcher has always seemed to be aimed at underscoring that. So there are ways of describing someone that are useful to understanding them, their work, their character, and so on.

            But that said, I’ll address point 3 because it’s also one of the counterarguments Malzberg and Resnick offered in their rebuttal: they (and you) are kind of ignoring the historical and social context.

            For example, the fact is that male editors’ (and authors’) looks, if they’re even mentioned, come up almost always as a footnote to discussing the quality of their work. In literature generally, but also in the field of SF, women have not been afforded the same respect–or, in a lot of cases, any. There’s a book on this subject–Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 by Eric Leif Davin–which I haven’t managed to get my hands on, but which I’ve read discusses the specific dynamic of ignoring and sidelining women’s contributions to SF. Within that context, Malberg and Resnick’s comments fit a disturbingly familiar pattern. (One that is pretty much directly diagnosed in Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing.)

            In other words? In North American Anglophone society, it is women, not men, who have long fought against being reduced to evaluation solely by their looks, and it is men, not women, who have obstinately resisted making this change. Nobody imagines that calling Robert Silverberg “dapper” or “handsome” or “stylish,” or musing on the hotness of China Miéville’s muscles, effectively reduces these men to mere sexual objects because men don’t have a history of being minimized and dismissed professionally in this way. And women do. Which is why point #3 is not a great criticism.

            A fairer parallel would be a discussion of Octavia Butler or Sam Delany that summed up their careers as, “Yeah, s/he was black. Like, really, seriously black.” Would there be a fuss over that? Definitely, and for the same reason.

            And note, your imagiend Joe Smith even gets a fairer shake than Beatrice Mahaffey: his [imagined] work gets a mention and gets evaluated, however negatively. (And one presumes that more would be said about why he was a bad editor, right?)

            All Bea Mahaffey gets is “competent” and “unpretentious” which pretty much tells us nothing at all about what her role as assistant editor was. Contrast that with what’s said here: you would hardly imagine she’d edited that many magazines for that long, from what Malzberg and Resnick chose to mention. Indeed, the SF Encyclopedia claims that she

            nominally coedited but was often the de facto editor of Raymond A Palmer’s sf publications, in which any traces of higher quality and editorial care are generally attributed to Mahaffey.

            Emphasis mine, obviously. So there’s a double insult here: they not only skip the chance to talk about how she wasn’t officially recognized for her work at the time–thus perpetuating the sexist non-recognition of what contributions she did make–but they also then focus instead on her looks… thus perpetuating the reduction of women in SF to mere sex objects.

            (Which is not prudery: we humans are all (or almost all) sex subjects and sex objects… it’s just that when we reduce people to being merely such, all kinds of very unpleasant problems crop up. And it’s crucial, in a discussion of this sort of thing, to recognize which half of the human species has most often had to contend with this particular form of objectification and subjugation virtually throughout history, or at least all of our historical memory.)

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