I want to reiterate that while I find the actions of Jo Fletcher Books in this matter ill-advised, I in no way believe they were ill-intentioned. Any organisation can be blindsided by an associate whose opinions don’t represent said organisation. And naturally a publisher with a writer under contract needs to consider their working relationship to said writer in their responses to criticism.
That said, swinging the hammer of “On the right to freedom of speech” towards critics of Rees’ article and JFB’s decision to run it is far, far less than ideal a response.
In the last month, “freedom of speech” has been seized upon as a cri de coeur in the face of criticism in the SFF genre community. The response of Resnick and Malzburg to legitimate criticism was not to say, “Hey, you might have a point, we’ll think about it,” or even, “I think you’re wrong, but we’ll have to agree to disagree,” but to talk about “censorship” and “liberal fascism.” Likewise, calls to expel Theodore Beale from SFWA for, essentially, bringing the organisation into disrepute, were met with but you can’t punish him for exercising his freedom of speech!
(The right to freedom of speech is not the right to a platform, or to a megaphone. Nor is it freedom from the consequence of speech – which can be criticism, in the form of more speech.)
The SFF community and associated conversations are very familiar with the idea of freedom of speech. At the moment, they’re also very familiar with its use as a complaint in the face of criticism: But he has the right to say such things!
No one is saying otherwise. What people are saying is that some opinions are inappropriate for sharing in professional fora, and that it is inappropriate for professional organisations to give them platforms. Racist and sexist opinions are among those inappropriate opinions.
That “freedom of speech” is seen both as a defence against critical speech and as an unmitigated good thing is a systemic failure in our community to which, however unwittingly, JFB’s public response to criticism of Rod Rees’ post in part contributes.
Jo Fletcher is a busy person. She makes sure we’re aware of this in “On the right to freedom of speech“:
Today I should be editing the last 35 pages of David Hair’s magnificent epic Scarlet Tides, so it can make its Autumn publication date . . . but instead, I’m taking that valuable time to discuss something that’s even more important
I expect some of you are wondering why I am breaking into valuable editing time to discuss freedom of speech – and on a Saturday morning at that!
This is a somewhat inflammatory way to begin a post responding to critical comment. Many of the people who responded to Rod Rees’ opinions as expressed are busy individuals themselves, who spent some of their own valuable time and energy in answering the problematic elements of his assertions.*
Jo Fletcher distances herself from Rod Rees’ opinions as expressed:
When I offer the blog to our wonderful writers, I don’t tell them what they can – or can’t – write about. They’re grown-ups, after all, and I must depend upon them to use good judgement.
…Would I have written Rod’s blog? Frankly, I don’t think I would have.
She defends – although as far as I can tell, no one is actually attacking – his right to offer such opinions:
Do I defend Rod’s right to his own opinion?
Damn straight I do.
Missing from the post is the thing I hoped for most: an acknowledgement that Rees’ opinions as expressed may not have been professionally appropriate, and whether humorously or provocatively meant or otherwise, how he phrased them insulted his writer colleagues who are women.**
Ultimately, Jo Fletcher Books is responsible for all the content posted to their blog. A statement of regret for the insult given to colleagues would not have been inappropriate. It would’ve gone a long way towards reducing the sense of affront.
If you don’t agree with Rod, I absolutely defend your right to disagree!
Of course, I expect it to be well-reasoned, well-written, with good grammar, spell-checked and properly punctuated . . .
I’m not the only person who finds a statement like that, in the face of criticism, to imply that disagreements to date have not been, “well-reasoned, well-written, with good grammar, spell-checked and properly punctuated.”***
It’s not a good point to close on, I guess is what I’m saying. It doesn’t demonstrate real engagement with the criticisms which have been made. It’s not the response of someone used to engaging with direct criticism on the internet. A good faith effort requires some acknowledgement of one’s critics’ points, even to say, “We can’t agree, and further conversation won’t prove fruitful,” or, “Company policy is such, although we may revisit it in future.” (“This was infelicitous or erroneous, but we will strive to do better,” is a good sentiment to have in the good faith toolbox, too.)
The internet means communication happens faster and reaches more people than ever before. Problematic shit receives more attention, and more critical attention, than ever.
And “free speech,” when that speech has offensive implications, and when deployed by the privileged against the less privileged – as it was in Rod Rees’ case – can contribute to a hostile or offensive environment.
Me, I’m invested in having a genre community, and a genre conversation, that welcomes a diverse range of voices, and a diverse range of good books. That doesn’t alienate women needlessly – or people of different colours or creeds, sizes or shapes, genders or abilities.
I expect more. I expect better.
All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
– Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
We all try, and try again. We can all fail better. Going by increments towards a less hostile world, a more welcoming community.
To Jo Fletcher Books, I say:
Next time, I beseech you. Fail better.
*As for me, I’ve spent at least six hours on this that could’ve been thesis time, or reviewing time, or actual eating/sleeping/exercise time, but since I receive less than eighteen grand a year this year, most of it from the government, I’m not sure anyone but me considers my time valuable.
**As a reader, I felt insulted also – but the direct insult was given to female writers, with the challenge to the viscerality of their work.
***Here, the cranky person may point out that apart from the punctuation, Rees’ article meets few of those criteria. Reduction ad adsurdum, anyone? The reductio, or argumentum, ad absurdum could hardly be more absurd…