On August 1st, the Hugo Awards were presented during a live streaming ceremony at CONZealand. And – as isn’t uncommon in the science fiction community – some controversy resulted. If you’re not familiar with what went down, here’s a decent short summary:
Not mentioned in the above-linked blog post are the constant references during the ceremony to John W. Campbell, lauded SF editor who was also a racist and fascist (https://www.blackgate.com/2019/08/24/john-w-campbell-was-a-racist-and-a-loon-a-response-to-jeannette-ngs-campbell-award-acceptance-speech/), and a Retro Hugo that was awarded to the Cthulhu Mythos (as opposed to H.P. Lovecraft himself, which was weird). Lovecraft’s racism is well documented (https://lithub.com/we-cant-ignore-h-p-lovecrafts-white-supremacy/), and the John W. Campbell award for best new writer, also traditionally presented at the Hugos, was recently renamed the Astounding Award to remove Campbell’s name.
I’ve been a member of SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) as long as I’ve been a member of HWA (The Horror Writers Association) – close to thirty years now. While I’ve been more involved with HWA throughout the years, my writing output often overlaps with fantasy and science fiction, especially in my tie-in fiction, so I’ve maintained my SFWA membership. Controversy is common to both the science fiction and horror communities, although to my mind, SF has more. A lot more. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it’s just an effect of having a lot of really smart, passionate, expressive people who care a great deal about their genre working in the field. So it would be easy to dismiss the current controversy over the Hugo ceremony as just another in a long line of kerfuffles in the SF community. But that would be a mistake. It’s a sign that times are changing (or perhaps, more accurately, already have changed and not everyone has realized this yet or come to terms with it).
Not long ago, a group of writers calling themselves the Sad Puppies tried to take over the Hugos. The writers ranged from political conservatives who longed for a return to the good old days of SF (and who wanted to combat what they saw as leftist domination of the genre) to racist/fascist writers who were sometimes separately known as the Rabid Puppies. (Don’t look at me like that; I didn’t make up these nicknames). You can learn more about the Puppies here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sad_Puppies#:~:text=Sad%20Puppies%20was%20an%20unsuccessful,science%20fiction%20or%20fantasy%20works. This is one reason why Dragoncon’s Dragon Awards came into being – so these writers could have awards that they might be able to more successfully game.
The World Fantasy Award, presented yearly at the World Fantasy Convention, was designed by Gahan Wilson to look like an Easter Island-style head of H.P. Lovecraft. A few years back people began pointing out that it might not be the best idea to have an award that looks like a racist – especially when such an award is presented to people of color. A war of words followed, led by those who believed you should Respect Tradition against those who said Fuck Tradition. You can read more about this controversy – and the award’s redesign – here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/09/world-fantasy-award-drops-hp-lovecraft-as-prize-image
In the wake of the most recent Hugos, I’ve seen a lot of writers post messages on social media talking about the “old guard” and “gatekeepers” and “old white men” and canons in literature, and how science fiction should be looking forward, not backward. I read one post which said, in reference to the old guard and the concept of a canon of classic works that everyone in a field should read, that “We need to tear down their statues and erect statues of ourselves. They’re not gods. We’re the gods!”
Women and BIPOC and LQBTQ+ and youngers writers are no longer meekly asking for a place at the table, nor are they simply demanding one. They’re flipping the goddamn table over, breaking it apart, and burning the pieces, all with the intention of constructing a new table of their own. The revolution is here, and not only do I think this is good (and well overdue), I think it’s natural and inevitable. The young always seek to supplant the old, to assume positions of respect, to take their turn in the spotlight, to get their chance to lead and make their mark on the world. In response, the old guard has two choices: welcome the young and step gracefully aside or fight tooth and nail to hold onto their place. Those who fight may resent the young for getting too big for their britches, they may be afraid of being consigned to irrelevance, or both. And sometimes those who fight do so because they aren’t getting to handpick their successors, writers who – surprise! – usually look a lot like them, think like them, and write like them. (In essence, they want to create their own “writer children” to carry on for them when they’re gone.)
This sort of young vs old, new vs tradition, innovation vs tried-and-true has gone on in the arts probably since the first human artist painted a bison on a cave wall and a younger artist looked at it and thought, I could do that. Hell, I could do better than that. As I said, it’s a natural and healthy process for art and culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard and messy sometimes. And maybe that’s a natural part of it too, or at least a natural byproduct.
So . . . what’s the best way for writers to react during times of cultural transition like this?
I have no easy answers, but – and I’m sure this will come as no surprise to you – I do have some thoughts.
Who or what is the Old Guard?
And just how old do you have to be to qualify as a member? I’m 56. Does that make me one of the old guard? And if so, just what the hell am I guarding? In the arts, old implies traditional ways of doing things, and guard implies a protector who’s keeping intruders from entering. And there’s a connotation to Old Guard, I think, of someone who’s overstayed his or her welcome. Writers who haven’t produced new work in years, perhaps even decades, but who still expect to be treated like royalty by younger writers qualify as Old Guard to me. These writers act as if they’re the fount of all wisdom in the field, the keepers of its true history, and the only ones who can recognize real talent and anoint the new members of the tribe. (People who, by some strange coincidence, are usually drawn from among their sycophantic followers – which is why they get followers in the first place.) They are suspicious if not actively hostile to new ideas and ways of doing things, and they long for the good old days, when real writers wrote real fiction, not like the kind of stuff those people produce today. They spend a lot of time telling stories about the Golden Age of Writing and Publishing and constantly focus on themselves. If they’re on a panel at a convention, they try to hog the spotlight or, if another Old Guardian is on the panel, they’ll talk to each other (and reminisce together) and ignore the other, younger writers present.
So if you’re a member of the Old Guard – or want to make sure you don’t ever fit the above description – here are some things you can do.
1) Accept you’re growing older and embrace it.
I think a lot of the Old Guard’s problem with the young is that the young are undeniable evidence that their time is passing and that Death is tiptoeing ever closer. Psychologically, if the Old Guard can hold onto their place in the culture, if they can fend off the advance of the young ones, they can fend off Death. Well, I got some bad news for you, pard. Ain’t gonna work. All of us are aging at the same rate and we’re all going to die sooner or later, and everything we’ve ever done won’t matter more than a kitten fart in a hurricane. And there’s not a goddamn thing you can do about it. You can live in denial or learn to live with it. Your choice.
When I was in high school, I heard this old joke about the different stages of an actors’ career, and it applies to any art, including writing. Stage One: Who’s Tim Waggoner? Stage Two: Get me Tim Waggoner! Stage Three: Get me a Tim Waggoner type. Stage Four: Who’s Tim Waggoner? I’m glad I heard this joke when I was young because it prepared me for what it was going to be like to have a career in writing. It told me that the progression – as melancholy as it is – was a natural and inevitable one. I have no idea where I’m at in this cycle (maybe I never left the Who’s Tim Waggoner? stage), but hopefully I’ll be able to get through each stage with at least a modicum of grace and without having a complete emotional breakdown at the end. (What can I say? My goals are modest ones.)
2) Find meaning in mentoring the young and sharing what you know.
It can be hard for someone who’s always viewed themselves as a doer, as an achiever, to transition into being someone who helps others do and achieve. But mentoring and teaching are natural ways for, shall we say, seasoned writers to contribute to their community. Once, back in the early 90’s on the proto-social media site GEnie, I saw George R.R. Martin post that young writers should just quit because they were making it hard for established writers like him to earn a living. I’m not sure how serious Martin was, but such a comment is like asking the Earth to stop turning. The young are coming, whether you like it or not, and while they can find their way just fine on their own, you can make it easier by helping them. Mentoring and teaching are excellent ways to give back to your community, to keep yourself involved with it, and to find meaning in the latter part of your career. They’ll keep you creatively engaged and, if you’ve never done much mentoring or teaching before, you’ll be expanding your horizons as an artist. I’ve been both writing and teaching for the last thirty-something years, and I can’t imagine my life without doing both. The old cliché is true – I’ve learned as much about writing from teaching it as I have from doing it. Teaching and mentoring have helped develop me as an artist in ways writing by itself never would have.
There are all kinds of ways for you to mentor or teach. Writers’ organizations like HWA have mentor programs you can volunteer for. If you see a writer post on social media that they’re looking for a mentor, you can reach out and offer to be one for them. You can post on social media that you’re happy to answer questions about writing and publishing at any time. You can create a blog like my Writing in the Dark. You can write articles for publications like Writer’s Digest or The Writer, for writing organization’s newsletters or websites, or for your own website. You can do workshops at conventions, be a panelist on topics related to writing and publishing, be accessible to new writers at cons so you can have conversations with them and answer whatever any questions they might have. You can offer to read and critique manuscripts (whether you do it for free or charge people). You can post videos about writing on your own YouTube channel. You can offer your own classes online, or deliver them at libraries or rec centers. You can start a writers’ group for new writers and host it. There are tons of ways for you to teach and mentor – pick one or two that sound good and give them a try.
3) Don’t stop writing, and maybe try something new.
Old Guard writers seem to just stop producing new work after a while. I’m not sure why. Maybe their publishers are no longer interested in seeing new stuff from them, or maybe they get tired of writing the same kind of stories they’ve been publishing for years. I think some Old Guard writers resent newer writers because the young ones still have the fire in the belly that they’ve lost somewhere along the way. I also think some Old Guard writers spend so much time reminiscing about the good old days because that’s the last time they felt like regularly-producing writers. If you’re truly ready to retire from writing, there’s nothing wrong with that. But as long as you want to write, you should. The world needs your stories as much as it needs any others. If mass-market publishing doesn’t want your work anymore, go to the small press or self-publish. Self-publishing through Amazon has become ridiculously simple these days. Don’t think of these new markets as a come down from bigger publishers. They’re just different venues for you to get your work out to readers, that’s all. It’s the work and getting that work to readers that matters, regardless of how many readers you have and how you reach them.
One of my favorite writers, Lawrence Block, is in his eighties. He began writing and publishing when he was in his early twenties, and he’s never stopped. Over the last decade or so he’s gotten into self-publishing, bringing out his extensive backlist on ebook and audio, as well as new paperback editions. He’s also shifted into doing something new: editing anthologies. And he self-published a new novel, Dead Girl Blues, on his 82nd birthday. He says it’s probably his last novel, but he can’t be sure of that. If the spirit moves him, he may write another. It seems to me that Block has paced his career as if he’s a long-distance runner, producing steadily throughout the decades while adapting to an ever-changing publishing landscape. He also still teaches from time to time. He’s focused on reaching his readers and contributing to his field, not on making sales or resting on his laurels and being venerated as some grand literary lion. (If you’re not familiar with Block, you can check out his website here: http://lawrenceblock.com/)
Try something new. Write in a different genre. Write some nonfiction. Write poetry. Keep it fresh for yourself and you’ll never be one of the Old Guard.
5) Accept and welcome the young, listen to them and learn from them. And if you can’t do these things, then get the hell out of the way.
I think a lot of Old Guard writers don’t see themselves as part of a community of writers but rather as individuals assailed by younger competing writers out to dethrone them – the aging Wild West gunfighter always on the lookout for a new gunfighter out to make a name by challenging him. And Old Guard writers (and editors and agents) do have one good reason to be wary: If they’re prominent enough, many hungry young writers are desperate to connect to them and use them to further their own careers. I’ve never been prominent enough to have this happen to me, but I’ve seen it happen to others. Before long, these members of the Old Guard withdraw from contact with new writers. They can’t possibly help them all, and new writers wildly overestimate the help members of the Old Guard can give them. But if you can view yourself not as a loner but as a member of a community, you might feel less threatened by the young. And if your community is an insular circle of writers and publishing professionals that you’ve interacted with since the age of the dinosaurs, you should consider broadening your sense of community to include young writers and writers from backgrounds different than your own. Listen to these young writers, read their work, learn from them. I believe I can learn from anyone, from an infant to someone experiencing the last few seconds of their life. I don’t think in terms of who knows more than I do, who is more experienced, who is more skilled. I think in terms of what can I learn from them? I think of new writers as colleagues, regardless of how experienced or accomplished they are yet (or even as just potential colleagues). I try to treat all my creative writing students at the college where I teach as potential colleagues, even though I know damn well the vast majority of them won’t ever have a writing career. Hell, they may never write another word after they leave my class. But I don’t know which of them may develop into professional writers. I know some will because some have. And if nothing else, I was once a student in a creative writing class, and I eventually became a professional.
But if for whatever reason you can’t, or simply aren’t interested, in broadening your community and interacting with younger writers, accept that your time on center stage is over and leave them the fuck alone. Not only are you fighting the inevitable by trying to keep young writers from stepping onto the stage, you’re making a damn fool of yourself in the process. Which leads me to . . .
6) Decide what you want your legacy to be.
There’s only so much you can do about this. The world will decide how each of us will be remembered (if at all). But who wants to be remembered as an old, washed-up, out-of-touch, get-off-my-goddamn-lawn-you-miserable-kids writer? Do you want people to remember you for your work and your contributions to your literary community? Or do you want them to remember you as an asshole? Choose wisely.
Moving on . . .
Okay, if you’re a young writer – young in terms of your career, at least – here are some things for you to think about when it comes to your response to the tension between the Old Guard and the new.
1) Fuck ‘em. Burn it all down and start over.
First off, you don’t have to deal with the Old Guard in any way, shape, or form if you don’t want to. Cast them out, destroy what they’ve build, and replace it with whatever you want. It’s the Circle of Life, baby. What you build may in the end be not all that different from what the Old Guard created, and it may or may not be better (however you gauge better), but it will be yours. And there’s nothing wrong with that. (And if this is how you feel, you can skip the next few items and head on down to where I plug my latest stuff.)
2) Don’t worship the Old Guard but don’t throw them aside entirely.
I think that in its own way, hero worship is just as dehumanizing as demonizing a person. Regarding someone as a hero means that we’re not giving them the simple respect of acknowledging them as a person with faults and weaknesses along with their virtues and strengths. I know it’s been hard for me over the years to learn that writers I admire weren’t always sterling representatives of humanity. One of the writers whose work I most admire had the reputation for keeping money he or she was supposed to pay to writers in anthologies he or she edited. (Don’t ask me who it is; I’ll never tell you, and since this person is deceased, there’s no need to warn you not to work with him or her.) Being an English major in college – during both my undergraduate and graduate years – helped prepare me for this. The English professors I had discussed famous authors’ backgrounds, warts and all, dispassionately. Still, it’s one thing to learn that dead authors weren’t always paragons of virtue. It’s another to learn that writers you’ve met aren’t either.
As I said earlier, I believe I can learn something from anyone, so I’ve never had the “fuck the Old Guard” mentality. But I’ve never worshipped them either. When I first started out, I tried to learn from professionals as well as from my peers, but there wasn’t social media like there is now, and so my peers were a few friends who also were serious about writing. My access to professionals – through bookstores, libraries, and magazines – meant I was exposed to far more pros than peers. Today’s social media landscape seems to be the exact opposite. There are massive groups of peers supporting each other and reinforcing ideas about what it means to be a professional writer, what are the best practices in writing, and how to best publish and promote yourself. And when someone from the Old Guard says something that contradicts this massive peer group, the peer group circles the wagon, says the Old Guard member is full of shit (and probably a horrible person to boot) and ignore whatever it was that they said without considering its merits. As a teacher this frustrates me. I want writers to be able to learn the most they can from whatever source they can. As a writer I shrug and figure these writers will either sink or swim on their own, and I focus on producing my own work and don’t worry about it. I sure as shit won’t engage these people online. What’s the point? I’ve tried in the past, and instead of helping them, all I did was piss them off and draw a lot of fire my way. I don’t enjoy conflict (which means I don’t enjoy much of social media), and I have better things to do than waste time in useless virtual combat that could better be spent doing literally anything else.
Another aspect of social media culture (speaking from my own point of view) is that there’s a tendency to immediately ostracize someone the instant they do something online culture deems as unforgiveable. Support is withdrawn, connections severed, and this person is branded anathema forever after. I understand this completely when it comes to individuals attacking and harassing others in any way and lobbying against any type of human rights. I don’t want to support racists, sexists, or homophobes. But there are times – like the current Hugo Awards – where writers are shunned for being kinda-sorta-maybe racist and sexist. Both Bob Silverberg and George R.R. Martin lauded John W. Campbell at the Hugo ceremony (like, a lot) and ignored or were dismissive of newer writers nominated (which, considering that these writers came from diverse backgrounds and counted many women among them, could be construed as racist and sexist). So yeah, Silverberg and Martin were assholes. But does that mean people can’t still learn something from them? I don’t know. I’ve never read Silverberg (I’ve tried but could never get into his stuff), and while I enjoyed Martin’s pre-Westeros fiction, The Song of Ice and Fire bores me to tears, and I’ve never been able to get into it either. Considering that there are a bazillion other writers for people to learn from, shunning Silverberg and Martin (or whoever) is no big deal, but I do think younger writers do themselves a disservice if they assume all Old Guard writers are the same and that they and their work should be avoided and disregarded.
3) Don’t worship the canon but don’t (completely) ignore it.
First off, canon isn’t a real thing, not in the sense of there being a single ultimate list of books that a young writer needs to read in order to be able to successfully produce their own. Canon is a construct created by academics so they can have fun arguing with each other over what should or shouldn’t be in it, so they can have dissertation topics, and so they can more easily create a course syllabus. But since anything humans create is a construct to one degree or another, this doesn’t make any particular list bad. It’s just a list. Lists are useful to contribute to conversations about art and to give new writers ideas of works they might like to check out. But if an Old Guard member says you must read particular works to be a real writer, they’re full of shit. In the academic world, there’s tension between literature people and creative writing people. The lit crowd focuses on reading, dissecting, and deeply understanding older works, and the creative writing folks are more interested in what’s being published now since their focus is on producing new work for current-day readers. When a creative writing person becomes one of the Old Guard, the current works they read when starting out become part of their personal canon, and they then present that list as what all new writers should read. Basically, in the end, we all become our parents, right?
I think it’s a mistake to reject all older works outright, though. I’ll read whatever strikes my fancy, whatever piques my curiosity, or whatever I think I can learn from. I tend not to read anything earlier than the 19th century, and I usually focus on more current work. When I first started out as a writer, I read more older stuff because I wanted to get a feel for the history of genre fiction and learn what worked and didn’t work, and so I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. These days, if I read older stuff, it’s usually because I’ve become interested in a particular writer and want to check out more of what they’ve produced over the years. Mostly I try to keep up with contemporaries of mine and check out work from interesting new writers (often people I’ve come to know a bit via social media.) I’ve spent my life making my own canon, and I think that’s what all writers should do. As long as you read fiction and your reading is feeding your artistic self, you’re good. But consider checking out some older stuff from time to time – especially if writers you admire praise it. You might find something of worth in it, even if it only shows you how not to write.
4) Accept that you’re going to be the Old Guard one day – and probably sooner than you think.
If you’re fortunate enough to make some sort of career for yourself as a writer, and that career lasts long enough, you’ll soon move on from being a promising newcomer to an exciting fresh voice to a reliable pro to well-seasoned veteran to a member of the Old Guard that new up-and-comers want to supplant. When this happens, try to remember what it was like to be a young writer and don’t castigate the new guard for being full of piss and vinegar and wanting to take on and conquer the whole fucking world by doing things their way. After all, that was once you, and not so long ago.
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
SOME KIND OF MONSTER OUT THIS MONTH
Throughout her life, Angie has lost loved ones to stupid, meaningless deaths. As an adult she begins researching urban legends, hoping to find proof that something exists beyond our mundane world. Is there magic? Is there an existence beyond this life? Is there any kind of meaning to it all even if that meaning is a dark one? In the end, Angie will get her answer, and she'll learn that reality isn't just darker than she thinks: It's some kind of monster.
Preorder Links for Some Kind of Monster
Apex Book Company
Special sale price on preorders!
Barnes and Noble
B&N Paperback: Link still to come.
WRITING IN THE DARK: THE BOOK IS ALMOST HERE
Writing in the Dark will be out from Raw Dog Screaming Press’s nonfiction imprint Guide Dog Books on September 16th, but it’s available for preorder now. Only the print version is up at the moment, but eventually the ebook will be available as well.
Mother Horror reviewed the book on her blog as well as Goodreads. She gave it five stars and said, “I loved this book and enjoyed all of the helpful tips from someone who knows what they're talking about. I will be coming back to this book over and over again.”
Preorder Links for Writing in the Dark
Raw Dog Screaming Press: http://rawdogscreaming.com/books/writing-in-the-dark/
EBOOK EDITION OF THE HARMONY SOCIETY IS (FINALLY) AVAILABLE
It’s been a long time coming but The Harmony Society finally has an ebook edition.
Here’s a synopsis:
Reality and nightmare. Past and present. Sanity and madness. For Nathan Bennett, there is no longer any difference between them - not since the Harmony Society came into his life. Now, as his world begins to collapse around him, Nathan must travel the strange and dangerous roads of the Nightway in search of the Dark Angel - a being of great power that the Harmony Society desperately wishes to control. But even if Nathan reaches the Angel first, what waits for him at the end of his long, dark road: salvation . . . damnation . . . Or both?
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