Lessons Learned from Weird Tales Debacle

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for one of the venerable story markets in our genre. Weird Tales is arguably the most important spec fiction magazine Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith built their reputations there in the 1920’s and 30’s, and since then the magazine has been the hub– and gold standard– of weird fiction.

But things have gotten weird, and ugly, in recent days.

To sum up, in August of 2011, the magazine was sold to a different publisher, and editor-in-chief Ann VanderMeer yielded her position to new editor Marvin Kaye. VanderMeer stayed on as a contributing editor. The transition wasn’t necessarily smooth, and the immediate results weren’t necessarily positive, but the ship seemed steady, if not mighty.

Then this year, WT (meaning, Kaye) offered readers a preview excerpt of Victoria Hoyt’s young adult novel, Revealing Eden: Saving the Pearls. WT doesn’t generally foray into sci-fi, but Kaye was so intrigued by the concept that he included it. The concept is one of reverse racism: in the future, the world is run by people with dark skin, while those with brown or white skin live as second-class citizens, or find themselves hunted and rooted out. Fascinating and cool, right?

No. Not quite. And judging by public response, a great number of people were disgusted.

It’s one thing to say “you have a great concept.” The key is in the execution, though. Hoyt’s tale is loaded with not-so-subtle racist elements. Whites are called “Pearls” and blacks are called “Coals.” “Pearl” is supposed to be a derisive term, but come on. No one goes into a jewelery store to buy coal. Black-face is employed. And the (white) main character refers to her (black) lover as a “beast.” Real progressive, 21st century stuff.

Working with racial tropes is dangerous business, and I admit it takes cojones to even tread there, much less make them the foundation of a novel. However, there is a world of difference between using racial stereotypes and inverting or subverting them. Hoyt probably isn’t a Confederate-flag waving white supremacist, using the novel as a vehicle to inspire a New World Order of white hate (though I don’t know; I’ve never met her). She probably thought that this inversion of power would be edgy. It is, but edgy doesn’t equal intelligent (and certainly doesn’t equal compassionate).

Full disclosure– I have not read the novel. This post isn’t a review of the book. It’s a review of the controversy. I did take a peek at several preview pages on Amazon. Feel free to do the same. Mostly, I was turned off by the pedestrian prose, but that’s another story. The fallout of this debate: WT readers were outraged, many threatened to cancel subscriptions (and may have followed through), and the site was inundated with comments. Kaye rescinded his endorsement of the novel and took the excerpt off the site. At that point, though, it was more damage control than anything else.

Any thoughts on this mess? Race and spec fiction have always had a somewhat bumpy relationship. Even greats such as Howard and Lovecraft sometimes dealt with race in clumsy, old-fashioned, or uninformed ways. Also, can a non-racist person write a racist story?

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