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Interesting update on the William Sanders/Helix mess from a while back. A number of authors (it looks like fifteen) have chosen to make their Helix-published work available at Transcriptase. Some have removed their work from Helix, while others have chosen to let it remain (for a variety of reasons, including obligation, Sanders' refusal to remove the stories -- which he is within his rights to do, or because they still love the magazine). The author statements are also worth reading.

Reaction to this mess has been interesting. The blogosphere has been pretty strong in its condemnation. In another area, I've watched discussion begin with "What's the big deal" and devolve into people making slut/ho jokes. And in Sanders' newsgroup, I've seen accusations that the only people getting worked up over this are wannabe losers trying to make themselves feel important. To that last accusation, I think it's worth noting some of the names involved in Transcriptase, including Eugie Foster, Jennifer Pelland, Beth Bernobich, and Janis Ian, among others. The author statements are worth reading as well, and I think it's important to note the range of reactions.

Would write more, but I've got a book deadline in 24 hours.

ETA: First paragraph edited to try to reduce my own biases. Thanks, shsilver.


Aug. 1st, 2008 12:07 am (UTC)
The original letter was of course a privileged private communication between an editor and a writer, viz. a rejection letter. William essentially told the writer that his piece was not genre, at least in Helix's terms.

William's use of the term "sheet head" is what seems to me to be at issue here. What he means it for is of course not a description of all Arabs or of all Muslims, but rather those radical fundamentalist Islamists who use the Qur'an to justify idiotic, inhuman and vicious acts, such as stoning young women to death for holding hands with the wrong or any young man*, or for adultery when their husband prostituted her to pay for his heroin habit**.

Nobody seems to get a hate on for him when he uses the term "Jeebus Nazi" to describe the analogous type of fundamentalist Christian; he's a Christian of sorts himself, and nobody I have read will try to defend the millions of perfectly well-behaved Christians from the attack implicit in that phrase. Probably because everybody knows exactly whom he means, and nobody can profit from attempting to imply that he means to include people like Jimmy Carter in the same camp as Oral Roberts.

Sanders' language can be , shall I say, colourful; he is a skilled user of invective, and would have made a great polemicist were he a Marxist like myself. (I'd like to hear his opinion of some of the masters of the art, but he'd likely not bother to read them.)

I've enjoyed everything of William's I have read; I have never met him in person, but he has welcomed me on his SFF newsgroup, and I'm proud to be a denizen of Bonobo Hill. I chose Bonobo Hill over Baen's Bar when the last major attack on him happened, and have not had occasion to repent of that.
* Per the young Yazidi woman killed by her relatives last year while Kurdish police looked on, for the crime of associating with a Sunni. Of course Yazidis are not Muslims and don't claim to be, but the behaviour is similar.
** Per the young wife of a heroin addict recently sentenced by an Islamic court in Iran for having been forced by her heroin-addicted husband to commit adultery.

Edited at 2008-08-01 12:07 am (UTC)
Aug. 1st, 2008 12:34 am (UTC)
"Sheet-head" is pretty clearly a not-tremendously-clever play on raghead or towelhead. Both of which are indeed ethnic slurs. Claiming that one can use it only to mean "bad" Middle-Easterners (one can't be much more specific, since the slur itself is based on incredible ignorance to begin with) is rather like saying it's okay to use the n-word because you only mean "bad" African Americans. You're going to tell me that a professional writer isn't aware of the history and the context of the words he uses?

The Jebus Nazi thing isn't in the same category. I have yet to hear anyone use any variation of "Jebus Nazi" to refer to an entire ethnic or religious group. The term doesn't have that history attached to it, where "sheet-head" does.

And I don't want to say that about Sanders, that he'd do that, but the inescapable fact is, whether or not he considers himself to be racist, the use of an ethnic slur is a racist act. If that doesn't match the intention, then the proper action to take is to make the actions match the intention, not insist that nobody should have told on you to begin with, or insult the people who prefer not to associate with such behavior.

Aug. 1st, 2008 03:14 am (UTC)
"The original letter was of course a privileged private communication between an editor and a writer, viz. a rejection letter."

1) And anyone who has any pretensions of being an editor knows that rejection letters are posted, in their entirety, all over the Internet, including on websites specifically devoted to such.

2) I don't care that it was private, any more than I care that the Klan was having a private meeting when it decided to burn crosses. The issue isn't privacy. The issue is Sanders being a bigot. Anyone trying to make it about privacy is reaching. Stretchily.

"Sanders' language can be , shall I say, colourful; he is a skilled user of invective, and would have made a great polemicist were he a Marxist like myself."

Sanders is being racist, intentionally or unintentionally. If it's intentional, then he's just a bigot. If it's unintentional, then he's enjoying his use of invective, and it's not particularly skilled.

As a note regarding general debate and discussion -- if you have to split hairs to explain why you're not being racist, you're probably being racist.
Aug. 1st, 2008 12:38 pm (UTC)
I want to preface this with the fact that I don't know William Sanders. I don't know his heart, I can't read his mind, and all I can do is try to draw conclusions by his actions--in this case, his words. Also, the standard disclaimer that I might be wrong.

Starting with the private correspondence note, I do think there's an interesting discussion to be had regarding the ethics and legality of posting rejection letters. I don't, however, feel that it's at all relevant to whether or not Sanders' actions were appropriate. I've become very sensitized to the argument that if something happens in private, then the rest of us should pretend we didn't see, even if it was abusive or harmful.

The fact that the letter was private does mean the recipient had a context the rest of us lacked. Reading it from that context, the first paragraph's discussion of "the worm-brained mentality of those people" does seem to apply to terrorists, not to Middle Easterners or Muslems in general.

It's the last paragraph that strikes me as the most problematic, where Sanders says, "...most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads."

I can take this in one of two ways. If he's seriously trying to say that the SF zines are afraid of offending terrorists, then I think he's an utter fool. I believe he's now referring to a much broader group, saying that the SF magazines are afraid to offend Muslems. As I said, I can't read his mind, but you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that Sanders, even with his colorful use of language, is seriously claiming that the major editors are scared to offend the terrorists. I don't buy it.

As for the term sheethead, I take it as both a play on "shithead" and on the more commonly used "towelhead" or "raghead". Clever? Yes. In any way appropriate? Not in my opinion.

Add to this Sanders' response to Yoon Ha Lee, when she asked to have her work removed. "I would not want to continue to publish a story against the author’s wishes, especially a story like this one that never did make any sense and that I only accepted because I thought it might please those who admire your work, and also because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers."

This is troublesome on any number of levels, and I still don't know exactly what to make of it. Bottom line, he's saying he bought what he felt to be an inferior, unacceptable story because the author was non-Caucasian. Meaning what, exactly? That he's unable to get "good" stories from anyone who isn't white? I applaud the effort to encourage diversity in the SF/F field. I despise the assumption that the way to do this is by lowering your standards so that those incompetent minority writers can sell a few stories.

I'm aware that Sanders is himself non-white, but I don't see how that changes his actions in this case.

There are other aspects of the situation that add to my disgust, such as the "Pantiwadulous" insult he chose to publish on Helix. There's no racial aspect to that insult, obviously, but it's another instance of what I see as a fairly childish tantrum. Nobody likes to be the target of an Internet shitstorm, but that doesn't excuse his responses.

So is Sanders racist? You've said quite strongly that he is not. I believe his behavior in this situation has been. Whether that's a consistent pattern isn't something I'm knowledgeable enough to say. I've seen a number of people speak out that they have individually been uncomfortable with Sanders' behavior toward them as women. I haven't seen that behavior first hand, but some of these reports come from people I trust, so I'm inclined to give them some credence.

Other people I respect, such as you and Vera, have described a different side of William Sanders. Based on that, I believe he is someone who's incredibly loyal to his friends, and can be a welcoming and entertaining person. I don't believe this contradicts my other conclusions, however.

Sanders has brushed off concerns as political correctness and silly grandstanding. It's his right to speak his mind, and to ignore or insult those he disagrees with. Personally, I find his words very troubling.
Aug. 1st, 2008 01:25 pm (UTC)
"Sheet head" is not a term I would use myself, that's for sure. All the same, I don't think anybody in North America is entirely free of racism, it's ingrained in the majority culture; it should be fought, but I'm not going to break with my online buddy because he says stuff like this. I'm a freight handler at a downtown hospital and I hear worse than that every day from my fellow workers.

The racism to be fought first, IMNSHO, is the institutional stuff that our rulers use to keep us divided. Ki!! that and the other stuff will die.

He and I share an attitude that many liberals find troub!ing, a recognitionn of the necessity of self-defense ... the group we both admire most from the civil rights movement, e.g., is the Deacons for Defense and Justice.
Whether he is a sexist is another question entirely ... he certainly can be openly heterosexual, just ask D or Vera.

Aug. 1st, 2008 01:36 pm (UTC)
"I don't think anybody in North America is entirely free of racism, it's ingrained in the majority culture; it should be fought..."

No argument on that point. I can't speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself, and I know I'm still struggling to excise a lot of what I've learned over the years re: both racism and sexism.

And I wouldn't ask you to turn your back on a friend. I'd hope that *if* you're uncomfortable with what your friend said, that you might mention something to him. But I also know that's damned uncomfortable and hard to do, at least for me.

I hadn't heard of the Deacons for Defense and Justice -- thank you. I've got a second Internet window open on them right now. Interesting reading, and so far it sounds like an impressive group.


Jim C. Hines


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