Saturday, November 14, 2015

Quick Thoughts - The Cost of Voice

So a while ago I posted about "the state of short fiction" following a piece by Clarkesworld and a subsequent bump in commentary about it. The piece by Clarkesworld was about a possible contraction in short SFF markets, and some of the commentary was blaming "those kinds of stories" on this possible contraction. Since then (and it's only been about a month), Crossed Genres magazine has announced that it's closing it's doors. It is an incredibly sad event because Crossed Genres was explicitly trying to publish stories that made me excited to read. Since that, I have seen a lot of places say basically "you need to vote for what you like with your wallet" (and also a few veiled implications that Crossed Genres was publishing "those kinds of stories" and that's part of why they weren't supported). It's to these things I kind of want to speak to now.

When I talked before about the Hungry and the Full, I said that a reason why short SFF can seem different than novels is that those people who aren't really being pandered to on the novel level can come to the short fiction level and find stories that they really like. I did not say, though, why they weren't getting pandered to at the novel level. Which is, of course, power and influence. The reason why the market at the bottom seems so much different than the market at the top is partly because the market at the bottom is in part geared towards people who don't exactly make up a strong and consistent market (kinda sorta). At least, because short SFF is a much smaller market, people with less money can get more "bang for their buck" or even get stories for free. The problem is that these same people are being blamed for the viability of publications, are being asked to "vote with their wallets" for what they want to see. But you know, when you make voting about who can spend more money, those with the most money have the loudest voice (as evidence: AMERICA RIGHT FUCKING NOW!). And those people hungry for stories about them, stories that speak to them, stories that they cannot find anywhere else, are not the loudest voice.

What is the Puppies if not an attempt to buy out the Hugos? It's not like the Hugos are free to vote for. Why is it easy to mobilize uncomfortable dudebros? The same reason it seems like every god damn piece of media is already geared toward them: they have money. They have privilege which gets them money which gives them power which makes this whole thing go 'round. So why do people get upset at short SFF, why is there a movement to "take it back"? Because it can be kinda shit as a business model and that is exactly why it is important and vital. Not that publications have to be losing ventures, monetarily, but sometimes not caring about turning a profit is the only way that certain stories ever see the light of day. I'm a little tired of people saying that the problem is people not supporting things. God, I would give all the money to places. I subscribe where I can, how I can, and I review and I spread the word and of course I believe that people need to be paid and that these things are important. But in my little heart of heart I also believe that these stories should be free. That stories should be free. Not only free to read but free from the expectation that they make money in order to justify their existence. And in some ways they are. There are libraries and there is the internet and hurrah for all of that. Seriously, it is amazing. But what I keep seeing in publishing is people throwing up their hands and saying "we publish what sells." And there is just something so gut-wrenchingly sad and disgusting about that.

Because it blames the people who are already being denied representation and voice. It's saying that to have a voice you must buy it. We are told that things fail because people didn't like them enough. People didn't care enough. People didn't buy enough. Because those things are conflated. Care=money. The message becomes that if there aren't enough people with enough money to make a thing financially successful then it doesn't deserve to exist, or that it doesn't deserve to exist unless everyone's doing it for free. That no, people don't deserve to get paid for it because who will buy it? Diversity is important, yes, but if it doesn't bring in enough money it's not really possible, okay? Which is shit. Don't tell me that all I need to do is spend my money enough and it will work. Don't tell me that if I want better I need to support what's out there now, that incremental change is the only change possible and some people just need to wait their turn and be patient. That puts all the responsibility on being heard on the people already being ignored. Basically, SFF should not be run on a trickledown system. Like with regular politics, that only really helps the people at the top.

You know what happens when you're told to "vote with your wallet"? You're being told that there's basically a two-party system. The people with a lot of money (those already being pandered to), and those with less (which encompasses every other group). Those in the "those with less" category are told that they need to pool their resources so that they can make it better, but in order to reach as much money as possible the party platform isn't really about doing what's right by everyone. It's about being better than the other party, yes, but pretty much just that. Even within the "those with less" group, it focuses on those with more money to spend within that group. It never goes far enough, and it never really questions the whole "voting with your wallet is right" mentality. It's still all about money. Which has nothing to do with fairness or equality.

So yeah, I pretty much hate the entire idea behind "voting with your wallet." Yes, of course, paying artists for their art is incredibly important and vital. I'm not saying don't pay for stories. Definitely do pay for stories and give what you can to support artists and people doing good work. But don't treat it like people who can't pay deserve shit heaped on them, deserve to have whatever good they can find taken away. Saying you don't deserve a voice if you don't have the money to buy it is saying that only fiction that sells the best deserves to be published, like selling well is not mired in a bog of privilege and oppression, like only stories that appeal to enough people with money to spend deserve to be published. Fuck diversity, fuck justice, hurray capitalism. Because capitalism is not moral, has no interest in justice that is not profitable.

Not selling well is not a moral failing or a lack of skill. It's not proof that the market needs to focus on more "commercial" stories. It's sad, and especially so when it means publications like Crossed Genres close. It is a symptom that something is wrong. That something needs to change. But not the way that some people seem to be suggesting, to make things more about money, about who can spend more. That only doubles down on a system that does not work for a great many people, and blames those either unable or unwilling to spend money on stories that are not popular enough or "commercial" enough for not getting the stories they want. Despite the fact that a great many people who like the stories already very popular can read as much as they want without having to spend a dime and never be in danger of their voice or their stories being taken away.

So maybe, just maybe, when a publication closes, or a book doesn't sell, don't blame the people who loved it.

All the best,

Charles Paysuer

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