More Responses to Paul Cook

The uproar sparked by Paul Cook’s badly argued post at Amazing Stories is happily chugging along, so here are the latest reactions.

First of all, Steve Davidson, editor of Amazing Stories, has issued an apology of sorts for shutting down the comments on Paul Cook’s rant. Now IMO Davidson is not the person who needs to clarify anything here, though I was disappointed with shutting down the comments, especially as I didn’t see them descending into “hateful” territory. Though it seems that in certain quarters (not saying that Davidson is one of them, since I don’t know him), any disagreement with straight, white, cisgender, Anglo-American men is construed as “hateful”.

Romance and urban fantasy writer Shiloh Walker responds to Paul Cook and points out that Mr. Cooks seems a tad confused about the definitions of both SF and romance.

Here is a quote:

So basically, science fiction is about how science and technology will change the future. It doesn’t focus on tension…but maybe it should. Because unless the world of the future totally eliminates sexual desire or the human need for companionship (which most of us, even the guys), then those needs and desires will also be a part of the future…not writing about them kinda means you’re skipping out on a messy, but intrinsic part of human nature.

And another:

Funny, though…one thing actually a lot of romance editors will say is a problem with submissions? Not enough tension. Hmmmm. Funny, that. Maybe Cook is actually a closet romance reader and doesn’t know it. Especially if he’s looking for tension. Come to romance, buddy. We got tension.

And here is the moneyshot:

In the years since I’ve been published, I’ve lost track of how many books I’ve sent overseas to soldiers. The majority of them, by far, are men. The books I send? They are romance. And the SOS coordinator who takes receipt of them still sends me emails from the guys who get those books. They love them. They appreciate them. One of my prized possessions is the US flag I received as a thank gift for the books I’ve sent. Many of those books are traded around and shared among the other soldiers.
[…]
So you go ahead, Mr. Cook. Why don’t you hunt up the guys serving overseas and tell them how guys aren’t into romance? While you’re at it, be sure to hunt up all the guys who’ve had me sign their books over the years–their books, not for their girlfriends, or their wives.

On a related note, here is a great post by Ann Aguirre about the lack of sex in much of science fiction. The problem hereby is not worlds where sex and reproduction have become obsolete, but that a lot of SF simply does not address the issue of sexuality and reproduction and indeed of intimate relationships at all, probably because those things are not deemed to be important by the authors. Paul Cook would certainly agree.

Of course, the need for emotional connection with others is one of the most basic human drives out there, along with the sex drive (asexuals notwithstanding). All humans have relationships of some kind, most of them have sex. And yet so much of SF ignores those basic human experiences. It’s not just sexual and romantic love either, friendships and family relationships are also given a short shift by much of SF. Romantic partners or family members may be mentioned, but often you get the impression that the protagonist has no more feelings for them than for his co-workers on the great human project of terraforming Mars or building Ringworld or conquering the bug-eyed aliens or whatever.

In fact, I suspect that there is a sizeable contingent in the SF community that does not like the fact that humans have bodies and would just love to do away with them. How else to explain the popularity of the singularity, a concept that always sounded utterly horrible to me? How else to explain to dearth of sex and childbirth and descriptions of food in SF?

Sharon Lee, one half of the Lee/Miller writing duo and also author of several enjoyable fantasy novels on her own, responds to Paul Cook by stating that his opinion doesn’t bother her much, cause everybody has stupid opinions. As an example, she states her own dislike for Dorothy Dunnett’s characters.

Now I agree that everybody has a right to their own opinion and to dislike things others like. I dislike a lot of writers, films, TV shows, etc…, which are beloved by many, myself. For example, I cannot abide the books of contemporary romance author Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I tried reading her again and again and she just doesn’t work for me. In the SF realm, I don’t like the books of Charles Stross. Again, I tried reading him and he just doesn’t work for me. I don’t care for Kim Stanley Robinson and Alistair Reynolds and Cory Doctorow and – horror of horrors – Sir Terry Pratchett. Now I like humorous SFF just fine, I just don’t like Pratchett. Oh yes, and I can’t stand The Wire, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad.

Nonetheless, there is a difference between having an opinion, even an unpopular one, and being a jerk about it. And Paul Cook’s post falls into the latter category. No one would mind if Paul Cook just didn’t care for Gene Wolfe or Lois McMaster Bujold or Sharon Lee and Steve Miller or Cherie Priest or Steampunk or zombies. In fact, I don’t care for zombies myself, though I tolerate them in small doses in settings where there are lots of other things going on. However, there is a difference between not liking something and declaring that this something should be evicted from the genre and that only members of some other, lesser group could probably care about that something. For example, I may not care for Susan Elizabeth Phillips, but I don’t think she should be evicted from the romance genre for the crime of writing books I don’t like. The fact that I don’t care for Charles Stross or Kim Stanley Robinson or Alistair Reynolds or Cory Doctorow doesn’t make their works any less science fiction. The Discworld books are still fantasy, even if they don’t work for me.

Regarding people not being outraged on behalf of Cherie Priest, I did mention her in my original post on Cook’s rant. Though I guess a lot of people overlooked her, since Cook used her book as a general illustration of what is wrong with the Steampunk genre in his opinion and did not take on Ms. Priest personally in the text. Though it is telling that of the many Steampunk novels featuring zombies he picked one that was written by a woman. The only way to make his opinion even clearer would have been by picking on Meljean Brook (not just zombies, but romance as well), but then lots of SFF people are not aware of Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series.

Will Shetterly makes a similar point to Sharon Lee, namely that Paul Cook’s opinion is just that, one guy’s opinion, and that Paul Cook isn’t even particularly important in the bigger scheme of things. As I said before, the problem isn’t so much that Paul Cook dared to have an opinion, but the way in which he expressed it. And yes, he does attack three male writers, Gene Wolfe, Steve Miller and Alexandre Dumas, including a male writer of colour (though I’m not sure if Cook is aware that Dumas was black), along with three female writers. Nonetheless, expressions such as “the sort of detail only women are interested in” are clearly sexist. By comparison, I don’t recall him accusing e.g. Gene Wolfe of writing detailed torture scenes that only young male readers will be interest in.

Though I do agree that Paul Cook may well have posted that article hoping to gain some attention and notoriety and consequently recognition in the “SF should be manly and sciency and hard” crowd. His preemptive “People will hate me for this” whine seems to confirm this.

Well, he certainly got his attention. I just wonder if he likes it.

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12 Responses to More Responses to Paul Cook

  1. Cora,

    no, I do not belong to nor endorse the “any disagreement with straight, white, cisgender, Anglo-American men is construed as “hateful”.” crowd. Anything but. I’ve worked very hard to have the posts and the contributors to the site represent as broad a spectrum as possible (take a look at the staff page, a sampling of posts and weekly news to get some idea).

    Comments were not closed to “protect” Paul Cook or to deny others the opportunity to offer contrary views. They were closed because in the brief, 20 minute period I had to monitor the site at the time this whole thing was going down I knew that I would not be able to monitor the site again for quite some time and I had to make a hasty decision as to how to handle the situation.

    The information I had at the time seemed to indicate that things were heading in a nasty, pointless, personal direction. So I made the decision to close comments.

    The editorial you link to provides a bit more background on my circumstances surrounding this situation. It was a bad week for me all around and the site was not handled to the level that it should have been (and I’d like to think usually is).

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the clarification, Steve. It’s unfortunate that you get the fall-out from Paul Cook’s badly researched post on your head, especially since Amazing Stories has done a lot of good work so far.

      I understand how problematic flamewars breaking out in the comments on your blog/site can be, especially when you don’t have the time or energy to deal with moderation. Some time ago, I had two SFF writers from different sides of the political spectrum duking it out in the comments at my blog, because they had banned each other from their respective sites. Luckily, they knocked it off after a warning and I didn’t have to take action.

      I still think that it’s a pity that the discussion in the comments at Amazing Stories was cut off so abruptly, since a lot of commenters were making good points and no one had descended into namecalling yet.

      I hope your father is doing better BTW.

  2. Unfortunately, there are many people in the entertainment business (whether the medium be film or books) who believe that human interest and a coherent story should take a back seat to special effects, flash-and-boom, copious amounts of gee-whiz technology, and even violence. This predilection is most evident in two areas — science fiction (as you’ve already noted) and the super-hero genre (particularly the Marvel-based movies). I personally find that absent the story or human interest, such films grow increasingly tiresome.

    • Cora says:

      That’s a large part of the reason why I haven’t set foot inside a movie theatre in approx. two years now. Because these days, movies are either big flash, boom, bang action spectacles with very little in the way of story or tedious awards bait films about families disintegrating due to domestic violence or deadly illnesses or whatever (I just saw a report about the Venice film festival today, where the presenter said about the German contest entry, a harrowing tale of domestic violence, “Well, the film was very… German.”). And since tickets are expensive and the movie going experience isn’t all that enjoyable, I wait for the DVD or for the film to show up on TV.

      It’s not that I don’t like explosions and CGI and car chases and all that, but is it too much to ask for some substance and relatable characters and a plot that actually makes sense, i.e. something that my 8th-graders, who are all over explosions and monsters and really dreadful films, can enjoy on one level and I can enjoy on another?

      Though I was pleasantly surprised by some recent Marvel offerings. Iron Man I and II and Thor were surprisingly good and I’ve never been a fan of either character. Though again it was the human factor that carried the films (plus good actors) rather than the action and CGI. Meanwhile, DC dropped the ball with the last two Superman movies and Green Lantern. And while lots of people love Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, I’ve never been a big fan.

      In general, it’s the characters that keep me reading/watching rather than plot, action and gee-whizz tech, especially since plots have become so predictable due to overuse of formula plots.

  3. Mark says:

    I’m with Will Shetterly on this one. It’s an opinion, again a not terribly orginal or well articulated one and not one that I share, but I would even go so far as to say that you are also allowed to be a jerk about something like that if the relevance of that particular personal opinion is so miniscule and if it doesn’t fall into hate speech territory. I think there are so many actual problems related to sexism and xenophobia in SF (and I actually came to attention to many of those through your blog) and actual harassment, and stuff like this is just white noise, which distracts from the stuff that really matters. I also find the link of this discussion to your “Girl Cooties” series a bit problematic, because I don’t see this directly related to the “SF Romance” genre. It seems to be more about a lack of interest of a particular person in characters and sex, and I simply don’t see the Romance genre formula as the only answer to that. As you and others pointed out, even classic SF from male writers is full of romantic bits. In fact I always considered SF to be the only truly subversive form of literature supposedly aimed at young people (SF so easily slips through parental censorship and I guess it often is the first contact for young readers to more juicy topics). There is also more mature literature about sexuality (Tiptree, McHugh’s “China Mountain Zhang” etc.). And I’m really only writing all of this, because I too, would like to be allowed to say that I don’t like Romantic SF, the actual (sub-)genre, because I think it’s mostly formulaic and almost always has the same plot (I can’t read one single more post-apocalyptic novel, no matter if it contains romance or not). I want characters in my fiction, not formula stereotypes with private parts.

    • Cora says:

      I linked these posts to the “Girl Cooties” series, since it’s a discussion about a clueless post by a guy who obviously has issues with women and their contributions to the SFF genre, even though he also dislikes Gene Wolfe, so IMO it does fit.

      Is this an issue of world-shattering seriousness on par with VD’s racist screed or sexual harrassment at conventions (which aren’t all that world-shatteringly serious in themselves compared to e.g. chemical weapon use in Syria or radioactive water leaks in Fukushima)? Of course not. But Paul Cook’s post, though just one guy’s opinion, is a good illustration of a mechanism Joanna Russ called “the double standard of content” in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, namely that subjects overwhelmingly male writers write about (war, politics, sports, philosophy, etc…) are automatically valued higher than subjects overwhelmingly female writers write about (family, love, childbirth, intrigues, fashion, food, etc…). And because Paul Cook apparently isn’t satisfied with using just one of the mechanisms identified by Joanna Russ, he also engages in something she called “false categorization”, namely that books by women are often shoved into categories deemed lesser, while similar books by men are placed into more prestigious categories. Hence, Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov write science fiction, but Lois McMaster Bujold writes romance in spite of all the biotechnology and hard science and space battles and philosophical dilemmas in her books.

      It’s perfectly okay not to like certain genres, subgenres or authors, it’s perfectly okay to state one’s opinion and even be snarky about it. Hey, I’m quite snarky myself on occasion, though I try not to cross the border into hurtfulness. However, Paul Cook’s problem is not just that he has an opinion, but that he was both a jerk about it and rather clueless and in part flat out wrong about the books and authors he criticized (see Ultragotha’s comment below). Plus, he behaved rather poorly in the comments, before they were shut down. That’s what got so many people riled up.

      I don’t think anybody is judging you for not enjoying romantic SF or romantic fiction in general (though there is a lot of good stuff among the formulaic plots and stereotyped characters, though without recommendations it can take some digging to find). People are judging Paul Cook for being both a jerk about his views and also quite clueless about the books he criticizes.

      • Mark says:

        I have to admit that I’m mostly ignorant about Joanna Russ’s theoretical writings. I do wonder, though, if her secret speciality was actually not feminism in SF, but the anthropology of socially and literary clueless male nerds. Paul Cook’s opinion seems to be quite popular within the genre, but if you step back a little and look at the grander scheme of things, then there seems to be a consensus that the themes and topics that are attributed to women here are more important than the topics that are attributed to male writers. For instance, from Thomas Mann to Jonathan Franzen (to take to male examples, coincidentally or not so coincidentally) family, love and intrigue are at the center of what makes up capital-L Literature. From that perspective, people like Paul Cook just look ignorant and silly, and SF looks like a kind of exile for people who are not interested in how the rest of the world ticks.

        • Cora says:

          Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing is truly an eye-opener and still very pertinent even thirty years after it was first published. Joanna Russ is one of those rare writers whose critical writings are as good as their fiction. No dense academic style either, she’s very readable.

          It’s also an observable phenomenon that when a male writer tackles a subject deemed traditionally feminine, the result is usually praised as literature with a capital L, while women writing about the same subjects are often pushed into other categories. For example, Nick Hornby’s novels about (male) protagonists coming to terms with themselves, relationships, their obsessions, family and parenthood, etc… are generally considered literature, whereas female writers like Marian Keyes or Jennifer Weiner who write about similar subjects in a similar tone are dismissed as chick lit and get pink covers with cartoony stiletto heels. Jonathan Franzen’s family sagas are capital L literature, whereas women writing about similar subjects are shelved under women’s fiction.

          Otherwise, I agree that SF of the kind Paul Cook likes is a sort of exile for people who don’t much care about how the rest of the world ticks.

  4. Estara says:

    Did you see that LMB also addressed this, mostly because people asked for her reaction? She’s basically left MySpace now and is using the GoodReads author blog ability as her new home on the internet for blogging purposes: http://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/4822375-science-fiction-platonic-ideal-or-rorschach-blot

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the link. No, I hadn’t seen that yet, since I don’t hang out at Goodreads a lot. But it’s a great and classy response.

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