A Tale of Two Scandals

March 8 is International Women’s Day. Time to talk about awesome women, even though at least the SFF community is still stuck talking about a man.

International Women’s Day has never been a big deal in Germany, even though the day was initiated by an awesome German woman, Clara Zetkin. Celebrating it was always more of an East European thing, whereas the West celebrates Mother’s Day. Because all women are mothers obviously and popping out babies is the only important thing women do – sigh.

Therefore, I was quite surprised to see a poster outside a local Real store. At first glance, it looked like a leftover Valentine’s Day poster – a man presenting a bouquet of flowers to a smiling woman. However, the slogan on the poster said “Remember: March 8 is International Women’s Day.” So Germany is finally recognizing International Women’s Day, only to use it as an excuse for florists to advertise their wares.

On the the Jonathan Ross affair: My last post about the UK mainstream media rewriting what really happened got a lot of online attention. And I really wish we could stop talking about Jonathan Ross now, because there’s a half-finished post about the Avengers waiting to be written and another about unexpected links between Mad Men and Jerry Cotton, and besides it’s been a week since Ross’ eight hour stint as Hugo host.

Alas, we’re still talking about Jonathan Ross and about how a privileged guy with a history of problematic jokes aimed at women and minorities has suddenly become the victim, while those who objected to his appointment – many of them women – have suddenly become the bullies here.Besides, there have been some more really important posts made:

First of all, here is a post by Shaun Duke of The World in a Satin Bag that I missed during my previous round-ups. Now it is notable that Shaun Duke was one of the more vehement objectors to Ross’ appointment as Hugo host that I saw on Twitter in the first hour or so after the initial announcement was made. Interestingly, he hasn’t been mentioned in subsequent recaps of the event.

Here is another post made last Saturday immediately following the announcement that I missed before, this time around from Adam Whitehead at The Wertzone. It’s a nuanced post that both acknowledges Jonathan Ross’ fannish credentials as well as how problematic his brand of humour might turn out to be. Though I don’t fully agree with his choice of potential replacements. Mark Gatiss would indeed be a good choice, though Charlie Brooker would IMO be even a worse idea than Ross, but then I’m biassed because I don’t much care for Brooker and his work.

Flashforward a week and a lot of rewriting and reframing attempts by the UK mainstream media: John Scalzi explains that he has not commented on the Jonathan Ross isssue, mostly because he doesn’t really know what was going on and what the problem is and besides, he feels that everything has been sufficiently resolved.

But of course, the Ross thing hasn’t been resolved yet, largely because the UK mainstream media is attempting to rewrite what happened and recast Ross as the victim. Kameron Hurley has written a great post about just why many people got so angry at the Ross thing and even angrier at the attempts to rewrite what happened, in response to this clueless tweet by Patrick Rothfuss wherein he wishes that everybody would just stop being offended.

A lot of people were understandably angry at Patrick Rothfuss wishing that people with good reason to be angry would just stop being offended. And so a Twitter meme was born, in which people less privileged than Patrick Rothfuss or Wil Wheaton (who replied favourably to Rothfuss’ comment) let the world exactly how weary they were of being marginalized and excluded. The Daily Dot has a summary with lots of Twitter screenshots.

Just to prove that the SFF community is not the only place where scandals break out every five minutes or so, here is another literary scandal which is currently rocking the German cultural landscape. Unfortunately, all links are only in German – I didn’t find any English language reports about this incident at all.

One day after Jonathan Ross’ brief tenure as Hugo host, German writer Sibylle Lewitscharoff, winner of the prestigious Büchner award and several other big literary prizes, held a speech at the Dresden Staatsschauspiel theatre, wherein she said some very stupid things about in vitro fertilisation and that children conceived that way were not real people, but “half-beings”. Oh yes, and she’s also in favour of the biblical masturbation ban (Maybe try it sometime. And read some Lois McMaster Bujold, while you’re at it.) and hates feminists. The full text of Ms. Lewitscharoff’s rant can be found here, the audio version here.

Now Ms. Lewitscharoff has been going off the deep end for a while now – earlier this year I linked to her lengthy anti-Amazon rant over at Pegasus Pulp. But this speech really was mindblowingly stupid – crap straight from a dystopian SF novel of the 1960s and it didn’t even make sense then. What does the manner of conception have to do with whether or not a child is fully human? And why are we even having this discussion in 2014, 36 years after the first child conceived via in vitro fertilisation was born?

As always when a prominent person says something stupid, a lot of people are offering angry responses. I’m not going to link to them all, because in that case this post would be novelette length at least. I do like this response by Judith Schalansky, a lesbian writer who became pregnant via IVF and this one by publisher Jo Lendle, who also happens to be uncle of a kid conceived via IVF. Finally, there is also this delightfully snarky response by Sibylle Berg, who also wonders why on Earth people are seriously debating whether children conceived via IVF are human or whether being gay is acceptable in the year 2014, when those issues should long have been resolved and we actually have bigger problems.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lewitscharoff tries to justify her words with the usual, “Why can’t I be allowed to say what I believe? Why must I censor myself?” (Maybe she should write columns for the SFWA Bulletin). We also get the inevitable call for civility, this time courtesy of Jens Bisky (whose Dad was head of the Left Party for years), who believes we should civilly disagree with people like Sibylle Lewitscharoff rather than yell at them.

At the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Christoph Schmidt places Ms. Lewitscharoff’s fauxpology and the way she is casting herself as the victim of a pervasive “terror of virtue”, which persecutes people for speaking their mind, into a long line of renown German language writers who said something stupid, were called out on it and then complained about politically correct persecution and points out freedom of art does not mean that artists and writers can say something stupid without being called out on it. If anything, Christoph Schmidt misses several incidents, including pretty much every instance of “Günther Grass says something stupid” (happens about once a year except 2013, because Grass was ill) ever.

“Terror of virtue” is a reference to the latest book by Thilo Sarrazin, a politician (ironically a member of the social-democratic party) and former member of the board of the German federal reserve, who decided to give up that cushy post to write noxious books dripping with racism, classism, xenophobia, islamophobia, misogyny and pretty much every other -ism and -phobia you can name. Unsurprisingly, Sarrazin also views himself as a victim of persecution, which he calls “terror of virtue”. I won’t link to Sarrazin’s latest book, because the man deserves no more publicity than he already gets. Instead, read this review by Johann Osel, wherein he points out that Sarrazin casting himself as the victim of a witch hunt is kind of rich, considering that the man has been given the space to air his noxious theses in dozens of TV talk shows.

Now Jonathan Ross is no Thilo Sarrazin nor Sibylle Lewitscharoff, both of whom are closer to VD and Orson Scott Card than to Jonathan Ross. Indeed, the very comparison would be an insult to Mr. Ross and so far I think I have managed to refrain from insulting Mr. Ross.

However, the way these scandals progress is always remarkably similar. A privileged person – and I include Ms. Lewitscharoff here, even though she is a woman and daughter of a Bulgarian immigrant – says something stupid and hurtful, gets called out on it and yells “Persecution, witch hunt, liberal fascism, where is my freedom of speech?” And all too often, the mainstream media sides with the privileged alleged “victim” of virtue terror witchhunts rather than with those who are marginalized.

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16 Responses to A Tale of Two Scandals

  1. SMD says:

    I suspect I’ve been left out because I’m mostly irrelevant in the discussion. When Seanan McGuire or Neil Gaiman are involved, it seems pointless to say “hey, here’s some random guy who does some podcasts.”

    I do want to note that my post went up before I heard about McGuire’s apology to Ross’ daughter (it may have gone up before that apology was made), so if it’s odd that my post is also missing the full exchange, that’s why.

    And I hope the tone of my post was not the tone of my tweets. I went on a bit of a sabbatical after all was said in part because I started to question what I’d written (something found in my tweets somewhere…). I don’t imagine I’ll go back to the whole thing until I’ve had sufficient distance to gain some perspective, and the Twitter fit that occurred after Ross withdrew hasn’t made that possible just yet.

    • Cora says:

      The tone of your post is nuanced and I think it’s a good post, that’s why I linked it. As for the tweets – well, twitter is for snark and hastily saying things. And indeed, I found your tweets quite similar in tone and content to Seanan McGuire’s and yours predate hers, so I’m surprised that the coverage is focussing on Seanan McGuire now, while ignoring you and Charles Stross and Patrick Nielsen Hayden and many others who made similar objections.

      • SMD says:

        Yeah. I’m rather alarmed by the time discrepancy too. But what do you expect from folks online who claim themselves to be journalists? Research skills? I don’t think anyone bothered to look into the whole thing. They had a perspective and they rushed to get it out there without taking time and duration into account.

        • Cora says:

          Yes, it’s probably too much to expect from the UK mainstream media (or any media really) to actually do some research, though the most severely distorted articles appeared in places that are considered “quality papers”.

  2. Daniela says:

    I think when it comes to Sibylle Lewitscharoff it’s also a problem of the very self-involved and incestuous German Feuillton which likes to excuse the behaviour of its stars and does it’s best to twist things. (Every time I see praise for Helene Hegemann I start grinding my teeth, especially when it’s newspapers that pushed for the LSR.)

    I found this blog-entry very interesting: http://www.intellectures.de/2014/03/07/reaktion-oder-reaktionaer/

    Especially the question of whether people like her who make their problematic opinions outside of their writing public (reminds me of one of KKRs business blog-entries) should get further awards. It’s likely that she will get further awards. By next week the German literary scene will have forgotten or twisted things around so that they can continue praising her and others like her.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the link. That’s a very good commentary on the situation.

      The German Feuilleton really has the tendency to excuse pretty much any bad behaviour. I also cringed when I saw them promoting and praising Helene Hegemann’s second book, when everybody knew that she was not just a plagiarist, but also an absolutely unapologetic one. Günther Grass and Martin Walser are still invited to offer their opinion on nearly every topic, Thilo Sarrazin’s books are gleefully reviewed instead of simply buried (preferably on top of Sarrazin), ditto for Martin Mosebach’s ultra-conservative tomes and Matthias Mattusek is still allowed to spout his reactionary views. Indeed, if Orson Scott Card or Vox Day were darlings of the German feuilleton instead of SFF writers, they would probably be winning awards and allowed to air their opinion in the cultural pages and programmes.

      I also predict that they will forget what Lewitscharoff has said and that she will be nominated for and probably win further awards.

      • Mark says:

        Not sure if I can agree in the Hegemann case. With her second book she got four mentions on Perlentaucher. She got two very bad reviews (FAZ and Süddeutsche) and two positive reviews (TAZ, Zeit). So she got quite a bit of coverage, which is understandable how much media attention her first book and the plagiarism case got, but the German Feuilleton didn’t collectively “promote and praise” the book. And if she is is an unapologetic plagiarist doesn’t really matter when it comes to evaluating her new book. Well, almost. I heard that the book comes with appendix with references. Which feels a bit passive aggressive and juvenile. And I also have to admit that her metaphor-laden prose isn’t really my cup of tea, but again, new book, new story. So if she simply has no talent for writing, which is very likely, then it will get evident in the analysis of the new book and end of story. I actually think that she will have problems getting much recognition with a potential third book (without the scandal there will be much less interest, I assume).

        It’s true that the literary scene in Germany is dominated by very strange characters, though. Misanthropic, politically confused, egocentric… But speaking of egocentric characters, I think Martin Walser is a good example why the main message of the linked intellectures commentary is problematic. He wrote this book which takes place during the Nazi regime in a rural village from the point of view of a juvenile character, and the POV character is not aware of all the evils that are taking place at that time. And he did this inexcusable Frankfurt speech. I strongly feel that one is not relevant for the analysis of the other. The book is not the speech. The intellectures article, in my opinion, makes the mistake of stating that you can’t differentiate a work of art from any political comment an author ever made. If somebody wants to criticize that Walser novel than why not just analyze it and check if the POV makes sense etc, and actually criticize the actual work at hand?

        So with Mosebach, for instance, the one comment about this new book that completely put me off, was that it is set in the 80s, I believe, and everybody is running around with mobile phones? Which in my opinion is either a silly anachronism or just bad research. For me personally that is more relevant than whether he also writes (and actually gets them published) conservative wet dreams about outlawing blasphemy.

        • Cora says:

          The problem with Helene Hegemann was that she was pushed and promoted by a Feuilleton hungry for the next Charlotte Roche like sensation, even though her writing probably wasn’t ready for primetime yet. She’s also getting a lot of attention because her father is himself active in the German cultural scene, i.e. she’s “one of us”.

          I’m also not sure if you can always divorce the author (and a lot of them are problematic characters) from the work, cause the political and social views of Walser, Lewitscharoff, Mosebach, Grass, Botho Strauss, Peter Handtke, etc… do come out in their works. Should they be allowed to say something stupid once or twice? Sure. But a lot of those authors have fired off a whole barrage of stupid over the years or decades.

          I think the latest Mosebach is set in the early 1990s, which is still very early for widespread cellphone and internet use (that’s still solidly in pager and car-phone territory), especially since the sort of people Mosebach normally writes about are not exactly early adopters of technology. Apparently, he also made another gaffe by referring to a Serbian poet as Croatian or vice versa, which is inexcusable considering the book is supposed to be about the wars in former Yugoslavia.

          It’s quite telling that a lot of German literary fiction authors apparently don’t seem to think much of research. Mosebach’s gaffes about cellphones and internet in the early 1990s are pretty extreme, but I also remember an interview with Antje Rávic Strubel in which she said that she did next to no research for Tupolew 134, because she did not want her creativity to be impeded.

          • Daniela says:

            Helene Hegemann has the right “Stallgeruch” so she won’t disappear that quickly.

            The question of viewing literay work without also viewing the writer is an interesting one and depends on the literary tradition one follows. The German tradition has always focused more on viewing a book inside its time and also focused to some extend on the writer as well. Especially when the writer is also politically active or comments of societal developments.

            That statement by Antje Rávic Strubel floors me right now. How can you NOT do reserach? I mean, I know some fantasy writers who don’t do much and I openly admit that when I write SF I often tend to gloss over the science but with novels that focus on a specific historical period? Especially one a lot of readers might still remember? No, not a good idea. But maybe that’s the difference between “genre”-writers and “literary”-writers. The genre-writer manages to combine research and historical facts with creativity while the literary writers moane and whines about their poor, beleaguered creativity (very tongue in cheek here).

            • Mark says:

              I think the amount of research depends on the concept of the book, no? Take Tilman Rammstedt’s “The Emperor of China”, for example. According to him the only research he did for that book was reading a Lonely Planet travel guide for China. And it really makes sense, because the China in that novel is a caricature of China, and it’s supposed to be a caricature. Nobody ever really sets foot in China in that novel. Then there is Jonathan Lethem who said that he didn’t do any research for “Dissident Gardens”, which is hard to believe, because it’s so shock full of history, but then I guess he had the benefit of a very rich family history and a sense of biographical self discovery that guided him through that novel. Antje Ravic Strubel’s statement surprises me too, though, because her work always struck me as an example of very dry realism (and especially that particular book, which I couldn’t finish), and what is left then if it’s not even well-researched dry realism?

              Regarding the question if you can separate the work from the author my take is the following:

              If I don’t agree with comments an author made, then, yes, I think there is a certain likelihood that I will not like his/her work. So maybe I don’t buy a book. That’s subjective and and it’s personal.

              If that author/that book is the basis of an open discussion, then it’s a bit different, because I think that people are too complex, and (even more importantly for the point I’m trying to make) fiction is too complex to derive a clear and specific political agenda from a work. I agree with the statement that any piece of fiction contains political elements, because an author will always put something of himself/herself into the work, but not every story is a “message story” and you cannot always reverse-engineer the politics from the story.

              So whenever I hear the comment “every story is a political story” then I immediately think that some conservative said something stupid again about all that SF stories from liberals that are only message, and no story, and they are ruining SF and yada yada, and somebody responding with that particular statement. I think that always puts a discussion on a “you are stupid. no, YOU are stupid” level (which admittedly is the level of many debates in the SF community these days).

              • Cora says:

                Of course, the problem with the caricature of China (and mind you I haven’t read that particular book, so I can’t comment on it) is that China is a real place and not just a collection of clichés and that a China as a caricature book will likely cause people who are familiar with the real China to have the same reaction I have to yet another stereotypical Hollywood depiction of Germany as the land of beer and dirndls that is probably filmed in Cleveland anyway. And a German author can’t even expect that no Chinese people will read his book, because there are quite a few Chinese living in Germany.

                Though I have to admit that the Antje Rávic Strubel statement stunned me, too, if only because she never struck me as the “make it up as I go along” author.

                I actually do believe that all fiction is political on some level, even the fiction that desperately tries to be non-political. Which doesn’t mean that a work of fiction written by someone whose politics I don’t share is necessarily a bad piece of fiction. For example, I enjoyed quite a lot of golden age SF when I was younger (though I couldn’t stomach much of it now), even though the authors likely did not share my political views at all. I enjoyed Georgette Heyer in spite of her anti-semitism and H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in spite of their racism. But quite often, if an author’s political views are diametrically opposed to mine, I don’t find much to love about their fiction either, e.g. Martin Mosebach’s and Uwe Tellkamp’s praise of Spießertum and Bürgerlichkeit leaves me cold.

                I totally agree about the debating level in the SFF community. Important points are being made, but the level of the debate is quite often kindergarten sniping.

                • Mark says:

                  Your reaction to Rammstedt’s book is understandable considering that I gave you so little background information, but it’s also symptomatic, and I think problematic.

                  If you read the book it will get clear that the descriptions about China from the POV character tell you more about the character himself than about China. It’s obvious that he is using clichés.

                  Now the problem that I see is that it’s the typical well-meaning reaction, which automatically assumes that in such a case the writer lacks empathy and that the reader who speaks in favor of such a book, defends unreflected spreading of clichés or bigotry and apologizing.

                  I think it’s simply necessary to have such books, books that reflect on things that we don’t like. The extreme well-meaning position prefers that these things are not discussed at all. It’s a position that prefers utopias (like, let’s say a story set in a world with perfect gender-equality, which shows that world, but not how we got there, and what obstacles were in the way to get there).

                  Now “The Emperor of China” is just one book. The world wouldn’t be much worse without that individual book, and maybe if you would read it you wouldn’t agree with my assessment, but if I think about the whole literary landscape, and a world where authors don’t take such risks anymore and where readers take everything at face value and are unable to process anything in a reflective way anymore, then that thought is simply frightening.

                  • Cora says:

                    Like I said, I haven’t actually read the book in question, so it’s difficult to comment on it. If the author’s intention is to point out western clichés of China, then a POV character using sterotypes and clichés is of course appropriate.

            • Cora says:

              Yup, Hegemann definitely has the right “Stallgeruch”.

              I think our history is at least partly to blame for the tradition to view a work within the context of its time as well as within the context of the author as a person. Because there was and still is a strong drive for our cultural commentators to distance themselves from artists and writers who were either Nazis or committed Communists in the GDR, regardless the artistic merits of the work and whether the work in question was political. This is usually justified, but sometimes it can also go over the top. For example, I worked at an antique store in my teens. One day, the owner came in with a stack of fashion drawings from the 1920s and 1930s, all by the same artist. The drawings were beautiful, but the owner said to me, “We must research whether the artist was a Nazi, cause if she was, we can’t sell them.” “Why not?”, I asked, “It’s not as if she drew uniforms, only beautiful gowns.” But he was adamant that he couldn’t sell the drawings if the artist had been a member of the Nazi party.

              What struck me even more about the Antje Rávic Strubel thing was that the novel in question was based on an actual historical event, the hijacking of an Interflug plane to get into the West. And yet Ms. Rávic Strubel never did more than read a newspaper article about the event. She didn’t talk to the hijackers or people who had been on the plane or did any research at all. Of course, not all German literary writers are like that and some of them do research. But in general, it seems as if meticulous research is the hallmark of the genre writer.

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