Spinrad Learns Fate of Asimov’s Column and Responds

Norman Spinrad learned today on Facebook that his recent “On Books” column for Asimov’s had been taken down and then reposted with an introductory statement by Sheila Williams emphasizing that “…Spinrad has been a provocative voice in Asimov’s for thirty years, but his opinions do not represent the magazine…”

He was informed by commenters on a new public Facebook post about his stalled career, “Blackballed? Or Worse Still Not?”.

Spinrad’s reaction was –

The post where these comments appear concludes by saying —

Gordon Dickson wrote that every culture has a blindspot at its center that it doesn’t see until it is too late precisely because it is central.

Is it merely a single engage[d] science fiction writer who is being blackballed? Or in the end is a culture that is blackballing confrontation of what its existential center will surely be blackballing itself?

41 thoughts on “Spinrad Learns Fate of Asimov’s Column and Responds

  1. When you’re at the bottom of a pixel, it’s time to put down the scroll.

  2. Having read both the editorial and the disclaimer that eventually went with it, I think Old Man Yells At Cloud about covers matters.

  3. It’s a bit surprising that Spinrad, as a writer, doesn’t seem to be familiar with the definition of the terms “censorship” and “state of the art” — the latter being an up-to-date assessment of the subject at hand, something he is by his own admission obviously not qualified to produce. 🙄

  4. Surely at this point it’s kinder to ignore the fading old man, and not further alarm him with explanations he is no longer able to understand.

  5. As Obi Wan Kenobi once said: “I felt a great disturbance in the force as if millions of voices cried out ‘that’s not how the first amendment works, it limits the capacity of the government to censor the press not the capacity of the press to choose what to publish'”

  6. When Asimov’s pays someone for their opinion, they’re saying that they think that opinion is relevant and worth considering, even if they don’t agree with it. When it becomes clear that the certain someone is no longer producing opinions worth what Asimov’s is paying, it’s time for them to stop.

    If there’s any shame felt at the magazine over this, it should be over not reading the column carefully before publishing it. I understand that lead times can be stressful for print pubs.

  7. I followed the link to his FB post and now I am confused. He is clearly upset by the cover of The People’s Police, but he never explains (to my understanding) what is wrong with it. Also I don’t know which cover he is upset with, because Google shows me two possibilities–the stylized skull one is very striking and would probably get me to take it off the bookshelf and examine it. The horse-and-crowd one is blah and makes it look like a non-fiction work about law enforcement.

  8. Spinrad is thoroughly embarrassing himself with these cries of “censorship” and the suggestion a First Amendment violation has taken place against him. The publication that pays for your speech has just as much right to withdraw it as it does to publish it.

  9. @various, re failed definitions: it’s not even clear to me that Spinrad understands the meaning of “engaged”; the least-irrelevant definition seems to me more like “involved in a discussion” than “ranting from one’s porch”.

  10. @Nancy Sauer: I do remember Spinrad being upset about the cover art when it was published, but I can’t remember why. He is clearly writing now under the assumption that everyone remembers, or that it’s just obvious. But I’m pretty sure it would have been the one with the skull design since that was the original hardcover.

    I haven’t read his recent work, and I’m curious to, but this kind of thing is just a crank rant—it would be very obviously a crank rant regardless of what happened with the Asimov’s piece, it’s just incoherent and ignorant on its own terms, and it’s sad. Also sad to see Gregory Benford in the cheering section, at least sad for me personally because I have more of a relationship with Benford’s work than Spinrad’s. I know he’s been going that way for quite a while though.

  11. Dear Jeff,

    Yeah — theoretically. But I’ve never seen a contract structured like that. Doesn’t prove they don’t exist, but it would be very uncommon. The best contract you are ever likely to see is one in which the publisher pays you for satisfactory completion of the work and in which all rights revert to you with no penalty to you if they fail to publish or cease publication of the work. A contract that obligated the publisher to publish would be unusual.

    Having been published by Asimov’s, I can testify that that is not a normal part of their contract.

    ~~~~

    Dear Heather Rose,

    Add me to the confused company. I was especially intrigued (is that the word I want?) by his calling to “freedom of the press.” To slightly paraphrase the great Inigo, “I do not think it means what he thinks it means.”

    Regardless of legal definitions of the word censorship (which strikes me as a bit too close to rules lawyering for comfort) I don’t think a situation where (a) the publisher has paid one for the work, (b) one retains all additional publication rights to the work (this is also true of Asimov’s normal contracts), and (c) one’s social media/twitter/blog following is plausibly larger than the circulation of the magazine that declines to publish one’s piece, one can plausibly claim to have been censored. One has outlets larger than theirs!

    Somewhat arbitrarily, I will declare myself a nonfiction writer in Norman’s league. He’s probably got a half dozen years on me, but when you’re in the half-century range, that doesn’t matter. He’s probably had more words published than me (I don’t think I’ve passed two million) but I know my word rate has been a lot better than his, so it evens out.

    Over that long career, I’ve been “censored” a good half dozen times or maybe a few more. Which is not bad over 4+ decades and God knows how many hundreds of pieces. In every case, the magazine paid me for the work and then declined to publish it because of either some manufacturer’s pressure on them or because the editor or publisher was too cozy with somebody they shouldn’t have been. They’d thank me for my efforts, send it back to me with a check and that was it. And I was stuck, because prior to major Internet presences, there was no way to get such a work in the hands of 100,000 readers except through a magazine. They could effectively silence me, unlike Norman.

    And yet it never occurred to me to think of this as “censorship” or anything like a “First Amendment” or “freedom of the press” issue, because that would’ve been so ridiculously stupid and childish and, well, not to put too fine a point on it, asinine that the notions never even entered my head. Was it galling and an affront to my ego and my professional pride? Oh, hell yes. I can empathize with Norman’s feelings about this.

    I cannot sympathize with his behavior. It is true that editors and publishers will put up with an extraordinary amount of assholery because, well — truth — we artists can be remarkable assholes at times (cries of shock and dismay rise from the audience — “Say it isn’t so, Joe!”). But counting on such tolerance does not seem to me to be especially prudent. If I were a publisher or editor, reading Norman’s reactions to this kerfuffle I’d be asking myself if I couldn’t find a competent reviewer who would be a whole lot less of a pain in the ass to work with.

    It has been known to happen.

    pax \ Ctein

    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com

  12. Eli: Spinrad’s complaint about the cover was linked from the September 17, 2017 Pixel Scroll, which connects to his Facebook post objecting to Tor’s cover, and treatment of The People’s Police generally, which he characterized as a book orphaned by the death of editor David Hartwell.

  13. My takeaway from this so far is–
    1)NS, known to be a type of person who will create a stir is given a column.
    2) Apparently there is no real oversight or he’s been granted carte blanche.
    3)He finally writes something that sets someone (unknown) off to the extent that Asimov’s, in what is looking more and more like a knee-jerk reaction, pulls the column.
    4)That, apparently, was later determined to be hasty and was undone. Leading me to think, without any proof mind you, that somehow a social media liason or employee is involved.
    5)Allowing a minor internet ka-fuffle to take place allowing cracks about old men, cis men and probably, though I haven’t seen it yet, old white cis men.
    6)There’ll be a bit of huffing and bemoaning and then it will all die down until the next time/transgression/slow day.

    Also, something seems to happen to some guys once they hit 70. Either this is the way they’ve always been and no one paid attention or they lose some kind of filter. I’m seeing it with friends who have crossed 70–suddenly they just say what they want.

  14. If that’s “censorship,” it would also be censorship if I sent Asimov’s a book review and they declined to publish it, because they never heard of me, or because it wasn’t very good, or because it was about a non-genre book, or any other reason. That’s not a definition that is useful in communicating anything more nuanced than “I’m angry at Asimov’s, and I want everyone who knows me to share my anger.”

    I would consider stretching the definition of censorship to cover possible actions by the only newspaper, or only broadcaster, in a large region–but it would still have nothing to do with the First Amendment. I certainly wouldn’t stretch the word far enough to cover something like, oh, OGH refusing to post an obscenity-filled and fact-free attack on Spinrad even if the attack was nominally on topic.

  15. Having the editor adding such a comment to one opinion piece alone is basically the editor saying that they think Spinrad is wrong. I can understand the anger from a columnist. Especially when Spinrad ended his column asking for people to pick a side and it seems like the editor picked the other side.

    But while I can understand the anger, the arguments are as muddled as the original piece.

  16. Attention oh-so-Woke folks: Norman Spinrad was once as cutting-edge in the sf field as you now fancy yourselves to be. Someday the measure you measure may be measured unto you.

  17. I think it’s pretty legitimate for older writers of “the literature of the future” to let younger writers and readers get on with it rather than telling them they’re all doing it wrong, do what he says instead. Nobody is stopping Spinrad from producing new fiction.

  18. @Sandra
    Yes, he was once cutting edge. I read tons of Spinrad 25, 30 years ago. But that doesn’t mean that he’s right, now. And if, 25 years from now, I write a book review for a venue that is as wrong-headed as his piece is, I hope I get called out on it (future me won’t be happy but that’s kind of the point, here).

    And “Oh you should worry about calling out BS, because you might be called out someday” is not really a good argument, in my view.

  19. Sandra Miesel on November 4, 2019 at 7:32 am said:

    Attention oh-so-Woke folks: Norman Spinrad was once as cutting-edge in the sf field as you now fancy yourselves to be. Someday the measure you measure may be measured unto you.

    Gasp! Oh no! One day people might my opinion incorrect which is not something that ever happened before and/or currently!

  20. I expect that someday my opinions of the now will be old and outdated, and I hope that I am not so calcified as to be the Old Man Yelling At The Cloud, but… yeah, that might be what happens.

    No reason not to call out the Things That Are Wrong Now now, though.

  21. I’m cutting-edge ohsowoke. A happy measure and a merry fancy SF field unto you all.

  22. Dear Sandra,

    Thank you so much for those words of wisdom. None of us woke folk had ever, ever considered the possibility that some of our ideas could become obsolete.

    Inconceivable!

    Imagine how bad it could have been if you hadn’t opened our eyes for us.

    We owe you an unpayable debt of gratitude.

    ~ on behalf of the masses

  23. Attention oh-so-Woke folks: Norman Spinrad was once as cutting-edge in the sf field as you now fancy yourselves to be. Someday the measure you measure may be measured unto you.

    Is this supposed to chasten anybody? The young going easy on Spinrad because they too will get old someday would be patronizing, not kind. He put forward ideas and they’ve been taken seriously and challenged. He would’ve hoped for that in the New Wave days and should welcome the same today.

  24. Attention oh-so-Woke folks: Norman Spinrad was once as cutting-edge in the sf field as you now fancy yourselves to be. Someday the measure you measure may be measured unto you.

    Yes, and? All that will prove is that society has advanced and become more enlightened, as it should. I’m not so attached to any of my opinions that I can’t change them. If someone in the future feels I should be called out for something, then so be it.

  25. @Sandra: That would be a reasonable criticism if we were arguing against something Spinrad wrote and published decades ago, without trying to find out whether he still agreed with it. I don’t agree with everything I thought 25 years ago, and would be surprised if I agreed with everything that any other person had thought 25 years ago.

    Le Guin wrote (quite a while ago now) that the trouble with print is that it never changes its mind, and that people were enthusiastically quoting her in support of things she no longer agreed with.

    It would be ahistorical as well as the height of ego to believe that human thought had reached perfection in 2019, but not before. I assume that as time goes on, I will learn more and change my mind about certain things. I think and hope I’m still allowed to quote what other people said decades or even centuries ago when I admire their phrasing.

  26. I’m still baffled that anything in his column merited any sort of energetic reaction. He said some things I disagreed with, but nothing terrible. This all seems like a tempest in a teacup.

  27. Sandra Miesel: Attention oh-so-Woke folks: Norman Spinrad was once as cutting-edge in the sf field as you now fancy yourselves to be. Someday the measure you measure may be measured unto you.

    Sure he was — many years ago. But this review / opinion column wasn’t written back then. It was written now, when he makes many demonstrably untrue statements as if they were facts, and openly admits that he hasn’t paid attention to the Hugo Awards for years.

    In other words, he’s openly demonstrated and admitted his ignorance of “the state of the art” in science fiction — and yet he had the utter hubris to write a column which presumes to present an opinion on the state of that art. He also had the hubris to try to define a hard line between science fiction and fantasy and condemn fantasy (yes, this from the author who wrote a novel where womens’ orgasms power interstellar travel through hyperspace 🙄 ).

    If I had the hubris to do that, I certainly hope that people would call me out for it. And I certainly wouldn’t expect people to respect, or give any credence to, that opinion.

    I don’t think that Asimov’s should have taken the column down, even temporarily. But it’s a bit concerning that it was apparently included in the issue at all, without any editorial oversight — because the piece certainly makes Asimov’s look really bad, in that they were willing to even publish such an ignorance-filled screed as part of their magazine. As a paying subscriber, I hope that they will exercise better judgment regarding the quality of their content in the future.

  28. @Sandra Miesel: In addition to the comments about Spinrad’s present decay, I will note that he was not always considered cutting-edge even in his own day; Bug Jack Barron may be the worst example of his female characters falling to their knees and fellating the hero, but IIRC it’s not the only one — and it was called out for this at the time.

  29. @Mike Glyer: Thanks for the link. Yes, that’s what I remembered seeing before. But apparently it wasn’t my memory that was unclear; I was just as unclear when I read Spinrad’s post in the first place.

    I mean, I get that he didn’t like the cover overall (I didn’t think it looked good either), and had other issues with the publisher, but specifically why he thought the cover design said something “misleading and insulting” about the themes of the novel (or about New Orleans—so much so that he wanted to apologize to the city!)… I don’t see him explaining that part at all, he just seemed to think it was obvious. A couple of people on that FB thread guessed that maybe the problem was that the two silhouetted figures were facing in different directions, but Spinrad didn’t ever respond to clarify whether that was what he meant, at least not on that post. He just described an extremely different design that he would have liked.

  30. Chip Hitchcock: Bug Jack Barron may be the worst example of his female characters falling to their knees and fellating the hero, but IIRC it’s not the only one — and it was called out for this at the time.

    Absolutely. It was grotesque, and it happened in several works.

  31. Eli: A couple of people on that FB thread guessed that maybe the problem was that the two silhouetted figures were facing in different directions, but Spinrad didn’t ever respond to clarify whether that was what he meant, at least not on that post. He just described an extremely different design that he would have liked.

    I agree — I decided not to add that observation when I gave the link because I didn’t want to bias the response. But I got the same impression you did.

  32. I think it would be great if, for their next issue, Asimov’s commissioned a column that served as a rebuttal to Spinrad’s column. Perhaps an author in the Nebula anthology that he panned would like to write one, or someone who knows something about China. If Asimov’s is going to pay for stuff like this, they should make sure they’re making space to publish (and pay for) other viewpoints, too.

    Ranting about it on Twitter is all well and good (there’s a whole lot of educational discussion going on), but during this whole thing I was noticing a lot about who gets paid for their opinions and whose only outlet is dissenting on social media.

  33. Becca: I don’t think a rebuttal column is needed. The many awards these stories have won (including the Hugos that Spinrad apparently no longer pays much attention to) speak for themselves about the quality of the stories and their reception in the larger SF fandom. I think the column says a lot more about Spinrad than it does about the stories. On the one hand, he’s entitled to his opinions. On the other hand, if he refuses to be embarrassed about demonstrating that his opinions are mostly just a cranky uncle rant based on a largely superficial understanding of the current state of the art, that’s on him. It certainly doesn’t recommend his current opinions to me as things I should take seriously.

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