How To Lose An Audience

  1. Buy out a magazine. Make sure it’s a magazine with a recently resurgent subscription base, fueled by a stellar reputation created by an editorial staff of impeccable taste that makes a habit of publishing fiction, art, and criticism that pushes the boundaries of weird literature and art into directions readers may have not discovered before, with a special emphasis on new and up-and-coming voices from previously underrepresented demographics.
  2. Unceremoniously junk the entire editorial staff.
  3. Take the reins of the magazine yourself.
  4. Announce your intentions of bringing the magazine back to its storied roots, which most people take to mean Lovecraft fanfiction.
  5. Make plans with your financial backer and publisher to republish the first chapter of a novel with definite racist undertones, overtones, and all tones in-between. Double points if the novel doesn’t even count as weird fiction in the first place.
  6. Write a post on the website for your magazine defending your decision to publish this questionable material, essentially accusing all opponents of the novel of being too foolish to realize its depth and quality.
  7. Delete your post hours later due to the firestorm of responses from your now perhaps-no-longer-loyal customers and have your publisher make a half-assed apology for the decision, explaining that when you made the decision about the novel in the first place, you were only looking at the novel and not the marketing materials for the novel. Make sure your publisher swears total ignorance about the novel itself.
  8. Delete responses on your website and Facebook page critical of your publisher’s apology and your initial decision, instead of directly communicating with your critics, many of whom are now totally-no-longer-loyal customers of your magazine.
  9. Congratulations! You’ve now tarnished the brand of a previously excellent magazine and essentially pissed off everyone in the process.

There really isn’t much I can say that hasn’t already been said about the debacle with Marvin Kaye, John Harlacher, and Weird Tales. I hated it when they bought the magazine and booted out Ann VanderMeer and her editorial staff. I hated it even more when I found out that the new editorial direction for the magazine was in direct opposition to Ann’s direction, which I and many others loved. And then Kaye and Harlacher had to go and decide to reprint the first chapter of Saving the Pearls: Revealing Eden, a novel of “a world that didn’t listen to the warnings of ecologists, and a world that has developed a reverse racism: blacks dominating and detesting not just whites, but latinos and albinos, the few that still survive of the latter are hunted down and slaughtered.” (For the record: “reverse racism” is an abhorrent, stupid term. I usually hear it from the same people who say, “I don’t mean to be racist, but…)

This novel has caught an immense amount of flak for being the construct of a deprived, racist imagination from a writer trying to pass herself off as tolerant. The marketing materials have a white woman put up in blackface pleading for salvation from the oppressive “Coals” (you can probably figure out who they are here).

It’s also a thoroughly crappy novel, period. Last night, after reading the latest word on the response to the Weird Tales situation, I jumped on Amazon.com and looked up the novel. A good-sized chunk of the first chapter – which, keep in mind, Kaye intended to reprint – is available to read for free. So I read it.

It stinks. The worldbuilding is terrible. The actual physical blocking of the environment and the characters’ actions is hard to visualize. The author jumps between so many imaginary and physical planes of action overlapping one another that the chapter reads like a garbled mess. The vision for the story as a whole lacks cohesion. If I was a slush reader, I’d toss it aside for being amateurish. If I received this in workshop, I’d kindly ask the author exactly what her point is in all of this. And yet, Kaye chose to reprint it.

Think he might publish my review of this movie?

I actually thought the apology attempted by Harlacher only made things worse because of how insincere and suspect it sounded. The editor wasn’t aware of the marketing for the novel, having only read the novel itself? The publisher hadn’t read or heard anything from or about the novel until the controversy? I didn’t believe it. No professional publisher or editor in their right mind would make the decision to reprint the first chapter of a novel like this without doing their due research. (Then again, I’d like to think a professional editor would balk at such a horribly written novel too.)

Sure enough, as Ann’s husband Jeff VanderMeer revealed, the apology was fishy for a reason: Kaye and Harlacher had planned as far back as June to publish the first chapter of this novel in Weird Tales. Maybe it’s possible that they made that decision on a total lack of research and due diligence, but again, I have a lot of trouble believing that.

What I’m going to say next should be read in the following contexts:

  1. I am definitely biased in favor of the VanderMeers. I work for them at Weirdfictionreview.com as the Managing Editor, and besides that I’ve assisted them with various other editorial tasks since last September. Before then, I met them through the acceptance of my microstory “Bear Gun” for The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. In the time that I’ve known them, Ann and Jeff have been gracious, helpful, and nurturing with me, patient even in the moments where I’ve made mistakes. I know more about myself as a writer and editor because of them, and I marvel at how hard-working and principled they are. They are my role models for what I want to do with my career, and I’m thankful to know them and be friends with them.
  2. My career as an editor is thus far strikingly brief compared to that of my target here, Marvin Kaye. Counting my induction as an intern at Cheeky Frawg, I’ve been working in one editorial capacity or another for eleven months now. I’ve been Managing Editor at WFR.com since January. Meanwhile, Kaye has been around since 1975 and has compiled many anthologies and overseen many different projects. I’m aware of the fact that I’m a baby compared to him, and it might be easy for some people to dismiss what I say because I haven’t been around as long as Kaye.

Onward I must march with my central thesis, however: Marvin Kaye is unequipped and incapable of being an editor-in-chief of a magazine, or anything else, in the current era of speculative fiction.

Take his choice to include Saving the Pearls in Weird Tales, for instance. According to Harlacher, Kaye made the choice to reprint the first chapter of this novel based on the quality of the novel itself, calling attention to the overall effect of her imagery and symbolic action throughout the novel, perceiving it as thoroughly non-racist. You know what? Fine, let’s proceed forward with the (utterly crock) assumption that this novel isn’t racist. Let’s do that, because that still leaves us with a thoroughly crappy novel that isn’t even a work of weird fiction. I read the first chapter of this novel, the same part that Kaye intended to reprint. I wouldn’t have made the call to reprint it even if someone was paying me to do it. I wouldn’t want to be associated with something this bad.

Then, of course, Kaye had to go and insult his audience in the post defending his decision, wishing that those who oppose the book would “acquire sufficient wit, wisdom and depth of literary analysis to understand what they read.” I’m not even sure if you could call this a backhanded insult per se; he’s essentially accusing anyone who doesn’t like the book of being idiots. It displays a stunning lack of knowledge about his audience, which, cultivated by the tastes of Ann VanderMeer and her editorial staff, would shun stories such as Saving the Pearls (and rightfully so).

So, in response to this, the post was removed from the site by Harlacher, who likely forced Kaye to change his mind so they could try and save themselves from their horrible error. Again, this shows stunning ignorance on both their parts for their audience. That original post had attracted a multitude of well-expressed dissenting opinions in a matter of hours. News of this editorial decision spread to io9 and other popular sites. Within a short span of time, thousands of readers were informed of what happened.

At this point, damage control was all Harlacher and Kaye could do. They couldn’t unsay what was said; it was already captured in the minds of people who proceeded to write about it online, feeding off of one another in an attempt to make sense of this decision. Deleting the initial post didn’t magically make the echo chamber vanish. It only made things worse, because then readers knew they were trying to hide their decision. It doesn’t matter what your stated intent is: when you remove something like that from public access, people will automatically assume a cover-up is taking place. It hurts any possible counterargument you could make before you make it. And besides, it’s the Internet. Deleting something doesn’t make it go away forever, especially when people take screen captures of it.

(UPDATE: I forgot about this blog post from Lisa Grabenstetter, which reveals an email exchange between her and Marvin Kaye that leads to several assumptions, namely that Kaye isn’t actually sorry for anything he’s done up to this point. There was promise on John Harlacher’s post on Weird Tales that Kaye would come back with his own response when he’s capable of doing so, but honestly that might be a moot point by now, given everything that’s come to light.)

What we’re left with is a picture of an editor (and publisher; don’t let Harlacher off the hook either) who has made a series of foolish decisions no professional editor should make in all probability. He showed a lack of ability to accurately gauge the artistic quality of a given work (including any necessary research that might be expected along the way), a lack of awareness regarding the tastes of his audience, and a lack of understanding regarding the realities of publishing both in the speculative fiction community as it stands now and in an online format. I may not have much editorial experience at all, but these things are fairly evident to me without a strenuous exertion of mental effort. So, why aren’t these things evident to Marvin Kaye?

16 Comments

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16 responses to “How To Lose An Audience

  1. Brain Burst Writing

    From the ousting of Ann VanderMeer to even considering this work a piece of Weird Fiction, the new editor really has solidified my opinion that Weird Tales is going to be going through a major decline. If these are going to be the opening acts of a new regime, then it can only get worse from here. Plus, it’s always a bonus to show complete disrespect for your audience. That’s a great way to start things off. *snicker*

  2. jameseverington

    It’s a shit situation, no doubt about it, but thanks for this post – the list at the start actually made me chuckle, and then some great serious points below. Articulated well a lot of things I’m sure many of us are feeling.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it. It actually took me a while to formulate what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Much of the day of and after Kaye’s announcement on the Weird Tales site, all I could muster was open-mouthed disbelief. I finally came up with the list at the beginning to try and illustrate just how absurd this situation really is.

  3. Great post. And I don’t care how long Kaye’s been in this business. You are direct and articulate; he is pretending he’s still on a plane, while sending defensive emails to people who are canceling their subscriptions. Who’s the baby?

  4. For those of us unfamiliar with the entire timeline, that was a wonderfully succinct review of events from last summer until now.

    Often times, the managerial (or editorial) reaction to a problem is what makes the situation a catastrophe. A flimsy review process can allow something ridiculous to slip through, but when you don’t fess up to your mistakes & instead retrench, you often end up burning the whole thing to the ground. There’s something to be said for standing up for your beliefs, sure, but when everyone is telling you that you’re being racist–you should probably shut up.

  5. Thaddeus

    This is just heartbreaking. I loved reading Weird Tales these last several years. It was entertaining and inspiring.
    And now I can add “Never Submitted a Story to Weird Tales,” to my list of biggest regrets, because I sure as hell don’t want to anymore.

  6. I think that a lot of people (e.g., Foyt and Kaye) don’t understand that you can be racist without being malicious, which is why a lot of them are flummoxed. Racism to them means individual acts of meanness and white sheets. The book in question is drenched in tropes and stereotypes (black women with attitudes, hypersexual black men, virginal white women) that it effectively obscures the stated aim: to show the absurdity of racism.

  7. I’m really sad I had to find that WT was rebooted from this post, like discovering the muppets right after Jim Henson died. The reason why is just another twist of the knife. I can’t beleive that thing made it through any kind of vetting process, even as fanfiction it would have been laughed off the internet.

    • That’s a good analogy! (I love Jim Henson; he’s one of my creative idols.) The build-up to what’s happened now with the decision to reprint the first chapter of Saving the Pearls really has been heartbreaking, ever since Ann and her editorial staff were yanked last year. While I suppose it’s pure economics when it comes down to it (Marvin and John wanted to buy the magazine and they had the money, so they bought it), it’s such a betrayal of almost everyone involved, including Ann, her editorial staff, and the loyal audience they cultivated. The Saving the Pearls thing is basically the latest bit of icing on a very disappointing cake.

      • A failcake, if you will.
        I think one of the saddest things to come out of this is how conventional that racist piece of crap is. A “reverse-racism” premise is at the bottom of the overused story cliches pile , right below post-apocalyptic dinosaurs and vampires. It’s not weird. It’s not even interesting. It’s the kind of thing that would turn up in a Sophmore writing assignment as their idea of “deconstructing” racism. And THAT’S what they chose to represent the kind of work they publish. Unbelievable.

  8. Hey Adam. We met at WFC, but I didn’t get your contact info. We should chat, Midwestern writers as we both are (I may be moving back to Joplin in the next couple months, btw – good to have someone semi-local to chat with from time to time). I’m at songteller (at) gmail (dot) com – please say hi. Oh, and I quite enjoyed your story in Ideomancer.

    • Hi Richard! Thanks for pinging me. I’ll make sure to email you soon and see how you’re doing. I’m glad you enjoyed the story! I’m planning on writing a kind of afterword for it for the blog soon.

  9. Pingback: Favorites From 2012: Books, TV, Movies | Caught In The Dreaming

  10. Thank you so much for this. I’m a writer from Baumgarten, Germany and what I just read here on wordpress.com couldn’t be said much better.

    Reading through this article kinda reminds me of my first roomie, Elise.
    He constantly kept preaching about this. I most certainly will send these ideas to him.
    I’m certain he will have a very good read. I appreciate you for posting this.

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