Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Don't get the idea that On Spec is a democracy."

Regular visitors to this site may remember that for a number of years now, I've been one of the fiction editors at the Canadian SF magazine On Spec. They first approached me back in 1999; I've served pretty much continuously since, except for a brief hiatus back in 2001 when I felt that the fear of losing government funding had made the magazine too timid. But we worked it out. We cobbled together something called the Clifford Burns Memorial Anti-Veto Bomb: if any of us really fell in love with a piece, really fell in love with it, we could force it onto the schedule even if all the other editors hated it. Each editor was allowed only two bombs annually, so we wouldn't waste them on anything we weren't willing to go to the mat for.

While that Bomb has been dropped since, I have never felt the need to invoke it myself. It was intended as a last resort, after all, and truly controversial stories don't come our way very often. But if they did, I knew we were ready. The Bomb gave me comfort. I slept soundly at night.

Time passed. Some terrific stories appeared in our little rag. On Spec gave a home to the likes of Holly Phillips, Catherine MacLeod, Hayden Trenholm, Elaine Chen, Leah Bobet. I am so fucking proud to have helped showcase these people, and more others than I can count (Mrissa, you there?). Cory Doctorow even nested in our pages — before he ascended into heaven with the angels — and Cliff Burns returned to grace us with a tale or two (albeit not the one which had inspired the bomb in the first place).

The world turned; so did the masthead. Fellow scribes Holly Phillips and Derryl Murphy came and went. Susan MacGregor came and went and came back again. Steve Mohn came and stayed (you may remember the running debate he and I got into over Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years back). Jena Snyder, Editrix from the start (think of her as Ian Anderson to On Spec's Jethro Tull) — gave heart and soul and midwifed a thousand literary births. But On Spec is a hungry bitch as well as a beautiful one, and Jena had her own tales to tell; eventually she had to take back her life and her passion for writing. Diane Walton replaced her as General Editor a few years back.

And all this time the Clifford Burns Memorial AntiVeto Bomb sat snuggled safely in the back of my mind, never to be used except at the utmost end of need...

The Present Day. Diane Walton asks me to write an editorial for the next issue of On Spec. I mull over themes, decide: I will write a celebration of the one thing Hollywood and Electronic Arts has left us after they kicked sand in our faces and stole all our shiny spaceships and Big Dumb Objects and Bug-Eyed Monsters. Multimedia has taken away our special effects, you see. The galactic tour, the epic sensawunda vistas: you don't have to squeeze those images from rows of black type anymore, like some pagan divining meaning in rows of ants. You can sit back and let Spielberg show it to you, big as life. You can live it, thanks to Valve and BioWare. People don't have to read for their eyeball kicks any more. There's purer product as close as the nearest torrent.

So what did those big bullies leave behind? What did they value so little they didn’t even bother to steal? Why, ideas. (Take your average Hollywood fx blockbuster, turn it upside-down, and shake it. See any ideas come out?) And not just any ideas. Radical ideas. Dangerous ideas. The kind of ideas that timid, bottom-line bean counters would never risk letting into their big-budget movies for fear of losing some vital demographic. Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?", exploring the ramifications of a human society with no incest taboo. Moorcock's "Behold the Man", a searing time-travel odyssey in which the search for faith leads to Mary on the make and a drooling, idiot Jesus. Delany's Dhalgren, about — well, actually, I'm still not sure what that one was about, but it had a lot of gay porn and Bellona stays stuck to the roof of my mind like peanut butter...

That is where literary sf retains its edge. That is the high ground the lowest common denominator hasn't yet stolen along with our lunch money. So that's where we plant our flag, that is what we celebrate: dangerous ideas. And we at On Spec have got the right to celebrate it, by Jove! We don't just walk the walk, we put our money where our mouths are! We've got the Clifford Burns Memorial Anti Veto Bomb!

And Diane Walton says, Yes, Great! Good subject for an editorial! Just don't do anything that would make it, you know, controversial...

Because you see, I'd wanted to take a token back from the visual arts. I'd wanted to illustrate my editorial with a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit.

No, Diane says.

Well, wait a minute, say a couple of the other OSers (not me; I'm on the road at this point, and only intermittently online). Why not? It fits. We should go with it.

No, Diane says.

By this time I'm back online, and I say "I'd rather everyone was on the same page on this, but I suppose I could just invoke The Bomb."

Now Susan MacGregor weighs in. Susan and I have always got along despite her misguided devotion to imaginary friends, but now she's saying we should just revoke the Bomb altogether. She calls it "juvenile". She invokes the spectre of an editor using On Spec to promote the rape of children, and of all the other editors having to nod and act as though they agree. (You ever notice that the folks who invoke victimized children whenever their beliefs are challenged have a certain — er, how to put this — common mind-set?)

Oddly enough, this is all going down one year to the day after that Danish newspaper originally published those Mohammed cartoons that started the whole kerfuffel. The same newspaper is reprinting some of them, to commemorate the anniversary and to celebrate free speech. So are a number of others, one being Canada's National Post — hardly a bastion of radical thought. I try to point this out: we're not even talking about doing anything especially provocative at this point, we're talking about jumping on a bloody bandwagon. OS doesn't even have the yarbles for that? But before I can hit Send, Steve jumps in and rebuts Susan's argument. Someone else says Hey, I know a couple of Muslim academics, I could always get their take—

At which point Diane, evidently realizing that three out of five seem to be in favour of running with the Mohammed riff, puts her foot down:
"The CBMAVB is a joke," she says, and

"Don't get the idea that this magazine is a democracy. There will be no "Mohammed" or "Jesus" or "Buddha" or any religious icon you care to name cartoon on our editorial page."
The thing is, I'd always been under the impression that our little magazine was a democracy. And I rather got the impression that the others thought so too. And I can't help noticing that Diane Walton has taken this opportunity to preemptively veto not just icons of Mohammed, but of any religious personality, period. Which I guess means we won't be running any pictures of L. Ron Hubbard in the near future either.

And The Bomb — the very reason for my continued presence at On Spec, my first, last, and only reassurance that we will not shy away from provocative ideas — is "a joke". On me. Evidently it always has been.

Back in the day, On Spec had the balls to publish good stories, period, even those deemed too controversial for other markets. I know this, because they published such work from me before I joined. And there were a lot of those good days. On Spec approaches its twentieth anniversary, its legacy significant and undiminished by recent events. Its cover art continues to kick the asses of much larger magazines. And there are many serviceable, safe, inoffensive stories in the world; as long as 80% of them are Canadian, On Spec will continue to play a valuable role.

But it is not the role I was told it would be, nor one I can get behind.

Understand this: good people work at On Spec, and they work hard. Current policies in this regard are not based on consensus: they have been autocratically imposed by someone with no significant writing credentials, but through whom vital funding passes. She controls the purse-strings; this puts her in de facto control. My fear and my expectation is that as long as that's the case On Spec will blend ever further into the background, forever unwilling to risk notice for fear of losing the government teat. Or perhaps just out of fear of offending the sensibilities of Diane Walton. At this point I don't really know which.

In either case, I'm outta there. I resigned on Saturday.

Update 2211: Steve Mohn has now also resigned in protest over Diane's behaviour. He did ask, first, that she reverse her decision over my editorial, and that she reinstate The Bomb. Also that she ask me to return to On Spec. She refused on all counts. At which point he walked.

I have to say I'm really touched by Steve's support. My whole damn life I've been accosted by people who sidled up to whisper their admiration for my principled resignation from this job, or my public stand on that issue — only to follow up with a plea to not tell anyone they'd said that, because they didn't want to make waves. Steve (whom I've never even met face-to-face) is one of the few who actually climbed down into the trenches with me. A single ally can make all the difference.

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Blogger Ken said...

Dude...you rock. You make me feel proud to be an...well, a fellow North American, and you make me laugh out loud at the same time.

Seriously; I'm sorry to hear what happened, but I so respect you for standing up.

February 19, 2008 11:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you and your principled stands...sigh...i just hope you never have to take one that keeps a novel from being published. god-damned islam's got us too afraid make eye contact.

February 20, 2008 1:18 AM  
Anonymous Farah said...

Go for it. I'm not even sure why it would be offensive (the Danish cartoons were intended to be). It does, after all, suggest that Islam will be a power in the future.

February 20, 2008 4:39 AM  
Blogger Michael Grosberg said...


Displaying the face of the Prophet Mohammed is not offensive to muslims in the same way that displaying a caricature of, say, Jesus, is offensive to Christians. Rather, making pictures of Mohammed, even positive ones, is forbidden by some muslim traditions (by reason of preventing idolatry) and many muslims will be against the publication of any depictions of him.

February 20, 2008 9:31 AM  
Blogger sardonyx said...

*sigh* I'm really sorry to hear about the bullshit at the magazine. :/ Good for you for standing up for what you believe in.. and same with that Steve guy. I'm sure that Walton lady is a nice person.. but I'm unimpressed with her pulling this dictatorship shit on you guys after deceiving you for so long into thinking you had some sorta say in things.

February 20, 2008 10:41 AM  
Blogger Trey said...

Shakes head.
Well, for what its worth, I approve of yours and Steve's actions.
I'll even 'sign it' as a useless American.

Bowdn "Trey" Palmer
Jackson, MS

February 20, 2008 11:02 AM  
Anonymous Cliff Burns said...

Ms. Walton's actions and mindset are contemptible. Good fiction pushes the limits of the permissible, politic, destroys preconceptions and kills sacred cows with a well-aimed bolt to the forehead. May I ask what her credentials are? Is she a writer?
Is she an editor of the highest stature, her daunting reputation granting her immunity from the opinions of others? If ON SPEC must tiptoe around controversial themes in order to secure funding, then ON SPEC should shut down and close up shop. It can only serve one master and that is ART. If Ms. Walton thinks otherwise, she should be replaced. Immediately. And good riddance...

February 20, 2008 12:07 PM  
Blogger korpios said...

I second Ken: you, sir, rock. On Spec is shooting itself in the balls, if I may be so vulgar.

February 20, 2008 12:08 PM  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

Oh, well, freedom, who needs that as long as the money rolls in? One of the reasons I don't join many organizations is that I've seen too many coup de Mains of that kind, where the one with the money or the contacts or the glove and the ball suddenly insists on being Supreme Autocrat of The Associated Nations.

Good for you for saying "No" to that nonsense. I'd judge that it's not just about the stifling of free speech, it's also about the betrayal of an agreement among colleagues, a brutal grab for power from peers. If you can't stop it, it's right not to accept it.

February 20, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Well done, Mr. Watts. It always gives me the warm fuzzies when someone takes a stand on their principles.

February 20, 2008 12:37 PM  
Blogger cow_2001 said...

Erm... How do I do all those fingering and pinging stuff bloggers do? I want to add my shop of the above picture to the list.


February 20, 2008 12:41 PM  
Blogger Olman Feelyus said...

Good for you. We have too much corporate mentality infiltrating creative organizations these days. I guess Diane Walton thinks she is a CEO now. Very important. Go get a job as a CEO in the private sector if you want to be all tough.

But seriously, what is her motivation? Does she have a political agenda or is it specifically a question of losing funding? Does she explain her position ever?

February 20, 2008 12:44 PM  
Blogger Jena said...

Geez, Squid, I dunno. I agree with you in theory, but...

Sure, pissing someone off to the point where they come after you with a gun is a dangerous *act*, but how exactly does a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit illustrate that the ideas in literary SF are free and unfettered and glorious and dangerous? All it says to me is "Hey, Muslims! Nyah, nyah, nyah, I wave my privates at you. I fart in your general direction." You might as well run a photo of a guy in a spacesuit skinning a live cat - it's controversial, it pushes buttons, and the spacesuit says SF.

Besides, it's been done. Not the spacesuit, but pissing off the Muslims. It's old, man. That button's as big as the one you have regarding cats.

If you couldn't win this battle by using a full-frontal attack, then why didn't you try a different strategy? And maybe a literary illustration - how about quotes from Sturgeon or Moorcock or Delany?

If you really want to take a stand on something, it's a hell of a lot harder to *stand* there and take a beating than it is to turn your back and walk away.

February 20, 2008 1:15 PM  
Blogger Ken said...


I think the point is that...well, principle is principle. Otherwise, it isn't, and the one with the most toys (or in this case the purse strings) wins.

Not to put words in Mr. Watts' mouth...but by my thinking, if the anti-nuke is the reason that he hung around, and it's taken away...why stay? To "take a stand"? He TOOK a stand by leaving...it's not like he can't come back if Ms. Walton relents. He took a stand, left, and in fact another editor resigned in protest as well. THAT's a stand!

Funny, I already had to use this quote once today: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." -- George Bernard Shaw (hopefully, anyway...I'm sure I'll be corrected if there's an earlier source *grin*)

Taking a beating isn't my idea of taking a stand.

February 20, 2008 4:11 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

First of all, thanks to all of you for your feedback and support. It's done my spirits a world of good. Feel free to keep it up.

Anonymous said...

you and your principled stands...sigh...i just hope you never have to take one that keeps a novel from being published.

That almost happened, actually. I almost refused to hand in Blindsight to protest Tor's treatment of a third party whose work they'd twice used without attribution. The only reason I didn't was because my girlfriend left me at that moment, which kind of took the fight out of me on a number of simultaneous fronts.

But then Jena said...

Geez, Squid, I dunno. I agree with you in theory, but...

And she went on to make some substantive points. And I have answers to them; but I've decided they deserve a separate posting. So watch this space.

February 20, 2008 4:28 PM  
OpenID Branko Collin said...

Why did you quit instead of firing the offensive editors? Perhaps I don't quite grasp the power structure within the magazine; the way you started telling it things sounded like each person had an equal say.

February 23, 2008 10:57 AM  
OpenID Branko Collin said...

I forget to mention; it's more than a week later now, and the On Spec website is still advertising using the Peter Watts and Steve Mohn brands on their About page.

February 23, 2008 11:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Branko Collin said...

Why did you quit instead of firing the offensive editors? Perhaps I don't quite grasp the power structure within the magazine; the way you started telling it things sounded like each person had an equal say.

Uh, I didn't have firing power. It's not that big an operation; a few people who put in effort around the edges of their real lives, with Diane at the center as General editor. I mainly just read slush, and argued with the other editors over which stories to buy

I forget to mention; it's more than a week later now, and the On Spec website is still advertising using the Peter Watts and Steve Mohn brands on their About page.

That stuff takes a while to update. But if On Spec wants to maintain a link to this blog, well, I'm not going to stop them. Can't really see what's in it for them, though...

February 23, 2008 6:58 PM  
Blogger John said...

This reminds me of the wonderful Star Trek joke, where the Saudi Ambassador asks the US president why there are no muslims in Star Trek, and gets the reply:
"Well, you have to remember, Star Trek is set in the future ..."

Good for you.

March 1, 2008 1:22 PM  

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