L. Neil Smith's
Number 218, April 7, 2003


Blacklist or bias?
by Fran Van Cleave

Special to TLE

I write Libertarian SF, and have been paid for doing so, off and on since 1997. My first sale was to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. I've sold stories only to hard-sf magazines such as Analog, and Artemis Magazine. Of the two novels I've written, one's in final draft, the other's been ignored at a publisher's for close to two and a half years.

I had an agent, but owing to a variety of circumstances, he advised me to find another agent, one who could do more for my career than he's been able to.

Am I being discriminated against?

Stan Schmidt, my editor at Analog, named me one of his talented newcomers in last summer's SFWA Bulletin (page 40), and my novella, "Navajo Moon-Bird," was recently given an honorable mention in Year's Best SF, 19th ed, by Gardner Dozois (who oddly enough, rejected the story when I sent it to him; it was published in the Dec '01 Analog). [You can read it online at www.franvancleave.com/Navmoon3.htm.]

My editors are not libertarians, but they do share some of our ethical beliefs as well as our concerns about the means by which a free and peaceful society should be created. They've never commented on the libertarian content of my stories, and aside from a few helpful plotting suggestions, never changed a word I've written (that includes the profanities). Those stories of mine they did not publish were less libertarian than the ones published. Our personal relationship is friendly and respectful.

My story that received the honorable mention centers around free enterprise and private space access, with environmentalist kooks as the villains. I don't know if Gardner would've reprinted the story instead of simply recommending it had he found my politics more agreeable, but I doubt it. He favors a more emotive, literary style than I have. It's possible that style requirement excludes a disproportionate number of libertarians, who tend to be intuitive thinkers with straight-forward word selection. [See David Keirsey's website for a good review of psychological temperament.]

Libertarian SF is intellectually demanding in a way other SF is not, by demolishing cultural shibboleths that to most people are as invisible as air. Orson Scott Card once noted that most "alien" cultures are about as alien as Mexicans, and that far too many SF stories sound as if their characters had just stepped out of 21st Century America, no matter how far far away their galaxy may be. Since SF is supposed to be intellectually demanding, one might think we'd be held in high regard for being contrarians. That doesn't appear to be the case, but then why did Vernor Vinge win the Hugo as well as the Prometheus Award for best novel the year before last? Were his politics simply ignored by the Hugo voters? No one knows except the voters, and they're not telling.

The problems we face are, I believe, a subset of a larger problem within the publishing industry, namely that the industry does not know what will sell. Consequently it seeks the security of knockoffs and tried-and-true series books, shying away from anything new. To give just one example, Dune was rejected by more than 50 hardcover publishers before Chilton bought it for a $1,500 or $2,000 advance. As one agent put it, "There is nothing so difficult to sell as a book that is truly ahead of its time."

I wish I could say that's the situation with my manuscript that's been ignored by the publisher for so long. But it's not another Dune. While I did make a fair number of predictions about the road to an American police state that have since come true, the ms is simply too long; it needs a rewrite. It would've been nice to have someone at the publisher's tell me that two years ago, but that's the way it goes.

I am obsessed with quality work; sometimes the drama and emotional content of my stories suffer for it. Does quality sell? Heinlein didn't aim for the lowest common denominator, and he sold zillions of books. On the other hand, to quote Barry Malzberg: "If quality was the sole determinant of sales, then the Star Trek or Star Wars novels would not ... outsell the Hugo or Nebula winners two to one, which they do ..."

L. Neil Smith showed it's possible to write the latter series with libertarian theme and plot, but mostly what we see on the shelves is endless spins on socialism by another name, tyrannies of good intentions, and the monarchies so beloved of fantasy writers. If we were able to count them all from the last century, we'd be referring to them in base ten notation. Junk, and it's there because people want it. But would the fans want more high-quality, thoughtful, freedom-oriented work if it was available?

I don't know, but I strongly suspect it depends on how good we are at entertaining them. Humans being the primates they are, group biases tend to favor the bearers of cultural norms, sometimes at the expense of profits. Clearly L. Neil's experiences show that attitude is there. All we can do is tell the best stories we can, and if that's not enough, find another agent and another publisher. The really profound questions, such as whether a Whelan or Eggleton cover boosts sales, whether raised metallic type helps, or autographings, ads in Locus, or pre-pub reviews in Publisher's Weekly.. I don't have a clue how to answer.

If it's any comfort, writers in other subgenres within SF also believe they're being discriminated against by publishers and award judges. I've heard experiences romance writers have had with editors that would curl your hair. We're not alone in our difficulties.

Herewith, my advice for new libertarian writers.

Master the basics. It's a very competitive market out there. Industry bean-counters are even more tight-fisted since the economic "slow-down" hit.

Write the best story you can. Then rewrite.

Join a writer's group. In-person or via the internet, getting critiques and returning the favor can be extremely helpful in developing a number of different skills. Of course, this all depends on the skills and compatibilities of the individuals involved. Maybe some of us should get a libertarian writer's group going on-line, exchanging story critiques every month or so. Heck, maybe we could even do a writer's workshop sometime.

Do not assume too readily that what is obvious to you is obvious to your readers. People understand political points better through plot or characterization than if the POV character climbs up on his trusty soapbox. Best of all, your readers will stay awake.

Good ideas rarely sell themselves. If they did, we'd be in the majority.


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