Thursday, November 30, 2017

Apology & Open Letter Responses


We apologize to all readers and authors we've harmed and offended. Greg has withdrawn from the Locus Recommended Reading List panel.

We apologize for offending non-binary and trans people who use “they” as their pronoun. Our criticism of fictional non-binary characters in stories hurt real people who read and identify with those characters. What we'd previously dismissed as differences of personal preference or as "neutral" linguistic arguments, actually exposed a major blind spot.

We also apologize for trying to "explain" trans people to a cis audience in two reviews (The Black Tides of Heaven & The Red Threads of Fortune). It is not our place to do that no matter how much history Greg had in the LGBT movement, and we should have known that.

Moving forward, we will no longer single out the use of “they” as pronouns for non-binary characters as a Pro or Con of a story. We will treat non-binary characters the same way we treat gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans characters. For existing reviews, we will update each with a correction and comment that links to this post. In general, if people tell us about errors in pronouns or gendering, we’ll thank them for their feedback and correct the errors.

We continue to listen and to learn, and we will do better.

For People Who Are Making Threats: It's come to our attention that some people are making threats against some of the folks who complained about RSR's treatment of trans and non-binary people. This really is not acceptable and we condemn it unconditionally.

Response to the open letter

Here are our responses to "An Open Letter With Respect to Reviews Published on Rocket Stack Rank"
By now, many have heard criticisms of Rocket Stack Rank’s reviews of stories containing non-binary and/or trans characters. Reviews that misgender characters in a story, that misgender authors of stories, that focus heavily on genitals or delegitimizing non-binary pronouns. On the site, RSR explains that its criticisms are limited to stories and publications, but that its negative reviews shouldn’t be considered criticism of an author. And yet we find it hard to understand how a criticism of a character’s identity, especially when shared by the author, should not be considered a criticism of the author, or any reader that would share that identity.
We do not read up on an author prior to reading their story, and only look up the author's website and Twitter handle after the review is written. If we could, we would read the stories with no byline attached (like how stories are chosen for the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series). When an author is referenced in a review, it's in the form "the author" and sometimes we do get their pronoun wrong, but we make corrections to misgendered authors, characters, and other mistakes when readers point them out.
The reviewer, who is not trans and/or non-binary, makes judgments about the validity of pronouns and identities, and decides which author “makes good use of [transness]” and which authors do not. This is problematic and hurtful. This is a way of saying “you do not belong.” A way of saying “stories about you don’t belong.” When reviews specifically cite pronouns of characters as justifications for rating a story down, a line is crossed. A line where not only writers but readers may find their identity questioned, belittled, and willfully misunderstood. A line that RSR crosses often and with seeming impunity.
We erred in our criticism of non-binary and trans characters who use "they" as their pronoun, apologized above to non-binary and trans people, and will correct those reviews.
Things get even more uncomfortable when we look at the way that non-traditional narratives are treated by the site. Especially for styles that come from outside a Western/European/White American tradition, the complaint of “this is not really a story” rears its ugly head. “This is not a story” type of sentiment seems to be disproportionately applied to stories by authors of color and/or non-Western authors. RSR reviews of stories from authors of color and/or non-Western authors frequently use dismissive and outright offensive language, such as calling some of these stories “exotic” and similar. Here, like with stories by non-binary/trans authors, RSR signals to marginalized authors: “you do not belong.” To us, this dismissive approach shows a complete refusal to engage with texts on their terms – which, in effect, disproportionately negatively impacts writers coming from outside the traditional inroads into SFF.
We do not believe authors of color and/or non-Western authors are overrepresented in this category. This query for "not a story" in our reviews turns up about 90 results (out of over 2,100 story reviews) and a cursory look shows the majority have Western authors.

We agree that using the term "exotic" for people is considered racist, but this query for "exotic" turns up only a few results in our reviews, and browsing that short list shows exotic settings, locations, dancers (in a dive bar), architecture, atmosphere, sex (with tentacles), and one "exotic woman" who's part lion, but none appears racist.
RSR and its main reviewer, Greg Hullender, have gained a considerable influence in the field, with a Hugo nomination, a third-party link on the Hugo website, and now a place on the Locus jury. RSR has positioned itself as an authority on short fiction, an objective source of reviews with an emphasis on numbers and ratings to aid in the selection of stories for awards. The deeply ingrained biases of the reviews (pointed above), are especially problematic considering RSR’s growing influence. RSR and Greg Hullender’s approach once again seeks to reaffirm the institutional inequalities of short SFF by dismissing undesirable “outsiders.”
We do not promote ourselves as the one-and-only authority on short fiction, as evidenced by the search link we provide with every story that lets readers find reviews written by people with very different tastes from RSR, as well as direct links to recommendations from prolific reviewers where available.
When confronted with his biases, Greg Hullender often refuses to acknowledge he has an issue, pointing out that he is a gay man who engaged in GLBT activism in the past, and thus cannot be transphobic.
Greg now knows that his gay activism and actions as LGBT employee representative that helped trans employees at Microsoft back in 2005 are insufficient for understanding the modern trans and non-binary movements. He apologizes that it took him so long to realize this.
Greg Hullender also uses his identity as a gay man and former activist to police and pass judgment on the kinds of sex characters can have in stories – and the judgments go beyond the stories reviewed, to what kind of sex people can have. Here again, Greg Hullender often insists on his views being generic and objective, judging acts outside of his preferences as disturbing, abusive, and deviant. These judgments often go hand in hand with other issues – such as an anti-trans and an anti-NB stance – in his reviews. Thus, reviewing JY Yang’s novellas, Hullender equated sex with a nonbinary person with paedophilia.
We've apologized for our bad judgement at the top.

As for equating sex with a nonbinary person with paedophilia, it stems from the quote "having sex with a person who uses “they” is like having sex with a child" in The Red Threads of Fortune review, but a full reading of the two paragraphs with the quote makes it clear that Greg is criticizing the story for making a non-binary character appear child-like. In no way did Greg equate non-binary people with pedophiles or anything of the sort.
We have repeatedly observed how RSR’s main reviewer, Greg Hullender, uses his identity as a gay man as a shield against legitimate criticisms. The assumption is that because the main reviewer is a gay man he has some sort of inability to be bigoted toward any other marginalized group or person. That this would excuse him calling stories with non-binary characters fads or arguing that singular they pronouns are somehow not correct unless they are tied to a specific genital state.
Mistakes were made that hurt people, apologies were given, and Greg will talk to members from trans and non-binary organizations in Seattle to avoid mistakes in the future.
This Twitter thread by Bogi Takács contains a large number of screen-caps and commentary, including specific instances of the issues mentioned above:
We would like to point out that this tweet in Bogi's thread about "A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers" being retroactively recommended is a misunderstanding of how stories are picked for the "Best LGBT Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2015-2016" list. An LGBT story makes the list if it got one or more recommendations from a prolific reviewer, and that reviewer does not have to be RSR, as that story shows. Giving recommendations from prolific reviewers equal weight as an RSR recommendation is another example of how we do not promote ourselves as the top authority on SF/F short fiction.
We have been working to draw attention to this ongoing problem for almost as long as Rocket Stack Rank has operated – at first indirectly. But the amount of problematic reviews continues to grow just as RSR’s stature in the field continues to increase. The exclusionary reviews and their growing influence in the sphere of awards cast a long shadow in the field. It is worrying to see important institutions within SFF endorsing and promoting RSR over the objections and concerns of writers, readers, and other reviewers (including writers, readers and reviewers of color and trans writers, readers and reviewers).
As far as we know, the signers of the open letter have not contacted us directly. Instead, we would occasionally discover Twitter discussions about RSR after the fact from high traffic volume to particular stories, but generally it's been hard to find them without @RocketStackRank being included in those threads. Manual searches for RSR and Rocket Stack Rank alone turn up only unrelated material and recommendations tweeted by RSR itself (prior to November).

Thank you for reading.

Cleanup Progress

Friday, December 1, 2017

Removed gender references from An Abundance of Fish, by S. Qiouyi Lu.

Fixed gender in blurb for A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power, by Rose Lemberg.

Changed the subgenre for Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time, by K.M. Szpara.

Removed gender references from The Worldless, by Indrapramit Das.

Removed discussion of singular "they" and raised rating from two to three stars for World of the Three, by Shweta Narayan.

Removed pronoun discussion from Deep Waters Call Out to What is Deeper Still, by Sarah Frost.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Changed pronoun for the military system in Forestspirit, Forestspirit, by Bogi Takacs, from "it" to "them."

Reworded review text for Books of the Risen Sea, by Suzanne Palmer to avoid the statement that the author made use of the character's transsexuality. 

Removed paragraph about a character not needing to be non-binary from Where the Flock Wanders, by Andrew Barton.

Corrected gender of the protagonist in Prosthetic Daughter, by Nin Harris.

Substantially edited the review text for The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang to eliminate discussion of "they" and speculation about genitals while still preserving commentary about the gender system. Removed one comment for the same reason.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Deleted gender discussion from The Red Threads of Fortune, by JY Yang and discussed character development instead, since that's the real issue.

This completes the cleanup, unless someone surfaces another problematic review and/or finds problems in the corrected versions.

4 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I already posted this at F770 on their discussion of the apology, but I wanted to say it here too:

    I’m only going to engage with the way this apology deals with my axis of marginalisation. The apology from RSR once again reduces the criticism of their approach to nonbinary characters to their treatment of neopronouns, without dealing with the detailed criticism of the extent of the transphobia implicit and explicit in their reviews, as discussed in comments on previous posts.

    This apology fundamentally ignores the issues raised, once again; it is a defence and a doubling down, not an apology accepting of where wrong has been done.

    My criticisms of the treatment of nonbinary and trans rep in the October review of Red Threads of Fortune can be found here:

  2. We deleted three comments for violating our comment policy. We can't allow name-calling here, not even from people who want to support us.

  3. We've temporarily turned on moderation site-wide (because Blogger won't let us do it for specific posts).

  4. "And yet we find it hard to understand how a criticism of a character’s identity, especially when shared by the author, should not be considered a criticism of the author, or any reader that would share that identity."

    So if someone criticizes one of my characters, who happens to be an elderly heterosexual caucasian male, for example because a young asexual caucasian female would have fit the story better, I should take it as an attack on me? That's...strange.