SF in the Mainstream at BEA: The Panel and the Coverage

BEA Signing


Ed Champion has responded in a very odd and offensive way below, along with a tweet that, well, I don’t know what it has to do with the inaccuracy…i.e., I guess I was supposed to just let it pass. He’s beginning to creep me out.

The New Yorker’s Sasha Weiss also contacted me and apologized for the errors, and corrected them. Which I thought was classy.

So Ann and I just got back from BEA in New York City, where we were promoting the Tor edition of our massive new The Weird anthology. We had a wonderful time and met so many great people. I wish I had more time to blog about it, but you know who you are—thanks for making our trip so great. Thanks too to Tor—everything ran smoothly, and it was great to hang out with our editor there, Liz Gorinsky, and our publicist, Alexis Nixon.

In addition to the autograph session pictured above, we were part of a panel on SF & the Mainstream hosted by Ryan Britt that also featured Walter Mosley and John Scalzi. The panel was quite interesting, and the only regret I had is that it was over so quickly—it seemed like we were just getting into the meat of the issues brought up. Ideas about genre, about the meaning of perfection and technology, diversity in the field, etc. (I’m hopeful I can convince Mosley to spend the time answering some follow-up questions for an Amazon feature.) Back-stage had been a lot of fun, too, since both Mosley and Scalzi are incredibly entertaining people. (Indeed, Scalzi’s “need a hug” comment to me during the panel cracked me up.) I was also quite chuffed that Mosley, whose novels helped influence my own Finch a bit, told me he’d enjoyed City of Saints & Madmen.

But there’s the panel and then there’s the coverage of the panel….and the coverage has veered from accurate and objective to completely incorrect, and I’d like to talk about that just a little bit because it fascinates me how something that would seem so simple as coverage of a half-hour panel can vary so drastically.

Ann and I concur that the most accurate account comes from Ron Hogan at Tor.com. Ron’s got the quotes right, and who said what correct as well. There’s the least attempt to editorialize just a genuine effort at straight-on reporting. It doesn’t include everything we talked about, but you have to pick and choose.

[UPDATE 6pm: Rose Fox’s account at Publishers Weekly was just posted. It is also very accurate, and taken with Hogan’s gives a complete picture.]

The New Yorker blog’s coverage, on the other hand, is pretty shoddy, and I reproduce the full entry here since I’m about to give them corrections, and this version may change: [NOTE: They’ve now corrected the errors–and very graciously, I might add.]

Back at the Uptown stage, James VanderMeer, the editor of the “The New Weird,” an anthology of science fiction, was talking about the composition of the B.E.A. It’s “mostly white, mostly featuring writers from the U.S. and the U.K… In ‘The Weird’ we wanted to show, yeah, there’s this stuff, but there’s also so much other amazing stuff, from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place. In the period from 1910 to about 1930, people all over the world were thinking about the same things.” Walter Mosley, a sci-fi elder dressed like a beatnik in a black leather jacket and cap, reflecting on the capacious world of contemporary genre fiction, remembered his early rejections from publishers. “They told me, ‘White people don’t read about black people, black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read, so who is going to buy this book?’ ” Sorting books into rigid categories, VanderMeer said, is “neither how it’s always been, nor how it should be.” Mosley: “One Hundred Years of Solitude—it’s a great fantasy novel, but also a great work of literature.”

What’s wrong with this description? Just about everything. Let me break it down. (1) My name is Jeff VanderMeer not James VanderMeer. (2) I coedited The New Weird with Ann, not by myself. (3) The book we had at BEA was The Weird not The New Weird. (4) The book is not science fiction. (5) The mostly white comment about BEA was from Walter Mosley, not from me. (6) The mostly white comment is then shoehorned in with my “mostly featuring writers from the US and UK”, which was about some prior compilation anthologies, not about BEA. (7) Walter Mosley is definitely NOT a “sci-fi elder” but someone who is mostly known for his great mystery series, while also having written some SF. (8) Scalzi said the quote about “neither how it’s always been nor how it should be.” (9) Ann is not quoted at all and erased from the panel entirely, as is John Scalzi.

The third account, from Ed Champion, trades outright inaccuracy for suspect editorializing, and some rather bogus attempts to get inside of the panelists’ heads. It all starts to go wrong when Champion writes in a completely tone-deaf new journalism way about moderator Britt’s “gray vest insinuating some classy authority” and then states that the two big questions are (1) “How do the glories of ‘weird’ in any form get self-respect,” given that “plenty of us have experienced ‘weird’ moments in our lives without having to cleave to genre.” and (2) “…whether Walter Mosley would attempt to rile up the crowd with an outlandish and unsubtle statement.” Neither of these questions were on my or Ann’s minds, and I dare say they weren’t in the minds of most of the gathered crowd—although I did in passing address the first question during the panel (not reported on by Champion). Immediately following these… questions… Champion writes that “But before Mosley opened his mouth, Jeff VanderMeer” spoke up. The clumsy transition makes this read to me as the false assertion that I interrupted Mosley at some point during the panel.

Later in the account, Champion includes Mosley’s comment (paraphrased, I think—this doesn’t strike me as his exact wording) that “One of the things walking around this place is how many white people are. And it’s another weird moment. Maybe it’s a weird moment for me, not for other people in here.” In response to which he writes “I did observe Jeff VanderMeer, dressed in a white suit and seated next to Mosley, sink further into his seat. Ann VanderMeer attempted to return the conversation to the human factor that Scalzi had set up so well…. Jeff VanderMeer attempted to respond to Mosley by pointing out that the duo had selected stories “from Japan, from Nigeria, from all over the place.” Mosley spent much of the time after this puffing up his cheeks.”

This is a very odd and inaccurate interpretation of that sequence of events. First of all, it attributes a physical reaction to me that I don’t recall and as an implied reaction to Mosley’s comment, which is definitely false. What I was thinking as I possibly innocently shifted in my seat, unaware my every movement was going to be parsed from afar, was “fair point” and then was thinking of how this was a good entry into discussion of how when we’d looked out on the vast majority of previous compilation volumes like The Weird we saw mostly UK/US white male writers, and how we wanted to show what was missing from the equation by including work from other countries, etc. Ann, meanwhile, wasn’t trying to redirect anything—she was just answering the moderator’s original question. Finally, I have no recollection of Mosley figuratively or literally then “puffing up his cheeks” for most of the rest of the time. I certainly at no point thought he was trying to “rile up” the crowd, and I didn’t find his comments to be anything other than interesting and useful.

Champion also writes that “Then Mosley tried to pass off Scalzi’s anecdote about the Star Trek communicator as his own.” This is another odd statement. Why would Mosley have to have some kind of bad intent even if he was repeating something already said? In any event, although I don’t recall that particular exchange, I can say that this attempt to parse intent seems totally off-base.

The inaccuracies in the New Yorker account and the kind of banal tyro-novelist attempts at sussing motivation on Champion’s part seem somewhat unfortunate, given that we had a lively and interesting discussion. The fact that all of the panelists were coming at the subject from different angles created some fascinating exchanges. I’d be on a panel with these same participants in a heartbeat, and I really enjoyed meeting Mosley for the first time.


  1. Felix Gilman says

    i notice you’re evading Champion’s question about whether the panel turned into a dead shark

  2. Felix Gilman says

    yeah fins are pretty good, they do useful work and there’s something iconic about them

  3. Felix Gilman says

    I think if I had to be 25% of a composite shark corpse, it would make it easier to explain it to friends and parents if I could say Walter Mosley was in it too

  4. J. Andrews says

    Half hour panel? Wow. I get so used to Wiscon’s 75 minutes that even a more typical 45-minute panel would seem short to me.

    It’s always striking how wrongly the media can get things when it’s something you were there for or know well. It’s hard to keep that in mind when reading/watching a report on something you don’t know as well.

  5. says

    Just a note that, as set out above, the New Yorker contacted me, and corrected their errors, in a very classy way. This in marked contrast to another reaction…

  6. says

    First off, I apologize for my remark to Jay Whelan. That was impetuous of me. I’ve been working very hard for the last several days, but that doesn’t excuse it. He has every right to view me as a terrible journalist, just as Jeff has every right to characterize my writing as “banal tyro novelist.”

    Nevertheless I stand by my account. The reasons why I don’t need to contact you or correct my post are as follows:

    (1) The New Yorker called you “James VanderMeer.” I used your name correctly. (2) I referred to the name of your book correctly. (3) I correctly noted that you co-edited the book with Ann. (4) I never called your book science fiction. (5) My vantage point was from the audience. Yours was not. (6) The photo accompanying my piece shows you clearly slumped in your seat. Two people have who attended the panel have corroborated that you slumped and that you slumped further roughly around the point when Mosley made his remarks. (7) I never identified Mosley as a “sci fi elder” because I’ve read the Easy Rawlins mysteries and I know his work. (8) I did not put other people’s words in the wrong mouths. (9) I quoted everybody at the panel, a practice conducted for all five published panel reports posted in the last few days. (10) I took five typed pages of notes and, just to be sure, corroborated my quotes against what others had said on Twitter.

    That is the marked contrast.

    Jeff: You are drawing all sorts of ridiculous inferences that don’t exist. Five paragraphs. Can you honestly not see your fixation? My piece may have gently ribbed you, but it was hardly a hit piece. And you have a history of behavior where you draw extremely paranoid conclusions about how other people view you (including accusative emails directly with me; I also know that you have done this with other people). I’ll leave it at that.

    It is clear that you want to see people in a particular light rather than understand where they are coming from. And it is also clear that you wish to divine aspects about my piece that are entirely illusory and entirely within your own mind. This ability to invent may serve you very well for such wonderful books as SHRIEK, a novel I actually praised to somebody as recently as three weeks ago. But it isn’t a quality that works when you’re dealing with other people.

    There was no need to go down this road, Jeff. But you have forced my hand.

    This is my final communication with you. I wish you well and I hope you seek help for whatever is causing you pain.

    With great sorrow,


  7. says

    Ed: Oh fer Chrissakes. What melodrama. You seem to ignore the fact that most of the inaccuracies I point out involve MOSLEY, not me. I don’t know why you’re blind to this, but a less self-important journalist might take some of the criticism to heart, instead of rejecting it wholesale. I referred to you as a tyro novelist because the kinds of approaches you used reminded me of someone trying to write fiction. I apologize if it seemed personal. But the fact is, the piece is truly inaccurate.

    Yes, the infamous slump. If you can’t see the stupid in this, I really can’t help you. What if my foot slips in future and someone thinks I’m dissing them? I don’t know–I shall have to be insanely careful and in control of my every motor function at all times.

    The pain? It is in mah ass. You are a pain in mah ass at this point. I shall seek therapy to protect me against idiots.

  8. says

    It’s okay, Jay. It’s not at all your fault! In retrospect, I could’ve posted without using “tyro novelist” and maybe that would’ve helped. But, in any event, it didn’t need to reach this level of drama.

  9. says

    Notice how nobody is arguing with the proposition that I am best. Yay me!

    I really liked Rose’s write-up, though, especially since she put in a lot of great moments where I wasn’t able to write fast enough at the time or fit them into the throughline I chose. I’m especially glad that she got Mosley’s comments about the ethnic composition of Star Wars, which if I recall correctly led directly into his comments about the ethnic composition of the publishing industry/BookExpo audience, and which I ultimately set aside in favor of what I thought was a much more pointed statement about what publishing insiders told him about the ethnic composition of the book-buying public. If anything Mosley said was unsubtle, it’s because he was describing an unsubtle situation, one that may or may not be outrageous but is hardly outlandish.

    I’m also glad she got Mosley’s exact words about Jules Verne, while I was only able to get the basic position, in a less elegant rephrasing. Y’all did a great job of speaking to the historical continuity, and though I’m largely (though not entirely) satisfied with what I wrote, what I wrote is still a shadow on the cave wall compared to the actual discussion.

  10. Felix Gilman says

    Friday Sharkfact: a composite shark made of four randomly selected writers can have as many as four fully-functional sets of teeth, though it usually doesn’t