The “Arcana” controversy

My posting of the Tiptree long list has set off a minor stir in blogland. I assumed that some of the picks would be controversial (wouldn’t be much fun, otherwise), but I was surprised to see that the title drawing most of the attention was Emily Brunson’s “Arcana.” Given that “Arcana” is a work of fanfic in which Harry Potter‘s Severus Snape impregnates CSI‘s Nick Stokes, some of you may be wondering, “How could you not expect that to draw attention?” All I can say is, after you’ve read the child rape, female circumcision, and dragon cunnilingus scenes in Janine Cross’s Touched by Venom, mpreg just seems quaint.

Some of the blog discussions of “Arcana” have generated hundreds of comments, so rather than answer specific objections there, where my remarks might get lost in the noise, I’ve decided to do it here:

OBJECTION #1: It’s a terrible story!

While there’s some excellent fiction on the long list, if your principal interest is top-notch storytelling, you’re starting in the wrong place. Go read Geoff Ryman’s Air. When you’re done with that, check out the short list (I highly recommend Wesley Stace’s Misfortune as reading selection #2).

Fictionwise, the long list is much more of a mixed bag. Not everything on it was picked for its prose, and even where one judge thought a particular LL item was a great read, another judge often disagreed.

OBJECTION #2: It’s fanfic!

This is apparently a huge deal to people, so I wish I could say that the judges at least discussed it, but as far as I can recall, the issue never came up. Nothing in the Tiptree by-laws forbids recognizing fanfic, and even if there were such a rule, in the case of the long list we’d have felt free to ignore it.

OBJECTION #3: It’s terrible fanfic! By putting it on the long list, you create the impression that most fanfic is badly written!

[sound of crickets]

OBJECTION #3, continued: …OK, OK, maybe 90% of everything is crap, but still, if you wanted to give a nod to fanfic, couldn’t you have gone out and found a better example?

One of the reasons I agreed to be a Tiptree judge is because I thought it would be neat to get tons of free books. After slogging my way through the first few tons, my attitude changed.

A downside to the Tiptree Award’s open nomination policy is that it encourages publishing houses to spam the judges’ panel: instead of picking just one or two titles to submit, they’ll grab half a dozen—including some that have nothing to do with gender—and submit them all. Why be selective when the price of entry is a handful of review copies? It’s not as if the judges will ever be in a position to waste the publishers’ time.

So the answer to the question is, much as we might have liked to go searching for more nominees, we were far too busy dealing with the flood of stuff already being sent to us. Please keep this in mind when making recommendations to future Tiptree panels.

OBJECTION #4: Fanfic violates copyright, and copyright violators shouldn’t be recognized by award committees.

There are three separate issues here: a legal issue, a moral issue, and an issue of relevance.

I’m not up on the current legal status of fanfic, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that “Arcana” constitutes copyright infringement, and perhaps trademark infringement as well. Although J.K. Rowling has reportedly given her blessing to Harry Potter fanfic, one of her stipulations is that the fanfic in question not be obscene, and even if Snape impregnating Stokes didn’t cross that line, Ms. Rowling isn’t empowered to speak for the CSI copyright holders. A court of law might find that “Arcana” qualifies as parody or fair use, but realistically, it would never get that far—if Rowling or the CBS network wanted to, they could make “Arcana” disappear with a single cease-and-desist letter. (I hope this doesn’t happen.)

Morally, I judge instances of copyright infringement according to the spirit rather than the letter of the law. The Constitution doesn’t say anything about guaranteeing authors absolute control over their creations; the stated purpose of copyright is “to promote the useful arts” in general. Derivative art is still art, and unless it somehow undercuts the productivity of the original artist (not likely in this case, unless Rowling and the CSI screenwriters decide to read “Arcana” for themselves and suffer crippling aneurysms as a result), I have a hard time regarding it as wicked.

Finally, and most importantly, even a work of art that was clearly illegal and clearly immoral might still be worthy of public notice and discussion—and generating discussion is a big part of what the Tiptree is about.

OBJECTION #5: By drawing attention to “Arcana,” you risk triggering a legal crackdown on fanfic in general.

If putting “Arcana” on the Tiptree long list leads to a general crackdown on fanfic, then a crackdown was inevitable. My guess, given the way copyright law is going these days, is that such a crackdown probably is inevitable in the long run. If this bothers you, don’t complain to the Tiptree judges, complain to Congress.

OBJECTION #6: Emily Brunson didn’t ask to be made the poster child for fanfic.

I don’t know who nominated “Arcana” for the Tiptree Award, but if you’re suggesting that the judges should have asked the author’s permission before putting her work on the long list, please click here.

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16 Responses to The “Arcana” controversy

  1. frabjousdave says:

    This explains why my subconscious made me cringe when I saw you posted the long list. I had a bad feeling about that …

  2. cherylmorgan says:

    Nice to see some clear, level-headed comment on this subject. Although of course most of the people commenting have no idea how award juries work, just some vague notion as to how they should work.

    Just one small comment. Clearly it is not part of the regulations for the Tiptree that authors should be consulted before being included. It is, however, a long standing part of the Hugo rules that authors must be consulted and be given the opportunity to decline nomination. It does happen – Terry Pratchett did so last year. This shouldn’t be an excuse for Ms. Brunson, but it might explain why people in fandom think that she ought to have been asked. It isn’t as daft an idea as you might think.

    • Matt Ruff says:

      I don’t think it’s a crazy notion, just a little ironic in context.

      • coffeeandink says:

        At the risk of seeming irony-impaired: In one of those hundred-comment-long threads, Liz Henry did say she contacted Em Brunson to see what name she wanted the story listed under, and presumably Brunson could have protested then, if she wanted to.

        • cherylmorgan says:

          There you go then. All above board, and the whole kerfuffle (well, Objection #6 anyway) is just an attack of the Nice Police.

          • rydra_wong says:

            Well, given that mainstream publicity does increase the chances that a fanfic author will get those C&D letters and be required to pull their work off the web, and given the ambiguity over whether the work should be considered “published” (if a pro author put an unfinished, discarded draft-that-went-wrong of a scene up on their blog to amuse friends, would it be fair to submit that, out of context, for an award as representative of their work?) – it doesn’t seem unreasonable for people (me included) to have wondered whether Em Brunson consented for her work to be used like this.

            Pretty obviously, her situation differs in some significant respects (legal and social) from that of the other longlisted authors.

            matt_ruff wrote:

            if you’re suggesting that the judges should have asked the author’s permission before putting her work on the long list, please click here.

            I’m still not getting the irony, unless it’s meant to be the tired old “OMG haha she dint ask Rowling’s permission!” thing …

            • Matt Ruff says:

              Well, given that mainstream publicity does increase the chances that a fanfic author will get those C&D letters and be required to pull their work off the web, and given the ambiguity over whether the work should be considered “published”

              From both a legal and a practical standpoint, there is no ambiguity: posting on the Internet is publishing. People who think otherwise are kidding themselves.

              (if a pro author put an unfinished, discarded draft-that-went-wrong of a scene up on their blog to amuse friends, would it be fair to submit that, out of context, for an award as representative of their work?)

              If I post something on a public website, I’m not just sharing it with my friends, I’m sharing it with the world, and common sense tells me that the world may not know or care what my wishes are. Posting is publishing, and publishing exposes you to critical response. I don’t expect people who review my novels to ask permission first.

              it doesn’t seem unreasonable for people (me included) to have wondered whether Em Brunson consented for her work to be used like this.

              I’m sorry if the longlisting caused Ms. Brunson grief — that was certainly not our intention — but there’s no consent issue here. We didn’t “use” her work, we responded to it. That’s what happens when you publish stuff. The world talks back.

              I’m still not getting the irony, unless it’s meant to be the tired old “OMG haha she dint ask Rowling’s permission!” thing

              It’s not tired, it’s the crux of the issue. I believe fanfic should be unambiguously legal because I believe in artistic freedom and free speech. I think it’s silly for copyright holders to claim that fanfic hurts them, and it’s wrong for them to use copyright — which is intended to promote art — as a tool for suppressing it (yes, even the crappy stuff).

              But the principle cuts both ways. It’s silly to argue that work posted on a public website isn’t meant for public consumption, or to expect people to ask permission before drawing attention to it. If J.K. Rowling doesn’t get to control public discourse, neither does anyone else.

            • cherylmorgan says:

              If the story was on the Internet (and therefore published) then it is completely unreasonable for you to expect Brunson to have been consulted. That’s what publishing your work is all about. There are plenty of ways in which a draft of a story can be discussed privately amongst a group of friends. But if you put something on a public blog the rest of the world will assume that you want them to see it.

          • tavella says:

            As it turns out, Liz Henry either seriously misunderstood her conversation with the author or was shading the truth; janissa11 had no clue this was going to happen, and in fact didn’t even know what the Tiptree was.

            And while yes, Matt’s right, it was badgerbag’s perfect legal right to do it, I think it was rude as hell. And I don’t think it’s really equivalent morally to the fact that fanfic authors don’t ask permission. CSI and JK Rowling have great big bullhorns; fanfic authors are just quiet little kazoos playing around down in the underbrush. And while the Tiptree is a much smaller bullhorn than those of CSI/JK, it’s still a very big one compared to fanfic authors, and yes I think it’s the responsibility of those with the power to take care when people haven’t asked to be publicized.

            • Matt Ruff says:

              As it turns out, Liz Henry either seriously misunderstood her conversation with the author or was shading the truth;

              I don’t doubt Liz’s honesty for a second, and while it’s possible there was a misunderstanding, I wouldn’t assume it was on her end.

              janissa11 had no clue this was going to happen,

              Neither did anybody else on the short or long lists. Only the award winner is traditionally notified in advance, so that he or she can have as much time as possible to make travel plans for attending the ceremony.

              and in fact didn’t even know what the Tiptree was.

              She’s in good company on that score, too.

              And while yes, Matt’s right, it was badgerbag’s perfect legal right to do it, I think it was rude as hell.

              If by “it” you are referring to the placement of “Arcana” on the long list, that is the responsibility of the full judges’ panel, not just Liz. Yes, as Liz has stated publicly, she is the judge who lobbied for “Arcana”‘s inclusion during our long list deliberations, but we all signed off on it. If you’re mad at her, you’re mad at me too.

              But I think your anger is unreasonable. We weren’t being rude, we were doing our jobs as judges. We treated “Arcana” the same as any other nomination.

              CSI and JK Rowling have great big bullhorns; fanfic authors are just quiet little kazoos playing around down in the underbrush. And while the Tiptree is a much smaller bullhorn than those of CSI/JK, it’s still a very big one compared to fanfic authors, and yes I think it’s the responsibility of those with the power to take care when people haven’t asked to be publicized.

              One of the many problems with this attitude is that it puts you at the mercy of other people’s ignorance. Up until about forty-eight hours ago, I had no idea that fanfic authors were this terrified of publicity. In hindsight I can see that it makes sense that they would be, but there was really no good reason for me to figure this out sooner. After all, I didn’t care that “Arcana” was fanfic. To me, it was just another story.

              • wild_irises says:

                Matt, thank you so much for both the original post and this clear statement that the whole jury is responsible.

                I can’t say how much I appreciate it.

  3. jonquil says:

    Let me further explore question 3: “still, if you wanted to give a nod to fanfic, couldn’t you have gone out and found a better example?”

    Here’s the issue: the work is nominated because it’s gender-transgressive. In fanfic, “Arcadia” is in no way gender-transgressive. MPREG is a standard, if little-admired, trope. It’s as if a New York Times critic dived in to SF, grabbed the (imaginary) “The Boy’s First Guide To Rockets”, and said “Wow! Look at how brave this writer is for exploring the concept of *outer space* for the first time!”. SF writers would be howling, “But we’ve been exploring space for ages, and ‘The Boy’s First Guide’ is actually a second-rate space exploration novel.”

    If a Tiptree judge grabbed a piece of erotica and said “See the subversion inherent in the system!”, surely it would be a valid response if erotica writers said “Actually, that theme has been well-known and well-used since *The Pearl*, if not earlier.”

    • David Moles says:

      Scope
      Just because something doesn’t transgress the boundaries of its highly transgressive subgenre doesn’t mean it isn’t transgressive when considered in a larger context.

    • Matt Ruff says:

      Let me further explore question 3: “still, if you wanted to give a nod to fanfic…”

      Just so there’s no misunderstanding: the Tiptree judges were not, collectively at least, looking to give a nod to fanfic. I approached “Arcana” the same way I did all the other submissions, as a work of fiction, period. I didn’t care what tribe it belonged to.

      It’s as if a New York Times critic dived in to SF, grabbed the (imaginary) “The Boy’s First Guide To Rockets”, and said “Wow! Look at how brave this writer is for exploring the concept of *outer space* for the first time!”.

      There were four Tiptree judges. Our opinions on specific nominees, particularly the ones that ended up on the long list, were often contradictory, so to imagine us speaking with a single voice is just wrong. And my initial post of the long list didn’t include any commentary about “Arcana,” just the title and the author’s name.

      None of this stopped people from immediately trying to divine the deeper meaning of “Arcana”‘s longlisting, of course. And I’m not casting stones — I’ve played that mind-reading game myself many times. But a game is all it is.

    • badgerbag says:

      Scarily… I have read “The Pearl” a bazillion time. 😉

      Have you read “Teleny”? Do you think it is really Oscar Wilde? I want to believe that it is!

    • wild_irises says:

      It’s a completely valid response.

      To my mind, it’s the most useful thing to come out of this whole tempest.

      And the lesson I take away is that audiences vary widely, and we all have things to learn from each others’ area of knowledge, and each others’ blind spots.

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