Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Helix-Sanders Implosion

I thought this kind of stuff only happened in congregational churches - you know, schisms, splits and new congregations founded over hurt feelings and unimportant disputes (if you go to an SBC church like I do, you've probably heard the joke about the missionary who's stranded on a desert island, with the punchline "Oh, that's the church I used to go to.")

In July, a writer posted a rejection on a blog letter from William Sanders at Helix which - in the course of explaining why the story was not being accepted - made some un-PC comments and at least one reference that was considered racist. Putting aside the fact that, while a brilliant writer, Sanders is about as cuddly as a two-striped skunk with distemper, I feel the rejected author was wrong to disseminate what was a private communication between and editor and an author, and furthermore, while so many people find Sanders' opinions obnoxious, he's entitled to them and his free speech and freedom of thought is to be respected and protected as anyone else's.

I've decided, for the sake of clarity, to repost here this informatin gleaned from a web site called Transcriptase, which seems to be the "schism" from the Helix site following the big blow-up. If you've been getting this megilla in dribs and drabs, pull the chair closer and read the sordid tale.

And it goes like this:


We are Helix writers who believe in a speculative fiction community that welcomes all readers—inclusive of all races, genders, and marginalized people of all backgrounds.

In July 2008, Helix editor William Sanders stirred up controversy in the community with remarks that many found offensive. The blogosphere exploded with discussion.

As the controversy continued, several Helix writers asked to remove their work from the magazine and were met with unprofessional treatment. This upset all of us. We agreed that we would not stand by in silence.

Transcriptase hosts reprints of our stories and poems originally published at Helix. During the controversy, some of us removed our work from Helix; others left it up. There are valid reasons to make either choice, and we hope you’ll respect that we had difficult decisions to make. We offer our stories and poems at Transcriptase so that you can enjoy our work away from Helix, if you choose.

It’s difficult to summarize how we feel about the incident, since each of us feels differently. Our reactions range from disappointed to sad to angry.

Here is the summary of what happended:

The short summary: Helix editor William Sanders wrote a rejection letter using the term “sheet heads.” (The rejected story included Muslim characters and dealt with terrorism.) When confronted with this, he defended his word choice and criticized the writer for posting the rejection letter. Debate spread across many major internet forums. Several Helix writers asked to have their work removed from the Helix archives. Sanders did so, but put up a page saying the story was removed for “pantiwadulous” reasons. He told one writer that he only published her story because he wanted diversity and the story didn’t actually make sense. Then he said that any writer who doesn’t remove their story within the month will have to pay $40 to have it done later. Finally he declared that no more stories could be removed, period.

Transcriptase is a response to these actions. A longer summary follows.

The letter was originally posted in a journal, although the author later removed the letter. The full text of the letter is still available on a number of sites, but is reposted here for convenience:

No, I’m sorry but I can’t use this.

There’s much to like. I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people - at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can - and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.

However, as I say, I can’t use it. Because Helix is a speculative fiction magazine, and this isn’t speculative fiction.

Oh, you’ve tacked on some near-future elements at the end, but the future stuff isn’t in any way necessary to the story; it isn’t even connected with it in any causal way. True, the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty); he was headed in that direction from the start, and if it hadn’t been the encounter with the stripper it would have been something else.

Now if it could be shown that something in this incident showed him HOW the West could be overthrown, then perhaps the story would qualify as SF. That might have been interesting. As it is, though, no connection is shown and in fact we are never told just how this conquest - a highly improbable event, to say the least - came about.

There are some other problems with the story, but there’s no point in going into them, because they don’t really matter from my viewpoint. It’s not speculative fiction and I can’t use it in my magazine.

And I don’t think you’re going to sell it to any other genre magazine, for that reason - though you’d have a hard time anyway; most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads. I think you might have a better chance with some non-genre publication. But I could be wrong.


William Sanders
Senior Editor

The initial posting of the letter prompted considerable debate in the blogosphere as to the ethics of posting a rejection letter, some of which can be seen in this thread at Making Light. In this thread, Lawrence Watt-Evans, another Helix editor, explained Sanders’ comments as follows (#3 in the thread):

Several people do seem to have misinterpreted it; the references in the letter to “those people” are indeed specifically directed at terrorists, not Muslims in general, since the story in question is about terrorists. I’m fairly sure the story’s author understood that; I certainly hope he did.

The only possible ethnic slur is the term “sheet heads.” Once again, that was intended to refer to radical Islam, rather than Muslims in general, but I acknowledge it may be an unfortunate choice of words.

To which Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor with Tor Books (#10 in the thread), responded:

Lawrence, you know I like you, but no one with any sense buys the idea that when Sanders raved about “the worm-brained mentality of those people” and claimed that “most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads”, he was making a careful distinction between “Muslims in general” and “terrorists.” Because, you know, nobody thinks that even William Sanders is crazy enough to assert that “most of the SF magazines” are afraid to publish anything that would offend terrorists. Obviously he meant Muslims in general. He knows it, everyone with any sense knows it, and you know it, and I don’t know why you’re retailing defenses of this obvious nonsense.

Say what you will about Nick Mamatas; try to brush him aside because he and Sanders dislike each other–I’m not close to either of them, and I don’t care about that. What I know is that Mamatas absolutely has the drop on Sanders’ claims that he was only referring to “terrorists.” As Mamatas points out, if this is true, what does it do to Sanders’ claim of familiarity with the people under discussion? Sanders can’t have it both ways; if his splenetic comments were meant to refer only to “terrorists,” then he was claiming to have spent his time in the Middle East hanging out with terrorists.

Tobias Buckell also provides a good analysis of why the letter is racist. He concludes:

If we don’t call this shit out, people will think it’s totally okay to do it, snickering on the down low in emails.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ email to Yoon Ha Lee, in response to her request to have her work removed, contained the following racist insult:

Certainly I would not want to continue to publish a story against the author’s wishes, especially a story like this one that never did make any sense and that I only accepted because I thought it might please those who admire your work, and also because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.

Ultimately several Helix authors asked to have their work removed. When the work was removed, it was replaced by a page stating “Story deleted at author’s pantiwadulous request.”

Subsequent to these requests, William Sanders said that writers would have to pay $40 to have their stories removed from the archive.

Why should you have to do all this extra work for nothing, just so some silly people can make a big grandstand play to impress their bloggy pals with the Correctness of their convictions?

I am hereby making a change to the aforestated offer. Effective as of now,
any Helix contributor who wants his/her work deleted from the archives will
have to pay for the privilege. Specifically, it’ll cost you forty bucks, payable
to Melanie.

Finally, William Sanders declares that no further Helix authors may remove their stories, period:

All right, that’s it. It’s been long enough; there’s been ample opportunity
for anyone else who felt soiled by the contact with Helix to step up and speak
up and pay up.

I don’t believe there are going to be any others (the imposition of cash charges
seems to have had a distinctly damping effect) but if there are, tough shit.
You had your chance and you didn’t take it.

Thus far, this is the end of the saga. More details can be found by Googling “Sanders letter Muslim” and similar strings.


To twist a phrase that comes out of Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Conundrum of the Workshops", "It's art, but it isn't pretty."

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