Jo Fletcher Books, Rod Rees, Sexism and Systemic Failure. Part IV.

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.


I want to reiterate that while I find the actions of Jo Fletcher Books in this matter ill-advised, I in no way believe they were ill-intentioned. Any organisation can be blindsided by an associate whose opinions don’t represent said organisation. And naturally a publisher with a writer under contract needs to consider their working relationship to said writer in their responses to criticism.

That said, swinging the hammer of “On the right to freedom of speech” towards critics of Rees’ article and JFB’s decision to run it is far, far less than ideal a response.

In the last month, “freedom of speech” has been seized upon as a cri de coeur in the face of criticism in the SFF genre community. The response of Resnick and Malzburg to legitimate criticism was not to say, “Hey, you might have a point, we’ll think about it,” or even, “I think you’re wrong, but we’ll have to agree to disagree,” but to talk about “censorship” and “liberal fascism.” Likewise, calls to expel Theodore Beale from SFWA for, essentially, bringing the organisation into disrepute, were met with but you can’t punish him for exercising his freedom of speech!

(The right to freedom of speech is not the right to a platform, or to a megaphone. Nor is it freedom from the consequence of speech – which can be criticism, in the form of more speech.)

The SFF community and associated conversations are very familiar with the idea of freedom of speech. At the moment, they’re also very familiar with its use as a complaint in the face of criticism: But he has the right to say such things!

No one is saying otherwise. What people are saying is that some opinions are inappropriate for sharing in professional fora, and that it is inappropriate for professional organisations to give them platforms. Racist and sexist opinions are among those inappropriate opinions.

That “freedom of speech” is seen both as a defence against critical speech and as an unmitigated good thing is a systemic failure in our community to which, however unwittingly, JFB’s public response to criticism of Rod Rees’ post in part contributes.

Jo Fletcher is a busy person. She makes sure we’re aware of this in “On the right to freedom of speech“:

Today I should be editing the last 35 pages of David Hair’s magnificent epic Scarlet Tides, so it can make its Autumn publication date . . . but instead, I’m taking that valuable time to discuss something that’s even more important

and:

I expect some of you are wondering why I am breaking into valuable editing time to discuss freedom of speech – and on a Saturday morning at that!

This is a somewhat inflammatory way to begin a post responding to critical comment. Many of the people who responded to Rod Rees’ opinions as expressed are busy individuals themselves, who spent some of their own valuable time and energy in answering the problematic elements of his assertions.*

Jo Fletcher distances herself from Rod Rees’ opinions as expressed:

When I offer the blog to our wonderful writers, I don’t tell them what they can – or can’t – write about. They’re grown-ups, after all, and I must depend upon them to use good judgement.

…Would I have written Rod’s blog? Frankly, I don’t think I would have.

She defends – although as far as I can tell, no one is actually attacking – his right to offer such opinions:

Do I defend Rod’s right to his own opinion?

Damn straight I do.

Missing from the post is the thing I hoped for most: an acknowledgement that Rees’ opinions as expressed may not have been professionally appropriate, and whether humorously or provocatively meant or otherwise, how he phrased them insulted his writer colleagues who are women.**

Ultimately, Jo Fletcher Books is responsible for all the content posted to their blog. A statement of regret for the insult given to colleagues would not have been inappropriate. It would’ve gone a long way towards reducing the sense of affront.


If you don’t agree with Rod, I absolutely defend your right to disagree!

Of course, I expect it to be well-reasoned, well-written, with good grammar, spell-checked and properly punctuated . . .

I’m not the only person who finds a statement like that, in the face of criticism, to imply that disagreements to date have not been, “well-reasoned, well-written, with good grammar, spell-checked and properly punctuated.”***

It’s not a good point to close on, I guess is what I’m saying. It doesn’t demonstrate real engagement with the criticisms which have been made. It’s not the response of someone used to engaging with direct criticism on the internet. A good faith effort requires some acknowledgement of one’s critics’ points, even to say, “We can’t agree, and further conversation won’t prove fruitful,” or, “Company policy is such, although we may revisit it in future.” (“This was infelicitous or erroneous, but we will strive to do better,” is a good sentiment to have in the good faith toolbox, too.)

The internet means communication happens faster and reaches more people than ever before. Problematic shit receives more attention, and more critical attention, than ever.

And “free speech,” when that speech has offensive implications, and when deployed by the privileged against the less privileged – as it was in Rod Rees’ case – can contribute to a hostile or offensive environment.

Me, I’m invested in having a genre community, and a genre conversation, that welcomes a diverse range of voices, and a diverse range of good books. That doesn’t alienate women needlessly – or people of different colours or creeds, sizes or shapes, genders or abilities.

I expect more. I expect better.


All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho

We all try, and try again. We can all fail better. Going by increments towards a less hostile world, a more welcoming community.

To Jo Fletcher Books, I say:

Next time, I beseech you. Fail better.


*As for me, I’ve spent at least six hours on this that could’ve been thesis time, or reviewing time, or actual eating/sleeping/exercise time, but since I receive less than eighteen grand a year this year, most of it from the government, I’m not sure anyone but me considers my time valuable.

**As a reader, I felt insulted also – but the direct insult was given to female writers, with the challenge to the viscerality of their work.

***Here, the cranky person may point out that apart from the punctuation, Rees’ article meets few of those criteria. Reduction ad adsurdum, anyone? The reductio, or argumentum, ad absurdum could hardly be more absurd…

Jo Fletcher Books, Rod Rees, Sexism and Systemic Failure. Part III.

Part I. Part II.


We broke off yesterday with the conclusion that Rod Rees was either clueless or deliberately trolling. But what about his publisher, Jo Fletcher Books?


It is important, I think, that we absolve JFB of malice. When a publisher gives a writer access to a platform to promote said writer’s newest novel, whether or not that publisher agrees with their writer’s opinions, I believe the general assumption is that the writer will do their best avoid doing something that will bring the publisher’s platform into disrepute. Busy editors and PR persons should be forgiven for cursorily glancing at the first paragraph or not even reading it at all before cuing it up.

(I’m not saying this is best practice. But it’s an imperfect world, and I sincerely doubt any publishing imprint is over-provided with available staff-hours.)

In fact, Jo Fletcher Books is an imprint I’ve been watching with interest. They’ve published two debut SF novels by women just this year – Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns and Naomi Foyle’s Seoul Survivors – along with Karen Lord’s second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds. Looking into Waterstones in Liverpool yesterday brought home to me just how much UK shelfspace in SFF – particularly in SF and in epic fantasy – is dominated by male names, and I confess to nursing a small, quiet hope that JFB’s decision to bring SF debuts by women on board this year might help to start evening things out.

That’s partly why I’m so disappointed by their response to criticism of the Rod Rees article, and their choice to run said article on their imprint’s official blog.

Let me take a minute here to articulate my own feelings about that article. Foz Meadows, I think, put it best: “my entire brain explode[d] in a symphony of What The Actual Fuck in D Minor.” It is remarkably – remarkably! – alienating and off-putting to read that how to write successful female characters is, instead, how to write a caricature of a male-gaze-constructed, gender-essentialist, Mirror Universe image of a woman. My anger was vast. My disgust was vaster. My weariness at Not More Of This Bullshit Haven’t We Had Enough? reached gargantuan proportions and turned after contemplation to even more rage.

What is published on an organisation’s website is assumed, rightly or wrongly, to have the imprimatur of that organisation. Someone approved this as appropriate, or failed to disapprove of it enough to discourage its publication there. I thought to myself that if Jo Fletcher Books was willing to accept this on their public face, they mustn’t want my money.

They must want me to go away weary and disgusted, to patronise publishers whose blogs show forth less extreme alienating gender-essentialist male-gaze nonsense.

Despite my warm fuzzy feelings towards them for debuting Saulter and Foyle. Despite my warm fuzzy feelings about Karen Lord’s work. Despite my hopes that maybe they’d bring Tricia Sullivan’s next SF book out, or the next brilliant debut SFF novel by a woman I’d never heard of.

So I reached out to the publisher to ask if they had any comment on the matter, because it would be unfair to not ask.

In email, Jo Fletcher disclaimed any right to censor her authors. She went on to say that she fully believed that women were just as suited writing fiction for adults as anyone else. “[A]ctually, I don’t for a moment think Rod Rees believes this either; as I said, he’s putting forward a theory for discussion.

“It’s also very true that in the UK at least there has been a lot of criticism of the lack of female SF writers – SF as opposed to fantasy – and obviously, I’m doing my own bit to help fill that void, with three new female SF writers already on the list: Stephanie Saulter, Naomi Foyle and Karen Lord. Personally, I’ve never let the sex of an author influence my publishing decisions – a good book is a good book – but it does depress me to see so few female writers of SF in my submission pile. I could suggest some reasons fewer are drawn to SF than to fantasy, but that would be purely my own opinion, not actual fact.”

The article, she reaffirms, is purely Rod Rees’ own opinion. But she does see one upside: “[A]t least it’s got people talking.”*


That was Jo Fletcher Books’ response to me by email. It was a much better response than I’d hoped to receive.

But “On the right to freedom of speech,” JFB’s response to the public, posted on their blog, is much worse. A bizarre tactical error in the ongoing conversation, it appears to try to make the issue into one of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism, and this is the “systemic failure” I’ve had in the title from the start. That’s what I’ll be talking about in the next post.


*I uphold Jo Fletcher’s right to view this as an upside. Me, I’m a little tired of needing to push back against opinions such as Rees’.

Jo Fletcher Books, Rod Rees, SFF, Sexism, and Systemic Failure. Part I.

On June 25, 2013, Jo Fletcher Books (the SFF/H imprint of Quercus Books) published an article by Rod Rees on their blog, “Can Male Authors Successfully Write Female Characters.” The article struck me as egregiously offensive, and I contacted the publisher for comment for an article on it soon after it had been brought to my attention. (By Niall Harrison, who said – and I quote – “I feel kind of mean doing this.”)

On June 29, 2013, Jo Fletcher Books published a response by the imprint’s managing editor, Jo Fletcher, to criticism and conversation arising from the Rod Rees article, “On the Right To Freedom of Speech.”

At some point before late on June 30, 2013, both of these articles disappeared from the website, as reported by Natalie of Radish Reviews and reacted to by Foz Meadows. (“A Note on Post Deletions.”)

At this point in time (July 02, 2013) it seems both posts are again available to the wider web, as I’m able to click through to them from the JFB blog. (Rod Rees’ article now comes complete with a disclaimer that opinions aren’t those of the publishing house, which was originally lacking.) But if they should happen to disappear once more, Radish Reviews has been kind enough to host the screenshots in the linked post.

That’s the basic timeline of events. You may be asking yourself why they’re important.

I’m writing a piece on the subject of how well (or badly) male writers create/describe/cope with/handle female characters
Rod Rees, June 25, 2013.

…[M]y entire brain explode[d] in a symphony of What The Actual Fuck in D Minor.
Foz Meadows, June 26, 2013

Since I’m traveling about today, I’m writing this in bite-sized pieces. Now that I’ve outlined the events as they took place, let’s dig a little bit into why they’re worth talking about.

In Part II.