Wed
Mar 5 2014 8:30am

The Week That Wossy

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus, Tor.com’s regular round-up of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

This past Saturday, we heard that Jonathan Ross had volunteered his time to take on the responsibilities of Toastmaster at LonCon3 later in the year. The news was—to put it politely—not well received by the community. What followed was a day of debate that ended as surprisingly as it began.

Later on, Joe Abercrombie fills us in on the future of The First Law, Nick Harkaway considers the Kitschies, Damien Walter wonders whether we’re already living in a sort of singularity, and the better to top Odds and Sods off with something pretty, Orbit have hosted a cover art extravaganza of their own.

The Lon Con

Cast your minds back to the weekend, when it was announced that “leading TV personality and cultural commentator Jonathan Ross will be the Master of Ceremonies for the 2014 Hugo Awards Ceremony,” to take place at the 72nd Worldcon in London this August.

Ross, in case you weren’t aware, “has had a long career as a TV and radio host and is also a film critic, comics writer, and video game developer. He has been a champion of science fiction and fantasy in all its forms throughout his career, and is one of the genre’s most vocal enthusiasts.”

Jonathan Ross

The briefing I received was full of this sort of exuberance, and to be sure, securing such a popular personality was as good as guaranteed to put the forthcoming con in the spotlight. We had Neil Gaiman to thank for that, apparently.

Predictably absent from the press release, however, was any acknowledgement of Ross’ spectacular fall from grace in 2008, when he and Russell Brand had to bid goodbye to the BBC after leaving offensive—not to mention sexist and insensitive—messages on the answerphone of the actor Andrew Sachs.

Ross has appeared here and there in the six years since, putting out a fair few folks in the process, and though he’s a long way away even today from regaining his mega-celebrity status, his taking on the tasks of Toastmaster at the coming con certainly would have drawn attention to the ceremony.

The question was, what sort of attention? And would it be good for the genre Worldcon is meant to celebrate?

Several British Genre Fiction Focus favourites played a part in what became a raging debate. Christopher Priest, to begin with, didn’t mince words whilst talking about his thoughts on Ross. Their paths had crossed in the course of a roadshow ringing in the release of The Prestige. Ross was to attend the launch event:

He burst sensationally through the main door of the restaurant, ran through the waiting crowd and leapt on top of a table. He started shouting. He was sorry he was late, but hey, something funny had happened that day! He told the story, which was funny about someone else and didn’t involve Simon & Schuster’s books, or their writers, or their autumn list. Everyone laughed politely. Getting into his stride, Mr Ross told more jokes: about his wife (who had written a book based on The X-Files for S&S), about his television programme, about his own lamentable lack of time for reading. Most of his fun was made at other people’s expense. He barely paused for breath. His voice filled the room. He went on for ages.

He came over as someone who was clearly sharp-witted and intelligent, but his manner was sleazy, tacky, uninterested in anyone but himself. His interest in books in general was token, and seemed to exist only as an opportunity to make more jokes.

Charles Stross took a different tack. His objections to Ross’ appointment were more about the possible fallout resulting from his involvement than that latter’s questionable character. As The Laundry Files writer wrote on Antipope:

Regardless of Mr. Ross’s personality and track record, it is clearly the case that he has a history of scrapping with tabloid journalists, then being quoted out of context.

The problem I see is that while fandom is in the process of cleaning house, inviting him—or anyone with a controversial media profile—to be Hugo toastmaster is like rolling out a welcome mat at the Worldcon front door that says “muck-rakers welcome.” There’s a lot of muck to be raked, even before we get into Daily Mail photographers stalking cosplayers.

[...]

Worldcon should be safe space for fans, and inviting a high profile media personality who has been targeted by the tabloids is going to cause collateral damage, even if nothing happens, simply by making many fans feel less safe.

Authors also. See this series of incensed tweets by Mira Grant’s not-so-secret identity Seanan McGuire:

Wait. WAIT. They’re letting JONATHAN ROSS present the Hugos? WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK.

You know, I’ve really enjoyed knowing that, were I to be nominated for a Hugo, the host wouldn’t see me and make fat jokes.

Thanks, @loncon3, for taking that small bit of comfort and reassurance away from me.

One of the organisers of the event, Farah Mendlesohn, went so far as to tender her resignation specifically because of the Chairs’ decision:

I spent all of this week arguing with the Chairs. It was made clear to me that this was not for the Committee to decide. It was further made clear to me, as the conversation progressed, that the Chairs knew in advance that I would be unhappy, and that one of the Chairs was not even prepared to discuss the issues of Jonathan Ross’s public abuse of women (that issue specifically: that Chair was prepared to discuss and excuse other issues).

In the interests of balance, there were a few folks out there in Ross’ corner. Sarah Pinborough “watched in disbelief as the genre [ate] itself,” whilst screenwriter Tony Lee tweeted that it’s “great to see that genre folk hate rudeness but are fine with cyber bullying.”

There’s some truth to their comments, too. You should see some of the tweets Ross received. That said, he didn’t do his case any favours by responding to them with accusations of slander.

Long story slightly less long, by the end of the day his appointment was announced on, Ross tweeted that he’d been defeated:

I have decided to withdraw from hosting the Hugo’s @loncon3 in response to some who would rather I weren’t there. Have a lovely convention.

The organisers immediately accepted his “gracious [...] resignation, with regret.”

So. Jonathan Ross will no longer be involved in Worldcon. A win for genre fiction?

It’s hard to tell. But probably, yes. Ross is, I feel, mostly well-meaning, however his brand of humour is hardly harmless. And I’m inclined to agree with Stross’ comments that anything he does is destined to attract attention from all the wrong quarters—attention that could do more harm than good given the many and various problems we face as a community today.

But could it be that finally shining a spotlight on these issues would toughen us up some—making the knowledge that something really does need to be done more pressing, perhaps?

I... can’t quite decide. Thoughts from the peanut gallery, please!

 

Odds and Sods

Orbit Cover Art

  • Orbit hosted a cover art extravaganza of their own late last week, revealing the look of some of the year’s most exciting new books, including Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie, Symbiont by Mira Grant, and the first volume of The Custard Protocol by Gail Carriger.
  • In this week’s Weird Thing, Damien Walter wonders whether we’re already living in the technological singularity. Short answer: only if we suppose we’ve “been living in it since early humans first wielded tools and made fire.” So no. The piece is well worth a read, though.
  • Over at Orbit, commissioning editor Jenni Hill of late saved a book called Battlemage from the slush pile, before signing its author, a British marketing man called Stephen Aryan, for a trilogy based on his apparently “polished” debut.
  • The Managing Director of Waterstones, James Daunt, recent went on record to say the website of Britain’s biggest bookseller is “pathetic” and “unacceptable.” In other news, there’ll be a new one soon.
  • Great to see Helen Oyeyemi dismiss claims that her books are, at bottom, all about race and migration. Instead, she says “White is for Witching was my haunted-house/vampire story. But people get a bit excited if there’s a black person and say, ‘Oh this is about that thing’ when actually it’s about expanding the genre.” Read the rest of the lively interview here.
  • Orion plan to publish a new Kate Mosse novel this very September. “The Taxidermist’s Daughter is described as ‘a Gothic psychological thriller’ which deals with a series of grisly murders which rock a flood-beset village in West Sussex in 1912.” I’m in, I think. I really did like The Mistletoe Bride...
  • Joe Abercrombie has been keeping busy recently. His latest progress report includes confirmation of a forthcoming short story collection, to be released in early 2016, and a return to the world of the First Law once he’s done with his current Half a King trilogy.
  • Whilst packing up the 234 books he had to consider for the Kitschies, Nick Harkaway reflects on the particulars of the process and the “slippery” definition of what is and isn’t progressive.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.

23 comments
Chris Upton
1. Chris Upton
Ross is certainly a complete ass at times and there have been real problems at conventions before (Asimovs infamous bottom grabbing and Ellisons groping of Connie Willis) but the whole reaction has been so vitriolic as to make SFF fandom look decidely immature in this case.
jeff hendrix
2. templarsteel
Jonathan Ross is a polarizing figure and would've been a good host for Loncon 3/Worldcon, for a gewnre that's about accepting people of all stripes seems to be filled with petty immature 2 year olds
Adam Whitehead
3. Werthead
Several excellent points have been made about timing: ten years ago Ross would have been a good host. Maybe five years from now he would make a good one. But right now, when the genre is going through major convulsions on the sexism/racism/transphobia front and even major authors seem to be enraged by the suggestion that they should not act like arseholes at conventions, it was probably the wrong time.

There are times when Ross has behaved highly inappropriately. Worryingly, they seem to be mostly clustered in the last few years: Sachsgate, making sexually inappropriate jokes to Gwyneth Paltrow, making borderline racist jokes about Madonna's adopted children, using people's disabilities and weight as humour (though on the weight issue, I've only seen him fire a few light fat jokes at people like Peter Kay and Jonny Vegas, who were more than capable of turning them back on him) and so forth. There are plenty of other times when he's hosted events, done a great job and everyone's been happy. But I can see why people felt uncomfortable with taking that risk.

It would have been nicer to have seen some of Ross's better moments argued for as well: his stand on BBC Radio against their lack of divertsity amongst staff, his constant championing of SFF, foreign films, comic books and anime in mainstream outlets, his repeated praise for Game of Thrones (which, alongside mentions by TV celebs like Jimmy Carr and Charlie Brooker, is probably the reason half the people in the UK have even heard of it, airing as it does on a small satellite channel), his friendship with people like Neil Gaiman or the fact his wife has given us several of the best SFF movies of the last few years.

I don't believe for a nanosecond that Ross is a misogynist, racist, transphobic or fat-shaming person at heart. But he is also a comedian slightly past his best who does fall back on humour exploiting those sort of things a little bit too readily these days. When those are the exact same things that SFF fandom is trying to move on from (and where a lot of the older professionals involved seem hostile to such progression, cowering behind buzzwords like 'political correctness' rather than engaging), the causes for concern become clear.
Colin Bell
4. SchuylerH
@Niall: Thoughts about Ross? Honestly, I'm sick of SF scandals and would rather have an ceremony talked about for highlighting interesting new fiction than for whatever comments the host might have made. Safer not to have him, really.

I have never ordered a physical book from the main Waterstones website. (I think I got one from the Marketplace early on, possibly a J. G. Ballard) I do buy quite regularly from the Waterstones website but only ever ebooks in epub format, so I don't have to experience their delivery. (I go between there and Kobo most of the time)
Chris Upton
5. Farah311
Please correct:

"One of the organisers of the event, Farah Mendlesohn, went so far as to tender her resignation specifically because of the committee’s decision"

Because of the Chairs' decision. The Committee had nothing to do with it, and were told they had nothing to do with it, at the point at which I resigned.
Bridget McGovern
6. BMcGovern
@5: Corrected! Apologies for any confusion.
Iain Cupples
7. NumberNone
@Wert; yeah, there are times Ross has behaved inappropriately - and IMO one of them, sadly, was at the weekend. One of his responses to the criticism was simply out of line and others were... ill-judged. If he had responded differently, then I might be more persuaded that he'd been hard done by. But as it is, if his tweets are a guide, we may have dodged a bullet, in the end.

That said, there were certainly other tweets by other people that were out of line. I'm not going to excuse that and I'm not ignoring it. But in general those are for the people themselves to reflect on.

The upside of having a famous media personality host the Hugos hardly needs be pointed out. But the downside is, fame carries with it some inevitable consequences. One of those is that the boneheaded mistakes you make - those jokes, that tweet - never really go away. And so any organisation that chooses to associate itself with you, say by inviting you to host their awards, inevitably associates itself with those mistakes.

That can be OK if you are really apologetic about them. But JR doesn't appear to be. His tweets at the weekend don't carry that tone, of understanding where he went wrong and wanting to learn from it. Rather, they suggest that he thinks he did nothing wrong.

This, I think it's fair to say, was a big part of why the LonCon committee member who resigned over the issue, felt she had no option but to resign. She was concerned, not solely that this was a guy who'd said some offensive stuff in the past, but that this was a guy who'd said offensive stuff and fundamentally did not accept responsibility for the offence he'd caused. (That, and the fact that her attempts to tackle the issue within the committee had been blocked, as the above quote indicates.) I can totally understand that and think she was probably proved right.

So, it was a mess. But I think the end result was the right one. Not because Mr Ross is sexist or sizeist or ableist or whatever else - I don't know the man personally, so I'm not going to judge him - but because he doesn't seem to realise why people might have had concerns about him as a host, and that was likely to create more problems. I'm glad it was resolved quickly. Now maybe we can focus on what should be a terrific convention.
Adam Whitehead
8. Werthead
Yup, lots of people have said that Ross apologised for Sachsgates, which he did, on paper. But every time it's mentioned on his ITV show, he makes light of it and takes the mickey out of the whole incident. His contriteness on that count, at least, rings hollow.
Steven Halter
9. stevenhalter
I had never heard of Ross before this weekend and didn't even see his appointment as MoC until I saw his resignation, so the whole affair was compressed into about 5 minutes for me.
His initial appointment doesn't seem like a particularly good idea from what I saw.
Chris Meadows
10. Robotech_Master
What we had was a sort of perfect storm of mistakes. Mistakes by the con chairs, mistakes by Ross, mistakes by we ignorant Yanks who had no idea who Ross was beyond the terrible things Google and Wikipedia told us. And Twitter, with its tempting pithy 140-character format is the textual combination of the Old West and the pistol hanging from everyone's belt in it. When they get outraged, everyone shoots first and asks questions later.

Would Ross have been a good host? He's hosted the Eisners at ComicCon, a much bigger con than WorldCon, apparently without a hitch. But that was before he got his reputation and SF fandom had its big blow-up over conventions being a hostile environment to women. I expect we'll never know.
Chris Upton
11. thraxx
The behaviour of "fandom" and certain authors over the weekend has made me happy that I purchase and read for the pleasure of the words and plotting and not for the writer's personality. Also goes a long way to reinforcing my reluctance to attend cons despite having been a SFF reader for 35 +years.
Beth Meacham
12. bam
Jonathan Ross may well be a perfectly lovely man. I'm told it's so. I am also told that Howard Stern is a perfectly lovely man, kind and polite, and a good friend. And neither of them seem to me like a good choice for Hugo MC. Their style of comedy is insult and shock, and if you hire them to perform, you're going to get the kind of comedy they perform.

There is no reason to expect otherwise. I personally dislike insult comedy, and will go out of my way to avoid it. This feeling is shared by many, though it's just as true that many people like it. It doesn't seem to me to be unreasonable for people who don't like it to express their concern.
Steven Halter
13. stevenhalter
thraxx@11:I've never actually had an unpleasant personal experience at a con. In general, they are fun and quite safe.
Just like in real life, bad things can happen and that's what well written con policies are for.
Going with a friend who has been to cans can go a long way towards easing any first time trepedation, although many cons also have panels/events for people for whom this is their first con experience.
Chris Upton
14. |Morgan Gallagher
Whilst in no way saying the twitters to him and his family were appropriate... one can only wonder that it ended up being SF where Ross's chickens came home to roost.

And does anyone have the slightest concept of the irony involved in his wife, berating someone on Twitter, for upsetting their 17 year old daughter, who is upset to discover that her father has been accused of being nasty to women?

This is the man who phoned a grandfather and left hilarious laughter and jokes, about how his mate had "fucked his grandaughter... she was bent over on the couch." This is the man who then proceeded to talk on the same tape about what Brand was saying when he reassured the grandfather that he, Brand, hadn't fucked the grand daughter whilst she was menstruating. (The grand father in question, who received this barrage of recorded phone messages from Ross (and Brand) is Jewish, in fact he'd escaped Nazi Germany as a child. One can only conjecture why they both felt the need to highlight that the fucking of the grand daughter did not happen during menstruation.)

Now, if any one looks at this post and thinks "My, that's not appropriate language to type out for others to read..." Well yes, that's the point. This is what Ross did. This is what gets tucked away into the corner when everyone says "Oh well that, he did apologise."

Yes, he did. But he also keeps doing it! Just last Friday he asked a top model on his show "Do you like a good sausage?"

No, really. Yes, that's what he meant. Yes, that's what he does to women on his show.

As I said. The irony that Ross's chickens have come home to roost in this way is quite striking.

I do feel sorry for him, his wife and his daughters in the private personal sense. It's not nice. He doesn't deserve it because he's dished it out for years. No one ever deserves it.

But I do wonder if Ross the professional will ever actually look at what he did, what he _does_ to women on his shows, and then relate it to why people are upset about him being involved.

Or even wonder how he'd be reacting now, if someone had phoned him up and said these things to him, on tape, about his daughter.

Fandom has heard quite enough about "Oh don't worry, he didn't mean anything. I know you're upset about what he said, but he didn't mean it, after all he's a nice bloke."

We want grown up men, not nice blokes. No matter how funny and outrageous their humour is on the box.

We also want grown up members of course, who refrain from shooting fish in a barrel on Twitter.
Adam Whitehead
15. Werthead
Ross did apologise for Sachsgate. And every time it's mentioned to him on his show (which his frequently, especially when he had Russell Brand on last year) he gives a cheeky grin and every indication of having dismissed it as a schoolboy jape and nothing more. Sachs's own autobiography disagrees with that assessment about what it did to him and his family.
Chris Upton
16. PJarvis
Jonathan Ross has hosted the British Academy Film Awards TWICE since Sachsgate. The idea that one of the most popular broadcasters in Britain could be driven out of what is primarily a major literary awards ceremony in seven hours is embarrassing. Especially when articles directed people to the Twitter accounts of authors who had been awarded by that very ceremony writing in an infantile manner.
Chris Upton
17. AndrewV
This article should mention Neil Gaiman's response:

http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2014/03/storms-and-how-they-start.html
And yes, he finds fault with the reactions of the fans. As he said in another article, "I am somewhat ashamed of my tribe." Consider that quote and that blog post are coming from a very nice man who never says a bad word about anyone. How bad is it that this fandom has actually managed to disappoint Neil Gaiman?
Andrew Barton
18. MadLogician
The link to Christopher Priest's thoughts on Ross doesn't work.
Adam Whitehead
19. Werthead
Neil Gaiman is not the King of the Geeks and his opinion, whilst eloquently stated and well-argued, does not mean that everyone else should start feeling deep-seated shame or, indeed, agree with him.

Kameron Hurley has something of a riposte to Gaiman's statement here that is passionately-argued and I think much more to the point.
Chris Upton
20. AndrewV
When thoughtful people of impeccable character stand against you, it is time to question your behavior.
Iain Cupples
21. NumberNone
Mr Gaiman's opinion is perfectly valid and, as usual, thoughtfully and impeccably well expressed - but not even his staunchest fan could suggest that, on this issue, it could be regarded as a wholly neutral one. Jonathan Ross, after all, is a personal friend and he extended the invite on behalf of the convention himself.

For all that, it's worth noting that he outright says he sympathises with those who feel Ross was not an appropriate choice, acknowledges that there was some basis for those feelings, and says that the announcement wasn't handled well. So it would be quite wrong to imply that his post is in some way a refutation of everyone who is critical of the choice: instead, what he's saying is that it was wrong to say some of the very personal stuff that was said on Twitter. Which I think is something many of the critics of the decision would be quite happy to agree with (myself included).
alastair chadwin
22. a-j
When acolytes order you not to question the words of their master, it is time to worry:)
Chris Upton
23. AndrewV
The question here is no longer whether the choice was good, nor is it whether or not Gaiman is impartial. At this point both are irrelevant since Ross will no longer be the host. The issue is the recent behavior of fans and professionals within the genre. Gaiman is absolutely correct, we are better than how we behaved.

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