Snobbery, Standards and Storytelling

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"I'm sorry, but I could never work anywhere that doesn't demand black tie."
“I’m sorry, but I could never work anywhere that doesn’t demand black tie.”

There’s a fine line between snobbery and maintaining standards. A line that has less to do with the nature of the thing being criticised, and more to do with our sense of identity.

A Publishing Debate

I recently heard about a falling out between a publisher and a freelancer. The details aren’t mine to share, but it’s safe to say that snobbery and standards played into it. The freelancer was wary about the publisher, thinking they might not live up to the standards they expect in publishing. The comments that came from this left the publisher feeling attacked, facing standards that looked snobbish to them. It was hardly the Amazon/Hachette blow-out, but it wasn’t pretty.

It’s just one example of the sorts of verbal spats that are currently happening all over the world of publishing. The internet has allowed a far larger number of people to set up as publishers. The world is full of tiny firms pumping out ebooks and small print runs, not to mention self-publishing writers like myself. For traditionalists, this has led to a decline in standards. For the indies and self-publishers, it’s a democratising shift that will replace or reform an industry mired in outdated practices.

You can see it elsewhere too. Is a piece of modern art boundary pushing or nonsense? When someone introduces costume standards at a live roleplay event, are they creating an atmospheric and inspirational gaming or being a ‘costume Nazi’ (yes, people really use that phrase; no, I don’t think Hitler ever dressed up as a goblin).

It’s Identity, Stupid

In the same way that the Clinton electoral campaign once tied everything back to the economy, I find myself repeatedly coming back to identity politics. Maybe that’s a reflection of an era obsessed with identity. Maybe it’s one of the better tools we have for understanding modern society. Maybe it’s just my own private obsession. Regardless, we’re going back to that well.

Why do people cling so rigorously to certain standards, useful or not? In a lot of cases, it’s tied to their identities. If you’re a manager who prides himself on being part of a professional office culture, and you associate that culture with suits and ties, then you’ll dress in suits and ties. You’ll make that the dress standard for your office. Your clothes and your office are markers of who you are, deeply connected to your sense of value. If someone comes along and says “do we really need to wear suits in this office?” then you aren’t just facing a rational question. You’re also facing a challenge to your identity, because being a good office manager, and good offices being places people dress up smartly, are part of who you are. The odds are good that you’ll come up with rational sounding reasons to maintain that standard, because you’re defending your sense of self, regardless of what actually makes sense.

If you’re doubting me on this, consider how seldom people wear suits and ties these days outside of offices. Now consider how many offices – even ones where no-one faces the public – insist on an old-fashioned smart dress code. Heck, consider the fact that dressing that smartly often symbolically distances employees from the customers they meet. There’s a mismatch here, but it’s so common we take it for granted.

Flip that over and look at the person who wants to dress casually at work. The suit isn’t familiar to them. It’s a piece of clothing they have to own but wouldn’t otherwise spend their money on. They’re being told that how they dress and see themselves aren’t good enough for this work. That’s an attack on their identity, and it looks to them a lot like snobbery.

Back to Publishing

Now lets bring this back to the business of publishing, and our dispute between a freelancer and a small publisher.

That freelancer has spent a lot of time, money and effort reaching a level of skill and training that makes them acceptable in the system as it stands. They live up to its standards. They feel valued because they’ve met those standards. Letting those standards slip would undermine their status and sense of self. They’ll find rational sounding reasons to defend the status quo, and in doing so attack indies and self-publishers, because of how they feel, because their identity is under attack.

The small publisher, on the other hand, has spent lots of time, money and effort producing books. People are buying them. They’re proud of their books. When they’re told that their work doesn’t meet an old standard, that looks to them like snobbery. It’s someone shooting down their status and sense of self. They’ll find rational reasons to defend their way of working and in doing so attack the status quo, because of how they feel, because their identity is under attack.

See the Other Side

So what?

For those of us watching the industry that makes our books, recognising this means recognising that change is never going to be smooth and easy. Just like the arguments over this year’s Hugo awards, people care because even arguments about other people can threaten their identities. Eventually middle ground may be found, but not until we’ve got through lots of ugly, unproductive arguments that any sane person should step back from.

And if you get caught in a debate about anything, and you think you’re upholding standards or facing snobbery, then stop for a moment and think about how this looks from the other person’s point of view. What about them are you attacking in defending your perspective? Acknowledge that, be careful about that, and things might get a lot easier.