Snobbery, Standards and Storytelling

"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 For the indies and self-publishers, it’s a democratising shift that will replace or reform an industry mired in outdated practices.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.


The Fascinating Diaspora of Kay’s Tigana

How am I meant to work when I could be reading this?
How am I meant to work when I could be reading this?

I’m fascinated by the idea of diaspora, when human communities become shattered and scattered, while still clinging to their sense of unity. From the African diaspora caused by the slave trade, to the Jewish diaspora, to shorter term events like the French and Polish armed forces that continued to fight during World War Two. These are times when people’s lives are ripped out from underneath them, and when instead of destroying their ways of life they create complex cultures spread across continents. My notebooks are full of ideas about this, but aside from a British diaspora in the background of ‘The Promise and the Reckoning‘, it’s not something I’ve ever written about. And it’s not something I’ve seen addressed in genre fiction.

Until now.


At the time of writing this, I’m 124 pages through Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, and it’s taken nearly that long for the book to reveal that it’s about a diaspora, and about a rebellion spearheaded by those scattered people. The pacing is typically Kay, and something few writers can pull off. He makes these gradual starts thoughtful, characterful and atmospheric rather than slow and frustrating.

But I’m not just excited to see one of my favourite authors address a topic that fascinates me. I’m excited because he’s writing it so damn well.

The Complexity of Identity

That slow build up, and the way the diaspora is revealed, create a complex and nuanced portrayal of how a scattered community works. Kay shows how culture, politics and power are intertwined. How a sense of personal identity becomes the focus through which humans experience these connections. How vital that identity is to us, and how poorly we often understand it.

This is the sort of sophistication we need to understand the societies we live in, diasporic or not, and that shapes imaginary worlds of incredible richness.

It’s made me reflect on the extent to which we all increasingly live in geographically fractured cultures, whether they started out that way or were scattered by the winds of history. Whether your primary identification is as a Jew, a geek, a lesbian or a Frenchman, the boundaries of the group you identify with are not neatly bound. Because that now applies to pretty much everyone, we need to rethink how we treat identity and how it affects us. With 650 more pages of Tigana to go, I’m sure it’s going to help me reflect on that, while also entertaining and enthralling me.

Each time I pick up one of Kay’s books he amazes me by showing me something new. This is no exception. I’m not going to say that you should read it. Nobody should read any particular book. But if I was going to say that you should read a novel, right now I’d say it about Tigana.

Faces – a #FlashFriday story

8846856494_810aa2246d_zThe Alt-Face mask was tight against Casey’s skin. It still worked perfectly after years of use, months with these features, so long that she seldom noticed the pressure of the wires on her skin. The face she saw in the mirror almost felt like it could be her own.

As far as the Foreign Minister knew it was her face, just as her name was Janice Long and she’d spent her life working as a personal assistant. He’d started to trust Janice, to let things slip. A few more days and she would have the details of the treaty negotiations. A few more days and she could move on to whatever life the agency sent her to next.

She trailed along behind the minister and his cloud of bodyguards, carrying his computer and the suitcase with his notes for the President. He laughed and pointed as they passed a cheap Alt-Face store, the dummies in its windows shifting to show the latest trends. One showed a face like member of a girl band, just different enough to avoid copyright infringement. The next a licensed imitation of a b-list actress. Next to that was a dummy showing a range of custom-designed faces. Faces which morphed, to Casey’s horror, into her own.

The minister pointed and laughed again, turning back towards her. His bodyguards turned too, but they looked less amused. Hands reached for under-arm holsters as they glared suspiciously at Casey.

There was no time to think, but then there was no decision to make. If they checked then they would realise that this wasn’t her own face, and then the questions would come.

Still clutching the computer bag, Casey turned and ran.

Barging her way through crowds of shoppers, she heard some shouting indignantly at her, others yelling in alarm as armed men followed behind.

She ducked into a network of back alleys, silently cursing the rip-off merchants who’d imitated what was supposed to be a copyrighted face.

By now she was out of sight of the bodyguards, though she could still hear sounds of pursuit. Emerging into an open air market she grabbed a coat off a stall and flung her wallet at the man behind it.

“Keep the change,” she called out, still running as she pulled the coat on.

Letting down her hair, she ducked and weaved between the stalls, looking around for any that sold Alt-Faces, or even the tiny drives programmed with different features. But this neighbourhood was too cheap.

Up ahead, she saw cops approaching between the shoppers, comparing the screens of their phones with every face they passed. It didn’t take a secret agent to work out who they were looking for.

The cops were closing in, and she could hear yells of indignation as the bodyguards shoved through the crowds behind her. Stepping into the narrow space between two stalls, she pressed her hand to her face, felt the wires beneath the thin layer of flesh.

In desperation, she tore it off and kicked it under one of the stalls, then scrabbled at the skin around the sides of her face, trying to remove any traces of its presence.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” The policeman tapped her on the shoulder.

“Yes, officer?” Casey turned towards him.

The man looked down at his screen, then back up at her. She froze as he reached out a hand.

“Sorry about this.” He touched her face, then nodded, apparently satisfied. “Just checking for Alt-Faces. We’re after a criminal who was using one.”

He turned away and carried on between the stalls, leaving Casey standing alone, trembling at her close call, and at a sensation she hadn’t felt in years. As she set off once more through the streets, the ministerial computer and its secrets still in hand, the wind brushed her own bare face.

* * *

This story was inspired by a comment by Jon Taylor when I wrote about self-plagiarism. As always, if you liked the story then please share it with others. You can read more of my science fiction in my collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, and more flash fiction free here on my site.

I’ve been a little erratic about blogging lately due to the time consuming stresses of moving house. That’s likely to continue for another week or so, as we finish packing , move, and finally unpack. Thank you to my regular readers for your patience. Once I’ve moved I’ll get back to the half-completed task of moving and redesigning the site, as well as hopefully some more writing.

In the meantime, have a great weekend, and happy reading!


Photo by Daniel Zanini H. via Flickr creative commons.