Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Only Kowtowers Need Apply

About twenty years ago, I was going through the gauntlet of becoming a US citizen. The immigration interviewer put her hand on top of the thick stack that contained copies of the Harvard B.A., the MIT Ph.D., the assistant professor appointment from Harvard Medical, the research papers, the Harvard Review articles and asked: “Have you ever been a whore? Are you one now?”

None of my credentials mattered. And given the specifics of the situation, she could humiliate and mistreat me with impunity. People who want to cut others down to their own size consistently employ this technique.

I had reason to recall this incident yesterday. A friend sent me a link to a magazine soliciting literary criticism and non-fiction of interest to the SF/F community. I e-mailed them asking if they would consider reprints. When told that they wouldn’t do reprints, I gave a link to an published example to showcase my work and proposed a brand-new unpublished review.

The editor — who prides herself in her progressiveness — didn’t deign to read through my message. Instead, she accused me of trying to “sell” used goods (for the astronomical amount of $100, one third of my hourly consulting fee). The last sentence of her e-mail, which is representative of her overall tone, reads: “I appreciate your chutzpah but you are wasting my time”.

The exchange was so fast that she clearly didn’t bother to even Google me. Maybe the non-Anglosaxon name was sufficient to disqualify me from consideration as either a writer or a human of sufficiently high caste. And obviously I did not register as someone who could affect her wallet or reputation – if I had, the refusal would at least have been polite.

As with the immigration officer, it made no difference that I’ve written a popular stealth science book, that some of my essays won awards, that I must turn down requests for reviews and articles for lack of time, that several SF authors consult me and send me their novel drafts for critique, that I’m one of the few people in the domain who is also a working scientist. The crucial point was to establish superiority by acting as if I were a sleazy impostor attempting to weasel my way into her gated community.

My words won’t change anything, because this person is deemed to be one of the industry Names who Must be Appeased (if only because “editors talk to each other”). And I’m sure I will hear the argument that her brilliance as a critic and editor excuses her behavior. The reality is that she represents the increasing mistreatment of writers by self-appointed gatekeepers who fancy themselves feudal lords and the rest serfs because it’s a buyer’s market.

This kind of behavior does nothing to enrich the stock of contributors or the quality of the contributions. When the overriding factor is massaging a primadonna’s ego, craft and imagination become distant second requirements. It does encourage other things, however: bootlicking and similar ghetto habits. And it may explain why speculative fiction increasingly cannot have nice things.

Image: Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), the epitome of rudeness to “inferiors” and obsequiousness to “superiors”.

33 Responses to “Only Kowtowers Need Apply”

  1. ZarPaulus says:

    I blame our high schools for at least some of it.

  2. Caliban says:

    Wow. I hadn’t heard that story about you and the INS (now ICE). Though, sadly, given the stories from other friends also with impeccable credentials treated badly by INS/ICE, it’s far too believeable.

    As for the editor… it’s quite possible to say “no” without such undeserved contempt.

    And here’s an irony–I know of at least a few people out in the SF/F community who act like jerks, giving as justification *their* experience in being treated bad or seeing Big SF Names act badly–though these people quite loudly proclaim *their* bad experiences as a PC conspiracy of women, people of color, and liberal politics!

    As you know well, Fawltyesque bootlicking occurs also in academia and in business. Those who kick down and kiss up get promoted, regardless of actual competence, while the rest of us–the ones who are nice to secretaries and technicians and students, but who challenge deans and provosts–are barely tolerated.

  3. Athena says:

    She’s British. Who knows, maybe she went to a place like Eton. Or, alternatively, she has a DH Lawrence class chip on her shoulder.

  4. Athena says:

    It is as you say. I wish it were otherwise, but that is a parallel universe.

  5. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    My mind went blank for a moment at the thought of the immigration interviewer asking you if you were a whore. That’s pretty incredible.

    The editor – doesn’t surprise me a great deal. More than likely the mag will have as many of the same old, same old names as she can muster up. Publishing is in a crisis, as everyone knows, and only the sure sell gets any attention. So you either have to have a name, or be selling tawdry garbage to teens.

    I have friends who have been working for years and years to develop the name, getting degrees at all the right schools, schmoozing all the right people and most importantly writing their hearts out and even they still can’t publish the works they want to publish but instead are pigeonholed into writing what the publisher is sure it can sell.

    Writing tawdry garbage for teens is a much surer bet it seems.

  6. Athena says:

    My mind went blank when I heard the question, also — which was her intent. I guess dark female ethnics are still considered pollutants of the US body politic, even if they have Ivy League degrees and are doing basic research on dementia.

    “Writing tawdry garbage for teens is a much surer bet it seems.”

    Actually, that’s the irony of it: dumb mega-bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code, Twilight and their ilk are one-time phenomena. The sequels fall right through the floor.

  7. ZarPaulus says:

    I wish what you said about sequels to dumb mega-bestsellers was true.

  8. Athena says:

    What I meant was repeating the recipe across authors (or a later series by the same author). These invariably fail miserably. The Twilight series itself, alas, is impregnable.

  9. Thomas Ferraro says:

    Every person who applies for US citizenship is asked if they are a prostitute or pimp (

    I have no reason to doubt the way you were questioned was humiliating (and that would be wrong), but should having a college degree make you exempt from that question, or just one from Harvard?

  10. Athena says:

    On the form, yes. It asks several intrusive questions (and they may have become even more so since my time) but you fill it out in the privacy of your home without pressure. I suspect that asking them again during the interview is not mandatory. And certainly it is not mandatory to do so without a preamble (“Regulations require that I ask you…”, “This question is mandated by law…”) and in an abrupt, nasty way and tone — when the candidate is already nervous and any nuance in her responses, facial expression or body language can be used against her.

    My suspicion that such questions are optional is backed up by evidence. The same month that I underwent this ordeal, an Englishman who had also applied for US citizenship wrote about it in the NY Times magazine, rhapsodizing over how they rolled out the red carpet for him, “breezed” him through with a couple of softball questions and even had champagne ready to celebrate. If he had been asked “Are you a pimp/whore?” he would not have forgotten. Additionally, the weight of “pimp” versus “whore” is quite different and makes the specific selection of the latter de facto discriminatory, since men can also be prostitutes.

    The issue of optional nastiness applies to the editor, and the specific way she chose to say “no”. It also applies to your own coda, which indicates that you chose not to understand the point I made.

  11. Haddayr says:

    Here via Grayrose’s LJ.

    Not remotely surprised to hear your INS story; my brother-in-law has two BAs from MIT, a Master’s from the University of Chicago, and was working on a Ph.D. at Caltech when the INS officer told him he didn’t think he was “employable.” He demanded to know if this comment was because he was brown and the INS official actually simpered in his face.

    A white German friend of mine seeking a green card was hassled by INS for being “too employable” and “coming here to steal our jobs,” which is unpleasant but clearly the opposite. His credentials, while perfectly fine, were not as prestigious as my BIL’s. The difference was clearly based on race.

    They are both now citizens, but UGH.

    Are you willing to name this editor so I may avoid her?

  12. Athena says:

    Welcome! Yes, I can’t say I’m surprised — but the insults never abate and finally get to you. Recently, I was part of a faculty group here at U. Mass. who wanted to start a Presentation Skills course. I was the only one in the group with experience of speaking to non-scientists by virtue of my book, The Biology of Star Trek, and my articles and fiction writing, all of which have resulted in many talks at very different venues. I was also the only non-American, and the body of grad and med students is increasingly composed by people like me.

    After I wrote the outline, they asked for faculty volunteers to give sample presentations. For presenting to a non-scientist audience, I suggested a variation of my talk on the biological future of humanity (broadly defined). I had first delivered it to the National Institute of Health by invitation (the NIH is the federal agency that essentially funds all US biomed research). The person coordinating the faculty group said, “This doesn’t sound rigorous — let’s see what other alternatives people come up with.” After a couple of exchanges he apologized, but the damage had been done. I left the group.

    I sent you a note with the editor’s name. There are several reasons that I prefer not to name her in public: her behavior is a symptom of a larger sickness — she’s just one of many and I used her as a representative example; I don’t intend to give her free publicity; also, I don’t want to be trolled by her advocates and acolytes, telling me how much I suck for not recognizing her greatness. If she makes another nasty move, I will go public.

  13. Caliban says:

    Alas! This too sounds all too familiar. I recall once at my former academic institution discussing candidates for a faculty position. One woman had a solid publication record, but also did nontrivial outreach. One of my fellow faculty members–not too much older than myself–made a comment that it seemed the candidate was more interested in outreach than research, a conclusion not at all backed up by the actual record.

  14. Thomas Ferraro says:

    I don’t think I chose not to understand your point. In fact I explicitly accepted it by writing that being humiliated is wrong. I do think you missed my point: the way you wrote the post implies having a string of degrees should exempt you from being treated like that INS interviewer or editor treated you. I think no one should be treated in a degrading way, degrees and awards or not. Sorry for what I will assume was a mis-reading.

    (And INS interviewer really used the word “whore”? That’s really beyond the pale. On the form, the language is “Have you ever…Been a prostitute, or procured anyone for prostitution?”)

  15. Athena says:

    Yes, Tom — on this point I agree with you unreservedly. Nobody should be humiliated, whether they have diplomas or not, whether they speak four languages or not. They should all be exempt by virtue of being fellow humans.

    I described the scene in detail because the actions of the interviewer were very deliberate and the obverse of what you and I agree on. By putting her hand on top of the diplomas when she asked me the question, she was effectively saying, “It doesn’t matter what you have achieved. You’re still a nothing and I can make it so for as long as I please — because I can.” Ditto for the editor.

    And sorry to have been sharp, but I’m still feeling raw over this — as you can tell!

  16. Thomas Ferraro says:

    Dealing with INS is enough to send anyone over the edge. Though I have to say I don’t think my wife’s experience with INS people featured any outright hostility, just indifference at worst (and, to be fair, some folks were nice). Then again, her comparison bureaucracy was Soviet Union/Russia, so just about anything was going to be an improvement!

  17. Athena says:

    I think that people’s ethical mettle can be judged by how they act towards those who are less powerful than they are, regardless of specific context. And, indeed, the characteristics we’re discussing are not limited to any group or institution. They tend to rear their ugly head whenever there’s a power differential and lack of consequences.

  18. intrigued_scribe says:

    Appalled by the immigrant interviewer’s question, but not all that surprised.

    The editor’s insulting behavior, along with what goes on in academic and corporate venues–not to mention public schools, in agreement with a comment stated above–surprises me even less. Bootlicking, condescension and disregard for actual competence are indeed too abundant in such environments.

    And even now, the mind boggles just a bit at the success of garbage like Twilight.

  19. Athena says:

    Sadly, I think that the “appalled but not surprised” reaction is entirely normal. We largely acquiesce to being treated badly — in part because we don’t have the resources and stamina to fight every battle, in part because it’s very unclear that we’ll be able to change things. But such behaviors are corrosive to social interactions in general and to democratic institutions in particular. It’s not a coincidence that they thrive in all venues run by thugs.

  20. mand says:

    Athena, I’ve come here from Gray Rose on LiveJournal, and was going to agree that the editor’s rudeness is shocking, but point out that it need be nothing to do with xenophobia. Anyone can be rude, and anyone prone to it is surely more likely to succumb to it in a time-pressed job. I have received similar unpleasant responses (unless there was something more specific in the part you don’t quote) without the excuse of my surname.

    My first reaction to your experience was the same as Haddayr’s, to identify the editor so I can boycott the magazine.

    I was startled to read what you assume about the British. (The third comment above.) I’m British, grew up in the affluent south-east of England, have an Oxford degree, belong to a middle-class white family, and can’t help that any more than you can help your background. Living in Japan I was subjected to xenophobia as outrageous as I can imagine non-violent offence being*, so I have had glimpses (there and at other times) of what it’s like.

    I suffer every time the educated “class” (my family is far from posh) is spoofed in the media, but as a graduate I have no voice against it. Most of the British think the same about Eton, but the ONE Etonian I’ve ever knowingly met seemed to make no blanket judgements. I suppose my surprise today was finding something similar in the middle of a discussion of stereotyping and bad manners. We’re not all chinless snobs, any more than we all live in London, drink tea all the time or know the Queen personally.

    I have bothered to google you, and everything else looks great, but that was thoughtless.

    * Not often, and I on the whole I found as many friendly people and actual friends among the Japanese as among any other people.

  21. mand says:

    PS — Sorry, I didn’t realise how long that comment was until I saw it up there.

  22. Athena says:

    Mand, I’m also middle-class and a graduate of elite schools. Ironically, I received another comment essentially accusing me of elitism. I know that xenophobia is not restricted to any group. The British do it, the Greeks do it, the Japanese do it. General distrust of the Other is a hardwired human (primate) response. It served a purpose once. Now it’s counter-adaptive.

    I don’t assume anything about the British. If you read that comment carefully and take the editor’s “me Tarzan, you ape” stance into account, you can see that I was riffing on Eton as a concept (training grounds for empire and all that). But if you read my other comments on the thread, you will hear how a British citizenship candidate was treated, versus how I was treated. There are several more examples that I could quote if I had stamina and time.

    Finally, if you truly believe that people with Anglosaxon names are not automatically treated better than those with “ethnic” ones in places like the US, UK and Australia, perhaps you should experiment a bit. This bias has been confirmed for paper submissions in academia, inter alia. It’s not the only bias, but it definitely plays a role in which papers end up in which journals, which translates into prestige, promotions, grants, etc.

  23. mand says:

    I do know the Anglosaxon name helps in all sorts of situations, i’m horribly aware of that. I was actually glad to be ostracised and cruelly treated (as I say, it wasn’t many times) as I felt it gave me insight. (That’s possibly a writerly reaction more than anything – grasping the chance to experience what I wouldn’t have normally. And it didn’t make the situations less unpleasant.) I wince just as much when I am waved through automatically because I have a “BBC” accent.

    Defensive because I don’t want you to think I’m unaware of things, just by dint of not being there myself, by chance of parentage. I mean, it’s a personal defence and you don’t even know me! 😉

    These days, we hear a lot in the UK media about Etonians – vastly more since Cameron became Prime Minister – and it makes me wince that they are assumed to have no ability to take people on their own merits, just because they had an expensive education. I think most of the journalists are doing the “Eton as a concept” thing, but it does perpetuate the stereotype. I didn’t go to Eton! (don’t think they take girls) but all the time I see people both mocked and badly treated because they sound like Stephen Fry. So perhaps I’m a little sensitive.

    Dreadful way to introduce myself, especially when I agree with you! Peace?

  24. Athena says:

    Peace, one Amazon to another (*smile*).

    And you’re absolutely right about anti-intellectualism. Too many people conflate good education with elitism, an assumption that benefits charlatans and demagogues. Anyone with an advanced degree is automatically suspect as “fancying themselves too good”. As I said elsewhere, if people dislike expertise that much, they should have the first person they meet outside their door do their root canals, wire their home for electricity — or even give them a haircut. Equivalent logic applies.

  25. mand says:

    I must remember that point! 🙂

    (Less the warrior than the defiant tunneller, me.)

  26. Sue Lange says:

    This is so cynical: “Those who kick down and kiss up get promoted, regardless of actual competence, while the rest of us–the ones who are nice to secretaries and technicians and students, but who challenge deans and provosts–are barely tolerated.”

    And it’s something I tend to believe, but I truly hope it’s not true 100% of the time.

  27. Caliban says:

    Well, yes, it’s cynical. (On the other hand, it’s quite idealistic, since it espouses that one *should* be nice to those with less power, and challenge those with more.) And it’s not 100% of the time. But it’s true far too often.

  28. Athena says:

    I think I would put it this way: People who are nice get ahead sometimes, but almost never because of their niceness.

  29. Susan says:

    Hi Athena

    Found this from various links.

    As a writer of short fiction myself, I’m disappointed in this editor’s behaviour and response. It was unprofessional and rude. I am sorry you had to put up with this kind of treatment, and of the many invisible obstacles that are put in the way of people who don’t have whitebread background.

    If it were a fiction editor I would certainly want the name as I’d take them off my submit list.

    Did you reply to the unacceptable mail requesting an apology? I would be tempted if I were in your position.

    Best regards


  30. Athena says:

    Hello, Susan! I sent a response telling her she was completely wrong. I never got a response and frankly I’m not holding my breath. People in the wrong invariably get more annoyed when they realize they made asses of themselves. I sent you a private note with particulars.

  31. Susan says:

    Thank you! I answered. Let’s hope that the lady in question has learned from her mistake, if nothing else.

  32. G says:

    Found you while googling about on Joan Slonczewski and fell into this post and wanted to agree: I sat with my husband while he got his Green Card and he was never asked any such question, we were rubberstamped through and congratulated. He was never asked any such question in person (although it is indeed on the form).

    I just got my permanent residency in Germany and as an Anglophone, my treatment was far better than the very many non-Anglophones I know: racism in all its forms is present in many places. I’m a bit surprised that it hit you, because if you spoke English perfectly, much US discrimination is based on perceived class issues that would have been overcome by your diction and degrees. I assume that woman was personally threatened by your achievements, though. 20 years ago, I found in a male dominated workplace, that other women did not have my back, they were knifing it. I think things have changed.

  33. Athena says:

    Women in power can and do abuse it as much as men and this was one circumstance where there was a near-absolute power differential. I have heard repeated anecdotes of Anglophones (primarily British but also citizens of other Commonwealth nations) being rubberstamped through the citizenship process and being treated to such goodies as champagne. Clearly, swarthy furriners with accents cannot expect such treatment, no matter how many degrees and achievements they’ve piled up.

    On happier topics, I had the pleasure of meeting Joan Slonczewski this year. She, Jack McDevitt and Sue Lange came for dinner at my house. That was a lively evening — I should have registered it as a Readercon panel!