Bewildering Stories Editorial
PEN, Charlie and the Writers’ World
by Don Webb
Part 1 appears in this issue.
I. The Place of Bewildering Stories
Thank you again, Eleanor, for your kind words about the role and activity of Bewildering Stories. I will make sure the compliment is shared with our Review Editors and Associate Editors — a.k.a. review readers. They all deserve the praise.
As our Quarterly Reviews say, the Review Editors carry the flag; the Associate Editors determine what Bewildering Stories shall be. And yet, our review readers, especially, seldom see the results of their work; there is no easy way to provide feedback.
I sometimes do see the results in the form of thank-you notes from contributors for the help we provide. I treasure them as success stories. In that way, Eleanor, you speak for many. And what you say has everything to do with what you describe as a class — or even caste — structure in current publishing.
Bewildering Stories is not a writers’ group, but it does have an educational mission. There is a practical reason for it. At the beginning, our late publisher Jerry Wright had dreams of starting a small press and making BwS a semi-pro ’zine. He soon learned, as he said, “To become a millionaire in small-press publishing, start with two million.”
And Jerry noted that if Bewildering Stories paid contributors even a pittance for every acceptance, we’d be flooded with quality works. The idea is attractive, but it is a Sirens’ call. To pay contributors, we’d need an endowment or income, and we have neither. That’s been a blessing in disguise: I don’t have to hire a full-time accountant and a postal clerk or, possibly, a tax lawyer. And we’re spared endless arguments over who gets how much.
Bewildering Stories is not a monument but a meeting place, even an on-line seminar. Its very format is borrowed from an on-line course developed by a colleague of mine who, for decades, has been a pioneer in distance education. As a weekly publication, our quality is bound to be uneven, but some of it compares favourably to that in print magazines. And we do not have the print magazines’ space limitations.
I’m also gratified to hear from contributors when the works they’ve published in Bewildering Stories make their way into print anthologies or even film. But our mission remains the same: we’re there for those who need us. We’re accessible to authors like yourself, who need the exposure, and to new writers who need feedback from readers.
II. Writers’ Voices and l’affaire Charlie
You’ve noted that publicity is centred mainly in major newspapers and journals, to which one could add publishing houses. One may infer that, in those temples, money talks. The U.S. Supreme Court notwithstanding, money is not speech, it’s an abstract commodity; in a word: power.
At Bewildering Stories, money doesn’t talk; our authors and readers do. That’s why BwS is not a bank, let alone a temple. Rather, as our Quarterly Reviews say, it is a lighthouse on the chaotic sea of the Internet.
In my opinion, PEN has mishandled the Charlie award and inadvertently provoked needless factionalism. Two questions have been conflated: Does PEN bestow the award for literary merit? And what is “Charlie,” anyway?
Charlie is a casualty in a world-wide civil war. The assassins are heroes for those who proclaim a particular religion and act within the social norms of a Middle-Eastern honour culture. Charlie is a martyr for another, opposing culture, one that affirms free speech.
What is that speech? As you say, Charlie caricatures and offends almost everybody. My colleague, who has read Charlie Hebdo in its home country, in Paris, is repelled. She finds it mean-spirited; it tells stories she does not want to hear.
If the U.S. shock-jock pundit Rush Limbaugh were assassinated by terrorists, would PEN give him an award? In one sense, the comparison is not really accurate; Limbaugh represents one narrow political point of view. Charlie’s viewpoint has no particular target but can be discerned thematically: What values do its caricatures imply?
In another sense, the question is irrelevant: nobody deserves to be shot, neither for who they are nor for what they say. On the contrary, the test of free speech consists in defending the rights of those with whom we most disagree.
Is Salman Rushdie right to say Michael Ondaatje is “horribly wrong” to boycott the PEN award? That’s a false problem. It is impossible to believe that Ondaatje is saying that the terrorists represent the acme of literary criticism, but he ought to be careful to avoid giving that impression. What are Rushdie and Ondaatje really arguing about?
I like to think we have our priorities straight. To PEN, I can say, yes, je suis Charlie, and PEN owes an award to Charlie for being a martyr to the cause. But I am not saying that Charlie’s style is mine or that of Bewildering Stories; it isn’t. Literary content is an entirely separate question and ought not to be confused with any other.
Copyright © 2015 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories