10 January 2002 (again)

Today I've been having a discussion of professionalism. Sometimes it's been heated, sometimes fairly cool. It seems that the world, or at least my little corner of it, is divided into two camps.

One of these camps believes that being an authority figure (in this case, a publisher or an editor) is something for which you can wear a hat. You can take your editor hat off or put it on, and if your hat is off, you are not speaking as an editor. There's some utility to this point of view -- for example, there's a difference between Timprov saying to someone in our writing group, "I really like this story" and Timprov sending that person a contract. Not every word out of his mouth is a professional promise.

In this view, professionalism is limited to the time when one is wearing the editor hat: reading manuscripts, replying to them, editing them, or actively publicizing the publication in question. It assumes that people -- both the authority figures and the rest of the field -- are able to entirely forget that the professional is a professional unless reminded.

The other view is that professionalism should carry throughout all activities related to the profession. It assumes that human brains don't come with a thorough on/off switch. It assumes that no one will truly forget that the editor is an editor.

Frankly, I think this is known as "real life."

Let's take the most awarded editor in science fiction in our time as an example: Gardner Dozois. Dozois could try to remove his editor hat. If he did so and then said of random writer Bobatundae, "Bob has real talent. I'm going to look forward to reading more of his work," would Bob expect no one to pay any further attention to him than if Dozois had never spoken? I doubt it. He would be a bit of an idiot if he didn't. Editors have power.

There's a myth in the science fiction genre that con behavior doesn't really matter, that you can do anything at a convention and people will just roll their eyes. I suppose I should have phrased it more neutrally, but I really do think it's a myth. Here's the test: could you walk up to Dozois and slur, "Dozois, you suck!" and expect that he would say, "Ah, hahaha! Bob is drunk! I will pay no attention to his behavior! And after all, I am currently not reading stories, editing them, etc." Well, you could expect that. And maybe you do. If you do, I'd submit that it's counter to just about everything we know about human nature.

Most of the people who subscribe to the hat school want to use it for good, just as the holistic school does. They want to be respected as editors; they want people in their field to believe that their taste is good enough to warrant reading a magazine, anthology, or other publication selected by them. They want to be able to promote the careers of the people they think are promising.

Here's the thing: if you have the power to promote something, you also have the power to denigrate it. You cannot have the one without the other. You can't say, "Listen to me when I'm being positive, but not when I'm being negative." And if you can promote a friend's work and have people remember in the back of their heads, a ha, and this person is an editor!, the inverse is true.

I'm editing the WIHA anthology right now. I have temporarily joined the ranks of the authority figures. Quiver before me, you puny -- um. Right. So the authority is limited. But within its sphere, it does matter. I've read a bunch of stories now, and some authors have sent me two or three (or four or five). I'm a fairly small-time editor, but I know that I have power over people in this position, and you will not hear me talking nastily about any of the authors who submit work, by name, either in general or about their work. I may talk about a specific piece that is already public in a bad way, or I may talk about other specific behavior of the person, but since I am in a position of authority over them for the moment, the responsibility rests with me not to abuse it.

So I'm not a hat-school editor. I don't think that I can say of a writer who has submitted humorous work to me, "I'm taking my editor hat off for a minute and saying that you, Bob, have no sense of humor, and also your taste in setting is trite." Even if Bob has just said something unfunny and talked about setting it in Tolkien's universe, the fact that I have made it a generalization about Bob has made it inappropriate. The person who hears me can't tell whether Bob sent me the funniest, best-set story in the world, and I'm just talking about the rest of his ideas. The person who hears me has not been given access to the same data that I, as an editor, have, and thus has to take my word for it, or not -- the person who hears me can't evaluate that aspect of Bob for him or herself. That person is not going to need reminding that, yes, I am an editor -- at least, not once I've been at this for awhile. Not if I'm aspiring to be a professional. Professional editors make names for themselves in matters of taste. They ought also at least to be tasteful.

I think I could say, "Bob, that joke wasn't very funny. Also, that setting sounds like a stupid idea to me." Those comments are not generalizations about Bob. They draw only on my opinions of the comment and the setting at hand. They're not very nice, and if I'm going to expect Bob to want to have anything at all to do with me, I'll find some other way to put them. But they are deliberately designed not to reflect on my temporary editor status. It is my job to design them that way.

Some people seem to think -- in both good ways and bad -- that they should not start behaving as they would want a big-name professional editor to behave until they are actually well-known. I'm never sure who, specifically, believes that until some kind of comment comes out of their mouth like, "Oh, nobody much listens to me" or "I'm not an authority figure, I'm just a regular person." Even if they're right and nobody much listens, they're trying to get people to listen and buy or read the stories they have selected. They're aspiring to being Somebody. They (we) need to be willing to behave like it's already true.

Frankly, if you are a member of the hat school, do not expect me to believe you. It's like being a parent who tries to be a kid's buddy: sure, it's all fun and games while you're pushing on the tire swing, but the minute the kid starts to whine, you're the parent again: "Come on, no whining, or we're going home right now." You're the one in charge. You can make that switch whenever you want. That makes you the one in power.

Does it mean that authority figures can't be friends with people who are under their authority? No, and it doesn't mean they can't talk about them. It does mean that they need to be very, very careful how they're using the authority, because even if the hat comes off, everyone can see it sticking out of their back pocket.

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