The short summary: Helix editor William Sanders wrote a rejection letter using the term “sheet heads.” (The rejected story included Muslim characters and dealt with terrorism.) When confronted with this, he defended his word choice and criticized the writer for posting the rejection letter. Debate spread across many major internet forums. Several Helix writers asked to have their work removed from the Helix archives. Sanders did so, but put up a page saying the story was removed for “pantiwadulous” reasons. He told one writer that he only published her story because he wanted diversity and the story didn’t actually make sense. Then he said that any writer who doesn’t remove their story within the month will have to pay $40 to have it done later. Finally he declared that no more stories could be removed, period.
Transcriptase is a response to these actions. A longer summary follows.
The letter was originally posted in this journal, although the author later removed the letter. The full text of the letter is still available on a number of sites, but is reposted here for convenience:
No, I’m sorry but I can’t use this.
There’s much to like. I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities.
However, as I say, I can’t use it. Because Helix is a speculative fiction magazine, and this isn’t speculative fiction.
Oh, you’ve tacked on some near-future elements at the end, but the future stuff isn’t in any way necessary to the story; it isn’t even connected with it in any causal way. True, the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty); he was headed in that direction from the start, and if it hadn’t been the encounter with the stripper it would have been something else.
Now if it could be shown that something in this incident showed him HOW the West could be overthrown, then perhaps the story would qualify as SF. That might have been interesting. As it is, though, no connection is shown and in fact we are never told just how this conquest – a highly improbable event, to say the least – came about.
There are some other problems with the story, but there’s no point in going into them, because they don’t really matter from my viewpoint. It’s not speculative fiction and I can’t use it in my magazine.
And I don’t think you’re going to sell it to any other genre magazine, for that reason – though you’d have a hard time anyway; most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads. I think you might have a better chance with some non-genre publication. But I could be wrong.
The initial posting of the letter prompted considerable debate in the blogosphere as to the ethics of posting a rejection letter, some of which can be seen in this thread at Making Light. In this thread, Lawrence Watt-Evans, another Helix editor, explained Sanders’ comments as follows (#3 in the thread):
Several people do seem to have misinterpreted it; the references in the letter to “those people” are indeed specifically directed at terrorists, not Muslims in general, since the story in question is about terrorists. I’m fairly sure the story’s author understood that; I certainly hope he did.
The only possible ethnic slur is the term “sheet heads.” Once again, that was intended to refer to radical Islam, rather than Muslims in general, but I acknowledge it may be an unfortunate choice of words.
To which Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor with Tor Books (#10 in the thread), responded:
Lawrence, you know I like you, but no one with any sense buys the idea that when Sanders raved about “the worm-brained mentality of those people” and claimed that “most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads”, he was making a careful distinction between “Muslims in general” and “terrorists.” Because, you know, nobody thinks that even William Sanders is crazy enough to assert that “most of the SF magazines” are afraid to publish anything that would offend terrorists. Obviously he meant Muslims in general. He knows it, everyone with any sense knows it, and you know it, and I don’t know why you’re retailing defenses of this obvious nonsense.
Say what you will about Nick Mamatas; try to brush him aside because he and Sanders dislike each other–I’m not close to either of them, and I don’t care about that. What I know is that Mamatas absolutely has the drop on Sanders’ claims that he was only referring to “terrorists.” As Mamatas points out, if this is true, what does it do to Sanders’ claim of familiarity with the people under discussion? Sanders can’t have it both ways; if his splenetic comments were meant to refer only to “terrorists,” then he was claiming to have spent his time in the Middle East hanging out with terrorists.
If we don’t call this shit out, people will think it’s totally okay to do it, snickering on the down low in emails.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ email to Yoon Ha Lee, in response to her request to have her work removed, contained the following racist insult:
Certainly I would not want to continue to publish a story against the author’s wishes, especially a story like this one that never did make any sense and that I only accepted because I thought it might please those who admire your work, and also because (notorious bigot that I am) I was trying to get more work by non-Caucasian writers.
Ultimately several Helix authors asked to have their work removed. When the work was removed, it was replaced by a page stating “Story deleted at author’s pantiwadulous request.”
Subsequent to these requests, William Sanders said that writers would have to pay $40 to have their stories removed from the archive.
Why should you have to do all this extra work for nothing, just so some silly people can make a big grandstand play to impress their bloggy pals with the Correctness of their convictions?
I am hereby making a change to the aforestated offer. Effective as of now,
any Helix contributor who wants his/her work deleted from the archives will
have to pay for the privilege. Specifically, it’ll cost you forty bucks, payable
Finally, William Sanders declares that no further Helix authors may remove their stories, period:
All right, that’s it. It’s been long enough; there’s been ample opportunity
for anyone else who felt soiled by the contact with Helix to step up and speak
up and pay up.
I don’t believe there are going to be any others (the imposition of cash charges
seems to have had a distinctly damping effect) but if there are, tough shit.
You had your chance and you didn’t take it.
A few other links:
- Technoccult, a mainstream blog that heard about the issue
- A further post from Tobias Buckell, after Yoon Ha Lee’s removal request
- K. Tempest Bradford’s post on the issue
- A thread on the Asimov’s forum on the issue, with several defenders of Sanders and comments on whether the letter should have been posted. Warning: The later pages of this thread contain some statements which may be triggering for people who have experienced hate speech, as noted here by Tobias Buckell again.
More details can be found by Googling “Sanders letter Muslim” and similar strings.