The controversy tore through the science fiction community like wildfire.
When Dr. Regina N. Bradley's essay about the influence of the hip-hop group OutKast, Da Art of Speculatin' went live on Fireside Magazine in November 2020, she was furious. The audio version of the story used a white voice actor as a narrator, a voice that mangled and undermined the essay, which began with the words "I’m a southern Black woman who stands in the long shadow of the Civil Rights Movement."
The incident brought swift criticism to the magazine, prompting its owner and Editor-In-Chief Pablo Defendini to apologize and remove the audio before stepping down from his editorial roles at the publication. But the damage had been done: Fireside, long considered an influential publication with a firm anti-racist ethos, had failed its readers and writers.
Now, Fireside is looking to right the ship. After the controversy broke, Brian White, the magazine's original founder and former Editor-In-Chief, stepped in as the publication's Interim Editorial Director to save the publication, and is now implementing some new changes to try and steer the magazine back to sustainability.
It was a quick bit of damage control for the publication, which had risen within the science fiction community first as an outlet of excellent storytelling and as an advocate for fair pay for writers, and which had gained a reputation as one of the genre's leading anti-racist voices.
White has told Transfer Orbit he's regaining ownership of the publication, and that his position as Interim Editorial Director was always intended to be temporary. He's hired a new Publisher to run the magazine's business and financial operations: LeKesha Lewis, who has served as the founding creator, Art Director, and Project Manager of FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, a researcher for the LeVar Burton Reads Podcast, and a Grant Administrator for the Speculative Fiction Foundation. Additionally, Chelle Parker, presently the magazine's copy editor, has stepped into the role as Managing Editor and will oversee its editorial operations. The two will work closely together moving forward. White will be the publication's Executive Editor and Owner (he won't draw a salary to help get the magazine onto a better financial footing), and will handle the magazine's social media and newsletter operations in the short term.
The magazine took a significant hit in the aftermath of the controversy, and to help keep the magazine afloat in the short term, a couple of prominent individuals — authors Mikki Kendall and Sarah Gailey, as well as literary agent DongWon Song — have provided some bridge funding to help the publication rebuild its subscription base.
With those efforts, White says that he hopes to rekindle the influential magazine at a time when conversations about race and inequality have been at the forefront of the genre — and general public's — attention.
White launched Fireside with a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, and he'd pitched the project as a cross-genre magazine with a heavy emphasis on good storytelling, and that it would be a magazine that would pay its writers an appropriate fee for their work (at the time, the industry standard of five cents a word).
The magazine's initial lineup featured a number of well-known authors within the field, such as Tobias Buckell, Ken Liu, Chuck Wendig, and Christie Yant, with art by Amy Houser and comics from D.J. Kirkbride and Adam P. Knave. White launched the magazine as a quarterly offering, and subsequent early issues featured stories from features like Kat Howard, Jake Kerr, Daniel Abraham, Elizabeth Bear, and Mary Robinette Kowal.
[White and I have known each other through Twitter and through conventions like ReaderCon. I've backed Fireside for a couple of issues via Kickstarter.]
Over the years, Fireside morphed and changed form. White eventually focused on the publication's website with help from Defendini, a web designer who'd helped set up sites like Tor.com and others. More changes were on their way: in August 2016, he published a special project that he had commissioned called #BlackSpecFic, an examination of the racial imbalance within science fiction's short fiction scene.
The report was a bombshell within the science fiction community: it found that there was a systemic imbalance of who was getting published in science fiction's short fiction ecosystem. Writer Cecily Kane found that short fiction publications were "essentially not publishing black writers," which had major ramifications on the field: in 2015, only 38 of the 2,039 short stories were authored by black writers. Some publications had no black writers amidst their table of contents at all. If short fiction was where numerous authors gained visibility and publishing credits, they were missing out on that ability to build their career as authors.
The publication of the #BlackSpecFic Report in 2016 was a key moment for the magazine: it helped to crystalized its editorial focus and priorities. White explained that it "opened by eyes that we could do more than just publish stories and have that be enough."
Following the report, White noted that Fireside would implement some changes to the magazine: they'd add more people of color to their staff and make other improvements to their submissions process. The report also had a larger impact on the genre's publishing scene, prompting other publications and organizations like SFWA to begin thinking about their own efforts to help attract and retain authors of color.
Fireside published two additional reports in 2016 and 2017, and began to irregularly publish some statistics on their submissions. White stepped down from the magazine in July 2017, handing over the reins to Defendini, who had up until that point been the magazine's design and technology director. As owner, Defendini continued the magazine's anti-racist mission, and initiated some additional publishing efforts: Fireside began to publish novels and novellas from authors like Lilith Saintcrow, Andrea Phillips, and Sarah Gailey, and brought in a rotation of guest editors to curate short fiction.
The magazine's efforts in the years that followed showed that it began to have an impact: the numbers of black writers who were beginning to be published began to slowly rise, and White highlighted the formation of other publications, like FIYAH, and Fireside's own, conscious efforts to lead by example as examples of changes within the science fiction community.
With the report and its publishing efforts, the publication considerable earned acclaim for its stories and its antiracist stance and practices. Defendini held up the publication's principles as a key feature, writing in The Bookseller that "Fireside is a progressive organization, and we think it’s our responsibility to promote social justice, support others who do as well, and call out people who stand in opposition to our values," and that "we focus on two issues we’re passionate about: calling out and countering systemic racism and implicit biases in the sf/f short fiction field, and building safer spaces for the vibrant sf/f community to enjoy."
In February 2018, it published P. Djèlí Clark's short fantasy story 'The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington', which earned both the Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Short Story, and was a finalist for the Hugo and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards in the same year. The magazine also earned Hugo nominations for Best Semiprozine in 2018, while Locus Magazine included a handful of its stories on its coveted annual recommended reading lists starting in 2018.
There were some bumps along the way: following Defendini's elevation to Publisher, one of the magazine's prominent editors, Julia Rios, departed, and Jason Sanford's Genre Grapevine reported that the publication took the unusual move of canceling some of its book contracts with authors like Meg Elison (who highlighted some of the issues that she saw in the incident) in an effort to streamline its operations. Defendini chalked the issue up to lean staffing as a source of that problem.
Fireside, in many ways, was an exciting, innovative publishing effort that seemed to be changing the conversation about race and science fiction, during a particularly contentious period in the scene's history: a pair of trolling campaigns kicked off in the speculative fiction (Sad/Rabid Puppies) and gaming (GamerGate) communities, against apparent gains by women and authors/creators of color in those respective scenes — all of which was a small part of the larger cultural reckoning about equality in gender, identify, race, and sexuality.
So it was a surprise when Fireside decided to use a white voice actor to voice Bradley's essay.
Blackface is the racist practice of white actors applying black makeup to appear African American, which perpetuated racist stereotypes about black people. By bringing in a white narrator using an offensive accent, Fireside effectively did the same thing, and undermined the very anti-racist image and reputation that the magazine cultivated.
The incident was striking, because it served as a microcosm for the larger, ongoing conversations about race in America, but also because it appeared to be an unforced error on the part of the magazine. Guest editor Maurice Broaddus wasn't aware of the selection prior to its publication, and voice actor, Kevin Rineer told The Washington Post that he only received the manuscript after signing a contract, and his request for guidance and a replacement narrator went unheeded by the publication.
Defendini removed the audio and issued an apology, noting that he had "failed to keep proper tabs on this process, and fell down on several fronts: for starters, I chose a white man to narrate this issue — edited by a Black man and featuring multiple works by non-white authors." Frustratingly, he failed to even listen to the recordings before publishing them.
Days later, White returned to take over as Fireside's interim director to overhaul the publication's processes and announced that Defendini had stepped down from all editorial functions at the publication — but still owned it and would continue to work as its art designer. White explained to me that he learned of the controversy within an hour or two of the news breaking, and that he was "I was horrified and angry about it, and I knew that it was going to take an enormous amount of work to address."
That work included some emergency overhauls to keep the publication afloat: its print magazine would be immediately discontinued. White also explained that Defendini would remain the owner of the publication: otherwise, it would fold completely, leaving the stories and work that they'd planned for 2021 out in the cold.
There were real challenges for the publication: White estimated that the publication lost anywhere from 10-15 percent of their subscribers — Fireside is funded via both direct subscriptions and Patreon members — in the immediate aftermath, and had suffered a potentially-fatal repetitional hit within the field. If they couldn't right the ship, the magazine would follow the route of many that came before it: it would fold, taking its work and mission with it.
In the months since taking over as Interim Editorial Director, White has worked to get Fireside back up and running. The publication brought in guest editors Aigner Loren Wilson and Hal Y. Zhang, and over the course of 2021, have been working behind the scenes to figure out a way to save the magazine from going under, looking at new buyers and editors to chart its new course.
White says that he's grateful for Defendini's role in leading the magazine after he departed in 2017, and that after discussions, the two of them decided that the best path forward would be for White to resume full ownership of the publication.
Defendini told me that he was ready to put Fireside behind him. "It’s been clear for a while that I don’t have the bandwidth to run Fireside any longer," he explained in an emailed statement. White noted that they "explored a couple of staffing and ownership options, and what made sense was for me to come back to take over."
Now, with Lewis coming onboard as Publisher, Parker becoming the publication's Managing Editor, and White regaining his ownership of the company, they're looking to a future where discussions of race and equality are more relevant than ever.
Lewis told me in an email that she was disappointed when word broke about Fireside last year. "Fireside had been a dream market for me," she wrote. "As a writer, I was always drawn to the care the Fireside team seemed to take in valuing the full humanity of marginalized authors."
"But that care takes time, energy, and attention. Without just one of those things, failing your writers is inevitable, regardless of intent. Dr. Bradley and her essay were disrespected, point blank. I'm now in a position to see that something like that never happens again. It's a responsibility I take seriously as a Black woman, a writer, an editor, and a caretaker. I have high standards of myself and my team in all of those roles."
She says that her goal as Publisher will be to provide a safe home for the stories that need to be told. "The publication should be the place we want to bring readers and be like, 'look, not only did they publish my work, they celebrate it; and the rest of their house isn't a mess either.' So I want to keep that energy." She also noted that she wants to keep up with Fireside's culture of experimentation:
"I've loved Fireside's tradition of acquiring works in interesting formats like Sarah Gailey's STET or the subversive nature of pieces like P. Djèlí Clark's 'The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington'. I want to bring back writers who trust Fireside with works like that. And I'm looking forward to incubating editorial talent from marginalized communities through our Guest Editor slates. I have loftier long-term goals as well, like a return to print, more studies, more outreach initiatives (and I am DYING to do novellas) but we have to right the ship first."
For their part, Parker notes that their goals will be to eventually build up the site's editorial staff and bring back the print edition, and books, but notes that there's a lot of work to do in the meantime. "The first steps along that road involve stabilizing the company's finances and earning back some of the goodwill the magazine lost," they told me. "We're all extremely invested in continuing to uphold the commitment Fireside has always had to showcasing the talents of authors, editors, and artists from demographics that are typically underrepresented in the publishing industry."
"I take that responsibility really seriously. I know we're just a small magazine in a niche area of publishing, but I love that we're in a position to give someone amazing their first professional publication credit and bring attention to their work, and I'm thrilled to be able to raise the profile of other editors, to validate their skills and expertise in a way they can actually use on their résumés to get hired for bigger and better things."
The publication says that it's also implementing some editorial changes to prevent future errors. White says that "nothing will be published — on our site, our newsletter, our official social media accounts, etc. — without at least two members of Fireside staff reviewing it and affirmatively signing off on its publication." They'll also consult with their guest editors and authors when needed to review things like art, audio, and other non-textual features.
White explained that one of the best features to have come out of Defendini's tenure was his implementation of its use of guest editors, which brought in a wealth of new voices to the field, something that will continue. White said that he was proud of Fireside's reputation as a plucky, outspoken activist outlet, one that had helped highlight some of the genre's most pressing problems, and that that progressive action "is in our bones."
Still, the controversy from 2020 will have a lingering effect. White explains that Parker took on the task of taking stock of the rest of the publication's audio stories and have found some mismatches between authors and narrators, but are still evaluating the situation and are still having discussions about their approach there. He says to expect an update in the coming months about what they've found and what their next steps will be. In the meantime, the magazine won't release any audio versions of its stories.
"I understand that there will be folks who don't trust us," White says, noting that they intend to let their actions speak for them, that they have a lot of work before them, and that they'll be transparent about their efforts. "That's okay — that's what we signed up to do."
Hopefully, for the sake of the magazine, its authors, and its legacy, those efforts be enough to rekindle the flame as it prepares for the challenges to come.
Thanks for reading!
Transfer Orbit is a regular newsletter about science fiction, writing, and the future of reading. It publishes a regular roundup of the SF/F world every Friday, and other issues include reviews, interviews, and commentary about the genre and fan communities.
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