the Science Fiction Book Club Tor Books published an anthology called The Ghost Quartet, edited by Marvin Kaye, which contained a novella by Orson Scott Card called “Hamlet’s Father”. Tor Books reprinted the anthology. (See comments for discussions of the struck-through text.) No one appeared to notice that the novella rather painfully rewrote Hamlet to postulate that Hamlet’s father was an evil gay child molester who preyed upon the youth of Denmark.
Among those who missed the memo were the folks at Subterranean Press, who published the novella in a stand-alone edition in April of this year. Yes, this is the same Subterranean Press that publishes books by authors like Caitlín R. Kiernan and Poppy Z. Brite–hardly a bastion of homophobia. They kept the print run to 1000 copies, perhaps realizing the book would hold little appeal for anyone other than Card’s die-hard fans. PW‘s review was less than complimentary, and explicitly called out “the focus… on linking homosexuality with the life-destroying horrors of pedophilia”. Nonetheless, Hamlet’s Father almost entirely escaped the notice of the SF/F field’s queer activists.
On September 5th, William Alexander reviewed the book in Rain Taxi‘s online summer 2011 edition, calling it “as horrifying as it is ridiculous” and “a failure of narrative craft on every level”, and after three years of sitting there with the pin pulled out, the offensiveness grenade went off. Outraged blog posts, comments, and tweets sprang up. Felix Gilman suggested that the book could be followed by Unambiguously Antisemitic Merchant of Venice, while Arthur Hlavaty said he was waiting for “the one where that Muslim sumbitch Othello deserved to die.” Scott Lynch posted a “so much less gay and not written with gay big words” version of Henry V. Even @HAMLET_HULK weighed in. Outraged letters began arriving at SubPress; publisher Bill Schafer posted an official response bravely asking for more comments and promising to share them with senior staff and take them into consideration when making future acquisitions. Perhaps this request will redirect the ire from blogs and Twitter to the SubPress inbox; perhaps not.
Schafer professed surprise at the sudden and vitriolic response, given that the novella has been in circulation for years and was originally put out by much bigger publishers in much bigger print runs with much lower price tags. Not mentioned but relevant is Card’s long-established reputation for homophobic writing. Most queer readers are avoiding his work already, so why would anyone kick up a fuss over one little novella with a 1000-copy print run from a boutique press? But this is the thing about offensiveness grenades: they may look entirely inert for so long that you forget they’re dangerous, but sooner or later, they explode.
I expect a lot of people will be vexed that Schafer doesn’t explicitly disavow or apologize for the book. (I don’t expect Tor,
the SFBC, Marvin Kaye, or Card to disavow or apologize for it either.) It is worth keeping in mind, though, that SubPress has a pretty good track record of publishing queer and queer-friendly work. I know Bill Schafer well enough to believe him when he says they’ll read and respect the comments that come in. So disavowal or no, I’m hoping for the response that matters most: publishing better, smarter, kinder books. And I hope lots of people write not only to SubPress but to all their favorite publishers and ask for more representation and more respect.
EDIT 2: All comments are now being moderated. I will err on the side of encouraging discussion, but I will be redacting personal attacks, trolling, and other off-topic material.