Not all reasons are reasonable
Several years ago I was browsing in a bookstore.
Now that I think of it, a lot more of my personal anecdotes probably ought to begin with that line than usually do. But I digress…
I picked up a paperback that had an interesting title. The back cover description gave the impression that the book was a parody of noir detective novels such as The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep, but with demons and faeries and werewolves and the like. I’ve been a fan of both science fiction/fantasy and detective stories for longer than I can remember, so this could be right up my alley.
Except, as I said, the description made it seem like a parody. Sometimes parodies are great. Sometimes they are just mediocre. And sometimes they are nothing more than mean-spirited dreck.
The back cover also had a photograph of the author. And the photograph was not encouraging. Everything about the stern-faced man’s pose, expression, and even hairstyle typified a kind of fan or writer I had met far too many times throughout my years in the fandom. They espoused a philosophy of social darwinism that holds most of the human race in contempt. Their idea of humor always involves belittling others while drawing attention to their own superior command of vocabulary, or (alleged) facts, or logic.
The only thing I enjoyed less than having conversations with them was reading anything they wrote. So I was quite certain this guy’s idea of a parody would be all about the mockery, with a healthy slathering of self-importance and self-congratulation at his clever turns of phrases.
The very brief author bio included beside the photo mentioned martial arts.
Every one of those aforementioned unpleasant fans who had been martial arts enthusiasts had been misogynist homophobes who were constantly explaining to people that they weren’t racist, but…
I put the book back on the shelf.
Several years later, through a series of coincidences including recommendations from friends who were the opposite of the kind of person I had inferred the author to be, I found myself downloading some sample chapters of the audiobook version of the first book in the series.
I enjoyed the sample. I found the main character very engaging and I wanted to know how the story ended.
So I bought the entire audiobook and listened to it. It was nothing like I expected the book to be, based on my reading of that back cover.
I was still buying books from the Science Fiction Book Club at the time, and they had some omnibus editions collecting the first seven books in the series into a few volumes, so I bought those. They arrived about a month or so before I was laid off at my previous place of employment.
One day, between contracting gigs, I started reading the first book—a few very short days later I had read all seven that I owned. I couldn’t put them down.
I needed to get more.
Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the author in person, even spoke to him very briefly in an autograph line. I spoke with his wife for a teensy bit longer. Between reading his books and short stories, reading some of his commentary, hearing him talk about his life and writing, and seeing him interact with his wife, it’s clear that my assessment was completely wrong. For one thing, those douchebags I had incorrectly lumped him with would never, even with a gun pointed at their head, willingly hold hands with their wife in public—let alone do a sneaky-pinky lock with a sidelong glance and a wink while being interviewed on stage
Which shouldn’t be surprising. I had based my assessment on a photograph and a single phrase in the author bio. The stories aren’t parodies, either. So that description from the back of the paperback was just misleading. As many are.
I could laugh the whole thing off as a very amusing case of forgetting the adage about judging books by their covers. But it isn’t that simple.
The assessment came out of personal experience. I can’t count the number of guys I’ve met—mostly in fannish circles, but not exclusively—who shared that particular combination of beliefs and attitudes. In person, the attitude usually manifests fairly quickly. And they usually just as quickly place me into one of the categories of people they hold in contempt. Of course, since they seem to hold most people in contempt, that isn’t surprising.
They aren’t just unpleasant to be around. Whether they are active in politics or not, they spend a lot of their time trying to convince people of the validity of those social darwinist ideas I mentioned above. That means they advocate policies that threaten me and people I love (not to mention society as a whole). So I have really good motivation to identify people with those attitudes, if for no other reason than to minimize the amount of time I have to spend with them.
We make decision like that every day, without even thinking. While walking down the street, or up a grocery aisle, standing in line at the bank, or selecting a seat on a bus, we assess people on a variety of superficial characteristics, then act accordingly. That gut reaction, that ability to put together a bunch of nonverbal cues to identify people we should be cautious around is a valuable survival trait.
But, having spent my entire life fighting for respect and acceptance in a world that rejects gay men (or any one who doesn’t confirm to certain gender expectations), I understand the dangers of misjudging people.
The reasons behind our gut reactions aren’t logical; they don’t conform to the rules of deductive reasoning. That doesn’t mean they are always wrong. Even if they did conform to the tenets of logic and rational analysis, they wouldn’t always be right, either.
The best we can do is keep as close an eye on ourselves as we do strangers we meet throughout our life. When we recognize a mistake, we can correct it, and learn to be a bit less hasty in the future. And when we’re right, we can feel a little less guilty about the times we weren’t.