Ági Szabados Does Not Need To Apologize To Me

So, at the opening ceremonies of the Budapest International Book Festival this year, a couple of people gave prefatory remarks before I received the Budapest Grand Prize and participated in my own relatively brief question and answer period. One of them was actor Ervin Nagy; the other was Ági Szabados, who is a newscaster and bookseller who runs a nationwide book club in Hungary (think along the lines of the Oprah Book Club or the Reese Witherspoon book club). At the time of the event, I listened to her remarks (via a translator) and thought them perfectly uncontroversial; among other things she talked about the importance of reading, which is, rather obviously, something I agree with.

Apparently I was one of the few who found the remarks uncontroversial, because shortly thereafter Ms. Szabados was sharply criticized for her remarks in the press and online, and was accused, more or less, of making her speech about herself and not about me, who was the putative subject under discussion. This caused enough of an uproar in Hungary that Ms. Szabados felt obliged to offer an apology for her speech, and in particular noted that she hoped that I had not been offended.

With that as preamble, and with the further notation that no one in Hungary, and certainly not Ms. Szabados, has asked me to say anything about this or, indeed, even knows that I am about to say anything about this:

Folks, I was not offended at the time, nor am I offended now. And while I appreciate that Ms. Szabados has offered an apology generally, and also to me specifically, in my particular case, I don’t think an apology was needed. Again, I found nothing objectionable in her comments to the opening ceremony audience. I suppose she could have talked about me more, but then, I was there to talk about me, and did, for about 20 minutes at the opening ceremony, and then for over an hour at my own spotlight event two days later. I dare say that no one who attended the book festival came away lacking information on the topic of John Scalzi. I assure you, I am very good at talking about me. Ask literally anyone who has ever met me.

Ms. Szabados otherwise talked about reading, and the importance of taking the time to read, and, well, I have no problem with that. As I understand it, the name of her book club translates in English to “No Time To Read,” and the title of the book club rather puts a point on the matter: People are often of the opinion that they don’t have time. To the extent that Ms. Szabados encourages people to find the time to read, I appreciate her efforts. And the fact that she chose the Hungarian translation of Old Man’s War as her club’s September read, in advance of my arrival at the book festival, was of actual benefit to me: She introduced me and my work to a whole bunch of readers who might not otherwise have ever checked out my novel. This is not just supposition; several people at the festival who came to see me told me that her book club was how they found out about me. Some of them were clutching copies of other books of mine as they did so.

Which is to say that from my point of view, long before Ms. Szabados stepped onto the stage last Thursday, she had already done more to introduce me to new readers in Hungary, and to spur conversation about my work, than almost any other single person in in the country, short of my actual publisher, and the organizers of the book festival. So not only does she have nothing to apologize to me for, at the end of the day the emotion I most feel regarding Ms. Szabados is: gratitude. She did a very good thing for me, and the introduction she made at the opening ceremonies — where she talked about the book club that introduced me to many readers! — was only the smallest part of all of that.

Now, I realize that there’s probably more going on here. I am not privy to all the social undercurrents in Hungary that flow beneath this particular story. I can only comment on what I know and my own perspective on it as an outsider. Additionally, I don’t know Ms. Szabados in any meaningful way; we were introduced briefly prior to the opening ceremonies, and saw each other again a couple days later, where again we chatted briefly and took a picture before we both went to do our respective things. In the very brief time I had with her, she seemed lovely. I was glad to meet her.

So, please. People of Hungary, if you are angry or annoyed at Ms. Szabados on my behalf, thank you, but don’t be. Don’t take on a burden that I myself do not carry. I appreciate what Ms. Szabados did for me, at the festival and before it. No apology is necessary for any of it. Not to me, and, may I suggest, not to anyone else.

— JS

(Photo of Ms. Szabados taken from here)

40 Comments on “Ági Szabados Does Not Need To Apologize To Me”

  1. Also, for the record, Ervin Nagy’s comments about me were also lovely, and welcome, and I was glad to meet him, too.

    Oh, and: Tempting as it might be to some, let’s avoid a general discussion of Hungary and Hungarian politics, please, and stick specifically to the topic at hand, otherwise this comment thread might get unmanageable, quick. Thanks.

  2. Sadly, John, Hungary is not the beacon of freedom it was in the era of its determined struggles against the Soviet hegemony. How the people of Imre Nagy who kicked the Soviets to the curb came to offer their necks to the tyrant Viktor Orbán and his fascist autocracy utterly baffles me.

    But if you are looking for reasons why an outspoken woman advocating for people to READ (and, by tacit extension, think for themselves,) might be subject to public disapproval, there is a long pattern of fascist autocrats trying to have their cake and eat it.

  3. What a nice response you wrote. I do hope she gets a copy or is pointed to a translation of this site (if she doesn’t read English.)

    I guess I’m not up on how these sort of events work, I would have thought that the intro speakers would have made you part of their remarks, but talk at a more general level like the love of reading and its importance being a perfect topic.

    As you note, you’d have time to talk about yourself and honestly, you’re the expert on you. ;-)

    So nice of you to defend her.

  4. “What did you do today, honey?”

    “Oh, paid bills, had lunch and painted the book case. You?”

    “Eh, you know. Goofed off a little in the morning, wrote some, diffused an international incident, and then took the pup out.”

  5. It’s so hard to talk about this and NOT bring up Hungarian politics. Since Terry already essentially said what I was thinking, just solely will send kudos to you and Ms Szabados. We need more of your voices in the world…

  6. Very nice response.

    One has the impression this should not have been necessary in the first place, but here we are.

  7. Well said John. Everybody seems to be apologising for stupid things these days. I heard an announcer on our ABC radio in Australia apologising for saying something like “oh I’m a bit OCD about that” – after a person with actual OCD rang up annoyed.
    Finally, my chance! I rang the station and told them I myself suffer from OCD and wasn’t offended – I knew what she meant, for gods sake!

  8. @Terry

    Of course Hungarian politics is quite worrying and at least on par with what the Trump presidency meant for America.
    But I also believe that when John gets invited to an event he (or his publisher) will check who invites him.

  9. Hi John, and no worries, your message is properly relayed back to the Hungarian (SF)-reading community. And yes, we can learn an awfully lot from you (and not just ABOUT you ;-) ), like patience, dignity and such.
    So, keep up the good work, we are waiting for the goodies we have just discussed in the long session.
    (By the way, do you have the youtube links to the sessions?)

  10. It’s hard to avoid speaking about hungarian politics, especially because Agi Szabados is the reporter of one of the very few remaining media NOT controlled by the current government, and I’m pretty sure that is not unrelated in this case…
    Nevertheless, your post is very kind, and I hope you enjoyed staying in Hungary :)

  11. @Terry
    I accept that you have a theory about Hungarian politics, but in this case a hungarian liberal journal criticised Ági Szabados.

  12. I meant that remark in general terms.
    That Ági Szabados is a journalist from one of the few not government controlled media means that they weren’t supporting the government at this fair.

  13. …and this time remember to soak those banned books in enough gasoline

    fascists are everywhere…

    that’s what most of these things really are about these days, as fascists push and the rest of use push back

  14. To Stephen K:

    I think to ring up and correct a person claiming they are a bit OCD is a very OCD thing to do. I find it very funny.

  15. Mind boggling, which as others suggest, implies politics is involved…

    It’s a book festival. Sure, you’re supposed to say nice things about the Guest of Honor when you’re introducing him, but you’re not supposed to ignore the fact that it’s… a book festival!

    I’ve been to plenty of similar events where more was said about the subject of the event than the Guest of Honor by the emcee. Last Friday I went to a dance performance, co-presented by two organizations, and the heads of those organizations spent at least as much time talking about what they did as the artists we’d be seeing. I don’t think anybody felt the artists were slighted.

  16. I don’t know much about anything in this post, but “I dare say that no one who attended the book festival came away lacking information on the topic of John Scalzi. I assure you, I am very good at talking about me. Ask literally anyone who has ever met me,” was hilarious and I laughed aloud.

  17. I’m sure Mr. Scalzi could phrase it better, but, “If you are taking offense over what someone has said about someone else before they have commented, you might be making a fool of yourself”

  18. She started her speech with “I live in two worlds. One is a world of books. ” (It was based on the speech of Rory from Gilmore Girls. Which is funny because in her speech Ági makes a point about not to watch netflix but read a book.)
    Then we got to know she was 12 years old when thanks to J.K.R she fell in love with reading, she was 16 when she read Kundera, and after that, and i have to quote here “I was the face and the presenter of … hmm.. one of the most watched news on hungarian tv, i got a calling to make a book club.” Then she talked about her book club, that it is her mission, how many people are in the book club, etc. Last month’s read was John Scalzi, he sent them a video. Reading is important. That is it, that was the speech in tldr.
    The free media, hvg.hu and 24.hu wrote that it was supposed to be a laudation so it was cringe. And it was VERY cringe. But that’s it, nothing political behind it, nothing deep, it got this beef just because she is a fairly famous influencer in Hungary, with zero self-reflection, and someone wrote a reddit post about it. The media then talked about the reddit post and the video of the speech.
    Here is the original post:

  19. @Stephen

    I think it’s pretty understandable that someone in the throes of the tears and stress and therapy attempts and medication trials to treat their, for example, hand washing to the point of bleeding, would be offended by “I’m a bit OCD, teehee.”

    Perhaps not worthy of a public apology, but offensive to some people? Absolutely.

  20. @Michelle: Yes, that exactly. It’s not so much that someone decided to act like they were over-the-top offended by the wording. It’s that the utter prevalence of lighthearted remarks like this out there do a lot to trivialize OCD, which can easily turn into misinformation, stigma, and/or other unnecessary barriers to diagnosis/treatment. The truth is that OCD is an awful, awful illness. The one time I made a joke about it, partway through my teens, one of my nicest family members took me aside and told me she’d watched several people from her extended family suffer badly from OCD, and (gently) that what I was doing was unhelpful. I tried to downplay it at the time, but now think she was completely correct: I was wrong and needed to knock it off. (Similar argument goes for bipolar disorder, diabetes, all sorts of things.)

  21. Until I saw white magic’s post I wondered if maybe the translator had left something out of the speech, or maybe changed it a little bit.

    Now it seems like an ordinary fake scandal aimed at A Woman Doing Things In Public.

    To me, it seems perfectly ordinary that someone would want to talk about their own journey as a reader when they talk about books.

    Good on you for being good about this, John.

  22. What I’ve been wondering is, if you’ve met with Hungarian colleagues when you were in Budapest.
    Maybe authors from Hungary who seek to be translated into English or try to get their translated works published in the USA.

  23. I would rather say it was a fake scandal of shameless self-promotion, as she promoted her own business. If the situation were reversed and they would have invited a guy to talk about a female author and he would talk about himself what comments would he get? There were many good speeches that day, women included, that didn’t got any critisicm, people should talk about them instead. They talked about the situation with lgbt books in Hungary for example

  24. …which reminds of a quote I’ve hung onto for years ‘n years, Lois McMaster Bujold once snarked:

    “…publication around November 2012; a book tour is threatened…”

  25. Opinions should always be welcomed and never judged, in mutual respect. You’re doing it right, John

  26. Howard NYC: on that comment by Bujold, would it be correct to assume that the book tour constituted the threat, rather than the book tour being under threat?

  27. You’re a true mensch, John. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to talk about Hungary outside of politics, because its government has politicized most aspects of public and private life that before were just “life.” I’m not privy to what exactly set off the mob, but there are layers to political life there that I’m not aware of, and I at least try to keep up with Hungarian news (because I travel there frequently, have family there, and speak the language). It truly could be anything: some reaction to a completely different incident bleeding over, some online troll determined to dogpile her (or given the state of Hungarian media, that troll could be working for a major media outlet in the country), something she actually said to someone else… I don’t think anyone who isn’t involved more in Hungarian civic life could know the answer. But good on you for defending her for doing nothing wrong; many Hungarians doing nothing wrong have been severely punished by the regime there.

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