Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Let's Celebrate How Far We've Come... By Doing Better!

So, it's Martin Luther King week. And as such, it's an opportunity to discuss the topic of diversity in fiction. That's something I've had to stop and take a deep breath about before I started typing a bunch of words about. For once, I decided to think about something first... then type.

Once, in my youth, I took a college history class in which I had to, among other things, write a story from the POV of a young black girl in the south during Dr King's, I have a dream, speech.

Doing so was an opportunity for me watch the speech in its entirety for the first time, not just the famous part, and to do some research into the cultural and political scene of the country of the time. I interviewed an elderly gentleman that was a young man during the 60's, and told me his personal experiences. They horrified me to the core.

People are so mean. I couldn't understand how someone that went through so much suffering could still be such a well adjusted, happy man.  For folks like me, people who most closely associate the world and its attitudes with the 80's going forward (despite living through most of the 70's, I don't think I had an awareness of much of the larger world until the 80's), it was a disturbing to think that the world was a radically different place only 20 years prior.

What happened, I think, is that white folks stood around, looked at each other, and said, "Well, I guess we don't get to racist anymore," and then carried on. And so the violent, aggressive, openly hostile acts of racism mostly stopped.

But just because you no longer have the freedom to tie a man to the bumper of your car and drag him down the road until he dies any longer, didn't change the underlying superiority complex a lot of people dealt with at the time. It just made racism a bit more... well, passive.

People who were denied education, training, access to information, whatever else you can imagine, were now told the world wasn't racist anymore, but that they didn't have the proper education, training, or experience to take on the jobs they were applying for. So, we have to give those jobs to white people now. Again, not racist, they swear it isn't.

And on and on it went. So today, when people look at diversity in SF&F it isn't just about race, it's about gender too. Well, it turns out that SF&F has traditionally been a equal opportunity discriminator. It used to be the case that a woman wanting to write in genre had write under a male pen name to be taken seriously. James Tiptree jr, for example, one of the greatest SF writers of all time, was, after all, secretly, a lady named Alice.

I, for one, and happy that all that is behind us. And as I've always considered myself a pretty forward thinking fella. I guess that means you'd be able to see that in my reading choices too. To prove it, I took a picture of my tbr pile here in my office.

Aside for a few things there, it's mostly books I'm intending to read*. The LOTR dvd's are there because my wife put them there, no explanation given. The graphic novels are mostly already read. But the books there, that's what I wanted to look at. How many there are written by minorities and women?

Well, I took some numbers down. Here they are:

Number of books: 102
Fiction Books: 95
SF&F Books: 92
Number of SF&F Books Written by Women: 5
Latino: 1
African-American: 0

Huh... That doesn't speak so well to me, does it? It's long since been discussed that the SF&F community is underrepresented by women and minorities. But this is stunning. I pulled one of those books off my shelf because the author had initials listed as their author name, and I wasn't sure of the gender. I saw the photo here on the back page.

So, I guess it's probably not a woman. Unless the cat wrote the book, and the man is just there because he had to hold the cat.

So, as a reader, it's up to me to seek out a more diverse set of authors to read from. I will read more. I've heard amazing things about Nnedi Okarafor, Samuel Delany, and the deceased Octavia E. Butler.

As a writer, I pledge to do better. To make sure my characters are more diverse. Because the whole world isn't a bunch of middle aged white dudes. And that means not just making someone as a stand in for a whole ethnic community either, I mean to have characters that are well rounded individuals that just happen to not be white dudes. I need to start expanding those horizons, so to speak.

The complaint I've heard, and disheartens me the most, is that some US minorities have dismissed SF&F out of hand because it's perceived as a white man's club. Who knows what child that could have been of of the great contributors of all time to the field decided that they weren't allowed to because it was a place they weren't welcome.

*In my defense, my kindle tbr pile is much better. That the bulk of my physical books are from traditional publishers, and mostly from the big 5, probably has something to do with that disparity. Although I still take it upon myself as being ultimately responsible for what I read.


  1. I doubt my TBR pile is much more diversified but maybe I should count at some point.

  2. Samuel Delany is awesome! Be sure to read him. Plus he's got the coolest beard of any genre writer I know.

  3. If you want to know how far our society has come, watch old TV shows, movies, and read classics like Gone With the Wind.
    We *have* come a long way. But now people need to learn the difference between "racist" and "bigotry".

    Regarding diversity in authors, possibly some of it has to do with who writes what. My bookshelves are filled with female authors and a good mix of male. If I took the time to catalog the minorities, wouldn't that be a sign of bigotry? All I want is a good book written by a good author. I don't care about the gender, age, nationality, straight/gay who writes it. Martian is fine with me too.

  4. I've always tended to be pretty diverse. Because I'm special like that. I also try and read books from other cultures. Because I'm doubly special! And I love it that some of the most popular books of the new millennium were written by a woman (J.K. Rowling). And I especially love it that she's become one of my favorite writers. It makes me feel like I've vindicated my self-image as a pretty diverse reader. Even though the majority of the books in my collection are still by white dudes...

  5. Read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Just saying.
    Maybe I'll have to do a count through my books, too.

  6. @Grumpy - I kind of enjoyed counting. I thought I would have done better.

    @Sean - I did look at a picture, and yes, that is glorious. Pat Rothfuss has a pretty impressive beard too, but that I think Sam has him beat.

    @Huntress - All I want is a good book too, but if we don't have any written by minorities on our shelves that means either A) we don't think minorities write good books or B) They're underrepresented in the genres we read in. Which means there is a problem. But if I'm not going to inventory what I read, then I won't know if a problem exists. That isn't bigotry.

    @Tony - I would pat you on the back, but both my hands are busy patting me on the back. I'll come back to you later.

    @Andrew - That is one of the famale authors on my shelf, btw. I was geniunely surprised. I mean, I love Connie Willis, JK Rowling, Nancy Kress... but after that it starts getting harder for me to think of SF&F female authors that I've read much of.

  7. Is it The Sparrow that you have? I've read Willis, too. Doomsday Book is great, and I have... Passages? in my stack. Somewhere.

  8. I'm with Huntress. I am reading a book written by a woman right now (among one of the three I'm working on), so it might be who chooses to write what. But there probably is a bit of classification going on -- just as JK Rowling used her initials to not turn off boys who wouldn't want to read a book written by a woman, it may be that publishers are either not publicizing when authors are minorities, or are not publishing genre books by minorities, either way because they fear that books by minorities will be seen as FOR minorities.

    I read once that when a black man plays the lead in a movie, his love interest can't be white (as that's too risque, even now, apparently) but can't be black because doing that marks it as a 'black' movie. So they have a black man's love interest played by someone who is vaguely ethnic -- like what's-her-name in "Hitch" or what's-the-other-one's name in "Six Pounds" or whatever it was.

    That kind of thinking may be at work in publishing. But I fall back, too, on ethnicity in a story having to be there for a purpose. In "The Old Man And The Sea," I believe the old man was Cuban (ish?) but it didn't really matter much, in that story.

    (The sea, I believe, was widely regarded as being Italian.)

  9. It's really interesting to think of the diversity in a genre. For example, if you went toward the romance genre, there will be more women than men. I think all genres have stereotypical authors, so to speak, but no one should be discriminated because they write in a certain genre, which unfortunately isn't always the case.

  10. My bookshelves are dominated by white men and women, but my Kindle is very diverse. I'm happy to see that there is change coming, but unfortunately there are still some walls. (Your bookshelf is so neat compared to mine!)

  11. I have 512 TBR on my Kindle. I have no idea who most of the authors are, I got them because I like the sound of the story. Periodically I come across an author who's book I enjoy so much I obtain the rest, frequently in the library as I cannot afford to buy so many books. There are a number of female authors, especially from Australia, who's books I read. I have never bothered to research what colour they are, I just know what books they write.

  12. I had thought about using initials... C.A. Borgne, and still wonder if it would mean more sales. Perhaps readers don't take female SF authors seriously. Anyway..great thoughts.

  13. I know that in the group of Wheel of Time fans I belong to, there's a bit of diversity, but probably most of the fans are white. But there are definitely much more women than men. As for writers I am a fan of quite a few female SF&F writers, but of course many of the biggest names are men's.

  14. Nice stats. Now all you need is a pie graph and do some data mining to find the hidden messages in the books. The sad state of diversity in science fiction can be seen in the Afro Sci-Fi genre. I don't know of too many countries that have they're own genre. It gets better each day though!

  15. I agree, diversity in books is so, so important. I could stand to do better myself when it comes to this. Some blogs I follow make it a habit to promote diverse books, and I now have a few of 'em in my TBR pile as a result! Really need to get around to reading them sometime...

  16. I rarely look at the author before picking a book to read. If I like the blurb, I'll purchase it. As I'm mentally browsing my bookshelves though, I notice a lot of the fantasy I read are by female authors. I don't seek out ethnic authors specifically; so perhaps the lack of diverse cultures is the fault of the book store for segregating books.


  17. Mary Shelley the creator of Frankenstein has to be exception in my book. I reckon she planted the seed of sci-fi despite her book being initially dismissed as 'the work of a girl' in 1818. Taking a hard look at myself, I must plead guilty cuz I've read H G Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, A. E van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Alistair McClean, the list goes on rather and I hang my head. Still D.C. Fontana is one of the driving creative writers of 1960's Star Trek and I am a fan.

  18. Octavia Butler's "Kindred" is a good start if you're looking for great fiction written by minorities and women, because she's both. And it's a novel that wouldn't have been the same if it had been written by anyone other than a black woman.