#DiversityInSFF: Readers and Reviewers

If you weren’t following yesterday, I highly recommend you check out the #DiversityInSFF hashtag that Jim C. Hines started on Twitter yesterday. Twitter can be one hell of a time-waster but it has its moments and following last night’s discussion was undoubtedly time well spent. The problem is a clear one often talked about in sff circles: these genres – or at least their English-language versions – lack diversity, with the major problem being that white male authors and straight, white, predominantly male characters are favoured.

Reading through the hashtag gives a good overall idea of who and what is underrepresented: anyone who is POC, female, gay, transgendered; settings and cultures that aren’t North American or European; non-western folklore and mythology. Saladin Ahmed raised the issue of class (“I want fewer kings and starship captains, more coach drivers and space waitresses.”). There’s also the issue of world sf – most published works in English come from American and British authors or favour those settings.

As several tweeters pointed out, the problem isn’t just with authors and the fiction they produce; the issue is systemic. It exists at the level of publishing – the people hired in the industry, the works they choose to publish, the changes they sometimes require (like removing gay or POC characters), the cover art they produce (objectifying women, whitewashing POCs).

Of course, authors and publishers are influence by readers, so the problem also exists at the level of readers and reviewers. I wanted to talk about this specifically because it’s where I fit in and last night’s discussion had me thinking about my choices as a reader and reviewer. Here are some of my favourite tweets on the subject:

Reading widely is in itself a solution. The paradox of sff is that it can take you to other worlds but still be horribly provincial. A case in point was an indie novel I reviewed this year:  Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle. In the story, a human colony settled on another planet, alongside the indigenous aliens, but their lives were little different from suburban America and most of the humans never speak to the aliens or get over their xenopobia. An excellent counterpoint to that novel is the short story: “The Children of Main Street” by A.C. Wise. In Wise’s story, human colonists also replicate suburban America on another planet, except for their children, who have somehow all gained the ability to change sex whenever they feel like it. Many of the parents are disturbed by this, but one mother becomes increasingly disappointed by the adults’ the aversion to difference and their refusal to change. Why travel to other worlds and build new societies only replicate the one you came from?

A lot of sff does that for their readers, transporting us to other worlds that look less like exciting new landscapes and more like small corners of the world we already live in, with lots of people, lifestyles and cultures kept out of view. Vampires in western cities and suburbs, elves and dwarves in some version of medieval Europe, spaceships crewed by straight Americans – these things often aren’t as adventurous or fantastical as they purport to be. Promoting diversity in sff means reading more diversely. And what readers choose to read influences what publishers choose and what authors are encouraged to write; it’s a knock-on  effect.

One of the major lessons I got from the #DiversityInSFF discussion is that this diverse reading really has to be a conscious effort on your part. Because sff suffers from so many biases, simply sticking to preferred subgenres or ignoring the gender, race etc. of the authors you choose means that you’re going to end up reading mostly white male authors who write white male protagonists simply because they are in the vast majority.

I’m pleased to say that, fortunately, my tastes naturally lean towards a measure of inclusivity. I like books that offer me something unusual, and in sff genres, “unusual” often coincides with diversity: POC protagonists, gay and transgendered protagonists, settings that aren’t European or North American, non-European folklore and mythology etc. It also includes female protagonists; they’re easy to find in genres like YA fantasy or paranormal romance but can be harder to find in other sff subgenres.

As a reader and reviewer from South Africa, I’ve also been encouraged to look for ‘world’ sff, simply because the local sff scene is blossoming. What this emphasises is that those genres don’t belong to the American and British authors who dominate the market, and when local authors promote South African and other African speculative fiction, I’m encouraged to look further as well. So when I hear about Nnedi Okorafor’s short story anthology Kabu Kabu for example, or a novel based on the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki, my interest is immediately peaked and I request a review copy.

But on the downside I’m not actively seeking to make my reading more diverse. While I do look out for more interesting protagonists and settings, I’m one of those people who doesn’t normally take much notice of the author when looking for books to read and review. Also, I primarily use NetGalley to get review copies and I mostly request books from publishers I trust. What this means, in part, is that I’m basically just waiting to stumble across non-standard fiction, and in the meantime I getting a big dose of the norm. I still come across many female authors and characters this way, but finding POC authors and characters, non-US/European sff, gay protagonists and transgendered protagonists is far more unlikely. Looking over my reading for the year, I’m pleased to see an good gender balance, several Japanese novels and a few books that explore non-traditional sexuality, but it’s hardly as diverse as it could be. I’m not planning to avoid books I really want to read just because their authors and protagonists are white men; I think that’s silly and I’d miss out on some great fiction if I did so. What I’m talking about is finding more varied books to read as well.

Obviously what I read dictates what I review, and reviewing involves discussing and promoting those works, making them more visibile to readers. And visibility is the second major issue that grabbed me last night. The most obvious aspect of this is talking about diverse works of fiction on my blog.

The aspect I hadn’t really thought about much before was making diversity clear within a work of fiction.

Those tweets are directed at authors, particularly because many readers (of any race, gender or sexual orientation) will assume characters are white, straight and male unless told otherwise, and stopping them from doing so is important. Thus, I’d say the idea also replies to reviewers, since describing plots, characters and settings is part of what we do. So, should reviewers make an effort to point out the diversity (or lack thereof) in a work? Should we take care to mention, for example, that the main character is dark-skinned, bisexual and Muslim?

When these factors are central to the plot or whatever is discussed in the review, the answer is an obvious YES. What interests me more, are the cases where that information isn’t needed, when it’s an extra piece of information that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere.

My instinct thus far has been to leave it out. After all, I don’t provide full character descriptions based on every related scrap of information in novel; I stick to what’s relevant or notable. Skin colour might be as irrelevant as hair colour, and if the story doesn’t include a sexual relationship then it might not be worth mentioning a character’s sexual orientation. Also, I don’t go around pointing out that, by the way, this character is white or straight, so in the spirit of equality I don’t do it for POC or gay characters either unless it’s a major issue. I don’t want to be a twat howling “Look! The main character is a black female scientist! You have to see this!” potentially objectifying them as some kind of exotic artefact on display, instead of viewing them as a (fictional) person. And I kind of feel like I’m doing exactly that if I write something like “Jane is a black scientist on Mars” when Jane’s race isn’t an important plot point. After all, I wouldn’t write “Jane is a white scientist on Mars”.

Then again, there wouldn’t be any need for this discussion if things were equal. These characters are underrepresented. Often when they are present their difference is emphasised, with the fiction making the point of exactly how ‘Other’ they are. While those stories are also necessary to relate individual experiences or the experience of being othered, what we also need are stories that where being POC, gay or transgendered is normalised, where those characters can just get on with the plot without having to explain themselves or function as a representative of a minority. Those are the books for which I wouldn’t need to mention he particulars of the characters diversity, but at the same time that’s the ideal we should be striving for; is it wise to keep silent about it?

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a smooth approach to this, like integrating it into a character discussion eg. “John can never commit to anything; he keeps changing jobs, boyfriends and the colour of his hair”. Alternatively, I might punt the book as breaking away from the norm, eg. “It’s not often that I get to read a story from the POV of a gay teenager with a disability”. And if all else fails, maybe I should be stating openly that “Jane is a black scientist on Mars” as a way of telling readers that hey, this book has a POC protagonist. It feels a bit weird, but then again this whole issue has the awkwardness of masses of people saying “Excuse me, but why the fuck do you keep ignoring me?” The solutions aren’t easy, but we shouldn’t shy away from them. So for starters, I’m going to take a closer look at my review pile and see what I can change about it.

Readers, bloggers and other reviewers, what do you think? Do you feel the need to assess your tbr piles and maybe make some changes? How do you address diversity in your reviews?

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4 thoughts on “#DiversityInSFF: Readers and Reviewers

  1. I began to read SciFi in the 70’s because I found authors who challenged gender and ethnicity preconceptions and role-assignments. I was permanently intrigued. I thank Ursula K. LeGuin, Octavia Butler and Marion Zimmer Bradley for major contributions to my world view and my own writing. If SciFi is to be relevant at all to my concerns and preoccupations, it is exploring societies that blow apart the “helmet of cultural norms” that we all wear.

  2. Pingback: Is Science Fiction/Fantasy discriminatory? Yes, The Guardian seems to think so… | Aric Catron's Author Page

  3. Hello!
    Love the blog, after being alerted to it by the online Guardian. Re African SF. you might find some of my stuff worth reading. One of the main threads in my Stapledonian “Brief Music” sequence is the dynamics of a plural society: multiracial, multi-temporal and multi-species. As a white boy aged 12, I landed on an alien planet called Rhodesia, which only Theodore Sturgeon or Ursula K. Le Guin could have dreamed up. And this has shaped everything I write. I’d be glad to send you “After the Eclipse” (Sanlam Award 1998) which really blows the helmet apart, or the first book of “Brief Music”, which is “Light Across Time” (Kwela 2011).

  4. I will say that I picked up Max Gladstone’s ‘Three Parts Dead’ and Betsy Dornbusch’s ‘Exile’ specifically because they featured PoC on the cover — they were unusual enough where I live that I had to read them and see what happened. One worked for me, one didn’t, but at least for me, it was valuable to know that the protagonists were not the standard straight-white-male, and it’s something that would make me pay more attention in a review. So as to the question of whether not to state it, I’d say state it!

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