While we’re considering people we don’t tend to see in SF&F, you should really read the recent series of guest posts on Jim C. Hines blog, where folk who live with the day-to-day reality of issues around race, colour, disability and prejudice talk with eye-opening candour about what they do and don’t see, and what it means to them.
Posts belonging to Category fandom
I’ve held off writing this post for a while now. Because I’m so tired of it all. Why won’t this noisy minority of folk with offensive and irrelevant opinions just GO AWAY! Let the vast majority of SF&F readers and writers who are decently socialised human beings living in the 21st century get on with discussing the increasingly intricate and inventive ways in which speculative fiction explores and celebrates the human condition in all its diversity (racial, sexual, tentacle etc)
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the noisy minority have scored big this week. I’ve just been sent a link to that dailydot.com story, revealing a mind-bogglingly offensive forum exchange among some SF writers and publishing professionals – from a friend active in crime fiction circles. Y’know, in case I hadn’t already seen it. I wish….
So this is one reason I’m writing this post. This stuff matters when onlookers unfamiliar with the current debate within our genre are noticing. When they read headlines like ‘Sexist, racist sci-fi writers forget their horrible rants are public.’ Because chances are, a great many won’t bother reading beyond that frankly ill-advised headline to discover the truth in an otherwise pretty good article. That the sexists and racists are squawking so loudly precisely because they’re being challenged and told their attitudes are unacceptable.
No, most onlookers will just glance at that, think, ‘ah yes, I see SF is still full of neck-bearded long-hairs* with Neanderthal attitudes to women and people of colour. I need not bother reading the article just to confirm I can continue ignoring that section in the bookstore.’
And in case any UK readers are tempted to think ‘Well, that’s over the US. We don’t need to worry’, do cast your mind back to the headlines and articles following the shortlist announcements for the 2012 and 2013 Clarke Award. One disgruntled non-shortlisted author started hurling insults at those who had been listed and also at the judges. This got picked up by the national press. Since he also saw fit to insult a crime writer he’d shared a lit fest platform with, Twitter soon filled up with astonishment from other crime and mystery authors that this tantrum could be considered remotely professional behaviour.
My inbox filled up with email from folk I know who work in national newspapers, broadcasting and other journalism, whose response can be best summed up by one internationally and award-winning author I have the honour to know: ‘Why on earth do you waste your time on a genre full of such horrible people?’ So the time and effort I’ve put in over a decade and more, trying to convince these people that SF&F is a mature, nuanced literature worthy of respect had been effectively trashed by one entitled individual’s spiteful fit of pique. That infuriates me.
Then we had the newspaper article in 2013 ‘Arthur C Clarke award announces all-male shortlist. Mostly female judges overlook women in choice of contenders for UK’s pre-eminent science fiction prize.’ Er, no we damn well didn’t, as Liz William’s follow-up article made clear. But that’s first article is the one that established the impression that’s lasted, that’s still being raised in conversations with me.
A common response when I say this is ‘Ah, well, we true keepers of the SF&F flame don’t need validation from the vulgar mainstream so that doesn’t matter.’ I can only assume folk with this attitude have never worked in retail. As a professional writer, it sure as hell matters to me, because it is onlookers unfamiliar with the genre who will make key decisions based on this stuff which will have a direct impact on my career. Not to mention a significant influence on my available choices as a reader.
I know this for a fact. I used to work in bookselling, working for Ottakar’s here in the UK. I was well up to speed with SF&Fantasy, also with Crime & Mystery and children’s books – because they were all genres I read and had a direct interest it. I didn’t read Horror. I never have. I simply don’t understand its appeal. But as a bookseller I had a professional duty to keep generally current with new authors and trends. I did that by checking reviews in the papers, and other mentions, via an invaluable paper newsletter called Books in the Media and other sources like the weekend papers and monthly genre magazines. This was in the mid-90s so the Internet wasn’t really A Thing. I was diligent because it was in my interests to present Horror reading customers with the books they would buy and thus ensure the shop’s sale targets were met and that would be reflected in our pay rises.
Then I became an author and started going to conventions – and discovered that I had significantly underestimated the number of women both reading and writing horror fiction. Because as an onlooker, the picture presented to me through the commercially-relevant media was badly skewed.
This is still going on. With the upcoming fourth season of A Game of Thrones about to hit TV screens, you will soon see ‘If you like reading GRR Martin, why not try these authors?’ displays going up in bookshops. I will give a book of mine, of their choice, to the first person who can send me a photo of such a display that isn’t entirely composed of male authors. Because I’ve yet to see one. I have challenged staff in bookshops about this, to be told ‘women don’t write epic fantasy’ Ahem, with 15 novels published, I beg to differ. And we read it too.
But that’s not what the onlooker sees in the media, in reviews, in the supposedly book-trade-professional articles in The Guardian which repeatedly discuss epic fantasy without ever once mentioning a female author. That onlooker who’s working in a bookshop and making key decisions about what’s for sale, sees a male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay. So that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.
Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, the publisher will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.
When it’s a numbers game like retail, the most passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work, but that’s another discussion I’ve already written on several times.
You can see the same thing at work in the movies. How long have we been waiting for a female-led superhero movie? Wonder Woman has languished in development hell for decades. It’s taken the success of Black Widow as a character in (The) Avengers (Assemble) to convince decision makers to take that chance. Decision makers and money men whose choices are influenced by such things as the comic industry’s persistently sexually provocative and exploitative artwork, and trade events which see no problem in having no women creatives on panels at all. They don’t see the very hard work being done within the comics world by men and women alike to change all that.
Returning to books, this has little or nothing to do with the actual authors. Macho McHackenslay’s personal credentials as a fully-rounded, decent human being who shows genuine respect to folk different to himself are most likely excellent. Chances are he learned such attitudes at his great-uncle’s knee, the famed ray-guns and rocketships, square-jawed hero SF writer of the 1960s, Blokey McZoom, who marched for Civil Rights in the USA and wrote passionately in support of Roe vs Wade and all manner of other progressive causes.
Which brings me to the second reason I’m writing this is because I have seen people saying ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter, we just need to wait for the dinosaurs to die off and it’ll all be fine.’ Unfortunately this isn’t going to work. If it did, these rows wouldn’t keep recurring.
Having read getting on for 200 SF books over 2012-2013 as a Clarke Award judge, I found a range of attitudes from socially conservative/sexist/veiled-racist to adventurous, progressive, informed and thought-provoking social commentary. There was absolutely no correlation between the age and gender of the author and the presence of outdated or offensive ideas. Some of the worst offenders were younger men and women. Some of the best work was written by middle-aged and older white men, for whom age and experience had brought perspective and insight.
There’s a logical fallacy at work here. A spider has eight legs but having eight legs doesn’t make something a spider. It can be an octopus. The currently noisy and offensive crowd may be predominately old white men. That doesn’t mean anyone who happens to be old, white and/or male automatically holds outdated and offensive views. Please don’t make that mistake and add further venom to this already toxic mix.
I did see one correlation in my Clarke reading, mind you. Where authors came ‘genre-slumming’, trying their hand at SF&F, there was definitely a higher incidence of tedious books trying to tickle the fancy of the mythical mouth-breathing SF fan only interested in sex and violence. Because when that’s what the onlooker sees, those are the boxes they’ll aim to tick and hey, there’s no need to write decent prose because neck-bearded, long-haired* Neanderthals won’t know it if they read it, right? Okay, I exaggerate slightly – but not much.
So this stuff matters. This is why we need to speak up and make our voices heard above the noisy, spiteful old reactionaries. So that onlookers realise that SF&F is a genre worth looking into, for interesting, thought-provoking writing as well as thrills and spills and tales of high adventure. So new readers and writers continue the genre’s ongoing mission to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.
* I have two sons of 18 and 20 both with chin-strap beards and very long hair and have no prejudice against such personal grooming choices except when I am the one declogging the plughole in the shower
You may – or may not – be aware of the damn silly title given to the ‘Women in Fantasy’ panel at the World Fantasy Convention, held at the start of this month in Brighton. The full brief read as follows
Once upon a time the heroic fantasy genre was—with a few notable exceptions such as C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett—the sole domain of male writers like Robert E. Howard, John Jakes and Michael Moorcock. Those days are long gone, and it seems that more and more women writers are having their heroines suit up in chain-mail and wield a broadsword. Who are these new writers embracing a once male-dominated field, and how are their books any different from those of their literary predecessors?
Now, advance reactions to that varied. Most were variations on ‘Good grief, whoever wrote this really doesn’t read epic fantasy AT ALL, do they?’ Some, looking at other similarly potentially provocative descriptions in the programme, decided to give the benefit of the doubt and read these as tongue-in-cheeky, looking to provoke lively discussion. Others were to a greater or lesser extent offended by apparent lack of professional courtesy, and not just with regard to this particular panel. Some were sufficiently offended to boycott ‘Broads with Swords’, and indeed I’ve seen some express an opinion that authors should have refused to take part in this panel.
Well, I cannot speak for my fellow panellists but for myself, I agreed to do this panel expressly to give the lie to any notion that strong female characters in fantasy are anything new, or that the only way for a woman to be a strong character is to take up armour and blade and essentially pretend to be a man. I’ve written 15 epic fantasy novels exploring those particular ideas (among a good few others), and was reading books with a far more intelligent and nuanced view of women in high heroic settings for decades before that. I’m also not about to give an inch of ground to the tedious misconception which still persists in rearing its hydra-heads that epic fantasy is only written by blokes for blokes.
As it turned out, my fellow panellists, Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Gaie Sebold, and our indefatigable moderator Laura Anne Gilman thought much the same. All of them excellent writers in their own right, I should add, and well worth checking out if you haven’t come across their work thus far.
Happily, a packed room full of people had decided they could trust us to tackle this subject, irrespective of the panel title. I’m not going to recap the discussion here, because The Writers’ Greenhouse, has done an excellent job of noting the key points and most especially the many, many fine authors whose work was recommended. Do click through to read the whole post.
Indeed, I think the only thing that could have possibly improved that panel was having at least one male perspective on these questions – but WFC sees no need to avail itself of the benefits which panel parity brings to programming, alas.
Oh, and Robin Hobb signed my advance proof of Royal Assassin which I have treasured since my bookselling days in 1995… (my convention fangirl moment)
As to the rest of WFC2013, newcomers went away very, very happy, full of joy about talking to real authors! So many free books! So many interesting and famous people to hear talk, including but by no means limited to Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Joanne Harris, Susan Cooper etc etc. So that’s excellent, and hopefully bringing new folk into UK fandom. There were also considerable numbers of European fans there, and it was lovely to meet them too.
I had enjoyable dinners with various friends, and also a lovely lunch with a generous fan. I got to see many of my lovely American pals, and to make some new ones – it is great to be able to put a face to an email/twitter/fbook friend. I made time to schedule meetings with a couple of key folk I wanted to talk to, and had an impromptu and potentially very useful encounter with someone else, so that’s my professional writer boxes ticked.
The David Gemmell Legend Awards went with a swing, hopefully making even more people aware of the Awards, and the ‘Legends’ anthology was launched afterwards amid much good cheer and celebration. Through the weekend, publishers did a stellar job with parties and launches, so those were great fun, er, apart from the ones crammed into the low-ceilinged and painfully loud night-club-bar space. I couldn’t hear myself think in there, let alone speak, which was a shame because I’m pretty sure that’s where I missed some folk I wanted to talk to. There were soooo many people…
Like most established con-goers and/or authors I spoke to, I do have a few ‘however’s…
I came home with not only tired feet – to be expected – but tired thighs and knees. I can’t recall when I was last in a convention hotel with so many flights of stairs between where you were and where you wanted to be – and that’s over and above the ‘official’ accessibility problems with the venue which were considerable, and frankly in this day and age, inexcusable. And yes, having chaired an Eastercon, I know exactly how difficult it is to find a UK venue to host such a large event. Still no excuse. Also, signposting and information about facilities needed to be a lot more prominent. The two other seating and drinking spaces other than the eye-wateringly expensive and noisily crowded hotel bar were largely empty any time I went into them and that’s not good.
The mass signing was fairly shambolic, with lots of empty author seats. I learned later that hotel security around the official start time were insisting that authors trying get in to take a seat, must join the line of con-goers waiting to come in, and since there was no way for said authors to prove that they were actually, y’know, authors, a good few just gave up and went away. Authors who’d turned up a little bit early, or a little bit later, had no such problems though. So a bit more forethought and planning on the organisation there could have made a significant, positive difference.
I have no clue how well attended, or otherwise, the whole stream of programming devoted to Arthur Machen was. Though I did find myself chatting to a chap who turned out to be a major Machen fan, involved in the official society, and he was asking me, genuinely puzzled, why there were so many panels dedicated to Machen, were fantasy fans really that interested…? I couldn’t possibly comment – genuinely. Personally I know very little about Machen and have less interest.
So that, in brief, was my World Fantasy Convention. Just one last note. If you’re ever heading for Brighton yourself, and want to stay in a delightful, comfortable and quiet little hotel, check out Brighton Wave. That’s where I stayed, and it was brilliant.
As I dash around getting the final things done before leaving for WFC, here’s a blog post from Adrian Tchaikovsky that’s well worth reading
Does SFF have a problem with women? Do women have a problem with it? A remarkable number of incidents over the last year or so have certainly put the issue in the foreground. It’s hard to avoid the feel of a storm getting ready to break. Here are some of the flashpoints. For the record, my personal opinion in each case is “yes, there is a problem”, but rather than tub-thumping, I’ve gone mad on links for those that want to read further
As well as all the points made here, I’m taking something else away from this post which Adrian probably never intended. You see, in recent conversations with other women within SF&F – writers and fans – about sexism in the genre, I’ve found myself saying ‘y’know, it seems to be one damn thing after another lately’.
But then of course, we ask ourselves, are we being over-sensitive? Because wider culture still encourages women to demur and defer and to put our own wants and needs second… So it’s good to see this post rounding up so many incidents, proving that no, we’re not just imagining this crap.
Though, of course, in those conversations, we remind ourselves that we have a duty to each other and the women who come after us to assert the value of women’s writing, just as the women who inspired us have done for decades.
But y’know what? It gets exhausting. If you’ve been wondering why some women writers’ tempers are on a hair trigger these days, the sheer relentlessness of this stuff is why. And I know I’m not the only one who’s found herself on the brink of saying ‘Y’know what? To hell with it…’ and just walking away…
I see the programming at the recent WorldCon and for the upcoming World Fantasy Con is being widely discussed, most particularly concerning perceived lack of fairness/relevance of the topics under discussion to anyone other than comfortably-off, mature, white men.
Panel parity is a very good way to address the very real problem of cultural inertia in fandom, as we discovered at UK’s Eastercon this year. Because panel parity is NOT about giving poor inadequate girlies/others a place on platforms which they cannot otherwise win on merit.
It’s about expecting convention/event organisers to offer the best possible breadth and depth of current viewpoints & opinions that they can muster from their programme volunteers.
The whole event will benefit by way of more interesting and varied debate – because a homogeneous panel of four white men (or women or any other group) will be far, far more inclined to only offer four variations of the same viewpoint or to debate the pros and cons of a single argument based on generally the same experience.
Looking forward, hopefully seeing that inclusiveness will encourage other folk from under-represented groups within fandom to volunteer in future.
Provided they don’t see bombastic white men talking over and dismissing any one else’s contribution – which apparently did happen at WorldCon. That’s something else con-organisers/panel moderators need to come down on hard.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mary Robinette Kowal has posted an online survey to get some actual data on the current state of fandom. Please do go and complete it and then read the current results – quite an eye-opener! Her blog post and link to the survey are here
Let me explain – and then please let’s share as many perspectives as possible in comments. I was at a crime and mystery fiction conference this weekend, where the future of that genre was discussed. The lack of black and Asian writers among up-and-coming writers was noted, and regretted, not least given the importance of new perspectives in encouraging a genre’s development for everyone’s benefit.
A comment from the floor was particularly interesting. A keen crime reader recounted a conversation with a male, Muslim, British Asian colleague at work. He explained that crime fiction wasn’t something that would ever be read in his household and among his wider family since its focus on death and violence would be considered unwholesome and negative on cultural and religious grounds. Not ‘forbidden’ in any heavy-handed or dogmatic fashion but simply because, well, why would people want to read something like that, as opposed to more positive, uplifting fiction?
This is one story. As we all know, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, given my interest in the complexities of systems leading to unintended negative outcomes, as opposed to simplistic answers like ‘publishing is sexist/racist/ableist/other-ist’, I’m really curious to know more about this, in the UK, in the US and from as many other places and religious and cultural perspectives as possible.
I know I became a fantasy writer in no small part thanks to being raised reading Tolkien, CS Lewis, Alan Garner, Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones – during a childhood spent in markedly non-multicultural areas of the UK in the 1960s/70s. I have absolutely no clue what my contemporaries from a black and Asian background might have been reading at the time.
Come to that, I don’t know what kids in Birmingham, London, Leicester, Bristol and other culturally diverse areas of the UK are reading at the moment – though I do know that writers such as Malorie Blackman are being read and enjoyed in schools here in the Cotswolds – where it can still entirely possible to count the visible ethnic minority kids on the fingers of both hands in schools with over a thousand enrolled. So that much (and more) has changed for the better.
Okay, folks, over to you. Let’s see what where this discussion might lead us.
Those of you with any experience of con-running won’t be in the least surprised by my lack of posts here lately. For those of you who haven’t ever been involved in a convention committee, I can tell you that these past few weeks have been like trying to play a game of 3D chess while the Enterprise is under fire and taking evasive manoeuvres. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not complaining. But busy doesn’t begin to describe it – since Christmas – for me and for the rest of the EightSquared Committee and Staff whose endeavours are absolutely heroic.
However I have just posted a very long piece on the EightSquaredCon blog. Because this past year has drawn my attention to the things which quite a few fans simply don’t know about conrunning. That’s no criticism, of conrunners or of fans. It’s just a fact I’ve become aware of. I’ve also realised some of these things could do with discussing, on the one hand before a real problem arises and on the other hand, to see UK fandom well-placed to move forward as next year’s Loncon 3 World SF Convention in London prompts a influx of new, enthusiastic people.
And yes, I am well aware that in some quarters, doing this is pretty much lighting a blue touchpaper and risking fireworks. It’s still worth doing. Because conventions are important to us all, readers, writers and fans of all aspects of the genre.
“SHE STOOD AMID the silent statues and contemplated the crystal urn holding her husband’s ashes; footed with silver leaves and crowned with a five-petalled flower sparkling in the light of the shrine’s candles.”
Those of you in the UK picking up a copy of Defiant Peaks (published today!) will now discover that this story opens at the Solstice celebrations in Halferan Manor, Caladhria. Midwinter in Einarinn is Souls’ Ease Night and Lady Zurenne is taking a private moment in the manor’s shrine before guiding Lady Ilysh through her duties accepting seasonal tithes from their tenantry in the great hall and leading the celebrations afterwards. Meanwhile Corrain is attending the quarterly parliament where the country’s nervous noblemen are debating new laws to forbid anyone having dealings with wizards, after seeing just what havoc Planir and Hadrumal’s senior mages can wreak when they put their mind to it. Magewoman Jilseth is spending the festival in Relshaz, paying little heed to mainland politics or religious observance. She’s more concerned with keeping a weather eye on the Aldabreshin Archipelago after recent events, as well as lending her talents to fathoming the secrets of the ensorcelled artefacts which the Archmage has now acquired.
So everyone’s set fair for a peaceful and prosperous new year? Not exactly…
Naturally, you won’t be surprised that we decided against using ‘Winter is coming’ on the back cover copy. The thing is though, there are a goodly number of fantasy books which aren’t set in Westeros with winter as a theme or a thread, as the latest SF Signal Mind Meld makes plain. As always, I find the other authors’ answers as fascinating as thinking about the original question. Do check out all the suggestions – and comments – and find out why my pick is Barbara Hambly’s ‘Darwath Trilogy’.
Appropriately enough for a book about arguably the world’s most famous time travellers, Chicks Unravel Time is published today/tomorrow, depending on your local time zone.
There are three reading/signing events for lucky fans in the US. Nov. 17 in Worcester, MA at Annie’s Book Stop; Nov. 24 at the Chicago TARDIS convention and Nov. 28 at The Churchill in NYC. I wish I had a Time Lord on speed dial so I could be there.
There’s also giveaway running this week which includes a copy of the anthology, the 50th Anniversary planner and Doctor Who sticky notes. Details here – and we’re told that next week’s giveaway will have even cooler stuff…
You can keep your diary up to date with future events via the Facebook page where links to reviews are also starting to appear. These are all thoughtful and positive and making me even more impatient to read the other contributors’ essays.
Finally, yes, I appreciate that a lot of my recent posts have been about new books. You and your bank balances have my sincere sympathy. It’s just that I keep getting asked to do such interesting things…
I did start writing a blogpost yesterday refuting some arrant nonsense Some Opinionated Bloke was spouting about the book trade. I found reviewing and explaining the assorted idiocies and screw-ups of the past couple of decades which have got us into the current mess so depressing I gave up half way through. Today I am thinking there’s not much to be gained by going over that old ground. The way forward is, well, forward. So onwards and upwards we go!