Posts belonging to Category Equality in SFF



What the black scientist Rufus Carlin brings to “Timeless”

For those of you who haven’t seen it, ‘Timeless‘ is a prime-time, network action-SF show. The premise is straightforward: English billionaire Connor Mason funds the secret development of a time travel machine, bad guys steal the time travel machine, the authorities get involved and a square-jawed hero soldier Wyatt Logan, somewhat sheltered academic historian Lucy Preston, and Rufus Carlin, one of the science team who’d much rather stay in his lab, have to use the prototype machine to stop the bad guys wrecking history for fell purposes as yet unknown. So far, so formulaic.

Well, no, not entirely. Quite a few things lift this TV show above the mixture as before. It’s very well cast and the actors all deliver solidly committed performances. There are soon questions over how bad the bad guy Flynn’s motives might actually be, and while history’s big picture is pretty much maintained, the butterfly effect means massive changes in Lucy’s personal life when she gets back from their first mission. All enjoyably entertaining.

Then there’s Rufus Carlin being black. Not that he stands out in the present day setting; so is Connor Mason and there are more actors of varied ethnicities among the scientific support staff and government officials, men and women alike. The show has a diverse cast because there’s absolutely no reason there shouldn’t be such people in such roles in this day and age. So far so good, and so unremarkable.

But … the action is by no means limited to this day and age, is it? This is a time travel show. And as Rufus points out to Connor Mason in the first episode, “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me!”

Rufus being black adds whole new levels of complexity and interest to the writing and thus to the viewing. Not that the writers are out to beat viewers over the head with Politically Correct Messages. These things arise naturally from the situations created by the overall plot arc. Put Rufus in early 1960s Las Vegas and all of a sudden, he’s invisible because everyone just assumes he’s a waiter. Put him in 1930’s New Jersey and the overt racial bias is much less amusing. Put historical expert Lucy in 1970s Washington and she knows all about the political scandals – but has no clue about the Black Power movement because that was never something a white girl like her would study. Fortunately Rufus did, even if it was just to impress a girl. You get the idea.

This is precisely what I meant when I asserted “There’s a point to ‘rainbow sprinkles’ for writing and ice-cream”, when that particular sneer about increased diversity in SF&F was circulating a while back.

This sort of thing makes viewing and reading so much more interesting. So let’s see much more of it.

Gender in Genre and the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016

Following my last post, I’m indebted to Kevin Beynon for directing my attention to the finalists in this year’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – an admirable initiative from best-selling epic fantasy author Mark Lawrence, which aspiring writers and fantasy fans alike should definitely take a look at.

At the start of this year’s competition, Mark invited self-published fantasy authors to submit their books which were then divided randomly among ten established and well-regarded book bloggers/review sites. Each blogger read those submissions with an experienced and critical eye – the sort of consideration any literary agent or editor will give a hopeful new story. They’ve now put forward their favourite for the final. All the bloggers will now read all the books and score them out of ten, generating a cumulative score to determine the overall winner.

Here’s the first thing that’s significant for the current gender in genre discussion. This year’s finalists are five men and five women. What does this tell us? As far as I am concerned, it indicates yet again that when a playing field is level, as far as writing is concerned, gender bias pretty much evaporates.

I’ve seen this in several writing competitions now, where I’ve judged short stories blind – which is to say, all the entries were reformatted and sent to me without any names or indicators of the author’s gender. Every time, when it comes to picking a shortlist, once the winners have been chosen and the curtain is drawn back, that selection proves to be evenly balanced for gender. I’ve found exactly the same in writing competitions I’ve played no part in.

It also reminds me of one key finding when I analysed Waterstones’ promotional emails for signs of gender bias. In the ‘Staff Picks’ and ‘What We’re Reading’ sections where recommendations came from booksellers and customers based on what they’d enjoyed reading, those choices were 53% male, 47% female.

When the only thing that counts is what readers make of the writing, the story really is all that matters.

The second thing I’m seeing here? Out of three hundred SPFBO submissions this year, the field was 49% male, 33% female and 18 unknown as they were using initials. Can we assume those initials all belong to women? I’d say that’s a risky assumption – and even if that were the case, that still means only a third of the books were written by women prepared to raise a hand to be identified as such. What does that tell us?

Once again, it confirms something I’ve seen time and again since I started writing about inequalities in visibility in SF&F. Something I’ve had confirmed as an endemic problem in fields such as medicine, science, computing, literary criticism, history and the law. Women are still culturally conditioned to put themselves forward much less and to hold their own work to a far higher standard before offering it for publication. It’s a problem that frustrates and infuriates editors, from those working on academic journals, through fiction anthologies in all genres, to the commissioning editors in publishing houses. With the best will in the world, the best initiatives to improve diversity and representation can only work if those who’ve been historically excluded now step forward.

Which means those who’ve been historically excluded need to feel they can step forward. That they can raise a hand without it getting slapped down. That their work will be judged on its merits and nothing else. Which absolutely doesn’t mean initiatives that offer patronising, special treatment or give anyone a pass for substandard work. That merely entrenches the idea that these people cannot make the grade unless the standard is lowered to accommodate them. That’s as counter-productive as it is insulting.

So this brings us back to that level playing field. How do we achieve it? How about taking that idea of no special treatment one step further? Let’s stop giving one privileged group the lion’s share of promotion and publicity. Review coverage, promotion through social media, recommendations, citations and award nominations, anthology selections and more besides, remain stubbornly skewed in favour of white male writers. They get roughly two-thirds of the publicity that’s so vital for the word-of-mouth popularity which sustains a writer’s career. Everyone else gets to share the third that remains.

When the vast majority of white male writers working today never sought such favouritism. They find the dead hand of cultural inertia and institutional racism/sexism as problematic as anyone else. Not least for themselves. They don’t want to win awards for writing the best SF/Fantasy/Horror book from a westernised white male. They want to win for writing the best book in that field from anyone! That old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to get half the recognition? It has a flipside. Winning a competition that’s rigged so you can do half the work for twice as much reward as the opposition? Is that prize really worth having?

We have a long way to go. Everyone needs to play their part. Readers and writers alike will benefit and that can only be good for our genre.

Meantime, this particular competition’s outcome is an encouraging sign of progress for me.

Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes – a masculine view of epic fantasy entrenching bias.

Two things happened on Monday 24th October. News of Sheri S Tepper’s death spread – and a lot of people on social media wondered why isn’t her brilliant, innovative and challenging science fiction and fantasy writing better known?

Then the BBC broadcast the second episode of Andrew Marr’s series on popular fiction, looking at epic fantasy.

The programme featured discussion of the work of seven, perhaps eight, major writers – six men and one, perhaps two women if you include the very passing reference to J K Rowling .

Four male writers were interviewed and one woman. Please note that the woman was interviewed solely in the context of fantasy written for children.

If you total up all the writers included, adding in cover shots or single-sentence name checks, eleven men get a look-in, compared to six women. Of those women, three got no more than a name check and one got no more than a screenshot of a single book.

It was an interesting programme, if simplistic in its view, to my mind. There’s a lot of fantasy written nowadays that goes beyond the old Hero’s Journey template. There’s a great deal to the genre today that isn’t the male-dominated grimdarkery which this programme implied is currently the be-all and end-all of the genre.

But of course, I can hear the justifications already. A general interest programme like this one isn’t for the dedicated fans, still less working writers like me. For mass appeal it must feature authors whom people outside genre circles have heard of, and whose books they’ll see in the shops. If these books just happen to be mostly written by men, well, that’s just the way it is.

Am I saying these aren’t good books which have a well-deserved place in the genre’s origins and evolution? No, of course I’m not. All these featured and interviewed writers are deservedly popular, their books widely read, and their work is illustrative of points well worth making about fantasy.

But those same points could have been made just as effectively while featuring a more balanced selection of writers, from the genre’s origins to the present day. So what if that means including less familiar names? Do you honestly think readers interested enough to watch a programme like this will object to discovering a new author to enjoy?

When such a programme has a marked gender skew, it matters. This selection guarantees these are the books that’ll get a sales boost from this high-level exposure. So when the next programme maker comes along to see what’s popular, maybe with a view to a dramatisation or to feature in a documentary, he’ll see that same male-dominated landscape. So that’s the selection of books that will get the next chance of mainstream exposure. Thus the self-fulfilling prophecy of promoting what sells, thereby guaranteeing that’s what sells best, continues to entrench gender bias.

If you’re wondering how the work of writers like Sheri S Tepper and so many other ground-breaking women writers is so persistently overlooked, you need look no further than programmes likes this.

(For more – lots more – on equality issues within SF&F, click here)

Out and about, in person and online

They* tell you that writing is a solitary occupation. Only when it comes to the pen on paper, fingers on keyboard bit. They* really should say how much fun and inspiration there is to be had in this writing life when you get together with other writers and with readers.

FLAG
In the Olden Days~, that meant meeting up in person, and we still have many and varied ways of doing that in SF& Fantasy circles. This Saturday past I was in Bristol at The Hatchet Inn, for the Launch Extravaganza celebrating the publication of ‘Fight Like a Girl’. (ebook also available). This is an anthology I’m really pleased to be part of, sharing my take on this particular theme alongside established voices and newer writers in SFF.

Isn’t that such a great cover? And for the curious, those are my battle axe earrings on the right hand side. They seemed like appropriate jewellery for the day.

We had a great time, with readings from Lou Morgan, Sophie E Tallis and Danie Ware, a panel discussing this anthology’s inspiration in particular, and wider issues facing women in genre publishing, and then Fran Terminiello and Lizzie Rose (of The School of the Sword) demonstrated some fascinating swordplay, by way of a speedy run though the evolution of swords from the Medieval to the Renaissance. Great stuff.

And yes, as promised in my previous post, I demonstrated some aspects of aikido to prove that fighting like a girl may well be different to battling like a bloke – but it’s no less effective 🙂 With thanks to Fran for allowing me to demonstrate that bringing bare hands to a knife fight is not necessarily a problem, as well as the chap whose name I didn’t catch, who had done some aikido and generously allowed me to put him on his knees a few times and to show how being shorter is no disadvantage when it comes to getting a 6’3″ man off his feet. At which point gravity does pretty much the rest of the work…

(There may be photos/video in due course. If so, I’ll add links)

But that’s not all! These days we can meet up and swap thoughts, ideas and recollections online and a whole bunch of us writers are currently doing that over on Marie Brennan‘s blog. She’s celebrating the tenth anniversary of her first publication with a series of posts Five Days of Fiction, sharing her own thoughts on a series of questions and inviting others to chip in. I always find seeing what other people say in this sort of thing absolutely fascinating.

*’They’ being people whose knowledge of the writing life extends as far as repeating cliches and no further.
~ Twenty years ago.

Brief thoughts on women writers being erased from SFF – again

Another day, another article supposedly assessing the cutting edge of Science Fiction written over the decades. Citing twenty five authors. All men. No, I’m not going to link. You can find it for yourself at SF Signal if you really want to. Or whatever particular piece has prompted me to repost this.

Like every other such article, it hands women writers a poisonous choice. We can object, with all the hassles and loss of our own working time which that will entail, as the usual counter-objections come straight back at us. That’s best case. Worst case? The full gamut of ugly insults and threats.

Or we can let the erasure stand, damaging women in SF&F, present and future.

Either way, we lose out.

I can easily predict the ways an objection to this particular piece will be dismissed. “It’s taking the long view and since men have dominated historically, the list will inevitably skew male. There’s nothing to be done about that.”

Yes, there is. Research. Start with Octavia Butler – and while you’re there, make a note that erasing writers of colour and those of differing sexuality is equally damaging and yes, just as dishonest.

Then there will be the expressions of concern – some even genuinely meant. “It’s just one article. Does it really matter?”

No, it isn’t just one article. Stuff like this crosses my radar if not weekly, at least once a fortnight. And that’s without me making any effort to find it.

As an epic fantasy writer, I’m just waiting for the first instance of that now well-established harbinger of Spring. The article saying “Game of Thrones will be back on the telly soon. Here’s a list of other authors you might like (who just happen to all be men).”

And if I object to those? “Oh, don’t take it so personally.”

No, women SFF writers don’t take these best-of lists, these recommended-for-award-nominations and shortlists, these articles and review columns erasing us ‘personally’.

We object because they damage us all professionally.

More than that, erasing women authors impoverishes SF&Fantasy for everyone by limiting readers’ awareness and choices today and by discouraging potential future writers

Which is why this matters.

Every

Single

Time

Right, I have work to do, so I will go and do that. If you want read further thoughts on all this, check out Equality in SF&F – Collected Writing

Fight Like A Girl – the anthology and the launch event!

I honestly cannot recall what started that particular Twitter conversation. I’m guessing it was probably something about ‘fight like a girl’ being used as some throwaway insult, prompting derision from the very many of us women with hands-on experience of a broad range of martial arts and skills. Somehow – rather splendidly – the discussion morphed into ‘how about an anthology…?’

The rest is history. The future is this splendid book from Grimbold Books, who ask

“What do you get when some of the best women writers of genre fiction come together to tell tales of female strength? A powerful collection of science fiction and fantasy ranging from space operas and near-future factional conflict to medieval warfare and urban fantasy. These are not pinup girls fighting in heels; these warriors mean business. Whether keen combatants or reluctant fighters, each and every one of these characters was born and bred to Fight Like A Girl.

Featuring stories by Roz Clarke, Kelda Crich, K T Davies, Dolly Garland, K R Green, Joanne Hall, Julia Knight, Kim Lakin-Smith, Juliet E McKenna, Lou Morgan, Gaie Sebold, Sophie E Tallis, Fran Terminiello, Danie Ware, Nadine West “

Fans of The Tales of Einarinn might like to note that my story, ‘Coins, Fights and Stories Always Have Two Sides’ takes place in during the Lescari Civil Wars, before the events of the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution.

When can you get hold of a copy? Well, we’re launching the anthology with an event in Bristol on Saturday April 2nd from 1-5.30pm, at the Hatchet Inn, 27-29 Frogmore St, Bristol, BS1 5NA in association with Kristell Ink and Bristolcon. (Isn’t the collaborative, supportive nature of SF&F great?)

It’ll be a sociable and fun afternoon including swordplay and display, discussing the role of women in SF&F (both as characters and authors), excerpts from the book, and a buffet. Whether you’re a budding writer, established author or genre fan, there will be something for everyone!

You can book tickets here – please note that the £5 is to cover the cost of the buffet (and the 95 pence is Eventbrite’s administration fee). Overall, the event is being funded by the Bristolcon Foundation.

I’m really looking forward to it. See you there, to help fly the FLAG?

Waterstones Watching – a brief note on recent emails bearing out our previous research.

With the holiday season looming, the promo emails are coming thick and fast from all sorts of retailers. I’ve had two from Waterstones this week.

Here, their best history books of 2015 promote thirteen men and three women. With all the women below the scroll line, let’s note.

A quick glance at this list shows us titles that are already pretty familiar through reviews and other media exposure, particularly for the Big Name Authors.

Meanwhile the eight books on the Book of the Year shortlist are by six female authors and two men.

This list is voted on by the booksellers themselves. So people who love books and who are seeing all the books that come into their shop and cross their counter before heading out of the door with keen readers. A varied selection for all tastes, some familiar from the media, others not so much.

So this is pretty much a snapshot which indicates the same underlying issues with visibility and representation that we saw a year ago, when I analysed a year’s worth of promotional emails and so many people helpfully surveyed their local branches to see what books where being promoted, so we could look at that.

When promotion relies on recycling review, media and PR coverage, the gender balance skews badly against women.

When it’s based on what people who engage with books are actually reading and enjoying, it’s much more equal.

(And yes, personally I’d have liked to see 4 men and 4 women on that Best of 2015 List. But given other persistent inequalities? I’m not about to complain when a selection skews against the prevailing trend!)

There’s a point to ‘rainbow sprinkles’ for writing and ice cream.

Apparently the latest ‘jokey’ sneer about books with a range of racially, culturally, sexually diverse characters – when there’s no compelling plot reason for people having such differences – is to call this ‘adding rainbow sprinkles’. No, I haven’t bothered tracking this idiocy back to its source. Why waste my time? Anyone who thinks this snide soundbite is any kind of wisdom has clearly led a very sheltered, not to say blinkered and limited life. I doubt we’d have much in common.

For a start, they’ve never been in an ice cream parlour with small children. They really didn’t think this through, did they? Why do kids add rainbow sprinkles, caramel or strawberry sauce, chocolate flakes or chopped nuts to their dessert? All of them at once if they can get away with it. Because it makes things so much more interesting!

Plain vanilla is perfectly fine ice cream but it’s a one-note dish. And after you’ve eaten it the first time, you pretty much know what you’re going to get the next time. There’s only so much difference between premium brands using hand-picked authentic Madagascan vanilla and Sainsbury’s Own. So let’s see what happens if we add something else!

Why stop at putting something on top of plain vanilla? Take a look in the freezer section the next time you’re in a supermarket. Neapolitan. Tutti Frutti. Raspberry Ripple. And those are just the store brand flavours where a mix of different flavours is integral to the enjoyment. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have built a global corporation on expanding ice cream lovers’ taste horizons. Their ice creams have blueberries, cherries, brownies, peanuts, pecans, pumpkin – yes, really, I’ve been looking at their website.

Plain vanilla isn’t the whole or only story, any more than it’s the whole or only story walking down any High Street. We live in diverse and varied communities, whether or not those differences are instantly visible. Even I do, here in the depths of rural England, specifically the Cotswolds. In a district where school inspectors add notes to their official reports to highlight this is an area of very limited cultural diversity. Even here you’ll see black, brown and Asian faces when you’re out and about these days. Granted, not very many but their presence no longer turns astonished heads – which was absolutely the case when I first moved here thirty years ago. And there’s a Polish delicatessen now.

So why this ongoing insistence in books, TV and films that the white, male point of view is the only one there is and the only one that matters?

Cultural inertia. Everyday sexism. Institutional racism. Call it what you like, we all know it when we see it. And if things are going to change, we have to call it out and challenge it whenever we see it.

Intent is irrelevant. ‘We didn’t mean it like that,’ doesn’t matter. The small child in the ice cream parlour assuredly didn’t mean to knock their bowl of ice cream onto the floor when they weren’t paying attention. It still makes a mess that someone has to clean up. So we point out how the accident happened and encourage that kid to be more careful, so they don’t do it again. That’s how children learn. It’s not hard.

Maybe not for five year olds. Some older people seem to struggle. Let’s consider this week’s news about the new UK passport design with its ‘Creative United Kingdom’ theme, featuring William Shakespeare, John Constable, Anish Kapoor, Sir Antony Gormley, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, Charles Babbage and John Harrison – along with Ada Lovelace and Elizabeth Scott. Seven men and two women. One person of diverse heritage. (Anish Kapoor’s background is fascinating.)

Institutional memory has evidently forgotten the bank notes row.

And how has Mark Thomson, director general of the Passport Office responded to criticism?

‘It wasn’t something where we said ‘let’s set out to only have two women’,” he said.

“In trying to celebrate the UK’s creativity we tried to get a range of locations and things around the country to celebrate our triumphs over the years, so there we are.”

Asked about the omission of female icons such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, he said: “Whenever we do these things there is always someone who wants their favourite rock band or icon in the book.

“We’ve got 16 pages, a very finite space. We like to feel we’ve got a good representative view celebrating some real icons of the UK – Shakespeare, Constable and of course Elisabeth Scott herself.”

The decision to include two women and seven men was signed off by ministers, and the figures included were a “good representation” of artists and designers, he added.

(via the BBC)

Which shows just how those people, primarily privileged white men, who are making key decisions which shape the cultural landscape around us, can miss so many vital points by such an astounding margin. Anyone with the relevant Bingo card can pretty much score a Full House before the end of that article.

Absolutely no one is saying this was done deliberately. But it still reinforces the thoroughly Victorian idea that history, culture etc are only about the great deeds of great white men. With women and visible ethnic minorities very much the exception. And apparently the Welsh who seem to be completely unrepresented in any of the images chosen for this new passport.

Which completely misses the point that these great white men were also the exception. Almost everyone lived and lives thoroughly unexceptional lives. What made the difference to people’s achievements historically was not gender or race itself but access or not to the opportunities which were inextricably tied to race and gender. Even so, women and those from minority communities still managed to do remarkable things. Feel free to flag up your favourite examples in comments.

Moreover, that was then and this is now. If we are serious about commitment to equality of opportunity in real life, we need to show equality and diversity in our cultural background noise. So that what was once considered so astonishing that people genuinely stopped in their tracks to stare, like seeing a black person walking down a Cotswold High Street, becomes no longer worthy of comment. It becomes just the way things are. So no one gets the subliminal message that access to and participation in any area of life is somehow simply not for them.

And to go back to ice cream, those who don’t like different flavours don’t get to sneer at the rest of us who enjoy them. I can’t actually eat anything from Ben & Jerry’s since I have a cow’s milk protein intolerance. That doesn’t give me the right to insist that everyone only ever eats the same soya iced desserts as me. Even with sprinkles and as many different flavours as I can find.

This piece owes a good deal to insightful comments on a Facebook discussion. My thanks to all those who contributed.

Let’s hear it for the quiet girls

Sue Lloyd Roberts has died this week. For those of you who didn’t know her or her reporting, she was a pioneering journalist who secretly filmed and thus exposed human rights and other abuses in some of the world’s most brutal and dangerous regimes. There’s an excellent feature here on the BBC website, written by Lyse Doucet, one of the many women who’ve followed her into such vital work. Do check out the selected reports linked at the bottom of the piece.

Sue was also a Hildabeest; which is to say, she was a graduate of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Through my work with the Alumnae Media Network, I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting her several times and hearing her astute and amusing insights as she contributed to Network events discussing careers in the media, including particular issues for women. While she was very clear on current gender challenges, she was able to point out that things have improved. As a new trainee for ITN, with all the analytical skills honed by her Oxford degree, ready to make her mark contributing to the nightly news – her first job was standing ready beside the camera with the glass of whisky demanded by newscaster Reginald Bosanquet as soon as the end credits rolled. Just that. Nothing more. A suitable job for a woman.

So how did she end up filming ground breaking reports from inside Burma, North Korea and Syria while her male colleagues ground their teeth in frustration at closed borders? By quietly and calmly keeping her nerve as she posed as an unremarkable, unthreatening woman in a variety of occupations. A quiet girl who could readily be dismissed by those in power. More fool them. By being one of the first journalists to see the potential of small, tourist-friendly video cameras – disdained by those of her colleagues enamoured with the latest in hi-tech toys. More fool them. As she got older, she calculatedly and gleefully took advantage of the social invisibility that descends on middle aged women.

We need such women in fiction as well as in fact – and in books for all ages – as evident in comments in various places on my contribution to Alyx Dellamonica’s exploration of heroines last week. In particular, I was reminded of the number of strong-minded, capable and effective women I know who identified first and foremost with the quiet girls in their early reading; Lucy and Susan in Narnia, Beth in Little Women, Anne in the Famous Five, Peggy Blackett and Susan Walker in the Swallows and Amazons. Quiet girls who nevertheless always make a contribution, even if it’s largely doing the cooking, and they are certainly essential to the group dynamic.

The tomboys in these stories who so enthralled me as a child held no such interest for my friends. Would they have stopped reading these books without having someone else to identify with? Would that have hampered the development of their love of reading that’s carried them through to academic and other careers where they’ve made significant contributions to other people’s lives and wider society? Only they can say – but time and again, when diversity in fiction is discussed, the importance of representation in fiction for everyone comes up time and again. So let’s not dismiss the value of these quiet girls.

Thinking about my own writing, a good few of these same pals – and other fans – have told me how the quiet girls in my own novels are some of their favourite characters. Allin, in the Tales of Einarinn; Risala in The Aldabreshin Compass, Branca and Failla in The Lescari Revolution and Zurenne in the Hadrumal Crisis. Do I pride myself on my cleverness in creating them? Hardly. I needed other people to point out such characters’ potential before I could start to consciously work with quiet girls, to explore different aspect of my own preconceptions as much as readers’ assumptions.

Allin started out as no more than a writerly convenience in The Thief’s Gamble, even if she is a magewoman. The pompous wizard Casuel needed someone to talk to, in order to inform the reader of various bits of background and plot development. As my editor at the time pointed out with a grin, an author can only get away with a man musing as he shaves, gazing into a mirror, once in a career. Given Casuel’s so warped by personal insecurity, Allin needed to be meek enough for him to feel superior enough to loftily explain key aspects of life and magic to her. Or as we’d put it nowadays, mansplain.

The thing is though, Allin turned out to be so much more useful to me as the author by the time I was writing The Assassin’s Edge. Because a quiet girl who isn’t out there taking action and provoking reaction is still listening, watching and thinking while she’s doing the darning. When people dismiss her, they don’t care what they say around her. Which means she can end up being the one who has all the pieces of a particular puzzle. Knowledge can be power that’s just as decisive as force of arms. Risala knows that full well, as she travels the Archipelago, doing her very best to stay unremarkable and unnoticed. No one could call Charoleia unremarkable but the foundation of her wealth and influence is everything she learns from the likes of ladies’ maids and scullery girls going about their work unnoticed.

Does this realisation come naturally to the quiet girls, even if I was slow on the uptake as a writer? No, it doesn’t. It takes Zurenne three volumes of The Hadrumal Crisis to throw off a lifetime’s expectation that she would be dutiful and biddable and yield to male authority. The current focus on everyday sexism in everything from pay gaps in Hollywood to media obsessing over a female politician’s shoes instead of discussing her policies shows us the challenge of entrenched attitudes facing today’s young women. Which brings us back to the need for role models in fiction who show the quiet girls there are other routes and strategies which will work for them, even though they lack the tomboy’s inclination for toe-to-toe confrontation. As well as role models in real life.

Let’s celebrate Sue Lloyd Roberts’ life and work as we mourn her loss, and let’s make very sure we honour her legacy. Let’s hear it for the quiet girls.

Diversity in SFF – some thoughts on some recent reports.

This week sees some important data on who wins SFF awards and by writing about what, from Lady Business. Their survey was prompted by Nicola Griffith’s earlier work looking at the gender balance in mainstream literary award winners.

The central finding in both cases in that books by men about men win awards far more often than anything else.

I wish I could say this came as a shock, but as regular readers of my Equality in SFF post will appreciate, I wasn’t in the least surprised.

Instead my first thought was to recall Viola Davis’ speech at this year’s Emmys, where she was the first African-American woman to win best actress in a drama. She nailed the central problem for women of colour (and other under-represented groups) in film and TV: “You can’t win Emmys for roles that don’t exist.”

You can’t win awards with books that just aren’t there. So where are the books by women and black, Asian and other ethnic/minority writers? Cheryl Morgan recently attended a discussion at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival on diversity in children’s books and her report has some highly relevant observations, which make it well worth reading in full.

The panel included Bali Rai; an award winning writer from multi-cultural, multi-racial Leicester who is eminently qualified to speak with authority and experience on such matters. Experience which includes being taken to task by white, London-based editors over his characters’ language. That’s the language being used by children of Asian heritage in the Midlands…

More than that, he said that most of the non-white writers he knows are self-publishing rather than going through the traditional route because they assume that an overwhelmingly white industry won’t be interested in their books.

Is this racism or just the numbers game, when the bookshops protest they have to sell what sells? And the publishers protest that they have to publish what the bookshops will buy from them. But if what they’re publishing and selling only ever targets the white, middle-class majority, what possible incentive is there for black, Asian and other ethnic/minority writers and readers to ever engage with them?

Does it actually matter whether it’s active racism or an unintended consequence of a numbers-driven system when the end result is the same exclusion of black, Asian and other minority/ethnic participation?

Which brings us back to the vicious circle prompted by systemic inequalities in visibility which I (and others) have been highlighting for oh, so long now. They sell what sells which means what they sell sells so they go looking for more of the same.

How do we break this cycle? How and where could some sort of affirmative action be useful?

Because after five years of writing about this, I really don’t think anything’s going to change on its own.

Is a ‘Women’s SFF Prize’ an answer? I’ve pondered this before.

If anyone has new thoughts or observations, do speak up.