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.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

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