Is lack of a genre-reading-culture at home a factor in the low number of SF writers of colour?

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.

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.

10 thoughts on “Is lack of a genre-reading-culture at home a factor in the low number of SF writers of colour?

  1. No, that’s not the reason.
    I’ll answer in three stages.
    1. The question
    I think it should be amended to ‘published writers of colour’ because there are many toiling away only to be screened by slush readers as having points-of-view that the majority of the reading public would not identify with.
    2. Reading culture
    I have two perspectives. I have lived both in UK and West Africa in my childhood and in both places we had a proliferation of discussion and consumption of both literary and genre fiction. I attended two different secondary schools in Nigeria and at both it was a badge of honour to have read every available title by James Hadley Chase or Nick Carter not to speak of all the Poirot titles. In primary school it was Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Secret Seven and Hardy Boys. There were the comics. The was the Lord of the Rings.
    We spent hours arguing over Stephen King’s novels.
    3. Low numbers of writers of colour.
    See answer 1 above.
    There are writers of colour, they’re just not getting attention. There are several reasons for that.
    I saw you on a panel once in 2003 or 2004. It was the Fantasy Con of the BFS somewhere near Birmingham. You were talking about Arthurian legend in Fantasy and why it’s so persistent. I could relate to Arthurian Legend because let’s face it, we’re forcefed the Sword and the Stone everywhere, but nobody else could (or would) relate to other legends that I brought up if it wasn’t Norse.
    I could go on and on, but the answer is not the reading culture at home.

  2. It may be a factor in the specific cultural/religious background the commenter describes, which certainly wasn’t mine (or Tade’s). What I was far more aware of growing up in rural Jamaica in the 70s and early 80s was a lack of reading culture in the home, period. For many of my classmates the only book in their house would have been the Bible (which their grandparents if not their parents – quite possibly the first generation to become literate, and that quite likely with the aid of the church – would have considered the only book worth reading). That made reading a thing one did mainly at or for school, and assigned texts the only books one read, and that basically eliminates genre. This wasn’t the story for everyone obviously – it certainly wasn’t for me – but the fact that I (a) always had my nose buried in a book, and (b) devoured our library’s entire collection of HG Wells and Jules Verne were two of my many signs of weirdness. So thinking about your question, I wonder if part of it is that in cultures where exposure to books only really happens via the school curriculum, it skews towards lit fic and away from genre.

    1. Lack of a reading culture generally in a household is definitely an issue. I did a year’s voluntary work for a charity working with reluctant readers in schools – not helping kids to learn to read but encouraging them to engage with books.

      The training included the startling statistic that the average number of books per UK household is five. Including phone books. So we’ve got a sizeable village/small town’s allocation here.

      Initially I found this very hard to believe – then we moved house and we realised none of the many houses we viewed had any bookcases. While folk viewing our house were lously astonished at how many books we had. When more than half had been tidied away…

      One of the little girls I worked with eventually brought me her book to show me. A copy of Snow White. With all of her five sisters’ names written in it above hers. It was the only fiction book in their house, being handed from child to child…

      1. Interestingly, your reply to Stephanie just provides the answer to your question. Genre-reading doesn’t have anything to do with the lack of writers of color in SF. Because if we were to go by this example, wouldn’t it translate into an absence of white writers writing SF as well?

        How many writers of prominence inside and outside of the SF field have their roots in an underprivileged background? Lots of writers are library inhabitants. I mean, we can’t all afford to buy the books, but in many places library use is free. And in the absence of stories, those born with story in their blood, write and invent their own. You’ll be surprised what you can create when you don’t have enough books to satisfy your fantasy. My sister and I told each other stories when curfew fell and all the lights were out. We couldn’t read books with no lights, but we could mine our fantasies.

        I also wonder how much of a role publishing/marketing plays in the failure to bring the works of writers of color to prominence. The discussion around the whitewashing of covers already gives us a clue to marketing department’s mindset.

        A lot of works by writers of color are not getting translated into English because it costs to do good translations and then there is the market to consider. For instance, I was surprised to find out that a fantastic writer like Nalo Hopkinson isn’t published in the UK because of market considerations. And Nalo’s books aren’t even in need of translation.

        These are things that we have to think about when talking about diversity and visibility in the field. It isn’t that there are no writers of color or that there are very few writers of color. A lot of factors contribute to this seeming absence and I don’t think reading culture in the home is a major factor at all.

        1. I also used to tell my brother stories after lights-out, when we were small enough to share a room. And I used his library tickets as well as my own to get hold of the books we couldn’t have bought.

          As to the wider question, this theoretical answer is starting to look more and more like a chimera, isn’t it? Which is useful to know.

  3. I find myself wondering if the question needs to be reworded to consider how UK/US reading culture has affected the visibility of writers of color in SF. I don’t think there is a lack of writers of color writing SF. As Tade so clearly put it, there is a lack of writers of color being published in SF and also a lack of bringing more attention to those writers of color who are published.

    Since Tade mentioned narratives, I think of how pervasive western type narratives are and how we’re so oriented as a readership to read stories a certain way. Is readership ready to change the way it looks at stories so that writers of color will have more space to tell our stories?

    And yes, there is a difference there. Reading within the dominant paradigm doesn’t tax the reader so much, but if you write outside of it, how much work must a reader put in in order to appreciate or enjoy the story?

    As to reading culture, I can’t answer for all Filipinos. I was raised in a home of bookworms where talking about the books, arguing about them, discussing them, and fighting over who got to read them first was very much a part of our lives. So, I don’t think the question holds up when it comes to visibility of writers of color.

  4. I think that in the US, a slightly higher proportion of white households than of non-white households are going to be in the “discouraging children (or others) from reading speculative fiction for religious reasons” category. We have about 2% of the population here identifying as Muslim (and a significant proportion of them are very assimilated), but about 17% identifying as Evangelical Christian (who can be of any race, but who are less likely to be found among Hispanic communities and much, much less likely to be found among Chinese-, Japanese-, and Korean-American communities). And that’s who is most likely here to see SF/F as something to be avoided.

    On the other hand, white people here are traditionally just as resistant to reading about characters of color, unfamiliar underlying mythologies, and all that. It is changing here, but the barriers Tade mentions to getting published still exist. It’s not for nothing that a very high percentage of published writers of color in the speculative fiction fields are very, very good indeed (Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor) — they have to be, to get past the initial hurdles.

    1. That’s another very interesting perspective, and assorted further complexities so many thanks for that contribution. And happy reading 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.