Some thoughts about diversity, writing, and why it’s selfishly important

Several years ago, I was talking with a puppeteer friend of mine who had helped me land an audition. I thanked him for that. He said, “But you helped me get the part on Avenue Q. That’s what we do. You gave me a boost up the ladder. Now I’m in a better place to pull you up with me.”

This came to mind because I think there are some people who aren’t clear on what a landscape of equality and diversity looks like. People who are looking for equality aren’t looking to see some people cast down off the ladder into the muck of oppression. No one should be oppressed.

Likewise, with diversity. It’s really, honestly not about making sure that white men never get another opportunity. It’s about correcting centuries of imbalance that have favored white men and instead representing the diverse people who make up our society.

The reason that diversity in SFF is so selfishly important is really all about survival of the species. And by species, I mean science-fiction and fantasy itself. We know the danger of a small gene pool. It affects ideas and stories as thoroughly as it does anything else. If you want more interesting and original material, you need diversity.

A person’s background absolutely affects their writing. Absolutely. It affects the way they communicate, even if they aren’t a writer. Even if you think that your background doesn’t, you are wrong. It influences your expectations in ways that are absolutely invisible to you, until you travel outside of your area.

I say this from experience. The thing about being a professional puppeteer is that I traveled a lot. I mean… I’ve performed in all but six of the contiguous United States, and even within the continent the way people communicate is different. In the same town, class differences will change communication.  Gender. Family life. Ethnicity. Racial identification. Ability. All of it changes the way a person perceives the world. Things that I thought were universal, were regionally specific.

So if I want to read more interesting and engaging SFF, it behooves me to use my position on the ladder to try to help other people up. This doesn’t mean that I have to cast white men under the bus. It doesn’t even involve anything heroic beyond pointing out “Hey! This is some good writing.”

Our community has been working on that for the past couple of years and the efforts to make room for other people on the ladder are working. That’s exciting. That’s what a community is for.

And we’ll get to read better fiction for it, because of the people. And because of the experience they bring up the ladder with them.

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50 Responses

  1. Mark S.

    As a white male, I came to the realization several years ago that I was reading mainly white male US/British SF/Fantasy books. I decided that I needed to get more variety in my reading. And I’m so glad I did.

    Without pushing for more variety in my reading, I would not have read such authors as: yourself, Karen Lord, Nnedi Okorafor, G Willow Wilson, Helene Wecker, Nalo Hopkinson, Lauren Beukes, Alison Bechdel, Carrie Vaught and probably several others I can’t remember.

    I want diversity so that I have many, many more books to read that have different views and different approaches.

  2. Howard Tayler

    When Brandon, Dan, and I began doing Writing Excuses we joked a bit among ourselves about how diverse we were trying to be (a fantasy novelist, a horror novelist, and a sci-fi-cartoonist) while still being “a little homogenous” (three white, anglophone, American males between the ages of 31 and 42, educated at the same university, attending the same church.)

    Seriously, “a little homogenous” was how we saw ourselves. Because among ourselves, we looked at each other and we were SO DIFFERENT.

    Ha. Ha ha. Ha-ha ha hahahaha no seriously, that was how we thought about it. (Or at least that’s how I remember it.) And when you, Mary, first recorded with us during Season 3, I remember thinking “this person with puppet-background sees things differently than me.”

    After recording with you for the last four seasons I shudder to think of how narrow-minded I might have been without our interactions.

    And then I wonder how narrow-minded I might still be. Who am I not reading, or listening to, or interacting with? Whose perspective am I missing? The answer, of course, is “I don’t know.” I CAN’T know until I reach out for something different.

  3. Beth

    I am white, transgendered, and really don’t see what the fuss is about (about diversity, I know why people are giving me rude looks). I understand that people from different backgrounds come up with different things, but men write awesome women and women write awesome men all the time (and the same goes for races and incomes levels). What we’re striving for is making sure that we’re reading quality writing, isn’t it? I could only identify three or four authors I like by sight. I guess what I’m getting at is that diversity isn’t important as long as there is an opportunity for it, right? Like how it is fine that most plumbers are men as long as women are allowed to be plumbers too.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      It depends on how you are defining “allowed” I guess. I mean, there’s a roughly equal number of books published by men and women BUT the vast majority of books that are reviewed are by men. I mean, a seriously, disproportionate amount. http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20140428/2sfcount-a.shtml

      What this leads to then is booksellers saying, “Oh, books by women don’t sell as well.” And then to them stocking fewer books by women. And then people say, which they do, that women don’t write SFF.

      And that makes it harder for the next generation of writers.

      So, sure, women are currently “allowed” to write books. But there’s nothing like equality in the way those books are treated.

      1. Beth

        That’s very interesting. I didn’t know that sales were so disparate (I did know that all the people at the very, very top of the fantasy genre seem to be male). Do you think that it is important to read books that you are very unsure about enjoying to see more ways of doing things and expanding your horizons?

        Is there any data on how what the percentage of men and women is in the audience? It doesn’t apply as much to me (I would buy a fantasy novel with a transgendered protagonist in a heart beat, but I’ve never even heard of one), but I can understand men buying men and women buying women (speaking very, very broadly of course). I’ve always known more interested men than women, but that is just anecdotal.

        1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

          Do you think that it is important to read books that you are very unsure about enjoying to see more ways of doing things and expanding your horizons?

          Yes. That’s one of the things that fiction is really good at.

          Is there any data on how what the percentage of men and women is in the audience?

          The vast majority of the bookbuyers are women.

          I would buy a fantasy novel with a transgendered protagonist in a heart beat, but I’ve never even heard of one

          Try Amanda Downum’s The Bone Palace.

        2. Cecily Kane

          Another fantasy novel with a transgendered main character is Caitlin Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. The transgendered character is the secondary main and in a relationship with the protagonist. It’s dark, psychological low fantasy (bordering on horror), so it isn’t every fantasy reader’s cup of tea, but it’s very good and was nominated for like every spec fic award in existence. It was another book of Kiernan’s, The Red Tree (this one with a lesbian protagonist) that catapulted her instantly into my top five favorite authors list. I haven’t made my way through all of her books yet, but there’s a strong possibility some of them include trans characters prominently.

          And I don’t know if you’re interested in sci-fi, but I recently read a short story by Nisi Shawl with a transgendered protagonist that I ADORED. It’s in an anthology called The Other Half of the Sky, and many of the stories within challenge or eliminate heteronormativity within their worlds.

          I would have never known about either of these books to recommend if I hadn’t pledged to do reading challenges this year for PoC and LGBT fiction. I simply never would have *found* them to give them a chance. Because as Kowal points out, the marketing differences are vast.

          One further note: I imagine you’ll find at least a few more books with MC’s that are trans by perusing the Tiptree and Lambda SF/F awards nomination lists.

  4. Beth

    Thank you so much for all of your answers! I really appreciate that you took the time to answer me twice. I’m definitely going to try out The Bone Palace.

    1. William Barnett-Lewis

      Beth, you might also wish to look for “Gossamer Axe” by Gael Baudino. Not about transgender but it was the first really really really good fantasy I ran into with a lesbian protagonist. Rather than fail at describing this book, I’ll point you at the Amazon page for it and recommend you read the reviews.

      It is a real tragedy that this book is not in print and in the hands of kids.

    2. Jill

      Thank you Cecily! I’ve been meaning to buy The Other Half of the Sky since last summer. Thank goodness for Powell’s Books and their in-store pickup!

  5. MesArkban

    I have to admit my first thought was: she knows people who worked on Avenue Q? I love that play!

  6. William Barnett-Lewis

    Great article. I followed over from a mention at Howard’s Schlock Mercenary and am glad I did. I’m nearly in the same boat as him – white CIS male in a mainstream church (hard liberal episcopalian in my case) but I’ve found much learning and wisdom in the far corners of SF & Fantasy.

    Thank you.

  7. Kendall

    Very well said. If we could hammer the second and third paragraphs into people’s heads, especially–it’s not about bringing someone else down…no one has to suffer for equality and diversity to happen…wow. I know you said more than this, but that part just really spoke to me.

  8. Keika

    If someone promotes my work with “Hey! This is some good writing!” then that’s great.

    If someone promotes my work with “Hey, this is some good writing, and more importantly, the writer’s not a white American male!”, then that’s . . . less great. It suggests to me that you’re less interested in my work, and more interested in the fact that I’m different somehow.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it. I’m not so successful that I can turn these things down. But I’d be a lot more comfortable if my race, sex, gender, etc wasn’t a factor in you picking me in the first place. I’d rather be treated as an individual than as a representative of some demographic category.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Right now, there are people who will choose not to read your books, and mine, because they are written by women. If they can tell that the author is a person of colour, then they’ll turn it down. I actually had someone say to me, just two days ago, that he was afraid to read anything with a female lead character. In cases like that, it’s a conscious bias, but in far more it is an unconscious one.

      There are the differences in the way work by men and women is reviewed — again, it’s gets even harder if the author is a person of colour or in any other way outside the straight white, cis-male default setting. I’ve linked to a set of statistics upstream, which are SFF focused, but it’s not a problem exclusive to our genre. What IS happening that is different is that our community is pointing out this problem and trying to take steps to improve it.

      Can I become a reviewer? That’s not likely, but I can use my position on the ladder to point out the imbalance. One of the ways I can do that is by pointing out great fiction that people might have overlooked because the default got in their way.

      And I’m going to point out that in the way you worded your response, the default has a hold on you, too. I’m going to bold some bits for emphasis.

      If someone promotes my work with “Hey, this is some good writing, and more importantly, the writer’s not a white American male!”, then that’s . . . less great. It suggests to me that you’re less interested in my work, and more interested in the fact that I’m different somehow.

      See what’s happening here? To be “different somehow” implies that there is a norm, or a default. I’m not saying that you intended that, but there’s built in societal baggage that we all carry. I tend to list books by men and then have to remind myself that there are books by women that I enjoy just as much. It has nothing to do with my preferences and everything to do with who is more prominent in social media, whose name I tend to see over and over so it is the first thing that pops into my head. It’s a cyclical thing that takes conscious effort to break out of.

      So while the idea of living in a world where all writing was treated equally is lovely, that’s not the world we are living in.

      1. Keika

        Well, yes. Some people are going to choose not to read my books because of my race, or sex, or some other quality of mine that doesn’t match up with their personal prejudices. No news there.

        But having someone choose TO read my books because of those same qualities isn’t really that much of an improvement. Okay, on purely selfish grounds, it’s an improvement for ME, but I’m not that keen on living in a world where the boxes an author ticks on a census form are more important than the books they write.

        1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

          I’m not that keen on living in a world where the boxes an author ticks on a census form are more important than the books they write.

          There’s a false dichotomy here.

          For the moment, I’m going to focus on gender simply because I have numbers for those. The argument presumes that someone would pick up a book and read solely because of a person’s gender. If we presume that half the books written are by women then that’s a helluva lot of fiction to choose from. So the fiction is still going to be more important that the census box.

          What I’m suggesting is that people who are in a more secure place on the ladder can help those who are in the shadows. People who are writing fiction that you’d probably like to read, but that aren’t getting attention because of the way our society is structured.

        2. Jim C. Hines

          Don’t we already live in that world? Readers will pick up books by me over books by Mary, specifically because I checked the “Male” box in my census form. And some of them don’t even realize they’re doing it.

        3. Laura Christensen

          I’m curious. Would it bother you if someone said, “I sought your book out because you are x and I wanted to experience your authorial point of view” rather than just the overstated “I read your book to fill a diversity quota.” I mean, on the surface the two sentences aren’t much different, but the motivations behind them are night and day.

          As a disabled writer, I wouldn’t mind it if someone said, “Oh, she’s disabled by a chronic illness, so her life experiences are completely different than mine. I wonder what her stories will be like, what experiences of hers that have leaked through the text that will be completely different than mine. It might be interesting. I might learn something or grow from the experience. Maybe I’ll pick up that book to read instead of this other one.”

      2. Cecily Kane

        “I tend to list books by men and then have to remind myself that there are books by women that I enjoy just as much. It has nothing to do with my preferences and everything to do with who is more prominent in social media, whose name I tend to see over and over so it is the first thing that pops into my head.”

        I recently learned the five dollar phrase for this phenomenon — the availability heuristic.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic

        The vicious cycle — less reviews –> less attention –> less placement in bookstores — is so harmful. When I go to the SF/F section of a chain bookstore, it looks like bro town. My favorite authors’ books aren’t in it. Many of the big name ladies — especially those currently writing and being nominated for awards left and right, such as yourself, Valente, Kiernan, Walton, Okorafor, etc. — usually don’t even have a presence there. (Though I do sometimes find SF/F with female authors marketed as “women’s fiction” and in the general section.) Often you can’t even find Butler and LeGuin, FFS, while classics written by men abound.

        I spent almost a decade not realizing I loved SF/F because of this.

        Because whether it’s about ticking boxes or not (I legitimately prefer books with feminine voices, which are occasionally written by men but not frequently), if books are not reaching their audience, there is a problem.

        And if some other women are being alienated from the SF/F section, that would contribute to the vicious cycle as well.

  9. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    As a white, heterosexual guy living in America, I could easily fill my entire reading time with stuff that is firmly written by people like me, starring people like me, and nary a whiff of anything different. Even with my reading speed, I could do that for the rest of my life.

    But why would I just want to read that anyway?

    Like travel (as you say in your piece, and from my own experiences), reading widely and meeting experiences outside the circle of my usual life broadens me as a person. Supporting people writing outside the circle of my life enriches them, enriches me, enriches everyone.

    I consider that a good thing. So I do it.

  10. Angela Korra'ti

    Lovely post!

    This is very specifically one of the reasons why I’ve started working on my French–so that I can read original SF/F in that language, and therefore broaden my horizons as both a reader _and_ a writer. It’s another aspect of diversity, getting the perspectives in from people who write in other languages besides English.

    (And I’m VERY much looking forward to checking out the translation of _The Three-Body Problem_ when it comes out in October, along similar lines.)

  11. Brett Peterson

    Mary, I love the parts of your post about different opinions and perspectives – yes, please more from people like Chinua Achebe, Ursula LeGuinn, and other amazing writers with a different background and/or perspective than my own.

    I agree too, that there is a problem with reviews – I did not know reviewing was so heavily imbalanced (as my sister, mother, and father are all book reviewers for the San Francisco Chronicle), but it is something that ought to change.

    I cringe, however, at the unintended corollary that I cannot escape when I hear “We need new perspectives!” That is, that straight, white men – like myself – have nothing interesting or worthwhile left to say. The stronger the need for diversity, the less valuable my own writing seems to be, by definition. And I don’t think that’s fair.

    I also don’t think that is what you are trying to do (as you specifically stated that throwing white authors under the bus is not your intention. 🙂 ) So, how can we get more perspectives and true “diversity” in our fiction, without posing that request as a threat?

    I, for one would love to see much more Muslim-based fiction – and so I’ve spent the past five years researching Muslim history and faith, reaching out to Muslims in my communities, and interviewing my friends from the Muslim faith about their beliefs. While it won’t be the same as someone raised Muslim, I think my writing will still provide a new perspective – and I think/hope it will still be worthwhile to read.

    Perhaps that is the issue: background does influence our writing, but does it absolutely affect our writing? I.e. does it trump anything else about our craft? Or, how can a call for greater perspectives and diversity be packaged in a way that doesn’t come across as a threat? Is there a way for straight, white men to increase the diversity in fiction?

    To be absolutely clear: I state this as a request for assistance, not as a challenge. I enjoy and seek media from a very wide cultural, ethnic, and historical spectrum – and I would like a broader spectrum! But I know that, if it comes across to me as a threat, it probably does to others as well – and that means that it will probably have a more difficult time being accepted than we would all prefer!

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      Brett, I’m really wrestling with how to answer this.

      Please understand that this feeling you have, that people might not find your words as valuable because of the color of your skin and your gender is how people of colour and women feel all the time.

      So when I pose a request that people who are on the ladder help those who have been dealing with that feeling for centuries, and you respond to tell me that it feels like a threat and that it isn’t fair… It’s hard to know what to tell you.

      The feeling that you normally live with? The one in which your words are valuable and people listen? That’s the world that I want everyone to be in.

      1. Brett Peterson

        Mary,

        I wish I felt that people respected my words, and I wish that people listened; my background is in sociology, and it is partly my frustration at not being listened to or respected because of my gender and race and religion and sexual orientation that I seek out and try to help those “lower on the ladder,” as you describe it.

        But your response is encouraging. Again, I am not looking for a hand up, or a pat on the shoulder: I’m honestly relaying how your post came across, in an effort to find a way to make this more palatable. I can’t (or won’t) change my gender, or race – so what can I do as a straight, white male author?

        I already support good writing from whatever source, and actively seek out media from other cultures and perspectives – sometimes to my wife’s chagrin. Is there a way I can, in my writing, influence the landscape for the better?

    2. Jim C. Hines

      I cringe, however, at the unintended corollary that I cannot escape when I hear “We need new perspectives!” That is, that straight, white men – like myself – have nothing interesting or worthwhile left to say. The stronger the need for diversity, the less valuable my own writing seems to be, by definition. And I don’t think that’s fair.

      That’s quite a leap. First off, can I point out that you hearing this unintended corollary is very different from Mary actually saying anything along those lines? As a fellow straight white man, people like you and I have dominated the playing field for ages.

      What is it about calls for a more level and inclusive playing field that make you feel threatened or devalued?

    3. Bryce

      You pose an interesting question. Do straight, white males like us still have anything valuable to say? Are our stories worth telling?

      I’ll answer the question in two parts. First, the part that says, “nope.”

      The problem is, stories of straight-white-maledom are the stories we’re best equipped to tell, the experiences we’ve had, are in many respects similar to those of other straight, white males. In other words, the stories we’re going to tell bear some resemblance to the stories of those who have always been privileged, those who have held the mic for centuries.

      Imagine that, instead of talking about race/gender/disability, we were talking about occupation. And pretend that, despite the many, many ways of getting by in this world (wait, you can make a living at puppeteering?) approximately 80% of the stories available were written by long-distance truckers. The literary canon is filled with highways, service stations, broken-down engines, semi wrecks, and spouses who use those long road trips as opportunities to sleep around.

      The quality of these stories is beyond dispute: Hemmingway’s “The Sun Also Rises Over The Flying-J Parking Lot” is a literary gem. But the world of long-distance trucking is ground that has been covered in detail, while the ground devoted to scientists, astronomers, Nigerian email scammers, flight attendants, and gas station attendants lies mostly unexplored.

      There’s less to say here, on this ground, that will be genuinely new or unexpected.

      Now for the “yes” part.

      There is huge diversity even within the subset of humanity that can be easily categorized as “straight, white, male.” There is still ample room for quality writing, even if the author is (and is writing about) a person who lives in the default world. In fact, you’ll find that it’s easier to get your story told, which is kind of the issue. But the world is wondrous in its diversity, and the diversity of viewpoints even within a category is astounding. You dig down into yourself, you’re going to find stories that you’ve never heard told before.

      I think there will always be something new and fresh to say, and to the extent that our ground is covered in the footprints of our straight-white-male compatriots, that’s not the fault of the people pointing fingers at the unexplored parts of the map.

  12. Brett Peterson

    I know that isn’t what Mary was saying – my next line, “I also don’t think that is what you are trying to do (as you specifically stated that throwing white authors under the bus is not your intention. 🙂 )” was written to specifically point that out.

    My point was that, in my efforts to be self-aware, I noticed that Mary’s message was harder to accept because I could not logically escape the conclusion you cited.

    I want nothing more than a level and inclusive playing field – again, please more of Achebe or LeGuin or Miyazaki, or whomever! I don’t want to compete based on the color of my skin, but on the content of my writing – again, I am a sociologist, partly because I feel, strongly, about the need for a level playing field.

    So, to return to my question: is there a way to help the call for inclusion not feel like it necessarily requires straight white men to be quiet? Or less active? Or can I – as a straight white male – increase diversity?

    1. Jim C. Hines

      Well, saying “I don’t think that’s what you’re trying to do” isn’t the same as recognizing that *isn’t* what she’s doing at all, and that the problem here isn’t in what Mary’s saying, but in the way you’re translating it. I’m not trying to say you’re an awful person or anything like that, but I think the answer isn’t to figure out the proper tone and phrasing for this kind of call to make it more hearable. I think the defensiveness — and it’s something I’ve certainly felt at times, too — is something *we* need to work on and get past.

      In terms of helping? Listening is at the top of my list. Using my own voice and platform to try to help others who are less likely to be heard. Speaking out specifically as a straight white dude about the imbalances that tend to tilt the playing field in our favor. Does that make sense?

    2. Laura Christensen

      Hmm. I understand the defensiveness. I think, in part, that comes from this idea that there are a limited number of slots available of jobs/books/reviews in the world, and if one side gets those slots then the other side is “kicked out” and doesn’t get those slots anymore.

      But the world of storytelling and writing isn’t like that. No one is asking straight white American able-bodied men to stop writing or to stop publishing or to stop being reviewed. You don’t have to step down from privilege in order to share privilege with others.

      Creating opportunities for others doesn’t lessen the opportunities you yourself have, but it sounds like most of you already knows this, it’s just a small part of niggling doubt or fear that doesn’t.

      As for what you can do, you can continue reading widely and diversely. You can post reviews of those books and stories you read online. You can talk about all the cool diverse perspectives you’ve read. You can encourage minority kids in your neighborhood to read, write, concoct stories that only they could tell.

      You can also take confidence knowing that helping others doesn’t lessen yourself in any way. Acknowledging that one group has privilege over other groups doesn’t mean that the privileged group is evil or must be overthrown. Acknowledgement is no different than putting on glasses so that you can look at a problem clearly, put everything in perspective before you roll up your sleeves and get to work. 😉

  13. Tansy Rayner Roberts

    One of the things I love about doing the Galactic Suburbia podcast is that our conversations about women, diversity and fiction have travelled so far – we still, every few weeks, get an email from a listener (some men, some women) who only realised after hearing us talk about these issues that they read predominantly men.

    We’ve had readers come back to us, delighted because they’ve discovered new writers because they were attempting to redress the balance in their reading. And many of them have gone on to blog, to talk about their experience, and to encourage others to check whether they have got into a reading rut.

    Frankly, if you read enough of any genre, it gets a bit same-y after a while. What I enjoy most about the current push to include a more diverse range of characters and writers in the party is that fantasy and science fiction has got so much more INTERESTING.

  14. Andy

    I feel like Mary’s explanation already covered this but perhaps a number will help make things clearer. White men make up, roughly, 30-35% of America. Yet they make up a majority of the best selling speculative fiction writers and, for years, made up the majority of convention goers, leaders in the spec fiction community etc. That’s just considering America and not the wider world.

    Theoretically, if you could draw in other groups you could triple the number of people writing and the number of people buying books without white guys having to lose a single sale. That’s the point. Reaching out to more people is really good for everyone. It’s good for writers who can sell more books to more people. It’s good for readers who weren’t spec fiction readers before because they couldn’t connect to it. It’s even good for white guys who get great authors like, say, multi-award winner Nnedi Okorafor writing really interesting books.

    That doesn’t mean that if you’re a straight white guy writing about straight white guys that you are, necessarily, a villain. And there’s nothing wrong with being a fan of Jeff Vandermeer in addition to Nnedi Okorafor. But you do have to recognize that there are other people out there. In fact, there are more people who aren’t straight white guys than those who are. So when you notice that particular minority is dominating every level of a group there is something out of wack. Jim is probably right that simply letting other groups speak and encouraging them to be part of our weird speculative fiction community is a big part of making that outreach happen. It doesn’t have to be part of your writing but it should be part of your dealings with the community.

    1. Brett Peterson

      I’ve thought a lot about this this afternoon, because I don’t feel like I made myself clear earlier.

      I think there are two issues that Mary has brought up. The first is that there are amazing writers of color, female writers, and writers from other historically disadvantaged groups, who are not getting the recognition they deserve because they are female, persons of color, or from historically disadvantaged groups. These authors rightly should have more recognition, and should receive support to overcome a playing field stacked against them – that is, and remains, stacked in the favor of straight white males.

      I agree with Mary and the other commenters here, on this, completely and without reservation. Yes, please – as a reader, I want better exposure to other authors, to interesting writing that I am missing. As a writer, I want to be exposed to these other excellent authors, so that – if nothing else – I can improve my craft by learning from them. As a person, I want to be exposed to these authors so that I can learn from them. Yes, let there be an inclusive, respectful playing field for everyone.

      Yes, yes, yes – a thousand times yes.

      The second plea made in Mary’s blog post – as I understand it – is a plea for greater diversity in science fiction; that we need new thought, fresh perspectives, to overcome the danger of a small gene pool. This I also agree with.

      But, as far as I can tell, this post implies that that diversity in thought requires diversity in background. I don’t have a “diverse” background – I have a background similar to most of the authors of the currently published “canon” of science fiction. Not of the work that should be canon necessarily, but of the work that is generally considered so, due to the historic injustice against other groups in reviewing, publishing, and marketing -as has been well described here.

      As a member of the historic majority, this requirement for diversity seems to rule my writing and perspective out. If the diversity of my thought (as reflected in my writing) is primarily a result of the diversity of my background, then the only way I can help to correct the imbalance in fiction seems to be… to not write. That feels very threatening. And it’s not an academic exercise – I have been told, on many occasions, that my viewpoint is not worthwhile, because of my gender, race, and sexual orientation. I am not claiming equal victimhood with historically disadvantaged groups; I simply state that this is not, for me at least, an academic or polemic exercise.

      Hence my question: can I, as a straight white male writer, add to the diversity of thought in science fiction and fantasy? I am trying to do so by researching a religion that is not my own; are there other ways to do so?

      The great irony in this all is that I asked the question, not to offend or to stir argument, but because I agree completely with Mary’s point that great authors are getting passed up! I posted because I agree completely that we should extend a hand, point out great writing, and create a level playing field! I want this message to go forth successfully!

      To help it do so, I am trying to chart a course where straight white male authors – who are currently in power, rightfully or wrongly – can jump onboard without any question of hypocrisy; where straight white males can still, also, meaningfully contribute to and help rejuvenate a genre that they have dominated for a long time.

      I tried my best to make that clear in my earlier posts, that I was trying in good faith to figure out a way to pitch this to people who might not accept it otherwise. I am trying to do so, because I am certain that if I – who feel strongly about this also! – cringed or felt threatened by this, then other authors do as well. My purpose is to help Mary’s plea be realized successfully. I’m sorry if it did not come across that way previously.

      But please, in good faith: help me as a straight white male author, writing, incorporate new, interesting, and engaging perspectives into science fiction and fantasy. Please help me do so, so that I will better be able to sell this message of inclusion to other people who draw the conclusion that diversity requires them to be silent.

      1. Laura Christensen

        Yep, you’re perfectly allowed to write about anything outside your own experiences, and those are not worth any more or less than anyone else’s perspectives. 😉 For writing about people in a position widely different from your own, I would suggest googling “Writing the Other”, also “RaceFail” (a big conversation on the topic that happened in 2009 I think?) and reading up on all the articles you can find under those topics. Stacy L. Whitman of Tu Books ( http://www.stacylwhitman.com/ ) also has lots of advice on the topic you’re looking for.

        Good luck!

      2. Andy

        I understand what you’re saying and I’m not debating with you out of any sense of being offended. I think our main point of disagreement comes from when you say this.

        “As a member of the historic majority, this requirement for diversity seems to rule my writing and perspective out. If the diversity of my thought (as reflected in my writing) is primarily a result of the diversity of my background, then the only way I can help to correct the imbalance in fiction seems to be… to not write. That feels very threatening.”

        I don’t think this is the case. The goal of diverse fiction is to have minority voices in addition to, not instead of, majority voices. It’s an equalizing of those voices, not a silencing of one group in favor of another. If you’re a straight white guy writing about straight white guys that isn’t striking a blow against minority writers. That’s why I talked about how diverse fiction has the opportunity to greatly expand both the number of readers and the number of writers in the speculative fiction community. It is, as Mary said, creating a bigger gene pool. That’s why there is no real reason to feel threatened.

        The push for diversity is in the community, not necessarily your writing. The speculative fiction community disproportionately pays attention to white guys and discounts minority groups. So if you want to aid the cause then pay attention to, listen to, and point others to the different voices out there. It doesn’t mean “if you’re a straight white guy, shut up” It means “if you’re a straight white guy, recognize that people pay more attention to you because of that and try to guide people in other directions.”

      3. Bryce

        “But please, in good faith: help me as a straight white male author, writing, incorporate new, interesting, and engaging perspectives into science fiction and fantasy.”

        Researching another religion is a good start. Researching other cultures is helpful as well. Listen to other people from every background you can find. Race, gender, class, orientation, physical/mental disabilities, age, it’s all part of the human condition, and in every category you’ll find people who have been ignored and underrepresented. Drill down, try to really figure out how life works for this or that marginalized group, until you feel like you understand well enough to speak about them in a way they won’t find inauthentic.

        Then, be ready to apologize.

        I’m serious. You’re never going to get it just right, and you’re never going to please every single person or represent “otherness” in a way that rings perfectly true to everyone who has actually been there. But when the flames come, accept them. Don’t ignore them. Don’t melt into a puddle of shame. Look past any anger and try to figure out where the mismatch happened. Try to find the kernel of truth that will help you better understand the perspective you’re trying to write. Engage with it. Sit with it. Offer your heartfelt apologies, let your critics know that you’re listening and learning.

        Then, do it over again. It will get easier each time. And, as a sci-fi writer (or any writer, really), mindfully practicing the skill of putting yourself into someone else’s head, and using their perspective to correct your own, can only benefit you.

        As a reader, you can read more widely, and review/share those authors who tell good stories that incorporate “other” perspectives.

  15. Jane

    Thank you for this Mary. Once again you articulate something that helps me refine my own thinking around diversity, representation, and inequality. And thanks for the great book recommendations in this thread too!

    And for Brett, I understand what you’re saying. I feel that too. I’m a woman of color, but I feel a lot of privilege in our society: I’m cis-gendered, straight, upper-middle class, etc. Sometimes I feel like, how do I speak for others who are not me? Do I have anything useful to add? Can I help increase diversity without making presumptions or inadvertently silencing someone else?

    I also become increasingly aware of my own biases and have to actively work against them. I remember when I was younger, I’d catch myself dismissing certain authors out of hand because, I suspect now, they were women and surely I was too sophisticated for girly stuff. I was a Serious Reader. So I read Serious Books by John Updike, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Nabokov… I didn’t realize they were *all men* at the time. (And then I fell in love with Jane Austen and that was that :)) This gender bias system exists all around us and it takes effort to resist it, sometimes.

    It’s an ongoing process. But I’m heartened to think that we human built these toxic systems, and surely we can replace them with better, more inclusive systems.

  16. Michael F.

    Hello, Mary. I am a longtime fan of Writing Excuses, I got here through a link from Howard Tayler’s twitter.

    It never fails to amaze me, the responses of a dominant group to any hint of sharing power. It’s almost always perceived as a threat.

    I have read interviews with those who consider gay marriage a “threat” to straight marriage, an argument that makes no sense to me. Do they think straight couples will suddenly get divorced if they know they have other options? Will straight marriages be in any way affected? Or do the opponents, in their ignorance, think marrying gay to gay will somehow breed a race of Supergays, who will take over the planet? (That last question was supposed to be sarcasm, but it would not surprise me in the least to find out that there are real people who actually believe such a thing.)

    I went to school with people who claimed that Christianity is “under attack” and “endangered”. I currently live in a midwestern Bible Belt town where many people are of the same opinion. Only 90% of the country is Christian! Someday there may even be a non-Christian president! Oh, my! How can we maintain our faith in the face of such opposition!

    The War On Christmas!!! People say Happy Holidays? Blasphemous heathens.

    I have seen TV interviews with white South Africans, a group of white men sitting in what looked like a new truck in front of a nice house, who said without irony that “Since Apartheid ended, the situation is now reversed, and we are the wrong race.” As opposed to the “lucky” blacks who mostly live in shantytowns, and walk around in bare feet?

    I overheard a conversation between two old white men asking why black people still complained of racism, when there were black actors on TV all the time, even a whole black TV channel, and black millionaires in music and sports?

    I read an article once by former New York mayor Ed Kotch decrying the “reverse racism” against white people. He claimed in it that ten percent of white people in New York have reported being treated poorly because they were white. Imagine that! Ten percent! What percentage of black people in NYC do you think have been treated poorly because of their race, Ed? Is it a higher or lower number?

    I see good ol’ boys in pickup trucks every day with Confederate Flag stickers or T-shirts. This is in Indiana, a state that fought AGAINST the Confederacy in the Civil War. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan%27s_Raid.

    The SFWA Bulletin once had a scandal about… Well, you may be familiar with the case.

    It’s the sheer banality of these statements and the people making them that get to me. These aren’t Klansmen or raving fanatics (mostly), they are just ordinary folks living their lives, think of themselves as moral, decent, and open minded (mostly), with no idea just how prejudiced they are, and would be offended if you told them they were.

    It’s a sad state of affairs. Yes, it’s far better now than it was in the past, but we still have such a long way to go.

  17. Michael F.

    “As a member of the historic majority, this requirement for diversity seems to rule my writing and perspective out. If the diversity of my thought (as reflected in my writing) is primarily a result of the diversity of my background, then the only way I can help to correct the imbalance in fiction seems to be… to not write. That feels very threatening.”

    It’s also wrong. The thing about diversity, see, is that it’s diverse. It incorporates not only the “new” views (or new notice of existing but ignored voices), but the old ones as well. Don’t worry, there will still be room for straight white males in the world of writing. The way to correct an imbalance is to balance it, not to imbalance it in the other direction.

    Your background is not just your ethnicity or your upbringing, but what you are still learning today. Don’t stop writing, just learn more things about other people, and write about it.

  18. Michael F.

    One last thought. I think I figured out a simple phrase to summarize my advice on What To Say To Promote Diversity And Yet Avoid Sounding Threatening To The Privileged:

    Diversity incudes you.

  19. Julianna Drumheller

    I’ve been reading fantasy for over 20 years, and for much of that time, I experimented with writing fantasy fiction purely for my own entertainment. But at a time when the genre seemed completely dominated by “blokes in cloaks” style fantasy, the idea of actually becoming a Writer simply did not occur to me. It wasn’t until the mid 2000s, when I began to discover books through forum recommendations and Amazon algorithms, rather than what was facing out on the bookstore shelves, that something clicked in my head. I began to realize there was a whole other world out there. There were people writing fantasy novels that weren’t about white guys going on quests to save the world.

    I think finding those books ultimately led me to the path I am on today, as an aspiring writer who still holds on to her childhood love of fantasy but demands more from it as a genre. So I would agree that I have a somewhat “selfish” desire for more diversity in fiction. It inspired me to write and is inspiring other people to write things I like to read.

    That isn’t to say I don’t read books by straight white males, however. Probably 35-40% of what I read is by straight white males, which is still a pretty substantial chunk when you consider how many other kinds of people are out there writing excellent books. I don’t know anyone who would actively avoid picking up a book because it was by a male writer. I know plenty of people who say they “don’t read female writers.” I also know people who dismiss books about race issues because they “just don’t really identify with that perspective.” Hello–what do you think reading is for!

    While it would be nice if diversity was automatic and we could focus solely on the merits of books, I think it’s important to acknowledge that the very term “merit” is a loaded word. There is so much subjectivity in the world of fiction, and who gets to define what has merit? In the past it has been defined by that which appeals to a specific group of people, that which reflects their views and aspirations and challenges. Before we can competently judge merit, we need to educate ourselves about the myriad ways of telling stories within the SFF genre.

  20. Brett Peterson

    I really appreciate the comments here, and – to Mary in particular, the original blog post. Inclusion is something that is very, very important to me, and something I actively try to effect, both professionally and personally; I really am trying to live and act to help create that balanced world Mary described.

    I actually avoided this blog for a few days because I expected to be accused of bigotry. I had anticipated needing to list a resume of inequality-correcting activities I’ve engaged in over the past decade to demonstrate that I really do want that level playing field; I expected to simply try and rephrase my question again in a more respectful way and then leave it alone.

    It has been a delight, instead, to see that mostly people are actually willing to work with me on this and talk me through it. It’s something that has bothered me for a while.

    Thanks for collectively demonstrating, as a few previous posters suggested, that “diversity includes me,” and that my writing is “not worth any more or less than anyone else’s perspectives.” I truly, truly appreciate it.

    1. Brett Peterson

      One important thing I forgot: thanks for affirming that everyone, even straight white guys, can have something valuable to say.

    2. Laura Christensen

      No problem! I think it’s been a big learning experience for all of us, and we’re all happy to share the things we’ve stumbled through and figured out. I’m super glad the SFF community has recently begun to really dig into this topic and explore it in all its ramifications. It’s been on my mind a lot, as well.

  21. Miriam

    And such a pleasure, once again, to come to a site where I am not only not afraid to read the comments, but where the comments add substantially to my understanding of the topic. Thanks, everyone!

  22. Heather McHale

    One thing that I think is important here: one of the reasons that women are less-published than men (in sci-fi and elsewhere) is that fewer women write and submit their work. Improving diversity is therefore sometimes hard, but it’s all the more important, because a lot of writers might not decide to take the plunge unless they see other texts by people more similar to themselves.

    It does sometimes frustrate me when I see commentary (not in this blog post, but elsewhere) that suggests that the problem is that white male editors won’t publish work by women or people of color or whatever. A lot of them are trying, even in the publishing companies or magazines that are run by white men. But sometimes the submissions aren’t there. So what else can we do to encourage people–all kinds of people–to write?

    I remember the editor of Theaker’s Quarterly, Stephen Theaker, addressing this in the editorial for the Summer 2011 issue (#37). He wrote,

    “One other note: our eagle-eyed readers have doubtlessly already noticed that this issue is, to put it bluntly, a sausagefest. They are, without a doubt, some of the finest frankfurters to be found. Every story is one which I’m immensely proud to be publishing. But the total absence of women in our contributors list this time around makes me very unhappy.
    And so, I’ve come to a bit of a decision. I can’t do a great deal to improve the gender balance of the submissions to our magazine, but I can very easily affect the gender balance of the books covered in our review section. So from now on I’ll review a book by a woman for every book I review by a man. Even Stephens. And who knows, maybe in the long term, that’ll have a positive effect on submissions.

    I’m not saying this is something every reviewer and every magazine should do, that there should be any kind of industry-wide quota system, but given how rotten my record is when it comes to publishing women in TQF I think it’s an appropriate step for me.”

    It dismays me that someone so obviously committed to improving his magazine’s diversity record (even if he’s only talking about male vs. female authors here) has such difficulty finding good material. I hope he’s right to think that it might make a difference to the way readers perceive the magazine and encourage more women to write and submit their work, so that eventually he’ll have a larger pool of submissions that aren’t by white dudes to choose from.

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