Short Story Market and Race

Last week, someone started a discussion thread over on SFFWorld.com about short story markets. The original poster felt, or implied, that inclusiveness (representing different voices, as in, non-white voices) might be heralding the demise of the science fiction/fantasy/horror short story fiction market. Further, he thought most editors out there wouldn’t be interested in his stories because he refused to pander to said inclusiveness.

As you can imagine, the discussion started out fairly well but soon devolved to flinging out racial slurs. (sigh)

Cover of Long Hidden – an anthology of stories about people pushed to the margins of history.

What’s wrong with inclusiveness?

I don’t see the problem.

Maybe because I am a person of color (light to dark brown, depending on the time of year, in case you were wondering) and naturally include people of every ethnic background I can think of, and that my imagination can conjure, into my stories, but it honestly is not a consciousness decision on my part to be “inclusive”.

When I go out in the world to do my business (go to work, get groceries, shop for gifts), I encounter all manner of people. From the white homeless man, to the African-American bank teller, to the Middle Eastern mailman, to my Spanish-Chilean co-worker, there are many many different ethnic people in my life. Why wouldn’t they crop up in my fiction?

White-washed

After thinking about it for some time, I realized that wasn’t always the case.

When I first started writing, all my characters were white. They just were. It was my default. I didn’t know any better. I wasn’t a very good writer and when I thought about what background to give my characters, it invariably migrated to things I’ve read countless times in the fiction I’ve read all my life, which happened to be white farm-boys who got to go out and save the world from the dark, evil overlord. I distinctly remember one of my writing instructors nudging me to write from a different perspective. One asked me, “What if you made him a her?”

I was a bit stunned by the question and squirmed with the idea for some time. I had to force myself (I’m a woman, in case you don’t know) to write stories from a woman’s point of view.

And it was hard.

Guys always get to do the cool stuff. I wanted my characters to be cool, too. A woman can’t leap buildings in a single bound, right?

But then I realized, men can’t either! This is fiction, people! If I wanted my heroine to be able to leap buildings in a single bound, I had to give her that ability.

The revelation was so astounding, for a time, all my characters became female. I’ve tamped that down and now include a nice mix of sexual orientations in my pieces, but I had to consciously think about writing from a different perspective for some time before it to became second nature.

The same thing happened with ethnicity and/or cultural backgrounds. I had to explore what it would be like to grow up with a different belief or moral system; a narrative different from the one I read all the time. It meant I had to not only look to myself for inspiration, but also read fiction that did the same.

Again, it is not easy because when one understands where the “other” comes from it produces empathy, understanding, and it might even change your mind about long-held prejudices. Damn, sort of like growing as a person.

Better Fiction

And you know what? My writing improved. A hundred-times over. Writing from a place of diversity does not mean you are pandering to inclusiveness. It means you are reflecting and understanding what is truly in this world that might be slipping your notice.

So what do you think? Is the short story market dead? Is it changing? Do you think inclusiveness is hurting anything?

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25 thoughts on “Short Story Market and Race

  1. I find that I really enjoyed books where there were a multitude of peoples in different character aspects. Octavia Butler was a great for reading about primarily black women characters, but she often had other races depicted alongside them as well. I think writers are beginning to take on the challenge of people not typically portrayed in fiction nowadays. It’s certainly better than the early days of scifi & fantasy, when virtually all writers were white males.

    I haven’t been over at SFFWorld for some time, since other things have been keeping me busy. That’s actually sad to hear that some posters over there would resort to making ugly comments, rather than give constructive and thoughtful debate. I’ll have to check for that thread just to have a look for myself.

    BTW, I like that cover illustration.

    1. Hey Lynn! Thanks for stopping by.

      To be fair, it was not the original poster who made the terrible comments (and those were deleted). I think he did want to have an adult conversation about it, but, well, some opinions are just horrible.

      But, yes, genre fiction has indeed gotten better. We are beginning to see a lot more women in our stories, but I have to admit, just about everything I read this year had a man as the main protagonist. They each represented a different ethnicity, but they were still men.

      I have not read any of Ms. Butler’s works – yet! I will have to rectify that in 2015.

  2. Great post. As a white guy I’m hoping that the competition for space in SF/F short story markets increases, that women and people of color submit more and get published more. Us white guys have had it too easy for too long.

    I’d also like to think that my stories get published because they’re good, and never that my having a penis or pale skin had any influence on the editor’s decision and likewise that if you have a vagina or darker skin that the editor wouldn’t see anything but the story.

    But I don’t think it’s ever a conscious choice by the editor. More likely society has so long told us that people want stories by men about white men doing brave things that we tend to self-censor and play along.

    The good news is that, at least over at Bookriot, this is discussed a LOT behind the scenes. We all try to choose more books by women and people of color to discuss in our posts, and take an active part in promoting their books publicly.

    1. Wow. That’s GREAT you all discuss it! I’m sending you virtual hugs and kisses. (You can delete them if you want, I understand.)

      I completely agree with you that it is mostly unconscious. I used to do it and wasn’t even aware of it (writing stories about white men). I still do it. In my current WIP, I have a female protagonist who leads a security team for her family business. During my outlining phase, I made everyone on her team a male. It wasn’t until after I started writing that I realized something was off. I changed the gender of a few of the supporting characters and viola! The story is far more interesting. The team sprouted skills and experiences I couldn’t have imagined otherwise.

      I don’t mean to say that women or people of color have to be interjected everywhere, but, well, women and people of color are everywhere across the globe. So, why not in our fiction?

  3. My very favorite post of yours so far! So insightful! It is hard for me to understand the logic of the guy who thought fiction writing was losing out somehow by including more and varying identities. Doesn’t that just add to the richness of the stories?

    1. Yeah, that’s what I thought. But to be clear, I don’t think *he* needs to write inclusive stories. He can write whatever he wants, but what’s wrong if others do? How is that hurting the market?

  4. Good post for thought!

    I’m all for diversity but I don’t think it should be forced on a setting. At many times in Earth history, any given locale might have been quite homogeneous and this might apply to many fantasy settings as well. Tolkien’s shire was the Shire partly because of its insular nature (much like rural England, of course) and having a lot of different races and the like wouldn’t have been a good fit. Of course, any of the Mediterranean or China Sea regions were quite mixed throughout their history. In the ancient roman period, skin color wasn’t really commented on that often (thus some uncertainty as to whether Cleopatra was dark or fair or in between) but skin color is hardly the measure of diversity and that’s not to say heritage didn’t matter to some extent.

    Any way, I think diversity is a positive but I’d hate to see authors working it in where it doesn’t fit their setting or trying to meet some quota or ramming down skin color (which, come to think of it, I rarely specify in my stories so you can imagine whatever suits your fancy.) Imagine the Shire with the exact same personality and outlook of its inhabitants but of various shades of skin color. It wouldn’t really change a thing and wouldn’t seem that diverse to me. Now if there were several different groups of various heritage, outlook and history, then that might be diverse but that might also have required a lot of words to set up that wouldn’t serve the overall story much.

    On the other hand, as an author its good to try to present the unusual and in the sense that western readers often presuppose a certain lack of variety, diversity might, at least for the next decade or so, be a way to surprise a little.

    I imagine some of the negative reaction may be the feeling that someone *must* be diverse or their market opportunity will suffer. I suppose that may be the case for short periods of time or certain editors but I doubt it matters in the long run because readers probably aren’t going to be reading based on such agendas.

    1. Hi Marc! And thanks for your comment.

      I agree that diversity (done well) should not be shoe-horned into a story. And that’s not what I think anyone (particularly editors) are asking. If they are asking for inclusiveness, I think they are challenging writers to think beyond ‘the Shire’, so to speak, from the get go. Not after the fact (you’ve written your story).

      Also, your last comment prompts another thought: How is inclusiveness different from, say, assassins?

      If an editor said, I want to see more stories with assassins.

      Well, I would take a look at the stories I’ve written, see which ones had an assassin and send it in. Or I’d try to come up with a story with a redeeming assassin (if that’s possible). Or, I might not send in or write anything because assassins are just not my thing.

      I don’t think, oh, god! Assassins! That will ruin the market! How dare they tell me what to write about. I can damn well write about fairy god-mothers if I want and nothing you say will make me write about an assassin!

      It just doesn’t make sense, no?

      1. Agreed on assassins ๐Ÿ™‚ Editors always have preferences and sometimes, they can be ‘pernicious’ but since editors can’t force readers to buy/read their publications, it is ultimately the market that decides. It just seems like part of the background noise to me. Hardly worth getting worked up over with in the negative sense and never hurts to keep an open mind on the positive sense. Stories are richer for variety and done well, it might be low-hanging fruit for adding something unusual to your story.

        We’ve been mostly talking about diversity in the story itself. I think diversity requirements on the part of the authors are a little less benign. I.e., if a publication goes dark to submissions (as one did within the last year) because they are trying to do an all female author edition, I must confess that rubs me the wrong way. Yes, female authors are under-represented but correcting one -ism with another doesn’t seem to be the way to go about fixing it. But I’m not firing off letters to the editor about it, either. It just makes me less likely to grace them with my submissions in the future, something I’m sure they are losing a lot of sleep over ๐Ÿ™‚

      2. Ha! Yeah, sometimes I get angry at editors, too, and I think, well, I’ll never submit there. As if they care.. ๐Ÿ™„

        But, yes, I actually do agree with you on that point about author-specific requirements on anthologies. It has the potential to do exactly the opposite of what it intends (representation for all).

  5. Complaints like this (that inclusiveness/political correctness/choose your terminology are destroying something or other) are a defensive reaction by small minds. A white male has great advantages in American life. I applaud those like Johann, above, who are able to acknowledge the inequality. Others feel great discomfort with this knowledge, take is as a personal attack, and strike back with the “you’re ruining my party” accusation.

    But you (Nila) said yourself, it isn’t a comfortable revelation, any more than a host of issues like poverty, immigration, etc. that are tied up with inequality in some form. Not everyone is willing to accept the burden and struggle through to growth. Some have hissy-fits while the world changes around them.

    When you see people making inflammatory statements like “inclusiveness is destroying short fiction,” it might seem like they are ignorant. Actually, it’s the opposite. They know what the problem is. They’re rationalizing or counter-attacking as a psychological defense… but they know.

    I seldom reblog, by the way, but I’m going to share this.

  6. While we are on the subject of diversity, what about beauty diversity? I find my female readers do not take as well to my less-than-beautiful heroines, which doesn’t really bother me but is a reminder that some of the lack of diversity in characters is that people like to imagine themselves as the characters and that generally means, more attractive than they are and, often, the same race as they are. So some lack of diversity may be white authors writing as themselves and some may be non-whites writing for a purportedly more white audience.

    One thing that actually bothers me some about diversity in the fantasy world: it’s a completely new world. Is diversity simply skin color or gender? I think I have gender diversity down but merely changing the skin colors of my characters seems almost patronizing. Race diversity is as much or more about heritage than color of the skin. Heritage in a created world is entirely made up. I think we are long past the 60s ‘turn-abouts’ of having the dark-skinned race be dominate (or Star Trek’s half-white, half black poser). And having someone come from an oppressed created race is fairly standard because where’s the drama with characters with all the favors in the life?

    As for diversity in the industry, I am a white male, but I really don’t get the impression that women are under represented in the ranks of readers, writers (not necessarily in fantasy/science fiction), editors, publishers, agents, etc. Some claim women are dominate in the self-publishing field. That’s not to say that bias does not remain but I sure find myself working with women much more than men on my own writing journey.

    1. There’s a lot to tackle in that comment, Marc! (And I think warrants a few other blog posts.)

      Let me tackle the beauty part first. I COMPLETELY agree with you. It seems, like in real life, guys in fiction can get away with being ‘not handsome’, whereas the women have to be attractive (for both male and female readers). Again, I think it is an unconscious bias on all our parts.

      My husband is from New Zealand so we end up watching a lot of British/NZed/Aussie television shows. And I am amazed at the diversity of beauty the cast of characters exhibit. It’s all over the map, and it’s great! A chunky, double-chinned, middle-aged woman can be just as badass and do just as much good as a sleek, toned, twenty-something woman. The U.S. adherence that heroes and heroines must be attractive is something that is deeply embedded in our culture.

      I try my best to describe my female and male characters relative to each other. Meaning, I point out that this person finds that person attractive (or not, and only if it is pertinent to the story), but I don’t describe the person (i.e., I eschew descriptions like smooth skin, full lips, etc). But, yeah, that’s a hard one.

      As far as skin-color goes, I hear you that, too. No, it is not just about skin color, but that *is* the way we discriminate against each other in real life. If someone is of a different color, they are not of your ‘tribe’ and are often treated different from someone who does share your own skin color. It is a fact of life that has brought on this discussion to begin with. So, yes, there is all the cultural differences, too, that should be incorporated into a story (if you want) and that’s great, but to ignore that we judge people by how they look, well, that’s ignoring the huge elephant in the room.

      But, as you said, in a fantasy setting, you don’t *have* to mention skin color at all. And many do not. Nothing wrong with that. But why is it a problem if someone *does* want to mention that and use the differences to drive the story?

      In terms of the industry…well…maybe I’m in the male-dominated end of the pool. Just about everyone I deal with is male. Of all the anthologies I’ve put together, I’ve dealt with about 80% male authors (probably higher). While the reviewers at SFFWorld.com try their best to review books from a variety of authors, if you look at what get’s reviewed, the authors are primarily white, males. The reviewers are primarily white, males. I am the only women and the only person of color. It is not something they did on purpose, it is just what has shaken out.

      I have a strong personality (nice way of putting it) and will push my way into any group. Maybe, just maybe, other women or people of color don’t feel as comfortable doing the same when folks (white, males) complain when they are asked to be included?

      1. On the industry gender side, I’ve taken an odd path: my wife writes romance and there’s no local SFF chapter here so I tend to associate with the romance writers. Therefore, that just might skew things for me but even when submitting my work, I’m often working with women and certainly with agents, editors, etc. But I think the SFF world is definitely not well rounded.

        Agreed on US media biases but I don’t watch much TV. Do watch a fair amount of movies and you certainly see a lot of that there, though.

        As for diversity, I’m all for it. I think part of spec fiction is getting people to look at the world in a different light and diversity is part of that. I just don’t care for contortions to meet some quota or please some faction of the publishing world.

        I think you are correct on the comfort aspect but I’m a bit of an introvert and don’t push myself into those groups despite being of the in-type, anyway ๐Ÿ˜›

      2. LOL!

        I must admit it’s sometimes a little uncomfortable being one of only a very few men in a large group of women but probably not bad to experience being the odd one out.

        Thanks for the post. Definitely thought provoking and it does remind me to be more inclusive.

  7. As far as race goes in my stories, unless I am making up an alien, my characters are all white. Not out of any sense of supremacy or anything, but because I do not know any non white people well enough to feel comfortably reliable in portraying them without falling into stupid stereotypes. So I stick with what I know, myself. Truth is, I am not even very good with my own race.

    1. I understand, but consider that if you did try to write from a different perspective, you might learn about a culture different from your own.

      Yeah, you might get it wrong, but so do I – even when I’m writing from my own perspective.

      I don’t hold back. I write from any perspective I want to. Yes, I may fail, but through my failures I’ll learn and do better next time. At least, that’s the aim.

      But, again, I understand. You should write what *you* want. My gripe is that when I or others say they want to write about something different and folks lash out.

      Like I said in my other comment, what’s wrong with assassins?

  8. As to inclusiveness killing the market, bupkis! It is the market, Si-Fi/Fantasy is all about exploring strange new worlds and societies or even aspects of our own through creatures and races based on examples of our own (i.e. Hani from the Chanuar series based off of lions, or the aliens in Footfall being based off of elephants). The original Star Trek series has remained long in our cultural lexicon because of the stories that challenged our ways of thinking. I actually do not find human only science fiction as much fun because it usually carries too much of the crap from our current society with it.

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