This was originally written before John Ottinger III retracted his statement. Still, I believe this is an important topic to discuss.
I wasn't originally going to talk about this topic, mainly because these are points I touched upon in last week's essay at BSC Review entitled The Taboos of Editing. However, with John Ottinger III's now-deleted post entitled "For Those Who Cry Sexism or Racism in SF Anthologies, Shut Up" (and due to Shweta Narayan's retort), allow me to elaborate.
First off, when I originally saw Ottinger's original post, I knew this was a train-wreck in the making. I got to hand it to him, he has balls for posting it, and while there are some points that I agree with, for the most part it has me shaking my head.
Wait, you might ask. I agree with some of Ottinger's points? Well, there's one in particular: "I don't think these editors set out to create anthologies that have too few women or minorities." Although I'd like to qualify that I'm not psychic (and last time I checked, neither are most people) so while there are editors out there who are biased and prejudiced, some editors who took some flak (such as Jonathan Strahan, Mike Ashley, and James Cooper [although not for fiction]) from such accusations aren't. Or at least not consciously. And here the qualifications begin. Unlike other editors, the people I mentioned admitted, at the very least, that maybe they should have tried harder. And for the conscious part, sure, we can say that the editors didn't plan on being prejudiced, but unfortunately people aren't rewarded based on intentions (blah blah blah, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and all). If your unconscious part is biased (and let's face it, we all have our own unconscious biases) and your final output is biased, well, it's biased (it's the only thing people can judge). And so the aforementioned editors produced bias work, even if they might not have intended to do so from the beginning. (And if it's a solicitation anthology, I can sympathize with assembling such a book. What happens if you did invite female/minority writers, and they all happened to back out for one reason or another?)
Now let's get back on track with regards to sexism and racism in SF anthologies. The problem here is that some people believe in the platonic idea that in assembling an anthology, the quality of the story is what matters the most. Well, it is an important factor, but it's not the only factor. I mean if quality was the only factor, why not simply reprint your favorite classic story twenty times? Or, hell, let's just reprint the classics.
In reality, in assembling any anthology, there are other elements that come into play. For example, if it's an original anthology, the editor tends to look for new stories, hence disqualifying reprints. Another criteria is that the editors tend to showcase as many contributors as possible, so the anthology is actually an anthology instead of a short story collection. And if you look at my BSC Review essay, there's a lot of other concessions an editor must make. So why not make gender and minority balance one of them?
Another problem with Ottinger's rant is that he doesn't qualify which kinds of anthologies he's talking about. If it's a blind-reading for an open-submission anthology, sure, his arguments might have some merit. Why are you supposed to like a story didn't enjoy in the first pass just because it was written by a minority group or someone of the female gender (and yes, let's face it, there is a certain male dominance that when we talk about sexism in the genre, it usually means it's the females that's oppressed; perhaps the only field where it's the opposite is the romance genre). And for some people, a blind-reading, open-submission is the way to go for anthologies and absolves you from all faults but honestly, there's not a lot of genre publications that has that practice (or at least not that I'm aware of).
There's a part of me that goes out to Ottinger. I want story to be king, independent of all other factors. But the fact is, there are other factors. If you want to be cynical about it, including the other gender and minorities is a publicity move. Honestly, you can't release a book these days and misrepresent people. There'll be a lynch mob after you. Plus, you widen your possible demographics (it's not rocket science that women like to read about other women, or say African-Americans like to read about fellow African-Americans).
If you want an ethical reason, well, it's simply about being a decent person. The status quo is oppressive if you're not the dominant culture. When an editor starts to include fiction from the female gender and minorities, it's usurping what's previously established, and giving the less-dominant culture a chance. Most likely the anthology will prominently feature the dominant culture nonetheless, but at least this time you're giving other, less-established authors a chance.
And if you want a literary reason, it's either about discovery or overcoming your subconscious biases. It's discovery in the sense that you might be reading a story you actually enjoy, it's just that you haven't encountered it previously because such writers aren't encouraged to publish their work, or because it was originally written in a language you never heard of. It's the same reason why you might publish a new, previous unestablished writer. As for subconscious biases, it might be a story you don't actually like no matter how much you try, but it's well-written on the craft level (mind you, there's a difference between acknowledging that a work is well-written and that you actually like it; I can certainly recognize the former but it doesn't automatically fall into the latter category) and fits the theme of your anthology. What many inexperienced editors think is that an anthology should comprise their favorite set of stories. In actuality, an anthology typically represents the thesis of your anthology and covers a wide spectrum as possible. This might mean including stories you don't personally like because it's very different from your preferences, but is nonetheless well-written (by your own assessment).
Do you know what tokenism really is? Tokenism isn't about including one (or X number of ) female/minority author(s) in an anthology. Tokenism is about including one female/minority author despite the editor not liking their story. And here's the problem with subjectivity. Who's to say that an editor genuinely didn't like a particular story but included them nonetheless? Admittedly, there might be circumstances where that's the case, but for the most part, the editor is risking his or her reputation on the line: it's bad enough that they're including stories that they like but others might not, how much more stories that they don't enjoy? (Unless the editor himself told you that they included your story solely because of that fact... which was the case with William Sanders I believe.)
Having said that, it is possible to end up with an anthology that doesn't feature a lot of women or minorities. For example, from what I heard of Jeff & Ann VanderMeer in assembling the book Steampunk, there weren't a lot of women writing steampunk during a certain era. It's not that they didn't want to include female authors (and they did try to look for female steampunk authors) but there wasn't a lot of them. In the case of horror, there really is a disproportionate number of female vs. male writers (but just because that's the case doesn't mean it's okay for you to produce a horror anthology that's devoid of female authors). Or in the case of minorities, there is a limited set of fiction to be found (precisely because they are minorities!). Right now for example, I don't think it's possible to create a speculative fiction anthology of, say, reprint Taiwanese science fiction stories written in English simply because there might not be a lot of such work and still retaining a certain level of quality (or maybe I'm wrong and it's just that I'm ignorant). Another possibility is that in an open call for submissions, no minority actually submits (assuming, of course, your call for submissions was widely disseminated).
I'm not sure whether it's Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics or Reinventing Comics, but the author makes an important distinction between the perils of writing about
Nor are editors looking to fill up their anthology and represent every minority. That's simply not possible (there are too many minorities) but that doesn't mean they can't include a minority or two when the opportunity arises. Because I champion Philippine speculative fiction, some editors do ask me if I know of a local story that fits their particular theme. Unfortunately, because there's a limited pool of stories here, it does occur that I don't have any stories to recommend. Or sometimes, I might have some recommendations, but the quality isn't up to par with what the editor is looking for. They're certainly not obliged to take the stories I recommend simply because it represents Philippine speculative fiction.
As for reviewers pointing out gender and minority imbalances in anthologies, it's their right! It doesn't necessarily make their argument automatically valid, but honestly, there are a lot of reasons, both significant and inane, as to why people like or don't like books. It might be something like the cover ("don't judge a book by its cover..."), it might be the paper, it might be the actual stories. Who cares, it's their right! It might not be a significant factor to you or to me, but obviously, it matters to some people, or else they wouldn't have brought it up in the first place.